Tonight, I have been lured to the movies with the promise that a proper dinner (with wine) will follow. I jumped at the opportunity. If, for the fifth night in a row, I had to cook another single chicken breast from my Perdue freezer pack of individually wrapped bird parts, I’d probably have gone on a hunger strike.
This particular gentleman caller is a friend of a friend who calls himself Mike. Although, friend-of-a-friend is probably a generous way to label this date. He has shaky credentials. Sharon, who set us up, didn’t seem to know him very well. And for that matter, I don’t know Sharon very well. All I know about Sharon is that she is 28 and recently married and that I wasn’t invited to the wedding even though, on any given day, I spend more time within arms length of her in our shared cube than her husband does in bed.
She assures me it was a small affair.
Mike and I arrive at the theater in separate cars. In our brief email exchange, he offered to pick me up, but I came straight from work, changing in the bathroom from my sensible pencil skirt into black skinny jeans and a gauzy, sheer gray top. Incidentally, it’s the same top that prompted my sister to inform me, last week, as she picked through my closet for something to wear to her son’s christening, that I owned too many slutty outfits for a 37 year-old woman.
I brought heels, but I opt for my work flats in the parking lot. I’m not messing around with heels until I know this joker’s height for sure.
It’s a Friday night, so the theater is fairly crowded, but I locate my date almost immediately, because no one else looks as lost. He’s standing in front of the snack bar area. Early forties, I guess from his lightly weathered skin and the salt-and-pepper of his hair, but fit. He checks his watch before clasping his hands behind his back as he looks around nervously, ostensibly panning the crowd for me. I wonder if Sharon told him what I look like.
His legs are spread in a wide stance, and in his pressed jeans, he looks like a greeter at the Gap, smiling and nodding at moviegoers who pass him on their way to retrieve popcorn. I can’t help but laugh quietly to myself; this display of earnestness is endearing. Sharon mentioned that he was recently divorced, and it shows.
I decide to put him out of his misery, approaching while he continues scanning the room.
“Mike?” I say. He’s startled. “I’m Jess.” I reach out my hand and he takes it, forcefully wagging my arm.
“Jess,” he says. “Nice to meet you.” Mike looks me up and down without a word. I wonder if he expected me to be younger. A brief moment of silence unnerves me, and I mention changing at work, some bullshit about just “throwing this on.”
“Crazy talk,” he says. “You look lovely tonight.” It strikes me as a weird thing to say seeing as how he has never seen me any other night, but I like something about the quality of his voice so I let it slide.
Mike informs me that we need not purchase tickets for the rom-com drivel we are about to watch, because he has prepaid movie tickets from Costco.
“Great,” I say. Sharon didn’t mention he had kids.
“Yea. It’s good because we’re a little behind schedule, too. Probably missed the previews.”
“Oh,” I say. “Sorry. That’s probably my fault.” I feign checking a watch, glancing down at my naked wrist.
Mike shrugs. “Well, let’s get some snacks anyway. Let me buy you something before dinner. Just for the movie… popcorn?”
I wave my hand. “Not for me, thanks. Maybe just a bottle of water.” I don’t eat junk food.
“Are you sure?” he asks. I nod, smiling so he doesn’t take it personally. “Okay.”
Mike disappears into the untamed mob surrounding the snack stand and I wait in the deserted safety of old arcade machines, reading the tag-lines of the framed movie posters on the wall.
They gave him no choice… But to kill them all. Is that serious? Whose job is that?
Mike rushes over minutes later, flustered. He carries a tray with two sodas, my Aquafina and a large bag of popcorn.
“I got some stuff just in case,” he says. “We should hustle though, we’re behind schedule.”
We make our way over to the sullen teenage girl checking tickets.
“Theater eleven, on your right,” she says, ripping them and thrusting back stubs without looking up at us. Mike turns his head both ways.
“This way,” I point with my thumb to the right.
“Oh,” he says. “No, I know. I was just looking for the bathroom.”
I point towards the men’s room. I’ve been to this theater before.
“Can you take this?” he says, pushing the tray of snacks towards me. “I’m sorry I just want to go before the movie starts.”
“No, of course,” I say, stretching my arms out for him to balance the tray. It’s heavier than it looks, but I refuse to pull it in to my chest for support. If even one drop of that disgusting movie theater butter gets on this top, it’s shot to hell.
“Okay,” Mike says. “I’ll be quick.”
I look down the hall at the electronic sign that marks theater eleven. Engagements is spelled out next to the time in red lights. I was trying to remember the name of the movie we were seeing on the way here, but I couldn’t. Now, in my head, the melodramatic trailer springs to life complete with the girl band soundtrack. I’ve seen the ads for months now. Christ, I didn’t realize that was what we were going to see.
I contemplate asking Mike if he wants to skip the movie and head straight for dinner when he returns from the bathroom, but as I see him approaching I think the better of it. He picked this, after all, and we’ve already wasted those prepaid tickets.
Mike takes the tray back from me, but I grab the water bottle, cracking it open as we make for the theater doors. When we enter, the opening credits are rolling as a camera lens sweeps over Central Park — wide shots of rolling hills and couples laughing by the pond.
“So,” I whisper as we take our seats behind two teenagers. “Sharon says you’re a CPA?”
“Ssh,” Mike says, raising a finger to his lips and smiling sheepishly. “The movie is already starting.”
I don’t appreciate being scolded, and I feel my face get hot, but I manage a nod. Of course.
Naturally, the movie begins in a coffee shop with two women whining about their relationships. Apparently one has a boyfriend who won’t commit; the other has a fiancé who won’t defend her to his beastly mother. Their dialogue is zippy in an off-putting way, and ten minutes in, I am fully turned off by the inane banter and have made up my mind about this film.
Mike is captivated by the movie. I stare at him for two whole minutes, timing it on my cell phone. My intention is to see how long it will take him to notice me staring, but I give up at three minutes.
Returning my attention to the screen, I keep Mike in my peripheral vision as I begin a new test for my companion, moving my arm closer and closer to his side of the armrest. Your move, Mike the CPA.
This new game is inspired by the teenagers in front of me. They each began the movie with one arm on the mutual rest, teetering on the brink of their respective sides. He stole quick glances to her. She pretended to be watching the movie. He inched his arm closer. They switched roles. Now, they are millimeters away from skin-to-skin contact on the shared rest and I’m rooting for these kids. And as the heroine of the movie is fired from her job in what seems like a devastating blow but will actually prove a liberating opportunity for personal growth, it happens. Their pinkies graze. A pause. One, two, three seconds of stillness confirm a mutual interest and he goes in for the kill, coiling his pinky around hers. I beam in the dark. This terrible movie notwithstanding, I want to clap for their young love and the butterflies I feel dissipate in my own stomach.
I am still feeling less-than-fluttery about my own date. Mike’s right arm, the one closest to me, is wrapped around his bag of popcorn. He cradles it into his chest like a child while he reaches his left hand in to shovel out greasy kernels, stuffing them into his mouth thoughtlessly. Those that don’t make it in fall back into the bag beneath his chin.
I guess Mike finally feels my gaze on him because he turns to me and smiles, swallowing a mouthful and extending the bag to me.
“You want some?” he whispers. I shake my head.
“These kids are cute though, huh?” I say, pointing to the teenagers in front of us, who have now advanced to full-fledged, sweaty-palmed hand-holding.
Mike nods and for a moment I think he’s actually heard me, maybe even noticed these sweethearts as well. Maybe I’ve judged him too soon. But he raises a finger to his lips again and smiles. I clench my jaw. You’re kidding me with this shit.
Why did he even come on this date? Who told him it was time for him to start seeing people again post-divorce? People he didn’t want to see. Women nearing forty who show up ten to fifteen minutes late and — god-forbid! — talk during the movie.
Still, in the hazy blue light of the theater, staring saucer-eyed at the screen, so desperately invested in the predictable fluff of this non-story-line, he looks lost. The lines in the corners of his eyes are soft and sad, and I think that he must actually be better than he seems on this date.
I turn back to the screen. The heroine is frenetically pacing a beautiful, unaffordable loft, screaming at a boy who sits mournfully on the arm of a couch, slumped over into his own chest, signaling to the audience his guilt and shame. He’s twenty-something with the body of Adonis. She might be seventeen for all I know; she looks like a child to me. They both have world enough and time to fix their cute problems.
But I don’t have that luxury. After dinner, I’m out, I decide.
My eyelids feel heavy and I begin to drift off.
I’ll wake up when the pop soundtrack blares back to life and the credits roll while the sixteen year-old lovebirds in front of me make out in blissful oblivion that the lights have come back on and the rest of their lives await.