I love to kiss. I always have. Back in school they used to call me "NATO" (No Action. Talk Only). Maybe talking was a subliminal way of exercising my kissing mechanism without losing my reputation. They didn't know that I was just being particular.
Even today, I practice selective kissing. This leaves me with a lot of free time between relationships. It's not easy keeping up your prowess without a proper partner. But it's a lot better than the alternative – kissing someone you really don't want to kiss! I never could do that, except once in a play with a show-offy leading man, and once when the bottle turned toward Mende – and oh yes, when I played Mary and had to kiss Norman, who was Joseph.
I knew about French kissing. My friend Raeanne – who married a political activist who now teaches morality at a New Zealand university – had a big sister named Arlene, who French-kissed her husband publicly on their wedding day. That was something I wanted to save for my true love. After all, kissing really is the perfect metaphor for a relationship. To me, it is the most intimate thing two people can do together, for when intimacy goes, so does the kiss. While other more obvious signs of sensuality may linger, the kiss seems to be the most delicate of human expressions. It is so totally dependent upon the heart.
Before I proceed, I think it's important to let you know some of my credentials. While in college, I kissed Marcello Mastroianni in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel. He said, "I love you." One night in 1968 in a Nevada desert cantina, I was voted best kisser in The Open Theatre during the filming of Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point. In 1969, David Mamet and I hugged and kissed onstage every night when we played Ellen and Milt Manville in a summer-theater production of Murray Schisgal's Luv.
Needless to say, I've had great opportunities. Even as a child I loved to kiss, maybe because I wasn't breast-fed. Necessity is the mother of invention. Therefore, like Fred Astaire, I summoned forth the alchemy that transforms a disadvantage into an asset. For years I was inspired by Mr. Astaire, who didn't know what to do with his hands, so he put them in his pockets and sculpted a style. I can only hope that I smooch as well as he sways. But I wonder: Will my kissing have to slow down as I get older in the same way he had to cut back on performing? Gosh, I hope not!
I started practicing as a child. I knew all about kissing family and friends, but there was another kind. The kind they did in the movies. My idols were Terry Moore and Betty Grable. Terry Moore always kept her lips moist and open, letting her teeth show, casually-like. She had an unspoken "I'm ready to kiss anytime, anywhere" way about her. From what I could see, she left her lips alone during a kiss – no premeditation. She relaxed into the wave of a passionate embrace. Her breathing was natural, so there was no need to come up for air – unlike Sandra Dee, for example. Now that I think about it, Audrey Meadows in The Honeymooners was a great kisser too; she had whimsy.
Betty Grable was terrific because she had a natural lip posture. Her mouth was always wet. But unlike Terry, she was not always ready. No judgment here, just an observation. I always felt real innocence in Betty. When she kissed her eyes rolled back, which I interpreted as ecstasy.
And when Cary Grant kissed his leading lady--Ingrid Bergman in Indiscreet, for instance – I believed he really loved her in real life. He swooned, he actually swooned. So I allowed myself some swooning. And years later, when I was with a man who also swooned, I knew it was all right because Cary Grant had done it.
Most of my development years from 6 to 11 were spent kissing on my own, too shy to kiss anyone else. I was woodshedding. I practiced a lot, using as my instructors Terry and Betty and Cary and Fred and even my parents, when I could persuade them to kiss "like they do in the movies."
I practiced on the back of my hand, on my pillow, on the walls. I applied pomades, employed gentle lip kneading and srenghtened my lips by drinking through straws and saying "ooh" a lot. I also hugged floors ( a unique experiment in independence).
On afternoon in the sixth grade, I saw Penny Simon emerge all flushed and squinting from Mark Filerman's basement. I asked my friend Sash what was wrong, and she told me that Penny was "hot from kissing." How cheap and tawdry, I thought – smooching in a dank rec room. Cary Grant would never do that. I was in terrible pain. I didn't fit in.
When I was 11, Steve Cohen asked me to a Friday night dance at B'nai Israel. It was my first real date. I didn't kiss Steve because I knew I get a bad rep. I started to play the field but couldn't risk being known as a "hot patootie" by kissing every boy I went out with – and I went out a lot. I was a good dancer, smelled good (I wore Intimate, Tabu and Woodhue – didn't everyone?) and made the boys laugh. So, before letting myself go, I waited until summer vacation and my trip to New York. After a decade of intense lipwork and private swooning, I was ready for my first real kiss.
It was a zephr-filled, moon-drenched evening high in the hills of the Bronx. Barton leaned over. I relaxed and let my lips go limp. After about five minutes, he sat up and said, "Hey honey, this is your first kiss, huh?" (He was 13 and had seen other movies.) I was devastated. A lousy review. He insisted that I pucker. I disagreed, considering that artificial. I went home to continue my studies.
Two years later, having devised a subtle pucker and knowing more about hugging, I returned to the Bronx, called Barton and kissed him passionately in the balcony of Loews Paradise on the Grand Concourse.
"You've really practiced!" he exclaimed. "You're the greatest kisser I've ever kissed."
This from the winner of the dance contest on The Arthur Murray Party. I was reeling. That Easter vacation we kissed everywhere: from the staircase outside my grandmother's apartment to the subway stop at Yankee Stadium. I was vindicated.
Time passed, and my fondness for smooching increased. Sure, other expressions of affection were added, but I leave the discussion of those to Dr. Westheimer.
A philosophy, a metaphysical approach, evolved.
In California, I learned how to drive and so received a California driver's license. When it came in the mail, enclosed was an "anatomical gift act card," on which I could list my favorite organs, i.e., the ones I'd select to "love on" after me. I thought I'd leave my lips. But I never could fill out that form – maybe because of an inability to face my own mortality, maybe because I know that the whole is the sum of the parts and that all the parts are interdependent. My lips, I figure, probably need my very own spleen to function adequately. My lips probably need all my parts to function adequately. To be fair, guess I'd donate all of me.
When I was 22, I toured the country as the belly dancer in Man of La Mancha, my first professional job. It turned out to be a quest for the kiss, actually, and I found it – in a statue at the Rodin Museum in the heart of Philadelphia. How long I stood in that back room studying the reproduction of The Kiss I know not. I was fascinated by the amount of air around the man and woman. They were swirling, almost swooning, so intense. But each was grounded. He had only one arm around her and she only one around him. They seemed so free yet so together.
Maybe the mistakes we make are part of reaching that symmetry. And just maybe there are no such things as mistakes when two people choose to take the journey that feels at times like a ride on a pogo stick. Maybe there will even be times when I hold on with both arms, and he too. I can only hope for everything I saw and felt at the museum that day.
Even after I die, when my gift card has been processed and images of Fred Astaire have long been etched in the cells of my cerebrum, that feeling will stay in the air, in some form or other – as a bubble, maybe, or a molecule. Maybe it will travel light – years into the heavens and end up a greptz from a lunar creature's mouth. I don't know. I do know that it is tangible and the most real thing there is...the surge that starts with a kiss.
This story originally appeared in The New Sun in 1995 and is now having an "encore presentation" due to the Valentine's Day season!
Marilyn Sokel is an OBIE and Emmy award-winning actress, singer and comedienne. Broadway credits include Conversations With My Father with Judd Hirsch.
Her voice can be heard on Sesame Street and many commercials. One of the characters in her repertoire is Smoochie Farkas.