When I was a boy, I learned about sex from my neighbors. They were entirely unaware of this instruction, but I learned from them, just the same. Like most sexual awakenings, it happened by a combination of accident, curiosity, and a complete lack of regard for personal privacy.
One late summer afternoon while feeding our vacationing neighbors’ pets, I called out the name of their ancient, drooling dog. Worried that he might have died somewhere in the hot, stuffy, shut up house, I searched the place and wondered if it would be alright if I simply hoisted the old boy over the wall and into the cemetery that abutted their yard rather than bury him myself. My family had lost one of our own dogs while these particular neighbors were pet sitting for us a few summers prior, so it seemed like some sort of divine justice that they should lose one on our watch.
But the dog was very much alive. I found him napping on the bed in the master bedroom. I eyed the room. It was strange to be in the bedroom of a Unitarian minister– a person who once told my brother that we were all “children of the universe”. I expected to find crosses and bibles and other devotional paraphernalia neatly placed about the room. Instead what I found was an open closet door.
And a stack of Hustler magazines. I took them down from the closet shelf and spread them on the carpet.
I had seen body parts before: breasts and buttocks and whatnot– even genitalia– in paintings and medical books. Of course, in paintings, the genitalia was downplayed; in the medical books, diseased. Thanks to Hustler Magazine, I could now see both male and female bits fully engorged, close up, and in vivid, shocking color.
I didn’t know what to think. I was more than familiar with penises, having recently discovered the pleasures of owning my own, but I had never seen anyone else’s in an excited state. It never occurred to me that one should be placed in, on, or around a woman. Or two women, as some of the photo essays depicted. And the in-your-face visuals of vaginas made them look like hungry, hairy monsters. I tried to reconcile the fact that a person of God might have such dirty magazines in her closet, so I did my best to think of these alien-looking things as children of some far away universe.
And then I thumbed through the rest of the magazines looking for more photos of penises, all of which looked as if they were having more fun than mine had ever been given the chance.
That same summer, not too long afterward, I was out in my backyard, minding my own business for a change while scooping up the business of my dogs when I heard giggling and subsequent hushing coming from the general direction of my next door neighbor’s yard. There was splashing, there was quiet laughter, and kissing, and noises that sounded as if someone on the other side were eating something he rather enjoyed. I gently put down my shovelful of dog feces and crept over to the wall, which had one, terribly convenient crack in it , thanks to an earthquake a few years prior.
My neighbor and his girlfriend were bobbing up and down in the shallow end of his pool. I was frustrated that I couldn’t seen everything that was happening. They would bob out of view, then wander into my sight range every so often. From what little I could make out, it looks as if my neighbor’s girlfriend was using him as some sort of adult hoppity horse.
I needed to find out more.
A few evenings later, I gathered up enough courage to scale my neighbor’s wall. The girlfriend was over. It was dark. I was hoping they might be doing more than just watching tv.
They were, in fact, watching tv. On the upside for my newly-found taste for voyeurism, however, they were watching it in the nude. She on the couch, he on the beige carpet below her. I couldn’t make out what they were watching from the tiny, open slit in their curtains through which I was peering, but it mustn’t have been especially entertaining because, within minutes, she was on top of him.
I was not prepared for this scenario. Hustler magazine showed me well-hung Roman centurions getting it on with Vestal virgins, cowboys using their six-shooters on pioneer woman, and Egyptians doing it on the Nile, but never did Larry Flynt and the good people at his magazine ever think to prepare me for the sight of a woman laughing and straddling a man while rubbing dollar bills all over his body.
When the novelty of giving George Washington a good taste of male nipple had worn off, the two lovers moved into the bedroom, out of my range of vision. I was frustrated. What’s more I was officially obsessed. I wanted to know what they were doing in that bedroom. As a bored, hormone enraged 13 year-old, I took it one step further.
I broke into my neighbor’s home.
It wasn’t premeditated. I was just doing something else that was totally invasive, like looking through his garbage can for interesting information, which was invariable more of a thrill than cleaning up after the dogs. It was when I noticed that his kitchen window was open that I thought it would be a great idea to see what a real swinging bachelor’s pad looked like, so I pulled off the window screen and climbed in.
It was rather disappointing. It was neither glamorous enough for Hugh Hefner, nor garish enough for Larry Flynt. I wandered into his bedroom. His closet door was open, just like the minister’s and, also just like the minister’s, there was a stack of magazines up on the top shelf. I was amazed at my second bout of good fortune. I wondered if every adult in America kept a stack of Hustlers on the top shelf of his or her closet. I started a mental calculation of how rich that would make Larry Flynt. I took a couple of the magazines off the shelf. Sadly, I’d already seen them before. As I was about to pull the rest down, I heard a sickening noise. It was the wheezing of my neighbor’s garage door opening.
What the hell was he doing home so early in the day?
I knew there was no way for me to get out of the house in time, so I did what any teenager would do. I panicked. I put the magazines back in the closet and looked for a place to hide. I ran into the second bedroom that looked to be set up as his office. On the wall was mounted a shotgun. I thought about how he had every right to use it on me. I ran out of the room as the door from the garage that led into his kitchen opened. I darted back into his bedroom. “Do I hide in the closet?” I thought. Too obvious. When I saw that there was enough room for me to squeeze under his bed, I did. I was thankful for his tidiness as I tucked myself under it.
He busied himself in the kitchen for a few minutes, then walked into the bedroom. I could see his work shoes coming towards the bed. He sat down right on top of me. He took off his shoes and socks. He then proceeded to take off his pants and shirt. He had come home on his lunch hour to take a nap.
I was convinced he could hear my heart pounding. It beat so fiercely I thought it would explode. I breathed through my mouth so that I might not sneeze. After a half hour under his bed, I was ready to give up. I was about to call out his name, but I then I put myself in his place and thought how horrified I’d be if I were lying there in my underwear minding my own business when suddenly I heard someone calling my name from under the bed. I kept quiet. It was all I could do not to cry. I promised myself that, if by some miracle I made it out of that house, I would never do anything like this again.
After an hour sweating under his bed, I wondered if he would start smelling me. My bladder was full, I was shaking like Jell-o, my eyes were watering. I was going to be caught breaking into my neighbor’s house because I was looking for porn. I’d be sent to juvenile hall. I would bring shame upon my family. I would never be class president. My life would be over because I became obsessed with Hustler magazines and the people who owned them.
And then the most glorious thing happened. My neighbor’s alarm clock went off. He sat up, coughed, put on his clothes and left. He never noticed that his kitchen window screen had been taken off. He never sensed the presence of a terrified teenager quivering under his bed. I felt like the luckiest boy alive. And the stupidest.
I crawled out from under that bed, put the screen back on the window, and climbed back over the wall and into my own yard where I belonged. I looked at the shovelful of shit I had left in the middle of the lawn. It was covered in flies and half baked from the sun. After what I had just done, I felt as if we might somehow be related. I buried the shit among my mother’s roses– the same mother I would have completely humiliated–and reminded myself of my promise to mind my own fucking business. I went into the house and took a shower, but still I didn’t feel entirely clean.
That afternoon, I lost my taste for Hustler magazine. And my fascination with voyeurism. I wonder what my life would have been like had I been caught or worse, what my life would have been like had I not made that promise to God and myself while under that dusty bed. Whatever the case, I’m done with that magazine and nothing could compel me to look at one again. Ever. And I have kept my promise.
It’s been easy. Somewhere along the line, I took the immortal words of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music to heart when she said, “Whenever God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” God may have closed the door on Hustler magazine to me at the age of thirteen but, in all His infinite pity, he introduced me to Playgirl at fourteen.