Age 16, Summer, Last Night of Church Camp
Her lips are press against mine like silly putty to a wall. The night around us is suddenly bright and blistering, a thousand lightning strikes igniting every hormone in my body.
Beam me up. I am complete.
I am given an energy drink on the last night of church camp as a prize.
I chug said energy drink.
It is my first energy drink of my life. And my last.
The majority of the camp is behind the chapel playing a dumb nighttime game. My group of friends—the cool kids—are in the dining hall playing cards. My brain sits in an electric chair, each neuron vibrating and radiating and about to detonate. I stand up from the table and begin to run laps around the room. My knees shake, and I keep laughing for some reason.
Amelia comes up to me. She’s from another church, and we’ve spent a lot of the week together hanging out. Just friends. She has a boyfriend not at camp.
“Want to go swing?”
“Sure,” I hear myself say. Anything that involves moving.
My legs pump and my back leans beneath me as the swing soars on its pendulum. Perhaps if I try hard enough I can launch into outer space and into the nearest star.
“Amelia! See how high I’m swinging?!”
She’s not trying as hard as me.
Amelia has stopped. She’s just standing there leaning against the swing. I don’t want to look like an idiot, so I begrudgingly bring my swing to a halt and stand there too.
“Wow, the stars are beautiful tonight, don’t you think?” she says.
“Yeah. Maybe it is a magical night because I’ve never swung that high.”
She laughs. Pity? Annoyance? Probably.
She’s talking softer and softer now, leaning close like we’re playing a game of capture the flag and we don’t want anyone to hear us. Our swings have crossed and we are standing on the wrong side. Maybe she did that so I couldn’t take off into the nearest star.
She puts her forehead on my forehead.
Maybe this is just what friends do.
She leans out again; cicadas—nature’s foghorns—screech in my ears and my brain cells ricochet in an energy-drink-fueled game of pinball.
She’s talking really softly now and smiling nervously.
Her eyes flit down to my lips and back up a couple times. She starts to lean in.
My eyes are wide as her lips lift me out of my body. The entire world glows bright like one of those cameras that flash and leave your shadow against a wall when you leave. Our shadows will be forever on these swings. Perhaps there will one day be a plaque.
My brain spins wildly, and I might throw up all over her.
Suddenly, her lips release their vice grip and I begin to breathe.
No, don’t be over. Please!
But then, as if Jaws were a romance movie, her lips readjust, circle back around, and return; I am chum in the water of her desire. Eyes still open, this time I have time to stick my lips out like they do on tv and stuff.
Finally, she leans back and smiles at me.
“I know that’s your first kiss. I hope you liked it.”
I just grin and don’t say anything.
“What? Why are you smiling?”
“Because that was freaking sweet.”
She laughs. I laugh.
My brain cells have all had little brain cell babies of their own and they are all screaming in my head.
This is definitely not what friends do.
It’s time for everyone to go back to the cabins and get ready for bed. Amelia once more leans closer to me, and I know what is about to happen again.
I should lean away. I should politely decline. I should start screaming and run the two hundred miles back home.
Instead, I let it happen.
I sit in the bathroom stall sick. The energy drink I chugged is mixing with the reality of kissing Amelia. I feel terrible.
The first is easy to fix: I’ll just never have another energy drink in my entire life. That’s it.
The second is harder: How am I supposed to take back my kiss with Amelia? It’s not so much that she has a boyfriend. I know that should really bother me, but I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. It kind of just happened out of nowhere. No, what has me on this toilet in the middle of this summer camp is the reality that I kissed a girl I knew I wasn’t going to marry.
My knees shake as my elbows rest on them; my hands support my spinning head.
I’m the worst; I blew it. God is probably really mad at me right now.
My mind retreats back to something someone told me when I got my first girlfriend.
“Drew, just always remember that you can never have another first girlfriend.”
I’ll never have another first kiss.
That’s it; I might as well pack it up and go home. I’ve sinned so bad.
I am ashamed.
Age 19, January, Houston, Texas
Three years after that first kiss, I fall in love with a girl who has waterfall hair. She lives in Houston, and I take a weekend trip to stay with her family. I am overcome by her and the way she laughs freely and the way she smiles with one side of her mouth—the one away from me—like she doesn’t want to give me full credit for my joke.
We stand in a dark kitchen lit by the oven clock and kiss. My hand rests on her back carefully, holding my world in that moment.
Afterwards, I go back to my room and stand there watching my knees shake uncontrollably. I feel sick, like I will never be able to eat again.
I am ashamed.
I beg God for clarity or forgiveness or peace. Shame envelops me, even though I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. I go to bed thinking about the couples who don’t kiss until their wedding day. They are pure—models of what it looks like to be a Christian. I am not.
I am ashamed.
The next day, while we walk along the beach in Galveston, I tell her I don’t think we should kiss. I say it doesn’t help our relationship with God. I say it can only lead to bad things.
I want God to just take away this desire that occasionally leaps out of my bones, that threatens to derail pure relationships, that can knock me off my pedestal.
Age 16, The First Night Back from Church Camp, Stillwater, Oklahoma
The night I got back from camp—the night after the kissed—I work up the courage to tell Dad as he’s saying goodnight to me. I figure I might as well get the shame piled up all at once.
“Hey, umm, I kind of need to tell you about something that happened at camp.”
I stammer, worrying that the stutter I had as a third grader is about to come back. Dad looks at me concerned.
“Okay, what is it?”
“I, uhhhh, I kind of kissed a girl at camp this week.”
My insides stop as shame courses through my body. Laying on my bed, with Dad looking down on me, I want to curl up into a ball and cover my face. I want to burrow so deep into my bed that I disappear altogether, leaving all this shame in my wake. Like a snake sliding out of old skin, I wish to slide out of the weight piled so heavy on top of my shoulders.
I look up at Dad and wait for the inevitable.
Instead, he smiles, looks at me, and asks, “Well, did you like it?”
A rush of reassurance, and suddenly in this moment I feel free.
Age 26, March, Pasadena, California
How far is too far?
Is it okay to kiss before marriage?
To make out?
I am talking about these questions with Nicky and Chelsea—a married couple I’m friends with. We volunteer in Sunday School, and afterwards we go to a coffee shop and catch up. I bring up this series and these questions, and Nicky shares something he’s heard in a sermon by a guy named Jon Tyson. Jon said that he is not as interested in the how-far-is-too-far question but a deeper question: Who are you becoming?
This leads me to immediately think about a question my favorite author Wendell Berry would probably ask: What am I cultivating?
We talk about how these questions get at the deeper current of intimacy. How these are opportunities for introspection and communication between two people, not legalism and shame. How they don’t end conversations but open them up for honesty and truth.
These questions help me realize that kissing can cultivate pain, but it can also cultivate beauty.
It is possible to kiss someone and have it only cultivate lust. To only cultivate a selfish care for yourself and your own desires.
But it is also possible to kiss someone and cultivate beauty, to kiss someone because you don’t know of another way to communicate how beautiful their otherness is. The way they giggle when they see pictures of turtles or the way they love to sit in the sunrise with their eyes closed, feeling the sun creep up their arms, or the way they pray with an earnestness that amazes you. There, in that moment, a kiss can be a cultivation of beauty.
I think it’s time to drop the shame and isolation and begin talking about cultivating beauty.
What are we cultivating?
(ps One thing I’ve come to believe is that sex is best within marriage, but not because of shame or anything. Because of beauty. You can read about my journey to this belief here.)