One of my favorite movies is Cinema Paradiso which recounts the story of a young boy growing up in a small village in Italy, a boy obsessed with watching films in the town theater. He develops a friendship with the theater projectionist whose job is not only to run the movies, but also to edit out any sexually suggestive scenes at the behest of the local priest. A growing up tale of love and friendship winds up with the boy moving away as he gets older, at the behest of the projectionist who loves him and wishes him a bigger life. The young man builds himself a career in filmmaking and is away for many years. He’s called back home to attend the funeral of his mentor and finds that the old man has left him a gift, a reel of film in which he’d spliced together all the beautiful kisses he’d cut away from years’ worth of movies. In effect, the reel itself is a kiss and embrace that arouses joy and elation tinged with sadness. The movie was released in 1988. The kisses reel, set to a poignant musical score, has stuck with me over time and I’ve watched it many times, although sparingly as it’s too painfully beautiful.
During my grief processing that’s continued since Michael’s death, certain hard-to-manage realizations have popped up that cause serious internal wrangling. I think some adjustments are harder than others. One of the first and worst ones was realizing that I’d never have another new picture of him. As time has moved forward and the photos of daily life accrue, I am constantly reminded of the space that should be his, his arm slung over my shoulder as I snuggle my grandchildren, his face squeezed into photos of me and our kids.
How strange that it’s only recently, as I approach the two year anniversary of his death, that I realized that I’ve had my last romantic, sexy kiss. I can’t say exactly when it happened. I know it was during the last months of his life. As his cancer spread, we shared kisses and affection but there was a different feel to that time. I was too busy trying to keep him alive and safe to identify the last time we shared the kind of kiss that made us pull back from each other, feeling dizzy, somewhat dazed, looking into each other’s eyes and marveling that after 45 years, we could still feel so weak-kneed with each other. Now I’m thinking about so many kisses, the kisses of a lifetime.
I don’t remember my first kiss. I think lots of people do, counting that moment as a transition from one part of life to another. I’m pretty sure I know when it happened. After graduating from eighth grade in Chicago, I went on a celebratory date with a boy who was my friend and another couple. I don’t remember which adults drove us down to the Loop where we had dinner and then went to see the film, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. The other girl on the double date, who is thankfully, still a part of my current life, thought we had dinner at a steakhouse. I thought we ate at Don Roth’s Blackhawk Restaurant. Neither one of us remembered which of the fancy Loop movie houses we attended. I do remember many of their names, The Wood, The Chicago, The Oriental, The Michael Todd. I have a vague recollection of a bit of handholding and a passing brush of the lips. But it wasn’t memorable enough to make find its place into the vault of moving pictures that I so easily access every day.
Although I grew up with fairly radical thoughts and ideologies during the ‘60’s, I was a personally conservative girl during the time of “free love.” Early on, I remember thinking that when I was an adult, I didn’t want to look back on my life and find a lot of cringeworthy moments that turned my stomach and made me ashamed. In high school, I was careful. Apart from an occasional crush, I only was interested in two boys.
One was my real boyfriend for most of the time. He was sweet, comfortable and respectful. We were affectionate with each other and participated in the requisite “making out” but I know that he went behind my back to seek other pleasures with girls who were looser about their sex lives than me. I remember our times together but they were more like experimental feelings for me than ones that struck deep into my core.
The other boy who I was completely crazy about eventually wound up sharing a few stolen moments with me. Those kisses were awkward, romantic, teeth-knocking moments, fraught with tension but never leading anywhere beyond that. I remember the thrill of finally being close to him, but the sense of victory was my dominant feeling. When I started college in 1968, I’d just turned seventeen and was still involved with the high school boy. I stayed loyal to him and we acted the roles of future partners but he was being a boy of his age and experimenting with others. Things ended after my freshman year and when I returned to school as a sophomore, I resolved to be ready for anything and to catch up with all this liberated sex stuff going on all around me. But the truth is, I was still hanging on to the vision of saving myself for something real, something that I wouldn’t regret.
I dated a bit but in November of 1969, I met Al, the guy who within four months, despite my best attempts at self-control, became the first person to light a deeper spark in me. Now his kisses I remember. For the first time, I wanted more, to cross over into the most intimate of sexual exchanges. I fell madly in love with him and thought I’d found the one, despite the fact that we argued constantly and rode the miserable rollercoaster of breaking up and getting back together over and over. He was too young and too scared to be in a committed relationship and rightly so. But I was so sure we belonged together. Eventually, in my junior year of college, at age nineteen, I became what I was pretty sure was the last virgin with radical politics to give in and finally have a significant sexual relationship. I don’t regret that. I thought we’d be together forever which was naive and painful. We hurt each other a lot and eventually, I was able to move on and start seeing other people. Still, I never regretted that my first love was someone who meant everything to me. As I tried to get past Al, I met the person who as a kissing partner, was probably the best natural match of my life, Dennis the golden boy.
He was a gorgeous creature who for some reason, felt the same way about me as I felt about Al. And our physiology was a whole other thing. The fact is that mouths are kind of weird. They have unique shapes and lips have different widths and sometimes things don’t necessarily match up all that well. Dennis’s mouth and mine were the perfect match. We just fit perfectly. Kissing him was magical. I could’ve done it for hours and sometimes did.
When I hear Carole King’s Tapestry. I am transported back to that sweet time. The problem was that I couldn’t get my emotions into the same place as the physical pleasure. Beyond the lovely kisses, I felt robotic. I really liked him a lot, even loved him, especially as a friend, but it just wasn’t the same passion I felt with Al. And so began a time with me going back and forth between them, driving myself crazy trying to figure out where everything was going and what I should be doing. At this point in time, I’d call those first world problems and even then, I was leading an activist life on campus and trying haphazardly to be somewhat of a college student. I can clearly see myself interacting with both of them, trying to juggle mismatched feelings and sneaking around between the two of them while trying to focus on anything besides emotions. I was in rough shape. Al broke my heart and Dennis almost mended it. One time while in Chicago, my mother helped me smuggle Dennis down the back steps while Al was coming up the front ones. A time of youthful madness.
In the summer of 1971, I was living in my college town and working, heading toward my senior year. I was involved in the anti-war movement and had gotten myself arrested at a demonstration on campus. That arrest brought both disciplinary problems with the university in addition to civil charges, all of which were eventually dropped. I remember needing a dress for court. I bought a royal blue pullover jersey dress with a red cumberband waistline. Besides court, that dress served double duty for social events . In August, I attended a wedding that took place in big backyard at a sabbatical house that a friend was renting. I pulled out the blue dress and decided to try enjoying myself. I was in one of the breakup times with Al and was on my own, amongst friends and new acquaintances. I needed to pull out of the emotional quicksand and go forward.
The wedding was a classic alternative, hippie event with the couples’ parents wearing decorated, woven muslin shirts and everyone, including the families, indulging in some sort of mind-altering alcohol or drug. I remember drifting along in a pleasant haze when I wound up lying in the backyard with my head resting on a log, gazing at the stars between an old friend of mine and his friend who turned out to be Michael.
I’m still puzzling over what happened between us that first night we met. I wasn’t attracted to him in a sexual way because I was still all in with Al. But within a very brief time, whatever feelings were bouncing between the two of us were strong, positive and dominating the rest of that night. I went home to Chicago the day after that wedding to visit my parents. When I returned a few days later, the first thing I did was contact my friend to ask how I could find Michael. I called him and asked him to come visit me at my apartment. When he arrived we sat on the front porch and I told him that I’d never so instantly liked anyone before and that I wanted to be his friend. He shyly agreed. Within a few weeks he’d moved into an apartment down the block from mine. He had a girlfriend and I was still bouncing between Al and Dennis. But Michael and I spent long hours together, talking a lot, but often just lying quietly side by side, listening to music, and having the most powerful silent exchange of feelings that I’d ever felt. I started getting pretty confused after a few months of this startling but magical friendship.
I felt like me all the time. I think I was the most relaxed and liberated I’d ever been in my life. The world tumbled forward. I was planning a trip to Europe in January of 1972 and would soon be leaving for Chicago. Michael agreed to take care of my dog while I was abroad. In late December, we were washing dishes in his apartment after dinner, laughing and simply enjoying ourselves. I don’t recall what I said that prompted him to bend down to kiss my cheek. For some reason, I’d turned my head slightly and his mouth landed on the corner of mine. Trite and often used as it may be, the truth is I was electrified by that lopsided, friendly kiss, literally from the top of my head through my body’s core and down to my toes. I know I struggled to stay composed. I’d never felt anything like that before and it did not compute with all my other tangled emotions. The moment passed. In January, 1972 I went to Chicago to get ready for my trip.
Michael and I exchanged letters and one time before I left, he appeared at my parents’ apartment with my dog, Herbie, so I could see her one more time. I wasn’t returning home until April. The sweetness of that gesture wasn’t lost on me. On the long drive to New York with my friends I thought long and hard about what was going on inside me. I was twenty years old. I’d been in an irrational emotional quagmire since getting involved with Al in 1969. I still loved him. But Michael and our magical connection was an unanticipated gift. I realized that the foundation we’d built was healthy love and I found it magnetic and impossible to discount. We made a stop in Philadelphia and I called him to share my feelings. His response was “far out.” And off I went. We’d never shared one kiss except for the accidental one at the kitchen sink.
I wrote him every day from Europe and he wrote me too. We were both scared but we realized something special had happened to us. When I came back in April, I went back to campus with no concrete plan, still tied to Al but pretty certain that relationship was doomed. I saw him for a few days and confirmed that truth. Then I showed up on Michael’s doorstep with my suitcase. I told him I wanted to move in. He said that was fine and asked me where I would sleep. I told him I planned to sleep in his bed. And so it began.
We finally kissed each other and the rest as they say, is history. It took a little while to fit our mouths together as our shapes weren’t the perfect fit. But we made that happen and practiced for the rest of our lives.
There are many types of kisses. Kisses with kids and parents, kisses with grandchildren and grandparents, kisses between friends. For the most part, they are grazes of affection. And there are hugs to be shared. I don’t feel deprived of physical contact which can be such a lonely isolating feeling. In fact, I consciously make sure that I have human contact which was always such a central part of my world from that early age of twenty, forward and through my adult life. But I feel so profoundly the absence of those kisses. The melting feeling. The joined feeling. I’m lucky to have had them. I’m also lucky to retrieve the sensations through the gift of my memory. But I wasn’t ready to be done with them. I’m hopeful that no one will tell me that I should “never say never.” I don’t want to replace the power of what existed between Michael and me with a replacement. The pain of what I miss is in its way as precious as those inexplicable volcanic rushes that passed between us. There cannot possibly be anything that rivals them. The absence of the kisses is mine forever.