By Patrick O’Neil
The movie was French, promising subtitles, a scruffy looking protagonist, and skinny women with non-Hollywood implant breasts and complex dispositions. The theater was one of those art house independents that cater to the affluent. The type who want an espresso with biscotti instead of a forty-ounce soda and tortilla chips covered with a slimy orange substance commonly referred to as nacho-cheese. The popcorn looked and smelled fresh. It was actually popping in the machine as we entered the lobby. I glanced across the concession counter filled with boutique cookies and European chocolate bars and felt my stomach go queasy. It wasn’t because of the array of sweets and baked goods, although for some reason the stench of cooking oil from the popcorn wasn’t helping.
I touched my forehead, I was sweaty and my skin felt hot. I looked over at the usher standing by the door staring at his pointy shoes. He was short, in a baggy black suit, with big curly muttonchops and greasy long hair. I was reminded of a lonesome cowboy and wondered if there were ever any French Westerns. A woman wearing sunglasses that covered most of her face pushed her way in front of us. Her hand held out as though she was holding a dog’s leash. Perhaps it was just habit. Seems everywhere I go women are walking dogs and picking up shit with little plastic bags. Thoughts of whether she washed her hands slid through my mind as she shoved the ticket in the usher’s direction. He continued to look at the floor so I didn’t even try to pretend I had a ticket to show him.
An overwhelming and seemingly unrelated sense of regret forced its way from my brain into the tightening muscles of my chest as we entered the dimly lit theater. Blinking to adjust my eyes to the darkness, I noticed there were very few people inside, the choice of seats immense. After a slight discussion regarding vantage points and vision we made our decision, the center two in a completely deserted row about halfway to the back of the room. Stepping sideways we made way to our seats as more people arrived. The rows in front started to fill. The noise level increasing with conversation.
Sitting down, I wiped my forehead with my sleeve and considered the possibility I was dying of TB or influenza. Once again another infection had taken hold of my respiratory system, a shallow wheeze accompanied my breathing as I labored to catch my breath. Turning to my friend, I remarked how sick I was; however I didn’t think it contagious. She looked at me with uncertainty. But didn’t get up and run.
A tall man dressed in a dark suit took the seat next to mine, behind us a woman voiced her opinion on immigration laws and Salmonella in certain raw vegetables. Scrunched down in our seats we idly stared at the blank screen and talked of little that mattered. My friend laughed at something. I wasn’t sure what. My head so dull with an encroaching headache, I couldn’t remember if I had said anything that warranted it.
After a few minutes the lights went out, the previews came and went. Finally the movie rolled and we were introduced to the cast: a lumpy faced doctor who smoked; his wife, svelte and mysterious; the sister, a lesbian; and the supporting actor, an Algerian thug. All together they made no sense as the implied premise of their interacting relationships was tenuous at best and I dismissed the whole concept and settled into my seat to wait it out.
Periodically I coughed while reading the subtitles, then watched the smoking doctor wave his hands about—gesturing in that European fashion, which I found comical and laughed at apparently inappropriate places, the rest of the audience remaining silent.
The man next to me shifted his elbow, shoving mine off the communal armrest. I looked over at him. He stared straight ahead obviously uninterested in my thoughts on shared real estate. I tried to cross my legs and unintentionally kicked the seat in front of me and contemplated whether or not I should apologize, or whether talking during the movie was worse.
With no apparent reason, except showing incredibly bad judgment on the director’s part, the movie’s plot took a turn and ran off in a direction that rendered what little it had going for it uninteresting. Exhausted I leaned back and wondered if I died of lung failure would anyone notice. Or would my body just sit here through the remaining showings until the greasy haired usher came to toss me out with the popcorn and trash swept from the floor. With a resounding thud, like the first drop of dirt on a coffin lid, the movie mercifully came to its end. The last frame hung frozen on the screen, then faded to black before the credits creeped upward.
Rolling my eyes, I said, “What did you think?”
Sighing my friend muttered that at least she had gotten out of the house, she’d been going stir crazy alone on a Sunday afternoon.
“Want to go, or do you want to watch the credits,” I asked.
She said she didn’t need to as it wasn’t going to make it any better, and I answered let’s go then.
Turning in an effort to stand, my leg slipped sideways kicking the armrest stealer in the shins. Before I could say anything, he leaped up, darted into the aisle, and disappeared amongst the dark outlines of people standing and putting on their coats.
“I didn’t mean to kick that guy,” I said. “Really, I didn’t.”
“What guy?” She asked and looked around to see if someone was injured.
Outside the fog was dense and the wind blew down the hill into our faces.
“You know,” I mumbled, “I think back when I was a drug addict I robbed this theater.”
“You already told me that over the phone,” she said.
“So I did,” I said, and wondered if I often repeated myself.
“See you later,” she called over her shoulder and walked away, pulling her jacket tight, her purse hanging from her arm.
“Thanks for taking me to the movies,” I wheezed and walked off in the direction of my car.
A woman in a hooded sweatshirt zipped past me, dragged by a large black dog—its leash taut as it hurriedly sniffed every inch of pavement. Clutched in her hand a white plastic grocery bag fluttered in the wind. That’s why I don’t have a girlfriend I thought, they all have dogs to keep them company. As I crossed the street the smell of frying meat blew by on the wind, which caused me to gag, then hack up a large lump of green phlegm. The dog and its owner stared at me, and then down at my virid spit on the asphalt. Like they expected me to pick up my snot with a used baggy.
“It’s not shit,” I said, and walked up the hill towards my car.
Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir “Gun, Needle, Spoon” (Dzanc Books, 2015) and an excerpted in part French translation titled, “Hold-Up” (13e Note Editions, Paris, France). He currently resides in Hollywood California, holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, and teaches at a local community college to students whose idea of literature is a text message. For more information please see his website: patrick-oneil.com