“Any photographer who says he’s not a voyeur is either stupid or a liar.” — Helmut Newton
I was in love with my cousin Debbie who was few months older and vastly more mature. I think my adoration of her was based on a kind of incestuous association. She was the daughter of my favorite aunt Alice, whose glossy black hair and perfumed neck compelled the seeking of many hugs. Aunt Alice was my dad’s sister my mom's best friend and not only did they share a name; they looked quite alike. When the legions of boy cousins played army, Debbie served as the Red Cross nurse. I repeatedly pretended to be riddled by gunfire so that Debbie could attend to me. As I lay splayed across the grass I would jerk my head up to utter my dying words close to her sweet-smelling hair. She had sparkly dark brown eyes and a soothing voice that seemed to lick its way into my ear canal as she pretended to wrap bandages around my phantom gunshot wounds, “Hold on soldier,” she commanded.
It was a special occasion, a slumber party in Debbie's fancy basement. My aunt Alice had tucked each one of us in with a whispered “Good night kitty cat” and headed upstairs to join the realm of the adults. All the cousins ranging in age from three to 11 were stuffed into sleeping bags and giggling in the dark. Debbie and I, as the oldest, were the reigning authorities. Although she was across the room on the girls' side, I imagined her beside me, as if we were the parents of this unruly brood. I wanted her attention and as if I could feel around in the dark with my words, forces that I did not understand prompted me to recite my first dirty joke, loudly:
“One night in the jungle Tarzan and Jane were getting undressed to go to bed. Jane takes of her shirt and Tarzan says 'Jane, what are those round things?’ Jane replies, 'Oh, those are my headlights.’ Tarzan takes off his leopard skin and Jane says 'Tarzan, what's that thing between your legs?' 'That's my snake' her tells her. Jane takes off her skirt and Tarzan asks, 'What's between your legs?' and Jane says, 'That's my jungle'. So, they lie down and go to sleep. In the middle of the night, Tarzan wakes up yelling 'Jane, Jane, turn on your headlights, my snake is crawling through your jungle!'
I had no idea what that joke meant and trying to conceal my ignorance with noise I laughed more boisterously than the other kids. I hadn't realized that my aunt Alice had paused on the carpeted stairs and was listening to my oratory. Aunt Alice was no tyrant. She quietly descended the stairs and gently suggested that I should tell my mother that joke. I nodded but said nothing, flush with embarrassment and feeling that I had stumbled, blindly and irrevocably, across a forbidden border.
At the time, my family was renting the first floor of a two-family house near Medford Square. The landlord lived upstairs with his wife and three teenagers. The landlord's personality was menacing enough, that he had only two fingers and a thumb on his right hand, made it imperative that he be avoided. His two adolescent boys ruled over the game room turned teenage clubhouse in the basement. Flimsy wood paneling covered damp concrete walls. Folding metal chairs circled the Formica table. Adjacent to the hi-fi were bookshelves filled with magazines and LP's. The house was heated with coal, and the chute was always clogged with gleaming anthracite, the furnace sprouted spindly tentacles like a Doctor Seuss character.
The claw-handed landlord declared this room and the rest of the basement off-limits to my brothers and me, but we couldn’t resist scampering over the threshold on a dare. The landlord's teenage boys were as mean as their three-fingered father and threatened us to stay out of their clubhouse. It beckoned us though, and there was no way, short of a fire-breathing dragon, that I was not going to enter the forbidden territory. Semi-consciously I was looking for something dirty, something adult. While walking under a newly built interstate overpass around that same time, I chanced upon a handful of distressed pages torn from a pornographic magazine. The faded and abraded photos of naked rouge-lipped and bouffant-haired women had ignited a powerful taste for more.
The primal call of forbidden pictures overtook my fear one afternoon when I was sure the landlord's family was away. My search led me to a locked metal box. Several nerve-wracking minutes passed attempting to locate the key until I finally found it taped under one of the bookshelves. I strained to hear any approaching footfalls above the pounding of my heart. Opening the box like a shy pirate, my eyes fell upon a stack of Playboy magazines. I quickly leafed through the pages of several issues but it was too much for me to bear alone. Later that afternoon I escorted two of my friends to the basement to share this treasure of swelling breasts and inviting glances. As if being submerged in a timeless bubble, our fear left us. We became unaware of our surroundings, mesmerized by bodies beyond our imagination.
After several more visits, most of the pictures fell away as we each chose our favorite centerfold, our private goddess. The others could make no claim on her. There were no embarrassed disclaimers or guilty discussion, no comparisons, no competition, no put-downs or attempts to humiliate. In a gesture that felt like love, we carefully pried open the staples of the magazines to free our sacred icons. Trying not to wrinkle or bend the glossy paper, we slipped the images under our shirts, so that she might kiss our smooth torsos.
We escaped into the sunlight, retreating behind a neighbor's garage where we would be unobserved. We lifted our shirts to peel the centerfolds off our skin to place them behind the chicken wire protecting a large window at the back of the garage. There was a cut in the wire where we could slide the pictures behind the mesh, allowing the images to stand upright on the windowsill. The grided wire fragmented the airbrushed bodies into regular patterns of delight, like stacks of heavenly candy we would never be allowed to taste. My goddess was a redhead, kneeling in a bathtub, soap bubbles barely veiling her every curve. She gazed at me over the lipsticked rim of a champagne glass. The look in her eyes was complicated; she appeared kind and unknowable. I was not yet aware of the pleasures of self-stimulation and neither, I think, were my friends. We stood there silently, separate yet connected, hands thrust deeply into the dark warmth of our pockets, pulled there by the divining power of our still innocent penises.