Among my friends with teenage kids, one of the most-discussed topics of late has been the monumental “first kiss.” Some of my pals’ teens have dived into the complicated waters of smooching, others are craving a peck the way I dream of my morning latte, and still others are much more interested in their screen lives—after all, Minecraft and Instagram are more reliable than the vagaries of teenage hormones.
Most people are lucky enough to have a few electrifying kissing experiences in their lifetimes, which make you believe in God, the reality of soul mates, or at least the power of sexual chemistry. But unless you are fortunate enough to live in a John Hughes movie, chances are the first time you ever kissed someone it was a little disappointing. My first foray was spectacular in its oddness.
My Two Soap Opera Boyfriends
At the age of 14, I was a series regular on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live ( I wrote a little bit about how all that happened here). In the early 1980s, Luke and Laura’s steamy and scandalous romance on General Hospital proved to be ratings gold. Their infamous love affair shifted viewer demographics and pulled in a new audience of high school and college students. One Life to Live‘s producers decided that my character, Cassie Callison, long-lost teenage daughter to Llanview’s resident villainess Dorian Lord, needed a boyfriend pronto before school was out for the summer.
The network decided one boyfriend was not enough for Cassie. She needed two boyfriends to fight over her virtue. One would be a well-bred country club guy, whom snobby Dorian adored; the other would be a garage mechanic with a prison record, whom Dorian loathed. Cassie would spend the summer in turmoil about whom to choose.
© Cusi Cram
The producer of the show ran these developments by my mother and me in a rushed meeting during my lunch hour at the studio. He had the disarming habit of looking at a spot directly above your head while speaking. You wondered if he was talking to you or to some much more important invisible person in the far distance. My mother bobbed her head around like a manic chicken trying to catch his gaze. She wanted assurance that Cassie’s storylines would be age-appropriate. He winked (at no one in particular) as he got up, signifying that the meeting was over, and said, “I’m sure Cusi must have at least two boyfriends.”
In Real Life, I Had Zero Boyfriends
Unlike Cassie, Cusi had zero boyfriends. At 14, I’d had my fair share of crushes on teen idols, like Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson from The Hardy Boys. I’d dutifully ripped out pictures of doe-eyed boys from the pages of Tiger Beat and taped them to my bedroom wall. But I liked looking at them and appreciating them, almost as if they were works of art, not representations of real people. I’d spent 1st through 8th grade at an all-girls school, so boys were still mysterious and a little bit frightening to me. I had girlfriends who talked about boys’ lips, eyes, and smiles with a yearning I didn’t yet understand.
The Day I Kissed 14 Men When I Was 14
On a sunny day in late April, I prepared to have my 14 first kisses on a sound stage in the company of a full camera crew and a team of network executives. My mother and I had been informed that the network was shooting screen tests for both boyfriend characters at the same time. There were two different scenes I had to memorize, and each of them ended with a passionate smooch.
My mother wanted to tell the producers that this was new territory for me, but I begged her to keep quiet. I assured her I could handle it and that it was just a nutty part of my job that I found hilarious, not frightening. At the time, I really did believe that.
I marched into the studio on West 66th with my lines learned, ready to help hire my new pretend boyfriends. As I walked downstairs to the basement to have my makeup done, there they were: all 14 of my fake suitors sitting in the small lounge outside of the rehearsal room. Half of them were clean-cut, sharp-jawed and preppy; the other half were unshaven bad boys in leather jackets. All of them were beautiful.
They postured and preened in a way that only New York actors at an audition can do. A rugged-looking fellow with long, curly black hair loosened his jaw by repeating the phrase, “red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather.” I wondered if that was a secret exercise actors did before kissing scenes.
One of my fake boyfriends looked up at me and grinned. He had sandy-colored hair and dimples. I wasn’t sure if he was auditioning for the preppy guy or the mechanic. He was dressed like a preppy mechanic. It was an intoxicating combination. In that moment, I understood what sexy meant: It meant you wanted to kiss someone’s dimples.
I rushed to my dressing room to call my sister. K is five years older than I am, and she had recently schooled me with clinical precision about what all the four “bases” meant. If anyone could give me a quick primer on what to do while kissing 14 gorgeous men in front of a camera, she could. Her dorm room phone rang and rang. I started hyperventilating.
© Cusi Cram
Out of desperation, I called my mother. We didn’t talk about things like this, mostly because there had been no reason to in the past. But I figured she must have kissed someone at least twice. She did have two daughters from different fathers, after all.
“Hey, I’m at work. I saw the boys,” I said.
“Do you want me to come to the studio?”
“No I’m fine.”
“You don’t sound fine.”
“It’s just…they’re….handsome. And older. You know?”
“Are you scared?”
“Um…no. Yes. I don’t know…”
“Whenever someone makes me nervous I try to imagine them sitting naked in a field of strawberries.”
“Muuuum! I don’t want to imagine any of these guys naked!”
There was a pause on the phone. I heard my name being called over the loudspeaker to get my makeup done. I groaned.
“I have to go.”
“Darling, remember all of these boys were once 14, too. And they’re probably much more nervous than you. Don’t forget to brush your teeth.”
“And remember we all pretend to know how to do these things.”
A Sampler Box of Kisses
That afternoon, I experienced a sampler box of kisses. It wasn’t romantic, but my newly awakened 14-year-old self found it very instructive. In a few short hours I gained an encyclopedic knowledge on the subject of kissing that would have taken me a decade to amass in real life. Mind you, these people were not civilians; they were actors with a lot to prove, so they may not have been on their game. Lord knows, I was completely clueless and had no game at all. To this day, a few of those kisses are emblazoned on my lips, like a case of bad frostbite.
A tall, lanky guy who looked like the bassist in a band, or at least a band on TV, went into my mouth on a mission. His tongue seemed determined to explore my upper gums and the flesh behind my molars. He made me wonder if I needed to seriously re-examine my flossing habits. I’m positive I winced during this kiss because he touched a painful cavity or a patch of undiagnosed gingivitis during his extensive wanderings.
The World-Class Stage Kisser
This kisser was shorter than me and had a mop of floppy hair. The combination of his erect posture and creative facial hair brought to mind one of the Three Musketeers. He had a very special talent, which he must have learnt in a top-secret class in drama school, whereby he looked like he was giving me a full-blooded kiss with tongue but was really just mashing his lips around my mouth. It was confusing and a little eerie, the way a good magic trick can be. His subtext seemed to be, “I save my real kisses for real passion.” That subtext would have definitely been spoken with a faux-British accent.
This guy was nervy and intense with a piercing gaze that had absolutely zero effect on me (piercing gazes have always made me chortle). Despite this, he kept me on my toes. I was never quite sure where or when his tongue would pop into my mouth. He seemed determined to surprise and startle me. I learned right then and there that I was too anxious and skittish to ever lock lips with this kind of kisser.
Some people may find suction erotic; at 14 I equated it more with cleaning and surgery. I suppose I still do. This otherwise very handsome young-Robert-Redford type seemed determined to consume my mouth and face in toto. I remember wondering if when he wasn’t acting or waiting tables he might moonlight as a cannibal.
© Cusi Cram
Some people like to think of love as a battlefield. This swarthy Italian-American, with a motorcycle jacket which he wore on his motorcycle parked outside the studio, used his tongue as the first line of defense. His kisses involved relentless and complicated tongue-to-tongue combat. It was exhausting, and at that age I associated swordplay with blood, guts and certain death. Mind you, this was long before Game of Thrones made fencing into an aphrodisiac.
A Good Kiss
I had one good kiss that day. What I remember most about it was its effortlessness and ease. My tongue, mouth, and lips all seemed to dissolve, and I forgot that I was kissing someone. Time stopped; there were no fireworks, but I remember hearing my heart beating and thinking I could hear his heart too. It felt both comfortable and a little dangerous. There was an undeniable spark.
I had that spark with Dimple Guy. He squeezed my hand and smiled at me, and flashed his strangely sexy dimples, every time before we did the scene. I think he sensed that I was just as nervous as he was. So in some ways I did have a special first kiss, though I think it was officially my ninth. Dimple Guy didn’t get either part. But six months later, ABC brought him back to play my new boyfriend in yet another love triangle. And we happily rehearsed our kissing scenes on- and off-camera.
The Muddle of First Times
I took my mother’s advice on that surreal afternoon so long ago and pretended to know what I was doing. Most of life’s big steps require a certain muddling through, a trusting that no one really knows the magical formula for the big firsts in life: first kisses, first loves, first jobs, first children, or the first time someone you love dies. How I miss my mother’s gentle and kind wisdom.
That afternoon could have been catastrophic and scarred me for life. Yet it wasn’t, and it didn’t. It taught me something fundamental and lasting: There is no perfect first experience of anything. There is only our ability to find a shard of perfection in the wildly imperfect situations we inevitably find ourselves in.
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