I didn’t know whether I had heard him or smelt him first. It was the old man’s smell, the telling smell of vintage skin and sweat, wafting languidly from one of the back rows of the lightless cinema, like the voice of a sick child calling its mother, faintly and plaintively, from its room.
I had already been quite riled up when I smelt it; I had been riled up by the guy sitting right in front of us, stinking of a strong cologne, as if he had poured a whole flask of it on himself, as if he had mistaken it for his body wash. I had also been pretty riled up because it was an anniversary — our first anniversary, I should add — and my husband had forgotten about it. He had forgotten about it completely, and only after getting home from work had he realized his blunder when he had caught a glimpse of the look of profound letdown and disillusionment lodging in my eyes, which even I had been able to see — even though the eyes were mine. He had apologized and quickly arranged a pair of tickets for this re-release of a classic movie we both adored — which impromptu little outing I had intended to enjoy as a form of, at least partial, compensation for his first major connubial slip-up. But then this old man had entered the scene, all stinky and repugnant, openly disregarding other actors’ lines and cues.
I made every effort to ignore him and to relish every second spent with my husband. We were both a rather busy couple: I toiled day and night, and another day too, at the accounting firm, still as a junior clerk under a rather silly boss; he was an assistant sales manager at the local car dealership, also paying his time-consuming dues to his company, and hoping for a promotion next year. Our spare time was as scarce as spare tires when you need them the most. So, we always tried to squeeze as much pleasure as we could from every moment we were together. And then this guy had shown up.
As if his smell were not enough, I heard him crying. I don’t lie; I wouldn’t even know how to lie about a thing like that, how to make up a thing like that — I could hear him crying in the back row. He was howling and wailing there like a little child robbed of its favorite lollipop, making it insanely difficult for me to catch what the actors were saying on the screen. I prayed for one of two things: either for someone who would throw this guy out, or for some other resourceful person who would experience a cinematic epiphany and turn the subtitles on. I had seen the movie countless times and on various occasions, but I had never gone so far as to memorize every single frame or a line of dialogue from it. How I wished at the time that I had mastered the art of lip reading.
I glanced at my husband who sat next to me. He sat there, immersed in the dense blackness of the cinema, like a plum drenched in chocolate, and only the sudden flashes produced by the enormous screen, as if trying to send us some kind of subliminal message, did reveal his face to me every now and then. He seemed not to notice anything wrong, with his gaze fixed firmly on the screen. He didn’t even notice my glancing at him. He seemed to be oddly distant from me now in all that indomitable darkness. He was as remote from me now as every single one of the flat actors being screened in front of our eyes through the tiny blinking point hovering over our heads — as if it were a hole punched in the night sky through which our celluloid dreams poured in.
I heard more pitiful weeping reach me from the back; I heard it reach me from the dark, featureless silhouette that I couldn’t quite make out at the time, in those light-deficient conditions, and who was to me yet another shadow in this congregation of nameless shadows surrounding me, like the phantom pains of one’s sins from the past. Then I even squinted my eyes; I squinted them, but it didn’t help any. He was there, I could hear him, I could smell him, but his person was presently obscured from me by the impermeable darkness of a movie theater.
I shifted irritably in my seat. I tried to see what other people, what my cinematic companions, felt about it, what they thought about it all. I strained my eyes, but that didn’t change anything: every one of them remained as inscrutable as the facial expression of a store mannequin. I saw their dark figures; I saw their impassive silhouettes, but this fact didn’t make me feel understood by them; it didn’t make me feel even a bit less excluded from their group, as if I were a bare-footed pawn in the company of the felt-shod ones. Then I heard more of that muffled sobbing; I seemed to be the only one who was bothered by it; I seemed to be left alone with it — in the movie theater full of people.
I really hoped that someone would step up and say something; I hoped that my husband would do something about it; perhaps reprimand him — but no one so much as frowned. Was it merely good manners that tethered everyone to their seats, as if we were ships that had dropped their anchors too early, much too early, for even before leaving the port? Were we the captives of good upbringing, held at gunpoint by the ancient rules and conventions, older — much older, in fact — than the classic flick we all attempted to watch now? Was it just that?
I strived to relax and enjoy the movie, but I found myself unable to follow the story or to understand the dialogues. My eyes only skimmed the epidermis of the plotline, like when you read a book and your thoughts wander off to the more everyday problems and difficulties. My eyes skimmed it like a stone being thrown by a child in a stone-skipping contest that barely grazes the surface of the lake. Meantime, my mind kept bouncing off the vast luminous screen and travelling to the back of the auditorium, to the unseen old man weeping there — alone, somewhere in the dark. We seemed to be sharing that loneliness, surrounded by rows upon rows of indifferent faces — alone in the crowd of forlorn people.
With time, however, my initial anger and exasperation began to subside and ebb away, like a fever when the illness gives up and starts to cede ground to a barrage of antibiotics. I wondered what had triggered all that sniffling and whimpering, what memories this old movie had brought back from the realm of the past tense that had set him off like that, as though he were a landmine stepped upon too roughly. I wondered when he had seen it the last time, whom he had seen it with, and under what circumstances. I felt sorry for him. I also felt sorry for myself; I felt sorry for my inability to relate to the scenes and events depicted on the screen — for me they were merely the faded glimpses of a bygone era, of a world that was no more, but for him they were the bits of his own life, long gone and forgotten. I wondered whether I would be crying like that, sobbing like that, in the years to come. I wondered whether I would do the same thing during a future re-release of one of the great movies of today; whether I would be moved by remembering that I had seen it once with my husband, or with someone else — who knows?
I wondered about all that.
The screening was over; the lights went up and restored the theater to its mundane normalcy.
We filed silently through the door along with other viewers, like churchgoers after a finished Mass. Outside, a cold gust of wind emerged out of the dark night and greeted us before we had managed to set our feet on the snow properly — it was winter. We walked, moving between the bright and warm nimbuses cast on the frozen sidewalk by the burning streetlamps, as if we were playing a life-sized connect-the-dots game. I felt the frost bite us, like a rabid dog that has lost its beloved chew toy.
“Have you heard that guy in the back row?” my husband asked, putting his gloves on and turning his coat collar up. “Have you heard that guy crying his elderly eyes out?”
“Yes,” I said. “I think I’ve heard something.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe that thing.”
“Yes, it’s sad.”
“A grown man like that,” he continued, without hearing me. “I wish someone had done something about it, you know? In a room full of people, can you believe it? I just wish someone had really had the guts to do something about that guy. To waste our anniversary like this.”
“It’s sad,” I said, unheard. “It’s really sad.”
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