In the shadow of an ancient bridge, the young lovers
leaned into each other with great resolve, lips clenched,
arms interlocked. It was a determined kiss, neither soft
nor sentimental. Stiff and clumsy, they could have been
office colleagues stealing away for a moment on the
easy banks of the Seine or students from a nearby ecole
learning the steps of love.
Not far away, behind a red velvet rope, a noisy pack of photographers
jockeyed with zoom lenses, capturing the embrace. Flashes strobed and video
cameras rolled while the kissers clenched, unflinching. Behind them, on
bleachers, several hundred observers shouted encouragement.
"Allez! Vive la France!" one young man cried.
"Courage!" a woman called.
From lamp posts on the Ile Saint-Louis, bright banners dangled. Remy Martin,
Evian, Air France, Wrigley's--all proud corporate sponsors of the passion
play. Men in natty suits surveyed the scene, pleased with the excellent
In the middle of this bustle, J.J. Smith sat calmly at the judge's table. He was
34 years old with wavy brown hair, a straight, well-proportioned nose, and an
oval face, perhaps a bit soft at the edges. There was a certain authority about
him. He wore a navy blazer with a gilded crest on the pocket, linen trousers,
and sandy bucks. A closer inspection revealed a few frayed stitches on his
shoulders, the hem of his jacket lining stuck together with Scotch tape, pants
slightly rumpled, shoes a bit scuffed. He couldn't be bothered with clothes,
really. There were more important matters on his mind. A thick black
notebook lay open on the desk in front of him. He inspected the kissers, then
checked the pages. So far, not a single violation of the official rules.
"Can I get monsieur anything?" a young woman said, batting eyelashes. She
wore a flimsy sundress, and official credentials hung on a chain around her
long neck. They were all so solicitous, the French staff. "Perhaps a glass of
"Non, merci," he said. A glass of wine would finish him off. He was an easy
drunk. "Thanks. I've got everything I need."
"I'm here to help," she said with a smile. He watched her walk away, slender
in the sun.
I'm here to help. Indeed. He mopped his forehead, sipped a bottle of cool
spring water, and surveyed the Gallic crowd.
There was something about the kissing record that always turned out the
hordes. Just one year earlier, in Tel Aviv, thousands watched Dror Orpaz and
Karmit Tsubera shatter the record for continuous kissing. J.J. clocked every
second of those 30 hours and 45 minutes in Rabin Square, then rushed by
ambulance with the winners to Ichilov Hospital where they were treated for
exhaustion and dehydration.
Kissing was an artless record, really. There was no skill involved. Success
was more a function of endurance than romance, more stamina than passion.
The basic rules were straightforward: lips locked at all times, contestants
required to stand up, no rest or toilet breaks. A few additional regulations
kept the competition stiff. Rule #4 was his favorite: "The couple must be
awake at all times." Rule #7, though difficult to enforce, was tough on the
weak-willed and small-bladdered: "Incontinence pads or adult diapers are not
But these logistical challenges were easily overcome. While the novices quit
from hunger or thirst after the first eight or ten hours, savvy record seekers
solved the nutritional problems with a straw, protein shakes, and Gatorade.
Chafed lips, occasionally an issue, were soothed speedily with Chapstick.
The only truly vexing problem was wanting to kiss someone, anyone, for
days, to be completely entwined, utterly entangled. He once knew a woman
he loved that much and would have kissed that long. Emily was a travel agent
he met at the sandwich shop near work. She was a few years older, sparkly
and slim. Her mind vaulted from one random thought to another, impossible to
follow, then arrived someplace original and logical after all. He liked the way
she kissed, gently, exploring, taking every part of him into account.
"Kissing you is like kissing a country," she once told him in the doorway of
the travel agency. "It's mysterious, like all the places you go and the people
When he proposed marriage, she accepted, but neither of them felt an urgent
rush to the altar. Days, months, years went by as he chased records around
the world. His trips grew longer, his devotion to The Book deepened. Then
one morning, as he packed his roll-on suitcase, Emily's good-bye speech
floated across the bedroom.
"You spend your life searching for greatness," Emily said, handing over the
ring in the velvet box it came in. "You're reaching for things I can't give you
and I don't want to spend my life not measuring up."
"But I love you," he said. "I really do." Her decision made no sense. By his
count, their 4-year engagement hadn't even come close to the world record,
67 years, held by Octavio Guilen and Adriana Mart'nez of Mexico City.
Emily smiled, her lips a bit crooked. "You know everything about the fastest
coconut tree climber and the biggest broccoli, but you don't know the first
thing about love." She wiped a tear from her ocean-colored eyes. "That's the
only kind of greatness that counts, and I hope you find it someday."
Had he loved her? Had she loved him? He left that day for Finland and the
annual World Wife-Carrying Championships. As Imre Ambros of Estonia
triumphed, dragging Annela Ojaste over the 771-foot obstacle course in 1
minute 41Ú2 seconds, J.J. began to question the nature of love entirely. The
days passed and like a creeping frost, a numbness spread through his whole
"Three more minutes," a woman shouted. The huge Swatch digital
chronometer flashed 30:42:01. The exhausted kissers held each other up,
limbs shaking from exertion. An official passed them Evian with two straws.
The woman sipped from the corner of her mouth, then threw the bottle on the
ground, where it shattered on cobblestones.
This was crunch time, when the record would stand or fall. Three more
minutes. With victory, there would be newspaper headlines, saturation
television coverage, and J.J. would win a reprieve at headquarters. He was
long overdue for a record. The last few verification trips hadn't gone well. In
Germany last month, a yodeler achieved 21 tones in one second, but alas, the
record was 22. And before that, an Australian podiatrist with a breathing
disorder registered snoring levels of 92 decibels, but the world record was 93.
Both failures were hardly his fault, but that wasn't the way the boss kept
If these two could keep it together for 90 more seconds, he would go home
triumphant and relax for a while, catch up on paperwork, and read
submissions. He would help crank out the next edition by June, then spend
the last hot summer nights in the cheap seats at Yankee Stadium. Soon
enough, fall would arrive, and before he knew it, Christmas. The years and
seasons rushed by this way, marked by little else than the volumes of The
Book on his shelf. Fourteen editions, fourteen years.
With 60 seconds left, the first ominous sign. The kissing couple began to
sway. The man's legs wobbled, then his eyes rolled back in his head. His
knees buckled. The woman strained to hold him up, her lips locked to his
mouth. She clung desperately to his belt, as his body seemed to want to slide
right through his pant legs onto the street. His head fell to one side, jaw
Sweaty and trembling, the woman readjusted, pressing her lips harder against
his limp and flabby face. With one bloodshot eye, she checked the
chronometer. Just 10 seconds to go. She kissed him furiously. Her body
shook, and suddenly, her strength failed. He slithered through her arms to the
ground, and she threw herself down on him. She squished her mouth against
his, face contorted, kissing with all her might.
Ten feet away, J.J. reluctantly pressed the red button in front of him. The
He rose to his feet, an ache in his stomach, and announced: "No record."