By Ann Bodle-Nash
It was nearly 25 years ago he first asked me, over a burger and fries in a local tavern on my lunch break, whether I had ever thought about having a thing with him. Caught off-guard, I reply too honestly, “Yeah but the Valley is way too small,” and I change the topic. As if the question was never on the table. I look away, but the thought registers. I think about my husband.
Over the years I bump into him at our kids’ school events, occasionally notice his hunched silhouette visible from my usual seat in the back row at art films, or see him dancing at the Edison Inn on Sunday evenings to the bluegrass band. His petite wife is usually along, with her amazing figure that never changes. OK, maybe she did have a facelift a few years back, but my ass will never be as small as hers, my hair never as darling, my face so chiseled, my clothes so chic.
But this fall, when I bump into him in a location I can’t even remember, he asks whether I might like to go with him to a movie at the art film theatre in the next town over, a few miles away. “Sometime,” he says in a nebulous off-handed way that makes me uncomfortable as to his motives. But I give him credit for noticing I am a regular at the same movies as he, and often also alone. At our ages we have learned how to go to films without a partner. He has found me out to be a lover of cinema like few in our neighborhood. He says, “Why don’t you call me for a movie outing some Monday or Tuesday night when my wife is working. If your husband wouldn’t mind.”
He looks pretty good for all the years that have passed.
As winter approaches I think about calling him but can’t summon the courage. How awkward it seems. What are the middle-aged rules for going to films with casual, opposite-sex friends I muse? Is he a player? I have surely had enough man-drama in my time to raise my head and sniff the wind. I smell caution.
On a Tuesday night, while I sit parked in a dark grocery-store lot watching my cell phone, waiting for a call-back from my husband to determine my plans for the evening, he calls. Not my husband, but my possible movie date.
“How about a movie tonight?” he says. “I’m going north to Bellingham and wonder if you might like to ride along.”
“Oh,” I say. “I think I have plans. I’m not sure. Holiday concert at the college.”
“Well,” he says, “no pressure, but if you decide you want to go call me back. If you’re going alone to the concert wouldn’t a movie be a better option?”
“OK, I’ll think about it,” I say. No way.
Then the past week floods back—daughter home from grad school with ten days of constant conflict and misunderstandings. Her abrupt departure. My mind still processing the conflicts, the building near-explosion of feelings-that-have-been-denied trying to keep everybody calm and civil. And I begin to think…I could use a night out to the movies.
Darkness has overcome me in the parking lot when my husband returns my call. The floodlights aren’t enough to lift my spirits. I announce to my husband I’m going to the movies. He is quiet on the line, and then suggests we meet for a quick dinner first.
I meet him for a quick senior dinner at Bob’s, the local diner, then drive to my new-movie-friend’s house, which I have never been to. Ever.
After some searching I find the misshapen mailbox with the numbers that match those he has recited. He lives in the countryside at the end of a long, poorly lit, graveled driveway. His porch light is on, and he steps out at the sound of my car.
My friend-the-movie-date says, “Park your car there,” and points to a spot near an evergreen hedge. “I’ll drive, but let’s take my work van because my other car’s heater doesn’t have heat. You OK with that?” And it is a cold, cold, cold night.
The stars are brilliant in his rural backyard, and I can see clearly into Canada. I take a look at the van and think, what the hell. “Watch the step up and grab the handle,” he says.
We wind up the freeway toward the North Star, the van noisy with work paraphernalia bouncing around the back—empty buckets, scraps of vinyl, carpet, craftsman’s tools. He makes conversation above the road noise, but I notice he leans toward me when I speak. His right ear brushes my left shoulder, leading me to guess his hearing is shot. I lean into the narrow space between us and yell back to be understood.
Suddenly I feel I am on an adventure with a stranger, a runaway in a van my mother would never have allowed me in, or I my daughters. We are headed to a bank heist in the getaway vehicle. The grin comes on and I can’t contain it. The freedom of the road tugs.
He parks the utility van in a dark lot near the theater. My hand is on the door when he says, “Hey wait a minute, I have to get my head straight before the movie.” I freeze. He opens the glove box, removes a small wooden box with a sliding lid, and pops out a fat joint. “It’s legal now,” he says.
Everything stops for a second. I think about my kids and what they would think of their mom in a van, in a dark parking lot, with a crazy man who plans to smoke his legal joint before going into a controversial French film with nudity galore, all in the name of an obsession with French films…and I begin to laugh.
It’s a laugh I have been saving for weeks. The absurdity of the moment overwhelms me, the inattention to correctness, the moment I feel twenty-two again. Before marriage, kids, house payments, college tuition, daughter’s seizures in San Francisco and Chicago. Before the call from the state police and her grad school professor. The twisted stomach I get with each call. The fear I so often feel for her. The powerlessness. The love I have for a daughter I can’t keep safe no matter how hard I try, for she is a grown woman facing down her demons.
I say to this man, “You go ahead. My drug is just being out for the evening in a vehicle that would work in a bank robbery.” I have no idea why I say this to him. I do not want to rob a bank.
He looks puzzled for an instant, confused as if I am a crazy woman he just picked up. He has no idea what I’m talking about, but I know, and I take my fantasy into the film and enjoy every scene. The French language comforts me, washes over me forcing concentration on something outside myself, comprehension dragging its heels from a cobwebbed corner in my brain. I compare the subtitles to the spoken word, think how I’ve never been inside a French lycée, never to a lesbian bar in Lille, and that I will never really understand French culture. I think about all the good in my life. I breathe.
Afterward we ride south towards home dissecting the film. The van’s heater pours it out. Our perceptions of the film differ vastly, and it matters not to me. The night is clear, the stars brilliant, frost forming in the ditches.
Copyright 2015 Bodle-Nash