Kevin Sampsell is a writer and editor, a longtime Powell's employee, and the publisher of local small press Future Tense. In A Common Pornography, which hits the streets on January 19, Sampsell investigates his personal and family history, reconsidering early life experiences in light of information he learned as an adult. But this is no second-rate The Liars' Club—Sampsell, who grew up in Kennewick, Washington, is unsentimental in his account of sexual awakening, family dysfunction, and coming of age in the Pacific Northwest.
When I was 15 years old, I had a suitcase full of porn. It was greenish blue—the aged color of flat turquoise. Square and heavy. Two metal latches kept it shut. Two buttons popped the latches. I kept it in the back of the closet, behind the clothes, and next to another suitcase that didn't match. We were a poor family without nice things.
The suitcase, for me in the '80s, served as a "best of" fantasy portal. I could do without all the wordiness of Playboy and Penthouse. I wanted skin. Photos. Pictures. Images to fill my eyes and mind. So I started to find magazines that were almost entirely photos. Then I cut out just my favorite images. It was like clipping coupons.
I had various ways to get these magazines. I had friends with cars and the knowledge of a specific dumpster. I had an older brother who had his own place. I had a cousin who hid porn in the closet. Those were my sources.
The cousin was the most interesting. She was young and married. Her husband had a mustache and drove one of those Snap-on tools trucks around (I'm not sure why that seems significant, but it does). When I was younger, even before puberty, I remember wanting to kiss her knees, to touch her legs. But my incestuous urges were pushed aside by childish angst whenever she talked to me in condescending baby talk. So it was most satisfying when I found her "marital aides." Not only was there a box of magazines and erotica books (bedtime reading, I presume), there were also films. Not videos, but actual plug-in-the-projector-and-loop-it-to-a-reel films. This was on a night when she and her husband were out and my brother, Matt, and I were having a sleepover at their house. We found the projector and tried nervously to snake the film through it. We found a blank wall to shine our jittery smut on. The grainy color film was upside down or backward or maybe both. It was confusing but it was the first moving sex pictures I'd seen. We put everything back before they got home, but I managed to slip two magazines—smaller, Reader's Digest–size ones with foreign words on the cover—into my sleeping bag.
Later, at home, behind the locked door of my bedroom, I looked through one of them and tried to follow a story just by the photos. The language was strange, maybe French. I couldn't make out anything. But the images gave me an idea: A young man working at a grocery store helps a woman out with her shopping cart. She has poufed-out red hair and wears a short skirt. Her legs look smooth and strong. She also wears a loose blouse that looks slack and thin over her cleavage. As the boy starts putting the bags of groceries in the back of her minivan, she climbs in the back and feigns to help him, making room and crawling on her knees in front of his face. He reaches up her leg and she looks back at him and smiles. He glances around the parking lot before climbing into the van. Her clothes come off quickly and he eagerly covers her from behind, his pants around his ankles. I put my own translation into the captions around the photos. I think the woman probably talked to him as he touched her but I couldn't fathom what she might be saying. Maybe it was just heavy breathing. Heavy breathing is the same in every language. When I cut those photos out of the magazine, I kept some of the mysterious language in there. It was a reminder of something I couldn't explain. I used those pictures, that story, over and over, for my own foreign pleasure.
By the time I was 18, I had my first real girlfriend. One who would kiss me in front of people and tell me about her periods. It took two months for Pam and me to have sex. She wasn't a virgin like me. She lost her cherry, she told me, when she was 15, to a 19-year-old who used to babysit her. I didn't know what a "cherry" was exactly, but her announcement gave me a stomachache. One of the dirty magazines I sought out heavily at that time was called Cheri. It was sleazier than most of the others. In one pictorial, a group of women took turns on a giant chocolate dildo to see who was the blowjob queen.
Some of the other magazines I grew bored of. I had heard cautionary tales about porn being like a drug. That I would start to need harder, stronger, more dangerous forms of pornography. A few years later, Ted Bundy mentioned having this problem. Many people thought he was trying to blame pornography for his sick crimes, and I constantly wondered if something was wrong with me as well.
The day after I lost my virginity with Pam, I thought I could get rid of the suitcase. I thought I would want the real thing from there on out. Not only could I have sex with Pam but I could play my Commodores albums for her and she would write me love notes with big bubble letters and heart-shaped happy faces with wide-open hug arms and Flintstone feet. I thought I'd be happy.
We met each other at the vocational center where I was taking the radio/TV class. She was taking a retail class where the students ran a small store for all the students in the building. I'd go in there and buy Skittles and we'd pass notes to each other. If I didn't go to the store during each break she would think I was mad at her and she would write a note and have someone give it to me. She was both insecure and bossy. She went to Kamiakin, which was Kennewick's rival high school.
For most of that senior year, I left the suitcase to fester in the closet. It just sat there, barricaded by the shirts and Miami Vice–style jackets my mom made for me with her constantly running sewing machine. I thought that Pam would somehow notice a difference if I masturbated during this time. I thought it would be cheating.
Right before graduation, I went to Pam's place to surprise her. It was down a long, unlit, winding road in the deserty terrain behind the Columbia Center Mall. She lived in a trailer kind of thing. A big, flat rectangle of a structure with a couple of tires on the roof for some reason. She wasn't there, so I sat on her front porch talking to her younger sister for a long time until a fancy old Mustang pulled into the big lot in front of their house. This car sat idling in the dark for a few minutes. The windows were tinted. The engine finally turned off. It was the old babysitter boyfriend, Pam's sister told me. He was in town visiting.
Maybe he saw me sitting up there, waiting. Maybe they thought of pulling out, going somewhere else. Or maybe they didn't care. It seemed like a long time and I wondered what was happening in that car. My thoughts ran wild and my gut clenched. Pam's sister knew something bad was happening and she went inside so I could figure out how to "handle it."
Finally, the Mustang started again and Pam stepped out. I walked down from the porch to meet Pam, but she pushed me away and went inside.
The next day, I called her and listened as she described to me what had happened. I felt hollowed out and light headed. I pulled the suitcase out of the closet and locked my door as I heard her tell her side of things. I wanted to interrupt her and tell her about the suitcase, to make her jealous of the photos and how much I liked them. About how fantasy was sometimes better than reality, which was how I wanted to feel when the heartache went away.
Before I moved to Spokane, Pam came over to my parents' house to see me one last time. She said she saw my car in the driveway and wanted to say hi before I moved. We went to my old bedroom and I tried to figure out what it was she wanted. She said she heard that her little brother had beaten me up at the mall and that she was sorry.
I got angry and defensive and told her that he didn't beat me up. In fact, I forgot it even happened that summer. He saw me at Columbia Center and stopped me outside the Bon Marché. A few of his friends were with him and he was acting cool and tough. He said something about "fucking over" his sister and then threw a wild punch at my neck, which I barely felt. There was an angry surge of heat in my head, but I chose to walk away. He and his friends stood there laughing.
Pam sat on my bed and started to cry. I said it was no big deal. "Don't you want to kiss me?" she said, and then she started kissing me. I kissed her back but didn't say anything. It had been almost two years since the night I waited on her porch.
It was dark in my room and even though my parents were home, I locked my door and let Pam get under the covers with me and we took our shorts off. She pinned me like a wrestler. She put me inside her and I felt a sad regret. The last thing I ever wanted to do was accept any form of apology from her. She would probably feel like we were even now.
The bed was thumping, but I was trying to be quiet. The one thing that would make me feel worse about this whole scenario would be for Mom and Dad to think Pam and I had made up. My doorknob jiggled and Dad said from the other side of the door, "Does Pam want to stay for dinner?"
"Hold on a minute," I said.
Then the door opened and Dad stuck his head in, his eyes adjusting to the dark. "You shouldn't lock your door," he said. He lingered a moment as Pam and I lay there frozen. I waited for the door to close, but it didn't. I waited to hear the sound of his feet move back down the hall, but they didn't.