R Feature: Parental Guidance
Suggested, Damien Stednitz
PG-13 Feature: Saturday
Afternoons, Royal Theater, Michelle Bitting
Daniel M. Jaffe
Here’s a secret my parents don’t know: the
three of us watched movies at the same porno theater. Although we
all watched allegedly hetero porn, my take on it was definitely homo
The incidents occurred after our move into a
typical South Jersey 1960’s suburb—a housing development with
white-painted colonials, white-painted split levels, white-painted
raised ranches, all with weed-filled backyards and grassy front
lawns. Like everyone else, we had purple rhododendron and red
azaleas out front (it was the rogue independent neighbor whose
shrubbery dared bloom orange). Nonetheless, we were rather odd, the
lone Jewish family on the block, although nobody could tell until
December when ours was the only house not to light up at night and
One Saturday night the following May, my
younger brother and I were left with the teenage babysitter from
down the block, an Italian Catholic young lady who tolerated my
Jewish boy’s inquiries into the mysteries of Christianity.
Fortunately, Dorothy’s church was a broad-minded congregation, so
she said she didn’t hold me, at all of age ten, personally
responsible for the murder of Jesus. I repeated defenses I’d grown
up hearing that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who’d done the evil
deed. “Even if it was those Jews way back when,” she said with a
shrug, “it’s not like it’s your fault.” But, for me, guilt by
association was a genuine concern. Wasn’t Mrs. Levitsky, my new
Hebrew School teacher—a short, waddling woman with a boxer’s beat-up
face and a wart on her tongue—always saying that each of us was a
Jewish ambassador in a non-Jewish world, that any misbehavior on our
part reflected badly on our entire community and could lead to
pogroms, maybe not by Cossacks on horseback or by Nazi sympathizers
with pitchforks like she’d experienced in Ukraine, but still? Each
Jew was responsible for the entire community’s welfare.
Seated on a brown sofa, Dorothy and I
ecumenically discussed. Little did we know that while she was
explaining Jesus’ resurrection on Easter, while I was saying that
the Last Supper sounded an awful lot to me like Passover, while my
little brother was zooming his cars and trucks around the family
room, Mom and Dad were out watching porn.
I would hear the story only years later: from
the address in the newspaper, Mom and Dad realized that the movie
theater was somewhere near the synagogue we’d recently joined, a
temple located in an older, neighboring town and across the street
from a Catholic church. They drove to the synagogue that night,
found a policeman in the neighborhood, and asked him directions to
the Liberty Theater. Removing his cap, the balding officer looked
through my father’s driver-side window, across at my mother, and
How rude, thought Mom.
They followed the policeman’s directions.
“Pretty shabby,” Mom said inside the theater,
noticing the lobby’s worn red carpet, the off-white paint peeling
from the walls. “And it smells like stale smoke.”
My parents never smoked except for the
occasional secret cigarette in the car, never in front of the
children who might develop bad habits, God forbid. My parents never
drank but for ceremonial Manischewitz Extra Heavy Malaga or social
drinks with friends, never hard liquor in front of the children who
might develop bad habits, God forbid. My parents never cursed in
front of the children who might develop bad habits, God forbid, but
on the rare occasions when they said “shit,” they immediately
apologized (like the Thanksgiving Mom realized, way too late, that
she’d pressed not the “Warm” button on the new oven, but the
“Self-Clean” button: “Shit!” she exploded, “I’m sorry”; “Shit!” Dad
muttered beneath his breath when later gnawing the world’s cleanest,
driest turkey, “I’m sorry”).
No off-color jokes were ever heard at home,
except for the one I told at the dinner table about the woman giving
birth to an albino baby because her husband, “oh so very tricky…put
lots of Clorox in his dicky.” Mom gagged on her lamb chop, my little
brother laughed with an exaggerated “ha ha ha” because I did, Dad
jumped up, led me by the arm out of the kitchen and into the living
room, asked if I understood what was so funny. When I answered
honestly that I did not, that I’d heard the older boys, the sixth
graders, tell it at school, Dad explained the word “dick,” a word I
had previously thought of only in conjunction with “and Jane”; Dad
cautioned me never to tell jokes I didn’t understand, and had me
apologize to Mom, who, no longer choking and coughing, feigned
ignorance of any faux-pas having occurred. Ours was a polite and
proper home where the parents tried hard not to embarrass the
children so as not to instill complexes, God forbid.
So, what the hell were my parents, these prim
and proper people, doing in a porno theater?
They’d gone out for a cultural evening, to see
The Private Lives of Romeo and Juliet, a re-telling that
might not quite live up to Shakespeare’s standards, but that would
be elevating nonetheless.
Seated in the dark theater, Mom commented to
Dad—wasn’t it strange, on a Saturday night, for the theater’s only
patrons to be single men without dates? Especially since Romeo and
Juliet was such a romantic subject? And what was with all the
raincoats on a clear spring evening?
The film started, and Mom whispered to Dad that
the costumes were fairly poor imitations of Elizabethan dress. Not
to worry, the costumes soon came off. When Romeo and Juliet started,
respectively, fucking and licking Juliet’s Nurse, Dad realized his
mistake (Dad had been in the army and was worldly), grabbed a frozen
Mom by the arm, led her out of the theater, fast. They rushed home,
paid Dorothy-the-babysitter her full evening’s wages (“It’s not your
fault, dear, that the movie was a disappointment”), hugged my
brother and me a dozen times and declared that TV was better than
movies any day of the week.
Life continued as before, I reached puberty,
entered junior high and then high school. I never dated back then.
Oh, to be sure, I played spin-the-bottle like everyone else in our
early teens. And ironically, my own bar mitzvah party in my very own
basement was the first spin-the-bottle session for me and my Jewish
friends. Whenever my spin sent the bottle pointing to wavy-haired
Larry Cohen or peach-fuzzy Davey Katz, I snickered with everyone
else at the absurdity of random fate, then sighed inwardly, and spun
again until the bottle pointed at someone acceptable like red-headed
Cheryl Goldsmith or early-to-bloom Eileen Marcus.
Feeling nothing during my first kisses with
those girls, I quickly realized the need for a system to maintain my
masquerade, so, while kissing tall Linda Greenspan, I silently
counted Mississippi’s to mark an appropriate passage of seemingly
passion-filled time. By 5-Mississippi, having felt nothing but
wetness on my lips, none of the tingles I’d heard tell of, certainly
none of the stirrings down there, I pulled back with, “I’d
better stop before I get carried away!” She grinned and the others
giggled, so I knew my performance had been convincing. Fine. But
then, several spins later came the kiss with button-nosed Miranda
Green. She and I, kneeling in the middle of the circle, kissed for a
solid five-count; I duly moaned, pulled away with a hearty “Wow!”;
but Miranda pouted and announced flatly for all to hear, “You were
kissing my chin.” I vociferously insisted that my blunder had been
an intentional effort to avoid her bad breath. Sex performance was
trickier than I’d thought.
Which is one reason I would later admire the
porn star of the first X-rated film I ever saw. I was sixteen. One
Monday afternoon, I leafed innocently through the local newspaper to
find a movie, not some Disney film Mom and Dad would take me to with
my younger brother, but a grown-up movie I could go see on my own
the following weekend now that I had a driver’s license. I noticed
the listing for the Liberty Theater.
I had to have seen that listing before—it was
among all the others. But the open-mouthed woman sketched into the
theater’s logo suddenly expressed something more to me than “Oh,
what a great film, oh!” And those three X’s in bold print beside the
theater’s movie titles—they meant something too, didn’t they? (Had
there been no X’s when Dad found the listing for The Private
Lives of Romeo and Juliet? Maybe not—what did I know? Had my
parents’ own experience been the very one to prompt the imposition
of movie ratings nationwide?) I finally understood. The three X’s on
the Liberty Theater’s listing meant HOT HOT HOT. Right here in
suburban New Jersey. Not in Philadelphia or New York, those big
cities I never ventured into except on school field trips to the
Liberty Bell or the Statue of Liberty. But at the Liberty Theater
just five miles away.
I contemplated the upcoming weekend’s
adventure. In bed every night, hands beneath the covers, I wondered
what that movie would be like. Would they actually show naked
bodies? Forget it—disgusting. Completely naked bodies? Naked
men’s bodies? No briefs or anything? No way. Too risky. You’re
not going. How much would I be able to see while they were doing
it? Or were pretending to be doing it—I mean, they were actors,
right, so they wouldn’t actually be having sex. Or would they?
What could you be thinking? You, a good Jewish boy nerd at a porno
movie? You? Would I really be able to catch a glimpse of the
man’s naked butt going hump hump hump?
Forget it, I told myself, just forget
it. But I couldn’t forget it, not for a second. As I struggled
with logarithms in Algebra II, crystallization properties in
Chemistry I, le subjonctif in French, conscience battled
desire. And while watching I Love Lucy re-runs and All In The Family
and Gomer Pyle, USMC. While singing the kiddush with my
family at the Friday night dinner table, while reading silent
prayers during services on Saturday morning in our synagogue just a
few blocks from the Liberty Theater, I thought of blankets pulled
down to reveal torsos “making the beast with two backs” (we’d just
read Othello in English class), then with blankets tossed
boldly aside to reveal butts, naked butts, naked men’s butts hairy
and muscular, all sweaty and jiggling up and down and if I don’t see
them soon I’m gonna die plain and simple. It was as if my biological
urges, frustrated for years by the world’s homophobia and my own,
had re-directed themselves to an attainable outlet—the Liberty
Theater. Liberté! Fraternité! Egalité! (yep—the French
Revolution in History class). With a driver’s license, my parents’
wheels, a historically respected ideology as justification, and a
hard-on, I was ready.
On Sunday, I told my parents I was going to
spend the afternoon at the Mall. Sin number one—lying; sin number
two—dishonoring my father and mother. (I could never bring myself to
tally the rest of the day’s sins.)
When nearing our synagogue, I drove
considerably faster than the 25 mph limit. I didn’t want to focus on
the building where I’d become bar mitzvah, son of the commandment,
where I’d won academic awards for religious scholarship, where
scowling Mrs. Levitsky had designated us all plenipotentiaries whose
individual actions would determine the fate of world Jewry.
I drove on, found the Liberty Theater without
asking any policeman’s assistance. (Can you just imagine?) The
theater was on a main road, so I parked my mother’s gray Oldsmobile
sedan three blocks away, on a narrow side street, out of view of
passersby who might just know Mom and recognize her car. I walked
quickly but casually to the theater’s entrance.
I knew I was underage. I knew I might be
humiliated at the ticket booth and turned away. But still. If I
could get in, if I could really get in, if I could only get in,
maybe, maybe if the camera angle was just right or a blanket slipped
for a second, maybe I could actually get a fleeting glimpse of…of…an
erection other than my own. The fact that the men would be having
sex with women didn’t matter—an erection was an erection.
“One, please,” I said in my deepest teenage
baritone, chin pressed hard against chest (I’d practiced at home in
front of the bathroom mirror). The Howdy Doody look-alike in the
ticket booth didn’t raise either of her makeup-encrusted eyebrows,
didn’t stare at me, didn’t even look into my face, just grabbed my
money, ripped a ticket in half and handed over the stub. Whew!
Unlike my mother, I didn’t notice the
shabbiness of the lobby carpet, the paint peeling from the walls, or
the odor of stale smoke. However, very much like my mother, I did
notice the dozen or so men scattered in isolated seats throughout
the theater. They, I was certain, were all here to see the naked
Waiting for the film to start, I began to
worry: what if my father were to walk in and see me, not that I had
any reason to think he frequented such a venue, but still? Would he
just wink and slap my shoulder? Or would he somehow be able to tell
that I was planning to look at naked men? What if Mrs. Levitsky
waddled in with a flashlight? She, too, might know, might just know
why I was here, and might then petition Abba Eban, Israel’s UN
ambassador, to denounce me at a meeting of the Security Council. Or
worse: what if some of the men in the theater were actually
undercover cops and when the film started, they led a raid on the
place and put me on the Six O’Clock News as The Perverted Jew? Our
neighbors would stone our house. Dorothy, my old babysitter from
down the block, would lead a torch-wielding mob to chase us out of
town, and the Catholic congregation across the street from our
synagogue would picket, build bonfires, rekindle the Spanish
Inquisition because they didn’t want such wicked influences around
their children, God forbid! All because of me.
The houselights went down, the movie began.
From what I could tell (the script was one of
those masterpieces of minimalist dialogue) the opening scenes
involved a husband and wife. They, fully dressed, were smoking
cigarettes. Then they argued over money, and he threw her down onto
the bed in a rage. This violence, for some reason I missed, excited
her. She ripped off her dress (no bra, no panties) and started
displaying her body, fondling her own breasts and then—oh my
God—playing with herself, between her legs, right on camera! So far,
although not excited, I was totally intrigued. Is this what married
women did? My mother?!
Then the porn husband removed his clothes: his
shirt—skinny chest, pot belly—and his pants. (Apparently, this
family did not believe in underwear.)
His dick. I wanted to cry. His dick was huge.
I’d never considered the possibility of one being so large. My own
erection, although harder in the theater than his in the film,
couldn’t have been more than half the size. I wanted him.
At this point, I felt I had definitely gotten
my money’s worth. But the film, of course, had only begun. He
initiated sex with her. His tittie licks and pussy laps did nothing
for me, but when she lay back and he straddled her, positioning his
erection over her face, and when he did push-ups into and out of her
mouth, well...I was alone in my aisle…so…without moving my shoulder
in any way that might be visible to all the respectable patrons in
the theater, I moved my hand discreetly over the surface of my
zipped jeans…gently back and forth…The notion of actually unzipping
and exposing myself in the theater, in a public place where others
might see, never occurred to me… how mortifying if any of the other
men, those normal adults with nice Lord & Taylor raincoats on their
laps, caught me doing something so disgusting…so I kept my jeans
zipped and rubbed only on the cloth’s surface.
I watched the porn star’s push-ups, thought
what a shame there was no Academy Award category for his area of
expertise, and I imagined him doing push-ups into my mouth. My
mouth. Oh, how terrible. Oh, how awful. Oh how shameful. Oh how
wonderful how incredibly wonderful. Gurgle gurgle gurgle. Sighing
ever so softly, I came, then looked around to check that no one had
noticed, went back to watching the film.
Husband and wife screwed in various positions,
then the wife went shopping. At that point their daughter arrived
home. She looked the same age as her father, but he called her
“Daughter,” so I figured my perceptions were the ones out of synch
with reality. “You’re late!” said naked father to dressed daughter,
“And must be spanked.” Off with the dress (no underwear here
either). Naked daughter over naked daddy’s knees. Gee, she seemed
awfully willing. He spanked her and this, oddly enough, turned her
on. He did various things to her and then she knelt and sucked him.
My hand moved into position again, on the surface of my tightly
zipped jeans. Suck suck fuck fuck. I sighed softly a second time. My
jockeys and pants were soaked.
Then the wife returned home, and the three of
them did things together. But I was too drained to get involved. I
watched to see how the story would end and to let my pants dry a bit
before I walked out in public. Although feeling deeply ashamed, I
also felt wildly free: here was a place I could go and despite the
dark, the isolation, the need to masturbate furtively behind a
closed zipper, I could share someone else’s sexual fantasy, could
project myself into a film, share with the porn stars, be one step
closer than ever to experiencing real live sex.
Mother took daughter to bed—now that was
something I’d never imagined, how interesting, what clever
script-writers they had…while the father, down to his last pack,
went out to buy more cigarettes. Realism.
On a dark street corner, a stranger approached
him, asked to bum a smoke. The porn hero reached into his pocket. At
that exact moment, the stranger pulled out a huge butcher knife from
within his trousers and thrust it deep into the porn hero’s gut.
(How right my parents had been to hide their occasional smoking from
me…just look what cigarettes could lead to.) The stabber, stealing
nothing, saying nothing, ran quickly away. Apparently, his only goal
had been to stab.
The porn hero doubled over and collapsed, and
the film, this hour-and-a-half of sex, ended with thirty seconds of
the camera panning a man dying in the gutter, blood spurting into
the street, a huge butcher knife sticking out of his belly. He
hadn’t been shot or strangled or hit by a car. He’d been stabbed.
And, his attacker had not been a woman, someone of the same gender
as those he’d arguably been violating, but had been a man. Stabbed
by another man. Symbolically fucked by another man, I wonder now?
The ultimate horrific punishment.
The image might as well have been a cold
floodlight dissolving my shadowy afterglow. I was shocked,
The film ended, I stole out of the theater,
avoided the eyes of everyone else who was stealing out avoiding
eyes. I walked quickly to Mom’s car, drove slowly home.
My utopia had been atom-bombed.
Admittedly, the porn family had gone around
without underwear, and had behaved rather loosely by Ozzie and
Harriet standards. But still. Was murder typical for the end of a
rollicking sex flick? If this was the director’s vision of irony,
his intentions escaped me.
Arriving home, I darted upstairs, peeled off
jeans and briefs and dropped them into the laundry hamper,
washclothed myself, slunk to my room.
The film had lured me in, had made me think for
a few minutes that maybe, just maybe, maybe in that dark place, the
vicarious living out of fantasy was possible, even okay. Lying all
curled up in bed, I tried to convince myself that the film was
uplifting after all, that it was actually a very religious ending,
albeit in a Christian sort of way—porn hero dies for our sinfulness,
so that the rest of us may live and jerk off…Well, it was possible,
wasn’t it?…Sure it was. I knew that if Dorothy, my old babysitter,
were to hear my interpretation, she’d obtain a Papal ban or whatever
it was the Vatican issued in condemnation of heretical bull. Here I
was, setting Judeo-Christian relations back centuries. Was there no
limit to the potential damage caused by my perversion?
Of course, I realize now, the murder had been
the requisite element of “redeeming social value” necessary to get
the film past all those anti-obscenity censors jockeying for
sainthood in the early 1970’s. If you fuck on screen, death will
come. A biblical response in this land where Church and State are as
separate as sex and guilt.
I would recall the film night after night,
would struggle to force the tainted, closing bloody image aside. And
those moments when I succeeded in remembering just that enormous
dick, the push-ups, those incredible push-ups, I would sigh in joy
that I’d had the chutzpah to go. But afterward, as I’d try falling
asleep, I would twist around in bed, would struggle to fend off the
lurking notion that there was, somehow, a link between the porn
hero’s fate and my own. But what exactly was it? He hadn’t been
having sex with men, so the film wasn’t advocating the death of
creepy homos like me…And I would never (truly never) have sex with
wife or daughter, so there was no chance I would be like him that
way…And I sure as hell didn’t smoke. So…I reasoned that there was no
link between us and our fates, after all. Whew!
I’d fall asleep.
But the next night I’d run through the entire
litany again, feeling a connection I just couldn’t define—his death
frightened me, made me feel as cold as the trickle on my belly. What
exactly was going on?
In my mid-twenties, my parents finally shared
with me the story of their Liberty Theater misadventure. The three
of us were seated on the brown family room sofa where Dorothy and I
had sat discussing great theological issues in years past. A
commercial appeared on TV, an advertisement for yet another re-make
of Romeo and Juliet. Mom, pressing lips together and dilating
nostrils in what I could read as a strained attempt to stifle
laughter, turned her head, looked across me at Dad. Dad’s mouth
didn’t so much as twitch, but his eyes glistened wet. “Ok, guys,” I
said, “let me in on it.” Mom exploded in a hiss, Dad guffawed. They
reminisced and laughed at the policeman’s amusement, laughed at the
shabbiness of the theater and oddness of the crowd, laughed at their
own shock once the movie began, the speed with which they drove
home, laughed at their own naiveté. And I laughed as well,
genuinely. This was so funny! What’s more, they revealed that I was
not the first one they’d told—apparently, the incident had found its
way into my parents’ storage closet of risqué anecdotes to be dusted
off and shared at parties and family gatherings, although never in
front of minor children, who might develop bad habits, God forbid.
Now that I am more or less grown up, I can
admit that, despite my parents’ good intentions, I have, in fact,
developed a God-forbidden bad habit or two. Yet, I’ve never told my
parents about my relatively tame experience at the Liberty Theater.
I didn’t tell them that night in my mid-twenties in the family room,
even though I so very much wanted to feel included in the riotous
family story, and to find a way of laughing at my own experience.
The furtiveness of what I’d done in the theater kept me silent and
apart, the furtiveness and sense of shame exaggerated by the porn
In the interest of perspective, I should make
clear that I have not exactly been obsessing about this set of
incidents for the past thirty years. In fact, I rarely think of the
Liberty Theater at all. Sure, it would be a solid decade before I
could drag myself to a porn cinema again, but in the meantime, I
discovered enough compensatory pornographic magazines to nearly
induce tendonitis in my right forearm. And, card-carrying homo that
I am now, I have the requisite Chi Chi Larue, Kristen Bjorn, Falcon,
and Colt collectibles secreted away in my bedroom (no, I won’t
disclose exactly where…they’re secreted). The Liberty Theater
didn’t sour me forever on the sweet joys of porn, just left a bitter
And here’s the precise source of that
bitterness, of the shadowy discomfort I couldn’t fully understand at
age sixteen: if porn Romeo and porn Juliet had, true to their
Shakespearean fates, actually died on screen, and if Mom and Dad had
stayed in the theater long enough to witness their deaths, would Mom
and Dad have been as shaken by their viewing experience as I’d been
by mine? Probably not—everyone knew that Romeo and Juliet were
destined to die, so their deaths would not have been shocking; they
were fated to die at their own hands rather than at those of a
murderer crazed by nicotine withdrawal; and, as sympathetic as the
audience might have been for the young lovers, the porn versions
would have, after all, been engaging in marital relations without
the marital sanctions of Church and State, so punishment would have
been inevitable. In this latter regard, they were very different
from my married parents, whose wedding had been conducted by a
State-licensed rabbi. Mom and Dad were safe.
On the other hand, I was very much akin to my
murdered porn hero. True, he was straight and married, but those
distinctions between us didn’t seem to matter; what mattered was
that just as he had engaged in sex far beyond the bounds of
Church-State approval, I knew that the kind of sex I would one day
(hopefully) engage in would lack approval as well. Always and
forever. Every single sexual encounter of my entire life would lie
beyond the Synagogue-State Pale. I was destined to be as wicked and
profane as the porn hero. No wonder I identified with him. No wonder
I felt so upset at his murder. For if the murder of that “immoral”
man was considered artistically appropriate, or justified, or
socially redeeming, then might not the murder of me, someone just as
“immoral,” one day be considered socially redeeming as well?
Ay, there’s the rub.
*Published in Mentsch: On Being Jewish and Queer, Angela
Brown, Ed. (Alyson Publications, 2004)
Daniel M. Jaffe's
gay-Jewish-themed novel The Limits of Pleasure was a finalist
for one of ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year Awards. Dan also
compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International
Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated the
Russian-Israeli novel Here Comes the Messiah! by Dina Rubina. His
short stories, short translations, and personal essays frequently
appear in literary journals and anthologies. Dan teaches creative
writing in the University of California - Los Angeles Extension
Writers’ Program and at
University of California - Santa Barbara