Everyone’s talking about pornography these days, what with the Game of Thrones season premier and all. People seem to do an awful lot of thinking about pornography, what counts as porn, whether a piece of art 3000 minutes long containing between fifteen and thirty minutes of unappealing pudenda can be written off as porn, that sort of thing. I’m trying to keep my mouth shut. I was homeschooled on the Planet Charismatic, so I’m told my opinion doesn’t count for much by people who like porn. And I like to study the films of Stanley Kubrick, so I’m told my opinion doesn’t count for much by people who watch EWTN, either.
I’ve only ever been exposed to real pornography once, when I was a teenager.
Let me back up a minute and explain.
We were on vacation at “the beach,” which if you’re in Ohio means the shore of Lake Erie. We used to go there every year in the summer, to push my grandmother around the boardwalks in a wheelchair, and we’d sometimes go again in the off-season, in late May or early September, when it was too chilly to swim much but nice weather for wading. My father would find us a cheap motel near a smelly wharf and strip of muddy shore, for a long weekend.
I liked ‘the beach” at Marblehead. I especially liked the cold off-season when there was no grandmother to be polite to, and I could stand on the limestone rocks with the wind blowing my hair and imagine I was a sea captain’s widow. I liked to make believe that I was a member of the Danish Resistance, smuggling my Jewish friends across the sea to safety in Sweden just like Annmarie had in Number the Stars, my favorite book. I liked to swim in the muddy, chilly water for as long as I could stand, and pretend I was a selkie.
I didn’t like traveling with my family, though, and I didn’t like staying in hotels.
My mother’s crotchets were always magnified a hundredfold on vacation. She was the worst of backseat drivers, possessed of the notion that a semi truck was going to t-bone the mini van at any minute and only her vigilant complaints about my father’s driving could prevent the crash. She made up nightmare stories about the people we met on vacation– that the large family at the religious shrine were a gang of inbred “Irish Travelers,” that a gang of middle-aged, scruffy but friendly-looking men on their motorcycles at the outdoor hot dog stand were perverts who wanted to kidnap her children; that if we went hiking in the woods we might be sacrificed by Satanists. And she was terrified that her sons would come across pornography.
“You can’t leave the boys alone for one minute,” said my mother, when she found out that we had rooms on separate floors of the tiny motel instead of adjoining rooms where she could pop in and surprise my brothers. “You can’t let them watch pornography on the cable TV.”
“They’re not going to watch pornography on the cable TV,” my father assured her.
“No, you have to watch them,” my mother pressed. “You can’t let them turn on the TV after ten o’clock. They show pornography.”
“Why would I let them turn the TV on after ten o’clock? And I don’t think there’s pornography on regular cable after ten o’clock.”
That was always his fatal error. He ought to have known, after more than a decade of marriage, that he should never contradict one of his wife’s assertions while they were on vacation, but he never caught on. My mother could talk about nothing but pornography after ten until we got out of the van in the motel parking lot; then, she went back to her usual sport of making fun of my clothing and telling me I looked like Santa Claus.
I asked if I could stay upstairs with my father and brothers, but I couldn’t; I had to stay downstairs, in the room with my mother and sister.
It took about forty-eight hours for my mother to break me. There’s only so long a teenage girl can last when her every move is met with angry ridicule by a woman perched in the bed three feet away in a ridiculous, tiny motel room with nowhere to run. I went to the bathroom and turned on the shower to muffle my sobs; my mother ordered me out because the sound of the shower was drowning out The Biography Channel. I went back to bed and sobbed there.
Having put me in my proper place, she returned to my father.
I heard her stomp upstairs, knock on my father’s door, and bellow “PORNOGRAPHY!” as if it was a password.
My father came downstairs to our room.
“Close your eyes, girls,” said my mother. “Don’t look at the screen. I just want to show you that I was right.”
I closed my eyes.
“You don’t have to show me,” said my father, but she’d already turned on the television.