The Back Room
Occasionally when you self-reflect, you happen upon memories that you deem awful, horrible, and miserable for the time, but are now events that you can chuckle (if not laugh hysterically) over.
A twenty-year-old memory returned to me a couple of weeks ago. This memory involved an incident so mortifying that I buried it for two decades, hoping I would never have to think or speak of it again in fear that I would re-live my humiliation all over again. This incident involves scandalous things like porn, friendship, acceptance, consent, punishment, and of course, adolescence.
I’m talking about the time I went into the back room of the local video store at age 13.
I’ll pause for you to release your pearls.
I want to write about this incident because 1. at the time it was the most mortifying incident of my life for the time, 2. because of that, I immediately pretended it didn’t happen, and 3. when I remembered it again, I laughed hysterically. I laughed because in the passage of twenty-plus years, I could review that incident in the proper context. I laughed because, like a story, I could almost remove myself from the narrative and put myself in each character’s shoes. Finally, I laughed because at the time, this was the most rebellious thing I had ever done and it was really goddamn hilarious.
And of course I want to write about it because it’s therapeutic.
So let me get started.
First, the basics about my sexual knowledge around that time. At 13, I was extremely innocent and naive. I knew what sex was and what it led to (babies and death, in good Catholic tradition), but sex for pleasure was a foreign concept to me. And that meant that pornography was out of this world, too. I knew that porn was, on paper, “people having real sex in movies,” but if you pressed me for any details I couldn’t give them to you.
My classmates sure knew a lot about sex, though. They were always talking about it, especially the boys. Boys would whisper in class about what girls they wanted to “bang” the most all while unsuspecting girls would try to do their social studies homework. They were always talking about their genitals, too — “My dick,” this, or “my balls” that. It got so bad that our sixth grade class had to stop referring to pencils and basket balls otherwise we’d be met with gales of laughter. Instead, we all started calling them writing and throwing utensils, respectively.
My girl friends, however, didn’t talk about sex the same way boys did. In fact, I don’t recall a conversation with a girl about sex until high school, and it was along the lines of “Oh my god, it’s bad — don’t do it.” We also didn’t talk about our genitals that often, either. Even when we all started getting our periods, vaginas weren’t part of the conversation (“Psst…do you have a…thing? OH MY GOD thank you!” or “Hey, I’m not feeling…great. Do you have any ibuprofen? Crap. Thanks anyway.”) When the girls at that age talked about anything sexual, it was more like:
“Which boy do YOU like, Stacy?”
“I don’t know, Heather. Cory is cute!”
“Ew! Cory?! He snapped my bra the other day!”
“That means he likes you!”
Here’s where I sidebar into saying…I didn’t like boys at that age. (In fact, I’m still not sold on the idea of men in particular, to be honest.) So if I was ever pulled into these conversations (which I wasn’t too often, thankfully), I lied and said I thought my neighbor’s son was cute.
Anyway, I recall not knowing what a blow job was until one embarrassing incident in 7th grade when I literally asked a girl why she had an awful slut-shaming nickname. I wish I were kidding. All school year long, I kept hearing boys pass this one girl in the hallway and shout “Hey, Spitter! Yo, Spitter! What’s up, Spitter! Spitter, girl, come get this!” And this girl would toss her hair, wink, and make a ptootee! sound in response. At the time, she seemed to like this nickname but as I know today, women have a great way of pretending to like something when they’re being humiliated or abused. But I was in 7th grade, couldn’t think with that level of nuance, and didn’t know enough about sex to think things through.
So near the end of the school year, I happened to be sitting near this girl, (B, we’ll call her), and I asked, “Hey, why do they call you Spitter?”
She stared at me for a split second then burst out laughing.
The boy behind me said, “Did she just ask what I think she did?”
“Yeah,” B replied. But not unkindly, she told me, “Don’t worry. It’ll never happen to you.”
Now I was even more confused than before and embarrassed. And I still didn’t have an answer to my question. It wasn’t like I had the internet at my house to Google or Urban Dictionary my question to avoid having to ask in the first place. This was the ’90’s, folks. Dial-up was the norm for those that could afford it, but America Online was still just catching steam.
Later on, I pulled my best friend, S, aside, and told her the incident. S was more matter-of-fact. “It’s because B gives a lot of blowjobs,” she explained.
I blinked. “Oh.”
S paused. “Do you know what that is?”
“That’s…when a guy….uh…when a guy…?”
“That’s when you suck a guy’s dick.”
I grimaced. “Oh God. You have to do that?”
S shrugged. “I guess. If you want a guy to like you.”
I didn’t want to dwell on that thought, but that made a lot of sense. A lot of boys like B.
I thought about asking S to elaborate on the spitting part of my question, but I had my own answer: she got a spit on a lot of dicks. Makes perfect sense.
And that brings me to the Back Room Incident.
The atmospheric details are fuzzy given that I buried this memory until recently. S and I were together, we were 13-ish, and her mother was with us. This was the local video store in our hometown in Detroit, which means it kept its pornography in a back room near the Drama section rather than among its Foreign section like Blockbuster. The back room had a single door with a sign on it that said “Must be 18 years or Older to Enter,” but to S’s eyes, it had been caged off with razor wire and land mines.
On this afternoon, where S, her mother, and myself were practically the only people in the store, the door to the backroom was open. For her, an open door meant an opportunity. And as my skinny little frame came around the corner of the Comedy section, with two Chris Farley movies tucked under my arm, she turned to me, eyes gleaming and said:
“Hey, the door’s open. And no one’s in there.”
I glanced up at what she was talking about. My parents had taken me to this video store many times and though I had seen the back room, I never gave it much thought. The sign was off-putting to my pre-teen eyes and I figured if there was something back there that I wasn’t allowed to see than it was probably better that I didn’t see it. I don’t know when I realized porn was back there — the boys at school probably talked about it and I overheard while being passed over for “banging.”
“Yeah, it is.” I said. “Do you want to rent Tommy Boy or Black Sheep?”
“Let’s go in!”
Startled, I put the movies down. “We can’t.”
“It’ll just be for a few seconds!” S was getting way too excited about this. Clearly, she had been planning this for a while: a slow day at the store, an open door, an empty room. Now was her chance, now was the best time. And she needed a witness. And a patsy.
“But…we’re not eighteen!” Ok, that was the lamest excuse in the world, but that was pure logic. “We’ll get in trouble!”
“It’ll just be for a minute!”
Before I knew it, my wrist was in her hand and I was flying behind her.
And then we appeared in the back room.
I can’t tell you what I saw. Having not seen porn before, I didn’t have any context. Perhaps I would have recalled seeing giant a cardboard cutout of Jenna Jameson spitting on her tits or a poster of Alisha Klass pulling a lollipop out of her cooch,* but I don’t. I just remember the two of us standing in this room, squealing — S with the thrill of it all and me with terror.
It was over in a matter of seconds, like S had promised, but not the way she had thought. The guy at the front counter caught us immediately, likely because there were cameras in the room and monitors at the counter. From the doorway, he said, “Y’guys should get of here.”
He was more amused and chiding than annoyed. I bet he was used to scolding teenaged boys and creepy men than two curious girls who ran in there for a quick thrill. Nevertheless, we ran out of the room at high speed. When we got far enough away, we stopped to assess ourselves. S started cackling — she had done what she wanted to do. Oh, the exhilaration! Oh, the rush! Oh, the rebellion!
But not me. I started bawling. Heavy, snotty, bawling.
S immediately turned on me. “What are you doing? Stop that! Nothing happened!”
But she was wrong. We got caught in the back room of the video store. I was mortified. Now we were going to get into trouble, because holding two dramas in her hand** stood S’s mother, looking stricken. She rushed up to us, even as her daughter tried to shut my sobbing face up.
“Girls, what’s going on? What happened?” she demanded.
“Nothing happened! It’s fine!” S maintained, even as I nearly dry heaved next to her. “Everything is fine!”
I tried to help downplay it, but could barely make words. “N-nothing (huffhuff) happ-happened…we (huffhuff) we–“
Unfortunately, the one downside to Giving Good Parent is that you really cannot lie to your friends’ parents. Parents know you’re the Good Friend and if you attempt to cover for your friends, they’ll know something’s up. It also didn’t help my face and Coke-bottle glasses were smeared with tears and snot at the moment, so needless to say S’s mom wasn’t buying my bullshit. She glared at her daughter and sat her movies down. “Ok, you have one minute to tell me what happened or I’m cancelling your landline.”
S rolled her eyes. “Ok, fine! We went into the back room! It was just for a second though! Nothing happened! We just wanted to see what was back there!”
With a groan, S’s mom pinched her brow. “Oh for — girls, go out to the car.”
Oh sweet Jesus. Now I knew I was in big trouble. S’s mom was going to tell my mom and tell her when she came and picked me up. And then I was going to be in even MORE trouble at home. The thought brought fresh tears to my eyes as we sulked out of the store and to the Escort.
The car ride home was the most awkward I had ever had at the time. Silent except for my hiccuping to punctuate, I thought of all the ways I would be punished at home. My mom would start yelling, first, then she’d ground me for a month. Maybe two. I wouldn’t be allowed to do things, then she’d take away things. Then she’d tell my grandparents and my grandfather would be mad at me. Then my grandfather would know I knew what sex was, which was something I never wanted him to know. In fact, until the day my grandfather died, I denied knowing what sex was, using the tired joke of “We’re married, we don’t have sex” to justify it. I hoped and prayed that it would be my dad to come pick me up from S’s house because I could picture the conversation my dad and I having:
Him: “So. You went into the back room.”
Me: “I’m sorry! I didn’t want to! S dragged me in!”
Him: Long silence. Then uproarious laughter.
Me: Extremely puzzled.
Him: “I ran in there when I was your age. Of course, I wanted to go in there. I saw some weird stuff. I saw one poster of a lady who had her legs–“
Him: “Ok, ok. Sorry.”
Me: “Are you going to tell Mom?”
Him: “No. Don’t worry.”
Me: “Thank you, Dad. I love you.”
Him: “I love you, too. But if you’re curious again, don’t go to that store. The better store is–“
Me: “Ew! Dad!!”
Him: Laughing again.
We got back to S’s house where I realized I had to sleep over at this girl’s house now. Not only did she hate my guts right now, but I lived in fear of how much trouble I was going to get into. Plus, we had no movies to watch, either.
In her room, she glared at me and asked the million dollar question: “Nina, why are you so uptight?”
Wish I had an answer.
I told M about this memory and they had a lot of sympathy for me, especially when I got to the part about me crying.
“You were dragged into that room without your consent,” they assured me. “This wasn’t your fault at all. You shouldn’t feel bad.”
Telling this story feels far less mortifying than it did when I lived it. I still feel the shame of being discovered, though. That doesn’t go away. I do wish I had the courage to stand up for myself and say, “S, I don’t want to go in there — go in there yourself,” back then. But she didn’t have the courage to go in alone. Growing up isn’t just learning about sex and back rooms at video stores (though they don’t exist anymore), it’s about figuring out how to stand up for yourself. I’m much better at that today, though I’m still a work in progress.
I did find a way to turn this story into something humorous, albeit in my own twisted way —
“So you know how that back room was empty, right?” I told M. “Well, I was thinking about that. What if it wasn’t?”
They raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“Well, what if on that day, there was only one guy in that room and he happened to be browsing for some viewing material. And what if his thing was, you know, women who dress up like girls — school uniforms and pig tails and stuff? And then right as he’s picking out his favorite video tape, in runs two teenage girls?“
I grinned. M frowned at me.
“Like, wouldn’t that be–“
“Ok, you’re done with this story,” they said.
Yeah, I’m done.
*I learned a lot since then. Howard Stern proved to be quite a teacher, thanks to his show on E!.
**I don’t actually know what she was holding. In some scenario, she was going to rent an erotic thriller like Jade or Sliver. In a better scenario, it was S’s mom that discovered us, not the guy at the front desk, because she was going to rent porn and happened to walk in on us. In the best scenario, we thought she was in there to catch us and it would never dawn on us that she was in there to rent anything.