Wednesday, August 24, 2011

One, please

Several weeks ago I had the sudden urge to go to the theater alone.

Oh, the thought had crossed my mind plenty in the past – mostly because of some charming scene in an old movie, set in New York or Paris where people do that sort of thing. Wishing I were worldly enough to be that lone person on the screen happily watching a screen, wishing I were somewhere else.

But maybe it isn’t about geographical location so much as the way our theaters are now made – the bright tackiness of the animated concession signs and the electronic scrolling marquees. I don’t think there’s anything romantic about them at all, which is odd considering how often they’re used for the specific purpose of dating. And it seems nearly everything has a stigma attached to it and here, now, going to the movies alone makes you either weird or a loser.

There’s still a part of me that wants to seem glamorous and mysterious, like the characters in those old films, but this new feeling wasn’t at all like those occasional fantasies. I wasn’t thinking in black and white, about the décor or the pillbox hat and the gloves I’d wear when I’d ask the man behind the counter for a single ticket. In fact, at the time, I couldn’t say exactly what I was thinking. I just knew I needed to go, and I needed to go alone.

My first attempt fell flat when I made a pre-movie lunch visit and ended up with a tag-along. Specifically my godmother’s nephew, whom I happen to think is wonderful but who wanted to see a comedy I could’ve done least until the video release.

Walking alongside him toward the theater’s giant cave-like entrance, I couldn’t decide if I was more relieved or disappointed. Relieved because, obviously, I wouldn’t have to walk past the handholding couples with a tub of popcorn, avoiding eye contact lest one of them notice a single in their midst. Disappointed because, had he not wanted to go, I was sure I would’ve done it. I would have gone alone.

By the following Friday I was so fed up with work and everything else that I left several hours early, intending to drive home and rest before going out to dinner. But before I’d gotten very far I changed my mind. Checking movie times, I noticed I would just make one of the “to see” items on my list if I went straight there.

Once the decision was made and I knew I wasn’t going to make any stops that might deter me, I became a little nervous. What if I ran into an ex on a date or worse, my boss? Would it be really sad to get my own popcorn? I’d always shared before. What if the theater was full and I had to sit wedged between two couples? Who really cares about going to the movies alone anyway?

Still, I parked and strode with defiant, false bravado to the outdoor counter. Though who this defiance was intended for wasn't entirely clear: myself, the general public or perhaps a little of both.

Two teenage girls left the window with stubs in hand and I stepped up. “One for the 4:20 showing of The Help, please”, I told the sulking young guy on the other side.

“Enjoy the show”, he replied on cue, handing me the ticket.

Even with fake steel holding up my spine, I decided to draw as little attention to myself as possible and avoid the concession stand. I’d be heading for dinner soon enough anyway. Somehow eating alone in a theater seemed worse than just sitting alone in one – logic I still haven’t quite figured out.

But halfway there I was stopped by an elderly man tearing ticket stubs in half and having far too much fun with what appeared to be a grocery store scanner. I suppose it was meant for paper tickets ordered online, but he was using it to scan women instead.

He was making a rather big to-do over two middle aged ladies in front of me, holding each of their hands in turn and scanning their forearms while proclaiming loudly that they were in perfect health. As they walked away laughing, I worried that he’d do the same to me. I didn’t want him holding me up, making me stand out in the open longer than necessary. I also worried that he wouldn’t. I didn’t want him to treat me differently because I was alone.

“Hello! Welcome!”

I smiled and handed him my stub, glancing at his name tag.

“Jim” must have been in his late 60’s and suddenly, rather than worrying about what he thought of me or what the other people scattered around saw when they looked my way, I wondered how a man like him ended up in this place full of sullen teenagers and couples. What made him come back to work at his age? Money? Boredom? Loneliness? Did he go to the movies alone too?

“How’s your day going”, he asked, handing me back the torn copy and reaching for my free hand.

I gave him a real smile this time. “It’s going great. How’s yours?”

“Fantastic!” He swept the red light over my forearm, taking his time and muttering comically to himself. “You’re absolutely perfect”, he finally declared, his voice echoing across the lobby.

“No high blood pressure? Heart problems?” He was delighted that I’d teased him back.

“Not a bit! But holding such a beautiful woman’s arm, I can’t say the same for myself!” He grabbed his chest and rolled his eyes heavenward. I found myself laughing and hoping that he had a woman every bit as exuberant at home, waiting for him to put his vest and name tag aside and tell her about the people he’d seen, the smiles he’d encouraged.

As I turned to go I noticed that we were being watched by a few dubious looking teenage concession employees. I gave them a wave, said goodbye to Jim and headed toward theater four. Almost there, I heard Jim shout, “Enjoy it, honey!”

I spun in a circle, shot him two thumbs way up in the air, and disappeared through the black entrance with the sound of his laughter in my ears. I wasn’t sure if he was extremely perceptive or simply very friendly, but the tension and self consciousness had abated remarkably with those few moments of interaction.

I was smiling as I made my way down the slightly inclined hallway, the wall of the theater lowering on my right. But when I cut the corner and encountered the stairs leading up, I saw what I’d forgotten was a possibility: a full house. I stood there for a moment, unsure whether I should take a seat I hated down in front and crane my neck or brave the packed and coveted upper deck, squeezing past people and muttering apologies.

I started climbing before I could talk myself out of it, up and up, until I reached my favorite row, second to last. An older couple sat on the end and I excused myself, side-stepping past their knees and into the mostly empty center. I sat down, relieved, and placed my purse in the seat to my right.

I’d arrived just in time for the previews and as the lights went down, aside from the one occupied by my purse, the few remaining seats in my row began to fill – couples on either side. I was hyper aware of the woman sitting to my left, worrying whether it was proper etiquette to leave the shared armrest bare or if it belonged to me because I’d gotten there first. I decided to place my hands in my lap, just in case.

And then I forget them all and lost myself in the screen – laughing, frowning, holding back tears. I forgot to wonder if the row behind me noticed that I’d sat down alone or if the woman who’d offered me a free popcorn voucher did so out of pity. I forgot to wonder if the couples on either side were wondering or whispering about me.

I’ve always watched movies with an intensity that sometimes annoys the people around me. I attempt to shut out everything and become completely transported. The same goes for reading. And if something or someone disrupts that, though I may not always show it, I get agitated. The exception to the rule usually takes place out of the theater, if I’ve seen a movie before and the person I’m watching it with hasn’t. Then the majority of my attention switches to them – studying their reactions and comparing them to my own, hoping they laugh and frown at the same parts, that they like it as much as I did.

But I was alone – there was no one to nudge me or stage whisper exclamations during the dramatic parts. I owed none of these strangers my attention and I didn’t care whether they enjoyed the movie or not. There was no one to please but myself. And when the lights came up and the end credits rolled I felt satisfied, relaxed.

I ambled down the stairs in the thick of the crowd, my mind still partially back in 1960’s Mississippi. Back up the dark hallway, out into the lobby, I moved with them at a pace entirely different than the one I’d had going in.

As I passed the ropes separating those coming and going, I saw Jim waving from his post. I waved back, even though I wasn’t completely sure it was me he was waving to, and moved out the row of glass doors into the hot evening.

I had just enough time to make it to the restaurant where, when asked what I’d been doing with my afternoon, I told my companion I’d taken a solo trip to the movies.

“Wow”, she said, looking at me with a mixture of awe and confusion. She was impressed because she could never have done such a thing, but at the same time she didn’t know why I’d felt the need to do it in the first place.

I could’ve told her that it was about making myself happy and not relying on someone else to do it for me, or that I just “wanted to”. I could’ve told her that it was about conquering a fear, defying a stigma, or half a dozen other things that had crossed my mind since I’d exited those doors. I could’ve laid all my thoughts out about why and how, about what it all might mean.

But I simply smiled and shrugged. Because that’s the beauty of being alone – I don’t really have to explain myself to anyone.


dys·func·tion said...

The first (and only) time I've been to a movie by myself was to see "Horton Hears A Who" at Christmas time two years back.

To make the singleness even more noticeable I was pregnant!

I felt the exact same nervousness that you've described here, and almost vomitted in the ticket line. Once the lights dimmed and the movie began I forgot I was alone, and just enjoyed watching a movie without having to consider someone else.

It was brilliant! Although, I don't know how eager I am to recreate the experience. It's handy to know that if I'm dying to see a movie, I can always go alone if no one else is interested.

Great new comment header btw. :D

jerrod said...

Lost again in your stories.

Well done my friend. Always in awe.

Kimmie said...

Love it!

I've missed your writing, lady. :)

JUST ME said...

I do more things alone than I ever thought I would a few years ago, and I actually like going to the movies alone during the day.

It's a HUGE lesson in being present (and not letting completely false perceptions of ourselves get in the way), but the more you do it, the confident you will be in doing a lot of other things!

I LOVE that old man, by the way. I hope he has a happy life.

Danger Boy said...

It's such a weird thing for people to judge...those dining or going to a movie alone.
It'd be wonderful, though, if there were a Jim at every theatre. Wouldn't that be nice, to have a smile gifted to us like that every so often?

Kara said...

Going to the movies by myself is one of the few pleasures I have in life! I'm dead serious about movies. I don't want to make small talk or have to take a kid to the bathroom if I'm really into a movie. Therefore, once a month or so, I'll go to a movie of my choosing for a Saturday matinee alone. Some women get mani/pedis, I sit by myself in a movie theatre with a vat of Diet Coke and a box of Sour Patch Kids.

Lola Lakely said...

You take a break. I take a break. Sheesh. Maybe we should take a break together one of these days for shenanigans?

I loved, loved this story. The description of the ticket riper/scanner man was perfect. It reminds me of the old chines guy who is literally there every time I go to the movies and he may be my favorite part of going. He always has a huge smile on his face and he just seems so happy that it is hard not to feel the same no matter what mood you are in.

Isnt' it amazing how the interaction of one person can change your entire outlook or experience of something? I love that.

Anyway, I've missed you.

Princessa said...

I've been going to the movies alone ever since I first started going to the movies, at first out of necessity, but nowadays out of pure pleasure. There's something about taking out that kind of me- time to enjoy a movie that your friends might not even be into...

I've never felt odd or self conscious though, it's sort of rejuvenating instead.

Balanced Idjit said...

And just when I was getting ready to stalk write! I'll go ahead and put the zombies away now.

Loved the story. I love that you're so self-aware. Many are self-involved but few are self-aware. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

See, I have never understood the whole "judging single movie-goers" thing. Outside of work, I tend to do what I want when I want and if I'm alone, all the better for me. I LOVE seeing movies alone, going to shows solo, and traveling sans partner. Sure, the right companion is nice ... but so is my own company. And if anyone wants to judge me for not needing someone else beside me to validate my presence, they can just go right ahead.

Me, I'm a happy camper with or without company.

The Vegetable Assassin said...

I've always gone to see movies alone since I was about 15. I like it. No one to bug you or interfere with your enjoyment. I mean, I go WITH people too, but I've never had any qualms about going alone. I never even considered anyone judging you for it. Or maybe I just didn't care. :) I think it's one of the few things you CAN do alone without feeling like a big, old weirdo! Good for you!

Anonymous said...

I thought the idea of this post was interesting. I loved it, but I can't say I understand it. As someone who has only had one girlfriend and is currently content with remaining single, I'm used to doing things like this by myself all the time. I go to movies, I go to poetry slams, I go to plays, all on my own. Not to brag, but I actually prefer it!

sAm said...

I've been waiting for a post...and it was SO worth it!
I, too, have a problem going places alone. Really of going anywhere, but especially when alone.
I will think of you next time I get brave & decide to step out of my comfort zone.
Good for you...and Thank You for the post!

The Jules said...

Like Veggie Ass, I've always had a penchant for going to the Pictures on my own, ever since the days when we called them the Pictures.

Mind you, I like eating on my own as well. No one to get offended when you eat your peas off your knife.

The Tame Lion said...

Wow! Wow!

Robbie Grey said...

"Because that’s the beauty of being alone – I don’t really have to explain myself to anyone."

True words. Solitary time can be golden, if not platinum.

Sharon Longworth said...

Well. In all my far too many years on this planet, I've never once been to the pictures on my own (thank you to The Jules - it's a relief to know I'm not the only one who still calls them that).
But I'm sitting here on my own at 5.30 in the morning cos I can't sleep, and as your words rolled past me on the screen and the pictures formed in my head, it felt just like I was sitting watching a beautiful film unfold - so now I can say I've been to the pictures on my own. Thank you.

bamaloo said...

Wow I loved this post!!! I have always had the exact same feelings about the movies but have never executed a solo-trip. But now I am fully inspired to do so! Thank you for the super fantastic writing!

And on a side note, the only single viewers I ever notice are the 65+ men in the romantic comedies. They are often in sweater sets, and I often want to ask if I can adopt them as my grandpapas.

Penny Dreadful said...

I have't done it in many years but I like going to the movies by myself. It makes me feel like a grown-up, same as buying flowers for myself. Glad you took the plunge :)

David Henderson said...

Movie theater lobbies ARE seizure inducing.

Going to the movie theatre solo is only weird if you're Pee-Wee Herman.

T. Roger Thomas said...

Well written!

I've been to the movies by myself a few times over the years and don't really understand why there is such stigma surrounding doing so.

Anonymous said...

That was beautifully written!!! Good for you! I have gone to the movies alone and there is no shame in it. That is `me` time! Good for you and I do hope you go back and flirt with Jim again!

Nicole said...

I used to go to the diner by myself sometimes, feeling the same hesitation you describe when I occupied a booth meant for six. By the time the coffee came and I'd stuck my nose in whatever I was reading, I forgot all that self consciousness and enjoyed myself immensely. I think I left with the same satisfied strut you had on your way out of the theater.

Mollie said...

You can go alone to the movies with me anytime *wink*. I prefer going alone really. I feel like I'm expected to ask others about how they liked it and what was their favorite part.

God, I read this post hunched forward like my shoulders were listening.

Philip said...

I like doing stuff like this alone now and again. It reminds you of who you are. I like going to the cinema on my own now and again, gigs and the occasional meal on my own. I always like the experience. Just cos you like others company, doesn't mean you shouldn't enjoy your own.

Library girl said...

It's not so much you went on your own (bravo by the way - I too have struggled with all those thoughts and feelings you described!) but the interaction with Jim that I totally loved about this piece. Sometimes you come across the loveliest souls on the planet and they leave you smiling and feeling so much better. I hope he had someone at home waiting for him too. Beautiful piece of writing.

Lou said...

You described this feeling perfectly; the fear, the awkwardness of going to the cinema on your own. I remember when I first did it; I paid on my credit card and collected my tickets from the automated booth; that's how much I didn't want to ask for 'one' ticket! But now that you've been once, it becomes natural to go again. You won't even think about it next time. It's actually quite liberating. :)

nova said...

I don't go to the movies alone enough. Thanks for the reminder about how okay it is to do. :)

Judearoo said...

Great post.

I like going to cinema on my own now and again. Nice not having to worry about whether anyone else is enjoying it all or not, I see it as a proper self indulgence.

DeliaDee said...

I just found your blog and after reading only one post, I'm hooked. There is an old Seinfeld episode about doing things alone....going to the movies being one of them. It's really funny.

After reading your post, I plan on trying the entire "movie alone". LOL

Ally said...

I went to a movie alone once when I lived in Manhattan. I remember it was an afternoon show on a weekend in the late spring. The worst part about it was not having that post-film convo afterward. Oddly, I cannot recall which movie it was. I had just moved to the city and remember not knowing anyone there.

Rusty Hoe said...

I've always enjoyed doing things alone, be that go to movies, galleries, cafes etc. I like to lose myself in places and it's hard to do that with someone else as you feel like you have to give part of yourself to that other person, a part that could be engaged in the movie or art piece. I do go places with other people (more so now as I limited with driving) but my preference is alone. You do get some weird looks but that doesn't worry me so much. I loved your Jim experience. I think we sometimes miss those if we are always with others.

JJadziaDax said...

this reminded me of your writing, you don't work in real estate do you?

Sally-Sal said...

Sometimes, when you go see a movie by yourself, you appreciate it more.

It's just you and the movie. An hour and a half relationship that's intense and wonderful, and stays with you long after the movie is over.

BarkyMag said...

Good for you! Loved the way you described this. Your description of your internal conversations were spot on.
I have a little mantra "that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and, although it's cliched it's true. I drove onto a ferry by myself recently, no big deal I know, but I was scared, I've always let someone else do it. Turned out it was no biggie and actually quite empowering.
So, good for you, I hope you feel empowered too.