Creative Nonfiction

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B. PIETRAS is a writer with essays in TriQuarterly, BuzzFeed Reader, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. He is currently at work on a novel.

I WAS A FRESHMAN in high school when my religion teacher faced the class and asked, with a knowing smile, “How many of you have seen pornography?”

There were about twenty boys in the classroom that day, and until then, we probably weren’t paying full attention—some of us were thinking about lunch, others about the quiz next period. But when the question came, everything in the dusty room seemed to go still; the air itself seemed to thicken, to prickle against our skin. Tense, wary of a trap, we watched one another out of the corners of our eyes. Did he really expect us to answer honestly? And what would happen if we did?

“C’mon, c’mon,” Mr. C. said, impatient, frowning at us in a cut the bullshit sort of way. “Raise your hands if you’ve seen it.”

A middle-aged man with slick black hair going gray at the temples, Mr. C. had a certain world-weariness, an aura of having traveled far outside our sagging Rust Belt city. Though he was a devout Catholic, he also liked to tell us stories about his wild years before he’d found God. It seemed like a safe bet that, sometime during that lost era, he had seen porn.

One boy raised his hand, and another followed a second later. It triggered a kind of chain reaction, a sudden mass unmasking. In seconds, almost everyone in the class had a hand in the air, and the mood shifted from embarrassment and fear to an almost rueful sort of pride. Guys traded grins of acknowledgment across the aisles. Yeah, I’ve seen it. Even one of the most beautiful boys in the room—one I’d been admiring for months without ever quite admitting to myself that I was doing just that—even he had thrust his hand up, a little smirk playing on his pink lips.

I was one of the only boys in the class not to raise his hand. I didn’t move, didn’t breathe, until Mr. C. continued, launching into a lecture on the dangers of porn.

I was lying, of course. Just that fall, my mother had brought home a new computer and signed my sister and me up for accounts with an internet service provider called CompuServe. Both of these accounts had filtering software designed to keep minors away from “objectionable content”; sites deemed offensive would fail to load anything more ones; sites in French often slipped past the blockade. And that’s how, in the hours after school, when my parents were still at work and my sister was shooting layups at basketball practice, I found myself downstairs at the family computer, typing out foreign words into search engines. I didn’t know French, but I quickly learned a few key phrases—, , —the words as alien and alluring as the men themselves.

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