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 école 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 lampposts on the Île 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 turnout.
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 wine?”
“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. Now, on a spring day in Paris, another young couple was poised to break the record. They were the last two standing from the initial field of 600 entries.
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 allowed.”
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 Chap Stick.
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 you meet.”
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 Martínez 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 4 1/2 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 body.
“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 score.
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 slackened.
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 chronometer froze:
He rose to his feet, an ache in his stomach, and announced: “No record.”
The crowd gasped.
It was close, a mere 4 seconds, but rules were rules. He felt awful for the two kissers, crumpled in a heap. He couldn’t bear to look them in the eyes. There was no wiggle room when it came to world records. Too much was at stake.
“Impossible!” a spectator screamed. Doctors rushed forward to treat the toppled man. One medic pressed an oxygen mask to his face; another listened for the murmuring of his heart. The woman stood over her partner, weeping, as cameramen angled for pictures.
J.J. closed his rule book, slipped it in his well-worn calfskin briefcase. His limbs cracked as he stood; it had been a long 31 hours. He straightened his blazer and grabbed his roll-on from under the table. Careful to avoid contact with the losers, he tried to slip into the crowd.
“Just a few questions,” a journalist said, two steps behind.
“I’m sorry,” J.J. said. “My limousine is waiting. I’m late for my plane.”
“When will you hold another kissing competition?”
“Please contact headquarters. The Review Committee will answer you.”
He turned the corner and disappeared down the Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île. He walked quickly, the roll-on bumping wildly behind him. He wanted to get away from the failure, fast. The kissers with no record. The reporters with no story. What would he tell his boss? Another defeat. After several blocks, when he was sure no one was in pursuit, he hailed a taxi. Headquarters didn’t pay for limousines.
“Charles de Gaulle, please,” he said to the driver. “Flight leaves in 40 minutes.”
“Oui, monsieur. No problem.” The driver pulled into traffic. He checked out his passenger in the rearview mirror, with a look of puzzlement in his eyes. “You are from The Book of Records, yes? I saw you last night on television at the kissing competition.”
J.J. smiled. It happened now and then; with all the TV appearances, someone recognized him in the street. And, inevitably, the first question.
“What is the longest taxi ride ever?” the man asked.
“Roundtrip from London to Capetown, South Africa,” J.J. said. “Broke the meter. 21,691 miles. Cost $62,908.”
“I should be so lucky.”
They zipped along the Rue de la Paix in light traffic.
“Where are you from?” the driver asked.
“New York,” J.J. said. “Greatest place on earth.”
The driver scoffed. “Incorrect. Paris is the greatest. The food, women, life.”
“Yeah, yeah, everyone says that. But New York is the greatest.”
“No, monsieur,” the driver said. “In New York, everyone lives on top of other people. How do you say? Like the sardines?”
“Oh, no. We have beautiful homes with lots of space.”
The driver made a small sound of protest — pffff — then turned up the radio.
J.J. closed his eyes. New York or Paris? He regretted the argument. Everywhere, always, people wanted to debate the world’s best and worst, especially when they recognized his blue blazer with the gold insignia.
Yes, he had considered spending the weekend in Paris. He knew a divorcée named Helene who ran a bistro on the Rue de Buci. She fed him exquisite meals and offered her warm back against his at night. She whispered in his ear that she needed nothing in return, but the look in her eyes, the farewell hugs that lasted too long, left him feeling hopelessly sad.
Now he just wanted to get home.
He thought again of Emily’s indictment a few years ago, that he knew nothing about love. He took it as a challenge. He was a relentless researcher and set out to learn everything about the subject. He read classics and pulp romances, crammed Shakespeare and Shelley, studied Mars and Venus, memorized the complete works of Deepak Chopra, delved into anthropology, biochemistry, and psychology from Freud to Dr. Ruth.
He dated too, giving and receiving a fair share of pleasure and disappointment. In the end, true love seemed as remote as Messier 31, a rotating spiral nebula in the Great Galaxy in Andromeda, the farthest object visible to the naked eye, 2.31 million light-years from earth.
But J.J. had learned one thing from experience, repeatedly and for sure. Casual intimacies on the road always ended with someone hurting. So this time, he did not call Helene.
Sticking around in Paris for the weekend also meant consoling the losers in the kissing contest. He knew that grim scene all too well. By now the crowds were long gone, the bright banners rolled up, and the street sweepers had cleaned the last litter from the road. Under the shadow of the drooping bridge, the doctors had finished ministering to the man still lying doubled up on the ground. The chronometer was frozen in time.
The crumpled man and weeping woman were four seconds shy of the world record. Four seconds from global recognition in one of the best-selling books of all time. Four seconds from history.
Over the years, he had comforted thousands of the defeated, men and women who spent long nights muttering “what if?” In The Book, winning was everything. Second place was oblivion. The worst was the inconsolable Pakistani Air Force pilot who desperately wanted recognition for the longest fall without a parachute. Sucked out of his cockpit in a freak midair decompression, he had plummeted 33,301 feet, landed in a lake, and somehow survived. J.J. traveled to Islamabad where the aviator, mummified in bandages, was bedridden with 37 broken bones. Upon careful investigation, though, there was no new record. The pilot had come close — within 30 feet — but the place in history still belonged to Vesna Vulovic, a Yugoslavian flight attendant who fell 33,330 feet when her DC-9 exploded over Czechoslovakia. Learning of his defeat, the Pakistani pilot wept so hard on J.J.’s shoulder that his prized blue blazer was soaked through.
No, there was no point hanging around, or even looking back for that matter. He had gotten involved too many times, stayed too long, cared too much. He learned the hard way. In the end, there was nothing he could do. He was simply there to authenticate. Sentiment only slowed him down; there was always another record somewhere up ahead.
“Monsieur, what airline are you flying?” the driver asked.
J.J. checked his ticket. Headquarters pinched every penny.
“Dollar Jet,” he said. He was seven long hours from home.
The building on East Fourth Street was crumbling brick by brick. A homeless man was sprawled in the entryway, arms and legs splayed, a copy of Martha Stewart Living open across his bare chest. J.J. stepped over him carefully, saw that the elevator hadn’t been fixed, and trudged up the grimy stairs to his apartment on the fifth floor.
From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Man Who Ate the 747 by Ben Sherwood Copyright © 2002 by Ben Sherwood. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.