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 d├ęcor 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 without...at 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.