When I was in eighth grade, still licking my wounds from my first failed attempt at French kissing, I wanted to French again. Needed to. I could do better. I just had to practice.
I’ve always been mean to myself when I fail. My dad told me why: “You expect to be as good as Michael Jordan the first time you try anything.”
When he said this, he wasn’t talking about making out. He was talking about me trying to hit a golf ball with a golf club and failing and throwing the club like a tomahawk into the woods while screaming.
But his advice applied to making out too. I did expect to be the best at all things immediately. I imagined myself making out with a girl in the school boiler room and then a movie director would emerge from the darkness and say, “What I just saw took my breath away. Please star in my new movie, Summer On Make-Out Island.”
After dad’s comment, I wondered if Michael Jordan was good at Frenching. Of course he was. So much control. So much tongue. I imagined him running at a lady who was running at him, and both of them jumping up so high it seemed like they were flying, and then they would lock faces mid-air and the crowd would erupt with a roar and a rat-a-tat of flashbulb starlight as the lovers floated toward the rim, above the rim, and won the slam-dunk make-out competition.
But my dad’s point was this: Jordan practiced.
So I practiced.
I don’t know if you’ve ever made out with the mirror image of yourself, but it’s hot. It’s like meeting your sexy equal in a prison visitation session. You see that familiar, alluring face, stare it down for a moment, and then you both drop your telephone receivers at exactly the same time, then lunge forward and suck glass.
What’s not as hot is when your parents confront you about the face-shaped smear all over the bathroom mirror. This is when you learn how to clean bathroom mirrors. And once you know that, you can practice as hard as Jordan and no one is the wiser.
Yet still, your enemies are many. The universe loves to stop a star from rising.
Knock knock on the bathroom door. “Dan?” says mom. “You all right in there? It’s been forty minutes.” Knock knock again. “You need help, honey? Is your belly okay?”
The injustice of it. I imagined Jordan’s mother doing the same thing: bothering him while he, like me, was pounding out his future on the practice court. “Michael Jeffrey Jordan, it’s been forty minutes! You’re going to make your belly sick with all that jumping!”
“Lay off!” Michael and I shout, disgusted with our mothers for not understanding that we have to do this. This is our passion, our poetry. This is how we will chisel our names on the rock face of history.
Before long, I had tongue traveled every inch of the mirror. My doppelganger gazed at me and smiled with his glistening mouth, a smile that said,
“You are ready.”
Get A Piece
At my Christian school, everyone was trying to “Get a piece.” This is what we called it in the old days when one made physical contact with a girl. The older boys only talked to the youngers boys to ask them, “You get a piece yet?”
Yes, I had gotten a piece. It didn’t matter that it was a strange piece, one I did not enjoy. I had gotten it. It happened the previous year. My former girlfriend and I had made out and then broken up immediately, so immediately that the idea to break up must have had its genesis somewhere in the middle of the kiss. Probably at the tongue part.
But the piece I’d collected wasn’t enough for the older boys. I wasn’t done. They helped me understand that one is never done with the great piece quest. You’re building a puzzle with no boarders, a map without edges. It wraps around the world. It is a sizzling mosaic, limited only by your imagination.
“Son,” the older boys said, “the day you’re done collecting pieces is the day you die.”
She Wanted Me
The beautiful 11th grader Mallory Corwin had a reputation of getting pieces. Apparently she was very good at it. And the word on the street was this: she wanted one of my pieces.
Mallory had let slip that she desired a younger man, and since news travels fast in high school, by the time it reached my dewy ears where they lived as modestly as mushrooms all the way down in the dark ages of eighth grade, the news was moving so fast it knocked me onto the floor and left me dazed for weeks, my brain ringing with excitement and terror.
Can I do this?
Easy, Dan. Remember your training:
One make-out session with a living girl.
One thousand make-out sessions with a mirror.
I added these experiences together and divided by the total number to get an average of my Frenching abilities:
Girl (1 time) plus Myself (1000 times) divided by 1001 equals I don’t know if I can do this.
Something told me the mirror friend was not an impartial judge of my make-out prowess. When he gave me a gold medal every time (finger guns and two thumbs up), I began to suspect he was my best friend, and a lair. So all I had to go on was my only real experience with Frenching, which, again, had ended in a messy middle-school divorce.
But I had no choice. The grapevine declared that Mallory, beautiful Mallory of the long blond hair, Mallory newly unshackled from a decade of braces, Mallory, a woman who was ready to try out her new teeth on a sweet loaf of innocence, wanted a piece, my piece. She wanted me.
“Me?” I said.
“You,” said the older boys. “Buckle up.”
Mallory Corwin Gets Her Piece
A group of juniors and seniors came to our house for a visit. Mallory was among them. While they talked and laughed on the front porch, and I hung around the fringes, too young to speak, but tolerated because I was my brother’s brother, Mallory looked my way now and then. Her light brown eyes were pretty, but when they locked onto me, internal fires, hers or mine or both, stoked her eyes to a warm golden glow. It was like the change that comes over cat eyes in the dark when caught in a headlight beam. Captivating. Fascinating. Alarming.
She had this ability to convince you she didn’t know you existed while she wasn’t looking at you, and this made a person desperate to be seen by her again, to be told by her eyes, “You do, in fact, exist.” It makes a young man stare. It makes him laugh too loud, trying to come back to life in the eyes of a woman who holds the power of life and death.
Suddenly the whole group became aware of me. All heads turned my way at once, cult-like, and my brother said, “What’s so funny?” He said this, but it seemed like they already knew what was so funny, or what was about to be.
At that moment, Mallory rose up from the porch swing and said, “I feel like a walk.” She passed through the masses of upperclassmen, glided down the porch steps, floated around the corner of the house, and disappeared.
I was sad that she left. Had I done something wrong? But I was a little relieved too. Her departure told me our encounter wasn’t meant to be. Therefore, I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself in the face of a professional Frencher.
I waited for the group to turn its cultish attention away from me, but it did not.
“Well?” my brother said.
“Well…what?” I said.
They all laughed. And I laughed with them to camouflage myself.
“Hurry up,” my brother said. “Go.”
Now I understood. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I’d done everything right, too right. Why did I have to be so adorable?
As I stumbled down the steps, I heard a ghostly voice or two sing out, “Good luck!”
When I rounded the corner of the house, there she was, leaning against the garage door. A woman. I was taller than her, but my spirit saw a giant. Hot Goliath. And I am but a shepherd boy. What can my little smooth stones do against so much experience?
She had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, which seemed to thrust her face forward, putting it on the attack.
I can’t do this.
“Well?” she said, as if expecting it to happen right there, right in front of the tightly shut garage door, closed by my wholesome parents who trusted me to use my mouth in Christian ways, for breathing, reciting scripture, and denouncing the Devil, never for reciting the scripture of lust inside someone else’s mouth.
I wanted to tell her no thank you to the Frenching, but I was too afraid. I needed to work up to my refusal.
“You wanted to walk?” I said, stalling.
“Sure,” she said. “Where to?”
And here I made my mistake: “How about…our cabin?”
Yes, the secluded family cabin nestled within the shaded heart of forty acres of sexy woodland.
“Okay,” she said. “Lead the way.”
I don’t remember what we talked about on our long stroll through the woods, but I do remember that as soon as we were out of sight of the house, she seized my hand and laced our fingers together, tight as a corset. My heart made my bosom overflow with panic.
But maybe this would be enough of a piece for her, I thought. A walk through the woods. A warm and friendly hand. Some appetizers are so satisfying, you have no choice but to save the meal for later, for a time when certain guests aren’t scared to death of the meal.
We reached the cabin, and by the time we were standing face to face inside the cabin, I had my statement ready.
“Mallory,” I said, “I’m just gonna kiss you on the cheek, okay?”
Naughty Goliath easily swatted this stone out of the air, seized my head in her hands (one hand cool, the other hand molten from my rigorous holding) then she pulled me in, clapped our lips together, and pried open my mouth with her own like a starfish having its way with a clam.
And what I offered her must have been clamlike because she pulled away after a short while and made a face as if this order had accidentally come stuffed with cilantro.
She rested her hands on my shoulders. Were we going to dance now? Was she going to let me go? Instead, she went in again, trying harder this time. Godlike, she was determined to make something out of nothing.
Mallory released me even sooner the second time. And she didn’t quite look like herself. A slight pinch of anger had turned the corners of her mouth severe. But this passed quickly. Her mouth once again looked happy, and I thought it was, but I would later learn her mouth wasn’t happy, but amused, a mouth bent with mocking.
That evening, long after all the upper classman were gone, my brother called me into his room to discuss what the grapevine had to say now.
“Well…” He drew in a big sigh, like a boss winding up to terminate an employee. “I guess you’re horrible.”
I hung my head and sat down heavily on the edge of his bed. “She said that?”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “She still likes you. But as a friend.”
That evening, enraged, I faced myself in the mirror. My reflection looked worried. He had good reason. “I’m not leaving,” I said, “not until I get this right.” He tried to protest, to flee, but he panicked and ran right into me, and once I had him, I didn’t let go until that smoky mirror was three coats deep in the dripping hieroglyphics of my scripture: the language of love.