Thursday, February 11, 2016

Now Available: "The Moon-Haunted Heart" by TAS

Available February 16th, World-wide

The Moon-Haunted Heart (50 short stories)
by Terrance Aldon Shaw

in paperback at:

as an e-book:
Nook (Barnes & Noble)

(*) If you order through Smashwords, enter the coupon code MH48F at check-out and receive 50 percent off the list price of $4.99. This code is good through March 1, 2016.

(+) Those wishing to order the Kindle Edition are advised to wait until Monday, February 15, as several last minute (mostly very minor) edits have to be re-uploaded.

(To Selene--The Moon)

I cast my dreams upon the void
Like corked epistles on a chartless sea.
You who stumble upon these stories,
Tossed up, perhaps, upon some foreign, tide-washed strand
May, reading close, discern the cadence of my heart,
The tremblings of my naked soul in all its brazen brokenness;
Its studied stillness and unchaste aspiring;
Its manic, howling, vulgar, white-hot wants;
Its winking, tongue-cheeked, wry, bathetic eloquence,
Ebullient lust and blind enlightenment,
The ecstasy of flesh and sense,
Sorrow and exultation,
Languor, levity, despair,
Roaring blood and brimming brain—
All that is me—
Distilled within that secret place
Where love and madness meet.


Sometimes, the truest stories are about what almost happened. Not what was, but what just as easily might have been. The would’ves, the should’ves, the could’ves, the haunting maybes and the melancholy might-haves are the fertile soil in which the most powerful and affecting fiction takes root. Then too, sometimes, the most intriguing stories leave a bit of mystery beyond the margins; small enigmas for the reader to ponder hours and days after the book has been closed. Sometimes, the shortest stories are the ones that stay with us the longest.

In his old age, W.B. Yeats famously remarked that “sex and death are the only subjects worthy of a serious mind.” While I think there may well be truth to that in an extremely broad sense, as I get older, I find myself earnestly exploring issues, not only of mortality and desire, but also of nostalgia, regret, isolation, loneliness and longing, lost inspiration and the search for one's place in the cosmic scheme of things.

The purpose of these stories—if they can be said to have any purpose beyond simply being for their own sake—is not necessarily to arouse, but rather to explore these aspects of the human condition through the lens of the erotic. If this seems contradictory, it may well be. “Know thyself,” the Oracle at Delphi famously declared, yet, if we are afraid to look at ourselves as sexual beings—naked, vulnerable, passionate, longing—our lives are not wholly examined. We do not truly know ourselves.

The fifty very-short pieces in this collection range from as many as 4,000 to as few as 50 words. There are brief vignettes—entire worlds conjured up within the space of an eye-blink—alongside more conventionally expansive narratives. The moods, settings, characters, and ideas found here represent many of the things that are near to my heart and seldom far from my thoughts: There are a number of stories about the erotic dimensions of ‘disability,’ particularly visual impairment. There are pansexual celebrations—the hetero- and homoerotic along with the intentionally ambivalent. There are richly atmospheric scene-settings, effusive literary evocations, and casual pop-culture-inspired dialogues, orneriness and ecstasy, contemporary vulgarity and timeless transcendence standing cheek by jowl; low comedy, erotic horror and lambent exultation comfortably sharing the same space, breathing the same air, seeking the same truth.

Writers live in hope that what they write will have meaning, though it is almost always left to readers to find it. If you find meaning in these stories of mine—if you find pleasure, joy, enlightenment, inspiration and encouragement in them—I wish you well.

Terrance Aldon Shaw

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Review of 'Islands' by Richard V. Raiment

This is an extraordinary book, one of those rare stories that seem, in retrospect, inevitable, as if it had always been part of our consciousness, only waiting for a gifted author to do it justice. In voice and style, Richard Raiment’s Islands is clearly inspired by the classic adventure narratives from the Age of Sail, everything from Defoe to Stevenson. But there is much more here than a simple, action-packed yarn of late-17th-century British mariners, tossed up together by fate upon a remote island, struggling to survive in an alien land against the caprice of the elements and the cruel whims of the sea, battling pirates and slavers—as well as their own deep-seeded prejudices—in order to claim their dignity as men. Islands is also a touching, m/m/f polyamorous romance, a powerful philosophical novel, as wide-ranging and wise as it is trenchant and acutely observed; stylish, exciting, thoughtful, probing, beautiful, moving, wonderful!

Islands is, above all, the story of an inner journey, and though introspection comes at times with a shiny aura of anachronism—the relative ease with which the narrator questions the consciousness of his time, the cultural conditioning, communal beliefs, mores and taboos of a rigidly-defined class society—his struggles are—or ought to be—timeless and universal; the search for who we really are, deep within ourselves, as sexual beings capable of love in whatever form that love might take, without anyone to tell us we must be one thing or another—or enforce their sadistic, ridiculously rigid notions of theocratic ‘natural law’ and propriety upon us.

What makes a fictional character interesting—what makes a character great in the end—is their capacity to grow and change within a set of limitations that place them in situations of intense conflict. Raiment has succeeded most admirably in creating a world almost perfectly suited for the incubation of interesting characters. Beyond the physical setting, a small island somewhere in the tropics off the coast of Africa, two castaways must learn to live and work together—must learn to learn from each other—and find a way to coexist when one of the sailors, Peter, is gay (a “molly” in the parlance of the day) while the other, Tom the narrator, is a rabidly reflexive homophobe. Inner and outer conflict is inevitable, especially when a young woman—an escaped slave—finds her way into their world. Ultimately the two men—islands unto themselves—must find a way to bridge their differences, for, as Donne so famously put it, “no man is an island”—nor can anyone pretend very long to be so if they would be fully human. (Raiment’s title is a stroke of descriptive genius on many levels!)

Here, Tom reflects on what he has learned about himself and the world:

You have seen it all, I told myself. You have seen the children begging, the babes cast dead upon the midden, the infants sold for a pint of gin. You have the whores who lack for nothing, pox included, from the service of ‘good gentlemen’. You have seen the starved and hopeless driven for want of a loaf of bread, scarred by the branding iron, deported into slavery. And this girl here, who plays you still so gently, who restores the warm infusion of your cock? What of her? A slave she was due to be. A Soul born in freedom, born to the sun and the jungle or the open plain, born to a family who loved her, a source of grandparents’ pride, beloved of mother, father, aunts, uncles, siblngs, coloured by the sun in order that she might not burn, and beautiful.

What happened to her? You know the story. Dirty men, white or olive skinned, too often black, too, in breeches or in Muslim robes, men who stink, unwashed, foul-breathed with pox, toothless with scurvy, to whom she is but produce, or a beast, an infidel, a kaffir—a ‘soulless’ one, a piece of merchandise; such men trapped her or bought her. They were armed with guns, with torches, whips; she was armed with nothing but her wits. And they stole her.

Raiment’s command of period idiom is without equal in modern historical fiction. His ability to make the older forms of language work so consistently to achieve his present literary objectives is awe-inspiring.  This is an author who has clearly done extensive research, and knows his subject matter in and out, but never bores readers with unnecessary detail, and never wields his superior knowledge like a bludgeon to patronize the less well-informed. There is a graciousness and a humility that shines through every page, imbuing the storytelling with a rich and rare humanity.  

Enthusiastically recommended!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Now Available for Pre-Order: "The Moon-Haunted Heart"

So, yes, regular visitors to this site have been hearing me go on about The Moon-Haunted Heart for months now. I've shared several of the stories (see * below), revealed the first draft of the cover, and made regular updates to the Books By TAS page.

Now, I am at last delighted to announce, the wait is almost over. The Moon-Haunted Heart will be released across all platforms on February 12, 2016. It is now available for pre-order at AmazonBarnes & Noble, and at Smashwords (where it will be downloadable on ANY electronic reading device) and will soon be available from several other major retailers. A trade paperback edition will be available on launch day as well.

If you order through Smashwords, enter the coupon code MH48F at check-out and receive 50 percent off the list price of $4.99. This code is good through March 1, 2016.

The Moon-Haunted Heart

Sometimes, the truest stories are about what ‘almost’ happened; not what was, but what just as easily might have been. The would’ves, the should’ves, the could’ves, the haunting maybes and the melancholy might-haves are the fertile soil in which the most powerful and affecting fiction takes root. Then too, sometimes, the most intriguing stories leave a bit of mystery beyond the margins—small enigmas for the reader to ponder hours and days after the book has been closed. Sometimes, the shortest stories are the ones that stay with us the longest.

The fifty very-short pieces in this collection of mature literary fiction range from as many as 4,000 to as few as 50 words. The purpose of these stories is not necessarily to arouse, but rather to explore various aspects of the human condition through the lens of the erotic in a way that is both enlightening and entertaining.

There are brief vignettes—entire worlds conjured up within the space of an eye-blink—alongside more conventionally expansive narratives. There are a number of stories about the erotic dimensions of ‘disability,’ particularly visual impairment. There are pan-sexual celebrations—the hetero- and homoerotic along with the intentionally ambivalent. There are richly atmospheric scene-settings, effusive literary evocations, and casual pop-culture-inspired dialogues; orneriness and ecstasy, contemporary vulgarity and timeless transcendence standing cheek by jowl, low comedy, erotic horror and lambent exultation comfortably sharing the same space, breathing the same air, seeking the same truth.

Here are fifty stories from that secret place where love and madness meet. 

# # #

Stories from The Moon-Haunted Heart
first appearing on Erotica for the Big Brain
(with links)
(note that these stories were all subsequently edited)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

How to Write a Review--and Why, Maybe, You Should

There's a constant tug-of-war between writers and their readers. Authors can sometimes go to rather grotesque  extremes in pleading for reviews--begging, bargaining, sweet-talking, flattering, cajoling, enticing, trolling, bullying, threatening, extorting, blackmailing (believe me; I've heard it all) . . . But how often are they truly satisfied with the notices they end up getting--especially the bullies, the extortionists, and the blackmailers?

It's bad enough that we want readers to appreciate what we do, to be entertained, but more, to find meaning in it, to like it, to love it, to shout their new-found passion for it from the rooftops. That most readers don't bother to leave a review does not necessarily mean that they weren't entertained or moved or excited or deeply inspired or powerfully turned on; it simply means that, after being entertained, the last thing the average consumer wants to do is sit down and write a book report, bringing back unpleasant memories of disastrous procrastination, coercion, and ultimate public humiliation from grade school a la some old episode of Leave It to Beaver  or The Simpsons . . .  If they wanted to write a review they'd be writers themselves, wouldn't they???

There's a notion--or would it be a stereotype?--of the critic as a frustrated creator, somebody who couldn't make it as an author or an artist or a performer, and now spends their time exorcising their pent-up disappointments on those who truly can achieve greatness. We all have our horror stories of laughably ignorant reviewers, barely articulate--if even remotely conversant with the basic language of story, music, or art--willfully clueless, invariably leaving a bad notice for something that 'disappointed them' or 'wasn't what they were expecting' while seldom appreciating the book or play or film or composition that was actually set before them. Most 'bad reviews' are of books that never existed, except in the wishful imagination of incompetents, wannabes and hacks.

Come to think of it, why would writers want reviews from people like that?

Because, alas, as I point out in the Afterword to The Moon-Haunted Heart:

 . . . the cold, hard, commercial truth of the matter is that without reviews, a book simply languishes on the shelf and ultimately dies for want of notice. Not exactly the kind of situation that encourages an independent author to spend the considerable time and intense mental and physical effort required to write, edit, format, and bring a new book to market.

And if writers do pour their heart and soul into their work, sending it forth like a beloved child into the world, can they be blamed if, ever so often, they long to hear of their offspring’s progress? If, on occasion, they allow themselves to imagine their love requited?

Writing can be a labor of love, but, for the independent author,  publishing is often an act of faith; it renders the creator vulnerable, placing their fate in others' hands. 

"But . . . but . . . but," I hear the naysayers neigh, "reviewing is time-consuming, and boring, and . . . hard!" (Really??? Just a minute ago, they were saying "those who can't, review.") 

So, here is a little crash course in effective literary criticism. A basic set of guidelines that I follow when writing reviews. I ask myself the following set of questions about the book under consideration. 

(1) What is it?

The answer to this question is factual, not subjective. Describe the thing under review, its basic taxonomy. Is it adventure, romance, YA fantasy? How long is it? What tense and point-of-view does the author employ? and so on and so forth. 

(2) How is it? 

The quality of the writing, the effectiveness of the narrative. The standards of usage, grammar, editing, formatting, presentation.

(3) How does it make me feel? 

What is my subjective, emotional response to the material? Is the story compelling--or not? How does it affect me? Am I impressed? Dazzled? Inspired? Turned on--or off? Or, perhaps, something else?

(4) What does it inspire me to think? 

What thoughts and ideas does the material call forth? 

(5) What do I believe other readers will get from it? 

(6) What is the ultimate significance of the book considered in the contexts of (a) its particular genre, and (b) literature in general? 

Note that I do not always answer these questions in the same order. 

With this simple interrogative template, one can--not necessarily easily--find a way to approach the writing of a thoughtful, literate review. 

And why should you endeavor to write reviews? 

(1) Because writing reviews can make you a better writer. 

Referring to the list of questions above, note that you are called on to describe something in both concrete and abstract ways. Think of the review as good practice for those descriptive passages in your next novel or short story.

(2) Reviewing can make you a better, more self-aware human being. 

You are required to search your own thoughts, where--surprise!--all sorts of interesting ideas tend to lurk. You consider your feelings--come to grips with your passions whether long-repressed, hidden or seethingly overt, and ultimately know yourself better. 

(3) Reviewing helps you to find yourself within the context of a broader community.

Sure, we all know about some reviewers who only seem to spout vitriol or take great pleasure in destroying people with their blithely wielded poison pens; but there are others who know how to edify and enlighten with their reviews, make connections that aren't always obvious to the rest of us, and help to strengthen the bonds of our writerly community. And when we understand that we are, indeed, a community of like-minded creatives, not in competition with each other, but always better off when we cooperate and encourage one another, we all come that much closer to success.


Sunday, January 10, 2016

Review of 'Skin Effect' by M. Christian

The nine stories in this intriguing, highly-imaginative, occasionally maddening collection have a deeply personal feel to them. These are not easy, breezy reads: these stories require that readers take a journey—and the road is not always direct or level or smooth. A bit of effort is required—and sometimes, more than a single reading. But, in the end, the reader is richly rewarded with beauty and enlightenment.  

This isn’t ‘hard’ sci-fi or conventional genre erotica, but, indeed, something quite extraordinary: less Frankenstein’s monster genre hybrid than the precocious love child of an optimistic speculative fiction (Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov) and a mature, deeply self-aware  literary sensualism. If it must be classified, then I would suggest a brand new subgenre: call it  ‘techno-sexual.’

And what do we find in this brave, sometimes bewildering new world? Trans-humanism that does not—cannot—forget its humanity. Awesome technical capability with the aura of magic, though, in the end, it cannot assuage our deepest longings, our atavistic thirst for mystery.  Hyper-connectedness that cannot sate our hunger to touch, and feel, and remember, as in this extended excerpt from The Subsequent State:

“Now kiss your Goddess—” she said, but as she did, her voice throaty and hoarse, she did not finish, if there was anything she’d been intending to speak, because without thought, without any feeling, without anything but a need to touch her, this special woman who smelled of nothing but herself and the earth, who’d opened her life and her arms for him—for the first and only time in his life—he pulled himself up the sheets, rubbing his almost painfully erect penis along the fabric and kissed her gently, reverently, on that small, intimate, spot.

No spark, no burst, no roar, no scream, no stars tumbling down from heaven, no cracks yawning open from below, no sulfur, no pain, no suffering, no tears from Jesus, no slap from God: there was just the music of her, the throaty, deep, and glorious sound of her pleasure as it rolled and surged through her body, arching and pulling her hands away from her clitoris and nipple to grip, grab, and almost tear at the sheets.

When she calmed, when it had passed to gentle heaves and quakes, Josh pulled himself up and moved—patiently, slowly, naturally—up her full body to where he could wrap his arms around her, her breasts moving against his chest, to where he could look down into her eyes, still unfocused and distant from her release. There, in the slightly remote starlight of her eyes, he saw her seeing him: with nothing but affection, caring, welcome . . . and love.

The writing can be dense, knotty, sometimes overlong to a point where potential dramatic impact is diluted, the final ironic twists coming too little and just a bit too late to dazzle. Yet, the collection does have its share of truly amazing moments, inspired imagining, sparks of the ingenious. Prêt-à-Porter tells a marvelous tale of a futuristic garment that—virtually miraculously—adjusts to the desires and moods of its wearer. The Bell House Invitation  brilliantly takes the ideas of collective consciousness and cyber-community to their logical—and, perhaps, a tad disturbing—extremes. The Potter’s Wheel and [Title Forgotten] imagine worlds in which connectedness makes us omniscient yet utterly incapable of knowing our deepest selves.  

Enthusiastically recommended!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Whither the Erotic Writer's Thesaurus?

Undoubtedly, the most popular and frequently visited page on this site is The Erotic Writer's Thesaurus. It's a project I've been working on with intermittent enthusiasm over the past several years, and I have been gratified by the community's overwhelmingly positive response, as well as the following for my weekly posts about usage on Facebook.

Now, however, I need to make some decisions about the future of this resource. The 'beta' version on this site hardly reflects the vast amount of new information I've added to the master document over the past two years--and I very much want to share all that information. Originally, I had envisioned an e-book reference with full internal navigation and cross-referencing. However, there are several serious obstacles to the achievement of that goal:

(1) The Thesaurus would simply be too huge, with far too many hyperlinks to be viable as an e-book. It would actually be rather difficult and confusing to use. And without the resources and support of a major publisher, there is little practical way to realize the project either in print or electronic form.

(2) In either form, there would be no guarantee of sales, especially as in this day and age people can simply Google the wrong answers from various sites around the web. (Don't get me started on open-source venues, or those sites that seem to be geared more towards the display of advertising than the actual dissemination of accurate information.)

(3) I don't have the full time to devote to a project of this magnitude--unless I want to give up my writing career altogether for the next two to five years, along with pretty much everything else in my life. Writing is my passion, not data-entry. I am currently working on entries under 'I', and, although there are a lot of entries already included under the subsequent letters, there is still a considerable--and seriously daunting--ways to go.

So, what are my options?

(1) I can do a massive update to the page here on EFTBB, reflecting what I've collected so far. The main difficulty here is that I can't figure out how to include rudimentary navigation on a Blogger page. Existing links within the Word document have a tendency to go haywire when transferred to EFTBB. Thus, a lot of manual searching would be required on a user's part. And, of course, while this up-date would greatly expand the resource, it still won't be complete--and it might never be.

With this new up-date, I would split off the Notes on Usage section, making it available as a discrete page.

(2) I could possibly start a dedicated website for the resource, which should retain much of the internal navigation. I would also probably be able to offer the site's contents as a PDF. The problem here is that while I'm dedicated to offering this resource for free, I don't have the money to pay for a site out of my own pocket, nor do I want to sell advertising for it (thus becoming like so many other useless on-line 'data-deserts' as mentioned above.)

(3) I could turn the Thesaurus into a kind of quasi-open-source community effort, with vetted volunteer editors given the authority to add new entries and information. I would be happy to do this so long as my formatting conventions were adhered to within a margin of consistency. As to how I would do this, I don't yet know, and, given the severe time constraints under which so many of us live our lives, it might not be quite as practical a solution as it appears on paper.

At this point, I'm leaning towards the first (and by-far the simplest) option. But I would very much welcome any comments or ideas you, the site's faithful users, may have. Contact me at with your input. I won't be making any final decisions for some time, so there's plenty of opportunity to comment.



(Honestly! It's too bad. I really did like this cover!)

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Present--a short story by TAS

Christmas Present

I turn my head to the left, tacking into the slipstream of memory, and she is sitting on my lap just as she did that Christmas night of . . .

My beautiful cousin Karen is 17 again. I see her in the festively form-fitting holiday sweater she’d been given that morning, a red-plaid midi skirt and a pair of high ‘mod’ boots that were all the rage in that swinging decade so long ago. She lays her head on my shoulder, humming breathily, telling me her teenaged dreams in that wonderful, unpretentiously mature voice of hers; soft, low and smoky, the simplest sigh a seduction.

Karen was older than me by nearly two years, an age difference that would have seemed like an impossibly unbridgeable gulf with anybody else back then. Yet our innocently incestuous fascination had only grown stronger with age and protracted absence. We seldom saw one another—our families were not especially close— but even in my callow 15-going-on-who-the-hell-cares self-absorption I could see that Karen had blossomed into something truly extraordinary; a woman full of sensuous mystery, cool and reserved, yet passionate, too; as vibrant and full of fire as her poinsettia-red hair.

We had escaped together that night with her older brother Bill and some of his friends from college, itching to be out of our grandparents’ house with its colorless, tasteless, joyless atmosphere of piety and boring, unremittingly claustrophobic ‘square-ness.’ Our much-younger cousins—however-many-times-removed— were the favorites on whom the adults lavished the lion’s share of attention along with almost all the gifts that had been so copiously hoarded beneath the tree the night before. Now the little ones wallowed in the squalor of seasonal abundance, drowning in ‘stuff’ they didn’t need and would probably never play with more than once.

“Can you believe it?” Karen sniffed, “One of those little brats got four identical Barbie dolls—four of ‘em! There are starving waifs in China for Pete’s sake—”

“Jealous?” my cousin Bill teased.

“Heck yeah! All I got was this lousy sweater!”

“It’s the thought that counts,” he said.

“At least you got something,” I added, only half jokingly.

“Most of that junk’s going to end up at the Goodwill store inside of six months,” Karen said, “They won’t even get around to removing the cellophane.”

“Somebody will be happy to get it eventually,” Bill said quietly.

“Eventually,” I echoed, however weakly, trying to keep the natural tone of weary cynicism out of my voice, as I’d been warned that it tended to turn people off.

We were on our way to the movies, as far away from reality as possible. The most recent snow had fallen a week earlier and was looking anything but Christmassy, plowed up into gray hillocks along the frigid avenues, still just barely white enough on top to reflect the incandescent opulence of restored Victorian mansions where vulgar footprints never disturbed the pall of impeccably curated holiday cheer.

“I remember this street,” I announced apropos of nothing, “I used to think those houses were haunted.”

“Weird!” Karen winked at me from the front passenger seat, “To me they looked like fancy dollhouses. I always pictured the people living inside them as characters from The Nutcracker.”

“And I’m weird?” I decided not to speak my mind at that moment. Our banter was pleasant; breezily insouciant, feather-light. What was the point of spoiling the mood? What sense in burdening these virtual strangers with my pain?

For I had been there before, riding in the back seat of my father’s ancient ’47 Buick, my 4-year-old nose pressed to the window as I looked out on the desolate rows of darkened houses. The car lumbered along those bleak, late-night thoroughfares, passing beneath the arching vault-work of barren branches, the outstretched fingers of tall, black trees that lined the road like sentries in the underworld, casting their twisted shadows beneath the hazy, half-starved moon. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s and I imagined waves of melancholy, disappointment and abject loneliness radiating from over the thresholds, reaching out for me as if recognizing a kindred spirit, trying to draw me in and swallow me up. Only rarely did I sense a weak ember of contentment or anything like genuine, simple happiness—certainly not from my parents, stiffly distant in the front seat like a pair of misanthropic manequins, nursing their mutual discontent in seething silence.  

I’d always been a rather sensitive child—too sensitive for my own good as far as my father had been concerned. The subject had actually been broached during the last big fight my parents had just prior to his walking out on the family once and for all that terrible Christmas ‘Eve when I was 7. “You better find a way to toughen that little sissy up,” he’d shouted at my mother, his parting shot half threat, half warning as he made for the door, pointing a prophetic finger in my direction, “unless you’ve got your heart set on having a half-mast flag-waving faggot for a son . . ."

Despair had been the perpetually uninvited guest in our home at Christmas ever after, a presence deeply felt but never openly acknowledged, hovering above our cursory, sullen revels, ever jealous of joy. My mother had mostly withdrawn into herself, leaving my baby sister and me to our own devices. Christmas was just another day on which to contemplate disappointment, like the anniversary of a tragic death in the family or the memorial of some momentous military defeat; the perfect excuse to schedule a few extra hours of grief and blame.
“Here at last!” Karen announced brightly.

We met Bill’s friends inside the theater. The movie was Valley of the Dolls—anything to scandalize the grownups— the main floor was packed and there was some debate about whether Karen and I would be allowed in, even with Bill there to vouch for us. Finally, a dusty velvet rope was parted and we were ushered up the broad, spiraling ramp of the old movie palace’s grand promenade to one of the disused boxes on the third level.  

The dim-lighted compartment was already crowded when we arrived.  Karen and I shared one of the less-than-cozy love seats along the side wall under a gilded antique sconce, but soon more people arrived and she scooted onto my lap to make room for another couple.

“Hope this is OK,” she smiled down at me, “Don’t want to make you uncomfortable or anything.”

“No. It’s fine,” I lied and left it at that.

Some of the kids were sharing a marijuana cigarette, passing it from stranger’s hand to stranger’s hand like a casual communion. Karen took a practiced hit and handed me the joint with a blasé matter-of-factness that somehow didn’t surprise me in the least. I tried to follow her example, drawing the acrid smoke deep into my lungs, only to choke on the effort of holding it in.

I was suddenly convinced that everyone in the place had turned their eyes in my direction, annoyed by my all-too-obvious lack of cool. Coughing and hacking, I was sure some pimply-faced subaltern would shortly be shining his flashlight in my face, informing me that I was required to leave the theater at once.

Of course, my cousin found the whole thing hysterically amusing. Karen’s reassuring laughter was mellowing music to my ears; the sound of her giggles like champagne bubbles merrily bursting as they tickled the inside of a tipsy reveler‘s nose. She smiled at me, stroked my cheek and tousled my hair.

“You’re really cute. You know that, Michael?”

“You too,” my reply seemed to echo and reecho inside my head until I wasn’t sure I’d even spoken the words aloud.

“You’re so sweet.” She leaned in to kiss me on the forehead and I became aware of the pattern on her sweater; the white field of gaily-ornamented Christmas trees stretched and distorted around the flowing curve of her bosom, the latticed weft and warp of the yarn, the promiscuous bend and coil of every twisted skein. Enchanted, I extended a curious finger to explore a single tight-wound column, tracing its wooly pathway slowly downward through warm latitudes of red and green and white, cognizant of my trespass only after it had been committed. 

“Is this what you were looking for?” She took my hand and cupped it over one of her breasts.

“Mm . . .” I was confused. My curiosity was more intellectual than sexual, yet, under the influence of cheap cannabis and the sheer novelty of being wanted, my better judgment seemed to be floating off into space like the smoke from the smoldering tip of that sacramental reefer. It hardly helped when the lights went down a second later. We necked with blissful abandon through most of the movie, reluctantly breaking contact only when the final credits flashed across the screen, the houselights came back up and I could no longer pretend that the bulge in my trousers had been for her—not inasmuch as I had been imagining myself with her brother the whole time.

I turn my head again, no longer remembering, yet nonetheless considering the memory of that Christmas night so many years ago. I don’t know why I should look back on that particular episode with such abundance of sentiment. Yet, recalling it now from across the yawning abyss of decades, I perhaps begin to see what my younger self could not.  

It was Bill who asked me if I wanted to go out with the older kids that night; Bill, with his quietly magnetic social grace, beautiful in the unselfconscious simplicity of his charm; Bill who laid his big warm hand on my shoulder and invited me to be part of the group. No one had ever noticed me before. No one had ever gone out of their way to include me in their plans. I’d never known what it was to feel acceptance, the easy, convivial give and take of the ebullient crowd; that wonderful, buoyant sense of living in the moment without care of what might lie beyond, neither looking forwards or backwards; simply being.

But it was Christmas and I was in love for the first time.