Speechless the Magazine

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A magazine of poetry and related arts straight from L.A.

 

Contents


R Feature: Parental Guidance Suggested, Damien Stednitz

PG-13 Feature: Saturday Afternoons, Royal Theater, Michelle Bitting

 

Losing It at the Movies
 

XXX Feature:
The Liberty Theater*

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 in orientation.

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 twinkle.

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 snickered.

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 women.

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, horrified.

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 hero’s murder.

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 aftertaste.

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 Extension.

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Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach