I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz - Excerpt


When I was growing up, we girls spent every waking moment trying to be more kissable. Every one of our assets we exploited: our curly hair, our long eyelashes, our scent, our toothpaste, the way we talked— all to become adorable enough for boys to want to kiss us when we played spin the bottle and its more sophisticated cousin, seven minutes in heaven.

You can get pretty disorganized kissing for seven minutes in a closet, but when I was twelve years old, we combined the two games so that when the bottle landed on a boy, you not only got to kiss him but also got to spend seven minutes with him in a closet—in “heaven.” I can’t remember if anyone ever really lasted the full seven minutes— parents and chaperones being the clever killjoys they were—but this was the fantasy we girls had: The bottle would land on the cutest boy (in those days, his name was Doug), and we’d get to kiss forever.

When I was in junior high school, my favorite thing to read was love comics—pre–Harlequin romance stories about women wishing they could kiss someone but being unable to do so until the last frame. Boys read adventure comics, crime stories, Western trash. And when boys went to see a pirate movie with Errol Flynn and he kissed Olivia de Havilland at the end, they would squirm with nauseated revulsion and hide their eyes in the same way girls did when people were gruesomely killed. Fortunately, this boy stage didn’t last forever.

It is almost as though kissing were invented by Hollywood as the only sensible ending to love stories—the golden moment when “happily ever after” was supposed to begin. I don’t think boys would have, of their own volition, kissed girls were it not for the lessons they eventually learned from the movies. At best, in pre-Hollywood times, if people kissed it was in illustrations of a gallant knight kissing her ladyship’s gloved hand, or in hearsay from the Bible like “So she caught him, and kissed him, and with an impudent face said unto him. . .”

In junior high there was a boy all the girls were crazy about, Shaggy. He had the blackest hair, long enough to fall over his eyes, and in the hot sun he smelled of Brylcreem, a scent that ever since has hit me as an aphrodisiac. For almost a week of afternoons we would sit out on the concrete steps that surrounded the cafeteria, reading Mad magazine. We would laugh at the same things, and then he’d walk me to class and kiss me—both of us aflame with burning desire.

One Friday night Shaggy dropped by my house in a car with a bashed-in windshield—not a good sign, since anyway he was only fourteen and way too young to drive. “We can’t go in that car,” I said. “We’ll get busted.” But he was fast and he wanted more than mere kissing. Suddenly one day he dumped me for this hot tomato named Julie with very impudent red lips. I didn’t see him much after that, but the truth was that if I could have done more than kiss him to keep him kissing only me, I would have. It was only later I discovered that some guys will leave you for hotter tomatoes no matter how far you go—love being the unfair thing it is.

In high school, I knew another boy who had the lips all the girls wanted to kiss. We used to dream about kissing him, just as all the boys in school used to wonder what it would be like to kiss this girl named Cami, a cream puff in a tight skirt and powder-blue sweater to match her eyes. One rainy day during lunch, those two kissed each other in front of the whole student body and we all went limp. Time stood still for all of us—the moment more hot and steamy (and more innocent) than sex could ever be.

Kissing involves all of your senses: sight, because you wouldn’t want to kiss anyone not striking you as adorable enough to touch your lips; sound, because once a kiss starts, moaning ensues and you hope it’s inspirational; smell, though who knows what to make of the current testings on men that reveal what turns them on most is the smell of pumpkin pie; touch, because touching is why we kiss some one at all; and taste, of course. In more ways than one, taste is everything in kissing.

But there is one sense you don’t need to worry about in kissing, the stuff mothers used to call “sense enough to come in out of the rain.” This is the kind of good, “sound” sense that you need to have in your friends, but it’s not what you need in a lover. People who kiss you can get away with a lot, especially if you want to kiss them again. A lover who’s been mean to you can, with a kiss, stop you from leaving, if feeling you might never kiss him again makes you miserable.

Kissing, if it’s done on both cheeks, is camaraderie; if on one cheek, is coy; but on the mouth, it can go anywhere—uphill to heaven or downhill to hellish squalor. The great thing about a kiss is its potential, its possibilities, its main line to commitment.

Looking at photographs of people kissing, we are like voyeurs. We always hope that in the wonderful act of kissing, passion will take over, which is how we wish it to be for Rhett and Scarlett and all the stars who kiss in movies. We hope that even though it’s their job and they’re only actors and they’re surrounded by film crews, we hope that when they kiss, the kiss will get out of hand and take over and turn into passionate romance.

Long ago, I came across a great book of Jacques-Henri Lartigue photographs with an elegant gold cover. In this book were pictures of his beautiful girlfriend in her incredible svelte stylishness. And I realized that the photographs we take of people we love—or that they take of us—symbolize to us what love is, like remembering the thrill of a kiss in the rain long, long ago.

There are many kinds of kisses. Teen-lust kisses, kisses that bring comfort and joy and make life worth living, kisses of life and death and close calls, kisses of spontaneous victory, tribute, and relief. But the kisses I want to remember, the ones in which the world turned to mush, could never show up in a photograph—even if one could have been taken in a pitch-dark closet.

The last man who kissed me seriously was way too young for me and beautiful enough to be a lot of trouble. His shoulders were like angels’ wings and his eyes like turquoise pools. He took me for a ride on his BMW motorcycle, and when he said goodbye, he kissed my cheek. Unlike other men’s kisses, this one landed straight in my dreams. . . .

But I can’t be dreaming about him; it would end in complete disorganization of my senses, like memories of spin the bottle—a game that could start here on earth and end up in heaven.

February 1996

I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz Cover Image
By Eve Babitz, Molly Lambert (Introduction by), Sara Kramer (Editor)
ISBN: 9781681373799
Availability: available for order
Published: NYRB Classics - October 8th, 2019