The Way It Felt
The movie began like all Disney movies do. A privileged yet bleak childhood punctuated by loss. Thea doesn’t have any issues with Disney; she’s quite moved by a legacy of female helplessness and sacrifice.
Thea thinks about things at the movies completely unrelated to the movie and having everything to do with her own carefully curated fictional life. The divide can be hard to distinguish. She is usually appalled by how much money she spends to gaze upon white actors on macrobiotic diets endured for challenging roles.
In ancient Greek theater, the audience is guided into catharsis so that they can gaze upon themselves. Similarly, here are some of the things Thea thinks about at the movies.
The first time a man held her hand in a movie and she liked the way it felt. His heavy soft hand found hers with certainty. This was many years after she let a boy finger her in the movies because they were going together. There were not too many private spaces to offer up her body to inexperienced teenage boy dexterity. The boy who penetrated her with two fingers is probably raising a family in Portland. The man who held her hand turned out to be violent and hated women because women made him feel exposed.
The time Thea’s parents lost her and her brother at a megaplex in south Houston and by the time the security guard located the two skinny black kids, her mom just looked heartbroken. It was in her eyes. Her dad looked away.
The nearness of strangers.
What a dark room requires. What a dark room allows.
How many times, during key, pivotal plot moments, her kid-aged daughter will tug her and whisper, Mommy, mommy, I have to go….
Thea never forgets these exchanges with friends. They become folded into her psyche and it’s not quite paranoia but simply layers of the world that she must first climb through before she can experience any way of “being” that is definitely hers.
Just before the lights dimmed, in walked the oncologist from MD Anderson Cancer Center, Sugar Land. He trailed after his wife and three young kids balancing several kid-meals. He scanned the rows of movie goers whose bodies, perhaps also sick, perhaps not, faced him and looked past him.
Thea can never really tell anyone about the evisceration of herself upon seeing Dr. Movie. At least not in a way that really matters. Her fictional escape was suddenly made evident. She navigated a prolonged and careful denial that her mom was dying of cancer. The stifled rage poked at her. Why is truth so important anyway? Why is facing tragedy more fashionable (particularly in the genre of self-help) than making it palatable, even compelling?
Her dad had always shown her the benefits of maintaining a tradition of fiction. He also had lots of thoughts, even though she didn’t know it growing up. He was a very quiet, deeply intelligent man with fatalistic tendencies. He turned to the truest fiction genre of all, sci-fi, and devoted himself so completely to certain series, authors, and subgenres, and also conspiracy theories, the promise of exterrestrial life, the unexplained and unproven, and every sci-fi movie in wide release. Human existence, surely tragic, was turned almost hopeful when you considered that there was more out there. He conveyed, Fantasy mutes life’s more perverse moments.
In the fourth grade, she’d read The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson, and imagined herself as the girl who owned a city. What kind of government would she create, what crops to plant, how to deal with tribal threats, food shortages, medical crises. In the car home, her mom lowered the radio. “Your teacher says you are bright but you daydream too much.” Thea had looked away. Who else knew about her devotion?
Thea noted Olaf’s flamboyant antics, and then she lurched forward in grief. She was caught by her daughter’s delicate giggle in the silent spaces between the dialogue and the score. It hurt some way. It brought her back to Dr. Movie. At the hospital, she’d asked nurse after nurse for the man who would surely have a plan to get rid of the ravaging cancer. It was like a dream where you turn strangers around by placing a hand on their shoulder and their face is just a blank screen of skin.
Every day, Thea arrived at the hospital with a full face of makeup.
Seven years earlier, Thea traveled to Romania on a service trip through her Jesuit college. A principle of the missionary-style trip was the virtue of simple living. Thea knew that maintaining her makeup routine was not living simply. She applied bronzer, brow highlighter, lip gloss and blue mascara each morning before heading off to spend the day at a hospice for children living with HIV/AIDS. There, Thea met a teenager named Maria with blue eyes and wheat freckles. Maria spoke bluntly in broken English. Maria knew she was going to die and there was no time to be fictitious. On her last day in Bucharest, Thea planned to give Maria a rosary she’d gotten from a nun in the West Village who worked with men living with the disease on Christopher Street. It was a gleaming red, like little dangerous berries strung together. But Maria, despite the girls’ mutual agreement, did not show up on the final day and Thea never learned what happened to her.
Her mom hated going to the movies, but it was her dad’s idea of family time so they went. Her mom always fell asleep after 30 minutes out of spite.
A college acquaintance was pricked by a needle planted in the plush seat of a Manhattan movie theater. (Sometimes people (crazies, criminals, terrorists…) stick needles containing diseases (poisons? anthrax?) with the goal of pricking unsuspecting moviegoers with those diseases.) “I went to the doctor and he tested me for everything. Everything. And, no, I don’t have AIDS.” The acquaintance is a Connecticut girl Thea met at her small Jesuit university. She could also be from Vermont or New Hampshire or Maine. Girls from those states tend to speak sterilized, quick English. They were nice to Thea because her English was impressively good for a black girl. Based on everything Thea knew, it was both unimaginable and imaginable that the health of Connecticut Acquaintance could be compromised by sitting down to see Knocked Up. Is or isn’t the world that way? Thea was still deciding when she heard this tale.
The way an associate from the Wall St. firm refused to sit in movie theater seats without first draping a coat over his during the height of the Bed Bugs Hysteria of 2010. (What did he do, then, about his overcoat?) But, it’s also the sort of thing he would do because he is finicky about the risk of contracting the Unseen. In a casual exchange, while heating up gluten-free pasta in the office pantry, he told Thea that like a quarter of people have herpes (the gentle kind) and don’t even know it. “So family members are essentially passing each other herpes by, like, giving a kiss goodnight.”
Mommy, I have to go.
When the main features are in progress, the megaplex is inglourious. There was a girl making out with a boy against a virtual reality race car game. Her cutoffs pinched the tops of her thighs and her hair was swept to one side. It had been wrapped, silky but still bent from the bobby pins. The boy leaned into the girl and they looked like they were really going somewhere.
Mommy, let’s go.
Returning to the darkness, Thea groped for where they’d been seated. Momentarily, they were both blinded and had to go by feel. Then the projection onto the screen grew soft and celestial, blanketing the audience who looked on as one, enraptured face. Thea brushed a knee cap with her thigh.
Thea hadn’t thought about Maria in 7 years. And, to be true, this wasn’t a fully formed thought; the presence of Maria swung into her. Assuming she was tipsy, Thea felt she could cry without an ending.
There was some humiliation mixed in with Thea’s love for Maria, for Maria had intervened when Thea went to assist a struggling child up the stairs of the hospice center.
“Don’t help her.” Maria had said. And she guided Thea back to where she’d been. “If you help her, she will never get better.”
Thea volunteered in such a way that she expected something in return. She didn’t know what the return would be. The expectation held her prisoner. Sometimes, while working at the orphanage, she didn’t know what to do with her arms or how to communicate to children who didn’t speak English. She felt useless in a way that she had not expected. Her uselessness plagued her.
She settled into her uselessness or ineptitude. And then she met Paulica. The caregivers at the orphanage were not sure if Paulica was a boy or girl; they were not exactly certain of age. They deposited the blinking child on the cement playground in the sunny Onesti day. The caregivers provided some approximations. Paulica was about 7 or 8 but looked to be a skinny 3 year-old. She was, perhaps, a girl. Paulica smiled at the sun. Or, could it be that she was smiling at Thea? Thea approached and held Paulica and they sat that way together for a long time.
Thea filmed everything with the camcorder her dad had given to her just before her flight. Documenting the story is the most important part, he conveyed to her. She interviewed the other volunteers, narrated over Maldovian landscapes, and shot closeups of the “neglected” and “abandoned” children. The children left behind pressed their faces as close to the camera as they could, sometimes only chapped lips or an eye was visible as they rolled their Rs in Romanian. A lot of times they asked for money but Thea kept filming. The longer she kept recording, the more they tried to convey to her, in incomplete phrases, musical vowels, and harsh declarations, anything at all about the way it felt.
Thea Anderson is a writer and poet. She grew up in Houston and lives in Brooklyn. She is working on a piece about intergenerational trauma and coming of age in the 2000s era of colorblindness and commercial sexuality. You can follow her poems and essays at aboutfiveeleven.com.