The Kissers by Ben Hoffman
Praise from associate fiction editor Keith Rebec on Ben Hoffman’s “The Kissers”: From the outset, Ben’s narrator gives us a world that’s odd and mysterious, a world that’s rich in desire, hope, and loss. In other words, the story is complex; it encourages us to look beyond the surface and examine more than the characters’ lives or actions—it forces us to think about our own rough histories.
A man in a baseball cap stands in line with other men waiting to kiss a woman. The men are all sorts of men: fat, short, freckly, legal aides, dishwashers. They are in a part of a strip mall where before the recession was a Subway. A few of them have stood in line here for lunch. The line moves more seamlessly now. The men shuffle forward, never pausing, and when they reach the woman they peck her on the lips—mouth closed!, they’ve been told—before exiting behind the counter, where the subs were assembled. The official judge leans in, making sure there is no tongue, calling out the count: 62! 63! 64! The man with the cap is near the end of the line.
These men have responded to an ad or been pulled off the street for the chance to be part of this, and as their turn nears, as they approach the woman sitting on the high stool where the fountain soda used to be, they grow excited, not only by the urgency of breaking a world record, and not only because for all but a few this is as close as they will ever come to an orgy, but because the woman is better-looking than they’d imagined. They’d expected a plain Jane or worse, someone desperate for kisses. But this woman? How does she not have a husband?
In fact, she does have a husband, though they are not wearing their rings right now. Her husband is one of the men in line, though he and she do not let on, they do not even hold their kiss a nanosecond longer than her other kisses. It is the record she is after. But even their short kiss is strange and thrilling, since they have not kissed in years.
89! 90! 91! The woman is close to the record. Her minute is almost up. The line grows short. The man in the baseball cap seems even more excited than the other men who are excited. When it is his turn, he steps forward but he does not kiss the woman. Instead he brings a large square adhesive strip from his pocket and in one quick motion slaps it over her mouth. What are you doing, the judge hisses. The woman makes a sound no one can understand. The man smiles grimly. The woman’s husband rushes back and tackles the withholder. The judge hustles other men forward. They leap over the two men tussling on the ground but it is too late.
The woman tries to tear the tape from her lips, but she cannot get her fingernails under the corner of it. Through her horror—she understands she has lost the record—she realizes the tape feels more like a man than the men did. It smothers her, and when the man who was next in line and will never get to kiss her now rips the tape off, she remembers a man she used to love, years before her husband, who would rub his scruff over her lips and chin until her face was nothing but a rash, a rash.
Ben Hoffman recently completed his MFA in fiction at UNC Wilmington. His forthcoming story chapbook Together, Apart won the 2013 Origami Zoo Press Chapbook Prize. His fiction has appeared in Fugue, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Green Mountains Review Online, Monkeybicycle, and River Styx.