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My Secret Life in Film

                                    Kelly Grey Carlisle

I think I knew I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, but I was seven, and I didn’t know what a real secret was yet.

Larry, my best friend Jill’s father, was driving me home in his Chevy Nova. Jill came along for the ride and sat next to me in the back seat.  We stretched our legs straight out in front of us and dangled our feet off the red plush bench. The seat belts held us snug, and we reached our hands behind us to feel for loose change, crumbs, Barbie heads, or spoons in the crack between the cushions.

I was watching the back of Larry’s head, his brown and gray hair, his little bald spot above the burgundy seat, when he said, “Richard and Marilyn probably get you all sorts of free movies from their video store, huh?”

Richard was my grandfather. Marilyn, his second wife. I lived with them. “No,” I answered. “They have an adult video store.”

I knew an adult video store meant I couldn’t see any of the movies because I was too young. But what I didn’t understand was the difference between movies that I was too little to watch, like Psycho or Rambo, and the movies my grandfather sold in his store. I thought “adult movies” meant films that were more advanced and sophisticated than the Rated-G movies Jill and I were allowed to see. Yes, it was a secret in our family, but I thought that it was a secret just because we were modest and didn’t want to boast. I was proud of the fact my grandparents only had adult movies in their store—the way I might be proud telling someone, “My parents only have Physics books and Shakespeare plays in their library.”

I remember how Larry looked up in his mirror when I told him, how even though it was dark and he wore glasses, I still saw his eyes popping.

“They own a what?”

“An adult video store.” I was happy to have impressed Larry. I loved Larry and thought he was God’s gift to little girls, especially Jill and me. He worked in the Garment District in downtown LA and always brought Jill and me T-shirts and dresses and autographed pictures of famous people, like the Incredible Hulk and Magnum, P.I. He built us huge tents with blankets and chairs and could fix his own car, skills that amazed me to no end.

“An adult video store?” he repeated, this time with a wide grin on his face.

That grin made me nervous. “Yes,” I answered, but I was starting to look for a place to hide with the spoons and Barbie heads.

“What’s an adult video store?” Jill piped up.

“Nothing,” Larry said. “It’s a store with videos only adults can rent.”

“Like Rambo,” I explained to Jill.

“Exactly,” Larry echoed, and I let out a deep breath, relieved to see that Larry understood after all.

Larry came into our house when he dropped me off. As Jill and I stooped to pet Ugly the dog, I heard him say to my grandfather: “So, Richard, I hear you have an a-dult video store.”

I didn’t like the way Larry pronounced adult, as if he were laughing at a joke I didn’t understand. There was a pause in the conversation, and I looked up from Ugly, only to see my grandfather staring straight at me.

“I have no idea what you mean,” my grandfather said. He used his best snobby voice, the one that made his British accent most pronounced. “Where did you ever hear that?”

“Kelly told me.”

I kept staring at the oozy sore just above Ugly’s wagging tail. I knew I was in trouble.

After Larry and Jill left, my grandfather sat me down at the dining room table.

“Don’t you ever tell anyone what business I’m in ever again,” he began in a low growl.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because no one will like you. Don’t tell your friends, because they’ll stop being your friends. Don’t tell you teachers, because they’ll give you bad grades. Don’t tell anyone.” The pitch and volume of his voice had risen slowly so that by the end he was shouting.

And even though I said “Okay” in my tiniest voice, I still didn’t understand. Why wouldn’t adults like movies made for them?

In 1976, when I was three weeks old, my mother was murdered. When she died, we were living at a motel on Wilcox Avenue in Hollywood, in a room she shared with friends. One night she left me in the motel room and went out to turn a trick to make rent. Her strangled and beaten body was found the next day.

At first I lived with my grandmother Yvonne; she died when I was four. After her death, I was sent to live with my grandfather and Marilyn, who raised me in Palos Verdes and San Pedro, communities in the southern arm of L.A.’s galactic sprawl.

The video store was a tiny beige building on the corner of Century Boulevard about two miles east of LAX, across the street from a body shop and a social services building, directly beneath the flight path. Its windows were boarded up with plywood and locked away behind black metal grating, its walls plastered with signs that beckoned, “XXX!! DISCOUNT VIDEO!! XXX!!” “NOVELTY” “XXX!! ARCADE!!”

When I was nine or ten, my grandfather and Marilyn started taking me there. If they needed to fix a machine or pick up the day’s earnings, they would take me along and leave me locked in his beat-up Mercedes. I didn’t set foot in that store until I was in my twenties, but I could imagine what the store was like inside. The front of the store was stuffed ceiling to floor with shelves of brightly colored video boxes, and the carpet was olive green. I knew I had the carpet color right, because my grandfather used the remnants of our house’s carpet in the store. The clerk’s counter, where the cassettes and money were kept, was surrounded by bulletproof glass. My grandfather had had the glass put in after a clerk had been shot.

I imagined that the back of the building was separated from the front by a tacky red bead curtain, because I thought every porn store should have one. In that back room were the arcades—cubicles partitioned by pressboard walls, each containing its own monitor and a coin acceptor, where men sat watching movies as long as their money and stamina held out. I knew this because in the days before bill acceptors, my grandfather sat for hours each night at our dining room table hand-counting the thousands of quarters that came through the booths at the back of the store. The coins would arrive in cloth sacks too heavy for me to lift, and his job was to count and wrap them into rolls of ten dollars. He made stacks of ten quarters each and lined them up in rows on the table, each exactly the same height, the rows exactly the same space apart. If he was tired, he’d let me help him. They reminded me of Roman soldiers, the endless lines of them from movies like Spartacus and Cleopatra; for this reason, my stacks and rows were impeccably straight. It was only when his hands became too arthritic to make the stacks that he finally bought a machine to count the coins.

My grandfather was a fat Englishman, like Sydney Greenstreet, but less imposing, and when he didn’t have his contact lenses in, he wore thick glasses with lenses that looked like the bottoms of soda bottles. It was hard to tell what he was thinking when he wore his glasses, because you couldn’t see his eyes. You couldn’t tell if he was looking down at the table or straight at you, but you could always tell when he wanted you to believe what he was saying. He’d take off his thick glasses when he said it and look straight at you with his blind eyes.

If you believed everything he said, he’d once been in the motion picture business. He’d started making movies in the late forties, shortly after he arrived in this country from England. Later, he’d written scripts for Perry Mason and The Twilight Zone. Not only that, he was the cousin of the English film actor Robert Donat. He’d known Lawrence Olivier, Ava Gardner, and John Wayne. He’d been friends with Merle Oberon and had lived in the same building as Claire Bloom and Vivien Leigh. Growing up in Los Angeles, where movie stars lived only half a city away, his stories didn’t seem like such a stretch. But then again, if you believed everything my grandfather said, he’d also been a medical student, an officer on Lord Mountbatten’s ship, a commando, a spy, a prisoner of war liberated by Patton, a baronet, a gourmet chef, and even a bum. There were many people who did not believe a word my grandfather said, but I wasn’t one of them. When I was a little girl, I believed it all.

My grandfather raised me on a steady diet of Kit Kat bars and videos of old movies, the only kind he liked. Together we watched Errol Flynn swashbuckle his way to Maid Marion, Jeannette McDonald warble her undying love to Nelson Eddie, and Bogart stride his way through The Maltese Falcon. We watched Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. I grew up in the 1980s, but I didn’t care for Richard Gere or Tom Cruise or Molly Ringwald. I was in love with Gregory Peck and Cary Grant. I idolized Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn and Vivien Leigh. I listened with rapt attention as my grandfather spun stories about his days in the movie business, his days spent with the stars.

Until I was old enough to be embarrassed, I loved going to our store. I sat in the Mercedes and spied on the men who went inside. Most of our customers were male; the few women were usually prostitutes looking to pick up johns or to buy condoms. The clerks threw them out, because letting them stay would give the store a bad name with the cops. Before my grandfather started taking me there, I was sure the men who went to our store were monsters. Once my grandfather had tried to explain to me why porn wasn’t that bad; his main argument was that if a man needed to have sex, wouldn’t it be better if he went to our video store instead of raping someone? So I thought the men who frequented my grandfather’s store would be those too ugly to get a date and rapists. I imagined them having greasy jowls and handlebar mustaches; that they’d be fat men with receding hairlines, freckled men with yellow teeth. But the men who parked in our parking lot were “normal” men. They drove pick-ups and BMWs and Buicks. Some wore three-piece suits; others wore jeans or sweats. There were Japanese men on their way to the airport in yellow taxis and Budget rent-a-cars. There were black men, Latino men, white men—so many different kinds of men I thought that every man must look at porn once in a while. I was probably right.

In their own way, my grandfather and Marilyn tried to shield me from the business a little. But like most family businesses, the video store permeated its owners’ lives; it took an all-consuming, unending effort to make it work. Our business seeped into my childhood, just as surely as if my parents had owned a 7-Eleven or a nail salon. Every two weeks, Marilyn would make the two-hour trip to the San Fernando Valley to buy new merchandise. She’d return home late in the afternoon with huge cardboard boxes packed full of brightly colored video boxes I was not allowed to get close to. In the afternoons when I was away at school or late at night after I’d gone to bed, she’d shrink-wrap and label them, hundreds at a time. Those brightly colored boxes fascinated me, and because they were strictly forbidden, I wanted nothing more than to see them.

One day when I was eleven, I finally worked up the courage to sneak into our garage and open a cardboard box. At first, I pulled the flaps apart very quickly, peeking in just a moment before closing them again and running back inside the house. After a few trips back and forth between the house and garage, I finally pulled the box open. I stared wide-eyed at breasts the size of watermelons (which I learned were called “knockers”), penises (which were called “dongs”), kissing girls in pony tails (this was known as “girl on girl”), and young men in police uniforms touching each other (that was “gay action”), all set against comic book reds, yellows, and greens. Until that point I had not thoroughly understood the mechanics of sex, and seeing those bodies in all their slimy glory scared me. The only penises I’d seen were Peter Gererra’s small curled one in the second grade—he’d decided to flash the whole class after Mrs. Vaux told him to go to the principal’s office—and my grandfather’s wrinkled hairy one, which hung out every time his dressing gown flapped open, as it often did. Penises on porn boxes, though, were huge, veined things, hard like metal flashlights or clubs, more like weapons than anything else. From what I learned in the garage, sex was not the passionate-yet-chaste kisses of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Sex was something else entirely.

When I was eleven, adult videos only had two redeeming features: the titles—quasi-clever rip-offs of mainstream movies, like Who Fucked Jessica Rabbit?—and the plots—amazing twists and turns that packed five sex scenes into three lines of prose copy. The sex toys were interesting and, somehow, less threatening than the films. I puzzled at the hot pink and purple vibrators, the true-to-life phalli in every shade of flesh-tone, inflatable dolls with ridiculously round mouths. Twenty years later, as I remember those busy, colorful boxes and bright pastel toys, it occurs to me that there isn’t much that is grown-up about the porn business.

In eighth grade, the world went boy crazy, but I did not. My girl friends wanted to talk about French kissing and my boy friends wanted to talk about second base. My friend Paula wanted to tell me how far she’d gone with my classmate Benito, but I didn’t want to even think about that. I could still remember the time Benny peed his pants in first grade. I liked boys fine, and I imagined that kissing one would be nice, especially if Gregory Peck were on the other end. No one in eighth grade was anything like Gregory Peck. And I really didn’t want to talk about kissing or third base or the different slang words we knew for penis, not at all. By that time I knew slang words for every part of the human anatomy, male and female, and words for every conceivable joining of those parts. I knew more about sex than any of them—and I couldn’t even boast about it. If I did, they’d want to know how I knew so much. And that was a secret.

But I also didn’t become boy crazy because I knew none of the boys were crazy about me. We had to wear uniforms to school, and I hated my dorky blue blazer, cheap polyester skirt, and navy knee socks that always fell down over my scuffed up Mary Janes. I knew from our video boxes that some men found school uniforms sexy, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why—and even if I could, I knew for a fact that I was not sexy. I was fat, round in the wrong places and flat in the others, and my hair hung limply against my oily face. I was not sexy the way that porn stars were sexy. My hair didn’t bounce or shine the way theirs did, and I didn’t have big knockers or pouting lips. I knew I wasn’t beautiful either. I’d learned what it was to be beautiful from Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. I wasn’t the Girl Next Door or the Siren or the Vixen or the Lovely English Rose. I knew from my favorite detective movies that I was the Girl Friday, the kind of girl boys went on adventures with, but not the kind of girl with whom they fell in love. The problem was, none of my male friends wanted a girl sidekick anymore. They wanted a girlfriend.

And then, there was the other reason I didn’t become boy crazy, one I didn’t like to think too much about. Sex frightened me, the way men came to our store, craving it and buying it in secret, as if it were a drug. It frightened me the way men needed sex so much, the way my grandfather needed it. Ever since I knew what sex was, my grandfather had been talking to me about it, telling me how Marilyn wouldn’t sleep with him, had never slept with him, and how, even if she would sleep with him, he couldn’t get an erection. He told me how frustrating it was, to be a man and not get any sex. He told me how frustrated he was that he didn’t really know for a fact that he couldn’t get hard because Marilyn wouldn’t have sex with him.

“If I could just get with a real woman, I’d be able to tell if everything still worked. You know, it’s different with a real woman than when you jerk off to a magazine or a movie. You know?”

I didn’t.

That year I became painfully shy, mortified when I was noticed by anyone, embarrassed about everything. I suddenly hated going to the store. I’d sit crouched in the Mercedes I was now ashamed of, every muscle tense, concentrating on willing people away from me. Fortunately most of the men going to our store were like me; they didn’t want to be seen in a porn store parking lot either. But some men getting out of their cars would give me knowing glances on their way into the store, maybe a little wave of the hand, and I’d shrink as low as I could into my seat. I wonder if they thought my father was inside renting a movie or sitting in a booth. Or maybe they were regulars and knew I was the owner’s daughter. Or maybe they got a kick out of my school uniform.

One of the last times Marilyn took me to the store, when I was thirteen and already so embarrassed I could die, a man came up to the car and knocked on my window. I thought for a second he was Norm, the store clerk, but it was a stranger. I only caught a glimpse of him, his brown corduroy pants, the pink of his fingernails against his skin. He tried to get me to roll down my window to talk to him. I sat in my seat too scared to move, stone-faced, staring at my lap, ignoring him the way I’d learned to ignore the boys who taunted me at school. When I ignored them they usually left, but this man kept talking to me through the glass, asking me to go out with him, asking me, “Please, please, won’t you just look at me? Just look at me now, Hon. Just look.”

Once when I was little and riding in Marilyn’s mini-van, a man drove up next to us at a red light. He kept honking and honking at us. I looked over and saw his penis lying like a dead beige fish in his lap, his hand gently stroking it.

I knew not to look when the man at the window asked me to.

I don’t remember when I stopped believing my grandfather’s old Hollywood stories. It might have started the year I watched TV every single day of summer vacation. KTLA Channel 5 played reruns of old Perry Mason shows from 10:00 a.m. until noon. KCOP Channel 13 ran episodes of The Twilight Zone from 3:00 until 5:00. I watched them every day, without fail. I watched them because they were shows my grandfather said he’d written for, but I ended up loving them for themselves. I got a kick out of the way Perry’s chief suspect always confessed in court, practically begging to be arrested. I secretly waited for the Twilight Zone to manifest itself in my life, preferably at school, preferably during math class, in such a way as to remove me from said math class.

I watched and watched these shows and kept my eyes on the credits, waiting for my grandfather’s name to scroll down the screen. It never did.

Sometime in college, I stopped believing him completely. I’d go away for months at a stretch, and every time I came back, my larger-than-life grandfather seemed smaller and smaller to me. His stories seemed fabricated, designed to make him sound bigger, better, more important. And really, I suppose there wasn’t all that was important about my grandfather—an old man who owned a run-down porn store—except that I loved him. And he loved me. He died in 1998, two weeks after I graduated.

But now—and I don’t know why I’ve waited so long to do it—I finally Google my grandfather. I type in “Perry Mason” and my grandfather’s name, Richard Grey. To my surprise, IMDB lists him as having written six episodes of the show. I spend a Saturday watching Perry Mason DVDs with my husband. We eat microwave popcorn; a lot of microwave popcorn, because I don’t let us skip ahead to my grandfather’s episodes. We watch them in order, one after the other, until we get to “The Case of the Negligent Nymph.” I sit close to my husband on the couch, my head half buried in his shoulder, my eye only just peeking at the screen. The plot is slow, the dialogue is corny (even cornier than usual). It is, without a doubt, the worst Perry Mason I’ve ever watched. But my grandfather’s hand is all over this episode—there’s a curvaceous starlet in a wet blouse, a grumpy old man behind a heavy desk.

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