The lips on the corpse bothered me. They were too pale, the color of some deep-sea fish that never sees the light. And the embalmer had stretched them too wide, leaving the loved oneís face with a thin-lipped grimace. Not only did the lips not look alive, they looked as if they had never been alive. Seeing them stretched across the reposed face like that, I found it difficult to picture their corners ever twisting up into a smile or pursing for a kiss. These lips looked as if they had never been kissed, as if kissing was not even in their design plan. More than the solemn funereal suits and dresses, more than the half-stifled sobs, more even, than the corpse itself, these dead lips choked something inside of me.
I passed by the coffin and bowed my head and offered consolation to those in the first row of folding chairs. Then I stood in the rear of the viewing room, behind the black suited backs of the immediate family, wanting to leave but not wanting to leave. I felt empty inside, yet strangely heavy, as if something dark and closed had replaced my heart. Depression settled over me like a shroud, and I wondered would 1, would any of us, ever leave this place, ever leave behind this cloying sense of finality.
The first funeral I ever attended was also the occasion of my first kiss. I was twelve and my fatherís uncle had died of a third heart attack. When it came my fatherís turn to kneel at the coffin, I accompanied him. Mother had said it might give me bad dreams. All I felt was a sense of puzzlement. How could someone be so still?
My second cousin Regina, who was a year older and from Virginia, led me out of the viewing room where adults I knew and didnít know were sitting and commiserating. "My mother kissed the body on the lips," she said to me. She paused. "Have you ever kissed a girl?"
"Of course," I said. To prove it, I quickly put my lips on her cheek and made a smacking sound.
"No, silly, I mean a real kiss, like this" ó and she held my shoulders with both of her hands and pressed her lips to mine. I felt weightless and terrified as our lips connected to one anotherís. The warmth of her lips flowed through mine and into my entire body. I remembered as a child, putting my lips to the sun warmed glass of our kitchen window. "This is what it must be like," I thought. "This is how warm it feels." I was wrong. This was better, once you got over the fear.
I smelled the shampoo in Reginaís hair and the fading scent of the lilacs she had laid before the coffin. I thought of her mother kissing my fatherís dead uncle on the lips in the room above us and wondered what she felt, wondered if his lips had any kiss left in them. My arms were still at my sides and I was trembling. Thatís how you kiss, she said, and led me by the hand back upstairs.
When I think about lips now, I think about life and kissing. I do not think of stillness or of dark wood or of the unyielding quality of the lips of the dead.
I like to kiss. I like to kiss women especially. I notice lips. I notice the lips of women when I am working, when I am at the post office retrieving my daily mail, when I drive through town on my way to work.
A red-haired woman stepped into the room where I was standing and I raised my head from its reverie and looked at her. She was a friend of friends and I had made her acquaintance before. She had a seductive tuck to the right corner of her upper lip, a way of compressing the space where her lips joined that made her look wry and somewhat aloof. I noticed this as she entered the room, nodding her head slightly toward me. She wore pale lipstick for the benefit of the funeral but I imagined she preferred her lips bare. I suppose I notice the lips of women at funerals as well.
At my own fatherís funeral I had refused the company of the living, preferring to sit long with his body and nurse the pain that grew in me like a cancer. Then, it had seemed that my hurt and emptiness and regret were the only things left to me. I rejected the arms of friends and relatives and the healing kiss of my lover. I felt the desperate loneliness of a survivor then. I was beginning to feel the same aloneness again.
The red-haired woman went to the coffin and cupped a side of the corpseís face with her open palm. From my standing place in the back of the room, next to a giant wreath of lilacs, I could see the tenderness in her gesture as she lay one index finger on the still lips and then turned away. She came to stand beside me.
"It doesnít seem real," she said. "Thereís nothing there." She said the lips reminded her of those of a department store mannequin, one of those plasticene models who demonstrate how clothing should look on a human body. But I have rarely seen thin, grimaced lips on a mannequin, especially in the better stores.
I went back to the open coffin to check. While saying a prayer over the body, I pressed my index finger to the lips. She was wrong. They were much more lifeless than the lips of any of the molded models. These dead lips had no purpose, no future. And the lips of mannequins at least have a job.
When I was a boy, and kissing still an unknown activity, I thought Sears had the best looking mannequins in the outdoor department. They looked more real, more embraceable than the slick lingerie models. Whenever my parents shopped I would sneak away, try to steal a kiss from the brown haired mannequin in the blue jeans and red and black checked flannel shirt. She stood in a corner of the store that was partly hidden by racks of womenís outdoor wear. Her lips were molded as if about to whisper a soft word and I experimented with different kisses with her. I knew it wasnít real, but it was good practice. My imagination was vivid then and I could sometimes swear that I felt her plastic lips kissing back. I stopped kissing her after I pushed too forcefully with my lips and she tottered, her brown hair coming off in my hand. She shocked me. Bald like that she reminded me of my great-aunt Ceci who had cancer.
"The lips," I said, "are lifeless."
"Thatís what happens when youíre dead," said the red-haired woman. She looked at me and her eyes were sad. I was overcome by the scent of lilacs and death and the roomís weighted sadness. She cupped the side of my face in her hand, arched her neck upward and pressed her lips to mine.
When I was a teenager, kissing was often an act of desperation. I am not so desperate now, though in moments of great passion I feel again the teenagerís pressing need to join furiously at the mouth.
This kiss was gentle and slow and had, I thought, a tenderness bordering on the holy to it. Neither of us closed our eyes though I usually do. Most times, my eyes close of their own accord. As a blind man might gain more acute hearing, so the power of a kiss is magnified by the shutting of my eyes. Sometimes I open my eyes at the same time as my partner opens hers. I like to believe we see something then that makes us happy to be human.
We stood looking at each other. A woman standing at the exit gave us a wan smile. She had been crying. I took the red-haired womanís hand and held it tightly in mine.
"You kiss beautifully," the red-headed woman said. "You must have had a lot of practice."
I had practiced, but not in the way she was thinking.
A babysitter, (only three years older than I), showed me how to practice on my own arm. I drilled with discipline, planting my lips two inches below my elbow on the soft fleshy part of my childís arm. I always stood in front of a mirror to make sure that my posture was good. My mother suspected that the red marks on my right arm were the first symptoms of rubella. The doctor examined my arm, looked at me strangely.
"I was always on the narrow end of the Seven-Up bottle we spun on someoneís basement floor," I said. "I had luck that way."
Without a word, she guided me out past the lilac wreath and a group of quiet children in the hallway. "Out here," she said, pushing open the back door of the funeral parlor. I held it open with the toe of my shoe so we could get back in. The back steps were wet with rain but it looked as if the sky was brightening. She reached up again and slowly pressed her lips against mine, parting them slightly as she moved her head. It was a sublime kiss, a kiss which needed no follow through, no further suggestion of intimacy.
I thought back to high school gropings where the whole point of kissing seemed to be to determine how far down each otherís throats our tongues could snake.
Tongues are overrated. Lips are for kissing. Tongues come later, in a joining which is a kiss but is also more than a kiss. It is the lips that should be focused on. Like sparking a car battery, lips make a connection. Sometimes the current flows so powerfully my eyes open, wide with wonderment.
I started to ask a question involving the why and how of this, but her lips covered mine with the urge to be silent, the urge to touch.
I closed my eyes this time. I felt the slight give as our lips met and I felt the life flowing through them. I did not feel the damp iron banister at my back. I did not hear the traffic passing by the front of the building. I thought of the dead lips in the coffin inside and the kisses they would never partake of and I moved my foot, letting the heavy door swing closed.
Joe Mueller drives a black Saab, but he is not a yuppie. He travels in Africa when he is not writing, or making Margaritas.
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