Science is poetically imprecise when it comes to love and romance. When we talk generally about that male-female thing, we call it biology. But when it’s a specific attraction between two people, we call it chemistry. I was educated as a physicist, which made me inquisitive about these mysterious forces that have as much to do with making the world go ‘round as those four fundamental forces of physics.
What we call chemistry in this case is more accurately biochemistry, and we can speak with authority about pheromones and dopamine, serotonin and neurotransmitters. But no matter. Biochemistry, at a full five syllables, is simply too unwieldy a descriptor for the gestalt of romantic attraction. So. Just plain chemistry. It has certainly been the determinant of my own romantic narrative.
The yearning for a romantic connection to a specific woman didn’t have to wait for the hormonal boost of adolescence in my case. From my earliest memories there was always a girl who – invariably without her knowledge – was the object of deep romantic yearnings, an impulse for a very personal bonding with her. My mother told me that when I was four I was infatuated with the only black girl in my neighborhood. I don’t remember much about her besides her name, Helen, and an awareness of the mysterious force of attraction that drew me to her longingly despite the absence of those glandular secretions that we associate with sexual awakening.
I can still remember most of their names, usually one girl in my class each year, from kindergarten all the way to eighth grade, when biology finally catapulted me into full sexual awareness. She was never the prettiest one or the most popular one, never the social queen bee of the class. Sometimes as I look back on my elementary school days and think of those girls, I realize that some of them wouldn’t be considered attractive at all by my post-adolescent standards. It was all about chemistry. But chemistry is science, all reductive and deductive, whereas the phenomena that caused me to lie in bed night after night pining wistfully for the girl of my dreams, seemed an impenetrable mystery.
I felt like a late bloomer, with that full-blown hormonal onslaught not kicking in until the middle of my 13th year in the little rural community of Fairfield, Montana. In December I was invited on a hayride by a girl in my class, but didn’t even bother to sit with her. Instead I sat with a bunch of other guys and thought nothing of it. But just a month later another girl took my hand on a bus trip to a school basketball game and suddenly nothing seemed more natural or appealing to me than physical contact with a girl. Things had abruptly stepped up to a new level.
A few months later, on a spring night with new life bursting out of the prairie in a riot of fecundity, I found myself in the company of a girl I had secretly liked for several months and who, wonder of wonders, seemed to like me. We were with another couple from our class, though it wasn’t exactly a date, and we found ourselves lying in a field, thick with uncut grass, under a great splash of stars on a moonless night. She was confident and assertive, the perfect complement to my natural shyness and diffidence, and before I knew it we had our mouths together and arms around each other. The kissing was predictably clumsy at first, the uncharted territory of making my mouth match up with another’s, worrying about my teeth, my tongue, my ability to breathe. And then relinquishing control to my mouth, letting it find its way, to discover and be discovered by the other mouth, to experiment with pressure and motion. Before that evening was over I felt I had made a quantum leap in knowledge that seemed inestimably important to me.
This was the other dimension of chemistry to me. The warmth and gentle pressure of mouth on mouth, the unexpected sensory rush of another’s heated breath in my nostrils, even if, like many a teenager, it was scented with chewing gum. Kitty McCann, I never saw you after the 8th grade, but I’ll always be grateful that you liked me enough to introduce me to the sublime joys of the kiss.
Some years later, after finally crossing that final threshold into adulthood with my first “real” girlfriend, I wrote of the experience:
Many people say that the first time they had sex was uncomfortable, or disappointing, or somehow negative, but I can make no such claim. There was a moment or two of awkwardness, but things happened fairly naturally and I thought it was perfectly sublime
I credit all those prior years of kissing for this. Those endless hours of making out as a teen, on the eve of the Sexual Revolution, when I knew it would go no farther and had to accept that limitation and make the best of what opportunity I had. And what I had was an extended seminar on Woman, mouth to mouth, eye to eye, nose to nose, breath to breath. Even as I was grappling sweatily with my partner, it was a reflective opportunity, a time when it was natural to absorb all the details of this restricted experience and to think about what was occurring between the two of us.
It was about intimacy, of course, and I came to realize that kissing is the true metric of intimacy. It is possible, sadly, to have sex without intimacy. But not kissing. There is a kind of symmetry to kissing that makes for the most elemental bonding between two people, a balance between assertion and vulnerability. Mouth on mouth, eyes confronting each other from mere centimeters apart. Hearts pressed to each other. A perfection of vulnerability and trust. Kissing is the highest form of art for the connoisseur of intimacy.
In my experience, a failed relationship was almost always a communication failure. An inability to make that connection was correlated with something not quite right about our kisses. A hunger for kissing was correlated with a hunger for communication at all levels – in a word, intimacy.
In hindsight, looking back on loves and lovers, I understand now how it is possible to assess and measure those relationships in terms of our kisses. And this is where we get back to chemistry. Nowhere was chemistry better expressed than in the kissing. When the kissing was natural, unforced, luscious and deeply satisfying, when our bodies instinctively understood how to communicate from that first coming together, the rest tended to follow as a matter of course. In a word, chemistry.