Soul Kiss opens on a train from the military town of Manhattan, Kansas, en route to rural Georgia, where two of young Mariah Santos's aunts live, though to her they might as well be strangers. It is at Aunt Faith and Aunt Merleen's house, after a brief exchange of words, that Mariah's mother abandons her, hurrying down the walkway and slipping away innominately into the world at large. Devastated by the most recent of many failed relationships, tempted by the taste of drugs, and feeling herself losing a grip on her life, she chooses to leave the child in the care of relatives now rather than to jeopardize the young girl's adoration of her. It is from her beautiful, absent mother that young Mariah has inherited an unquenchable thirst for words and the feelings of comfort and hope that define them. Every morning when Mariah was a child, her mother wrote a fragrant, vibrant word on a small square of pink paper, folded it twice, and gave it to Mariah to digest; now, as she sits in shock, utterly alone, on her aunts' bottom stair, Mariah reads the words that hermotherhas penned for her on the last slip of pink: "Mama loves you. Wait here for me."
Left in the care of her elderly aunts, Mariah grows up in a state of unfulfilled longing, waiting for her mother's return. A cool relationship develops with her aunts, and the young girl grows to love the soft Faith and the stern Merleen amidst cello lessons and garden weedings. Her mother's eroticized nurturing has given way to bisexual murmurings in Mariah: She smokes cigarettes with and discovers a concupiscent attraction to her "girly-girl" friend Joy, yet also gives herself over to a young Latino ballplayer named Jesus Miguel Monteverde (though her interest in him seems to derive from hopes of becoming pregnant, "to have an angel in my arms," she confesses). Mariah is constantly longing for something to stir, as hope comes and goes for her mother's return. A curious, rebellious wanderlust steers the girl, causing her to board a bus to Los Angeles to find her father, Matisse, when the longing becomes too great. He is the hero of her imagination, a prince of images painted from her mother's descriptions. In California, however, reality asserts itself; Matisse, who loves his daughter dearly, is too tempted by lingering evidence of his former wife that he sees in Mariah to be her proper guardian, and thus her second parent fails her.
In delicious, chromatic writing, Soul Kiss explores the taboo denouement of growing up displaced in eroticized environments. "I chose specifically to use a particular style," explains Youngblood, "so that it wasn't so harsh — that it wasn't about Mariah being this victim. It was about her taking power...trying to spin a web that was really beautiful to sort of transform her life." Soul Kiss is at once Mariah's realization of her burgeoning sexuality, and her resignation to the sadness and abuse she must endure in search of a love that stays