I was under the impression that first kisses were meant to be magic.
I had been led to believe that the long-awaited lip-lock would be witnessed by a star-spangled sky at the top of a stalled county Ferris wheel, or cheered on by roaring crowds at the end of a victorious football game.
I had been deceived into thinking that I’d be tangled up with a brooding boy whose cruelty was a shallow façade masking a kind soul, or that I’d be wrapped up in the arms of a letterman jacket way above my own social standing.
I had been taught that under the bravado of beautiful teenage boys, there was a sweetness and an intelligence that I would one day have the privilege of knowing.
Imagine my mortification when, at a few weeks shy of sixteen and still never-been-kissed, I found myself spinning the bottle at a party in a stranger’s dark basement, the brown Berber carpet chafing on my knees as I waded through the blur of booze to kiss my best friend’s boyfriend.
The ten seconds it took for us to awkwardly struggle across the circle, introduce our lips, and part ways again, moved with a sluggish unreality.
This is it. This is how it’s going to happen.
The girls (including Marianne) shrieked and clutched at one another, well aware that they had just won front row seats to my first kiss.
This is happening.
Initially I was surprised by the softness of his lips; then I was taken aback by the strawberry bubble gum slime of Marianne’s lingering lip gloss.
That’s it. That just happened.
As I settled back into my seat on the floor, face flaming, life resumed its regular beat and the game went on.
Wyatt and Marianne had only officially been dating for two months; however, high school measures time on its own terms, and two months felt more like two years.
During that period, I came to harbor a forbidden affection for the shaggy-haired wide-grinning athlete whose arm was always slung over Marianne’s shoulders, who was polite but indifferent towards my presence, and who inspired many of my most wistful daydreams. Based on my extensive romantic comedy education, the whole situation appeared ripe for a love story to blossom.
And so I waited.
Every day, I went to school excited and came home defeated. I selfishly longed for some lucky happenstance to cleave them apart and bring us together. As much as I loved Marianne, I had come to worship Wyatt, my adoration fueled with fanatical imagination and sustained through a determined ignorance of reality.
Of course, I kept all these desires reigned in tight. I couldn’t make a move on Marianne’s man (nor would I know how). With fear of humiliation wrapped in the guise of loyalty, I went about my public life as I always had: cheerful but cautious in navigating the tempestuous adolescent social scene. Meanwhile, in the sanctuary of my heart, I longed for fate to prompt the Hollywood-promised turn of events that would change everything.
So, in the moments after the catastrophe that was my first kiss, I wondered if maybe that was the turning point I’d been waiting for, if the disaster was merely a comical prelude to a potential budding romance.
I quickly decided it was not.
By the time the buzz of Bacardi Breezers, Mike’s Hard Lemonade and (for some god awful reason) shots of Absinthe disassembled our game, Wyatt had sucked face with almost every girl in the circle and then retired to a bedroom with Marianne as he should have.
To fend against shame and ward off overwhelming disappointment, I chucked back two more shots—of 190-proof Everclear.
I proceeded to have a great time. Then I stumbled home, probably woke up my parents in spite of my stealth, ate half a bag of salt and vinegar chips, and clung to the edges of my bed throughout the rest of the night to survive the spins.
I woke up feeling so poorly, both in head and heart, that I swore off alcohol, rom coms, and Wyatt forever.
Ten years later, over two bottles of wine and the credits of He’s just not that into you, I reminded Marianne of the indignity of that first kiss and finally disclosed my unrequited puppy dog crush on the boy she’d later dumped in our senior year. Smarting from the sting of the higher-stakes romantic trials of our twenties, this revelation was absolutely hysterical.
“I completely forgot about that!” Marianne gasped through her tears.
“He tasted like you,” I hooted, “You may as well have been my first kiss!”
“I’m a much better kisser,” she promised, giggling.
“What do you think happened to him?”
“According to his Facebook he’s in Idaho,” Marianne said, “I think he got a basketball scholarship there.”
“At least he was good at something,” I cracked, and we dissolved again.
When the hilarity subsided, we lay on the floor side-by-side and stared up at the dark ceiling.
“Boys suck,” she whispered.
“The worst,” I agreed.
Marianne never went longer than a week without a boyfriend and often juggled multiple suitors at one time. There was no doubt she would, eventually, settle down with one of them. I, on the other hand, remained much less lucky in love.
Contemplation of my own lonely existence continued into my shift at work the next evening, where I fought off a lingering headache behind the bar in Trinity's dim neon light.
It was a quiet night, with only a few elderly patrons nursing beers and snacking on limp mozzarella sticks in the back booths. The lesser of two pubs in town, Trinity’s was sandwiched in a strip mall between Dairy Queen and a dry cleaners. I liked working there because the locals I'd grown up with preferred the shinier Spotlight downtown. Serving was a nasty business to begin with; adding the discomfort of being tipped (or not tipped) by people I knew made it much worse.
I was refilling a couple of dark pints when the bells above the door jangled, announcing an icy wind that blew in the last person I ever expected to see. Wyatt plopped himself on a barstool straight across from me, his black wool coat dusted in glittering sequins of snow.
“Whiskey,” he said dejectedly, “Neat.”
I stared at him, my jaw on the floor.
“What?” he asked, lifting his eyes from the groove on the bar that he was picking at with a notedly ring-less hand.
“Um – sorry.” I spooled myself back together and got busy finding and pouring his drink.
He was still a stud. The decade since high school had been kind to him. His hair was a little shorter; his shoulders were a little broader. I was glad to see that he’d traded in the nylon track suits for the respectable jacket and well-cut jeans.
I placed the whiskey on a square white napkin, and he blinked at me with verdant eyes that were still thick-lashed and honest.
Trying not to gawk, I found a set of glasses I could pretend to polish. The whole situation was too bizarre to be real, persuading me to wonder if fate had been playing the long-game with my love-life all along.
“So,” I said casually, “what’s brought you back to town?”
He looked up from his drink, turning his head this way and that to confirm I was talking to him.
“Do we know each other?” he asked with surprise.
“Oh,” I said, deflated, “Um, I’m Karli. We went to high school together?”
He looked genuinely baffled.
“Oh!” His face broke out in that damning grin. “Of course, Karli! I didn’t recognize you at all – I’m so sorry.”
I shrugged, as if to shake off the obliviousness that gut-punched my confidence as a human being.
“You still friends with her?” he asked.
I sighed. “No.”
“Oh.” He went back to staring miserably into his Jim Beam, and I refused to give him the satisfaction of asking the source of his blues.
A few minutes later, he requested a refill. Swirling it around, he asked, “Did things turn out the way you thought they would?”
“I mean—I guess probably not,” he gestured to me behind the grimy bar in a way that made me grit my teeth (although, fair point). “But do you ever feel like, I dunno, things didn’t go as planned?”
The irony of that question falling from the very lips that had torn my scripted plan into pieces all those years ago was not lost on me.
In that moment, with a burst of determination, I decided I was done waiting and robbed the glass from his hand. As I knocked it back, it was his turn to stare open-mouthed at me and my audacity.
“You want to hang around until my shift is done?” The bourbon burned with fortifying comfort in my chest, soothing the panic that sprouted the second the question slipped from my tongue.
He gazed at me in wonder, as if seeing me for the very first time. “Absolutely.”
I grinned. Maybe there was more magic in second kisses.