by Conor Friedersdorf
Home after enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1955, at age 17, I called the only girl I had ever dated, back when we were in 7th grade. She invited me to go to the Methodist youth group meeting that evening. As we walked back to her place with a full moon peaking through the trees, we stopped and kissed. My first kiss. We got together every day until my leave was over, then wrote every day. I proposed to her before being shipped out and we agreed to get married when I returned. We were married for 23 years.
I didn't have my first kiss until I was 25, two years ago. I'd grown up the oldest daughter in a very conservative fundamentalist Evangelical Protestant home, with nine siblings. I didn't meet any boys outside of my church (and certainly wasn't kissing the ones at church! My dad didn't let us go to any teen-aged church camps because there would be teenagers there, and, who knows, stuff might happen!) until I went to college at a moderately conservative Evangelical Protestant university. And then, well, I was very shy, and very geeky, and the only dating relationship I had lasted for a month, and we only held hands.
But I graduated, and got a good engineering job, watched all the girls I grew up with get married and start having as many babies as possible, while I got more and more independent, bought a car all by myself, bought a house all by myself, and started rethinking everything I'd been taught growing up.
I retained the Christianity, although it's a much simpler Christianity, and left the Republicanism, the Young Earth Creationism, the patriarchy, the pressure to have lots of children, the anti-intellectualism, and the veneration of My Father's One Right Interpretation of Scripture and Everything behind. It felt like I was walking out onto the surface of the moon. There weren't many people I could talk to about these things, and it was, for the most part, very lonely.
Right in the middle of how things were changing for me, I met somebody at work. He was quiet, but not too quiet, extremely cute, and a huge geek like me. One day he got up the nerve to ask me out, and after a few months, I had my first kiss. It was a bit awkward, not earthshaking, but it symbolizes how everything was changing for me, and led our marriage last fall. It's been amazing. He's my equal, and treats me as his, doesn't manipulate me, doesn't try to control me, and loves me unconditionally. He's from a Catholic background, I'm from a Protestant background, he's from a liberal family, I'm from a theocratic family, and yet we've both ended up with so very nearly the same beliefs.
I would have been fine if I'd stayed single, but it's so much better, and I'm so much happier, walking through life side-by-side with him. My first kiss told me I could have freedom from my old ideological chains, and have love and intimacy. It means everything in the world to me.
I was fifteen, and the boy was my best friend's older brother. He was eighteen and fascinating, in a shaggy haired, pot-smoking computer prodigy sort of way. We would talk about philosophy and art into the night at their house, and one night he said, "Would you like to kiss me?"
I leaned in and did. It was boring. We kissed for the next two hours, me waiting for some exciting feeling to kick in. I went to bed that night disappointed by the kisses but utterly thrilled by the offer. I dated that brilliant, difficult boy on a chemistry-free basis for three years before I married him at the should-be-illegal age of 18. My father tried to send me to a ballet school in the Ukraine to break us up, and there was a civil war in Ukraine at the time, so you can imagine how strongly he felt about it. Our marriage lasted two stressful years, and in the subsequent separation, I finally got my "real" first kiss: the one that turns the world upside down.
I always sort of equated physical intimacy with vulnerability, and I felt that as a girl, I couldn't really afford to be any more vulnerable than I already was. I'm pretty sure that if I'd been asked, I would have said my goal was never to kiss more than one person. I hated the idea of someone being able to hang that over my head. I'm really not sure why, but I had a very strong sense that kissing (etc) would decrease the extent to which people took me seriously. So while most of the people I knew had kissed someone romantically for the first time by our graduation from high school, I hadn't. I was even dating someone when we graduated (poor guy), and that relationship ended without any physical contact besides some awkward slow-dancing at prom.
In January of my first year in college, I met a guy two years my senior. He'd just ended a two-year relationship when we met. He made it pretty clear that he was interested in me, but I was cautious because of how recent his break-up was (I was friendly with his ex, too) and because I didn't really want to get tied up in any relationships; I was still only a freshman. We chatted on AIM (remember that?) all day long, and every night he would come up to my dorm and we would usually end up hanging out in the stairwell for privacy. Just talking, for months. Sometimes we'd talk about our interests, or our families, but we'd always find our way to the question of what we were doing there together and what would come of it. Every night, we'd stay up until the early hours of the morning, him waiting to see if I would finally give some sort of green light for him to kiss me, me hoping he would kiss me without a signal. Every night, we'd get incrementally closer, but just end up shaking hands (we had to do something!).
Looking back, it seems pretty torturous! But he certainly proved that he respected me. I went away for spring break, and when I came back, he told me that he loved me. I told him I couldn't say it back to him yet. He said that was ok, but that he really wanted to kiss me. I told him ok. But when he did, I couldn't kiss him back. I was just too scared, and after all I didn't really even know how. But it broke a barrier, and the next night I did kiss him back. He still says the first one didn't count. :) In the years that followed I'll admit there were some bad times -- even really bad times -- but we stayed together, we were always in love, always felt happiest when the other was in the same room, and have never run out of things to talk about or ways to challenge each other intellectually. At night, after we've put our kids to bed, we still usually just hang out together, talking, and I can't help but think back to the stairwell, night after night. Even though our time together isn't laced through with that romantic tension anymore, it just doesn't seem to get old.