“Every time I see you, you’re buying a chicken.”

9 1/2 Weeks (1986)
Directed by Adrian Lyne
Written by Patricia Louisiana Knop, Zalman King, and Sarah Kernochan
Starring Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, Margaret Whittin, David Margulies, Christine Baranski, and Karen Young
117 minutes, R

This entry, more than most, is not about the movie. By this statement, I mean that there are probably twenty movies I could think of off the top of my head that I could be spotlighting as the “theme”. Batman comes to mind. Terminator 2: Judgement Day does as well. The Toxic Avenger. The Naked Gun. The Cannonball Run. All of these were movies that I either saw for the first time or watched frequently with Ryan Arsenault, who was one of the first friends I made in middle school when my family moved to the small town of Gibson City from Champaign. We remained friends through high school and into adulthood. We had a break in there while I was traveling and working on my career, eventually reconnecting and becoming close again, only to be separated again by Ryan’s excesses, way of life, and, ultimately, the isolation of a global pandemic. Of all the movies we watched together– and there really are a few dozen that make me immediately think of him– 9 1/2 Weeks is one that is so distinctly Ryan, and he was present the only time I have ever watched it. He’s the point of this entry regardless of what movie I might have chosen.

1991. It’s the second semester of my freshman year of high school. Ryan is still in eighth grade. Ryan should have been a freshman as well, but had been held back after fifth grade, several years before I met him. That tidbit is neither here nor there. What is important is that Ryan had an unspeakable crush on Kim Basinger, had ruined all of our viewings of Batman by going on and on and on about it, and was now, on the bus as we headed into school, trying to con me into a special mission that he was convinced could only be arranged by me. See, I was well known by my peers at the time for being able to track down and procure– either via extensive knowledge of the interlibrary loan system or memberships at every single video store in the nearby college town of Champaign-Urbana– the most obscure and difficult-to-find movies on videocassette. Ryan had heard, somehow, of a 1986 movie called 9 1/2 Weeks. This movie had Kim Basinger in it. Allegedly, it was filled to the brim with sex scenes and she appeared in the film naked.

Keep in mind that it’s 1991. I’m fourteen years old. We are not in technology-enlightened times. This task is not as simple as using Google to find a website that has already condensed the film’s almost-two-hour runtime into a fifteen-minute reel that highlights the “good parts”. Interlibrary loan is not an option: we had a family card. Anything I checked out was kept on file and viewable at any time by my mother. My mother was not tyrannical about the movies I watched, but there’s only one logical reason that her adolescent son would have any interest in 9 1/2 Weeks. The video stores I frequented were also a no go since the film in question was rated R. There was every possibility that I would need parental approval to even try to rent it.

I am not proud of what we eventually decided to do . . .

In Gibson City, there were two video stores. One of them used a little fob-like token to denote whether or not a particular film was available for rental. A customer took the token to the register and swapped it for the video cassette, which was stored behind the counter. The other video store– the one I was most likely to frequent– was smaller and did not have the storage space for such a check-out system, so the cassettes themselves were actually left on the shelf. A customer knew that a film was available because the film was, well, sitting there inside a plastic cassette box. Initially, we tried a good old-fashioned switcheroo and swapped the cassette of 9 1/2 Weeks into the box for something less controversial, but this plan was foiled almost immediately by the clerk at the store who had been trained to not only make sure each tape was rewound at checkout but to make sure the right movie was in each box presented at the counter. God forbid some elderly woman take home Porky’s when she wanted It’s A Wonderful Life, you know?

It was Shane who ultimately made the switcheroo happen. Shane was one of Ryan’s neighbors and was often part of any shenanigans that went down when Ryan and I were involved. Unlike Ryan and I, though, Shane had a juvenile-delinquent streak that would eventually get him expelled from school for good and all. He was, however, fairly clever and Ryan and I stood flabbergasted in the kitchen as Shane held a videocasette of The Abyss over the steam that emerged from a tea kettle full of boiling water. The label came off pretty easily after a time. No one needed to tell me what I was supposed to do with this label.

The real problem with this ingenious act of tape swapping is that the video store in question only had one copy of The Abyss. Ryan and I had multiple trips to the store end in dejection when we were unable to switch the tape of 9 1/2 Weeks into the right box. I might have carried that label around with me for almost a month. When the opportunity finally presented itself to make the transfer, I was by myself. I had actually only popped into the store after school to return a video for my mother. Old habits die hard, so I checked to see if The Abyss and 9 1/2 Weeks were both in and available. They were. One problem: the label for The Abyss had been in my jacket pocket for so long that the back was no longer sticky. It had very little adhesive quality whatsoever. I managed to make it work by rearranging security tape and stickers that quietly reminded the consumer to rewind the movie after viewing around the edges of the label. Luckily, the clerk who checked me out was talking on the phone and not terribly attentive. When I emerged from the store with the incognito copy of 9 1/2 Weeks in my hand, I breathed a tremendous sigh of relief. At this juncture, the only point of concern was someone locating the copy of The Abyss that I had hidden behind a shelfing unit.

It turns out that there were many elements of this plan that hadn’t occurred to me. The least worrisome was that it was a Tuesday and we still had several days before the weekend, the ideal time to watch the movie without getting caught. This dilemma was nothing that a few dollars in late fees wouldn’t fix, but as I returned home with a “videotape of The Abyss” in my backpack, I began to contemplate the biggest issue. I mentioned it to Ryan later that night when I called him and told him that I had done it, by God. I had successfully managed the swap.

“How are we going to return the tape without getting caught?” I asked him. I mean, it stood to reason that the next person who tried to rent James Cameron’s classic underwater sci-fi film might not be too happy to see Kim Basinger’s bare breasts cavorting across their screen and would call the store and complain. I doubted, in fact, that it would even get that far. I was certain (and terrified) that our clever trickery would be discovered as soon as the video store employees laid eyes on the mangled mess that I had made of the top of the cassette. The jig, as they say, would be up and phone calls would be made. Getting a look at Mickey Rourke going down on Kim Basinger didn’t seem worth getting grounded for the rest of my adolescence.

Ryan sat silent for a while. Even through the phone, I could hear the gears in his head turning as he thought about how to get around this what-should-have-been obvious flaw in our plan. Finally, he said: “We don’t. Return it, I mean. We keep it and then tell the video store that we lost it.”

“They’ll make us replace the tape,” I informed him. “We’ll have to buy them a new copy of The Abyss.”

“And then get to watch 9 1/2 Weeks whenever we want to,” he said. “I’ll help cover the tape. Videos can’t cost that much, right?”

Afraid that I would get caught with what was now amounting to a stolen video cassette of what we had been led to believe was nothing more than artistic porno, I insisted that Ryan take the tape off my hands on the bus the next morning. Ryan took the tape from my hands, kissed it gingerly, said “Sweet sweet Kim”, and then buried it in the bottom of his school bag.

By the following Saturday, Ryan had decided that if we were going to keep the tape (a prospect that I was still somewhat dubious about)– and if we were both going to be fronting some cash to pay for a replacement– then we should both be allowed to watch it in perpetuity. He asked me to bring my VCR with me to his house, so that we could connect them and then copy the tape onto a blank. Naturally, I had to provide the blank. I also had to ride six miles to his house in Elliott– a tiny little village to the east of Gibson City– on my bicycle while trying to balance my VCR on the handlebars.

Ryan had invited several of our friends and classmates to watch the movie that we had long been anticipating. I remember Shane being there (this will be important later). So was Dallas Brown, another neighbor of Ryan’s, who, to this day, is still one of my best friends. I don’t recall Shawn Mallory being there, but it was he who eventually told this story to my wife (while she was still my girlfriend) at a poorly-attended 15th high-school reunion. Before we watched the movie, Jena (the thirteen-year-old object of all of our’s desire) was there as well, but Ryan was smart enough to wait until she had been called home to even mention that we had a movie we wanted to watch. I recall vividly thinking to myself that I didn’t want to watch such a sexually-charged movie with a girl in the room, especially one who had become so god damn pretty over the last school year and had been blossoming into the crush that every one of us had been struggling to keep a secret. I’m not sure that I would have stayed had she stuck around long enough for Ryan to push “PLAY.”

“PLAY”, of course, on Ryan’s VCR and “RECORD” on mine, a cheaper VCR that we had connected to Ryan’s with cables from a Nintendo Entertainment System. Then, we all settled in to watch this movie. Uncomfortably, of course, none of us, at that age, being sure of the watching-a-dirty-movie-with-other-dudes-in-the-room protocol.

This was not a very good movie. Plotless and dull, it amounted to little more than two pretty people having sex and then arguing for a while and then having sex again before they argued. Sometimes, they’d almost have sex, but not quite, but this only prompted arguments about why they weren’t having sex. At one point, they argued about how having sex is the only thing they ever do and then proved it by having sex. At one point, they had physically-impossible sex in a dirty stairwell while it rained. I couldn’t help noticing that this movie about sex wasn’t very, you know, sexy. The most famous scene in the movie– the one where Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger do it on the floor in front of the open refrigerator and he uses all the leftovers as implements to arouse her– was laughably ridiculous to us and it prompted a good ten minutes of pubescent “humor” as we tried to guess what Mickey might be pulling from the crisper next. The ice cube on the nipple sequence was kind of hot, but Ryan ruined it by asking a question that had occurred to me a half hour into the movie: “Do you notice how Kim’s face and her tits are never shown at the same time?” By the time you actually get a good shot of Kim topless, it was so brief that it almost hadn’t happened and everyone in the room was so disinterested in this drab examination of sexual awakening that it almost wasn’t even noticed. To this day, I don’t remember how the film ends. I assume that Kim and Mickey argued and then went and had sex. It’s not a bad guess, considering the content of the rest of the movie.

“So, Ryan,” I asked as the end credits began to roll, “how much do you think this piece-of-crap movie is going to cost us?”

“Hopefully, not much,” he replied.

“Well, you can buy the whole thing because I have no intentions of ever watching my copy again.” I wasn’t sure that Ryan had set the VCRs up correctly, anyway, but that was beside the point. The point was that I had committed a petty act of theft in a really, really complicated and roundabout manner and it hadn’t even been worth it, in the end.

After a long and considerable silence, Ryan asked the most important question of the moment: “How much do video tapes cost?”

A lot, apparently. Shawn told us about how his family was not allowed to even use the video store in town anymore because they had lost a copy of Adventures in Babysitting and his father was not willing to pay the exorbitant fee that the store was asking to replace it. As Shawn told us this story, I could see Ryan’s shoulders beginning to sag. This whole scenario, this sneaky plot and ploy to see his favorite actress naked, was not turning out in his favor.

That’s about the time that Shane asked why we had to replace the tape. I explained how we had not thought the return of the tape after the switcheroo through very wisely. Shane responded by letting out a laugh. Then, he marched across the room to the VCR, pushed the “EJECT” button, and then threw the cassette as hard as he could into the wall. He then retrieved the cassette, popped open the flap that covers the tape itself, and snapped the exposed film in two. He handed the cassette to Ryan and said, “It’s broken. Return it and they’ll throw it in the trash.”

Problem solved, right?

Nope. This story is not quite finished.

Shane’s solution to our issue did not really solve the complication of the most effective way to return a videotape that clearly had a tampered label. It also didn’t guarantee that we wouldn’t be charged for the tape, only replacing a damaged tape instead of a missing one. Ultimately, though, it would prove to be irrelevant. It would, in fact, become a non-issue entirely thanks to my own dunderheaded mistake. The part of this story that I’m about to share would become, over the years, Ryan’s favorite part of the tale to share when recounting the saga of Mission: 9 1/2 Weeks to people that we knew. Often, he would interrupt me if I was telling the story myself so that he could be the one to deliver the details of this embarrassing story’s denouement. He ended up paying $85 to replace the cassette, so I think he earned the right to deliver the punchline.

After I got home that day, I discovered that the copy that we had made of our taboo movie was stuck in the VCR. I don’t know if it was the result of using a garbage tape or damage to the interior of my video player as it was jostled for twelve miles round trip on the handlebars of my bike, but I could not get the pirated tape to eject from the VCR when I got the player back home. Mild panic sent in. I was convinced that we were going to get caught when my mother discovered what was on the tape that was keeping her from recording Designing Women on Monday nights. I took the VCR apart myself in an attempt to expose the inner mechanics, hoping that I could somehow find a magic button of some sort that would release the duplicated smut that our ancient video cassette recorder was holding hostage. I got it apart with no issues. I got the tape out. Somehow, though, I damaged the framing of the player as I did and I could not, for the life of me, get the top to the VCR back in place. When my mother came home, I had the VCR in multiple pieces on the dining room table.

She went about her business for a moment as if I wasn’t there, but eventually she asked me what in the name of God I was doing.

I answered as simply and succinctly as I could: “Oh, there was a tape stuck in there.”

“Did you get it out?” she asked.

I told her that I did, but that the tape was broken and couldn’t be salvaged. To prove my point, I took the broken cassette and dropped it into the trash can before she could inspect it further.

And then my heart almost stopped completely because she said, “It wouldn’t, by chance, have been 9 1/2 Weeks, would it?”

It turns out that mother had gone to the video store after work. She was not, however, allowed to rent anything because there was a copy of 9 1/2 Weeks that had been checked out five days prior and was now four days overdue. I was flummoxed. I mean, I knew the movie was overdue. The mere mention, though, of 9 1/2 Weeks was confusing. I had gone through hoops of fire to make sure that the video store thought I was checking out The Abyss.

Let me explain . . . 1991, remember? The check-out system of most small-town video stores was far from complicated. Our store, in fact, barely did anything on computer. There were no barcodes to scan. Every video box– plain and unadorned with anything other than the store logo and contact information– contained only a four- or five-digit code that corresponded to a four- or five-digit code written in ink on the video tape that belonged in the box. If the box for, say, 9 1/2 Weeks was imprinted with, say, the code 97245, then the little white label in the upper left corner of the cassette also said 97245. The clerks in the video store were hardly ever even looking at the titles of the tapes at all, merely checking that the two codes matched and typing them into a spreadsheet. I could have put whatever label I wanted on the tape and nobody would have thought twice about it, provided that the two codes matched. In the case of the great 9 1/2 Weeks and The Abyss grift, the numbers did match. . .because in the confusion, in my hurry to get this dastardly deed finished and not get caught, I had neglected to switch the boxes that the videos came in.

To wit: instead of “pulling one over” on the video store, I had pointlessly defaced and mangled two videotapes– three, if you counted the one that had been, until a few moments before, stuck in my VCR– when all I ever had to do, apparently, was walk up to the counter with the movie I wanted and pay for it. If the god damn movie had been returned on time, no one, beyond me and my perverted friends, would have ever been the wiser. I wanted to cry, I felt so stupid. I wanted to punch the wall and scream “She never even really gets naked!” at the top of my voice because, in this particular moment, that almost seemed to be the most irritating thing about this whole fiasco.

My mother, to her credit, wasn’t fazed by any of this in the least. She found the whole situation downright hilarious, in fact. Her teenage son went to all this pain to avoid getting into trouble when he could have just went about this business like a normal person would have without getting caught? That’s funny. I’m pretty lucky, in retrospect, that my mother has such a warped sense of humor.

Ryan found it hilarious as well. He called me– and I quote– “a fucking knothead” when I telephoned him later and told him that I needed the original cassette back so that it could be returned. Ryan had destroyed the tape, though. He had broken it with a hammer into a billion little pieces of plastic and buried the shards in the cornfield behind his house. He didn’t want his parents finding a broken and defaced copy of 9 1/2 Weeks lying around. His parents weren’t half as amused by things like this as mine often turned out to be. I told him that he would have to replace the tape and that’s when he called me a knothead. He laughed hysterically as he said it: “Oh, my God! With pleasure, you fucking knothead.” I couldn’t get him to stop laughing at me for a good ten minutes or more.

I’m sharing this story because Ryan has been on my mind lately, and I needed the levity of this memory to separate what I remember of him from what I know about him now. It’s been almost two years since I’ve last seen Ryan. We had a falling out in late 2019 because of his own inability to clean up his own act. Ryan was, at the time, at best, a functioning alcoholic and his refusal to quit drinking had destroyed everything he might have even remotely held dear. Over time, it became harder and harder to justify including the word “functioning.” A lot of us, including me, gave up on Ryan because it seemed to us that he wanted it that way. Of course, shortly after that, the world got hit by a global pandemic and the isolation of the ensuing lockdown (even as self-inflicted as that isolation, arguably, was) made a bad situation even worse. On Wednesday, November 24, 2021, the day before Thanksgiving, Ryan passed away after medication in the hospital put him into a cardiac arrest. This medication was a necessary evil, recommended to him because of all the damage he had done to his physiology drinking almost two handles of vodka a day for well over two years.

Since hearing of his passing, I have gathered from high-school friends who had reconnected with him in the past year that Ryan came out of lockdown in a bad way. He made attempts to rehabilitate but continually faltered. Eventually, he was unable to maintain a job and was forced to move back in with his parents. It has been reported that he had, at one point, lost the use of his legs. Recently, he began to lose his memory, had lost all track of who he was and where he might be at any given time. All of the issues reported sound like they may have been the symptoms of underlying health concerns, but Ryan chose to treat those conditions with more vodka. I imagine there were some narcotics involved. Ryan became an empty shell, and it sounds to me like Ryan just might not have cared any longer if he lived or died. When I first heard of his death, I asked a friend if Ryan’s death was a suicide (details at the time were sparse) and that friend said, with no hesitation, “Ryan’s been hurting himself for years.”

I’m a bit shellshocked by the passing of my friend for two major reasons. The first is obvious: he and I are the same age. It’s a bit terrifying to contemplate that someone the same age as I am can just drop dead. Just seeing the obituary for a random person who was even approximately your age is a disconcerting feeling on its own, but when you actually know the person– grew up with them, shared all your secrets with them– it can paralyze you for a moment. Some reminders that you are not, in fact, going to live and breathe in perpetuity are harsh. For me, this reminder of my own mortality was especially damaging momentarily because as I gathered more and more information about the circumstances of Ryan’s passing, as the gravity of what he had done to himself, if even by accident, sunk in, it occurred to me that the obituary I was now clipping out of the paper, twenty years ago, could have been me.

I have made no secret in these pages about my history with alcoholism and drug addiction. I have always, in the past, handled my depression in a self-destructive fashion. I was never prone to suicidal ideation, but it seems perfectly feasible, in retrospect, that I might have killed myself by accident. Sometimes the equivalent of having zero fucks left to give is getting behind the wheel of a car when you have no business doing so. It certainly never crossed my mind at the time that, maybe, I shouldn’t have another drink because this gin and tonic is going to be the one that kills me. Is it possible that I might have ended up six feet under in a pine box like my friend is now because the cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol that I was fueling myself with made me believe that they were taking my pain? It’s possible, I suppose, but it never seemed a possibility to me until I found out how it went down in Ryan’s final days.

It seems to me that the biggest difference between Ryan in recent years and me in the distant past is that I had a support network of friends, family, and loved ones that I had not pushed away, all of whom wanted what was best for me in the long run. Ryan did not seem to have that. However, I know firsthand that Ryan did have that at one point, and he turned his back on it, so consumed by his own sorrow that he was blind to what he might have really needed. I think that, eventually, he left so much damage in his self-destructive wake that when he finally reached shore, there was no one left standing to take his wrist and hoist him out of the water.

Therein lies my second troublesome issue with the passing of my childhood friend: I find myself angry at him. Angry that he gave up, yes, but also furious that he never believed us when we saw his pain and reminded him how much his friendship meant to us. He laughed off the implication that we loved him and would all feel a little hollower without him. He just left us to watch him go, praying to a God that was, honestly, harder and harder to believe in that he’d remember our phone numbers if he ever needed support. I would have been there for him had he asked. I would have walked him through detox and late-night phone calls. I would have kept him company when he chose to stay home and watch television instead of go out and fight the temptation to get drunk or high. Being there for him is the least I could have done for all the times that he had been there for me.

I realize that anger is a selfish response. I don’t know how else to feel, though. I wasn’t close enough with him in recent years to warrant any other response. I could say that I will miss him all I want, but I have missed him now for two years, so just missing him has the implication that without him, nothing has changed. I suppose there’s some regret; there’s shame, perhaps, that I didn’t make a more directed effort to reach out to him. In my experience, though, regret and shame eventually lead to anger. I’m just jumping ahead to the inevitable. Expediting the process so I don’t have to think about it much.

For now, I will reminisce and remember the good times. I will laugh when I think about a snippet of conversation or relay to a co-worker a joke that Ryan once told. I will be forever grateful for all the trouble we once got into. In time, I will come to terms with this abject sadness, this servile guilt. Maybe by January 23. That will be about nine and a half weeks.

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