Burly Joe F had a mouth that never stopped. I’d never played basketball against someone who talked so much. Throughout the game, he talked to himself, to his teammates, to his opponents. Most of all, he unleashed a non-stop flood of invective toward the referees.
My college intramural team was a hodgepodge of athletes and gym rats, the Black Student Union president and vice president, alongside some of the whitest guys you’d ever meet: Sweet Lew and Cookah, Philson and Ferrera. Everybody could ball, and we were poised to upset Joe’s football-jock squad and head to the championship. We were leading by a few points, but Joe—an all-conference offensive lineman, the son of an African-American professional baseball player—tried to haul his team back by words alone.
The ref whistled a foul. Joe rushed into another one-sided debate with the ref, his tank-like frame leaned over the cowed freshman. Joe’s index finger menaced the air between them.
Not knowing what I was doing, tired of Joe’s verbal attack, I approached him, placed my lips on his salty-wet cheek, and kissed.
Stunned silent, Joe turned to face me.
In college, sometimes I felt like I was playing my own punk version of Gandhi, heading off violence with softness. It’s true, I was a peacenik. I organized a rally against the Gulf War, served at a soup kitchen, and helped to found the Peace and Conflict Studies program. I wrote poems, which a buddy joked meant that I “cried a lot.”
I wish I could say I let the kiss do the talking, my sweet and salty subversion
But something in me seethed. I lusted tongue-tied after girls, utterly and unrequitedly. I couldn’t write a good poem, and was envy-green of my creative writing classmates who did. I regarded the varsity jocks with a mixture of jealousy and judgment. So on the hoop court against them, my angst would turn me briefly into an olive-skinned Hulk, slashing toward the basket, hurtling and hurling myself against all my outer and inner limits. Aching to prove myself. To be a man.
Dear reader, I wish I could say I let the kiss do the talking, my sweet and salty subversion.
“That’s for acting like a woman,” I said.
To cut this man down, I betrayed all women.
Joe chuckled, tongue-stuck. He wiped his sweat-sheened forehead, jogged back to play defense, and didn’t talk the rest of the game.
I’d forgotten about that episode until now, a lifetime later, as my wife and I watch my thirteen-year-old daughter lope down the basketball court. From the oceanic vaults of my memory, among all the other kisses of my life, this one floated up—like a corpse.
I’m ashamed I couldn’t let that kiss burn like a strange wet star on Joe’s cheek. I had to erase its mystery with macho misogyny, with locker room sexism.
If only I kept my lips pursed shut, perhaps my act of disruptive brother-love could have sunk down, deep down, all the way down—into the kisser and the kissed.
The Kiss is a bimonthly series curated by Brian Turner.
The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers is available from Norton in February 2018.