The first time I kissed a girl, I mean really kissed a girl, I was just short of nineteen years old. She and I had been spending time together for weeks. She would always stop by my room when the bar had closed and we would chat until the small hours about everything: our families, whether we understood them (the general consensus, hardly surprisingly, was that we didn’t), how Oxford University had made an enormous mistake letting us in. She’d made it crystal clear that nothing would happen between us—if your definition of doing so is wide enough to incorporate reading me extracts of her diary, which complained about me at great, repetitive length.
Why do I have to be attracted to him? He’s not even good looking, and he’s got such a terrible reputation.
What I didn’t realise then was that in the neurotic, highly-strung environment of an Oxford college—brainwaves and sexual frustration bouncing off ancient rooms and even older traditions—those lines were about as close to a come-on as I was ever going to get. What I did realise, however, was that it was the nicest thing a girl had ever said about me up to that point. I was stupid in a lot of ways, but even I wasn’t that stupid.
The first time I kissed a girl, it all happened—the way defining events sometimes do—at four in the morning. We were in a student room the size of a large packing crate facing on to what might have been Oxford’s most modern and least lovely quadrangle. We had talked all night (which was something I could do) and there was a bit of what was probably a rather pathetic parody of flirting or play-fighting (because those were things I could not do). We drifted closer and closer together and I knew that this was the legendary tipping point people had been telling me about for years. The one where you leaned in and kissed her, or you blew it and she dated somebody else.
Well, you know which of those two things I did because I revealed that right at the start; but that’s not what this is about. What this is about, sort of, is all the things that first kiss wasn’t. I did it, because that’s what you did; but, once I’d done it, I couldn’t help but feel there ought to have been more: fireworks, erogenous zones on the tongue, a rushing feeling like a sneeze, a string section in the background, something, anything. But instead I got option (e): none of the above. There was just a bit of squelching and a lot of awkwardness, and a big tick on the whiteboard of life as a rite of passage was done, dusted and found to be anticlimactic.
I lost my virginity in her parent’s house in France that summer; it was on my last night staying with her in her childhood room, before her family came back, squabbling icily, from their annual holiday to the Ile de Ré, an event that was ten percent jamboree and ninety percent feud.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to give you gory details—I’m not that kind of person.
Even if I wanted to, I can’t remember them anyway. What’s remained captured in my mind is like a photo in reverse –everything at the centre of the picture is blurry and all I recall is the minor details at the perimeter of the image, close to the faded white border: the condom wrapper, mint-green with French words on it like indecipherable sigils; the shuttered windows; how partway through our amateurish fumblings she banged her knee against the wall, breaking a scab she’d acquired during an especially vicious college football match some time before.
And I remember lying there afterward, in that single bed (when I was young enough to think that sharing a single bed with a woman was a luxury and not a form of torture) and wondering what I was missing about the whole thing. The suburban Parisian night breathed impatiently outside through the open window, as if it, too, felt cheated by how little had really transpired within. But never mind; I could always say I’d finally done it and best of all I could say I’d done it abroad, which at the time held some sort of glamorous appeal. It may have been a drab reality just like my house back home, but it was a French drab reality, and that made it all better.
Unfortunately, neither of those experiences turned out to be unique. The more I think about it, the more I realise that first times are often like that. I always think that I ought to have enjoyed them more or, worse still, only realise that I enjoyed them some time later when I’m having considerably less fun. My whole life is littered with disappointing firsts.
The first time I had wine, for instance, I couldn’t for the life of me see how anybody could drink it for enjoyment. I found it impossible to conceive of anything it could offer that couldn’t just as easily be provided by a glass of Ribena so strong that a straw could stand bolt upright in it without any discernible means of support. My first beer was, if anything, even worse. It tasted how I imagined fizzy, cold urine would, as if somebody had stuck his own piss in the fridge prior to running it through a soda stream. You’d never catch me drinking muck like that when I grew up, I promised myself. I knew better.
Much the same thing happened the first time I watched a Woody Allen film. I remember not being unmoved, not even being bored but, worse still, being actively irritated by the whole experience. As far as the fifteen-year-old me was concerned, he was a whiny neurotic who desperately needed a decent haircut and to stop wallowing in angst. The appeal, if there was one, was completely lost on me; all he ever seemed to do was mope, self-obsess and spend all of his time dating – rather implausibly I thought – a range of increasingly beautiful women.
I didn’t have anywhere near enough common sense to see that actually that funny-looking stammering blend of nervous tics and spectacles was, in fact, signposting what would probably be my most promising route to romantic satisfaction. To put it into perspective, in those days, I didn’t have the common sense to use scissors or a cheese grater, so it was hardly an enormous surprise.
Becoming a grown up might have changed this problem with firsts.
I remember the first time I kissed the woman who became my wife, on a sunny Thursday afternoon in Reading. By then we had been speaking non-stop every day for almost a fortnight, initially in emails that filled my days with joy and purpose at a time when I’d forgotten what either felt like. Later, once I had ended things with my unsatisfactory girlfriend and moved temporarily in with my mother, those emails were supplemented by heroic phone conversations that simultaneously felt as if they lasted forever, but could never have been long enough.
That was all very well, but her visit to Reading was crucial because it was then, after she had seen me in the flesh for only the second time, that she was going to make the final decision about whether to leave her fiancé. She had only visited Reading once before, with him, to buy a sofa from a shop that was then called World of Leather, would subsequently be called Kingdom of Leather and in a couple of years’ time will probably go by the name of Fiefdom of Leather. Our conversations, in the run up to the big day, made it pretty clear that, although she was fairly certain that she wanted to be with me, she had to see me another time.
“I need to be sure,” she said. “I know you understand.”
She took the train down with her sister ostensibly for a shopping trip, the plan being that come half-five her sister would head for the train station and she would meet up with me. She told her fiancé she was meeting an old college friend. Technically that was true. Technically it was also a colossal lie.
It was a hot, restless, nerve-wracking day at work. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, knowing in the back of my mind the pressure that was weighing down on the evening ahead. I had invested so much in the decision of a woman I barely knew, who was also already the best friend I had ever had. Worst of all, as she wandered from clothes shop to clothes shop with her sister, equally distracted, she couldn’t even email me. That was the cruellest thing about the whole situation because, at the time, her words on a screen were the thing that somehow got me from the beginning of a day to the end in one piece.
We were due to meet in a pub called the 3Bs, a cellar bar which looked out just below ground level, across the town square. From where she was sitting waiting for me, she could see the statue of Queen Victoria looking exasperated with modern life in general and Reading in particular. In a few hours’ time, come nightfall, she would have been able to see the open air temporary urinal rising like a music hall organ out of the ground, a cylindrical column known to all Reading’s residents as “the Turdis”. And, as it happened, at about five forty-five she saw me, nervously sloping towards the entrance of the pub.
The first time I kissed the woman who became my wife happened a couple of minutes later, so fast I oughtn’t be able to remember it, but I can. I wasn’t sure whether we would have an awkward kiss on the cheek once, twice or three times, or a quick hug, or a peck on the lips. I wasn’t sure whether to stoop down to her, seated on the chair, just as she wasn’t sure whether to stand up. All that indecision, all that jousting, all those nuances, wrapped up in less than a second of preamble. And then, somewhere between sitting and standing, somewhere between spotting and saying hello, somewhere between the past and forever that kiss magically happened, and I realised that there wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with me after all. When it’s important, you feel something.
Last Friday, I was at home during a day off work. The flat had been tidied, music was playing in the kitchen, I was frantically doing the washing up and the doorbell rang. I walked down the stairs, opened the big black front door and there she was on the other side, bag in hand, wheelie suitcase parked on the pavement, brown eyes squinting up at me in the sunshine.
“Get any sleep on the plane?”
“Not really. A couple of hours.”
“You’d never know. Do you want me to take your bag up the stairs?”
“Not yet. First things first.”
If the camera panned and zoomed out from us at that point, the scene wouldn’t look special to anyone else. All you would see would be a scruffy looking man and a tired looking woman trying to squeeze the life out of each other in front of a big black door, in front of a tall white house, surrounded by bags and luggage and unedified passers-by, all in the middle of something completely unconnected. But of course, it was special. It was the first time I’d seen her in four days, and first times are important.