(From a journal entry dated May 7 2016)
The rule in movie theaters is: when the lights go down, it’s time to stop talking and bring your attention to the screen. There’s also an unwritten rule that works in tandem with that: while waiting for the film to begin, hushed voices are preferred. This is observed in most dimly lit spaces, such as fine-dining restaurants, say, or funeral parlors. The amount of light directly correlates with speaking volume. When I’m inside Target, which is lit like an operating room, I have no problem cupping my hand around my mouth and shouting to my wife, three aisles over, to remember the Preparation H. But in low light I have a natural tendency to whisper, giving the most trivial subjects—like basement dehumidifiers, or zero-percent APR financing—a clandestine and revelatory aura.
Some people are unaware of this rule, or they choose to ignore it. These are the ones in the museum, screeching so loud that even the oil paintings cringe, or the guy who steps into the elevator, phone to his ear, making plans with someone named “bro” and assuring him that everything is “all good” while five strangers are sardined around him, fantasizing about his gruesome death.
Maybe it’s the power trip that comes with hijacking a readymade audience, but I’ve never understood loud talkers. Call it paranoia or delusion, but I don’t want any unintended recipients hearing my conversation. Partly it’s out of respect for those within earshot, but mostly it’s because I’m weirdly protective of my thoughts. Do I really want the table next to me to know that I’ve invented a new laugh, one that’s modeled after the theme from Entertainment Tonight? Or my stance on tax reform, which I memorized from a Facebook post I read earlier that morning?
If you’re going to command a space with your conversation, at least make an effort to use compelling material. On a recent flight to Palm Beach, two weight-lifting buddies in the row behind me discussed the properties of whey protein, an exchange that lasted from takeoff to somewhere over the Carolinas. They projected their voices and spoke with the kind of enthusiasm found in infomercials. Were they deliberately trying to drown out the jet engines? Were they showing off their commitment to physical fitness, or their knowledge of the local GNC? No one could possibly find this interesting, not even them. Now, revise the conversation slightly, change protein drinks to illegal steroids and make the health food store a warehouse in Chinatown, and you’ve got something. Take it a step further and change bench-pressing to organ harvesting, and I’ll gladly stow away my novel, sit back, and follow along.
As it happens, the ones with the most interesting stories rarely speak loud. Sometimes you’ll overhear a gem, like “Susan, at some point we have to return that child”, but for the most part it’s just pointless noise dialed up to a higher volume.
In movie theaters, the chatter leans toward film analysis, a topic that makes any moderately educated person sound like an asshole. Place any two people in front of an empty screen and they assume the roles of Siskel and Ebert. As such, they tend to dress up their conversations with scholarly language, using terms like “self-aware” and referring to movies as “exercises”. I find myself cheering on those who tell it straight, like the woman in front of me who ended a discussion on Argo by spitting out a fingernail and calling Ben Affleck a douche, or the teenager who summed up Zootopia by saying, “I don’t care if it won an Oscar, I’m not fucking seven anymore.”
Last night Amanda and I saw the film Sing Street at a small, independent theater in the suburbs. Sitting behind us were a man and woman. I didn’t notice them when I sat down, but once I settled in their voices rose above the din and I was treated to my own personal radio show. Tonight’s episode was called: Who’s that actress?
“…The one from that film, about the train, in India, oh she’s good,” said the woman.
“You mean the one with Redford and Streep?”
“No. It’s not a train. It’s a hotel. Why was I thinking train?”
“Oh, you mean that woman from Misery, what’s her name, Karen Bates.”
“Is that her? The one who played the Queen?”
“The one who played the Queen…with the red hair?”
Normally I would have simmered with rage, hating these people twofold: first for not remembering the actress’s name, and then for being so vocal about it. But as it were, I liked this couple. I couldn’t see their faces, but given the clumsy amble of their dialogue, I placed them somewhere in their late-sixties. Had they been younger than me I would have turned around and threatened them with violence, but it’s kind of sweet when older folk bobble a piece of pop culture knowledge. I could have turned around and politely said “Dame Judi Dench”, bringing an end to the mystery, but, as an audience member, I enjoy being one step ahead of the characters I’m following. It’s a common narrative technique that draws us into a story and heightens suspense. The ticking bomb in the suitcase. The woman who hides her terminal illness from her lover. The name of an Oscar-winning actress that escapes two people sitting in a movie theater.
Eventually they moved onto another topic, and I got up and went to the concession stand. On my way back I got a visual of the man: narrow face, round eyeglasses, gray hair pulled into a ponytail, horseshoe mustache. The woman, sitting on the other side of him, was obscured.
I sat down and handed Amanda a Diet Coke. She showed me her phone. On the screen was a picture from some realtor website. Amanda said something about an open house on Sunday, but that was drowned out by the loud, creaking voice of the woman behind me.
“Did you grow up around Boston?” the woman said.
I had originally pegged these two as a married couple, empty nesters probably. But given this type of get-to-know-you banter, it seemed more like a first date. Were they widowers? Divorcees? Or a pair of lonely hearts who, after a lifetime of searching, had finally found each other?
“Boone, Iowa,” the man replied. “It’s a little town about fifty miles north of Des Moines.”
The woman said “ah”. How else does one respond to Boone, Iowa? I turned my head slightly, trying to get a visual of the woman, when Amanda held out her phone again, this time showing me a picture of a different house. “Needham,” she whispered. “Fifteen hundred square feet, but only one bathroom.”
I looked down at her screen, but instead of a ranch-style home I saw a water tower, looming before a Midwestern sky, the name BOONE stenciled across it.
“My sister Gail married a man from Kansas City,” the woman said. “He owned a small manufacturing company that made medical devices, before he retired. His son Wade runs it now, so that’s nice.” There was a pause. I felt like more was coming. Amanda said something about emailing a realtor, but my attention was on Wade.
Then the woman continued. “And what did you do for work?”
Amanda asked if I’d heard back from my sister about Memorial Day. I shushed her.
“I was a high school history teacher for thirty-one years. Now I work in retail, where I make minimum wage.”
It was a bombshell of a plot twist. The history teacher bit, yes—that worked. But why retail? Wouldn’t he be tenured, and collecting a pension? To that end, wouldn’t he still be teaching? And if not, was he fired? And then the way he tacked on “where I make minimum wage”…so matter of fact, as though it was part of his job title. Not a trace of bitterness or shame. Why not just tell her he was a retired history teacher and leave it at that? It wasn’t a lie, just like the time I told a date I lived in Newton, but selectively left out the part about it being my parents’ house.
There had to be more to this story. Just then I noticed a piece of popcorn in my hand. I’d been clutching it for the last five minutes and had compressed it into a small bit of yellow Styrofoam, matted with skin oil and liquid butter. I dropped it on the floor and wiped my hand on my pant leg.
“Which retail store?” the woman said.
“Petco. The one on Waverly Street. I work four nights a week. It’s okay, but my manager, she’s, well, she can be a little, I don’t know. I guess she’s just doing her job.”
I imagined this man, with a gray ponytail, dressed in a blue polo shirt with the Petco logo stitched on the breast, standing behind the register, his finger hovering over one of the buttons. His eyeglasses are on the tip of his nose. He is lost, frightened. Next to him an impatient young woman holds a massive set of keys.
My jaw hung open. My chest heaved with each breath. Ask him why he left teaching, I thought. I had to know.
I felt Amanda’s hand on my leg. She shook her head and mouthed, “Stop listening to them. It’s rude.”
Rude? I was sitting in my chair, staring straight ahead. Their conversation was loud and inescapable. The only way I could appear uninterested was to read something on my phone, or talk to Amanda about real estate. Why should I be forced into one of these alternate options, just to give these people a sense of privacy?
“I became a teacher to get out of Vietnam. It was either that or move to Canada.”
Now Amanda froze. Her head stayed straight but her pupils swung in my direction. Another wrenching plot twist, this one challenging my allegiance to the main character. Though he certainly wasn’t the only young man who’d objected to the war, fleeing from combat isn’t the most noble of things. On the other hand, divulging this to someone you hardly knew—much less on a date—was courageous. These are the ambiguities that make great characters. Do I like him or not? The answer lies somewhere between the two, in that complicated and murky space, prompting fierce discussions among audience members as they filter out of the theater.
There was a pause, and the woman said: “My older brother was killed in Vietnam.”
The lights went down, and the theater’s logo animated in bright colors on the screen, accompanied by its deafening jingle. This was followed by the Coming Attractions—a handful of trailers, indie films, all with the same basic plotline: four quirky thirty-somethings and how they navigate the obstacles of love, friendship and adulthood.
The story I really wanted to see, though, was sitting behind me.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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