KISSING MUHAMMAD ALI
by Robert McGee
My first kiss—that is, the first real one with commingled tongues and fluids exchanged—took place more than thirty years ago in a Florida town whose name I no longer recall. The girl’s name, though, I do recall because the girl was Sarah Downs, a ninth grade knockout who was two years my elder, half a foot taller, and who had no real interest in kissing me, though one night she did.
I’d actually gone on that trip hoping to kiss another girl. She was the sister of my friend Tom, and when Tom’s father stopped for gas, it was Tom’s sister Tina who sprang to mind when I bought convenience store condoms despite having no plan (or idea how) to use such a thing. A condom was just something I thought I should have and, at fifty cents, seemed like a decent deal.
I bought two Ribbed Ticklers while Tom, hungry and more pragmatic, stocked up on Pork Rinds and Mountain Dew. I didn’t care for Tom’s taste in snacks, but by midnight I was so hungry that I begged him to share.
“What can you trade?” he asked.
“I bought rubbers,” I said.
“I don’t know. But I’m so hungry I hurt.”
“Rubbers,” Tom snorted in disgust as he handed over half a bag of his chips.
The kiss came about on our last night in Florida. Tom’s parents had slipped away to drink or have sex, or maybe just relax some place without kids for a while. And because Tom and I weren’t old enough to enter the condo’s billiard room without supervision, we wandered out to the swimming pool where we found Tina sitting talking with Sarah Downs. The two of them must have been as bored as we were because they agreed to play Truth or Dare.
I was still carrying those condoms and that was the daring thing I thought I might say—that I always carried Ribbed Ticklers when on vacation, that I’d been doing this since I was ten and that I planned to use at least one of my trusty rubbers that very night. I didn’t get a chance to say any of this, though, because Tina shifted the conversation to kissing: who we had kissed, who we hoped to kiss, and who was the best kisser we knew.
I’d only kissed a few homely girls during awkward games of Spin The Bottle. But before it was my turn to admit this, Sarah Downs said she would kiss Muhammad Ali (and even marry him) if given the chance. She said this despite the fact that her father was a racist who would likely disown his daughter if he heard her utter such words.
“Bull crap if you’d kiss Muhammad Ali. You wouldn’t even kiss this guy,” Tina said, pointing at me.
“I would so kiss Muhammad Ali,” Sarah said. “And I’d kiss Robert too.”
“Not here,” Sarah said. “When I kiss someone, it has to be special. And if I’m going to do it in Florida, I want a romantic moment by the sea beneath the moss and the moon, because that’s where I’d kiss Muhammad Ali if he were here.”
“Whatever floats your boat,” Tina said. “Just don’t take too damn long.”
As wonderful as the prospect of kissing Sarah Downs should have been, I was scared. I was small for my age, and she dated football players with cars. I remember looking to Tom for support, but all he did was munch chips and chase them with Dew.
Before I realized what was happening, Sarah Downs stood, so I had no choice but to stand too. She must have noticed how nervous I was because she hooked her arm through mine calmly, as a horse expert might, and then led me beneath some Spanish moss that hovered like a halo above.
It was a warm night, even for Florida; but there was a breeze that was slightly cooler than the air it replaced. As moonlit moths beckoned us toward the sea, I thought, When I’m older, I will live here in Florida and wear shorts during winter and grow a beard and kiss pretty women beneath Spanish moss, perhaps a different pretty woman each night. But I was so nervous that I tried to delay the inevitably bad experience I was about to bestow upon Sarah Downs by making small talk. Though all I could think to say was: “You’re really tall.”
Sarah Downs knew exactly how tall she was. But rather than pointing out what a dumb comment I’d made, she cast her eyes down those six inches that separated our two sets of lips and gave me a sideways smirk, prettier and less scornful than you’d expect—a glancing Mona Lisa far more forgiving than I deserved.
I suppose that’s when I fell for her. Right then I decided that instead of having a different woman each night, what I should do was spend the rest of my life with Sarah Downs.
Of course I was too shy to suggest this, so for a time we regarded each other like castaway mutes. We stood eye to chin on an ancient pier and, while waves lapped against pylons and as butterflies fluttered inside my skin, we coexisted in a sort of holy reverie. It seemed we were no longer in Florida or even on a planet inhabited by other humans. It was Sarah Downs who finally broke the silence by asking, “Did you hear that?”
“Our souls whispered to one another.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what this meant, but I liked the sound of it; and I thought, When I’m a man, I will say those very words to my wife on our honeymoon. I will say that our souls are whispering, and then take her to bed where we’ll kiss for the entire night. I tried to think of something mature to say to Sarah Downs (besides mentioning those condoms stashed in my pants), but before I could decide what to say, her lips were on mine.
Maybe things would have turned out another way if I’d had the chance to climb upon something that would allow me to look into her eyes. But there wasn’t time before her tongue pushed inside my mouth, and her use of that strange muscle was unlike anything I’d known. It was the first time I’d ever had a tongue inside my mouth (besides my own) and I wasn’t sure what to do—the thing seemed so alive, like an alien with an independent mind. For a while I tried to push the invader back into the mouth of Sarah Downs. I fought this battle with valor, but the more I tried to return that wet foreigner to where it belonged, the more Sarah Downs pushed back until she finally tired of the silly skirmish and stepped back and laughed.
“What?” I said, fully certain that I’d loused it all up.
“I just never know if a guy is going to French kiss me is all.”
“Oh,” I said. “I thought maybe you wanted a Spanish kiss, because of the Spanish moss.” I said this as suavely as I could make my cracking voice sound. I suppose I wanted Sarah Downs to believe I controlled an exotic menu of kisses from which a new conquest must simply choose. I wondered if we were going to kiss again, and I worried we might because I realized that if I kissed badly a second time, she would know for certain how pathetic I was.
But instead of kissing me again, all Sarah Downs did was laugh once more and gift me with another knowing yet friendly smirk. We never did kiss again. All we did was walk back to the pool where Tina and Tom asked how things had gone, and Sarah Downs smiled as she remarked that this was a night she would never forget.