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.