The Day Penthouse Shot on Our Dinner Table: A Childhood Memory (Part One)
Unlike typical crime capers there was no climactic shootout, no final explosion and no conclusive battle of wits. There wasn’t a last-minute double-cross, a final moment of ironic justice or a closing iconic farewell. There was just a fat, four-eyed kid stammering an inaudible, almost incomprehensible apology to a naked 19-year-old as she lay spread-eagle on the glass dining room table on which my family still eats Christmas dinner to this day.
That’s how it ended, not with a bang but a lot of mortified whimpering. But it began like any other crime caper—with a lone hero looking for that one last big score that would set him up for life.
Part One: The Hero
By the age of eleven I realized I was already a good 20 years behind my classmates sexually.
Not only had the word “play” apparently been redefined in my absence from “hanging out with friends” to “playing baseball, soccer, football or any team sport that did not involve Kenner’s Death Star Playset” but also girls had somehow gone from just “guys with barrettes” to “people of great interest.” Perhaps it happened the week I was out with the first known case of “hysterical flu”—or the day I passed out from fear in the middle of reading my book report and woke up in the nurse’s office with a bump on my head and a withering critique of Mouse on a Motorcycle still clutched in my hand—but when I returned the very social fabric of fifth grade had been irrevocably altered. Boys now saw themselves as “preteens,” with the emphasis on the second syllable, and comported themselves as such. They had agendas as they approached girls, hoping to come across as attractive, funny or at least capable of blowing up a party balloon without gasping for air halfway through and bursting into tears (a remarkably low bar that I had thoughtfully set for my classmates earlier in the year). And though they didn’t quite have the sexual parlance down yet (“I would so do her mouth”) the boys were at least making an attempt to learn the language. Even my five-year-old brother Marcello—who still occasionally spoke in a Jodie-Foster-as-Nell patois of his own devising in which plants were “kmms,” and pajamas “tash”—knew the word “vagina” and would use it in a sentence as often as possible. On the other hand, I was doomed to feel insecure being around or even pondering the opposite sex until a good ten years after you are currently reading this story.
About the same time, my best friend Val had started watching Star Wars over and over again in the theater with the scholarly intensity usually reserved for the Zapruder film for any sign of Princess Leia’s breasts jiggling as I stared sad-eyed up at the screen certain I would never possess the masculine self-confidence of C-3PO. Val had also just replaced his bedroom posters of soccer superstar Pelé with hundreds of photos of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, effectively turning what was once a shrine to the New York Cosmos into a full-fledged, NFL-endorsed masturbatorium.
Wherever I looked in school, on the bus, on my street it seemed as if every kid was getting older, wiser, more sexually confident and less likely to spend their afternoons doing very wide, slow donuts on a Big Wheel. Meanwhile, I was feeling less mature, less capable and highly likely to spend my approaching teen years collecting as many white Lego blocks as possible to construct the ultimate Ice Planet Hoth diorama. Already a favorite target of derision for being fat, painfully shy and famously incapable of inflating even the smallest party decoration, I was now being called “a baby,” “a sissy” and—by my own brother—“a vagina.” Things were getting worse for me socially, which up until that point I had found comfort in thinking wasn’t even possibile. My worst fears had been realized…and then trumped. Clearly it was time for drastic action.
And so like my friend Val—and no doubt countless red-blooded American boys before me—I decided it was high time to make some bold interior-decorating choices. At age 11 my bedroom was a veritable walk-in photo album of my toddler years. Wherever you looked there were pictures of me at three and younger, as if I were desperately trying to recapture my glory days of minimal motor skills and carefree incontinence. What I needed instead was something that said, “Here lies not a boy but a man!” Something that said, “This is the room of a mature, sexually curious individual!” Something that said, “Ignore his cherished childhood stuffed toy ‘Peanut Butters’ still lying on his bed and instead take in the wonders of this fortress of unbridled masculinity and sophistication!” I pondered the possibilities. I weighed my options. Then I walked into my father’s home art studio, looked him straight in the eye and said with supreme self-assurance, “Dad, I want a Miss Piggy poster.”
Back then I considered The Muppet Show to be the epitome of adult entertainment and peer confirmation. My parents loved the show. My friends (okay, friend) loved the show. My classmates loved the show. In the then heavily-fragmented, niche, multimedia 1970s programming world that was three networks and a Spanish-language station, The Muppet Show was one of the few TV series everyone could agree upon. To say you liked The Muppet Show was to say what everyone else was saying, and when you’re desperate for social acceptance that’s all that ever really needs to be said. Throw in that Miss Piggy had become the show’s breakout sex symbol—a conclusion that could only make sense to a boy who read his dad’s porn magazines strictly for the comics but understood none of them—and clearly I had taken my initial brave step towards true manhood.
Unfortunately, the fact that my desire for a Miss Piggy poster was the very first sign of interest I had shown in the opposite sex scared the living crap out of my dad. Years later I learned he’d slowly been prepping himself for the normal possibility of having fathered a gay son. (“Real men don’t cry halfway through a balloon.”) But poor dad possessed neither the psychological make-up nor willful ignorance to be the proud parent of a latent pigfucker. It was one black mark he could not bear and so sought to scour off the family name as soon as possible.
Thus my dad, fearing for his son’s sexual development and the Marciulianos’ acclaim for not mounting unsuspecting farm animals, dismissed my request and instead bought me the now-iconic Farrah Fawcett poster, bathing suit, gleaming smile and all. He then nailed to my bedroom wall with the determined solemnity of Martin Luther. That poster was his proclamation, one that read, “You shall look upon her protruding right nipple. You shall wish she had worn a bikini instead of a one-piece, stomach scar be damned. You shall have funny yet perfectly normal feelings when you stare up at it from your pillow late at night or when you think your mom and I aren’t home. And should some portions of this poster wear out faster than others due to the constant application of saliva, well then who is anyone to judge?” Then my dad left, secure in the knowledge that he had effectively steered me towards a sexually compatible species.
That poster remained on my bedroom wall, fooling no one including myself. It stayed there long after Farrah had left Charlie’s Angels, divorced Lee (Six Million Dollar Man) Majors and failed to set a nation’s imagination on fire with Saturn 3. Long after my classmates had moved on from Farrah to Madonna to actual girlfriends. Long after what was meant to be proof positive of my impending manhood eventually served as yet more evidence of my all-too-obvious immaturity.
I was now a child with a poster he didn’t want, a reputation he couldn’t rescue and a fear that he was always going to be a “vagina.” I now knew it would take more than a few cosmetic changes to salvage my preteen years and make me if not cool then at least not doomed to be only known as “The Half-Balloon Boy.” It was going to take truly phenomenal circumstances.
It was going to take an at-home photo shoot with Penthouse Magazine.