"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 Mart'nez 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 41.2 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:
Excerpted from The Man Who Ate the 747 by Ben Sherwood Copyright© 2000 by Ben Sherwood. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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