The Dusty Kiss1
The sun shone gold through his closed eyelids as they lay on the warm dusty grass in the park. The girl was talking and, instead of listening to her, he was concentrating on something that he had been reading that included the story of a person whose mission was to write the perfect first sentence of a novel. He was fascinated with clichés, and this was to him the perfect example of a sentence that could be cast by the typesetter as a single line since it could never be changed.2 It inspired him to try to write a short story in a single sentence and he had been working on the idea in his head for some months. It had changed so many times that it was, by now, some distance from how he had started, but recently he had been working on eliminating adjectives and today, in the sun, he remembered it as: She knew that if she turned to face him they would kiss and then where would they be3-4
He had spent most of the time on the grass while she chatted beside him wondering if the sentence should end with a question mark. Was it so obvious what would follow their kiss that a full stop would be sufficient or were the complications so clearly self-evident that even the aggression of a double question mark would be more appropriate. An alternative possibility was that she had made her thoughts sufficiently clear to herself in withholding her look from him that an exclamation mark was all that was needed to close the idea. Or maybe, he thought, she really could wonder where they would be if they kissed. If that was the case then, perhaps, she did turn to face him and the question mark that was deserved, in these circumstances, contained the rest of the story – or another one. It was a nice conundrum to fill the time. Today the sun shone gold through his closed eyelids, and he settled for nothing at the end of the sentence. Not even a full stop. It was a small compression that fitted with the indolent heat of the afternoon and the dryness of the air. He had read that a sentence, like a kiss, can always be returned to, so today there would be no ‘if only’ or ‘what if’ instead, without a full stop, ‘they’, whoever they were, would be left in an eternity of possibility.
The girl took her weight off his arm, and he sat up and made a small depression in the dry earth with his finger, gathered some saliva in his mouth and spat into it. He told her that they did this when he was younger playing in the street as an experiment to see if the saliva was absorbed into the soil or, (as it did on this occasion) form a small ball that became coated with dust as it rolled to the center of the depression. Saliva could become something else he said.5 She leaned across and copied him so that the two dusty spheres of spit sat side by side in the little dust-bowl. Just touching. She moved to look more closely at the childish experiment, and he saw the top of her head. They had not known each other long so this was the first time that he had paid any serious attention to her hair, and he stared at the white scalp and reddish threads emerging from individual dark pinpricks in the skin. He must have looked longer than was polite which, even though she was looking away, she seemed to have felt. She turned to him. It was an awkward turn which threw her slightly off balance and as he steadied her, he thought about kissing her, because he did not know what to say. But he closed his eyes and he settled for doing nothing.
They spent some time together over the summer, but as the days grew shorter and the summer ended, they seemed less inclined to meet in term time and he forgot all about her except whenever he rehearsed the sentence and decided to leave the end unpunctuated. Although as time passed, he began to forget her clothes, her face and then even her name, he remembered the two dusty balls of saliva and the top of her head and that he liked her. Somehow, he could not find the way to say so without sounding like a cliché, so he never did.6
1 Kawabata, Yasunari. and Dunlop, Lane. and Holman, Martin J. Palm-of-the-hand stories / by Yasunari Kawabata; translated from the Japanese by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman Charles E. Tuttle Tokyo 1988
2 He had picked up the idea that the term cliché was derived from a habit of compositors to click the made-up phrase on the desk before putting it into the composing stick. This was doubtful and more likely linked to the machine that cast the lines. But he liked the idea, so the truth did not trouble him.
3 This was a version of something he had read some time ago. It is quoted here without punctuation since although he maintained that there were four ideas in the sentence, he constantly changed the way that they were grouped by the shifting of commas.
4 He had been reading La Peste and was particularly taken with the figure of Joseph Grand and the discussion of the perfect sentence. See for example: Edwin P. Grobe (1970) Camus and the Parable of the Perfect Sentence, Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures, 24:3, 254-261
5 It was not true (at least as far as he could remember his childhood) but he often made-up portentous stories when he was bored.
6 Grobe argues that Joseph Grand’s marriage failed because ‘… in a large part because of his inability to precisely articulate the depth of his affection for his wife.’ It is unclear if the deflection of the kiss to a ‘childish experiment’ was an affectation that he was re-enacting from La Peste to cover his own aphasia. (Ibid p.256)