In the course of our relationship we spent three weekends away, burnt down forty-seven aromatic candles, enjoyed sex two hundred and twelve times, failed to enjoy sex on seventeen separate occasions, practised an aggressive strain of yoga together twice a week and shared exactly one thousand kisses. Strangely enough, it is this last figure which causes me concern. It seems hopelessly meagre, for one thing. Languid teens, kissing for charity in the guileless malls, receive and deliver more in one afternoon than we two managed in ten months of sustained passion. And these were months, I must remind myself, when every cell of my body seemed to quote and address you in its stirrings and clamours- my hands on the steering wheel describing the curve of your forehead as we swing into the bend, my feet pressed on the pedals remembering the smooth declivities of your calves, my heart in its chamber blowing seventy kisses a minute towards the heart-shaped face poised at the vanity- my whole body, that is, apart from my lips, which, I now learn, pressed against yours less than three times per day.
What could I have been doing, the rest of the time?
And where did all that sex come from? Five kisses to one act of intercourse- what kind of a ratio is that? To read the stats one would assume that ours was a Wall Street boiler-room relationship, where steadily appreciating stocks were ignored in favour of the big movers, the dizzy one-offs that made us so spectacularly rich for a moment it was as if we had conjured value out of air. Whereas I would like to think we operated in a far more elegant market, some Middle-Eastern trading hub perhaps, where kisses were prized commodities, brought up from a long distance, teasingly unveiled, haggled over for an eternity, surrendered with a flourish or a curse. Sex, on the other hand, was thrown about like loose change, the purses full of foreign money no-one understands, the drachmas and dinari let fall outside tents late at night, gleaming silver coins stamped with legionaries or oxen or the profiles of grotesque emperors- but you can never catch more than a glimpse, they are swallowed up so quickly by the desert sands…
(Of course, what really disturbs me is the neatness of the tally. Exactly one thousand kisses. Is it possible that you broke it off precisely when you did because we had reached a benchmark of sorts? Knowing, as I do, your genius for proportion, your hatred of everything skewed and out of true, your blessed rage for order &c.)
And I haven't even got to the suitcase yet.
It was some disproportion, some false quantity in our relationship that angered you, I am sure of that. In the days that followed our break-up I would take our history apart and spread it out in front of me, trying to locate the component that had faulted. Yet each time I was on the verge of resolving the matter, I'd find our kisses cluttering the way. They appeared in clutches, always at the heart of the most sensitive episodes, blurring out all meaning like a line of censor's strikeouts. I tried to skip ahead, but what followed always seemed to hinge upon the outcome of these contested passages. When I could no longer bypass the kisses, I tried to second-guess their import. I invested those little x's with whatever value came to mind and ran the equation until it frayed, but I was never any closer to an acceptable solution. The curious thing is that, no matter how many times I carried out this procedure, no matter what terms I introduced, the story never altered in the slightest. With or without the kisses, we still met at Pepé le Moko in the IFI, we still favoured Stevenson over Conan Doyle, we still drank coffee with our elbows on the table and made up sly fictions about the passers-by, you still snapped shut the vanity, turned to me with a matter-of-fact laugh you might have called rueful and said-
Anyway, the suitcase. When I first found the strange case among my luggage I gave it little thought. How was I to know that you had done my searching for me, isolated the flaw and locked it up inside this battered old relic? I thought the case a stray prop belonging to my new landlords (after you kicked me out the theatre took me in, this you already know, they put me up in an attic above the main auditorium, an accommodation I now share with a full century of pantomime left-overs). And that is what the case feels like- a blatant piece of stage business, its faded plush not quite hiding the tough steel plates beneath. But when I hand the case to the caretaker he fails to recognise it. “It must be yours,” he says. “Is it an antique? Because that's quite unusual nowadays- a combination lock with three barrels instead of four. Only a thousand combinations to work from! Very considerate towards the thieving class.”
A thousand combinations, a thousand kisses. The correspondence is no accident. To you, every arrangement conveyed meaning: the distribution of rooks roosting in a dying elm, the placement of lovers at the entrance of Stephen's Green Shopping Centre, the pattern of cracks on our ceiling, you studied them all with a sort of sceptical avidity. “Where there's difference and repetition, there's language,” you told me. “And where there's language, there's certain to be lies.” Now you are challenging me to find truth in the language of kisses, which seems to me the most deceitful speech of all. But the prize that you hold out is tantalising. I feel certain that what is locked inside the suitcase will lead me back to you, not in so many words, perhaps, but by hints and rumours, by indirection, inevitably, or I should say: by deceit. I stoop before the suitcase and rummage for the number of a kiss to crack the code.
I begin with the standouts. The crisp, clean maths of kiss 021, the summery lightness of kiss 322 (in the air the smell of barbecues, in your mouth the taste of raspberries), the oaky, mature comforts of kiss 768, kiss 642, brief but underwater, the jazzy panic of kisses 056-059…
Nothing works. So of course I try them all.
As I reach the 800th kiss I become aware of a split, a doubling in my psyche. One part of me is impatiently enumerating the kisses, hurrying on forward to the next in line, always with the goal of surprising you, dazed and inviolate, at the climax of the exercise. Meanwhile, a second I thrusts itself back into each kiss, fumbles for the scraps of sense data, becomes hopelessly enmeshed in the exchanges, also trying in this way to discover you, or rather a version of you: partial, tatterdemalion, intermingled with myself. Between these two strivers I am stretched remorselessly, until I seem less a personality than a plane upon which you can articulate your changes, a long octave of your possibilities.
I give up at kiss 950 or thereabouts. Beneath me a deep rumble begins- the audience for tonight's performance moving slowly towards their seats. Although I cannot discern any single voice I can easily map out the character of the crowd: middle aged, not very flexible, moving cautiously into this strange arena, like creatures of the topshore eyeing up the peaky drama of the inter-tidal zone. I wonder whether the kisses obey similar dynamics: saying things in concert that couldn't be expressed in one contact, however sweet, however deeply felt. Immediately I know the task that you have set for me: to uncover from the static of our kisses a buried melody that will speak for us, just as the pitch of the crowd-hum reveals that tonight's audience will buy tubs of ice-cream and boxes of wine gums, will admire the patterns on the safety curtain and nudge each other when the soap star lead comes on, will be too scared to clap standing at the end, but will let loose a few wild whoops to compensate. Of the million possible sentences that can be assembled from these thousand characters, you are daring me to find our love theme, our truth set, our anthem.
On the back of an old flyer I plot a graph of our kisses over the ten months of our relationship, and note with excitement the emergence of a trend: a precipitous rise in intensity and enjoyment, stabilising about kiss 414, a sudden dip at kiss 836 (the instigation or resolution of a quarrel, I forget) followed by a steep decline in power and frequency, culminating in the strangled ransom note of kiss 1000. I key in the sequence of kisses which corresponds closest to this theme, thinking that perhaps all you're asking of me is to approximate the tune of the relationship, hum the rousing chorus one last time. It is only when this strategy fails that I am forced to consider the out-of-place kisses. Take kiss 045, for instance, tinged with so much regret and recrimination, sandwiched in between the bubblegum twins of 044 and 046. Or that whole sequence at the seafront in Tramore (937-955) when it seemed as if, having reached the end of our viability, we had entered a state of balmy, Edenic unconcern, a paradise so cruelly shattered by the serpent 956. What do they reveal, these kisses that prefigure or post-date their period? Could they hint at a hidden melody, a purer, more integral patterning, drowned out by our loutish fortissimo? If there is one, it is so subtle that I cannot play it; at any rate, the suitcase remains shut.
The play begins; I can feel the massed concentration of the audience buckle beneath me. A particular quality to the silence, a sort of fond repleteness, tells me that tonight's performance will be a comedy.
Can you sort kisses by genre?
Well, let's see. There were the animal kisses of course, and these in their own way were the least problematic of the lot. We stood there patiently, the broad shields of our faces unengaged, while our ancient tongues struggled like dinosaurs. And as I key in their co-ordinates I feel similarly alienated from my agile fingers working the lock; I imagine that the secret mechanisms within are also primed to ignore the barrels' eager whirls…
And what of the others? Many of our kisses were euphemisms, what they stood for I am not sure. Sometimes, I am almost certain, they stood for sex, other times they were deployed simply because the right word failed to occur to us right then, on still more occasions we knew exactly what should be said, but we elided the responsibility, or else uttered these words silently, in the chamber of the other's mouth, our tongues touching off different teeth. It is as if we were playing at chess and every so often a knight or a bishop or a pawn would disappear- but instead of taking our eyes off the board to search for the figure (and perhaps noticing for the first time the fading light, the stale atmosphere, the shabbiness of the room) we were content to dip our fingers in the jar and place a button smack in its place. Of course, you cannot play this game forever, suddenly you look at the board and it contains nothing but buttons, we are caught up in a different war, where it is difficult to say who controls what, what is the objective, which of us is ahead. Yet we continue to play, deliberately, painstakingly, until the squares of the board disappear under mounds of buttons, perhaps one day we too might be replaced, there are after all so many in the jar.
The theatre below me ripples with laughter. The first laugh of the night- the actors will be relieved. For fifteen minutes it was as if they were playing to nothing, but now they have established a response, once this is in place anything is possible, they can second-guess the audience, pitching their performances to flatter or displease. On the other hand, what do I know about actors? Maybe the audience's capitulation brings with it an undertow of disappointment, it will all be too easy from now on in. What I can say with confidence is that none of them will hear laughter the way I hear it, up here in the attic: not as an breach in the silence but as an amplification of it- an umbrella shooting up against the fine words of the actors, breath pressed into action against speech, the most basic act of violence, made out of fear and air.
This is how I should have laughed when you snapped shut the vanity, turned your face thoughtfully to mine and said “You know, none of this ever meant anything.” I should have stopped the car and walked away right then. Instead I leaned close, for our 1001st kiss.
It was never intended. There was nothing more to do than hug and go our separate ways. It was purely a matter of mechanics that, in coming out of the embrace, our faces would be so aligned, held like hot planets close to each other, all that was needed was a spark to jump across the gap. By which I do not mean to diminish our final kiss, which was at any rate so small that it hardly existed. Our kiss was not so much a kiss as a brushing of lips, and not so much that as an exhalation, so slight one would not know whether it was our mouths or our breaths that were kissing. Only days later did I feel the tautness in my chest and recognise your last breath lost in me. If I concentrated I could almost see it crouched in there, a newly hatched imago, trembling on a meaty stalk of grass, its fine wings spread to dry. I whispered its name, which was also your name, oh my Amelia, and I closed my lungs about it like a fist.
Of course, I see now what I have to do. I go down on my knees before the case, I press my lips tight against the barrels and I blow your last breath back into the lock.
The case springs open. It takes me a while to recognise those crimson blotches as my kisses. At first they look like withered roses or crumpled napkins, crusted with dried blood. It is only when I peer closer that I can see the imbecile puckerings, the lolling tongues, the hateful mouths, loose and singular, grappling with nothing, locked into air. Is it my imagination or are the topmost kisses beginning to stir afresh in this new atmosphere? Once again the laughter of the audience rings out beneath me, terrible and cavernous, as if the entire auditorium is one great empty mouth.