When I was nine years old, my mother sent me away for the summer. I stayed with my aunt and cousins who lived in South Carolina. All I knew then was that they had something called air conditioning and that their snakes were called water moccasins. I have long since lost contact with my three girl cousins, but my one little boy cousin is a friend on Facebook.
The more I think back, it was like I was spending the summer with the Huxtables accept their was no Cliff. I mean, their was a man in the house, but he was my aunts second (or third) husband. In my later years, my mom explained that every time my aunt divorced, she made enough money to earn another college degree. When she passed away, she had long-since earned her PhD.
My littlest boy cousin was about five years old that summer. He was named after my aunts second husband who was no longer around. My mom once showed me a photograph of the family posing in front his dad’s brand new black 78 Ford F-150 step side (with a camper top) that they’d driven all the way from Charleston to Atlantic City. Four kids in the back with no seatbelts—heck, no seats!—and no cares in the world. After all, that was in the 70’s!
My four girl cousins were full of character; and each one very different. My oldest cousin had already gone off to college that sumner and later in life would become the first openly gay council woman in suburban Atlanta. She left behind her younger sisters who had yet to develop their identities.
The second oldest was an adolescent princess who hadn’t yet discovered boys, but remained especially shy around her step father. I didn’t understand why she behaved the way she did that Summer. That was our first and last summer together. There were so many questions I wanted to ask her. We grew up and apart. I had heard that she barely survived 9/11. As fate would have it, she called out sick from her job in one of the towers the day they came crashing down. Fate, she is a strange mistress.
The third oldest was a little older than me. She was a little sassy and often the victim of her mother’s wrath. She wasn’t as pretty as the others and was reminded of it frequently. I was an outsider and unfamiliar with the family dynamic. So when I arrived, I was kind to each of my hosts. I was especially empathetic to this cousin. As a result, we got along well.
And then there was the fourth youngest. She was a little younger than me. Only older than her younger brother, the only authority she had was over him. She teased him relentlessly. She would find disgusting ways to upset him. Most memorable was when she took his anatomically-correct cabbage patch doll and threatened to perform perverted acts on it. My aunt was horrified and embarrassed by these accusations, and the beatings would be horrendous.
My aunt would yell, “where did you learn that?!” as she beat her within inches of her life. But at night, when the rest of us were supposed to be sleep, all of the preadolescents in that Carolina home in the caul de sac got quite an education.
The days were filled by either playing with the many Barbie Dream Homes in the sweltering attic or drinking Kool aid in the finished basement watching Home Box Office, Cinemax, and Showtime. We had no supervision while my aunt and her husband were off at work. She never asked how our day was when she got home. She never asked what we had for lunch or whether we went outside to get fresh air.
Only once did she ask what new movies had we seen. One of my cousins told her that we’d watched Risky Business. She was unmoved. My other cousin exclaimed that we watched Purple Rain. Still no reaction. My littlest cousin yelled out, “…and Octopussy too!” To this, my aunts scolded all five of us!
“We don’t say THAT word!” She exclaimed. Based on what I had previously witnessed, one of them was sure to catch a beating. I had just hoped it wasn’t me. I didn’t know any better. I mean, I’d been whipped by my mom for repeating “adult words” at home, but my aunties usually spoiled me with peppermints at church. I didn’t know what to expect here.
She restrained herself as she gazed over to me. She politely explained that she’d not heard of these movies, but from now on we shall pronounce the title “Octopi.” As I recall, it was right about then that her husband smacked her on the behind and said, “what’s for dinner?”
I was NINE years old! I didn’t understand what was happening in that household. I barely understand now! My memories fade. There’s only a few formidable things that I remember.
I remember my mom sending me a harmonica for my birthday that summer. I remember my aunt giving me a five dollar bill that I immediately spend at the Woolworth 5 & 10 which was situated at the end of the mall. I remember silhouettes in the early morning hours. And I remember the HBO theme music each time a new movie was about to come on.
I remember the warning at the beginning of each film. The PG, PG-13 (which was a relatively new distinction) and the illustrious R rating. There was nothing rated G in that house that summer. Interestingly enough, our beloved “Octopi” was only rated PG.
With no real supervision we watched Risky Business repeatedly. I was too young to understand the nuisances of Tom Cruise loosing his virginity on screen to Rebecca De Mornay. I didn’t realize what it meant to convert a suburban home into a brothel. Nor did I know the significance of college-bound teens cashing in their savings bonds to jump-start their “right-of-passage.” All I knew was that I wanted a Porsche 928 when I grew up. All I recalled was the slogan, “Porsche, there is no substitute.”
It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized that this ground-breaking film was a perverse reckoning of teenage angst at the hands of a female molester. I was recently reminded that cancel culture would have had a field-day with this film. If for no other reason, the killer pimp Guido played by Joe Pantoliano, exploited young Tom Cruise. But it was ok because the teenager solved his own predicament before his parents got home from vacation. And his victory provided the kindling for a lifetime of success. Lessons were learned—not just by the characters in the film—but by the youngsters watching those characters. In that poorly-lit basement, lessons were learned. We knew this film was taboo, but we watched anyway. As long as we didn’t mention Octopussy, no harm would befall us.
Don’t even get me started on Purple Rain! As soon as my cousins saw that it was listed in the coming attractions, all other planned activities lost their importance. I suppose Tom Cruise in his tighty whities had nothing on Prince in his purple pleather pants. For me, it was Apollonia baptizing herself in what she thought was Lake Minnetonka. Even my littlest cousin knew not to let my aunt know that he saw boobies.
We didn’t know Purple Rain was about domestic violence and spousal abuse. We were unmoved by the blatant mental health symbolism. We overlooked similarities to what may have been occurring in that very home. Or maybe for my cousins, these films brought about a semblance of familiarity or normalcy. For my preadolescent cousins, it was the music and the performance that was enchanting. It was the purple motorcycle that could mysteriously transverse both bridges and the muddy meadows below that captured my attention. It was the sex appeal for my oldest cousins.
In that basement, that sumner, I learned too much. I was exposed to things that, to this day, bring me joy. The soundtracks and the vividness, the dialogue and the cliches all bring me a childhood familiarity that most likely explains my adult perverted mind. There were other things going on in that house that I was probably sheltered from. If not for the cinematic distractions, I too could have fallen victim to the perversions playing out upstairs.