The taste of gin overwhelms me as I kiss my friend’s girlfriend.
When you party with the Student Association of Gay Engineers, you drink what they’re drinking and don’t complain — as their guest, it’s only polite. So I’m three sheets to the wind by the time my host sets an empty bottle on the living room floor and declares that a game of spin-the-bottle has commenced.
There are more bodies than air crammed between the couch and the stereo system. A sticky beat pulses in my head, so I can’t concentrate on Bee as I kiss her.
As I pull away, I apologize so softly that she can’t have heard. I press my hand to my mouth. The acid rising in my throat isn’t alcohol-related — it’s nerves and embarrassment.
My friend Lane winks at me. My attempt at a return smile is queasy with gin.
It’s one of the most vile flavors I’ve had in my mouth, but I keep drinking.
I sip at the Tanqueray and tonic. It’s one of the most vile flavors I’ve ever had in my mouth, but I keep drinking. I’m already a beacon in the blacklight with my white long-sleeved shirt and my alternating bouts of too-loud chatter and shyness; no need to stand out more by refusing the beverage of the evening.
Can’t go home yet. Lane and Bee are having fun… And then… Maybe you can learn something.
The brief, mortifying press of my lips to Bee’s was my second kiss ever. The first had been four years prior, as an even more nervous 16-year-old.
Back then, I had tried to imagine making the first move, but without prior experience, my brain had stuttered and stalled. Would I be able to put my face so close to someone else’s without flinching, years of training in respecting personal space flooding my head? Where did people put their noses?
After we’d finally gone for it, my crush had told me that my mouth was too open, advised that I close my lips more. We never kissed again.
It’s all funny until you realize you never stopped being 16 and terrified. Until you look up from the spin of the bottle to see your friend exchanging a warm kiss with her girlfriend, and figure out that you never really learned how to kiss.
What if Lane can taste me on Bee’s lips, and both of them have judged and found me wanting?
Paranoia seizes me: I taste bad. Never mind that my mouth was thoroughly re-flavored by alcohol. What if I just have a bad flavor? What if Lane can taste me on Bee’s lips, and both of them have judged and found me wanting?
The game moves on around me, and I play. I play because I am a guest in this space — gay, sure, but not an engineer. I kiss four people, apologizing each time in case the experience was unpleasant for them.
I manage to hold on until the game ends and everyone has dispersed before I start to softly cry. If anyone other than Lane notices, they let her handle me. She declares that it’s time to go home.
I’m still apologizing as she tucks me in under a blanket on her living room floor.
I curl up into a ball, nauseous from gin and tonic and kisses. I hold tight to my blanket, resigning myself to substituting its warmth for that of another human being. To all such nights still to come.
Three years later, I find myself on an idyllic date. Nina and I, on a hike nearby Jewel Caves National Monument, tuck ourselves against the rail of an overlook platform. Forests and hills spread out before us, decked out in the green pines and yellow grasses of high summer.
It’s the perfect setting for a kiss.
Nina looks at me, then shyly away.
I want to make a move. The same old voice frantically beats in my head: Don’t inflict yourself on her. You’ll do this wrong.
But I can read the cues, and this time I am on my feet, the both of us stone sober.
If I wait, she won’t come to me. This is something that I have to do.
I slide forward. The rise of my hand to her cheek is slow. A question. She answers by leaning in until we are sharing breaths. She smells like spearmint gum.
You can do this, I tell myself.
We kiss. I hold my body stiffly away from hers, unsure what contact is permitted beyond the answered question of my hand — May I? Yes, you may — and the unanswered question of my kiss — Am I doing this right?
She smells like spearmint gum.
Her lips move with mine. And suddenly, I know: she’s asking me the same question. We watched our peers come to understand their bodies with an ease that we both envied and feared.
Am I alright? says the gentle part of her lips.
I let myself feel the way she moves, relax the motions of my mouth into hers: and open, just slightly, in response.
Yes, you’re alright.
This is pleasant. It’s not fireworks on the Fourth of July spectacular; it’s the lazy peace of green trees, yellow grass.
We pull apart like startled rabbits at the sound of footsteps on the path.
We see a Buddhist monk, dressed all in orange and watching us from behind his glasses.
I panic. My mouth floods with the taste of gin. Apologies — to Nina, to the monk, to the South Dakota summer and for everything that I am — bubble up from my stomach.
I lean in for another kiss.
Nina stands beside me, shocked eyes on the monk, but not bolting from my side. Not apologizing.
I belatedly remove my hand from Nina’s cheek, and raise it in an awkward wave.
The monk smiles, and the apologies die out on my tongue.
I smile back. I am dizzy — not with gin, but relief.
He nods at us, and keeps walking.
Once the sounds of his feet fade down the path, our confusion and shock melts into laughter.
I lean in for another kiss, and the feel of Nina’s smiling mouth against my own is a perfect way to start thinking of my body as a gift rather than a burden.