This Is What Sex Looks Like

I. TWO CLIFFHANGERS. CIRCA 1994.

My family is on a skiing trip in Vail, Colorado. My mom rents the movie Cliffhanger and puts it on the hotel room TV for my two younger siblings and me. In the opening scene, a man and woman are suspended by ripcord over an expanse of snowy mountains thousands of feet below. The woman’s equipment malfunctions and she slips; the man grabs her hand. She loses his grip, and is now held only by a rapidly failing plastic clip. She gazes up at him in panic, both of them full aware of her impending doom.

But there are technical problems; the screen goes to static. We call the front desk and they send up a technician. He switches the mode from VCR to cable as he works, and two adolescent figures appear on the screen, boy and girl. They sit on a bed in a darkened room. They kiss. The boy asks the girl if she’s ready. She is. He turns a switch, and illuminates a string of Christmas lights over the headboard. They start to undress, pause awkwardly, and turn their backs to each other before they continue.

I am riveted. The actors don’t appear much older than my nine years. I know from somewhere deep in my being what is about to happen, and I need to see it. But my mom snaps at the technician to get this pornography off the screen—there are children in the room. He complies, fixes the VCR, and we return to the dangling woman, who is dead in minutes.

II. FARGO. 1996

I am at my grandparents’ house. My cousins and I go through the movies our parents have rented that week, and choose Fargo. I’ll grow to love the Cohen Brothers, but as an eleven-year-old, the humor is lost on me and I’m bored.

That is, until we get to the scene with the hookers in the hotel room: two men, two hookers, two twin beds, one pair in each. Up until now, my idea of sex has been of man and woman embracing one another and rolling around in bed—literally rolling, like a log rolling down a hill. It doesn’t occur to me that any dynamism involved, but Fargo is about to show me otherwise. Instead of clamping onto the men and slipping beneath the sheets to commence with the rolling, these women sit upright astride the men, bouncing—bouncing!—up and down. I am slightly disgusted but also enthralled.

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