Tiffany drove her beat-up Honda Civic into the visitor parking lot outside my dorm. I had only known Tiffany a few days but she had generously offered to drive me back from our freshman orientation event. I thanked her and instinctively did what I always do when saying goodbye to my female friends: I leaned over to give her a kiss on the cheek.
The only problem was, Tiffany did not meet me halfway.
She just sat there, motionless in the driver seat of her tiny car while I continued to lean over from the passenger seat. By the time my body had crossed the center console, I felt I had been leaning for hours. I was finally close enough to plant a friendly kiss on her cheek… while she just stared at me.
I pulled back and paused for one excruciatingly long moment. I said goodnight and exited the car. As I walked back to my dorm I realized the New York custom that was so normal to me was perhaps not as normal in the state of Arizona.
Growing up in a physically affectionate family, I was used to hugs and kisses for hellos and goodbyes. I would run to the front door to greet my father when he came home from work, the subtle stubble of his cheek against mine, the smell of Afta brand aftershave still present. As my mother tucked me in at night I would ask her to bring me a cup of water after saying goodnight to my sister, knowing that little green Cabbage Patch Kids bathroom cup would come with one more kiss.
Around the time I was ten, as my height continued to climb, and the arrival of puberty became imminent, I started to feel uncomfortable kissing my father on the cheek, even if no one else was looking. And as I didn’t see my other male friends kissing their fathers on the cheeks, it felt more embarrassing. And my life to that point had been a careful endeavor to avoid embarrassment at all costs.
Every night as my parents watched TV in the living room, I would kiss them each goodnight. Even though I was embarrassed… I didn’t have the rationale to stop doing it. I didn’t know how to bring it up or what to say. “Because I don’t wanna” wasn’t going to fly with my parents. I wasn’t particularly good at defending my points without getting emotional. I’m still not.
One of those nights we sat there watching an episode of a TV show called The Commish. The show was about a small town police commissioner who had a wife and a young son. And in this particular episode, the commissioner’s son went upstairs to bed without saying goodnight to his parents. The commissioner said something like this:
Hey, where are you going? As long as you live in this house you give your old man a kiss on the cheek before you go to bed!
There it was. My validation. If the tough TV commish demanded a kiss from his son before bed then certainly it was ok for me to kiss my father.
It is amazing to me where I have sought and accepted permission in this life.
Around the same time, permission also came in the form of a new friend I made on my Little League baseball team. His family was old school Italian from over the border in Queens. He lived only a mile and a half from me but it was another world over there. His family was gregarious, much louder and more extroverted than mine. And everybody kissed everybody. My friend kissed his father on the cheek, his father kissed his father on the cheek.
Before long I was kissing his parents on the cheek as well.
All of this indoctrinated me into a kind of secondary family. It became a sign of love and acceptance. But most of all it was a sign of respect; something those old school Italian households very much revolved around I wasn’t just a friend I was part of a tradition, an Italian culture more defined than my own. The men here were expected to kiss each other on the cheek. It normalized kissing my own father on the cheek despite the fact my family was an Irish, German, Italian hybrid.
A new high school meant being thrown into a building full of many new girls. Our bodies were changing, our hormones were raging, our interactions with each other were new and daring. Whatever reticence boys and girls had around each other vanished as we began crashing into each other like atoms in a particle collider. It was beautiful chaos.
Everything felt wild and unsupervised. Boys and girls traveled in packs. There were 4-minute breaks in between classes when these amorphous masses would literally plow into each other in the hall. Notes were passed. People held hands. Kissing was visible.
Kisses on the cheek became a new part of the friend greeting between guys and girls. I waited on those kisses like a piece of desiccated fruit anticipating rehydration. I did not realize what a physical person I was yet.
For years I had watched my parents kiss their friends on the cheek. All of this 7th-grade physicality (which persisted through high school) very much felt like all of us playing at adulthood. We were staking a claim to our independence with our ability to give kisses the way we saw adults do.
There was an intimacy to it. If not sexual than at least platonic. Something about the intentional pressing of cheeks together made me feel validated. It confirmed even a small modicum of my worth. So much so that when those kisses didn’t happen I questioned if things had changed, had I done something wrong?
To this day those kisses affirm that I was seen, worthy of both love and affection. And while I no longer spend my days wondering such things, I do know that I will always crave those outward expressions. It is funny how the ubiquity of those family cheek kisses made me resist them, but the scarcity of them amongst friends made me crave them.
By the time my Italian friend and I started driving, we’d kiss on the cheek too. Again, it was us performing this new adulthood; two guys preparing to leave high school whose maturation felt almost complete. The agency and confidence we had in our lives were at an all-time high.
Which explains why later that year I was so comfortable leaning across Tiffany’s beat up Honda to give her a kiss on the cheek. I can only imagine what she was thinking as she watched my face approach from the passenger seat.
That interaction with Tiffany was a recalibration for me. It added to a gradual but increasingly significant realization about how we physically interact with those around us. Our greetings are based on comfort, context, and culture. The nuances of those greetings are not to be taken for granted.
To this day I still kiss my parents on the cheek whenever I see them or say goodnight. I’m happy to. It means so much more to me than simply greeting them. It is affection. It is love. I still have close female friends who I kiss on the cheek as well as a couple of male friends as well.
I am aware of its meaning to me, what it signifies to others, and how it is a gesture not to be taken lightly, or dolled out without clarity.
It always has and will be an important part of the way I interact with others.
But I’m not kissing anybody in Arizona ever again.
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