the dead man’s kiss | by arli harlan middendorf
My first kiss was from the lips of a dead man. I woke in the middle of the night at the close of August; the cold stretched across my skin despite the heavy curtain of humidity outside my window. There was no air conditioner in my poor apartment, only a ceiling fan with a metal cord that clicked against the light bulb like a bell with every swing of the blade, and yet there was perspiration on the window; a layer of fog clung to the glass, obliterating the yellow blare of the streetlamp which snapped on and off, a loosely secured bulb, and obscured the infractions of light until what remained was a soft illumination. That’s how I saw him, as if by flickering candlelight.
I noticed him slowly, not quite seeing him because of his stillness and the sensation of familiarity about his placement in my room, as if he were always there, as acquainted as the chair in the corner. I found the shape of my closet door, laden heavily with clothes strewn carelessly over the hangers erected on the frames and the doorknob; the quiet existence of my dresser, a semblance of wood and varnish that caught snippets of light, even among the haze of my room at such an hour; the mirror on the wall opposite my bed was a reflection of the everything and nothing that happened in my lonely room. The light wavered, lending the room bouts of dreamless dark and then yielding surges of jaundiced light.
It was in the mirror that I first caught his presence. I could see my own face in the dim, the sleepless glint in my bleary eyes as I tried to work backwards: why had I woken? What had I been dreaming about? I couldn’t recall – just small fragments of time left shattered and uncaptured on the fringes of my consciousness. In the silver of the mirror, like the moon in the dark sky of my life, I saw him. He began only as a shadow and grew into being limb by limb: a muscled bare leg joined to the curve of buttocks, a lithe arm locked into the slope of an angular back. He loomed above, bent perfectly at the waist, hovering over my bed with the precision of a lifeless dancer, a sinewy stranger with nicotine fingers. His naked body was slightly bloated in death, marred with deep bruising that stained his skin in constellations of pain. His eyes were glassless and pale, shifting in lunar phases as the light continued in tumult.
The dead man, for that’s what I knew he was, hung as if suspended; his expression mirrored my own, as if he were equally horrified to find himself suddenly discovered in my room, as if it were my waking that were illicit, rather than his existence. He seemed to unwind himself, detangling the shock and derision, and stretched out comfortably before leaning downwards, closing the space between our mouths and stealing a kiss.
It was not bad, as firsts go; there was no excess spittle, lumbering lips, or unwanted darting of tongues; simply a soft meeting of mouth on mouth that continued to exist in the smallest moments of time, and then he pulled away. A trail of my breath – a cloud of twirling air made physical by the pervasive cold in my room – lingered between us like a cord and was quickly dissolving, erasing the moment when the light left us, withdrawing back into that fickle bulb. The streetlamp winked out, covering my room and its contents – his nakedness, the mirror’s unflinching eye, the chair in my corner, my still body beneath the bedsheet, and our kiss – shrouding it all with a blanket of night. The only sound in that infinity of darkness was a small exhalation of breath; his, or mine? When the light came back, I was sitting up in my bed, alone, staring into the mirror, a shadow of a dead man’s kiss on my lips.
Arli Harlan Middendorf is a fiction writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from Adelphi University. She has won the Donald Everett Axinn Award for four of her stories, was a recipient of the 2009 SUNY Chancellor’s Award, and is published in the Black and Gold Review. She is a writing tutor at Farmingdale State College, and an adjunct professor in the English Departments of Adelphi, and Suffolk County Community College where she tortures her students regularly.