My first three-cheek kiss came at work. On the day I arrived in Switzerland, a manager I'd met in the U.S. walked across the Swiss branch office and gave me three pecks – left cheek, right cheek, and left cheek again, back where he'd started. They were deft and air-brushed, neither lusty nor lingering. I angled my face in the proper direction each time, but thought the ritual was over by the second. I started to pull away, until my boss smiled at my mistake.
“Three times,” he said.
“Two is for Holland ,” I said, remembering a Dutch friend's greeting. I leaned against a desk and tried to look nonchalant.
“And Germany and France ,” he said. “Three times here.” He took me on an office tour, the three-cheek kiss planted and forgotten. It was a formal greeting in black and white, a gift to the traveler on her first day at work. I followed my boss and nodded while he explained the sleek office phone, but thought about the three-cheek kiss instead. The habits of this place, my home for a year, would come to me. I'd do better next time.
I glance from Aaron to my apartment. The more we packed, the more bare its walls and sides became. Two hours ago, I'd been confounded by brown boxes, a bulging bookshelf, and too many shoes. Despite vows to live simply, my books and boots had multiplied like rabbits over the past year working in Switzerland . Looking back at Aaron, I notice that he's arranged my books into a pretend castle, creating walls of German guidebooks and poetry. I purse my lips and ask where my efficient, productive boyfriend has gone.
The listing book tower means I'm now the organized one; the bottle of wine I'd opened out of guilt was to blame. Stifling a sigh, I gather the castle of books and scoot them into a waiting box. I can't be irritated. After almost breaking up a few weeks ago, getting annoyed seems out of place. Besides, he's helping me pack.
Aaron stares for a moment at the place where his castle had been. He turns to me, blue eyes considering the hardwood floor of this fourth-floor studio, and shares an apologetic smile. “Is there anything to eat?”
I cut bread and thick cheese slices, knowing we're better off with food. It calms my irritation and slows his wine buzz. We munch and survey boxes full of my past year here. I have to give him credit; there isn't much left to be done.
“Not bad, hmmm?” He raises his arm like Vanna White in a beaded gown to showcase the packed boxes.
“Really good,” I say. “Thanks for your help.”
“Sure, what are Freunds for?” Aaron says, using the German word for boyfriend.
I hang onto it for a moment, liking its sound and not knowing if our romantic relationship will survive outside Europe . In the aftermath of work and wine, lingering here, just the two of us, is tempting. I look at my watch. We have a housewarming party to go to.
“We can meet Maya there,” I say, reasoning to myself more than Aaron. Maya, a friend and co-worker, had talked about the party last week. I know she wants to not only see Christian's new place, but to meet his new roommate.
“Sure,” Aaron says. He sets his wine glass on the table and slouches in his chair. He doesn't care what we do, although at this moment, I wish he did. Dark brows lounge over his eyes, while his lips make a confident arc. I can almost understand why Maya's aunt compares him to Tom Cruise at every get together.
We sit at the table and don't make any move to get up. Relaxation has its perks, even in a boxed-up apartment without its usual Monet posters, rows of boots, and guidebooks that open up to other countries. I look outside at the familiar gray clouds.
While I'm moving out in a few weeks, my Swiss co-worker Christian is moving into a new place. While I'm flying back to America in time for Jill and David's wedding, Aaron isn't – he's continuing his ex-patriot journey and staying another year, maybe two. I sit a moment and think about my decision to take one of the marketing jobs at company headquarters, wondering if I've forfeited friends and romance for opportunity.
“Let's go,” I say, grabbing our coats before doubt squeezes harder. With my year in Switzerland finished, my bosses had asked me to come back. Besides, in the wake of a near break-up, it didn't make sense to stay here with unrealistic hopes in mind. We walk downstairs to the company car I'd borrowed for the weekend. Down the hill toward the main road, the neighborhood store has a window full of boxes to match my own. The elderly couple who ran the store, having retired, are closing it. I sigh as we pass by the dark windows once filled with rounds of cheese and fresh bread.
The drive to Christian's new place isn't far. Aaron makes jokes to keep me from worrying in general, about the store, leaving for America , or the wet roads. “It wouldn't be Switzerland without rain,” he says. “You'll miss it more than me.” He winks as the tires whoosh through a puddle. I smile at him, one Seattle native to another.
We park next to Maya's Fiat wagon and wander around the large white apartment complex, dodging indecisive spring raindrops. Dark-haired Maya and her blonde sister Gabi wave at us from under an awning. “This place is huge,” Maya says, reading the nameplate by each doorway as she walks to meet us.
I look around at the tri-level building, which reminds me of American apartment complexes. Maybe this is the kind of place I'm going back to, a modern high-rise with an elevator instead of stairs. I force a smile. No more sneaking around past the Swiss laundry room curfew, I promise myself, or having the same laundry day and time each week.
I spot our co-worker, Christian. He leans his tall frame outside, looking at us from a few doors down. “Come on in. You're the first ones here.”
I glance at Aaron to see if he's caught the irony of this. In the end, we'd figured out Swiss punctuality and timing, even for parties. No longer black and white, this place has turned a comfortable gray. Inside the doorway, Christian gives me a peck for each check, left and right. I position my face to the left again, ready for the third.
* * *
“The three-cheek kiss is trendy,” Maya said. Inside a dark bar with colored lights, techno music thumped between our words. After a few months in Switzerland , hanging out with Maya and her boyfriend Romeo was an easy ritual. Still, we didn't use the three-cheek kiss on each other.
“It's impractical,” Romeo said. “It takes too long to leave someplace if you have to kiss everyone.” He stretched his legs so the tips of his vintage cowboy boots peeked from beneath the table.
I grinned, remembering a crowded tram in Zurich with a group trying to say goodbye to one another. They struggled to keep up with who had been kissed, tangling up their hair and mixing backpacks. It took a few minutes before everyone finished their pecking and crowded out the door.
“There's more handshaking here too,” I said, thinking of two young women who clasped thin white hands at my bus stop. I tried to imagine shaking hands with Maya after a day at the office.
Romeo shook his head. “It's kind of strange to see two teenagers shake hands. I don't know if that's right either.” He frowned into his beer.
I lounged on black cushions in the window seat. With greetings in such a wide range of formal to intimate, I didn't know which to pick. I'd probably made mistakes already. I turned toward Maya. “How do you know when to shake hands or kiss?”
She sipped from her wine and set down the glass in front of her. “You figure it out.” The waiter came by, and she motioned for three sparkling waters. “After a while, you don't need either.”
Inside Christian's new apartment, Aaron shakes hands with the host. “I'm getting something to drink,” he says, following Christian's urging. I watch Aaron slip into the kitchen toward the bottle-lined counter. After pouring a glass of red wine, he sits down on one of the couches, turns to the woman next to him, and starts speaking German.
Maya, having already received her three-cheek kiss from Christian, stands by the coat closet. Gabi and I wait next to her. Maya smiles up at our host. She looks even more petite next to his lanky height. “We'd like a tour, please,” she says.
Christian laughs. “We're still unpacking, but okay.” We follow him down the hallway.
The doorbell interrupts. Like an alarm clock, it signals the start of the party, with most guests arriving on cue to its buzz. “Just show yourselves around,” Christian says, sounding relieved to abandon the tour of his unfinished quarters.
Gabi, Maya, and I look around a bedroom lined with rollerblades and men's shoes that must be Christian's. We slip into the adjacent bedroom, which like my studio is filled with nondescript boxes. It's hard to tell what sort of person lives there. I look at Maya. “Have you met his new roommate?”
She shakes her head. “No, but I saw her in the kitchen.” She looks around at the boxes again, then back to me and Gabi. “I think they're just friends.”
Gabi and I scan the belongings for clues to see how Maya knows. Maybe she'd seen them together earlier and caught some nuance I'd missed. I wonder how Aaron and I appear to people who just meet us – friends, or something more.
Maya, Gabi, and I walk back to the living room and sit together on one of the white couches. Maya looks over at the loveseat across from us and nudges me. Aaron sits in fixed conversation with a red-haired woman. I stare at her hair a moment. Its color is a trendy red that falls close to cabernet.
Despite her hair, the woman has a quick smile and eyes that glitter. They stay locked on Aaron's, even when I glance at her. Although I didn't understand at first, I now see the reason for Maya's nudge. I stand up and crouch near Aaron, touching his arm. “Doing okay?” I ask, giving the magenta-haired woman another look. She doesn't return it.
“Yeah. How about you?”
“Good.” Our relationship defined, Aaron and I don't need to sit together all the time or exchange three-cheek kisses. Like Maya and Romeo, we've moved beyond the ritual, saving three-cheek kisses for ceremony.
The magenta-haired woman stands up and starts talking to another guest. I sink back into the white couch, holding my drink close so I don't spill it. Aaron unfolds himself from the loveseat to get some water, and I whisper to Maya. “He's fine.”
Maya raises an eyebrow but doesn't say anything. She and Gabi rise as one from the couch and follow Aaron into the kitchen. I sit down next to Karin, another co-worker, who gives me a three-cheek kiss and introduces me to her new boyfriend.
* * *
On a Zurich tram, I watched two men in tailored black exchange a three-cheek kiss. They returned one another's pecks with unhurried confidence. From the back of the tram, I clutched the metal pole ahead of me and tried not to stare. Their version of the three-cheek kiss was more romantic than most I'd seen.
I shuffled through my German workbook, but those kisses kept taunting me. Maybe the three-cheek kiss had a hint of sensuality that I'd missed. It wasn't black and white this time or even familiar gray, but something more dizzying.
I saved the question for happy hour. Amidst the cushions of our favorite bar, Gossip, I ordered white wine for me and Maya while Romeo worked on his beer. I raised my voice above the music and rushed the words, nervous they'd blare out in a pocket of silence. “Is the three-cheek kiss romantic?” I yelled.
“It can happen,” Maya said. She played with her napkin as the music bounced between us. Romeo, who sat across the table, took a swig from his beer and stared at a menu of appetizers.
Maya turned to me. “Romeo once had a woman take advantage of the kiss.”
He squirmed on the cushions, but I nodded so she'd keep going. Maya and Romeo's relationship was solid, built on friendship and eventual romance. I couldn't imagine a three-cheek kiss rattling them.
Maya centered her glass on a napkin with a muffled thud. She looked from Romeo's face behind the menu to my locked gaze. “The third time, she planted a kiss square on his lips.”
“I didn't know she was going to do that,” Romeo said, letting the menu fall back onto the table. He rolled his eyes to dismiss both the woman and her kiss. For him, at least, there hadn't been any expectation behind it.
Maya sighed. “Sometimes women are horrible.” She picked up the menu and flipped it over before meeting my eyes across the table. “That woman had more than goodbye on her mind.”
“Where's Aaron?” Maya prods my side again. Even discrete Gabi searches for him with careful scans of the room. I get up from the couch to escape more poking and grab a few crackers along the way. Maybe Maya is right, and I should've checked on Aaron sooner. While I know people here, he doesn't.
But it's okay to mingle at parties, I tell myself. It doesn't help to be jealous. What's with the magenta hair anyway? It's supposed to be red, but ends up looking like the red wine we'd sipped at my apartment. Thankful, for once, of my dishwater blonde strands, I bite into a cracker.
In a corner of the room, Aaron and the woman share the same loveseat as before. Thin cheese rinds line the table edge, along with empty wine glasses. I start walking toward the table, but slow down to make sure I'm not imagining the magenta-haired woman oozing across the cushions, or her pale arm curling around his end of the loveseat. Aaron stares into space, neither enraptured nor disinterested. My thoughts crumble as I approach.
“How about next weekend?” the woman asks. Her words trail as she notices me. Aaron mumbles something I can't hear.
“Hello,” I say.
The magenta-haired woman stands up. “I should go.” The height we share forces our eyes to meet. She wears a white shirt that makes her hair glow brighter. Her lips, shiny and purple-red, crease into a thin smile. “Good to see you.”
She leans in close. I freeze like a spooked horse, ready to squeal and run. We had never met. We didn't even qualify for handshaking. Before I can bolt, the magenta-haired woman gives me one air-cheek peck and a quick second. I flinch and draw back, but she persists with her final, purple peck.
The magenta-haired woman switches from Swiss German to English as if to placate me, purring from fresh lipstick. “In Switzerland , we kiss three times.”
She turns to Aaron, who stands in shock between us. Bending toward his pale cheek, the woman languishes three kisses – left, right, left – each peck more promise than goodbye. “ He knows how it's done,” she says, winking and scooping up her purse. Her hair and lips drift toward the front door, washing us in a final blush.
We say nothing. I want to sit, but shift from one boot to another instead. I ball up a napkin and turn to Aaron. “What was that?”
He puts a hand to his forehead and smoothes back his hair. His words slur a little. “I don't know. She just talked about how snowboarding was her life, and that maybe we should go sometime. It was weird.”
I frown out the window. The woman thought Aaron and I were friends. Even to a stranger's hopeful eyes, our relationship appears uncertain. I try to laugh off the memory of the woman's hair, but its brightness still blinds. All I can see are cabernet lips and hair reaching over to brush my cheeks in moves designed to insult, smooth over, maybe both. Her ownership of the kiss reminds me Switzerland won't be my home much longer.
While Aaron looks for our coats, I replay her kiss in my mind and give it a new ending. When the magenta-haired woman bends her head to kiss me, this time I stand back with my hand held straight between us. “In America we do this three times,” I say, and then spin around in perfect balance. The woman watches with lips agape as I aim three kick box thrusts her way, not touching but coming close. I grasp Aaron's arm, and we exit the party in a flourish.
But there aren't many people left to flourish in front of, not that we felt like it. Early as we'd arrived, Aaron and I had also stayed late. Maya and Gabi had already left. Aaron hands me my coat, and I thank our host. I don't remember giving Christian a three-cheek kiss good-bye.
We drive back to Aaron's apartment in Zurich so we don't have to trip over boxes at my place. Maya and Romeo call, inviting us to the movies. We don't join them. I want to spend these last days with friends, but the recent kiss plays in my mind instead, blocking out any distractions that a larger screen might offer.
Aaron sits in a chair with a magazine, turning the pages with smooth calm. He's moved beyond the kiss, and knows I haven't. His eyebrows furrow together over the pages. “I'm going to bed,” he says.
I sit on the couch in the living room, sifting through his roommate's books. I think about joining Aaron but don't follow. He'll fall asleep too quickly, and I'll lie there even more awake, twisting the sheets into sweaty knots.
I envy more than Aaron's easy sleep. He'll awaken to translate another Swiss day, gray with rain or purple with snowboarding. For him, the one who's staying, there'll be more fondue and friends to meet, maybe the promise of new romance. Turning book pages, I stare at German words and read in quiet. Their familiar form and cadence are easier to grasp than illusive sleep. I stay up late, lost in colored kisses until it's time to go home.