Once again, my submission didn’t make it through in the CBC Non Fiction Prize. That’s okay because it means that I get to share it all with you. Enjoy!
I noticed the lips first.
They seemed to watch me from wherever I went, luscious red lips against a black background. The movie title had been made to look as if it were written in blood. It was 1990 in suburbia, and I was eleven years old. I had never seen anything like those lips before. I had no idea what the movie was about, but those lips thrilled me.
They were pasted all over the windows of Bandito Video and I would stare at the lips and trace my fingers along the words, hoping in some childish way that the lips would come alive and talk to me.
I remember the buzz that started, filling the suburban air with what sounded like the music of bees. My father was excited about something for once. There was a glow in his eyes. “It’s coming out on video,” he told me. “For the first time!” He actually looked happy, which surprised me.
“What’s it about?” I asked.
“You’re too young for it,” he said. “You wouldn’t understand it.”
Based on those big red lips and the way he talked about it, I assumed that it was like the porno magazines that my father kept in the basement on the top shelf of the utility closet, inside that old brown leather suitcase. “What is it about?” I asked again. He shook me off and this just made me want to watch the movie more.
Everyone at school was talking about it. “What have your parents told you about the movie?” I asked.
My friend Sarah looked at me and shrugged. “It’s rated R. They won’t tell me anything, said it’s not for kids.” She sighed. “My mother told me to stop asking questions. Makes me want to watch it even more.”
I felt the same way. My brother didn’t care, but those lips filled me with a need that I couldn’t even name or make sense of. I had never seen anything so sexual in all my eleven years. A small part of me wondered if that was why my father didn’t want me to watch it and I wondered again if it was a porno movie, but I couldn’t imagine Sara’s mother watching something like that; she was far too uptight.
There was a countdown to the release of the film and the excitement around it rose higher with each day. I heard ads on the radio and even saw commercials on television. I could hear someone singing in the background and there were flashes of lightning interspersed with short moments from the film. I had no idea what I was seeing, but I knew that I wanted to see more of it. I had to.
The fever pitch rose even higher each day. I’d never experienced anything like it. The adults in my family were talking about it constantly. One of my aunts got tipsy on some wine one night and started talking about the last time she had seen it and how much fun she’d had dressing up in her costume. “It was such a wonderful time! I was a little cold in my fish net stockings, though!” My stepmother saw me listening and shushed my aunt. I wondered what kind of film it was that you had to dress up in fish nets for. I had never heard of a movie that you had to dress up for.
The buzz continued to grow, and it felt like the buildup the week before Christmas. There was that same sense of anticipation. I tried to keep it hidden, as I had been told again and again that this movie wasn’t for children. I didn’t know how I would see it, but I just knew that I had to. Sarah was planning on stealing the copy that her parents planned to buy, but I didn’t know if I would be so lucky. Everywhere I went, I saw the red lips and the ads were almost constant on the radio. Every time I heard that crack of thunder, it would drive my need to see if even higher.
When the day came, it was all anyone could talk about. Everywhere I went I kept hearing the same five words and they would repeat in my head like a mantra: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sarah and I were almost giddy with wonder about it all and I couldn’t wait until I got home. My father was picking up a copy after work. When he arrived home, he grumbled about having to wait in a lineup.
“All for some stupid movie, can you imagine?” He said to my stepmother.
They sent my brother and I to the basement so that they could watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the living room. I tried to listen as hard as I could, wishing that I could be a fly on the wall in that room. My brother couldn’t have cared less and finally went out to play with some of his friends. I could hear music, and someone singing and yearned even more to see the movie. After about half an hour, I could hear both of my parents in the kitchen. My father was laughing, and I could hear the tinkle of my stepmother’s laugh joining his.
“I really don’t understand it! What was all the buzz about some drag queen crossdresser creating life? It didn’t make any sense. And what’s with all the singing?” This was my father’s voice.
Their voices carried down from the kitchen to the basement. “I love musicals,” my stepmother said.
“Well, that’s certainly one of your faults,” he said. “I can’t believe I actually paid for this!” I heard the thunk of something landing in the trash.
“Bill, don’t throw it away!”
“Why not? That’s where it belongs, its trash!”
I waited until I heard their footsteps move away from the kitchen and hurried up the basement stairs. I knew that I had to find the movie, that I had to rescue it. This would be my only chance at seeing it and my body thrummed with need. I went to the trash can and took the video out and ran back down the stairs to the basement. I held the video and my whole body felt different. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I had it at last.
I made sure that the volume was turned down low and I popped the video into the VHS machine. I held on to the box and rubbed my fingers along the lips which had been raised. I sat in front of the television so that I could hear everything clearly and waited. From the moment I saw those red lips again, full, beautiful and finally in front of me, I was transported.
I sat as close to the television as I could, and I was drawn into the story of Brad and Janet as they found their way through a dark night that would become even darker. I found myself humming along before I even knew the songs. I loved musicals. I played my old records of Jesus Christ Superstar over and over again in my bedroom, losing myself in the music and I lost myself in the songs of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
When Dr. Frank N. Furter appeared on screen for the first time, it was like I was stunned. I reached out and touched the screen and felt connected to him in a way that I couldn’t explain in words, not then.
I had never seen anything like Tim Curry. I sat there in the basement of my house and was enraptured as he sang. I was drawn in by his wet lips, his captivating eyes and the way he carried himself with such cocksure confidence. Throughout the film, he held my attention. Sure, Rocky was beautiful to look at, but it was Dr. Frank N. Furter that captivated me.
I had never seen a person that looked like how I felt inside. I knew that I wasn’t like every other boy in my neighbourhood. I knew that there was something different about me but had never seen anything or anyone that came close to describing how I felt. Now, here was something, someone, that felt like home. At that moment, sitting in the dark in my basement, I didn’t feel as lost as I had before. I had finally found where I belonged, even though I still didn’t have the words for it.
I remember the moment during the film when Dr. Frank N. Furter slipped into Brad’s bedroom. The good doctor had tricked Brad into thinking he was Janet. It was the first time that I had seen anything with two men in what became a romantic entanglement, and I was spellbound. It looked so normal to me, and I rewound that scene and rewatched it several times. Each time I did, I reclaimed a part of myself. If an act like this was in a movie, it couldn’t be wrong, could it?
When the movie ended, I wasn’t aware of the tears on my face until I felt some of them fall from my cheek. When Dr. Frank N. Furter was killed by Riff Raff and Magenta, a part of me screamed as loudly as Rocky did. When the movie ended, I let it run to the very end of the credits, not wanting it to be over. Then I ejected the video from the VHS recorder and put it back in its box. I held on to the tape and in my youthful mind, it glowed with a bright red light. I hid that cassette behind the bookshelf where my father kept his pornography. If he had his secret, I would have mine.
Like the good doctor, I would have to create a life for myself, one where I could be free. I knew that it would take time, that I would have to find my own voice just as Rocky had found his. I knew that it would be a long road for me, much like Brad and Janet’s walk in the woods, but for that night, with the sounds of the music from The Rocky Horror Picture Show loud and clear in my head, I was free.
From that moment on, every time I saw those lips, it was like finding a piece of myself along the way. I hoped for the moment where I could stop dreaming it and be it. I knew that when it was time, I would be ready.