A first kiss is a sacred confluence of rivers. There are temples made on the site where the rivers meet, and pandits will write down the names of all the offspring who are born of those fluid transactions for generations to come. These kisses have tributaries that run all over your body, through the lines on your palms and the days of your life.
Perhaps that’s why you didn’t want to kiss me unless we were going to get married.
Yes, the question of marriage did come up rather early. Even before we kissed, when you told me you couldn’t allow such contact with me unless I married you. What? Don’t be ridiculous. Don’t be so immature, I believe I said.
Twenty-two years and three children later, I have to admit that perhaps you knew more about the power of a sacred kiss than I did. You were only 21 years old and you’d worked out the dangers of an accidental confluence, while I was thinking only about what promised to be an interesting holiday romance (diamond ecstatic waters – rapids flowing to who cares where). I was running as far away as I could from England, my desert, where there was a veritable love drought, perhaps because the English never insist on marriage before that first kiss.
But you had come from a real desert. The Sahara. And you had sand in your dreadlocks and that beatific smile that only revelations in a desert can leave on a face, with lips that tucked in at the edges with delicious contentment.
Before looking too closely at those lips, there was one slight problem to consider. You’d told me that you’d decided to be an ascetic, and you were going to dedicate yourself to spiritual pursuits for the Rest of Your Life unless and until, under exceptional circumstances, you met someone you wanted to marry.
Undoubtedly, you were a seeker of sorts. You’d read Autobiography of a Yogi (hadn’t everyone?) and you had a guru and you’d learned to meditate and even painted your own tarot pack while you were crossing the Sahara, but you’d learned nothing about love or why would you be rejecting it – and here’s where I think I knew more than you. I believed in its ultimacy and inevitability – its downright necessity, its right to exist. Love, for me, was the natural flow of life. Turn your back on that flow and you may as well curl up into an Ox Bow Lake, stagnant and isolated and sexless. (But yes, I came from the same sub-continent as your guru, and I’d grown up with ideals of sannyas, that rejection of the world and its earthly pleasures, which sends perfectly able-bodied men to the Himalayas to hide their beautiful brown skin under orange robes. Yet I also came from the same country that was home to Konark and Khajuraho, where men in the desert, in a rapture of truth and beauty, carved stone penises on temple walls that were permanently inserted into the women they held, as well as a few other places. I was ready to take on the contradictions of the body and the spirit and wed them together, but the idea of a real wedding, even before a kiss… well that was like stepping back into another century.
It’s not as if we’d only just met. The first time I’d seen you was in a photograph on a wall in Cambridge. You were thirteen years old carrying a bow and arrow, wandering around a jungle in Papua New Guinea, where your stepfather was doing his anthropological research. You were in your underpants and there was nothing in that boy on the wall that promised to become my man. Why, you were four years younger than me, for a start. A mere child.
I, on the other hand, was a most sophisticated young undergraduate, about to study anthropology, incapable of thinking of the Mowgli in the photograph as anything but an exotic decoration on my friend Beccy’s wall. You were the story from her gap year that took place on the other side of the Earth, so far from me, the armchair would-be anthropologist. So instead of seeing a future husband, I admired the tribe that surrounded your family in the highlands, feathered and painted with their bilas and astanget – skirts of leaves over strong legs and black chests. A tribe distanced by only 10 years from first contact.
It was a while before we would make our first contact.
The first time I met you was at Beccy’s twenty-first birthday party in Notting Hill Gate. You were On the Road, like a young curly-haired Jack Kerouac, keen to conjure adventure out of havoc – to turn your life into poetic experience. You hadn’t yet renounced your money, possessions and passport to cross the Sahara, wearing nothing but a loincloth. You hadn’t yet spent your months in a Nigerian prison, or been sold as a white slave in Lagos, or been deported from Africa, all adventures that I still hear about at dinner parties today (“Bem’s heard this story too many times. Let’s change the subject or it’ll be a long night”).
I’d brought along a dinner date on that first night we met, but he was of no consequence. I remember you from that same date – nothing that you said especially, because the body’s memory is more visceral – just images of your lips and your smile, captured in pheromones, as disposable as a napkin at our table, or so I thought.
I had the same images in my mind when I arrived in Australia for our second contact, with your address and phone number in my hands. Your sister, Nadya, invited me to dinner; only I arrived and there was nobody at your home. The front door of your house in Paddington was open, not because you were expecting visitors (you’d all forgotten) but because you hadn’t considered a good enough reason for shutting the door before you’d all gone out for a meditation evening. So myself, and another jilted dinner guest (you’d also forgotten about) introduced ourselves to each other and proceeded to begin the dinner party ourselves, sitting down on cushions covered in kilims, surrounded by paintings I was yet to learn were created by my future mother-in-law.
You arrived blissfully unaware of your missed appointment (it had been transcended and eclipsed by your evening in the soup of meditation) but dinner was soon laid out on the table as it would always be, and I ate the first of many meals you’ve cooked for me, with whatever love potion you’d stirred into the mix, without even knowing it. We sat out in the courtyard covered in thorny rose bushes knotted with stars and fairy-lights around a broken pergola: a village square where Nadya slept in an iron bed; where the theatre of family life would take place – the weddings, parties, birthdays and fights. It was where my mother-still-out-of-law, would extract all the emotional revelations she required from the house inmates by sitting them down for a portrait, always looking away at the stretched canvas between brushstrokes to turn her colours into confessionals and give her advice. ‘Yes, he is young, but he would make a very good partner. He owns property, you know.’
The food must have been delicious, but I’m not one to match every dish with every occasion as you can with your gustatory memory. My memory is for the words people say – words like these.
‘Why don’t you move in?’
It was a sudden contribution from your sister, Nadya, delivered between courses during that first meal at your house. I learned later that it was pre-meditated and highly strategic, not just the random suggestion of a gypsy queen. She didn’t want her brother renouncing his manhood, that’s why. She would rather trust the religion of the Earth than his newfound creed, although she appreciated the importance of mindfulness, of course: she was mindful of lost opportunities of the flesh and mindful of muscles and glances and the unwritten promises of instant attraction. And here was this half-Indian girl at the dinner table, who could be easily re-located from the backpacker’s hostel in Kings Cross, surely, to become the siren in the bedroom next door who would steer her brother off course on his journey to sainthood. A plan so clever you could put a tail on it and call it a fox.
I don’t remember when I moved into your house, but it could have been that same night, or the very next day. You came to take my backpack, well prepared for a year of travels, to Nadya’s bedroom, for what would end up as a lifetime of travels. From then on, for a few weeks until third contact, we became characters in Nadya’s script, with beats that she orchestrated.
‘Jan come up and help me for a second,’ she called out, just as I was naked, brushing my hair in her room.
Then: ‘Why don’t you fall in love with my brother?’
Being told to fall in love with you by Nadya, the singer, dilettante, tribal sister, was less of an order and more of an invitation to conspire a plot. Yet it had the same unblinking serious undertone as your request to get married before that first kiss. Was this something to do with the Papua New Guinean law you both shared? The way that your tribe went into a hut for an all-night tanem het ceremony and came out with a life partner? Yes, your house was probably like that hut, and back then we lived our days with the hallucinatory, up-all-night intensity of ceremony, with your sister all the while playing at being the blind woman spinning the wheel of fortune. She had one eye open and winking, but you didn’t trust her. She’d got you into too much trouble in the past. You knew to brush her off, but still, you didn’t make a convincing celibate, either. Your body somehow didn’t have the right shape. Your hands weren’t made to hold Bibles or Upanishads. They were too broad, too capable. They were the hands of a sculptor made to mould clay. And you sat with your legs too open, too inviting. You participated too freely in our exchanges. You wore that singlet, too, because it was hot that summer, and your chest revealed itself at the edges like a promise.
You found me alone one time to tell me that you were a celibate: ‘errr, mmm, we need to talk…’ but it came across as an apology and there was more than a hint of regret in the words, a lack of certainty, because forever is a very long time to hold back an ocean. Awkward. I didn’t want to be seen as some kind of harlot. I wasn’t the type of girl to get her kicks trying to defrock a priest or straddle a monk: besides, wasn’t I meant to be the one being seduced? ‘No worries,’ I might have said, because I was already beginning to speak the language of the country that would take me in. ‘I’m not looking for a relationship.’
Fourth contact. You’d asked me if I’d like to go for a walk and everyone in the house noticed when we left together, just the two of us, with nobody else invited: not the usual after-dinner stroll that we’d all take. You took me up to Centennial Park and this is where that kiss took place: that pre-marital agreement, with me lying back on a picnic table in the dark, with nobody but possums to witness the vows I didn’t believe in at the time.
So that must have been our engagement (for you never officially proposed) and after that kiss, your body down on me like a river that had broken its levee, the stars must have aligned and in a parallel universe the wedding ceremony must have already taken place. I remember, too, that you asked me if I was on the pill. What kind of question was that for a celibate to ask?
Just as the marriage proposal came before the first kiss, the honeymoon came before our wedding. You asked me if I wanted to see Australia and we took off, with a sign painted ‘Honeymooners North’. Your mother had lent us two wedding rings for believability and we played our cards perfectly so that every person on that highway who wouldn’t usually pick up hitchhikers stopped to give us a ride. They wanted to know about the wedding, of course, and bless us with the abundance of free miles that hitchhikers only dream of. We told our stories in return for the distance travelled, again and again. We spoke of how beautiful our wedding had been – a simple affair – and of how we’d had to keep our costs down on the honeymoon. They oohed and ahhed, and one man – a cowboy from Texas – gave us one of his country and western cassettes as a wedding present because I said I liked the music, to be polite. Another couple let us stay a night in their ‘honeymoon suite’ – a room filled with pictures of their daughters getting married, and we played at being as married as them over dinner, touching our fraudulent wedding rings for extra confidence. We were a convincing couple, until far, far, up in Northern Queensland a patched up old Holden stopped in front of our now weathered ‘Honeymooners North’ sign and a woman with a broad Australian drawl wound down the window and yelled out: ‘It’s bullshit, isn’t it?’
‘No, I mean, err, yes, probably it is.’
‘Hop in then.’
We were thumbing our way around this new homeland of mine with great success, and when we arrived at your uncle’s he said, ‘I think you’ve cooked the goose.’ I’d never heard the expression before, but I think it meant that we’d put that goose of ours in the oven to defrost, and it had ended up cooking. Having pretended that we were married for so long we had reenacted a story with increased certainty in every retelling, until our real wedding became a kind of déjàvu.
We had two weddings. One in Australia, which we paid for with $100 of saved up cash (my father-in-law made the open-cut gourmet sandwiches for one hundred guests), the flowers were courtesy of your aunt, champagne courtesy of your grandfather, wedding cake surrounded by gardenias (with a Catholic layer on top for the christening of our first child) courtesy of your grandmother. We danced the afternoon away in a bungalow overlooking Elizabeth Bay and when it was time for speeches there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Then, when the formalities were all over, we took off in a broken down old Mazda to Bodalla, where we set up tent and sprinkled gardenias on our pillow. (The top layer of the cake was shared in Bodalla, our church, around a campfire with friends some years later, after the birth of our first son.) We got stopped on the way down South for a breath test, and I’ll never forget the look on the cop’s face, so certain to have caught a drink-driver, having spotted the cans and ribbons and shaving foam on our car. ‘Another one bites the dust,’ he said pulling out his breathaliser, smirking as he leaned in closer with that certainty that only cops can muster: ‘When did you last have a drink, sir?’ You blew into his bag and said: ‘Back when I was 18, officer.’
We already felt properly wed when we set off for our ‘official’ religious wedding in India. We awaited the international guests – the plane-full of Australians, the Poles, the English and the Greeks, all dressed for an Indian summer when it was so cold they had to warm themselves on the sacred fire to keep the blood from freezing in their veins. Mother India, forever unexpected. There were three days of dancing and partying. My bangle ceremony, the henna party, the bride’s party (which all of your groom’s party attended) and then the walk, seven times around the sacred fire. You were nervous. I’d arrived two hours late for the last and most important ceremony where we would agree to wed for many lifetimes and 10,000 years, and later write our names down in the holy books that are kept by my family’s pandits by the Ganges at Hardwar, for generations to witness. You’d been made to dance till you were exhausted with the light bearers and musicians that escorted you in your parade through New Delhi’s Golf Links to the shamiana in front of my grandmother’s house. Finally, I arrived, heavy with jewels and silk and hair plaited around roses, feet and hands decorated in an intricate lace of henna. We made our vows and then we were taken, not to your house, for you had none, but to the house of our friend, Jas, to a bed and floor decorated in rose petals and magnolias.
And then we kissed our first kiss after our wedding. This time to consummate that 10,000-year commitment. The sacred confluence that now runs through our lives, to the sea.