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Scientific curiosity

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"Did you know that when you kiss someone, the level of oxytocin in your body rises while the level of cortisol decreases?" The question comes suddenly to Roberto's ears, and he turns towards Hiraga, who's sitting at his desk, supposedly working on research, and still has his back turned to him.

"That's only a small part of the chemical and biological changes that affect the human body during a kiss, and the sum of all those changes is what makes it pleasant." Only after saying that, Hiraga turns to look at Roberto, leaning on the back of his chair. Roberto returns his gaze, trying to understand where Hiraga intends to move the conversation.

His fellow priest's purple irises shine with more than his usual passionate interest in science, and Roberto is unsure how to interpret the light he sees in them. Hiraga shifts on the chair a little, before continuing his exposition.

"During a kiss," he explains, "the stimulation of the nerve endings in the lips sends signals back to the brain, that starts producing neurotransmitters such as endorphins, phenylethylamine and dopamine." Hiraga's voice is perfectly calm and detached, and he sounds professional as ever, even when, while explaining, he touches his own lips, maybe in an involuntary gesture he is too focused on his own words to notice.

"The presence of such neurotransmitters in a person's body is what causes those pleasant feelings that everyone experiences during a kiss. The 'butterflies'," Hiraga adds before making a pause, averting his gaze to stare at the floor.

The silence lasts seconds, long seconds that seem to drag themselves cumbersomely, like a tired man carrying a luggage too heavy for him.

Butterflies. Roberto thinks about the people in his life who made him feel those, who made him feel happy, giddy, who made his stomach writhe and twist, and he smiles at one of them, the one sitting in front of him and enthusiastically gushing about neurotransmitters and kisses with the innocence of someone who only has the memories of his mother's lips on his forehead as basis for his imagination.

Hiraga moves the armchair closer to Roberto's desk, wheels rolling on the wooden floor. "The increased heart rate, dilated pupils and elevated blood sugars are, instead, the result of the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, thanks to the effect of epinephrine and norepinephrine, produced by the adrenal glands."

Roberto is not sure this whole discussion is going somewhere anymore, but he never has the heart to interrupt Hiraga's excited and heartfelt explanations, so he listens to them attentively, trying to ignore the sense of disorientation that he feels after being dragged in a sudden conversation like this.

"Those glands," continues Hiraga, oblivious to Roberto's confusion, "are located pretty much here, behind the other organs, above the kidneys," he explains, his finger pushing delicately on Roberto's abdomen, between his ribs.

Roberto takes Hiraga's hand between his own, moving it away from him, trying to hide his awkwardness. Judging from his heart rate, his adrenal glands don't really need a kiss to produce epinephrine and norepinephrine, not when it comes to Hiraga. He takes a deep breath.

"Hiraga, is all of this connected to the research you're doing right now?" Roberto asks kindly, hoping that the question doesn't make it seem like he's not interested — of course he is.

Hiraga pauses for a short while, gaze low, his hands fidgeting with the edge of his cassock. "You could say so," he murmurs, but he doesn't sound very confident. Then he seems to have found the confidence he needed to say the right words because he raises his eyes again, the smallest embarrassed smile on his face. "Truth is, it's personal research. I was curious."

Roberto can't help but feel this irresistibile surge of affection towards his friend every time he sounds innocent like that. He feels like pulling him into the tightest hug, but he doesn't. "You're curious about kisses?" he asks, instead, a small, endeared chuckle blooming in his throat.

Hiraga nods, serious, and he doesn't seem to notice the low chuckle vibrating in Roberto's chest. Except he does, and he just tries really hard not to think about how handsome Roberto's face looks when he laughs lightheartedly. Instead, he clears his throat with a cough and continues with the inquiry he wanted to ask all along.

"Roberto, have you ever kissed someone?"

It's like Roberto doesn't instantly realise the exact meaning of the question. His eyes go wide and he raises one of his eyebrows, and for a while he just looks at Hiraga, and it's difficult for Hiraga to understand what passes through his mind; he figures he's deciding if he wants to answer or not.

"My answer would help with your curiosity?"

"Your experience would be a huge help. Studying physiological reactions is a thing, but a second-hand experience would make me understand better." Hiraga's reply comes almost too fast to be spontaneous, like he rehearsed this conversation in his mind over and over again, until he was sure he had an answer for any question.

The last time Roberto kissed anyone: that was a long time ago, before he got into seminary. When Josef was alive.

Roberto remembers how soft his lips were and how sweet they tasted. He remembers getting carried away, and his tongue slipping between Josef's lips, to taste his mouth. He doesn't remember his taste, it's like the exact memory of it eludes him, but what that taste aroused in him, the way he felt: in his mind, those feelings are as clear as if they were in the present.

He realises — as he thinks about it — that he remembers the kisses he and Josef exchanged very clearly, way more than he expected. He tried to ignore the fact that those are precious memories, but his brain still subconsciously but stubbornly clung to them and never wants to let go of again.

And — he tells himself — that's good. He's lucky he has those good memories, even if they are not only pleasant, but also painful. Remembering Josef is always a mix of pleasant and painful, because he can't help but think about all the life Josef could have lived, all the experiences he lost, all the things he missed. Sometimes Roberto still asks himself why God would take Josef away so early, and he tells himself that one day he'll know, one day God's plan will reveal itself to him, and everything will make sense.

But until then, he's happy he has something to cherish.

Hiraga stays silent, pushes his lips together like he is holding back his words. When Roberto realises he is spacing out, he knows Hiraga has noticed too, but he hasn't said anything, and Roberto is grateful that he didn't interrupt his reveries. He takes a deep breath, trying to get his line of thought back into the present.

"Good. It feels good," Roberto replies, a tentative, embarrassed smile on his face. Hiraga doesn't seem satisfied and Roberto knows it's not enough, but it's hard. It's hard to explain how good it feels when the happiness of his memories is tainted by his own grief. But he tries anyway, just because Hiraga asked. "It feels... Warm. It feels like your heart is about to burst from pounding too hard, like your whole body is flushing, like you're overwhelmed by gratefulness. It makes words feel useless, it makes every poem in the world pale in the face of its intensity.”

Roberto stops suddenly, words still waiting to roll off his tongue, but he swallows them back, because they're too much, because he doesn't know what just possessed him, and Hiraga is looking at him with wide eyes, and he hopes he didn't just do something stupid, he hopes he is not about to.

Hiraga is blushing a little, and his lips open to say something, but Roberto is finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on anything that isn't how soft they look when Hiraga sinks his teeth in them in one of his nervous mannerisms.

Would kissing Hiraga feel the same? Roberto has a feeling it would feel even better than Josef's kisses felt, maybe because it has been so long, maybe because Hiraga has the best smell and, Roberto imagines, also the best taste.

Roberto reaches out his hand, grips Hiraga's wrists and pulls him in a kiss, and satisfies his curiosity once and for all with a first-hand experience. He does that in his imagination, for a long second, but the lips he imagines have the sweetest taste, and Hiraga's arms are delicate as they wrap around his waist, and his lips are hesitant when they open up to his tongue, and he's really about to do it, his hand is already trembling, and he can tell that all those physiological reactions Hiraga spoke about already started taking place somewhere inside him.

And yet he doesn't, he can't, he won't, not when the guilt — what are the neurotransmitters responsible for that, he wonders — grips at him all of a sudden and he feels like he just fell from the fifth floor right down into the pits of hell.

He can't do that to Hiraga.

He can't do that to Josef . To his memory.

Roberto turns back towards his desk and closes his eyes, briefly, but long enough to regain his focus. "Sorry, I got... a little carried away with that description," he says, voice less steady that he hoped it would be.

"No, I am sorry,” Hiraga replies, and he sounds burdened for real, and Roberto wants to turn back and comfort him but he can't, not in that moment, not when he’s not sure he even deserves to be speaking with Hiraga. “I asked such a personal question without realising. I had no right,” Hiraga apologises and Roberto feels even worse.

"I-" he starts talking, before he realises he doesn't even have the words to express what he wants to say.

‘I am the one who should apologise, ’ He thinks. But he doesn't say it.

"No need to apologise,” he says instead. “I’m just glad if I could help satisfy your curiosity."

Hiraga sits on his chair, staring at Roberto's back for a while, pondering those words. If he has to be honest, not even a second-hand experience satisfied that curiosity of his: he still has so many questions, but asking them to Roberto doesn't feel right, not when his face when he spaced out earlier looked so miserable, not when Hiraga found himself thinking, just for a moment, that maybe the only way to truly answer his own question would be to actually experience a kiss, even just once.

He can't burden Roberto with his ridiculous thoughts, he tells himself. “You were incredibly helpful,” he tells Roberto, “Thank you.”