Kissing myself full on the lips in the bathroom mirror was a learned skill, one I was quite proud of as an angsty tweenager, until I discovered many decades later, apparently not everyone did this.
I assumed everyone practiced these all-important milestones – a coming-of-age-first-kiss, just me and my mirror image, doing our homework so if and when the time comes, I’d be ready.
I was not.
Perched on the bathroom vanity, like a prepubescent gargoyle, I’d pucker up again and again.
I’ve since learned other awkward latchkey kids in the 70s did not prepare in this way, which makes me the freak, both then and now, for retelling the story.
All tweenagers and teenagers think they are a freak most days, right before immersed in hormones and attitude, they overnight emerge knowing everything. With a solid 15, 16 years under their belt, they are now the knowers of all and let their parents know it with the disgusted eye rolls and domineering door slams.
The unfreaking happens right before they go to college to discover they once again know nothing, not one damn thing, and reenter freakdom, until after a semester or two, once again their superior intellect is revealed, reestablishing their dominance of the human race, and returning home for Thanksgiving, they look down their noses at their mediocre mom and wonder, how could she get so old, so obtuse, so quickly?
Little do they know then, or then or then, that you never outgrow the freak feeling, not in college, not in your first apartment, not as a significant other or partner or spouse or parent or empty nester or tweenager once again on the cusp of the next coming of age, the AARP age, and feeling like a freak begins again.
Alone with the medicine cabinet mirror
Anyway, before I didn’t know all I didn’t know, I would lock myself in ‘the girl’s bathroom’, shared with my three sisters and anyone not our parents. They had had their own bathroom in their bedroom which was basically presidential in 1970something. And off limits to us girls because we had our own, for us and anyone visiting.
Safely locked in the bathroom, I’d climb up on the vanity to get a good look in the mirror. Didn’t matter that the counter was sticky with toothpaste and hairspray, dirty brushes, soggy toothbrushes, and ponytail holders left like artifacts for a future archeologist to scrape from the formica.
Alone in the bathroom, I worked on my technique, imagining endless possibilities, adequately preparing for the kiss of all kisses, the first kiss.
In my own private kissing vestibule, with a baby blue sink filled with slugs of toothpaste inching their way toward the drain but freeze drying to the sides before making it, I practiced, in hopes that one day soon, there might be another option.
Here’s how to make out with yourself with the bathroom mirror:
Perched on the bathroom sink, one ass cheek on the counter, all knobby knees, pointy elbows, chewed down fingernails, and large oversized puppy paws as feet dangling like a scrawny homemade rag doll, I’d slowly, oh-so-slowly tilt my head left, then right, making sure the angle was just right. Eyes open, eyes shut, maybe a fluttering of eyelashes is best? Let’s try that – lips puckered? or smooth? Goldfish style or slight smile? How do you breathe? Can’t quite figure that one out. Not yet. What if I have a stuffy nose when it happens? Then what?
It NEVER occurred to me to open my mouth in my bathroom-rendevous – that would come later, far too much later, when somebody older and cooler, probably beautiful Sandy Laughlin, who looked and acted just like Sandy from Grease, both the before and after, able to transition seamlessly from a volleyball court to the front seat of her real-life boyfriend’s truck, sliding over to sit right next to him, practically on his lap, like a two-headed snail, both squeezing into the same shell.
That can’t be safe, but oh-how-romantic. I could not wait for someone to want me to sit on their lap and blow smoke rings into the air so they floated like halos out a cracked window, left behind taunting me in the parking lot, as a truck squeals out, gravel dancing, and I climb onto the bus to go home.
It must have been Sandy*, her with a real-live-driving boyfriend who mentioned French kissing one day, and of course, I knew what that was I wasn’t a dumb 9th grader — duh, yeah, I know — because before google and siri, you just had to outright lie about what you knew, and it was a race to somehow figure out what it meant before it mattered. I should have done more research. A lot more.
So mouth closed, eyes fluttering (open? shut? somewhere in between and they seem to twitch, like a lightbulb that’s about to blow) I practiced the kiss, in preparation for that first kiss, the magical one, with smoke rings and Andy Gibb serenading — just like promised on After School Specials and Judy Blume and on the FM dial with Casey Kasem’s Countdown with Paradise by the Dashboard light and did I even know what that meant, girls with older siblings would challenge me. DUH, of course. As if. And the anthem of dreams come true, Grease, which put it all out there, all that I was not.
Oh, to be Sandy. Someday. The after, not the before.
I hoist my skinny ass up on the vanity, one boney butt wedged into the sink, my back pressed against the light switch, the knobby heat lamp dial we were never allowed to use (too expensive) pushing into my back — as if the hand of my imaginary boyfriend.
It was then I realized the mirror could make the first move. No more craning my neck to reach my pretty face. My face could come to me.
The possibilities were endless.
Perched on the bathroom vanity, ass in sink, instead of leaning toward the mirror, I slowly swung open the medicine cabinet door, as if by a sweet spring breeze, ever so slightly swinging my own face out toward me – who me? really? – so coy, vulnerable, dare I say sexy, and I could be kissed, instead of doing the kissing.
Add an imaginary hair flip. Two dashes of eyes a’flutter. A little pout. Who me? I look coyly over my shoulder as if there could be another option, and the weeks-old washcloth smelling like horses and Dial soap scum, hits my nose, breaking the spell, but only for a moment.
You didn’t do this? It’s just me?
Well, maybe you should have.
Or maybe I shouldn’t have, because days-weeks-months-quite possibly years later, but probably not years, because years later I was a proficient French kisser, thank you Raymond Irish-Catholic-Clan* out behind the gym in the hayfield during half-time of the high school basketball game (the only thing more cliché than kissing your own reflection is kissing a future date raper, before he becomes an evangelical preacher, oh I wish that weren’t true, the date raper part), so perhaps months later, I sat with Paul Prodder* in the theater of the Almanac theater, the $2 theater downtown, back when teeny tiny downtowns had movie theaters that showed second/third/tenth runs for $1, to see what I wish I could say was Animal House or Heaven Can Wait or Carrie, but I’m 99% sure it was the Phantom Toll Booth.
Sixth Grade. Just came to me. This happened around sixth grade, not ninth, so maybe Phantom Toll Booth makes more sense, and vanity mirror kissing isn’t so out of place after all for a 12-13-year-old? Is that level of freak okay for sixth grade?
Don’t answer that.
Sitting near the front of the theater because the cool kids were in the back, the high school kids, that pretty Sandy Volleyball Player* no doubt, laughing and making out, girls on boys laps, with shorty shorts and tank tops that showed their bra straps (!) and baby blue eye shadow and frosted lips. I could barely look away, but we walked down the sticky aisle and sat in the front left side, couple rows back, behind the little-little kids, and right away he put his arm around me, bucket of neon yellow popcorn glowing in the dark on my lap.
Was this it? Was it gonna happen? I didn’t dare eat any popcorn, what if my breath stunk or a kernel stuck to Bonnie Bell strawberry-smacked lips?
Lights dim. Crowd quiets. Cigarettes glow. Music starts. The show begins.
And eventually, he made his move. He leaned more and more toward me, I glared straight ahead but feel his head so close to mine he’s breathing on me and I can’t even.
He leans forward and gumbys his head to be square in front of mine, and here it comes, I think, it’s happening.
I try an eye flutter but instead squeeze my eyes shut tight and WHAT THE HOLY PHANTOM IS THAT?
He’d pried my lips open with HIS TONGUE, his serpent style hairless ferret tongue was IN MY MOUTH, jabbing left and right blindly, like a hand stuck in a coat sleeve turned inside out and can’t find the hole out.
I hadn’t practiced this, who in the world practices this?
His lips, not soft and dreamy like the England Dan and John Ford Coley promised, but hard against my teeth and it hurt, his tongue jabbing and poking like a woodchuck looking for a way out of a sleeping bag. This was not romantic and my face hurt.
The mirror never hurt me, but Paul Prodder did, his teeth and lips and his arm awkward like an extra appendage he didn’t know what to do with, clearly he hadn’t practiced as I had, mirror or no mirror, and when my best friend Jilly*, the youngest girl with six, count ’em, SIX big teenager sisters with bras and boobs and boyfriends, asked me on the phone that night, me sitting under the kitchen cabinet, whispering the updates without anyone hearing.
Did IT had happen? she interrogated, wanting all the juicy hot, steamy details.
“Leave NOTHING out.”
And I told her what happened, talking 90 miles an hour with all the gruesome details, disgusted and embarrassed because it was awful – he shoved his tongue IN MY MOUTH and down my throat – and EW, and Jilly* interrupts right then, stopping my throwup mid-wind.
She was thrilled.
Claimed I was lucky. LUCKY. Soooooo lucky! OOOOoooh!! French kiss? WOW, so awesome — and frenching!
I have no idea what she’s talking about. I say nothing; I have nothing to say. Even with all that practice, my homework done, once again my silence reveals my ignorance, but there’s no faking it.
Demoted back to a know-nothing, my freakish ignorance is revealed.
“Wait — don’t you know what a French kiss is?” Already knowing the answer, she dives in with all the details, learned from her big sisters no doubt, and I press the phone into my ear tightly to create a seal, so maybe nothing escapes, and maybe the words would get in faster, then hopefully I’d be able to teach that girl in the mirror a thing or two.
*names changed. Sort of.
Mary E Fletcher
Love this– once AGAIN– Kate. In addition to your being an incredibly good writer with a wonderful eye for detail and a very gentle sense of humor, you tell me about a childhood I didn’t have. But one that probably most people had. And one I wished I had. What can I say — the other side of the tracks is just different. 😊It’s good to be reminded of normalcy. So I learn a lot from your pieces too. Thanks, once again. A fan, ❤ Mary Fletcher
” … poking like a woodchuck looking for a way out of a sleeping bag…” perfect.
You reminded me of a few girlfriend sleepover parties when I was around that age. We practiced kissing by covering our lips with two fingers and acting like we were making out. So silly…