Bondage, Dominance, and Sciatica

Bondage, Dominance, and Sciatica

Runner-up in sinkhole's first-ever pop culture essay contest.

Mommom met Poppop at a roller rink in Pennsylvania in 1949, cinematically sharing a malt. I met Ben in an Uber pool driving through the San Fernando Valley at 2am. We shared In-N-Out fries in the back of the car. Mommom didn’t consummate her relationship with Poppop until he returned from the Azores where he was stationed during the Korean War. I gave Ben a hand job a few days after meeting him, in my house where my mother was soundly sleeping next to a noisy humidifier. Mommom and Poppop were married for fifty-six years. He stuck with her through her stroke. She stuck by him as he became disoriented and terrified of our ficus tree. Ben and I had forgotten to exchange numbers but unenthusiastically messaged on Instagram for a few days before all contact between us ceased.

I don’t idealize Mommom and Poppop’s relationship: Mommom was unintentionally racist, Poppop sometimes thought he was in the movie Top Gun. Poppop suffered from depression and Mommom wanted more out of life. They also kept alcohol the way one might stock canned food for the apocalypse. Into their late eighties, the two could still outdrink a fraternity. But I thought there was something to their commitment, even if it was just indicative of the dating culture in their time. There was no proposal; their families made the engagement plans. It was a union based in practicality rather than love, but over the years the love grew.

Romanticizing their archaic union would be ignorant. But sometimes, when boys didn’t me text back, I’d pretend they were stationed in the Azores, which have notoriously bad cell reception.

Poppop struggled after Mommom passed not so much because he missed her – although miss her he did – but because he didn’t know how to function as an individual. He had spent much more of his life as part of a duo than he had as a single man. We often found him heating up two cans of soup out of habit.

I have received an abundance of unsolicited dating advice as a young woman, but the consistent motif has always been to retain your independence. Always be able to function autonomously, as if your relationship might end at any moment. Most marriages end in divorce, and even if yours is an exception, men usually die first.

My grandparents were not bequeathed this information. They were scared of the world and hid inside of their relationship.

Poppop passed away over the winter break of my junior year at college. He had refused to come into our (adjoined) house for Christmas dinner because of an argument he was having with the cocker spaniel.

This was the same break during which I met Ben in the Uber. Our exchange was not unlike ones I’d had in the past, but this time it didn’t sit right with me, like In-N-Out after a long car ride. Though I prided myself on being an easygoing modern dater, I didn’t like these fleeting rendezvous. The appeal of an arranged marriage became more apparent; I think an app of that nature is in the works.


One minute you’re sifting through your dead grandmother’s intimates and the next you’re looking at pornography with your mother; life’s funny that way.

After my grandparents’ passing, my mother and I were tasked with sorting through their things. The house was buried in relics from their drab lives. There were Mommom’s QVC orders: glass sculptures, embroidered pillows, ceramic clowns, ceramic children, ceramic children dressed like clowns, tea cups, kettles and cozies (no tea), rosaries, and a stuffed goose that sang “Silent Night.” There were packs of cigarettes, bottles of antidepressants, and a wedding dress. This all led to a strange and unsuccessful yard sale.

This hoarder’s blood that runs through my veins had prompted me to start my own collection of tokens from my ephemeral lovers. I had a few sweatshirts, drink receipts, a pen, a sock, and a flyer for a noise band tucked away in a box under my bed.

Under Mommom’s hosiery, we found a chest. Inside were stacks of vintage adult magazines.

I picked one up: The Bondage and Dominance Digest, written by Mr. and Mrs. Midnight Pennsylvania. My mother and I soon realized that Mommom and Poppop authored these magazines, almost two hundred of them, each a hand-drawn pornographic booklet, professionally printed and bound. We looked at each other in awkward astonishment.

 The author's grandparents.

The author's grandparents.

The magazines depicted various scenes of little characters, drawn in the style of a 50s children’s book, handcuffed and gagged around popular Main Line locales. Each page and a half or so was another vignette with titles like “Housewives Revolt” or “The Paper Boy’s Secret.” My grandparents, the same ones who owned twenty or thirty stuffed polar bears, had been a cartoon erotica team throughout the late 80s.

One minute you’re sifting through your dead grandmother’s intimates and the next you’re looking at pornography with your mother; life’s funny that way.

After doing some research, we found that they’d had a decent cult following. A popular issue of theirs depicted a busty blonde sales clerk waiting for her soldier husband to return from the war and the fantasies that entertained her in his wake. Mommom’s chest was lined with a fine, yellowed dust that we’d attributed to decayed mothballs but turned out to be crushed Viagra.

My mother burst out laughing clutching the empty Viagra bottle. And I laughed too. What else was there to do? My grandparents’ morbid catacomb had changed before our eyes. These people were not docile slaves to life but to, well, each other!

The nature of this sexual fetish to be submissive is also about being free. Through The Bondage and Dominance Digest, my grandparents transcended their earthly struggles. For the first time, I saw them as truly alive.

I considered the way I’d been approaching relationships: caught up in self-preservation and the protection of my independence, I had never allowed myself to be vulnerable. Striving so hard to be different than how I thought Mommom and Poppop were, I’d inadvertently become them. Their chest of kinky cartoons was so lively while ironically my box of past-fling paraphernalia felt like a graveyard. I had been the one not texting back. A preemptive defense against the excruciating pain I’d anticipated but never experienced.

This is the part in the story where I run and call Ben. I tell him about my epiphany: “Life is so strange and unpredictable. Who cares if this isn’t love—let’s give it a shot! My grandparents were porn stars!”

But I didn’t have his number.

header image: "now and then," rising damp / flickr

Devil in White

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