Why Do People Kiss? by Ashley Burke

*Featured Artwork: “Dare To Be” by Carolyn Schlam

At the age of twelve, my friends divide themselves into two distinctive groups: those who have been kissed and those who have not been kissed. Desperately, and against any notions of popularity, I long to be amongst those who have not been kissed. My first kiss, a few weeks after my seventh birthday, is a mistake of wordplay.

Bobby Maniscalco had taken me behind his family’s large oak tree. “Do you want a French kiss?”

I stared at him, bewildered, and waited for his mom to tell us to play where she could see us.

Then, it dawned on me. Oh, he means a Hershey’s kiss! “Yes please,” I smiled politely and extended my hand for the sweet.

Never did I expect his lips to clamp around mine, or the tongue that knocked against my molars. Horrified, I shoved him backward. Against my parent’s rule of not crossing the street without an adult, I ran home. I tried to spit out Bobby’s French kiss the entire way home. I found Mom, she was hunched over her vegetable garden. I started to cry, “Mommy, help! Bobby gave me a French kiss, not a Hershey one!”

I tell this story at Claudia’s sleepover. Theresa replies, “That doesn’t count, then.”

“Yes it does,” Serena defends. “All you need to do is press your lips together and that’s a kiss. What do you think?”

Serena asks the question to Claudia, the nominated “little sister” of our group. The four of us are seated on separate corners of Claudia’s queen-sized, princess-themed bed. Due to her honorary “little sister” status, Claudia is permitted to act like a child and braid her doll’s hair. However, this is at the cost of being shunned from grown-up conversations.

Surprised by the attention, Claudia glances at Serena while her fingers twirl fake blonde hair. “Hold on,” she says, standing and walking over to a bright pink bookshelf. She returns with a dictionary, handing it over to Serena. “Maybe we can look it up?”

Serena opens it, and we are silent as she flips through the pages. The air around us feels heavy. “Found it! Did you, um, touch the lips, especially as a mark of affection or greeting?”

Three pairs of eyes stare back at me. I know this conversation is important, so I think for a moment before I shake my head.

Serena is a detective, and the investigation continues.

Did you salute one another with lips? No.

Did you come into gentle contact? Definitely not.

“Alright then,” slamming the dictionary shut, Serena offers me a glance to convey her apology. “I’m sorry, but it sounds like you have not had your first kiss.”

I respond, “Good, because I’m never doing that again.”

Theresa rushes to kissing’s defense, “Of course you will.”

Serena begins, “I’m the only person who has kissed an actual boy, and then my actual boyfriend.”

Theresa whispers, “Not this again.”

Suddenly, Serena beings to speak louder, “Kissing is the best! Sparks flew when I kissed my boyfriend. We kissed in his mom’s car when she left to pay for gas. And my foot seriously lifted off the ground.”

I do not understand how Serena has forgotten that “my boyfriend” has a name, Patrick. Last year we all laughed as Theresa talked Patrick into tipping his head back so she could pour Orange Soda down his nose.

Claudia puts down her doll, “Really, your foot lifted?”

“Yeah,” eager to share the experience again, Serena jumps off the bed. “Like this,” she extends her right foot backward.

Theresa shoves at Claudia, trying to get her to shut up. Claudia says, “But did you lift your foot on purpose?”

I say, “My mom is a nurse. She says things like heartbeats are movements you can’t control. Those are involuntary muscle movements.”

Theresa shoves me. Serena scowls, angry at the interruption.

Claudia asks, “Is kissing like that? Does it cause movements you can’t control?”

Theresa moves to shove Claudia and then stops. Theresa asks, “Does it?”

Serena stands a little taller, “Yes it does.”

I say, “Well, I still don’t want to kiss a boy. Maybe I will, though, so my foot will lift.”

I meet Claudia’s eyes, and she claps enthusiastically in response.

That night, I cannot sleep. My mind is full of heartbeats and foot lifting, involuntary muscle movements. Will kissing make any other parts of my body move without my control? I slip out of my sleeping bag, tiptoeing passed Claudia’s snoring form over to her bookshelf. I bring the dictionary close to her plugged-in nightlight, squinting my eyes through the darkness until I find the word “kiss.”

Kiss; the movements of touching or pressing one’s lips against another person’s or objects. I read more, finding the words that Serena had stumbled over. I read until my eyes burn and the words blur, unable to find anything about foot lifting. I return to my sleeping bag, frustrated at my friends for boyfriends. I vow that even for the sake of foot lifting, I will never kiss a boy.

I think about how strange it is, that girls have to kiss boys.

Being a girl has never felt confusing before, until recently, when Serena asked Patrick to be her boyfriend. I try to remember, has being a girl always felt strange? Maybe it started before I even knew what being a girl meant. I remember a long-ago argument that started when Claudia ordered me to love Cinderella. “You have to love Cinderella,” Claudia had complained, “You’re a girl.”

I had answered, “That’s stupid. I’m a girl and I love Mulan.”

Nevertheless, I can’t imagine what life would be without my girl-body. Sometimes, though, I wish that being a girl didn’t mean loving Cinderella or kissing boys. I wish being a girl didn’t mean you have to wear uncomfortable Sunday dresses or keep clean after church while the boys wrestle in the dirt. Outside, the sun begins to rise, and I watch it while trying not to cry.

Adults are always saying that if you’re sad, you can pray. I clasp my hands together and mouth a silent prayer, “Dear Mary, full of Grace, please don’t let us grow up. Please, I want boys to have cooties again.”

I pray myself to sleep.

In the same week that I join the group of those who have not been kissed, it cycles around school that our Spanish teacher is not allowed to teach us anymore. This is because she kissed a woman and in our tiny Catholic school, this is against our policy. Theresa passes me the note during history, and I write back, why did she kiss a woman? And what’s a policy?

Theresa returns the note, she’s a lesbian. She’s a girl who kisses girls. A policy is a rule.

I send it back, my mom has a male friend who has a husband and she says it’s okay.

Theresa passes me the note again. This time her words are pressed darker than before, she is wrong.

Instead of answering Theresa, I crumple the note into my desk. I feel nauseous, though I don’t know why. Lately, I am constantly uncomfortable in my own skin, as if my flesh stretches too tightly and doesn’t quite fit.

Serena continues to cycle through boys she “like likes,” while Theresa and Claudia watch enviously from afar. Claudia says that dolls are for babies, and I am the only one who mourns the loss of them.

I don’t understand until my mom makes a new friend at work. She is sixteen, a year older than I am. Her skin and hair are dark, with pretty eyes that remind me of chocolate.

Kayla takes my hand with a quiet whisper “This is how I held a boy’s hand once.” I try not to smile into Kayla’s touch while something lovely spreads over me.

My life is a series of moments where I think I understand myself, and then I don’t. At four, I think I am a princess. At twelve, my eyes remain within the pages of a book. At fifteen, I’m convinced that I am a lesbian. Days later, I can still feel the imprint of Kayla’s hand, warm against my palm. I try to tell her this, my face red and my words stuttering, and she interrupts me to laugh.

“Oh, god, please don’t tell me you’re gay,” she says. “I can’t-” her smile falters, “-be friends with that.”

Kayla’s words curdle sourly, and her expression morphs into disgust.

“No, no, I’m not,” I say. I force a smile, and my lie physically hurts. “I’m only joking, but I fooled you, didn’t I?”

I return home that day, and I ask Dad, “What would you do if I was a lesbian?”

He answers, “I would be very disappointed.”

After Dad goes upstairs, I tell Mom that I have a gay friend. I think but cannot say that I am that friend, and although she says nothing, I watch her eyes as she realizes the same thought.

As the day turns into night, I spend a lot of time in my room. I shove a pillow into my mouth to muffle my screams. I already knew that I would not have Kayla, but even worse than the denial is the disgust.

A month later, I kiss a boy from my class because that is what I am supposed to want. He wears checkered shirts and chews only Double Mint Gum. Despite this being my second kiss, or according to Serena my first, I instinctually know where to put my lips. I tell him how to kiss, and even when he listens to my instructions exactly, the kiss is always wrong. I decide that I do not want to kiss boys.

Every night, I take my glass rosary and pray to God for help. Mostly, this makes me feel better, but sometimes my prayer makes me feel worse. When this happens, I can only think of the first time my faith filled me with dread. I had been small and about to receive my saint’s name. This is an honored Catholic tradition, where membership to a church becomes official when a person adopts a saint’s name in addition to their birth name.

I remember being excited because Mom was planning a party. I would receive my first “adult rosary,” and the beads would be made of glass. In church, sitting beside me in pew while I waited to receive my saint’s name, a boy whispered that he chose the name, Francis. Happily, I whispered to him that I picked Mary. The boy who chose Francis told me that some people want to have different names, but that these names are different genders.

At first, I wondered if I heard him right. We are dressed nicely for the ceremony, divided into pews according to boys and girls. Francis and I are one of the few boys and girls who meet in the middle.

“Like,” he explained quietly, “If I became Mary and you became Francis.”

I had already known that there are boys who preferred other boys, and likewise, girls who preferred other girls. Mom informed me that this was okay. She said it was okay, over and over again. She spoke with a tone I had never heard from her, where she sounded both angry and sad at the same time.

The priest touched my forehead with holy water, representing that he had accepted the name Mary. At my party, Mom tied the rosary around my wrist, and they reminded me of snakes. I thought about hitting the beads against the table until they shattered.

At fifteen, I think of this moment, and I make the decision to do what I want. I kiss another person. Her hair is purple and she is the complete opposite of me, loud and striking against my plain appearance. Although I like the feeling of her soft palms against my hair, I force myself not to show my discomfort against her lips.

Not long after, I tell her that I am not a lesbian. She asks, “But you don’t like boys, do you?”

“Well no, but to be honest I don’t like girls either.”

“Are you sure you’re just not hiding being gay?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Well, I don’t want a girlfriend who doesn’t like girls.”

Two years later, on my seventeen birthday, I know that I am a freak. I ask my parents not to give me a party because I am not worth celebrating. I do not want to kiss anyone and I no longer want Kayla. She has become too preoccupied with smoking weed and kissing boys to notice our dwindling friendship.

Kayla catches me walking around the block and invites me to go camping with her friends on a whim. At this point, nobody in school likes me. Being quiet, I never had many friends before, but apparently, the boy and girl I kissed told everyone about the exchange. There are so many rumors about me that I cannot even begin to trace their origins. I go camping with Kayla and her friends, hoping that no one will see my loneliness.

I meet another boy my age who wears box-shaped glasses and a button-up shirt. He looks different from the other boys, with their band t-shirts and ripped jeans. The boy and I talk about books, and somewhere between this conversation, we both agree to go on a date the next day. I am exhausted from the lack of sleep from our trip, but smiling because I finally have someone who I fit in with. He asks me to be his girlfriend, and after I agree to the idea, we share a shy kiss. He owns the first pair of lips that I kiss happily. Although I do not experience any involuntary muscle movements, I want to press closer.

This is a kiss. A kiss is not composed of involuntary muscle movements or any other pleasant synonyms. A kiss is just that; lips against lips, nothing more.

A few weeks later, we are sitting on his living room couch and I joke, “What would you do if I were a boy?”

He says, grinning and sarcastic, “I’d be very scared. What would you do if I woke up as a girl?”

I rationalize that he would be very scared and that I would comfort him.

Suddenly pressing, he asks additional questions. I inform him that I would not see a difference. It would still be him, he would just be a her, or a him-inside-a-her.

He tells me he is confused. I laugh through my hurt and pretend that I am joking.

This isn’t a major point in our fleeting high school relationship. However, it remains something that confuses him. I grow into an angry teenager who becomes angrier when I learn that I confuse everyone on a good day but disgust them on a bad day. I decide not to date anyone in college, which is easily accomplished, because dating has hardly been stimulating.

When I meet John as a twenty-year-old college student, I am smiling when he kisses my cheek. This is the reason we are sitting beside the vending machine of a bowling alley, the building nearly abandoned. “I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable. Feel free to say no, but can I kiss you?”

Miraculously, I want him to. He surprises me by kissing the underside of my fingers, my palms, and then the top of my head.

I find that he speaks quite a bit. He speaks about how beautiful I am, smart, and out of his league. We kiss each other’s lips, and the movement is mutual. I don’t notice until his chest bumps into mine that I have wrapped my around his back to bring him closer.

“Is that an involuntary muscle movement?”


“Oh, nothing,” I say, “I just like kissing you.”

After a few more dates, I stumble upon the word demisexuality. I read the words on the internet like a breath of fresh air. A demisexual is a person who does not experience sexual attraction unless they form a strong emotional connection with someone. Without this bond, a demisexual will not feel any sexual feelings. Many demisexuals are only attracted to a small number of people within their lives.

“That makes sense,” he says after I tell him. “I’m glad that you understand yourself.”

I kiss him.


Carolyn Schlam is a figurative painter, sculptor, glass artist, and published author. In 2013, she was named one of the finalists in the Smithsonian Museum Portrait Competition, and her work, “Frances at 103” was exhibited at the Museum, and subsequently acquired by the Smithsonian. Carolyn's two published books on art include “The Creative Path: A View from the Studio on the Making of Art” and “The Joy of Art: How to Look at, Appreciate, and Talk About Art. She resides and has her studio in southern California. You may find her at www.carolynschlam.com and at www.carolynschlamstudiostore.com

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