Streaming services kill our multiplex. The multiplex my sister and I went to Friday nights, as regular as anything. They don’t say it outright, but I know Fridays, Saturdays, Mondays even, people are hiding behind the glow of screens, including some of my own friends. They sink into names like HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime, contrivances with big letters and feigned cleverness.
It’s a month after the closing. I stand in the dark, absorbing the rectangular building with a curved atrium. The beige and gray walls are still festooned with fake hieroglyphic patterns. The circular drive in front’s also empty, a drive where minivans and Subarus and SUVs once crowded, picking up and dropping off moviegoers, chattering teenagers and little kids, and women in halter tops, skimpy tank tops, and dudes in sweatpants. Of course, Nan and I always went in her Toyota Corolla, the one with the Obama bumper sticker and rainbow flag.
No pink and purple flicker from the marquee with energy. Rain strikes the sidewalks with insistence, pouring from charcoal-colored clouds that glare, as if I’m an invader. There’s no smell of popcorn, pizza, armpits, or Camels. Not a soul in sight. Not a sign of Nan’s laughter, cackling, unabashed or her presence, looming, yet soothing.
The marquee’s even blank. There’s no record of the last movies shown. Was it a preponderance of comedies? Action? Weepy dramas with children getting cancer and mothers huddled before their weary bodies? Or was it mixture? A mélange, as Nan would have said with a French accent that sounded like a combination of a Russian and a leprechaun. I look for an imprint, some trace of letters and intent.
Just a blank rectangular expanse. Like a paper needing to still be graded. Or written by someone. Like one of the many students Nan has to deal with. A Nan who survives in causes, effects, certainties, and bats off excuses. But then again, I work in a market, doing price checks, ensuring that aisle 5 is wiped with precision and ensuring that coupons are valid.
And now the world can watch comedies, dramas, and horror all at the tap of a button. They can watch original programming that combines all three, in fact. They can try to capture their moviegoing experience on a constrained screen.
But before, Nan and I shoved and fought over popcorn. We made fun of the previews. We couldn’t hide excitement as the lights dimmed and the screen took on a shimmering and beatific presence. And we laughed in unison while Will Ferrell refused to grow up and choked with mirth when Jason Segel wrote Dracula musicals. We even laughed at Sandra Bullock as a Canadian threatened with deportation. We laughed while bills and first real jobs waited outside, our twenties a time of blooming. Twenties, a term fresh and full of delightfully dangerous energies and multiple choices.
And we waited when reels occasionally got stuck, the screens frozen, sometimes during a sex scene or a toilet moment. We feigned impatience, but talked of so much, along with the rest of the audience.
“Tell me a secret, Nicky,” Nan would say, words insistent with charisma. I told her that I loved spying on people in the coffee shop I worked in then. That I wanted to snuggle the yellow walls in the coffee shop and never wake up. I confessed I wanted to act, even though memorization was and is my greatest weakness. I also told her I masturbated to the Nutcracker march because Tchaikovsky filled me with a joy that rap couldn’t. Tchaikovsky wore his music on his sleeve, exuding wailing strings and violins and elegant piano notes.
And right on cue, Nan would smile, her knowing smile. Or laugh, head tossed back, a moment I’d always try to capture.
“You need priorities,” she said, after my Nutcracker confession. “Little brother needs a girlfriend. Or a life.”
“It’s not about sex.”
“Then why did you have to masturbate to an elegant work of music, Nicksie?”
“Don’t call me, Nicksie, Nanny.”
“You’re dead, little brother.”
Nan told me about rude customers and a fellow waitress she hated at the fake 50s diner she worked at. One older man was annoyed that the ketchup was on the fries instead of in its own little island. His name was Cyril, a name Nan thought apropos.
“It sounds like a cynical name,” she said. “Seriously. Would you want to hang out with a person named Cyril?”
“Maybe he was having a horrid day. Maybe he just got divorced and his wife always put the ketchup in its own pile.”
“You’re too soft, Nicky.”
Nan also told me she was thinking about writing a novel. The subject? A writer writing a novel.
“The critics would hate it,” she said. “You know what they say. Never go full meta. But isn’t life meta in its own way? Aren’t we all aware of ourselves and that’s why we need some moment to step out of it?”
Now, I press my nose to the window. Listen for a footstep, a smell I missed. I wait for people to stream in, all in their own seas of social groups. I wait for Nan to mess up my hair, shove me, call me a dumbass, but only the rain and rustling wind rise to my ears.
But she’s grading somewhere, that novel half-finished or half-discarded, depending on one’s point of view. And I’m the one who deals with the shopping equivalent of Cyril, but worse. Older men with green TV dinners and crumpled faces, young guys with copious amounts of PBR, who have no shame, but nascent arrogance, demanding I hurry, hurry, they’re late for a very important date and opportunity to ralph and regret. Mothers with screaming kids who want everything now, now, now. Candy, cookies, juice boxes, to simply get out and get on with their lives.
Before me lies darkness, stripped spaces, sharp angles, shadows, and an aged building. A sign proclaims the space is available for rent, a combination of red background and precise block letters.
No farewell to patrons. No elegy. No platitudes. Of course, people are watching Succession or The Crown. I wonder if they’ve even noticed the gaping building. If they’ve tucked their memories away like laundry. Do they remember their last laugh? How much a ticket was for their favorite comedy? Do they watch a movie on Netflix that they saw here originally, with a girlfriend, a friend? A sister?
Do they take pride in that fact? Or do they think themselves square for going somewhere physical instead of into a screen?
I walk around the building, hands pressed to the beige walls. How rough and yet tender they feel, almost like sandpaper. But there are no more posters, no coming attractions beckoning, making me want time to move a little bit faster. Now time’s moving fast. Soon enough, these spaces will be completely renovated, the hieroglyphics purged with Stalinist precision. The same with the zigzag flooring, yellows, purples, browns, colors that Nan said looked like puke.
They’ll be replaced by straight lines, no doubt. White and black tiles, probably.
I give the walls another long hug.
Nan and I tried streaming once. We even made our own popcorn and bought small boxes of Skittles, the same overpriced, stingily packaged ones we used to devour. We sat on the beige and green couch I found in a thrift store, something that Nan said belonged to a redneck in Arizona. But instead of jumbo Coke, we drank Merlot, sweet, yet distinctly bitter. Our voices were cracked with time and distance, even though we lived only blocks from each other.
And we didn’t even make it halfway through our movie. Nan said she had to go, but there was a distance in her words, some pain in her eyes, which fluttered and fluttered. Was she thinking of the hardness of the seats in the multiplex? Or was she envisaging the time I leaned so far back and thought I might be propelled into the vast expanse of moviegoers, the seat bending back but not breaking.
My computer is still frozen in that moment Nan left, a scene in Midnight In Paris where Owen Wilson’s just acknowledged he’s gone back in time. His contentment rises from the screen. I keep it there, a moment preserved.
What if I move forward? Watch the rest? Or what if I close it?
What if I ask Nan to come back and watch the rest? I know what happens, but there’s something magical in Owen Wilson’s nightly adventures, owning a piece of the 20s for a few fleeting hours. Partying with Fitzgerald, ruminating with Dali, seeking feedback from Gertrude Stein.
Or what if I chose a different movie for us? Rigged up something resembling a theater screen and drew the curtains? What if I got friends to come and crowd the room?
I could choose something newer, a movie that’s not imprinted in our pasts.
A picture: Nan is engrossed in her cell phone, texting while the movie plays. I am trying to absorb myself in the screen, but sneaking glances at Nan, thinking this is my sister. She’s distracted, but she’s here. She smells of perfume, not Camels now, and her laughter is cracked, but this is the sister with the owl eyes, the dirty jokes, the cat’s-eye glasses. But no insults rise from her. Just grunts and occasional terms of endearment, hon, sweetie, a nickname here and there, but more often our real names, Nick, Nancy, durable, yet cold.
She’s leaving, promising we’ll try again. Apologizing. Going on about another paper to grade, teaching politics. She is claiming she loves teaching, doesn’t mind sacrifice. She is giving me a hug, a fleeting hug, then she pulls away and disappears. Her footsteps sink into pavement, clump, clump, clump.
And I’m saying I love you, my words soft and broken by tears.
With streaming, you can stop and start. You can search for new options, scrolling with desperation. You can search while on the toilet, in your car, without getting out of the bed.
You can search alone. You can succumb to an option, quick, without thought. Brush away misgivings.
But you can’t rewind. You can never, never rewind.
Image – Pixabay.com