Sunday Stories: “The Living Room”


The Living Room
by Shane Cashman

Dad has no idea he’s watching porn on the TV when I walk into the living room. It could be from experience, but I can tell this one only just began: co-eds still clothed, little dialogue, all body language. Our POV is the man’s POV. We scan her with his eyes, as if we’re supposed to be him. Close-ups of her lipstick and her pale skin and her clavicle, like we’re there, like we’re forensics, like we’re vampires looking for the artery. But dad sits through it – waiting for the scene to change. I think he thinks it’s some cheap horror flick.

What does he know? Figure he grew up on Playboys. When porn could still give you paper cuts. I don’t know. We never talked about it. There’s a real generational gap between us when it comes to porn. You never think to ask your dad how porn has changed. Cars and war and sports, maybe.

He usually flips through the channels non-stop until bedtime, but since I’ve walked in on this he won’t change it just because he doesn’t want to make it seem like it’d be uncomfortable to watch a sex scene with his twenty-nine-year-old son.

I sit on other side of the couch. He has the remote, he’s in charge. That’s the way the remote works in this house. It’s your chance to play God. His words.

What I’m finding out is this: the best way to watch porn with your father, while pretending it’s not porn, is to look straight at the TV, without blinking, without flinching, without making jokes to try and ease the awkwardness. Just sit there and let your dad figure it out for himself. No one should have to tell their father, “Dad, you’re watching porn and mom can probably hear it in the other room.” He must think it’s HBO. In his defense, it is Hi-def.

Mom ordered hundreds of new channels last week. It’s the biggest change they’ve made in the house since I moved back home. For as long as we lived here we only had seven channels – 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13, which came to us through the big antennae that’s still bolted to the roof like a weathervane.

Dad said our universe started to expand with the new channels. That it was like finding life on Mars. Mom said she felt like she was cheating on her local weatherman when she watched another man give her the forecast on another channel.

I thought the channels would be a good thing. But now they watch television in separate rooms. Mom complains that dad doesn’t watch TV, he just jumps from one channel to the next, trying to outdo whatever the last channel had on until he gets back to where he started and does it all again. It’s been like this all week. “There’s too much to choose from,” he tried to explain himself as mom stormed out of the living room last time.

This soft-core porn’s POV wants to make you forget you’re you. It wants to trick you into thinking you’re in the kitchen of a strange house, with this half-naked woman who looks at you like she’s a predator, or like you’re the predator, like her eyes are made of fish bait and honey and quicksand, and we, my dad and me and the man doing the job on the TV, lunge into her. We see his arms as if they were our own, as he reaches for her, folds her into him, and kisses so loud it sounds like people eating saltines. She moans about it for us and Dad lowers the volume, because, I guess, the sound of it is worse than the image of it. He grips the remote like a scepter.

We must be in the 5, maybe 600s. Up in the wasteland part of television where it really is hard to tell porn from low-budget films. These channels are the equivalent of the tenth page of a Google image search. Where things get primitive. I had cable at my last apartment. I know what happens on these channels. This is dad’s first journey into unfamiliar TV space. Poor guy thinks he’s a pioneer. He doesn’t even realize he’s an innocent bystander.

“Hi-def is so Hi-def,” dad says, like he doesn’t know what else to say, but needs to fill the dead air between us and the panting coming out of the TV. It’s true though. The Hi-def is scary good. You can see where the green-black in the young man’s tribal tattoo has begun to fade. He is all muscle and tanning bed crisp. She is tusk white. He poaches her. We poach her.

There’s no XXX in the corner of the screen. No fake tits to clue-in my dad. It’s all pretty natural looking. The soft lighting and marble countertops and the sunlight in the window looks semi-real. I don’t remember there being so much sunlight in the pornos I watched when I was a kid. And now we’re in it. We’re a part of it. I thank God it’s not in 3-D. I pray for a commercial.

My dad gives the tits the benefit of the doubt. They fill the screen. I pretend we’re watching National Geographic. I try not to look too captivated – more like academic, like I’m studying something extinct. Maybe my dad’s doing the same. They are good tits. We bend the tall pale woman over the stove and she turns to make eye contact with her man, with the camera, with my dad and myself.

Dad takes a sip of his iced-tea and I can tell he’s getting restless with this drawn-out scene. He hums when he’s uncomfortable. Still, he refuses to change it. This is punishment for me moving back home.

Mom gives the dogs Benadryl in the kitchen. They yip for the stuff like it’s treats. She started this recently because the dogs bark too much at the gunfire on her crime shows. She says it calms them down.

“What are you guys watching?” she asks from the kitchen. Yells really. She has a hearing aid, but forgets to wear it. Dad doesn’t hear her because he claims he doesn’t need hearing aids. I pretend to hear nothing. Hoping she goes to her own TV to avoid making this situation worse.

The tall pale woman is spread across the Hi-def kitchen floor. Her anatomy is all there is. She is the whole world. I sink into the couch. I find my dad through the corner of my eye. He’s going to sit through this no matter what. He really doesn’t know it yet. Waiting for something more to happen. He must believe there’s a world outside of that kitchen on the TV. Maybe there’s a monster lingering off-screen. Some promise of violence. My dad has seen HBO before. But there’s nothing beyond those walls, dad. There’s nothing outside those windows. The sun in the window is just a floodlight in a studio. The whole world is right there, naked on the kitchen floor.

Mom leans into the living room. “What’re you watching?” she asks. Neither of us says a thing. She sits on the loveseat and the dogs follow her, sluggish on their Benadryl high. Then the real horror: the three of us stare blankly into the TV as we all hover like a raccoon over the tall pale woman. She is head-turn possessed now. My dad once told me the scariest movie he ever saw was The Exorcist.

A brunette with a small circle of a face and another tanned man enter the screen from out of nowhere. Already naked. Like they were just born from the void beyond the kitchen and dropped into the heart of this world. It’s an orgy, but when you’re watching it with your parents it feels more like an invasion. I play dumb. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe dad knows. Maybe this is his way of saying, “this’ll happen every night if you don’t get a real job and move out.”

Of course, mom would rather sit like a family in the living room than watch her shows on her own TV in the den. She thinks it’s good that I’m home again. Her twenty-nine-year-old baby boy. She’ll tough out the sex scene because she loves to make sure that I know she can handle anything remotely racy, because she is a Jewish mother, and in my experience, a Jewish mother’s nosiness can spill over into their adult son’s sex life. “Can you turn it up?” she asks.

You can’t help but think what your parents think as they watch all this sex on the TV in the same room as you. Does it remind them of making you? Or does it make them nostalgic for what life was like before you? Before they were parents, when they were still young. I’m the same age my mom was when she had me. I haven’t grown up, I’ve just mutated. Infant and teenager and whatever I am now all at once – still waking up in the same bed I grew up in.

The TV is real loud now so mom can hear. This is the first orgy to happen in our living room that I know of. I did my first cartwheel in here. I used to dance along to cartoon theme songs in here.

I feel mom’s eyes widen in horror. I think it just clicked in her head. Porn. She does have a stack of grocery store romance novels on her nightstand. She swings her hands over her heart and gasps. This concerns the dogs. The room feels like it tightens around me. The flat screen seems to get flatter and wider. It twists up like a wave that wants to crash down on us. We’re still in full POV. Everyone’s on everyone like a bag of worms. I can’t tell where our living room ends and the Hi-def begins. Mom leaps up and steals the remote from dad’s hand. The dogs bark.

She changes the channel and the room deflates. Severs the POV. The pale woman disappears. Mom aims the remote and flips up through more of the wasteland. Everything looks like porn. Stuff that isn’t even porn looks like porn. She clicks through the channels without stopping. It’s a flash of light, like the birth of a star or gunfire. She climbs further and further up the channels until we arrive back at 2 and the world starts over.


Shane Cashman‘s writing has appeared in The New York Observer, Word Riot, Neutrons Protons, Chronogram, Honeysuckle Magazine, Inkwell, and elsewhere. In 2015, he was the winner of PEN Center USA’s 500-word fiction contest. He is an adjunct professor of creative writing at Manhattanville College.

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