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A humorous look at a significant social behavior

"'s just a kiss away."
--M. Jagger & K. Richards, "Gimmie Shelter" (1969)

Ah, the kiss. What human interaction is more significant, more filled with a variety of meanings than the kiss? A kiss can range from the almost routine way men in some cultures kiss each other on the cheek when they meet, to passionate and the exciting mouth-to-mouth kissing in which couples engage.

It's been a long time, but I still remember the big question I would begin asking myself midway through a first date that -- always to my grateful amazement -- looked like it might not be a last date.

"Do I kiss her good night?"

(This, of course, was in what my children have refer to as "olden days," when there was something called dating.)

After a while, I could think of nothing else. Should I do it? What will happen?
Finally, we were at her door.

"I had a very nice time," I'd say.

"Me too," she'd say.

Now, said the little voice in my head. Now.

"Well, good night," I'd say.

"Good night," she'd say.

And, finally, I'd do it. Mr. Cool would kiss the girl good night. Or not. The most important thing about the good-night kiss wasn't the kiss itself, or her reaction to it, but the fact that I had overcome the deep fear of rejection that continues to haunt me in one way or another to this day. (Thankfully, I no longer have a fear of rejection around the good-night kiss, since after 40 years of marriage I know that my wife is probably expecting it.)

It's no accident that marriage ceremonies have traditionally ended with the clergyperson saying, "You may kiss the bride." Maybe more realistic would be his or her saying what the referee says in a boxing match -- "Now shake hands and come out fighting" -- but that's not how marriage ceremonies usually conclude.

Of course, that kiss up at the altar can be anything from a quickie with mouths hardly open to a long passionate kiss that makes everyone, particularly the bride's father, extremely uncomfortable. But at least the bride and groom know it's okay to kiss after they've said their vows. If, at that point, either of them feels a kiss would be just a bit too forward, the marriage is probably in trouble.

Before movies became R-rated and beyond, the kiss would substitute for more advanced sexual behavior. One could argue that this was much healthier than the current cinematic situation, where little is left to the imagination, but I sometimes I wonder. I remember, as a child, watching black and white movies from the 1940s on TV, when the music would get romantic and a husband and wife would kiss. Perhaps a little later it would show one or both of them smoking a cigarette. And often, a few scenes after that, she would announce to her husband that she was pregnant (which he would inevitably greet with great surprise).

As a result of seeing several movies of this sort as a boy, my view of how a woman became pregnant was that (1) she kissed a man, (2) one or both of them had a cigarette, and (3) even after they did this, pregnancy was a kind of random event, surprising both of them when it happened.

As soon as I was old enough to start kissing girls, I did so with a great deal of enjoyment. But I was nervous that such behavior could lead to an unwanted pregnancy. Fortunately, not having any interest in smoking myself, and avoiding girls who smoked, did much to reduce my concern.

Of course, like everything involving love and intimacy, the word "kiss" can be used in an aggressive and hateful way, as in the very classy expression, "You can kiss my ---." But on the whole, it is a word that conjures up memories of romance and passion, not to mention fear, frustration, and embarrassment. The kiss is life in all its complexity.

And if you don't agree, well, you can just kiss off.