A peek behind the curtain into the world of Gonzo Porn.
The rendezvous was in Blaha Lujza Square, a bustling commuter hub just outside the city center and ten minutes from my flat by foot. I had time to walk but Kole’s stern instruction echoed — don’t be late! I can be late, but you can’t — so I headed for the metro.
It was windy, raining. The crap weather that marks the end of a near-perfect Budapest summer. A day to sit at the writing desk, drink lots of coffee and sink into my work. But no, I had picked up a day of temp work and as I slid into the underground amid a herd of grumpy commuters, the descent of the escalator carried me deeper into regret.
Distracted by first day jitters, I got off at the wrong station and surfaced five minutes further from Blaha Lujza. I had plenty of time, but in my mind I was cutting it close. A mishap paired with regret becomes an omen. I popped open an umbrella and took my place in the throng of a nondescript boulevard that caters more to the working class than to expats and tourists, especially at seven o’clock on a rainy Tuesday morning.
The closer I got to that point of no return, the more I seethed with self-reproach. The drone-like pedestrians, the blaring car horns, the gloom. The scene recalled the walk from the subway to my Lower Manhattan office, where on rainy autumn mornings New York stock brokers look a lot like their Magyar counterparts. Hungary was my exodus from the workaday life, a six-figure income and the mobility that comes with it. I was getting too comfortable. The necktie and laminate badge felt like another man’s costume.
“Forget the rat race. Come work on your writing,” Blaine said. He knew how to bait the hook. My writing rarely surpassed daily journaling, and lately even that had faltered. I wasn’t ready to relegate my interest in writing to the realm of hobby, so I gave notice and bought a one-way plane ticket to Budapest.
Three months in and all was going well. I was addicted to the solitude. Eschewing the structureless fancy of the expat life came easily. I attacked my renaissance with a routine no less strenuous than that of the nine-to-five job I’d left behind. I discarded everything I thought I knew and studied grammar and story, I wrote and rewrote, taking time away from literary pursuits only to practice the labyrinthine Hungarian language. The unromantic rigors or the writing life suited me and conventional work increasingly seemed like a crass ritual of trading time for money.
So what the hell was I doing here, lost in a parade of damp commuters? I told myself the tremors were just a reflex brought on by the echoes of my New York commute. After all, was I not overlooking the novelty of heading to work on a porn set? Still, that sounded like a better idea the night before when I was sitting in a crowded café, emboldened by drink.
The place is packed. A man ducks through the heavy curtain that hangs inside the front door. He is magnetically handsome. Heavy lids over dark Sikh eyes that can hold a loaded stare like none I’ve ever seen.
This is Kole: deliberately repellent, studded with piercings and streaked with tattoos. His mohawk flops to the side when it isn’t frozen in liberty spikes. From the look of him tonight, he’s either burning out a speed binge or wrecked from a rough day on the job. We all know what Kole does when Kole works. He works in porn.
Kole is not here for a drink. He approaches our table, stands without looking for a chair. He’s too exhausted for pleasantries, citing a hellish day with a worthless set assistant. One more day like that will kill him.
“Who can work tomorrow? It’s going to be a long day . . . twelve hours. At least.”
I shift in my seat. There dangles the offer. Set assistant is a high-turnover position and an easy one to get if you know the right people. Availability and a pulse are the only prerequisites. I’d heard the same offer floated a couple weeks ago; Blaine accepted and I remember feeling envious. Like he got the backstage pass. That time, the logistics call never came. A location fell through and the shoot was cancelled. Well, here it was again, but something was holding me back. A voice deep down was saying “that one looks good on paper, but the reality is a whole different animal…“
Kole’s gaze rakes the table and dredges up the lame reasons,
“Sorry, I’ve got a meeting,”
“Uh, I’m driving to Prague tomorrow,”
“I would but . . . .”
Then me. He looks at me with those heavy eyes, already insulting me for what’s sure to be the next in a string of bullshit excuses. I was the only one left standing between him and another day as hellish as this one. I try to think of something that would sound genuine, but I like Kole, and suddenly it escapes, “I can do it.”
Kole’s face does not brighten. There is no hug, no handshake, no thanks man, you saved my ass.
He says, “I’ll call you in an hour with the meeting place. Set your alarm for 6:30.” Then he turns and walks out.
The walk back to the flat traverses narrow, cobbled streets that glisten with midnight dew. The commitment having been made, the only upside I could see was the story I’d have to share. But Blaine is full vicarious zeal, the kind of enthusiasm that comes easily when it’s not you who has to report to work in five hours.
“It’s perfect, you gotta do it. You’re a writer.”
It’s a flattering persuasion. Young writers need acknowledgement. I feel an instant kinship with the characters of my literary mentors — Hunter Thompson, Celine and Henry Miller — who pursue fringe experiences as comfortably as they wake and wash. But the kinship suffers when I fall into bed and my booze-induced hubris recedes to a mild headache. The idea that fringe experiences are essential to being a writer sustains the romance, but romance sustains nothing. Seeking them solely because one is a writer is as ridiculous as buying a cowboy hat because you want to be in the rodeo.
I stare up at the triptych of Saint Christopher that hangs overhead (furnished flat, Catholic landlords) half-hoping Kole won’t call, half-preparing myself to follow through if he does. I’m lingering on the verge a deep, drunken sleep — the perfect excuse for not hearing the phone ring — when the phone rings. It’s Kole.
“Blaha Lujza, by the cipő diszkont (shoe store) a block south of the square next to a bakery. Seven-thirty. No, seven-fifteen. Don’t be late. I can be late, but you can’t.”
He hangs up.
“Okay,” I say to Saint Christopher, “I’ll be there.”
I had been curious about behind-the-scenes life in the world of porn ever since I saw my first naughty film. It was 1980, at the advent of home VCRs and my first two viewings were Escape from Alcatraz (Fresh Fish, you gonna eat your pasta) and Deep Throat (Do you mind if I smoke while you eat). In high school, parties at my house invariably ended with a viewing of Talk Dirty to Me. By my senior year I knew the John Leslie classic word for word, moan by moan: Jesus Jack, you fucked her right there in the doctor’s office? You gotta show me your stuff Jack, you just gotta. I finally had a chance to peek behind the curtain. I was going to meet the Wizard. So why was I being such a . . . such a pussy about it?
I couldn’t rush without being a pedestrian bully, but I was OK on time. I had time to listen to the argument of contrarian voices raging in my head: prudence, puritanical reproach and fuck-it-all:
“You better turn around before it’s too late.”
“What’s there to be afraid of?”
“It’s porn, you rube! The entire industry emanates sleaze and an aura of human damage.”
“Now you’re being dramatic.”
“Think about it. You’re going to work among people who prey on weakness and human frailty.”
“That’s an assumption. You don’t know any more than I do. Besides, I made a commitment.”
And that’s what it boiled down to. I’d told a friend he could count on me, so hell or high water, there was no turning back.
I found the shoe store, just as Kole described. Two bald and brawny Hungarian men stood nearby dressed in camouflage pants, black boots. These Uglies were just the type of coworkers I had expected. The mean bastards who operate the salvage yard for victims of hit-and-run.
This was it. I was on the brink of forced associations with hedonists, thugs and junkies. I saw myself in a van wedged between them. I saw them ignoring me and speaking to each other, quietly, sparingly, without looking anywhere but forward. Later they would bark orders at me in Hungarian, orders they knew I couldn’t understand.
My imagination was getting the best of me. I checked the time and ducked into the bakery for coffee.
I let my panic run its course, then washed down what remained with a triple espresso. The first caffeine of the day brings optimism. A rally cry up from the gullet that says “pull on your boots and get down to business”. I thought more about the pursuit of fringe experiences. There was a reason why I volunteered, even if it did mean mixing it up with the Uglies for a few hours. I admitted to myself that I thrived on wandering into the unknown, as disorienting as it can be. And this was not the first time I had strayed from the beaten path, simply to have a look around. There was the evening I was working on an airport tarmac and watched my boss cut a diagonal across the runway in his Town Car, a maneuver that screamed urgency. He pulled up and said, “I need your help. My best friend’s father just shot himself in the head and I need a cleaning crew.” (The coroner only removes the pieces bigger than a walnut, I later learned.) Without a thought, I accepted. Or the night I was stuck on a commercial herring skiff after a mishap on the Bering Sea, clothed in clammy rain gear, the temperature lingering at the freezing mark. A five-degree drop in the unseasonably warm weather would have been curtains for me. But I reveled in the peculiar contemplations that arise when you’re miserable, helpless and idle. Or the time in San Francisco that I paid a corner prostitute twenty bucks plus a vial of crack (her terms) just to join me for a 3AM breakfast and to have a conversation.
These experiences share a common element, the decision to not just step out of my comfort zone, but to throw myself out and lock the door. And the next thing you know, that door disappears and the zone grows to meet you.
Back on the corner. It hit me that there may have been a cancellation. Kole had warned me that things frequently fall through — models, locations — causing last minute cancellations. Perhaps no one would show. The possibility felt like waking up to a blanket of new snow, January 1975, and the radio says “Fauquier County schools: CLOSED.” But there was also a wisp of disappointment. After all the deliberation and self-scrutiny I’d just beaten back.
“Hey man.” Kole’s voice, from behind. I turned and he extended a hand to welcome me and, by the twinkle of his half-smile, to thank me for my punctuality. Then silence.
Kole doesn’t do much before coffee and his was still too hot to drink. I remember the Uglies. Expecting introductions, I turned in time to see them climb into a work truck driven by a man who could have been their triplet. My expectations of doom puttered away in a grungy diesel.
A moment later, our van arrived. The side door rolled open like a curtain, revealing my new colleagues. Kole lifted his punk-blaring headphones and made the introductions.
One photographer was a Hungarian man named István, handsome, shaved head, birdlike with his hook nose hanging over a wide smile. The other was a small Australian woman named Rhonda who, despite being the youngest of the crew in her mid-twenties, comported a friendly seniority. The cosmetician, Frida, had a warm smile. She was pretty and very pregnant. Her reedy husband, Balázs, was our driver. He smiled and lifted a hand from the steering wheel when we were introduced. That made six; one seat was empty.
“The talent,” Kole said. “Always the last to show.” He replaced his headphones and sipped his coffee.
The crew exchanged quips about the weather and then went silent. No one took much note of the new guy. Rhonda handed me a pastry with a mushy hotdog hiding inside. Five minutes passed and I watched a few trams pull through the square and my fear dwindled as the veil between reality and my imaginations of the spooky world of porn slipped away. I was among peers, without a scumbag or heathen in sight. I felt invisible and to be invisible was somehow to fit in.
Five more minutes and the model arrived. Stage name: Ginger.
I detected an air of celebrity, like standing backstage when the star saunters to her dressing room, hiding her eyes behind shades of indifference. Here was the person whose talent — or perhaps willingness — was the reason we were all here. She was cute, mousy, but not what I expected from the Hungarian beauty pool. I had pictured one of the leggy six footers who stroll Andrássy as soon as the weather warms, crippling the patrons of sidewalk cafés with illusions of attainability. I pictured a woman seething power and sex who gave no doubt about her purpose in life. But there was nothing libidinous about Ginger. She wore a quilted parka. Her nose was red from blowing. She smiled through the introductions and her upper teeth poked forward, more dainty than buck, perhaps displaced by chronic thumb-sucking. Hers were teeth designed for making bird calls or nibbling finger sandwiches.
Ginger took a seat behind me. She smelled soapy and clean.
The rain stopped but the cityscape was still gray and cold. We crossed the Erzsébet Bridge. In Buda, the Castle loomed over the Duna opposite the spiny Parliament on the Pest side. The sprawling architecture stirred the feeling that I was engaged in something lurid, something illicit, just under the nose of culture, tradition and respectable human endeavor. Then came the abrupt transition as we headed west onto the Austria-bound M1 expressway, a corridor of fast food restaurants, warehouses, and superstores.
The hush continued until Rhonda announced that we needed to stop for videotapes. “Better pick up lunch stuff while we’re at it,” she added. Balazs pulled into a Tesco and Rhonda disappeared into the gargantuan variety store. Kole capitalized on the last idle minutes of the day to begin his tutelage.
“Do you learn better hands-on or by instructions?” he asked.
“A little of both, I suppose.”
“Okay,” he said after a quick breath, “your job first and foremost is going to be lighting the sets. We use studio strobes, can lights, and have four kinds of shades: a big soft box, an octagon, a small soft box, and a strip light. There are three umbrellas and a few reflectors. The photographers tell you where they want the lights, you set them up.
“Take meter readings throughout the set to make sure the light is uniform. I’ll show you how to do that. After the metering, we do test shots to get the best exposure for the skin tones we’re dealing with. You know about f-stops, aperture and all that shit?”
“More or less.”
“After the lighting, you dress the sets. We have bags full of linens, towels, sheets, tubes of posters and artwork. Make the room colorful, get rid of any open voids, blank walls, shit like that. Sometimes furniture has to be moved, a houseplant here or a lamp there. When we’re in someone’s house watch out for family photos. Always hide those. If you need any props, drinks or food, just go find it. If you can’t find anything, ask.”
I nodded. Kole slid open the van door and lit a cigarette.
“Okay, the set’s lit, dressed and the test shots are done. Next get the cameras ready. We shoot digital. Make sure both cameras have a memory card and that the card is formatted and ready to go. Always check the batteries and put the back-ups in the charger. Put the camera on set and give the green-light to the photographer. Last thing, check the schedule and see if you need dildos. We’ve got a bag of them. Let the model choose. Put the dildo and the lube and baby wipes somewhere out of sight, under a pillow or in a bedside table.”
“So,” I interjected. Kole kept going. His coffee was in full rush.
“Once we’re shooting, a photographer might call for you to hold reflectors or the pussy light. Keep your ears peeled. If you’ve got nothing to do, ask. If you’re standing still, you’re not doing your job. The less photographers have to do other than shoot, the happier they are. The happier they are, the smoother the day goes. Got it?”
Pussy light, I thought. I’m pretty sure he said ‘pussy light.’
Kole’s rapid-fire instructions left me with only a blurry sketch of the technical details, but he did impress upon me the pace of the work. Our employer specialized in internet content, about 80 percent of which was still photography and 20 percent video. The video was plot-free, dialogue-free scenes, streamed in fifteen-minute clips. A typical work day: two models, ten sets each, about 120 shots per set, more for the hardcore scenes. By the time the gear was packed up at the end of the day, the studio would amass over 2500 photographs. Each set was then edited, touched up, backed up, and uploaded to the client.
The work reminded me of the commercial fishing jobs I’d held in Alaska, where to fall out of rhythm with the operation brought the machine to a swift halt. A distant frame of reference, but a useful one nonetheless.
We stopped in front of a large house circled by a seven-foot adobe wall. I followed Kole to the back of the van. He pinched his cigarette between taut lips and, squinting at the smoke, flung open the double doors. Without a square foot to spare, the cargo area was packed with duffel bags, briefcases, hard-shell cases, tripods, packing tubes and toolboxes.
“Fourteen bags now, fourteen when you load up at the end of the day.”
Kole slung as many bags over his shoulders as would fit. I grabbed an armload, Rhonda and István picked up what was left. We filed through the gate, across a thin flagstone walk, and entered the house without knocking.
Our host was a short middle-aged man with a receding blond mop. One look around the place and I learned that the midlife crisis is not solely an American condition.
The man was barefoot, dressed in blue jeans with a silk shirt with only the lowest two buttons buttoned. His chest was soft and hairless. A shag rug rendition da Vinci’s The Last Supper hung in the dining room. Across the foyer, a crucifix-shaped window with smoky glass was recessed into the wall. Behind the glass a red bulb with a flickering filament simulated a flame. Deeper in, a sunken living room where forty-gallon fish tank was home to a lonely school of goldfish. Copious house plants gave the room a lush and lively feel but a closer look revealed plastic trunks and nylon leaves.
The man smiled and nodded as we passed and then aired his only rule: no shoes in the master bedroom.
Kole set up a staging area in the foyer. He began emptying the bags and cases and pointing out items he had mentioned earlier. Strip light, octagon, super clamps, hot lamps for video, peach-flavored lube, dildo bag. Kole filled many roles on set. Aside from managing new assistants, he was a videographer, set producer, lighting guy, scripting guy (when required), crowd control. Working two sets often required concurrent light readings, test shots, reflector work, set up and break down, so between video sets Kole helped with the still photography. Kole also filled in occasionally as photographer and, when duty called, as a model.
“Pay attention,” Kole said, “because you’ll be doing this tomorrow.”
Tomorrow? Who said anything about tomorrow? The thought gave me a shudder that I had no time to contemplate as Rhonda called out the first two sets.
“Solarium! Game Room!”
I loaded up with extension cords, power strips, light stands and strobes and shuffled downstairs. The air was humid, pungent with the acrid stench of the over-chlorinated indoor pool.
The solarium was barely big enough for a tanning bed, crowded by two fake palms. I removed the plants to make room for the lights, then set up the tripod stands and mounted the strobes. I turned on the lights and plugged in the shock cord, a wire that connects to the camera for the remote operation of the flashes. I went over my mental list. The light meter. I forgot the light meter. I dashed upstairs just as our second model was arriving. She was a tiny thing, much prettier than the first girl, a brunette with large swimming eyes. Stage name: Crystal.
Rhonda followed me downstairs to do the test shots in the Solarium. Test shots require a subject to sit, stand or lie where the model will sit, stand or lie, and pose for a series of photographs at sequential f-stops. This helps the photographer determine the optimal exposure for the shoot.
Rhonda yelled upstairs, “Five-Six in the Solarium!”
Istvan called back, “Copy that!”
We then crossed the pool area to the game room and she gave me the skinny on how to set up for bodyscapes, tasteful depictions of the landscapes of the human body.
“Bodyscapes call for a sheet of muslin to be hung from the ceiling and backlit with the large octagonal soft box. Move the foosball table (red goalie missing his legs). Lay out a sheet for the model but cushion it with a towel. An uncomfortable model is a fidgety model. Set up a fan. It’s too humid, her skin’s gotta be feathery soft, no perspiration.”
When both sets were ready I went upstairs to check in with Kole. He was getting ready for the first video shoot, tilting hot lights to their proper positions. He looked up and saw me drenched in sweat.
“Take it easy,” he said. “Don’t work fast, work smart. Always think three steps ahead. You’re doing fine.”
After his rant in the parking lot I had the expected Kole to be more the kick-you-from-the-nest than the nurturing type. An impression that was supported by the Kole I knew from my social circle, a guy who could be counted on for a fuck the world attitude much of the time, unless you were a beautiful woman. On the job he took pride in his work. Everything he did abided to a strict methodology. Everything had its place, every task had a procedure. And he was a generous with his instruction, never resorting the sort of hazing I’d expected from the Uglies.
There was a lull when everything was set and the models were busy with final preparations. Kole broke for a cigarette and I sat at the dining room table for a quick cup of coffee. Crystal was nearby, flipping through a girlie magazine and getting her hair teased into an unruly mess. Cosmetics, the laptop, lenses and scatters of paperwork covered the table. I turned a pile of papers toward me: photocopies of the models’ driver’s licenses and passports, copies of contracts and health tests. The industry standard dictates that all models have health screening and blood tests every two weeks, but some studios let that slip to thirty days. I studied the passport photographs. Nervous smiles, limp hair. Crystal’s real name. She was the younger of the two models, having recently turned nineteen, and her passport picture was several years old. I imagined her on the day that picture was taken. Was there any indication that she would be posing for a different sort of photograph a few years later? What distinguished the girl in the passport from the one at the end of the table? How was she initiated into this lurid clan? Was it a nudge from a friend on a crowded city bus, a whisper about a new job, with real money evidenced by Prada and Diesel? What ran through her head her first day when she showed up for work? Did she have jitters, feelings of surrender, and the instinct to flee?
Given the pace of the work, I was not mindful that the machine — in which I was one lowly gear — was a porno machine. With my nose buried in the technical details I had yet to catch the sight of even a stray boob. So I was caught unawares when my initiation took an abrupt turn for the flesh.
“Reflector!” Istvan shouted from the basement. I scurried down the spiral stairs, careful not to slip on the dew-coated marble veneer, reflector in hand.
I stepped into the solarium. Ginger was leaning against the tanning bed with her legs splayed in front of her. Istvan directed me to lie on the floor alongside the front of the glowing bed. The reflector, a hula-hoop-sized disk of gold lame, is used to bounce a warm light onto a shaded subject, in this case, Ginger’s business.
I tilted the reflector and tried to angle the patch of golden light at her crotch. It was an awkward exercise, because only after the light comes in a quick flash can you determine if your aim is true. Mine was not. I followed the circle of gold light from her belly to a thigh, finally across to her vulva. Ginger watched me but was patient, as a girlfriend might wait at the pizzeria for her boyfriend to return with a drinking straw.
“Right there! Hold it!” Istvan resumed shooting. “OK,” he said to Ginger, “give me pink.”
About ten inches from my face, Ginger held two fingers in an inverted V and parted her labia. I had never been so close to a woman’s sexual area without plans to interact with it. The normalcy of it got to me and I had to stifle a giggle. There was nothing sexy about it.
I had learned years ago that the vagina is not inherently sexy. It was a jarring epiphany, when the sexual allure recedes and reveals a bare human sex organ, when all layers of eroticism fall away. The spring of 1990, college, my girlfriend’s bedroom.
I am on the floor, kicking and writhing, complaining about an unfulfilled and uncontrollable sexual frenzy. She is going to be late for class. She steps over me, curses me when she can’t dodge my gropes. I tug at her robe, grapple for her leg, try to bring her down on top of me. I am a begging, pathetic mess and not surprisingly, she holds her ground.
“At least give me glimpse,” I suggest lying flat on my back, surrendering. “Just flash me a shot.” I am hoping the mere sight of her will be enough to help me wrestle my libido into check myself after she gets into the shower. In an act of pure exasperation, she relents. She stops mid-stride, towering over me like the Colossus of Rhodes towering over a lone fisherman, and opens her robe. The charging bull of my sexual frenzy stops dead in its tracks.
That was the first time I’d seen a vagina utterly relaxed. A resting organ. It was peculiar, asexual, not at all what I had in mind. I have since seen sleeping beauties that retained their fragile beauty even in stasis, but it was just my lot to have that awakening with one that displayed poorly when flaccid. (This is certainly not a gender specific phenomenon. Testicles are a parody in themselves and an uninspired cock is about as arousing as a slug.) Truth told, I got what I deserved. Her vulva was a direct reflection of the state of her libido: reclusive, tired, cranky.
Therein lies the challenge and trickery of assembly line porn. An image is erotic when it suggests the feminine sexual aura. Eroticism is an orchestra of body language, gestures and facial expression. Pictured individually the only feature that can truly capture an erotic moment — and there are legions of thirteen-year-old boys who will take me to task on this — is the face. A woman displaying an expression of intense sexual pleasure is incredibly erotic regardless of what she’s doing with hands, much less with her vulva. But the kind of porn we are making is all fakery, just as the photograph on a baseball card is a mere suggestion of the real power in a pinch hitter’s swing. When truly erotic photograph does happen in high production porn, it usually happens by accident.
Ginger held the pose, pouted, probed, then three quick flashes. She relaxed, shifted and brought one leg up against her torso, reached around and smoothed the folds. Istvan leaned in for a close-up, three more flashes. I wanted to study the peculiarities of Ginger’s intimate physique. The free and unobstructed view was utterly fascinating but I had to maintain professional composure.
Istvan paused, held the camera aside, looked at Ginger quizzically, looked beyond her as he pondered his mental catalog of poses, then suggested the next position: ass to the camera, Ginger looking over her shoulder, a pose that required no reflection and I was relieved of my post.
We do double duty on each set. Ginger shuffles from Solarium to Weight Bench, Crystal from Game Room to Solarium then to Weight Bench. After the second turn on each, I break down the lights and move them to the next set and the cycle repeats.
Close to lunchtime, I stepped into the staging area and noticed we had a new arrival. Porn Dude. Stage name: Andre.
Andre was in the dining room, looking over Rhonda’s shoulder at her previous set. His lower half was hermetically sealed in denim, his torso in a white t-shirt. When we were introduced he gave me an indifferent wink and went about inspecting the house, crossing the room with a rodeo swagger, approving the digs as one approves a comped Vegas suite.
Male models are paid less than the girls, but they have a more succinct commitment, only showing up for four sets, two video, two still. All of the models are selected by clients. Castings are held, sample photos are posted online with the results of each model’s “comfort form,” a survey of what she will or will not do: masturbation, dildo, dildo video, boy-girl, girl-girl soft, girl-girl hard, anal, and so on. Clients select their girls from an à la carte menu and email their orders the following day.
Rhonda called me over.
“Master bedroom is a dildo shoot. You know the routine with the toy bag?”
I affirmed that I did, then retrieved the canvas sack from the staging area. I opened the bag and fetched a look. We had a purple one, a silver one, a plastic ear of corn and a heavy glass rod and a veiny one the color of Caucasian flesh. I noticed with disappointment that none of the vibrators had batteries. I approached Ginger with the toy bag, feeling not at all sheepish but rather like I was on her side of the performance, like I was on the inside. She chose the solid glass one. A popular choice, easy to clean, I was later told.
I carried the glass rod to the bathroom, wrapped in a paper towel for its bath. I was escorting the robed prize fighter to his arena dressing room for the pre-bout psyche up. I gave the fake cock a healthy splash of alcohol and stroked it clean. This was a novel moment, a quiet moment to myself. I looked in the mirror and watched myself cleaning the dildo. I chuckled. I turned from the mirror and took a moment for my own needs, having forgotten in the madness that I had to piss like a racehorse. I looked at my manhood, then at the glass cock on the back of the toilet. No comparison. Maybe if I wrapped my little friend in a paper towel cape I would feel differently.
When I emerged from the bathroom Crystal was in the living room helping Andre get hard before the shoot. A little oral. This was the first time in my life that I witnessed an live sex act with which I was not somehow involved. And it seemed normal. Frida sat the dining room table, having a smoke and filing a fingernail, Istvan was cleaning a lens, Kole marking the locations of the hot lights, and Porn Dude was getting a hummer in the middle of it all from the innocent Crystal, whom he had just met twenty minutes earlier. Business as usual, surreal but somehow ordinary.
Rhonda and Ginger had retired to the master bedroom, evidenced by Rhonda’s shoes just outside the door. I walked past the blow job, kicked off my sneakers and headed into our host’s innermost sanctum.
I opened the door, expecting to step into an cheesily appointed love parlor. The room was a box, fifteen feet square, with faux wood paneling. The king size bed was the only furniture in the room. The carpet was a deep burgundy and a small television sat on the floor, its cables snaking conspicuously across the carpet. Rhonda was fiddling with her camera and Ginger was getting comfortable on the bed, smoothing the satin sheets. I presented Ginger with the glass cock. She smiled and thanked me in Hungarian.
“Grab a couple plants from the living room,” Rhonda said. “And let’s pin up a colored backdrop, the purple one. This room is depressing.” I turned to leave and she continued, “And it looks like we’ll need the pussy light on this one.”
When I imagined the pussy light, I pictured being right under the action, shining the light where the sun don’t shine, but that’s not how it works. That’s the reflector’s job. The pussy light is a studio strobe, one that is held at a uniform distance from the model and moves as she shifts positions. Emulating a tripod, I was stuck holding the fifteen pound light in various overhead positions for the entire twenty-minute shoot. This is a precarious task not only because of the muscle-burning strain of holding the light aloft, but because the ever pressing pace of the shoot carries its own sense of urgency. Mishandling a light disrupts the flow and suddenly the photographers are thinking about something other than shooting.
What’s more, you have to make it look easy because there’s an attractive nude woman in the room. Pride dictates that you hold the light still, you don’t grimace and you aren’t too quick to drop your arms in between shots for a rest. It all must appear very nonchalant.
By the time we were finished my arms felt like battleship chains but, thanks to Rhonda’s efficiency, I never faltered. My illusion of male fortitude was intact. We cleared the room just in time to catch the culmination of the hardcore scene underway in the living room.
Crystal was sitting on the edge of the couch, again fellating Andre, and after a series of close-ups, wherein she poked the end of his prick into the hollow of her cheek — one of those wholly unnatural moves that you only see in porn, as if to say, look, my mouth is just bulging with cock! — Istvan shouted to the dining room, “ready for the fake come!” Frida flew to the set, rapidly stirring the contents of a coffee mug.
A hardcore set is shot in two stages. First comes the still photography, then the scene is repeated for video. In order for the male model to retain his vigor for the all-important money shot during the live action, artificial ejaculate is used during the still shots. The magic formula: two heaping tablespoons of powdered sugar, then slowly stir in water until the desired consistency is achieved. This yields one serving of a slightly translucent syrup that appears remarkably like the real thing.
Frida drizzled Andre’s member and Crystal’s mouth and chin with the concoction, letting a few stray drops fall onto her breasts. Ginger was watching beside me, still nude, dildo in one hand, robe in the other. She curled up her nose as she watched the liberal application of fake come and confessed that she would rather have the real thing in her mouth.
Crystal grimaced at the overpowering sweetness of the syrup, then, when Istvan readied his camera, her eyes widened, lips pursed and she looked into his lens with the rapture only a porn chick would feel after receiving a semen facial, fake or otherwise.
Ginger handed me the dildo and went to the bathroom for a shower. I followed, stood at the sink and cleaned the dildo while she bathed. She told me that she and her fiancé were in the middle of renovating their flat, and she complained about contractors and how everything takes longer and costs more than the estimates. I asked her if her fiancé knew about her work.
“Of course!” she replied, as if the answer was obvious.
I left her in the shower and returned to the staging area to put away the dildo. Rhonda was sitting at the dining room table, taking a moment to give Istvan feedback on his previous set.
“See that, no good, always frame the shot above the knee. And this one, whenever she looks over her shoulder at you, tell her to keep her chin up. Otherwise it looks like peek-a-boo, which works for some sets, but not this one. And here. Never show the soles of their feet. Bad angle on this one. Don’t shoot from the ground up without the cookie in the shot, it’s too Amazon.”
“Next set?” I asked.
Rhonda paused and consulted the schedule.
“Upstairs,” she said.
The same staircase that descended to the pool area, led up to a large open loft, the location of the last few sets of the day. The staircase opened into a room that covered the entire first floor, replete with a full kitchen, a sitting area and three large beds. As with other parts of the house, the room looked sterile and staged, aside from one cozy corner that was set up to look like a girl’s bedroom. The panoply of set themes range from bondage and fetish on one end, to cheerleader and teeny on the other. The further you get from the middle, the more important the set dressing becomes, and Kole had gone the extra mile with this one: the bed was covered in a candy red comforter with a giant pink heart embroidered in the center, a menagerie of teddy bears and other stuffed creatures huddled in front of a mountain of pillows. A shelf above the bed was lined children’s books, a Hello Kitty! alarm clock, and some photos.
I positioned the lights, moved a plastic sego palm to screen an awkward corner. I took the light readings and stood back for a final assessment of the scene. I was growing weary by the unrelenting pace of the work and my four hours of fitful sleep. The risk of overlooking the little details that derail the production and turn a ten-hour day into another of Kole’s twelve-hour nightmares loomed large.
The photos. “Watch out for family photos. Always hide those.” I collected the photos from the shelf above the bed. One showed a young girl, nine or ten, standing on a dock with an oversized life jacket strapped around her neck. Our host was leaning into the photo next to her, father and daughter, all grins. Another, a theme park photo taken at the moment the roller coaster car plunges into near free fall. It dawned on me that the attention to detail was not set dressing at all. This was the bedroom of our host’s daughter.
I suddenly felt the wrongness about which my inner voice had chided me as I walked to the shoe store. This was the only place in the house that felt warm and alive. What does it say about this divorced father who wears a silk blouse unbuttoned to his navel, who purchased a shag tapestry of the Last Supper, and who took this much care furnishing his daughter’s room, while not even putting a TV stand in his own? Suddenly the work seemed a shade less harmless, and I felt complicit. A feeling I had little time to entertain before I heard footsteps on the stairs telling me the set was about to begin.
At the tail end of the day when models and photographers alike are growing fatigued, the on-set dynamic can become tense. This was especially true on Rhonda’s sets, where her interaction with the models grew terse. She never paused to ponder the next pose, she worked the set efficiently, giving cold and constant direction, not unlike like a sadistic yoga instructor working double time.
“OK, lie back and bring your leg up. No, your other leg. Right and put your hand on top, OK good. Hold it. Hold it. No smile on this one. Give me an Oooo. OK, new position. Drop the leg, push your ass forward, cookie up. Eyes open. Right. Now two fingers and big pink. OK, new position.”
Midway through this set, Crystal bristles when Rhonda tells her to lay her arm across the creases that form just below her ribcage when she twists her torso to the side. Experienced models know this is a standard element of that pose, but Crystal thinks it has something to do with her soft layer of pudge and she gets snippy. Rhonda isn’t having it. There is nothing more awkward than seeing a young woman being reprimanded while she he has a finger buried in her birth canal.
The last two sets were a blur of skin and flashbulbs. When the clock ticked into the eleventh hour, I was exhausted. Porn or not, this was hard work. Undeniably fascinating, oddly ordinary, with a shadow of the perverse. Its darkness was hidden where darkness often hides, on the underbelly. The rest was plainly lit, out in the open. It was all just skin.
Kole and I loaded the fourteen bags and we all piled into the van for the drive into town. As we wound our way down out of the subdivision the rain returned, pattering like fingertips on the roof of the van. The air wafted with fresh powder, perfume and cigarettes. Ginger was wedged on my right and I could feel the warmth where our bodies touched. It was a cozy warmth and when we rounded a turn the force brought her closer, and she settled in resting her head against my shoulder. I let my head fall back against the headrest and was asleep before we reached the expressway.
A version of this essay first appeared in Issue No. 1 of Pilvax Magazine under the title “MILK: A Writer’s Initiation into the World of Adult Entertainment”. My thanks to editor Matthew Henderson Ellis.