It is fall, and I am getting kissed by women. Actually, women kiss me all year round, but it happens more often in autumn, when there are more crowded rooms and more hors d’oeuvres and more glasses of red wine served in round-bottomed goblets passed from silver trays.
It seems that it happens more often in rooms lit by candles, rooms in which there are actual ash-making logs in the fireplace, rooms in houses where there are no 3-year-old children sleeping upstairs. It does not matter if the women’s husbands are watching. In many cases, as soon as their wives have finished kissing me, husbands reach out to shake my hand.
It is not as if these kisses were precisely innocent. Nothing done in a candlelit room is ever completely sinless. It is never really safe for a man, any man, to get so close to a woman’s ear that he can catch the scent of her perfume where she has meticulously daubed it, just in the crook of her neck. It does not matter whether bodily fluids are exchanged.
Such moments are never the sort of thing that really ought to happen in polite society, even if the man can identify the name of the woman’s perfume, even if he sold it to her husband, even if he’s the one who told the woman she might as well go ahead and buy the 12-ounce bottle for herself.
There is, in fact, a particular luridness to this sort of moment. It is, after all, a moment when the woman, no matter how teased her lightened hair or how angular her bone-thin shoulders, is irrefutably, inescapably in charge. She knows that, even if a man were to lean toward her at such a moment, she could turn away. She could allow her cheek simply to brush against his; she could make certain that her lips did not leave their quick, moist mark against his flesh.
She knows that other people are watching. She knows that, at such a moment, she may giveand takewhatever license she likes. She may decide whether, at that moment, she desires for her moiré-patterned taffeta to be crushed. No man, at such a moment, would dare to play Marlon Brando; at such a moment, she knows, no man has any choice except to play Cary Grant.
At such a moment, she knows all men are at her disposal. She might as well be wearing a black leather corselet and thigh-high boots with stainless-steel spurs at her ankles. She might as well be carrying a whip.
I understand that some men thrive on such moments. I understand they actually envy me for being offered kisses of this sort, so easily and, as the air grows more chill and the rooms grow warmer, so often. They stare at my face, smudged with streaks of unblotted pink and rose and fire-engine red. They look at me, for once, with actual longing. They say, “Man, the women have been all over you.”
They console themselves by thinking such kisses mean hardly anything to anybody. Yet they know that such kisses are not at all like the ones they give to their grandmothers, bending down over the cranberry Jell-O mold on Thanksgiving day.
I cannot imagine precisely where this sort of kissing got started. It probably has something to do with France and with diplomats and with officers receiving ribbons for bravery on the corpse-strewn field of battle. It almost certainly has something to do with the pope. It cannot, however, have anything to do with England, where no one is ever allowed to touch anyone else in public.
It has a great deal to do with obeisance. Because it is the sort of kiss women may actually exchange with one another, it has a great deal to do with knowing who is the ranking officer of the day.
It bears no relation at all to the kissing of a hand, gloved or ungloved. If the party kiss had worked its way upward from hand-kissing, it could scarcely have gotten higher than the elbow. It would have called too much attention to itself; it would have taken time and would have seemed like a meaningful gesture; but it would have been hard to pass it off as any sort of ceremony. Men in white tie would have been arrested before such a kiss ever reached the shoulder, before it even came close to the neck.
Placed deftly against a cheek, however, a kiss does not pretend to be any sort of tribute to anybody. In its quickness is its magic. It allows a woman to remind all men that, once she has kissed them so lightly in passing, they have been granted her blessing. Nonetheless, it is a benediction she may share at whim with other men in the room.
It is not a kiss that says, “Crush me in your arms and desire me.” It is not a kiss that says, “Take me. I don’t care about my pre-nuptial agreement; I don’t care if you’re a diesel mechanic.” It is a kiss that says, “I have heard your name somewhere before, I think. As best I remember, it was in a place where I was somehow amused.”
It is a fleeting sort of pleasure, not quite so hearty as a handshake, not quite so meaningful, or so public, as a glance. And yet it suggests the danger of broken boundaries, distances reduced to nothing, access requested and access allowed. In its shattered second of existence it might provide just enough time for a muttered “I have missed you,” a “You must know my heart is breaking,” or an “It kills me to be with you like this.” It might allow for a complete remake of Anna Karenina.
But that sort of kissing only comes to pass in movies. At candlelit parties of my experience, nobody ever runs out and jumps in front of a train. Instead, a whisk of a kiss provides just enough time for someone to mutter, “I didn’t know you ever wore purple” or “Are you renting this year in Nantucket?” or “Do you think they’ll serve that lamb-chop thing again this year?”
This is a sort of kiss that has meaning only if withheld. That is why, once a man has been quickly kissed, he lets the pink or rose or fire-engine-red smudge remain. Otherwise, the waiters passing the red wine might think he had wandered into the wrong party, that he was somebody’s cousin from Cleveland, Ohio, that he was a security guard.
For that reason, at this time of year, I collect my kisses. I whisper something quickly and pray that it is taken for a kindness. I listen to the words that are whispered in return to me and keep the secret safe, within the room. The treasure is not just in the kissing; it is in knowing that, if all goes well, I may very well be kissed again.
On an autumn evening, no man wants to end the night unblemished; no man wants to discover that his pocket handkerchief has never even been unfolded. He would not want to discover that, even to him, womankind could be so cruel.