October 28: “The Kiss” by Pamela Painter

Hello, Story366! Writing to you from the road as I head up to Wrigley for tonight’s World Series Game 3. I’m in Joliet in a parking lot of a McDonald’s—always a great place to snag free Wi-Fi, and because I’ve already heard tale of how crazy Wrigleyville is today, I’m not going to mince words here. I think “World Series” and “Wrigley” are probably intro enough for today, especially for the Cubs half of this blog.

Today I had to pleasure of reading from Pamela Painter‘s collection The Long and the Short of It, out from Carnegie Mellon Press. It’s Painter’s second collection, and while I’ve read various stories from it, I’ve never read it all the way through, finished it … until today. I really love Painter’s work, one of the first writers I came across who specialized (more or less) on the short short, so she has had great influence on my career (being the author of three collections of primarily short shorts). I also have been friends with Pam for a while, having met her at conferences, having read with her, and having her to Bowling Green for Mid-American Review‘s Winter Wheat Festival some years back. She is truly one of my favorite people in writing and I’m glad to finally get to her book for this project.

Like any book of shorts, I could have written about so many of the stories in The Long and the Short of It, as all of Painter’s stories have something going for them. For someone who pays such close heed to language, to economy, her stories always feel so rich with details and characters. I think that’s because Painter doesn’t try to write shorter-scoped stories or try to play with language too much; her stories, often three to seven pages long, seem like longer pieces because she writes them that way, with full settings, character backgrounds, and high-stakes scenarios. I never feel like I’m reading a short when I’m reading her work, at least until I’m finished and start another.

Today I’ll write about “The Kiss,” a story that for some reason strikes me. Part of it is that it’s a bit dated—people are shocked over a woman having a tongue stud, but somehow that gives it charm, in a nostalgic kind of way (Note: all this is dated for now: This book came out in the 90s). As I don’t have any notable piercings, or even tattoos—I’m just about a year or two older than those trends—I kind of feel like I empathize with the people at the party who Ooo and Ahhh about the little nugget on this woman’s tongue. I’m also young enough, and have dated women with tongue studs, to know that these choices don’t make people circus freaks or ex-cons. So, I just enjoyed the feeling of reading about this topic, that at one point, a bunch of young, drunk people could make such a big deal out of this stud … which turns out to be a barbell, in case that detail changes the story for you.

Anyway, the story is set at this party and is told from the POV of a woman attending said party, though she’s not the one with the piercing. That’s Mona, who likes to flaunt her barbell because, well, of course she does. Everyone gathers around as she sticks out her tongue and explains how it feels and why she did it (“I like having something in my mouth.”). The big question everyone has is how it feels to kiss someone with a tongue piercing, as everyone wants to know. Everyone starts looking at the guys—again, this feels a bit dated in 2016, to assume she’d only kiss a man—including the narrator’s boyfriend, the guy Mona met at a bar three hours beforehand and brought to the party, and Raphi, who spoke up first. Mona and Raphi approach each other, hesitantly at first, but once they lock lips, they go for it, kissing deeply and passionately. Raphi gives his report—as if someone this is going to explain how kissing Mona feels—and that’s pretty much the plot of the story.

What’s even more interesting about “The Kiss” is the dynamic of the room. On top of the curiosity this little barbell sparks, there’s all kind of politics. The men and the women talk about kissing Mona, about sending in a volunteer, without ever discussing it with Mona, which today seems odd. Three’s also the tension between girlfriends and boyfriends, as Mona is looking for a partner, not really caring about who came with who, including the man she brought with her (Hint: He’s more than bummed when she doesn’t choose him). And then there’s the end of the story, where everyone feels a bit betrayed, a bit confused, and even a little bit dirty, this weird encounter a violation, one that doesn’t prove or disprove anything. Maybe it’s odd that two college-aged people kissing at a party is so unsettling, but when everyone goes their separate ways, the incident has already had a profound effect on them all.

And this is what Pamela Painter does, ignites big conflict with few words, which is really hard to do. A whole room of people in “The Kiss” should not be so adversely touched by a simple kiss (because, really, haven’t drunk college kids at parties done so much worse for, like, forever?), but Painter sells it, with her details, her narrator’s voice, and her get-to-it pace. This and all the pieces in The Long and the Short of It have taught me a lot about how it’s done, each story a lesson from the master.