a squish in the dark

anna belle patterson
Tradition can be a strange thing. Freedom is sometimes stranger still. The two ideas are exalted in our culture, even though they seem at odds, and it can be hard for a young person to know which is better in any given situation. Sometimes when the two meet and conflict, a person can end up questioning both. Take the day I turned 18 as a case in point.

I turned 18 years old on February 7, 1989. Jeremy, my boyfriend at the time, had just turned 18 a few months before, as had most in his tight-knit group of friends. He and this circle of friends had a tradition that they would take advantage of every possible freedom as soon as it was granted to them. Thus, he and many of his friends spent their 18th birthdays making the rounds at various adult entertainment establishments in Louisville.

I was the first girl in our group to turn 18, which only occurred to us as we were planning my coming-of-age party, but we decided that tradition was tradition and gender was not a factor worth considering. I had, of course, never been to an adult establishment but I had spent a fair amount time in my childhood leafing through my Dad's old copies of Playboy, so I thought I had some idea of what to expect.

Louisville's exotic clubs were generally located in two places at the time: downtown and on what was commonly referred to as "The 7th Street Strip." We started out at Blue Movies, an adult book/video store on 3rd Street and worked our way around the three or four establishments in the downtown area. Then we moved on to 7th Street.

As typical American teenagers, we had some money, but not a lot. As a result, we spent most of our time single filing into small private viewing rooms to drop quarter after quarter into the slot that kept the x-rated movie going. These rooms were always small, dark and reeked of sweat and sex. The men in these places always looked at us in disbelief as we made our way in, while the employees were usually suspicious. I was pretty na´ve at the time, so I had no idea why we were getting so much attention. Only in hindsight did I realize how bizarre it might appear to have a young lady and her all-male entourage sweep past the counter and crowd into a "private" viewing room.

We reached our final destination at around 3:30 in the morning. We had visited seven or eight of these clubs and I was getting tired and disgusted with all the gratuitous sex on poor quality film, in dives populated by the dregs of society. I can't recall the name of this last place, but it was roomier than any of the others. This one sold sex toys, magazines and videos in the front while the back contained several viewing rooms and a small theater for "live shows." Obviously we could not afford a "live show" so we found ourselves heading to the viewing rooms, which were considerably larger than the others we had visited that night.

Most of the rooms at these establishments had no place to sit or contained only a small plastic chair in the center. However, this particular room had a long faux leather bench along one side and I moved to sit on it in my exhaustion, placing my hand on the edge of the bench to ease onto it. Before my butt could make contact with the seat, the air was shattered by an ear piercing scream- my own!

Apparently, I had chosen to steady myself in the middle of someone else's left over sex fluids. At least I assume that's what happened. To be honest, I didn't wait around to see what the mess was, I just shot out of the room like a cannon ball, shrieking the entire way, past a dozen pair of apprehensive eyes on men who suddenly lined the hallway.

I waited out front for the boys, who were explaining to patrons and employees what had happened and reassuring them that it wasn't an assault-type scenario. One of the ladies came to the window and looked out, so I smiled weakly and waved, which seemed to convince them I was okay. I just wanted to get home and lather myself up with Dial soap to kill whatever nasty germs had resulted from the evening's activities. And I did, many times. Every time I remembered the event, it had a sensory element to it that was like re-feeling it all over again, which drove me compulsively to the showers again and again.

It must have been in one of those showering sessions that it occurred to me for the first time that I was free to make poor choices. I didn't think of it quite so succinctly as all that, it was more like a vague awareness that I only had half the picture as far as being a free agent was concerned. There was more to it than just doing stuff because you could, life required a bit of discriminating finesse that I obviously didn't have-and doing something because it had been done before just wasn't discriminating enough.