Our sex life is fine-really, insofar as we have one, it's more
than adequate-but Ray can't kiss. I've told him this for years
and for years he has shot back that his kissing is perfectly passable,
maybe even exemplary. The problem is me: my lips, my method, and
my general finickiness about sex, especially on this subject.
It's true. Kissing is important to me. In dreams, it's not the
act which excites me but the approach to the act, the first finger-brush
and feather of lips. I realize that this is adolescent, learned
from movies where you get that standard middle-distance sideshot
of the meeting mouths-the swish to that first exploratory peck,
then another short kiss, followed by a flicker of tongue, then
the lunge into the deep, for which the camera either swoops to
a respectable distance or circles in for a close-up, usually of
the woman clasping the man's neck. As Ray has remarked, the options
for camera angles are pretty limited. You can't invite the crew
inside for a Cousteau vista of tongue and tooth.
But what's so wrong with adolescent? If you can't remember when
sex was the deep, when you had no idea what sunken treasures
or sharks lurked there, then it's all-it's all marriage. How sweet
to imagine those slow, shy kisses with a stranger, because in
fact, teenage kissing is abysmal. Humiliating. Eighteen years
later I can still remember my dismay during my first hardcore
necking session, the slow burn of Joel K's mouth, the bizarre,
boat deck smell of his breath.
The basic problem with Ray's kissing may also be the problem with
his whole personality and life. He's not a leader. He lets others
set the mood and pace. If you smile, he smiles back. If you're
dour, his mood is worse. And if you wipe your mouth with a napkin-well,
this makes sense, because like many men, Ray believes it's a waste
of time to wipe his mouth while he's still eating, and at dinner
parties I try to alert him to antisocial globs of marinara, so
if I wipe my own mouth with a napkin, he dramatically wipes the
same part of his mouth with a napkin.
And in kissing, if I open my mouth X amount, Ray opens his mouth
X amount. If I open my mouth wider, he opens his mouth wider.
Sometimes we'll just keep going, until we're clamped together
open-jawed like huge fish, and he needs to break off and gasp
for air (he has bad allergies, and doesn't breathe through his
nose very well).
I've tried many times to explain the problem. "Kissing,"
I say, "is about resistance. Tension. If I open my mouth
you should, in fact, instinctually stop yours down a bit. And
if I've got my tongue out there a certain amount, you could pull
"Oh, yeah? Well, that's just what I do, and then you say,
'Where's your tongue?'"
"Because it vanishes completely. It sort of goes under a
"How much room do you think there is in there? It's not outer
space. If you jam in your tongue, there's nowhere for mine to
go, unless-" and here he launches into a demonstration, in
which our tongues battle for supremacy like Ninja warriors.
"The alternative," I break off to say, "is not
this sort of passive trance. Like sometimes I try to brush your
lips, just to feel the texture and pressure of your lips without-"
But Ray is already rolling his eyes. "Because,"
he says, "your lips are really thin."
Granted, my lips are not the current starlet whoopee cushion kind
which look like someone turned them inside out and blew them up.
"So," Ray continues, "if we're just going to be
there lip to lip, I'll be all over you, and you'll be disgusted
about getting wet, say 'E-U' and wipe your mouth with the back
of your hand-"
Here Ray implies that my fastidiousness makes passion impossible.
This from the man who comes into my bathroom to realign the lipsticks
in my make-up tray and badmouth my hairy brush-the man who has
suggested to me, repeatedly, that it would be useful to order
the clothes in my closet by type of item, by fabric and
degree of dressiness. But it's true that Ray eats snails, enjoys
carving up a lobster, whereas I'm the fork and knife for pizza
type who eats only meat that's oval or square, paper-thin, and
The other major difference is breath. I dislike it bad, and since
my sense of smell is preternaturally good, I can smell bad breath
from miles away. The lingering sour, vaguely petrochemical smell
of milk, a staple of Ray's diet, is a bugbear, and he always likes
a glass of milk before sex, to get his strength up. Our rule is
that Ray brush his teeth after milk and cookies, before sex. Unfortunately,
he's not wild about the smell of toothpaste. "Breath is breath,"
he likes to say: how manly.
I can see his point, though. I will never be the kind of woman
you can push down on forest pine needles and topple upon. Maybe
no wife is ever happy at low tide, on sharp sand, with her pants
tangled at her ankles. But I never was. The first time Ray and
I made love, I was concerned about where his car was parked, the
amount of time left on his meter.
Why should he want to kiss me, anyway? Am I so loveable? Clearly,
I am not the person I used to be. Or maybe I always was precisely
this shallow, misanthropic, compulsive, and finicky, and just
didn't notice. I can't say I know whether failing to notice is
better, or worse. The only difference between me and a dog is
that when I sit sniffing at the window, basically growling or
wagging my tail at the passersby, but more often than not growling,
because there are certain people who habitually pass my house
to whom I've developed a distinct antipathy, I also think, You're
just like a dog sitting here, and a dog presumably would not think
Self-consciousness is a blessing and a curse. When I replay sexual
highlights, I remember not the climax, not even really quite the
gentlemen involved, but the fact that I was aware of having sex,
and aware the sex was good-my hand and his hand meeting for the
first time, tentative as Adam's and God's in the Michaelangelo;
or sun pouring through a domed window, dramatic as stage lighting,
to congratulate us for doing all that over again, first thing
in the morning. There is, in other words, a great deal of ego
involved in sex. The I, not the thou. But cross that line,
be too self-aware, and you've got bad sex, the worst. You
can only practice or coach so much. Then, like a basketball player
you must, to some extent, have a hot hand, just make the shots.
There's nothing Ray hates more than to have sex interrupted for
play-by-plays and freeze frames. "Look," he says. "What
do you care how we kiss? We're married. If things keep up at this
rate we're not even going to be having sex a couple of
years from now." He has a point. So when Ray says, "Hey.
Shut up. Put out and shut up," I try. I do.