Home > Fiction > French, Vacuum, Butterfly
Published: Tue Jul 1 2003
Salman Toor, The Inheritors (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, N.Y. Photo: Farzad Owrang.
French, Vacuum, Butterfly

I am thirty-one years old and hot as a biscuit. That’s what I said during my interview here when asked why I felt qualified to work as the Kisstress at the Holy Angels Carnival Kissing Booth. I think they liked my verve. The rest of my interview consisted of whether I felt comfortable wearing lipstick and whether I was prone to cold sores. I was hired on the spot.

Rule number one is that I only do pecks. The employee handbook is very clear on the guidelines for my position and it states that I am not to separate my lips at any time when making contact with someone. Although you’d better believe that people come around all the time asking for more. I’ve had people ask for French, Vacuum, Butterfly, Hershey, Eskimo, Vampire, Upside-down, Mai Tai, ones most people have never even heard of. Of course there exists that particular breed of person who can’t stop themselves from asking me if, for a dollar, I will kiss their ass. While they are busy cracking up at themselves I explain that the ass-kissing booth is actually two rows over, near the cotton candy machines. I could probably think of a better comeback if I really tried, but my main objective is to get them away from my booth. I’ve sent complaints to Management regarding the ass-kissing requests but time after time Management writes back and says, hey, what can they do? They’re not going to go around trying to stamp out the First Amendment of the Constitution. If I don’t like it, I can move to another country where I probably wouldn’t be allowed to complain about my job in the first place. Very comforting.

Thursdays are usually slow. Even though it’s against policy, I’ve got some magazines—House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Dwell—stashed on the shelf under my counter. I recently started a subscription to Elle Decor so that’s what I’m flipping through when I hear my name. I fold the page in the magazine and see—oh joy of joys—Arianna.

Arianna is our resident fortuneteller. Her sign says she reads palms as well as tarot cards but when I first got here she told me that primarily what she does is read people’s auras. She insists that without even saying a word, people are constantly giving their whole selves away and that she is simply one of those people attuned to receiving it. At first I felt a little creeped out having someone who claimed to know everything about me right by my side every day, but what could I do? This is where I work and that’s where she works. We just do our jobs.

“I had a premonition about you,” she informs me. Arianna is wearing a deep purple wrap with fringe along the edges. It looks like a bad lampshade. “One word:” she whispers, leaning in across my counter, “Romance.”

“Really,” I say flatly.

“I can sense it, Marion, trust me.”

Which is funny because the last thing I am inclined to do is trust Arianna or anyone who says “premonition” and “romance” in the same conversation for that matter. But I egg her on.

“With who? Who will I end up with?” I ask.

Just then, Dale walks over and says hello. I brush my bangs back off my forehead and ask him what’s up.

Dale’s professional name is Dale the Human Scale. He works in the booth to my left where, for a dollar, he will guess your weight. If he is within ten pounds, you lose. People almost never lose. Dale has been working here a long time, long enough that you would think he would be pretty much on target about people’s weight by now. My own theory, though, is that Dale, being the decent guy he is and being a little overweight himself, would rather make people happy and be able to hand them a prize than guess their weight, which is something they probably feel self-conscious about anyway.

Right across from me is the funnel cake booth. It has a huge plastic funnel cake attached to a brown-and-white-striped awning. I’ve always thought that it looks more like a small intestine than a funnel cake. Everyone else must think it looks delicious because the funnel cake booth always draws in the crowds. Outside this job I’ve never actually seen anyone eat funnel cake but for some reason at a carnival people go crazy for the stuff. Sometimes, when it’s really windy, the powdered sugar they sprinkle on top lifts loose from the cakes and blows through the air. It’s actually very beautiful. It looks like snow.

“Nada mucho,” Dale says, leaning against my counter. He’s been practicing his Spanish lately, gearing up for a vacation to Mexico. “Hey, big news in re to the worksphere.”

“I understood the Spanish better,” Arianna says. She’s frowning slightly at Dale and I know she’s disappointed he came over right then because he’s not doing much to support her romance theory.

“What I’m saying,” Dale says, “is that there’s a rumor going around. Carnival’s downsizing by about a half. Es posible that our line of booths here will be the first to go.” He stretches both arms to signal the length of our row.

Arianna looks slightly terrified, and even I feel a tiny hiccup in my stomach because although this is not the ideal job, it’s certainly got its perks and it’s not like I have anything else lined up at the moment.

“Anyway, when did we start selling those huge lollipops?” he asks and holds his hands to form a circle roughly the size of a human face. “The kiddos are freaking in amor with those things.”

“Speaking of amor,” Arianna says, pulling her wrap tighter. She looks Dale up and down and then rolls her eyes. “Maybe it will be one of your clients.”

I laugh. It comes out like a snort. It’s enough to offend Arianna’s very delicate sensibilities and she starts back toward her booth. “Just wait,” she shouts as she walks, her arms crossed over her chest.

“Loco,” Dale says, twirling his finger next to his temple. “Probably should get back to my booth, though, too. Make it a good one, Mare.”

I lean against my wooden countertop and look at the traffic today. It’s picking up. Last weekend they opened a free-fall ride that drops you fifty feet in 1.8 seconds. The crowds have been growing ever since. I guess everyone wants a manufactured rush—and will pay decent money to get it—since that kind of excitement is hard to come by in day-to-day life. Which is why Dale might be right. We’re not exactly the biggest attractions in the carnival. If anyone, we’d probably be the first to go. Which is a shame because all in all, this is a pretty good gig. My hours are two till eleven. I get Tuesdays and Wednesdays off and I’m paid enough for my needs—twenty dollars an hour plus fifteen percent of the fee at the booth. Being in Florida, the weather is never anything to complain about and the carnival only closes in December and January, so there’s decent job stability. Not that I’m planning on staying here forever. I was trying to get my certificate in speech therapy at Nova but my tuition money fund ran dry so I’m on hiatus. When I saw the classified that said the carnival was looking for a Kisstress, I thought, if anyone knows how the human mouth works, it’s me, with all of my speech training to back me up.

When I started I thought I might even get a boyfriend out of it. Kissing people all day, you would think sooner or later some spark would go off, and not just over at the bumper cars. But it’s not like that. No matter what Arianna’s predictions are for romance. Here, people come to my booth, they pay a dollar, they stick out their face, and I just close my eyes, lean forward, and kiss. That’s it. Easy as pie.


Later that day Randolph comes up wearing a gray suit and a yellow tie. Randolph is one of my regulars. He’s decent-looking, brown hair, always in a suit or at least a sport coat, always clean shaven although there’s a certain cast of grayness in his cheeks at all times, and a small but noticeable scar near his ear. I’ve been working here for almost three months and in all that time Randolph, to my knowledge, has never missed his Thursday peck. I mean, okay, there was one Thursday when I called in sick (for obvious reasons, Management takes this excuse from me very seriously) so I can’t say for sure whether Randolph came by the booth that day, but as far as I know, for every Thursday I’ve been here Randolph has been here, too. If we had a frequent kisser program like the airlines have for frequent flyers, Randolph would be on his way to Cancun by now.

“It’s like the end of a storm,” I say, pointing to his suit. “Dark clouds parting, sun peeking through.”

“Or the beginning,” he says, buttoning his jacket, joking with me.

“So?” I mean this to sound like, so, what’s happening?, but he doesn’t say anything back.

Instead he slides a dollar bill—never loose change—across my counter and leans in, turns his face to one side, juts his chin out slightly, and waits. I kiss him, clean and quick against his freshly-shaven face, right on his cheek because I know that’s what he likes. The first time I saw him, he requested cheek. Not that I was insulted; I’ve been doing this long enough to know that everyone has his or her preferences.

He thanks me and walks away, waving back over his shoulder, gone again for another week.

None of my customers, not even Randolph, know my real name. When I started, Management sent me a note strongly encouraging me to adopt a professional name that was more in line with my job. Marion was a little too Happy Days, as they put it. They sent me a list of suggestions that included Sandi, Tammi, and Cyndi. I wrote them back: What? No Bambi? They never responded but in the end I relented and filled out the form that would make me known as Cyndi to any customers on the carnival grounds.

This is the way we communicate with Management—in writing. Supposedly, some high roller who also owns a movie company is the financial backbone of the Holy Angels Carnival. He’s the reason I earn more to kiss people for a living than you might imagine and the reason that we only deal with Management through letters. Mr. Big Shot doesn’t want to be bothered with things like meetings and phone calls. He’s a behind-the-scenes kind of guy.

I hear Arianna yell, “Maybe him!”

“Maybe not!” I yell back. I don’t want to get into it.

I’ve invented stories for almost all of my regulars, including Randolph. First off, I’m fairly certain he’s a businessman of some sort—the suit and tie give him away. He has an office with a door. He doesn’t have a family of his own, although he still talks to his mother once a week. He has a few close friends who he spends time with on weekends, and in his spare time he cooks and watches Jay Leno. I myself prefer Letterman when I’m home early enough to watch him, but I can forgive a guy at least one thing. And that’s about it. It’s only a theory, of course, but I bet I could give Arianna a run for her money.

Distant, exhilarated screams and the start and stop of the music that goes with different rides slips through the air. I get back on my stool and reapply this special lip moisturizer I bought for thirty-five dollars at Burdine’s. I think about what Dale said this morning and wonder if maybe I should compose a letter to Management requesting that they hold a meeting with everyone to tell us what, exactly, is going on. I, for one, would like to know if I should be looking for another form of employment. I decide I need to find out more about what Dale knows before I do anything rash, though. I’m about to put up my “Back In a Flash” sign and head to Dale’s booth when I hear, “Miss me, miss me, now you’ve got to kiss me.”

Christ, I think. I look up. It’s Sweatpants Joe, as I’ve nicknamed him in my head. My story for Sweatpants Joe is that he’s definitely not married, no prospects of any kind. He hangs out at the local Gold’s Gym every day and the people there secretly hate him. They are trying to get together some conspiracy—drugs in his locker or something—to get him kicked out of the gym for good.

“I haven’t been around here in a while,” he says apologetically, as if it makes any difference to me. “You probably missed me, huh?”

Easy answer. Sweatpants Joe could never come by my booth again for the rest of his life and I would still miss him less than a kidney infection. But I’m a professional so I just smile.

“Well, I’m back!” he shouts. He hands me a dollar’s worth of change and puckers up. I picture him as nothing more than a watermelon. I try not to notice how bad he smells. I try to ignore his flaky pie crust lips. I lean forward and kiss. When I pull away he says, “When are they gonna ease up on that ‘hands on the counter’ rule?” “Hands on the Counter” is Management’s way of saying that people aren’t allowed to touch me when I give out kisses. It’s printed in small type on my booth sign.

“The day you’re never allowed back into the carnival again,” I say.

Sweatpants Joe snickers. “Catch you on the flip side, Cyn,” he says and walks away, bobbing his head.

I think: if Arianna yells “Maybe him” about this one, I’ll know she’s certifiable. But she doesn’t say a thing.


It turns out that Dale doesn’t know much more than he already let on, although he claims that “basically everyone is talking about it now” and that “it’s looking like a sure thing.” There’s not much I can do with that except write a letter, which I’m beginning to think isn’t the greatest idea. Otherwise, just wait and see.

The rest of that week flies by because “Pokemon on Ice” is in town and every kid in the state has apparently stopped at the carnival en route to the show. I give a lot of dads pecks, a lot of grandfathers, too, who are delighted because they think of a kissing booth as old-fashioned. Which is really the allure, I sometimes think—this antiquated thing in the middle of huge mechanical contraptions that spin people through the air and nosedive them at fifty miles per hour. Mothers hold up their babies for small kisses on their small foreheads. Two women come by without kids. They tell me they’re trying to adopt and that in preparation they’ve been going to things like Pokemon shows. Like some form of wishful thinking. I give them both kisses on the cheek.

Near the end of the weekend, I ask a boy what he thought of the show. He looks at me over his shoulder and says, “Pokemon on Ice? It was more like Pokemon on crack.”


Next Thursday there is a note from Management on my counter when I come in.

Re: A complaint received yesterday in relation to your choice of lipstick. Customer complains that the smell of the lipstick was bothersome. He said “too chemically.” This is just a reminder, we have done the research and found that quite a number of fragrance-free lipsticks are currently available on the market. In the future, please limit your professional lipstick choices to one of these.

That’s it. When I saw that oh-so-familiar folded light green paper, I thought for sure it was over for me. But even though it’s not a Hi, you’re fired note, in light of the current working climate, it still feels pretty bad. Like they’re watching me. And they know I messed up. Because it’s true that from the very beginning I was instructed to use only fragrance-free lipstick and I haven’t really held up my end of that bargain.

I’m not going to let this ruin my day, though. After all, I have a new red shirt on—v-neck, three-quarter sleeve, some beading along the hem—that I snagged because it was on clearance and I want to see if Randolph notices.

As it turns out, though, the shirt alone isn’t going to cut it. As soon as the day begins, it’s busy. My back, already sore from the non-stop weekend, starts feeling like it’s splintering down low, and I can detect a pimple starting on the tip of my nose from too much rubbing against other peoples’ oils. Around five o’clock, I start experiencing a pretty serious backup. Theoretically, it shouldn’t take that long to kiss people but there is the financial transaction and, usually, people want to try some small talk. I just keep leaning forward, my hands steadying me against the painted white wooden counter, and smooch away. Finally, at about seven, it lets up. I’ve been so busy that I didn’t even notice the fact that Randolph hasn’t yet shown up. It seems strange. The big crowds, the complaint, no Randolph—there’s something off-kilter with the world today. As if to confirm that thought, Arianna marches over.

“I mean it,” she says.

Okay, here we go. “You mean what?” I ask.

“Maybe it’s Randolph.”

“You’re still having the premonition?”

“No. But that’s because a premonition happens in a matter of seconds. I am, however, still believing in the premonition. Where was he today anyway? I noticed,” she says, twirling a piece of fringe from her oversized purple wrap around her finger, “that he didn’t stop by. Seems a bit unusual, doesn’t it?”

“Look, Arianna—”

“Look, Marion,” she mimics. “I know you don’t believe me but I think there’s more to Randolph than meets the eye,” she says.

“Wow, what an uninspired thing to say for a person who looks into people’s souls for a living,” I respond. I can’t help it. “What about your idea that you can know someone instantly based on their aura?” I’m getting carried away now.

“He’s always at your booth,” Arianna says, as though this hindrance should have been obvious. “I can’t detect someone’s aura from that far away.”

“You’re not always right about people,” I hear myself say. When it was in my head, I meant it more as a question—Are you always right about people?—but it comes out as an accusation.

She glares at me and says evenly, “I am always right.” She whips her wrap around her neck and strides away.

That night I work out on the treadmill for a full two hours, thinking that maybe I can sweat the day out of me, everything oozing out through my pores.

I live in a one-bedroom apartment. Third floor. My treadmill is in front of my television. There’s no room for a couch, just a forest-green recliner in the corner, which matches a plant on the windowsill. Even though no one ever comes to visit I have dreams of getting this place looking like a page from Home magazine, with a standing screen blocking the view of my treadmill, with slipcovers, crown molding, wainscoting, and that warm, sectional lighting that seems the complete opposite of my halogen lamp. I would like it to feel like it has some life in it, like I have some life in me, like my life has some life in it.

About an hour and a half into my treading, I hear a banging on the floor underneath me. I know it’s Mrs. Crowley downstairs, banging a mop handle against her ceiling, telling me to keep it down. The treadmill makes quite a rumble, she tells me. I pretend not to hear. I want to make sure this day gets out of me. What was that commercial that used to air? I’m gonna wash that gray right out of my hair? Same concept.

By next Thursday, Arianna and I have made up. Over the weekend I hit on this brilliant idea of asking her to interpret a dream of mine as a way to make good. I don’t actually remember the last dream I had, but I concocted one for just this occasion. Dream interpretation is Arianna’s favorite thing. She’s really trying to break into that field and I knew it would make her happy to get some practice with me. Just to get her going I told her I had a dream all about Randolph. I said that it started with me sitting at my booth and that, for some reason, I was wearing my pajamas (I tried to make it sound dreamlike, random elements thrown in) and that I had a really long line of customers that day and then, when I looked at them closer, I realized that they were all Randolph. Like he kept coming and coming, lined up all the way to infinity. I was looking down this long line of Randolphs when, out of nowhere, this horse flew down and the next thing I knew I was riding it out of the carnival, leaping over the gates and galloping away.

Arianna looked at me and said smugly, “You know, Marion, a dream is a wish your heart makes.” As though that solved everything.

“Isn’t that from a Disney movie?”

“Well, it is now. But where do you think they got it?” she said, tapping her index finger against her temple. I didn’t even want to start on that one.

“I had no idea,” I said instead.

“Anyway, I have a lot of thoughts on your dream. It was very, very interesting. I’ll get back to you with my complete analysis but all I’ll say for now is, be careful what you wish for.”

Are you serious!, I wanted to shout at her. Be careful what you wish for? Christ. And of course it was interesting. I had made it interesting specifically for her. But she looked happy, pleased with herself, pleased with me and that, after all, had been the objective.

There still hasn’t been any news about the alleged downsizing, but I’ve heard of a few people who had put in applications with Busch Gardens already and at least one employee who was shooting for the big time and had looked into Disney World. Preemptive measures.

I’ve had about twenty-odd customers so far today, four of whom tipped me at the booth. Technically, we’re not supposed to accept tips but I can guarantee you there is no one working at this carnival who sticks to that rule. Suddenly, I see Randolph. Nowhere to be found last week and then here again. He seems in a particularly good mood today because as he strolls toward my booth he says,

“It’s our anniversary.” He’s wearing a black pinstripe suit, red tie.


“As of today it’s been exactly three months since I’ve been coming to see you.”

Which also means that my three-month anniversary of working here passed on Monday. I feel a little miffed because my three-month working anniversary came and went and there was no recognition of it on the actual day, either by myself or by Management. It’s something I thought they did. I was told when I signed on, three months and you’ll get a raise. A raise would be nice, but considering the anxious atmosphere, even a Thanks For Three Months of Wonderful Service note would suffice.

“Happy anniversary,” I say.

“How should we celebrate?” He smiles wider than I’ve ever seen him smile, which thrills me for some reason. I notice that one of his incisors overlaps the two adjacent teeth a little. Funny I’ve never noticed that before. I start wondering what else I’ve never noticed about him. I wonder suddenly what his tongue feels like, what his tongue would feel like against mine. I am not, under any circumstances, supposed to think these things. Not by decree of Management, but because of a vow to myself not to think of my customers in that way. But I can’t stop myself, and the thought of Arianna and all her premonitions gallops through my head for a millisecond as I wonder if maybe she cast some kind of spell or something. Randolph is just standing there smiling, frozen and toothy, like one of those ducks you try to throw a ring over the neck of. And suddenly, I want to show him something about me—the small mole on the back of my knee or something—in a way that I have never wanted to in this job.

Finally I take the easy way out and say something like, “Two kisses for the price of one?”

He laughs. “Sounds like a deal.”

“Best deal this side of the Mississippi. Anniversary special. Limited time only.”

It’s official now that I have no idea what I’m saying. I keep thinking about his teeth, about his tongue, about the mole behind my left knee. I’m not foolish enough to think that I’ve spontaneously fallen in love with him, but I do want, in this sort of desperate way, to be close to him. Close, I realize then, is not just a measure of distance in this job; it’s a word that means you’ve gone too far.

Randolph slides me a dollar. I tuck my hair back behind my ears and wait for him to turn his face to the side. When I lean in, I notice he smells different. I give him a kiss against his cheek, which is warm and smooth. I pull back and he turns his face the other way to cash in on his buy-one-get-one-free offer. I realize, as he does it, that I’ve never actually kissed this cheek. I realize it because for the first time I am up close and personal with the scar on his face. It’s about an inch long, pressed into his skin, almost like a sleep mark that never goes away, a small crescent. Just like with his teeth, the sight of it thrills right through me. Suddenly, without knowing what I am doing, I kiss him there on the scar, gently. It feels like touching some part of him that I’m not supposed to, something very private. I know he knows what I’m doing because kissing him there means missing his cheek entirely, the scar being back almost at the jawline near his ear. He doesn’t move, though. Just lets me put my lips against it, holding his chin in my hand. After another few seconds, I pull back again and stand there, my arms dangling uselessly at my sides. He raises his hand and, with his fingertips, touches the scar.

“I’ve had it for close to three years,” he says, even though I haven’t asked. “Car accident. I was with my wife. I was driving and a pickup truck came through the intersection from the side. Her side. I never saw it.” He speaks evenly, softly. I don’t say a word. I look over his shoulder, praying that no other customers will come, not now. All I see is a gust of powdered sugar from the funnel cakes blow up and swirl around in the air for a second before dispersing, blowing apart, flying in all directions through the wind. The sight of it, at that moment, fills me with sadness. Somewhere in the distance the shiny candy tinkle of the Ferris wheel music bubbles into the air as the wheel itself lumbers around in circles. I hear people screaming, laughing. I can smell, barely, the manure from the livestock pens, which are the oldest fixtures in the carnival. My booth is far enough away from them that normally I don’t even catch a whiff but when there’s a strong enough breeze sometimes the air carries the scent.

Randolph curls his lips in between his teeth and holds them there for a second. I want to say something like, That’s okay. You don’t have to say any more, because honestly I don’t know if I want him to say any more, but nothing comes out. It’s strange because I used to study speaking—essentially the verbalization of thought—for a living. Now what I do for a living is almost the opposite—it’s a study in muteness, in not really being expected to say anything. Finally, Randolph clears his throat.

“I’ll see you next week, Cyndi,” he says.

He’s about fifteen feet from my booth when I shout, “It’s Marion. My name is Marion.” He turns back and looks puzzled. I am standing on my toes with my hand cupped around my mouth. I am yelling to someone at a carnival what I have somehow decided is the most important thing I could tell anyone about myself at this moment.

He nods but I can’t tell if he understands. He raises his hand and gives a half-wave before leaving.

The river of people in front of my booth is growing, gliding through the walkway.
I know it’s only a matter of minutes—as soon as she’s done with her customer—before Arianna comes over, wanting to talk about what just happened between Randolph and me, if she doesn’t already know. I’m close to believing this was somehow her doing. This bubble of emotion rising somewhere inside of me, fully-formed and quivering. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had that and even though much of it is a weird and delicate sadness, I almost want to thank her.

A few seconds later, someone walks to Arianna’s booth and hands her a folded light green paper. She opens it and then starts to dab at her eyes with her scarf. The same kid comes and hands me a paper, too. I watch as he makes his way over to Dale’s booth next. I don’t really need to open it, I think, to know what it says. I unfold it anyway.

We heartily congratulate you on three months in the Kisstress position. Please accept these Holy Angels bills (available for use anywhere in the carnival, not redeemable for outside purchase) as a token of our appreciation.

The words “three months” and “Kisstress” have been filled in by hand. I look at the bills. They are no bigger than business cards and very thin. In the center, there is a photocopied picture of an angel with a halo. The angel is winking and giving the thumbs up.

Cristina Henriquez is the author of a novel, The World Come in Half (Riverhead, 2009), and Fall Apart_: A Novella and Stories_ (Riverhead, 2007). Her stories have been published in journals including The New Yorker, AGNI, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and AGNI. (updated 6/2010)

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