Lost and found 

Looking for a way out

I'm almost positive not many people have been forced to look at porno with one of their parents, so I consider myself unique that way. It happened years ago when my mother and siblings and I got lost in Amsterdam on our way to the Anne Frank House and ended up in the Red Light District instead. Not that we wouldn't each have ambled there on purpose eventually, just not together as a unit like that, because the Red Light District is probably the worst place on the planet for a family outing. At one point, we passed a movie bill featuring a man in a rubber suit wallowing in his own shit -- I'm just assuming it was his own, because even now my brain wants to make the best of it. For all I know it could have been a crap collective, which is an adequate metaphor considering the situation.

"Look," hollered my brother Jim, "that theater across the street has a Live Vibrator Show!" My sister Cheryl was unimpressed. "Live vibrator?" she mumbled. "In the States, we call that a penis."

Christ, I thought to myself, clutching my eyes. Where am I?

If my father were alive, he would have pulled us out of there by our hair, literally. Like when I was 12 and we were on a family outing in Washington, D.C., and an activist handed me an abortion-rights pamphlet. My father yanked me away by my hair, not letting go even when we boarded the bus for the Smithsonian. Let me tell you, it's really embarrassing to walk around your country's capital with your father's fist ensnared in your hair. It would be two years before I figured out the big deal and years more before I figured out it wasn't abortions that riled my father so much as the sex itself, the doubtless sex his daughters would have had before the need for an abortion arose. When it came to the concept of sex in relation to his girls in any form, you always knew where my father stood.

So good thing he was not there in Amsterdam, because if he were, he would have burst into flames and left my sisters and me with our scalps blistered where his fingers once clutched. Even that, though, would probably not have kept Jim from the Live Vibrator Show.

The Amsterdam Red Light District has since cleaned up somewhat, but back then it was absolutely saturated in porno. You couldn't not look at it, unless you wanted to close your eyes and feel your way through, which I strongly discourage. And the whores were not nice, either, so we couldn't ask them directions. Evidently they really resent freeloading onlookers, and one even threw a bucket of toilet-bowl water on a crowd that had converged outside her display window. It missed us and hit some backpackers, who couldn't scramble away fast enough.

"That was close," my mother laughed as we darted down the street. She stopped in front of a bookstore window where a magazine cover depicted a pile of limbs in the throes of sweaty cluster sex. The close-up photo was so severe the subjects were hardly discernable. "What is that?" my mother asked as she peered closely. "Do I see a hoof in there?"

She did not mind being lost, not this time anyway, because by then she had found something else for which she had been searching. Six years prior she had left my father. She simply woke up one morning and looked directly into the mirror, and the image peering back was almost undetectable. She was searching for a trace of the woman she was, I guess, or at least for some semblance of faith, because she used to have expectations, you know.

She had wanted to be a beautician but became a weapons designer instead. How that happened is complicated, but it boiled down to her proclivities, I gather. She wasn't all that good at cosmetology (she used to practice on my sisters and me, and we would always end up looking like open-casket cadavers in a group funeral), whereas on the other hand she excelled at math. So when it fell to her to earn a living once my father's aversion to employment became obvious, she went to work for IBM, falling into the job like other mothers fall into becoming cashiers at coffee shops. From there she learned to build computers, and from there she learned to build bombs for the government. That is why we were lost in Europe that one time. We were living in Zurich because she had been subcontracted to work for the Swiss defense.

My mother had been designing missiles for a few decades when she woke that morning and couldn't see herself. We were living in California then, though we moved so often it's hard to keep track of which house. One thing I do remember from that morning is the lone figure of my father asleep in their king-size bed, oblivious to the lone figure of my 46-year-old mother crying in their bathroom over the double vanity. "Where did I go?" she sobbed, her hand flat against the glass. "Where am I?" Watching her, I wanted to tell her I could see her fine, but I knew even then it was not the answer she needed.

hollis.gillespie@creativeloafing.com

To hear Hollis Gillespie's latest commentaries for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," log onto www.hollisgillespie.com.

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