the penthouse incident

I am six and my friend Valerie is six, and we are at her house because her mum runs her hairdressing salon in the basement, and my mum is getting a perm. We were told to play quietly, and so we are, but not in the spirit our mothers meant.

Valerie has two older brothers. One is in his twenties and has already moved out of the house, but the other is in his late teens and in college, and still lives at home. He keeps his bedroom door locked so that Valerie can't get in and "break anything." Valerie resents this on principle, because she is careful with things. Besides, she's six already.

 Thanks to trying to keep up with her brothers, Valerie is mature for her age. I am the eldest in my family and just act like a six-year-old, but I have acquired one skill she has not yet — I can read well enough to read stuff for grown-ups. At my house that means National Geographic, the Toronto Star, and Canadian Living. At Valerie's house it means that as well... except in her brother's room. And that is why we're being very, very quiet.

How well is "well enough to read stuff for grown-ups"? In Grade 1 (the same year as The Penthouse Incident), I was tested to be reading at a Grade 6 level. This is not unusual for children whose parents read habitually. Which, even when I was in teacher's college, made me question the whole "reading grade level" concept.

More importantly for this particular caper, I knew how to read silently, without having to say the words out loud. The plan was for me to read what Valerie wanted deciphered, and then I could repeat it when we were somewhere we were actually allowed to be.

Valerie takes the spare key to her brother's bedroom from its hiding place in the linen closet. She opens the door and we creep in. She locks the door behind us so that it looks like no-one's there.

First she shows me the model frame house her brother built for class. It's beautifully precise, and I think it would be a great start to a doll's house. Then we tiptoe back to the front of the room to complete the main part of our mission: her brother's porn magazines are there, and Valerie wants to know what they say because no-one will ever tell her. That's why she needs me.

We start by giggling (and shushing each other) over some of the pictures. We know what naked females look like. We are female. The magazine only shows naked grown-up women, of course, but we've both been in enough public swimming pool changerooms for that to be no big deal.

There is an extended photo essay of two women posing in a shallow pool of multicoloured poster paint (which they are completely covered in). Valerie points out one photo where one woman is trying to lick the other woman's bum. 

"Ewwwwww!" we say.

"What if she slipped?" I say. We both know what poster paint tastes like from art class. Getting a mouthful would be disgusting.

"That's going to take a long time to wash off," says Valerie.

So yeah, sorry to disappoint the morality brigade, but looking at photos of naked women when you're too young to understand what a turn-on is just doesn't seem to be a life-scarring event. Maybe if we'd seen more explicit stuff, but this was back when skin mags had to at least pretend to be artistic or risk getting censored.

Now, I'm not saying it's all right for little kids to look at porn. I'm just saying we shouldn't freak out if by chance they do see some — at least if it's just nude photos. The "not freaking out" part is important. Save that for when you find the grown-up who didn't take enough care... or didn't account for six-year-olds finding spare keys.

We hear footsteps downstairs, so Valerie quickly flips to an article for me to read. It's an entire page, two columns, with no pictures breaking up the text, and after a couple of paragraphs I'm bored and she's impatient with waiting. By now I'm holding the magazine, so I flip through it for something shorter and find a comic strip. Jackpot. I love comics.

So I read. And I read. And I flip back to the beginning because I'm sure I must have skipped a part, but I haven't. This lady who sort of looks like Wonder Woman gets into a cab, and the cabbie is driving along, and suddenly in the next frame she's taken all her clothes off and is attacking the cabbie, who looks terrified and then happy and then angry in turns.

"What does it say?" hisses Valerie.

I flip the pages back and forth. "It doesn't make any sense," I say.

It still doesn't.