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Lisa Zeidner

Kisser

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 back, or-"

"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 rock."

"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 preferably breaded.

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 that.

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.

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