I go through a stage in which I wear nothing but high-heeled boots and too-small jeans, even to Ivy Tech, a community college ten minutes from home. The outfits add some color to my drudging classes—drab, fluorescent, Powerpoint-driven lectures with eccentric teachers who deserve students who care as much as they do. My limbs feel extra long during this time, and I have a faux nose ring that I sometimes wear, and there’s too much blonde in my hair. My mom’s friend bleaches it for me. When she comes over to drink coffee in our kitchen, I find myself imploring, more, more. I’m shy but also starting to figure out who I am, and more so now that I’m eighteen, right?
I have my first Music Appreciation class on my birthday, which makes me not appreciate music, mostly because it’s three hours long. Having to go to school on such a day makes me feel important in a way that I like, worn like an expensive necklace, brandished like a coy oh, me? After years of homeschooling, birthdays spent however I wanted, this is strange. Adult. I put on the shirt I was gifted earlier, simple black with Girl Almighty scrawled over the chest. It’s a One Direction reference, but I asked for it because of its obscurity—nobody but me will know.
I decide I want to see a movie. Just my parents and me. We find one online that looks decent and drive to Muncie. I get popcorn, of course, eat it ravenously as I sit between them, their newly-minted adult. Weird to think. The movie turns out to be really good, and it’s a perfect way to end my Tuesday. I don’t yet know that a year from now I will wake up—for the first time—without my family on my birthday, because I haven’t yet visited Earlham. It is the college that will call to my heart, promising a second home. And it will be nice and all to celebrate my birth-day there, with plenty of cheer and a plaid-wrapped gift from my longtime best friend, who is now my roommate—but it will not be the same as having my mom just down the stairs, proffering coffee and blueberry muffins.
At Earlham, classes will have started, the days before pure whirlwind. There won’t have been time to adjust. My parents will arrive to take me out for the evening, but I’ll be so exhausted—so, so tired. So suddenly sad. It will not be better, even when my floormates who are cooking in the kitchen sing to me, though we’re strangers—my hand in the cabinet, face flushed, as their voices fill the curry-tinged air. After pizza and ice cream, when my parents drop me off and prepare to leave, all of it will catch up to me at once. That I’m here, that I moved out, that this is my life for the next four years. So different.
The tears will start when my mom gives me a hug. I’ll hold her tight and she’ll tell me that it’s fine, but her own eyes will harbor a sheen. I won’t be able to control it, really, and when my roommate comes back in I won’t even care. My parents will leave but it will be the worst good-bye, a helpless feeling. I’ll want to go home so badly, need it. I’ll text my mom their whole drive back, curled up on my bed lofted so high the ceiling is within arm’s reach. My roommate will later remark that it’s the first time she’s seen me cry, and we’ve been best friends for six years. The first time. Maybe that says something about me, I will think.
In Florida, sitting on the bamboo-framed lanai furniture with feet resting on carpet the color of seafoam, we watch Howard Hughes descend into madness. There’s a comfort in the night that drapes over the golf course beyond the windows, the way it forces the lamplight to swathe itself around us. Pressing all of us closer together, closer—my mom, dad, brothers, grandparents, best friend. It’s a serene evening; the unrooted, spiraling mania that my mom’s sister often brings to our family gatherings feels worlds away.
My grandmother has set out a bowl of chocolate-covered berries and nuts on the table, and they’re the best thing I’ve ever eaten. I palm them and drop them into my mouth, one after another, an unintentional race against my best friend. Later, we climb under the pale sunshine covers in the guest bedroom. The chocolate has settled in our stomachs and diffused in our veins, and it makes me anxious, jittery. We try and we try to fall asleep, and I relax my body, make myself still. Her voice breaks the silence in a whisper, barely scratching the surface of the air: Thank you so much, I am so grateful. I am so grateful. So, stretched like taffy from her mouth. I want to say, Are you okay? I want to roll over, to cover my head with a pillow, because I feel like I’m intruding. But also, she’s a foot from me. But also, she thinks I’m asleep.
I can’t do anything but lie there and wait for her lullaby whispers to subside, too awkward to make myself known. Eventually we’ll fade into that transient state as the sugar surrenders its hold, and in the morning as she walks across the kitchen tile to pour her coffee I’ll pretend like it never happened. I won’t mention it until a few years later, actually, when we’re both so comfortable with each other that things like this don’t matter anymore. She’ll laugh. Really? I don’t remember that. I’ll ask, Were you praying? She’ll say, Probably. I’ll tell her, in so many words, that it didn’t really sound like she was grateful, but more like she was trying to convince herself.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
In my cousin’s basement, the television screen eclipses the wall, so large it’s practically a movie theater. The first time I watch it is there. I shield my eyes during the love scenes, scandalized by sloppy kisses. Even with the affair, it feeds my soul. There’s a certain mood that must strike for it to be the optimal viewing choice, but sometimes someone thinks to suggest it, and sometimes we all say yes. When this happens, my parents, brothers and I convene in the living room, settling into our respective chairs, ready with rapt attention.
It’s the small town, I think, with the colorful characters. It’s the patchwork of family, the deep love plain in the eldest sister’s voice when she says Mama. It’s the conflict, the shame, the crumbling loyalty. It’s the promise of fresh faces, the way they can stir a space, add just enough zest for it to tip from boring to alive. It’s the innocence of someone that relies on you to care for them completely, and the flinty resentment that builds in your heart. It’s the human condition.
One night, I put it on for two of my friends, but they’re unperturbed. My best friend even dislikes it, I can tell, demanding reasons for the mother’s inaction. Why doesn’t she get help? Why doesn’t she do anything to change her life? I find myself arguing, armed with responses I didn’t know I had. We put on a different movie but I sit stewing, and she can tell, sends me a text that says I’m sorry if I offended you. It’s sincere, and I manage a waxy smile and write back What?! I’m not!
It will not be until my first film class, when we go around the room to offer up our favorite movie, that the answer will come to me. I’ll find myself surprised.
I’m a little self conscious in my black one-piece as I bound across the yard with a Nerf water gun, even though I’m also wearing my board shorts with the little neon rainbow that curves across my thigh. We shout and streak and spray. At the dining room table we fill our stomachs with pasta two ways: forked with bright green pesto that’s as bitter as it is delicious, and slathered in what my mom calls “Nicholas Sparks Sauce.” She read the recipe in one of his books, and it’s simple but delicious: canned tomatoes, an onion, butter. It’s the only time we invite his sordid name into our household.
My friend and I choose the film as the focal point of our sleepover. It’s romantic—moody and dark—and what I didn’t understand in the semi-antiquated language of the book is plainly clear to me now. Everyone has a haunted, hallowed, pale look about them. My brother disturbs the ambiance when he mocks Mr. Rochester’s deep bellow—Jane! Jane!—and we giggle.
I can’t begin to conceive that, five years from now, three friends and I will gather around a too-small laptop in my dorm room. I’ll plug the auxiliary cord into my stereo and the computer, because we’ll never catch all the accent-laced words otherwise. We’ll chose it because it’s on Netflix, and my best friend and I will set out bowls of gummy worms and cookies and flick off the overhead. There will be an uncomfortable arch in our frames, betraying that we’re not quite used to closeness, yet to be acquainted with the intimacies of sharing blankets. Someone’s head will end up on someone’s lap, and I’ll have no idea how close we will get—how we’ll one day tilt our faces toward each other and hold hands because we can, give hugs and share beds and lean into each other.
When the engorged Janes wrench from Mr. Rochester’s throat, I’ll laugh for myself.
The Wild Thornberrys
I’m five, slowly waking up in my sunshine-soaked room. It has blue walls, pink, pepper-flaked carpet, lots of toys. There’s a bedside stand, dark wood, with multiple shelves. My eyes alight on one at eye-level, and joy surges through me. A sheeny DVD case depicts a girl with orange braids perched atop an elephant, rays of warm sun streaming from behind her. It’s the best surprise I’ve ever received. Even then, when I am too little to be able to discern entirely between feelings, this one sticks to me—bittersweet comfort.
There’s a Paul Simon song called “Father and Daughter” that is the cartoon’s anthem, a springy tune that aligns with the issues the main character, Eliza, has with her dad. It’s a song about the deep love they have for each other. I’m gonna watch you shine, gonna watch you grow, the song promises, like Eliza’s father promises, like my dad promises when he leaves this movie sitting there for me to wake up to. One of the best surprises I’ve ever gotten.
One day—years after I’ve stopped watching The Wild Thornberrys, years after I’ve grown out of my bowl haircut and the carpet has been ripped up, the walls painted pale green—this will be the song that can make me cry. Despite its cheerfulness. And I’ll never be the type to fantasize about a someday wedding, but there will be one moment with clarity that adheres itself to my mind, one absolute that I can point to if the day ever comes: I know what song I will want for my father-daughter dance. And we will certainly both cry if that ever comes to fruition, and I don’t like to cry, am not an emotional person. As long as one and one is two…there could never be a father love his daughter more than I love you, always gets to me, though.
A few years more, and it will be my twentieth birthday. I’ll be at college, but my mom will drive up to take me to lunch and dinner and then home, since it’s a Friday. I’ll climb into the car, and as we slow to turn out of a row of parked cars I’ll see the flash of a bright red button-down before I see all of him: my dad, stepping from behind a tree. He’ll have taken the day off of work to spend it with me. We’ll laugh, and I’ll get out and wrap my arms around him, and later I will think about how surprises don’t stop. They just grow different.
And again one day, months after that, I’ll be home for the weekend and cooking, rolling wilted cabbage and carrots into spring rolls. The radio will be blaring the seventies Pandora station when those familiar guitar notes chirp in quick succession. I won’t stop rolling, but my eyes will grow heavy. I’ll have to blink one, two, three times. My dad will breeze through but when he hears it he’ll pause, say, Hey, it’s the song from the movie. With a thick throat, I’ll say yes, isn’t it funny? I just wrote about it for a class. Oh, really? He’ll reply, that’s funny, and then continue on. I’ll think about having him read it, but I won’t.
There is nothing quite like a packed theater, or a spontaneous plan. We call my cousin and a half-hour later we pick her up for sushi: my mom with her friend, me with my cousin. We order the rolls we normally wouldn’t—ones intriguingly named, ridiculously elaborate, and not totally delicious. They’re cheerfully eaten anyway. At The Legacy almost all the seats are full, but we manage to find four together. The movie starts and my cousin and I grin at each other and she’s close, so I can lean over to whisper a joke.
The movie is the kind comprised of “found-footage,” half-frames and shaky camerawork cast in a grey pall. I lower my eyes a couple times, not really from fear but anticipating a jump-scare. We’ve got grins on our faces, fed by the shrieks from other mouths. They scream because they can, this theater packed full of Midwestern middle schoolers, because they have each other to make it okay. There’s power in togetherness.
After one especially loud roar some twenty-something, or maybe even a humorless high-school student, turns around and booms, All of you shut up, or else! Everyone falls silent for a second, shocked into quiet. I roll my eyes, mumble about insanity. I’m relieved that when the next scare happens they all scream anyway, because he’s a cartoon villain. What sort of else might happen? What power does he have?
None of the four of my group screams once, not ever, because this is not a scary movie. But that’s not the point. After that particular movie, every time I go into a theater and round the corner I’ll find myself hoping, hoping there’s a crowd to see it with us. It won’t happen very often, but each time I will savor it.
Meet Joe Black
We use it as a balm. Earlier in the day, when we started the film, my grandpa grabbed the remote and said watch this, watch this. The moment Brad Pitt gets hit by a car looked real, so real he re-wound and played it for us again. It came out of nowhere, made me jump. We had to pause it for whatever reason, then, but now the whole group regathers in my grandparents’ living room. We sit in stiff silence.
There’s been more than one tumultuous evening among us, my mother’s side of the family, and the origin of this one is as shapeless as ever. All I know is what I will write a few months later and find a few years later, with the scorch of a different explosive summer evening at the back of my throat. How is it that it gets so bad when we’re together? It brews slowly, it seems, before reaching a sudden, frantic boil. It’s easy enough to blame it on my aunt—for her malignity, the snark and the manipulation and the jealousy that fuels her. Every time.
On this particular occasion I’ve managed to claim a spot on the couch. The movie takes awhile to finish, long as it is. It’s about death—or Death—inhabiting the body of a man, and falling in love. The ending makes absolutely no sense, and I’m still puzzling over it as the credits begin rolling. The screen goes black, filled with white text, and a layer of sound unfurls as What A Wonderful World starts playing. The Israel Kamakawiwoʻole version, one that makes my heart ache, sweetened with his ukulele and oohs.
At this point, we’d usually start stirring—get up, turn off the movie, say our goodnights, retire to our temporary rooms so we could sleep the angry evening away and pretend nothing happened. This time, though, nobody moves. The music winds from the speakers and through all the bodies, spreading fine roots, keeping them there. Except me.
I can’t take it, can’t be here, can’t let myself feel this. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. I go into the kitchen and fill a red Solo cup with water, even though I’m not thirsty. Stare into it. Because I want to be with them. I want to be on the couch. I want to feel the lyrics like a sharp reprimand and a gentle reminder: that we are here together. That we are human. That there will be bad nights even though there shouldn’t. I want to walk into that room and reclaim my place so badly, but it’s too late, and I can’t. I think it’s because I don’t want all their eyes on me, but I don’t know—maybe I don’t want to ruin this moment for them.
Either way, I find myself stuck on the other side of the fireplace. When I later find an old note-book with a scribbled poem about that evening, which is not very good, it will bring the feeling back in a flood—the feeling of being on the other side. Separate. Unwilling, even, to feel sad. And I’ll read it at my desk and have to sit down because I ache for the girl who wrote how The music still played. Everything broke and fell away. Like pieces of…something. Something that evaded me and still does to this day. And sometimes I look back. And I wish I was brave. Because I will be brave a few years later. I will stand up and streak past but I’ll force the words from between chattering teeth at just the right moment, Maybe next time try not to say two different things, with a foreign heartbeat in my ears. I’ll grab my cousin’s hand as I head past her and we’ll stalk beneath the tree-lined path with leaves so dense there’s no moonlight after dark. I’ll rant about her mother’s craziness, her cruelty. Which is cruel of me.
But those comments she makes. The two-sided dance she does—the way she tells us one thing, and someone else another. She can’t stand it, I decide, her whole family being here together—harmonious, happy. Later my aunt will confront me about what I said to her daughters and I’ll tell her, I’m done, and she’ll ask, With me? And I’ll think about how I used to adore her, how confusing it is to love somebody but to feel this about them—so detached. I’ll tell her no, of course not. Not with her. And I’ll mean it, mostly.
That night I confront her we will watch that same movie, and I won’t flinch when Brad Pitt gets hit by the car, and I’ll stay for the music.
The Sound of Music
There’s a refurbished theater in Franklin, Indiana called The Artcraft, one that only shows old films. As a Christmas present for my mom, I buy tickets for The Sound of Music, one of her childhood favorites. When Julie Andrews’ magical musical would come on once per year, she tells me, her dad would pop popcorn and her whole family would gather on the pullout couch to watch it together.
Now it is a generation later and my dad is driving us, the highway a slab of grey, snow threatening the horizon. He tells me I can play my music, but I let the silence settle, enjoying being there—just me and my parents. It’s an hour’s drive, but worth it. While my dad and I wait at the end of a long line for the delightfully cheap popcorn, he points out all the other films he wants to see on the schedule: Napoleon Dynamite, The Iron Giant, National Lampoon’s Vacation. We say, yes, we’ll see them all.
There’s a man perched behind a table, manning the line. When a child lists against the table it wobbles in response, and the man chastises her with an unwarranted sharpness: Don’t lean on that, please, don’t lean on that. My dad makes a face that sparks a laugh. We finally reach the front of the line and get a bucket of surprisingly cheap popcorn, locally-sourced. I survey the rows of candy behind the polished glass and add Sour Patch Kids at the last minute. We reclaim our seats, me sandwiched between my parents, and the lights dim. The theater plays an old cartoon and then the film is starting, Julie Andrews’ songbird voice soaring up, up above the lush green fields. I’m half absorbed in the movie, half totally aware of my arms against my mom’s, of passing another Sour Patch Kid to my dad. It’s a much better movie than I remember, and funny. We laugh often.
I try to savor this moment, and every minute of the three-hour film, replete with an intermission. I try to make it last. I tell myself, remember this, remember watching The Sound of Music and sitting between your parents, because even as it’s starting I know it will be over. It’s a bad habit of mine. Vacations—the first day spent thinking, how much time do I have left? Summers—into the month of July, how many weeks until school starts back? Excursions—what time is it now, how many hours do we have? It’s like I don’t want to be caught off guard by the ending. Like anytime I watch a movie and realize, oh, I’m halfway through. And the moment that is happening will soon be done, and I must move on.
And so I continue to exist mostly outside of myself and I’m successful, because it really is a good movie. But it does end. And we stand up, and we go to dinner, but that ends quickly too. And then it’s back home for the night, having had a wonderful day, and I’m thinking tomorrow I’ll have to go back to school. And I will.