Only a Joke
About the Writer
Amy Silverberg is a Doctoral fellow in Fiction at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared in the LA Review of Books, The Collagist, Hobart, The Tin House Open Bar, and elsewhere. She also performs stand-up and sketch comedy around LA. You can follow her on Twitter @AmySilverberg.
I kissed someone for the first time last night. It wasn’t the first time I kissed anyone but it was the first time I kissed this person. He’s about to be famous—or already is, a little. He tells jokes on stage. He’s done this for years, and only now does it make him money, does it get him recognized in a coffee shop on Melrose or in line at the DMV, this ability to make mountains out of mole hills; and the mole hills are his family, his friends, his relationships, all of his neuroses, those thorns that he’s taken out of his side and plunged into yours.
This particular night, someone walked up to him and quoted a line from his own life right to his face. At least, it was a version of his life—his staged life. We were in a sleek, dark bar on La Brea, the walls metallic, and I’d drunk enough red wine so that you could see the shadow of it on my teeth. I only noticed the reddish stain later, in my own bathroom mirror, and I thought, shit.
I’m in my twenties, and I’ve kissed a lot of people, depending on what you think a lot is. I think it’s a lot in that I can’t name them all; I can’t say for sure that some of them were ever given names. For all I know, they could have wandered the world nameless up until the moment we kissed, and then after that, who knows.
My date was bending his head toward mine, holding a cranberry juice because he doesn’t drink, and I was wondering if my breath smelled sickly sweet, like it does sometimes after too much wine. That’s when a guy wearing a baseball cap and fitted jeans approached, and asked my date if he really was the comedian, and once that fact was verified, told him the joke.
My date nodded good-naturedly. “Glad you liked that,” he said.
The joke was about depression, and the guy in the baseball cap said, “Is that true? I mean, I’m guessing it’s like sort of true?” And my date said, “Exactly.”
This guy—this fan—didn’t walk away. He stood there, nodding, his baseball cap looking hopeful in its stiffness, and I understood what he was waiting for: to see the person on stage come to life right here in this bar. My date shouts on stage—he yells at audience members, but in his daily life, he’s soft-spoken, you have to lean in near his mouth to hear what he’s saying.
That’s what I did to hear what he said next, I leaned forward, and he said, “you want a picture, man?” and the baseball cap said, “Nah, I just wanted to buy you a drink or something,” and my date said, “I don’t drink.”
The man said, “Oh I thought you talked about drinking on stage,” and my date said, “I probably did.”
“Ah, I get it,” the man said, “just a joke,” he said, “only a joke,” and he pumped my date’s hand again, one too many times.
“That happens sometimes,” my date said, after the man left, and I said, “I know,” though I didn’t really.
This was before we kissed, but after he said I seemed difficult to read, that I didn’t wear my feelings on my sleeve, did I wear them at all?
“They’re in my back pocket, bundled up like dirty underwear,” I said, as a joke.
I also tell jokes on stage but I’m not famous and they’re not always funny. That’s how we met, at a show. I was the opening act and he was the headliner.
“We’re the bookends,” he said, when we shook hands. Already, he’d seemed different than he was on stage, and in that margin of difference I noticed the shape of his lips, which I liked.
Now my date leaned close and said, “you’re one tough customer.” Normally I think that’s just something men say when they’re wondering how difficult it will be to see you naked, but it didn’t feel predatory coming from him, just curious. “I wonder if it’s even possible to hurt you,” he said, which I also thought was interesting.
Right then was when he kissed me, or closed the gap between us, just barely, so that I hardly noticed it until our lips were touching; in fact I was still talking, saying some half-lie about my career—how well it was going. The kiss was tricky. I thought he was going to lean in more, maybe a little aggressively, maybe like he is on stage, but instead, he hung back, and I was the one leaning in, I was the aggressor.
When the kiss ended, I was still leaning forward. My lips still held the shape of the kiss, as though it were still happening. That was a little embarrassing. It took me a few seconds to recover.
I moved to kiss him again, and he said, “Maybe we should take things slow,” which surprised me. I wondered if he knew how many people I’d kissed, if he could sense that from the shape of my lips. “I don’t want to mess anything up,” he said, which is also something men say when they want to see you naked.
“I think I’d be the one to hurt you,” I said.
We kissed again, and time passed the way it passes on stage when the jokes are going well—unnoticeably. When the kiss ended, years might have passed. It felt like the beginning of something, maybe something long. If, much later, he made a joke about our relationship on stage and a different fan approached him in a different bar when he was with a different girl, I hoped my date would say yes, the story is true, and I hoped he would use my name.