Life in the Penthouse
I was fifteen. I am fifteen. It was spring. It is spring. Before targeting the mission as my own, I’d begged and bribed older boys to buy Penthouse magazine for me, without success. Now, my impending purchase feels like the wait before a bank heist. A sophomore, I’ve spent the long day in school, my cock hard with innocent anticipation.
I get off the crowded bus miles away from my own neighborhood, and stroll into the shop, pretend to browse music and sports magazines and then stare down at the two stacks of thick magazines.
One stack is Playboy: bleach blondes with beaming smiles. Playboy seems somehow “acceptable” or “safe” porn, vaguely Hollywood, somehow false.
The other stack is Penthouse. Even from its covers, Penthouse seemed like High Culture, featuring sophisticated models decked out in European-style boudoirs. Or posed unadorned, hippy-like, nude, gazing over flower fields.
This month’s issue, May 1983, features a cover model––whose name I came to know––is Linda Kenton. She’s a Grace Kelly ringer––blonde coif, a red dress pulled back, a long leg lifted, a shoeless foot raised, a backward glance. As I bring the magazine up to the counter, my young hands tremble self-consciously. My schoolbag heavy at my side, I am fired up by a vague knowledge that a new kind of homework awaits, and I hand over rumpled dollars and take my change, still shaking. The store owner feels like a co-conspirator.
Safely at home I peel open the magazine like it is a sacred and forbidden text. The pictorial inside knocks me backwards on my bed. I feel flush. It’s not just the female nudity that draws me in. I shiver, sensing an erotic danger even in simple details. Close eyelids and smoky eyeliner. Or a woman’s knowing glance over a teacup. The path of sunlight from a window to a flowerpot to a naked arm to her nose. What a lithe limb encased in black hosiery looks like peeking from under a tulle dress. I am turned on by these simplest details and by the electric force of her finger posed there, pressed between her parted legs. She invites me to do likewise, and these are my first truly deliberate acts of self-pleasuring, confused strokes, a crazed sensation like swimming without knowing what “water” is. The magazine opened on my bed, for the first time, I willfully bring myself to orgasm.
It is years later and, my Penthouse fat Holiday issue is confiscated by household authorities. What if my much younger siblings had found it? I am grilled by my father. Compliant but outraged, a day or two later, I head to the newsagent to buy that very same fat, hefty Holiday issue again. I stand at the counter. The store’s register is unmanned. I wait. No one appears. I wait some more, growing bitterly aware that I already paid my hard earned cash for this very issue a week before, before the “authorities” snatched it from me. So without a second thought, I walk out of the store without paying, the free issue under my arm. Free. I am sure I came more than once that afternoon.
Coming off a bad run of luck the previous year—I have just turned twenty. Already I am feeling a tad old to be doing this. I double park in the frigid cold and run in to buy Penthouse from the local shop. The annual Pet of the Year issue is just out. Her name is “Patty Mullen.” When I take “her” home, her beauty bowls me over. An auburn haired woman posed in streaming sunlight, her head crowned with a fedora. The pictorial informs me she is a local gal (“how far a drive is Staten Island from my house,” I wonder?). For the first time, a Penthouse model is exactly my age. Her taste is eclectic and impeccable. She loves “scallops and white wine and chocolate, Woody Allen and white Harley Davidson’s.” She wears ruffled Queens Anne lace and hooded blouses. Her smiling green eyes burn through me. Patty Mullen is a great omen. The new year turns out to be an annus mirabilis.
Away at grad school, exiled in God’s country, I receive an unexpected care package from home. My current girlfriend has shipped me my Penthouse stash. She enjoyed perusing my back issues. She included a note saying which issue was her favorite. On top of the magazines, she has left a pair of her black lace panties.
I am happily engaged. My girlfriend and I are enjoying a prolific sex life, and yet I find myself home alone, midwinter, and bored. In our gentrified neighborhood’s magazine shop, I scope out Penthouse, like old times. The cover model’s name is Sasha Vinni. Eyes like ink, dark, deep as a Russian novel. And a body out of Ovid’s poetry. Sasha, extolling her Russian upbringing, Sasha strolling among an island’s yew trees and kicking in its foamy shore. Sasha seated in sunlight, Sasha hugging her black stocking legs, the trim of her stockings graced by tiny white bows. Sah-sha.
I woke up fifteen hours earlier in Prague. Now I am back in New York. Things at home have been stale. If it’s not over between us now it will be soon enough. Everyone knows the unspoken and slow fade-out of a relationship. It happens. Jet-lagged, horny, I pull off the highway and stop at the newsagent on the way back to the ‘burbs from the airport. I recall it is the same store where I’d shoplifted that issue some twelve years earlier. This time I wait patiently and pay for Penthouse––I’m a good bourgeois boy by now––and taking the magazine under my arm, I actually don’t expect much from it. The few issues I’ve bought in the 1990s are thinner than they used to be, both in content and in quality. The couple’s pictorials, once a voyeuristic favorite, have become a parade of silicone boobs and steroid biceps and all-too-graphic anatomical close-ups.
Yet that jet-lagged afternoon at home, I am wowed by that month’s model. Kelly Havel. Talk about sexual healing! Unlike my girlfriend at the time, Kelly actually smiles, laughs. An authentic laughter. Her eyes suggest a compelling mix of self-conscious giddiness and a grown-up playfulness. Her black gown is stunning. Her breasts are small, natural. Her ass is small, full. Her legs are long. Her lips against her own lips on the mirror glass. Her tight blouse is painted with Asian flourishes. A dragon. Fire. Tongue. Flame. Relief.
Epilogue: March 2010
Penthouse back then, was not porn as it is in 2010. Those were hard copies, indeed. I don’t regret a minute of it. Or a dollar of it. Lost and found gazing at the pages of Penthouse, I was somehow included and excluded from sex.
I savored that contradiction.
My memories are like those of someone who lived in an Eastern Bloc country, waiting for the trucks to deliver the latest issue to the local pick up point, then smuggling this underground magazine from one location to another. I even persuaded myself that it wasn’t porn, but high art. I treated the issue with delicacy. I stored the magazines safely and variously. I smelled and touched the glossy pages. I studied the pictorials’ foregrounds and backgrounds. I envied those coupling couples, and I was struck dumb by the transgressive photos of threesomes. I knew each of the photographers by name and by their styles. I read subtexts and stories into the settings. If Penthouse’s photographers aspired to be like painters like Renoir and Klimt, they also knew porn was part irony, and even camp. I was disappointed when the magazine punctured my dream-world of sex with nude photo spreads of “real” celebrities: Madonna, Vanessa Williams, Gennifer Flowers. Once or twice, I actually bought an issue for the articles and interviews. Andy Warhol and Pete Townshend and Martin Scorsese. In more literary moods, I often got off to the (always fake) Forum letters.
Secure, alone in my room with the latest issue, I was not put upon by social expectations: teachers, parents, friends, siblings. In Penthouse, I didn’t have to think about “my future” or “responsibilities.” I got off in the company of beautiful, silent strangers. Their allure was so vivid that I can recall their first names as if they are ex’s of mine, which, in a way, they are. Linda, Patty, Sasha, Kelly. These were women who seemed beyond men: worldly, artistic, independent. Penthouse-living women. That was part of founder Bob Guccione’s goal, his magazine’s sweet illusion. I have often wondered what became of these women in “real” life.
Real-life: how irrelevant is that phrase, especially when applied to the pursuit of pleasure. I think sex is forever intertwined with the unreal, the tangible mirage.
Playing among those phantasms in Penthouse and finding my pleasure between what could be and what is, I gave as much as I got.
While Thom Gautier no longer buys Penthouse magazine, he does write erotica, which has appeared in Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 9 (Running Press), and in the forthcoming Sex in the City: New York Sex (Accent Press). His stories have also been in Lucrezia Magazine, Sliptongue, Cleansheets, and Oysters & Chocolate.