Thursday, October 28, 2010

Girl and a movie

Films have always been one way I’ve measured life’s progress, or lack of it, and there have been some very memorable occasions where the dissonance between the two has slapped me upside the head and changed my perception of how well my life was proceeding. This has been the hallmark of my journey with celluloid, I’m sad to say, but I’ve survived somehow with only a few scars. The long road is better when you’re not alone, of course, and for an important part of it I had a Significant Companion who added immeasurably to the enjoyment, with an impish wit and dead-on criticism. I was very much influenced by her, and it continues to this day – I can’t watch a movie without hearing her voice in my ear, smart-alecky thing that she was.

There was a time in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s when I began making a concerted effort to see as many non-Hollywood films as possible, and the going was tough. There were few outlets for unconventional movies where I lived, and it was feast or famine most of the time, so quick feet and a willingness to sacrifice some of my everyday time soon became more of a regular thing than had I ever intended. It was quite exciting, really, as I discovered the way film was meant to be used, outside the usual fare offered up as quality product at my local theaters; and I do mean product, that’s all they seem to me now.

It could be a little confusing – I would now see Japanese, or French, or even a US indie flick almost around the corner, and experience culture shock in my own back yard. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it, but right away I found I needed someone to bounce the experiences off of – someone my own age who shared an interest in the outré and different. The first person who came to mind wasn’t anyone on any of my other friends’ radar – she was even more of an outsider than me, but one of the few people my age whom I knew as somewhat of a kindred spirit – my little pal Mouse.

She was already a counter-cultural co-conspirator of sorts – for years we swapped the usual books that were frowned on as prurient or inflammatory, and as we labored up 6th thru 8th grade and then through high-school, our lending library would eventually include Wolfe, O’Connor, Brautigan, Chopin, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Colette, even Zap Comix - you know, just the kind of thing a good English or Art teacher would let slide with a wink when they caught you reading ‘em on a boring day. We had our own little discussion circle of two, and it was by mutual agreement – we wanted something special and private, and somehow it just happened.

We were pretty well-read by the time we got to high-school, and almost none of it thru regular channels. Our tastes weren’t totally alike, which was good – she had a weakness for well-written historical romances, and I was developing my early interest in pulp detective stories and the fantastic, so we were able to make fun of each other in a pinch. We were both hard-bitten sc-fi lovers, tho, and the explosion of new work at that time was like manna from heaven, even if this wasn’t something that we consciously considered outside the mainstream.

At first I only hooked up with her at school, but after a while we had a routine of meeting at local shopping centers or libraries as well. This was her solution to avoiding contact outside her quirky little guidelines. She held everything at arm’s length from each other, going so far as never letting me phone her at home, never eating lunch with me at school, and God forbid, never, ever letting me meet her family. All this came about in little increments, so by the time I realized it and thought about it carefully, I knew it was too late to change anything without upsetting her. She was fragile in her own way, and somehow I recognized the signals – don’t fuck with a good thing. This may have been the high point of perception in my life – I’m usually missing those kinds of obvious signs, to my great regret.

Although we already had this history of semi-clandestine meetings, don’t think it lead anywhere serious; I kind of regretted that later - hell, even now. She was more like a sister than a friend, and in a way we were somewhat simpatico – our thoughts on books and films were often more alike than not. Even so, I never had more than the part of her heart she allowed me, and that was on a brotherly level at best, I got the feeling. I wasn’t anything to write home about back when we first met – a sort of skinny, proto-geekish nerd, with the obligatory black-rimmed glasses and awkward social graces that came from long hours reading, delving into military history, and assembling elaborately painted plastic scale kits. Or maybe it was just the model glue.

Mouse helped me out of that societal hole I’d dug, although it took a while for us to become friends. At first I wasn’t even aware of her particularly, just as one of the new girls who transferred into 5th grade at the same time as I had. The first time I noticed her, in 6th grade orientation class, she was a deceptively ordinary-looking girl who was small, thin, and mouse-haired; ‘specially when her mother was on an “imaginative” bob kick - she had a coupla years of short, ratty, hairstyles that never quite framed her face enough to make her look pretty. I hardly spoke to her for the first semester, and I still haven’t figured why she started yakkin’ away at me one day out of the blue after the Holiday break. Maybe it was my obsessive drawing habit, my way of taking notes – she noticed early on my notebooks and handouts were filled with sketches and scribbles, and damned if hers weren’t well decorated too; maybe she noticed we both spent free time in the library or the Art Room; or maybe I looked as lonely as I felt and she saw a kindred soul.

She had already developed a reputation as kind of a pain in the butt, but in a harmless, know-it-all fashion. Often the choice for answers in class, teachers didn’t even need her to raise her hand, and this wasn’t a plus with most of the self-important girls who were the arbiters of feminine cool in our day. In addition, she made absolutely no attempt to fit in, and most of the girls at school treated her with indifference, sadly, which was probably worse than being actively disliked. I was also one of the answer men at school, but not in the front ranks – in my grade school, most of the BMOC and BGOC were also fairly good students. This was pretty much turned upside down in high-school where I fell into a new class of fringe, but Mouse never did fit in anywhere, which I believe was her intent all along. At this point in life, the summer after 8th grade and before high school started, I’d gotten much taller and filled out a mite, but I, too, was still on the outside of the usual cliques. Being on the outside socially was a stronger bond for us than perhaps even a brother and sister might share.

Mouse had matured a little by now as well, her hair was worn long and straight, with bangs parted on one side, and I felt it enhanced her looks which were now more than ordinary, but only just so. Her smile could make all the difference, though – possibly one of the ten great smiles of all time, it was truly her best feature, even if she was chary bestowing it. I found myself looking at her twice sometimes – she was filling out in the right places, and she had always dressed distinctively well, which helped make the most of small changes. I didn’t know it at the time, but in PE at school, Mouse was a damn good runner, and her moneyed parents had her in a private swim club after school, so she was probably more fit than most of the girls I knew. I wasn’t ashamed of being seen with her, that’s for sure, as I had an exaggerated appreciation of her all the way around, but the main result of her maturing was a vague unease it inspired in me.

I didn’t consciously have any romantic feelings for her, and I was attracted to her on more than one level, I know now – but back then I thought I was uneasy because someone else might become more interesting to share books with her than yours truly. Like most of us, I was real good at worrying about myself. Looking back, I realize the elemental attraction of sex was just rearing its head about then, and I missed the signals for a while.

Turned out I never had to find out my true depth of feelings for her – she’d keep up our routine for the next few years, regardless of events outside our relationship – romantic entanglements with others notwithstanding - but always on her own platonic terms. At this particular point, all I cared about was, no matter how shallow and lame I might view myself, Mouse was there for me, listening, and, more important, she talked to me without holding back, trusting me. I took it as some sort of validation on her part - I might really be worth a damn to somebody. We shared more than books after a while – confidences and gossip, ideas and longings; questions and answers we felt we couldn’t ask our other friends were hashed out between the two of us. Broaching the idea of watching foreign movies in strange theaters came without a thought of rejection.

We were walking through one of the air-conditioned malls on a hot midsummer day, heading towards a bookstore, (what else?) and I pointed out a flyer for a matinee showing at a small local theater of “Somewhere in the Night”, a movie I had never heard of before, (but now one of my faves), something called a “film noir” which was a recent discovery for me, and asked her if she felt like seeing it with me that weekend.

She walked for a few more steps before answering.

“Are you asking me out on a date?” She looked at me side-long.

I couldn’t quite say that, although I should’ve. The element of romance had never entered my mind. What an obtuse fucker.

“I thought it might be interesting. I’ve been going to movies lately that are different. They’re sometimes foreign, sometimes American, and they’re really cool. I don’t know anyone I can talk to about ‘em, except you. But I really want you to see them with me, if you can.” Yeah, it sounded lame then, too.

She stopped walking.

“Are you asking me out on a date?” She gave me a strange look, “If you’re asking me out on a date, you can’t pick me up at my house, you know, that just wouldn’t work. Are you really asking me out on a date? ‘Cause I can’t go on dates, my parents already told me I’m too young. You’re too young to drive, how are you getting around? How were you gonna pick me up anyway? How…” At this point I held up my hand.

“Stop, stop, OK?  I’m sorry I brought it up.” I really wanted to see the movie with her, though, but I wasn’t saying it right.

“It’s not about just the movie, damn it. I really thought you’d go for it. I mean, not just this time – I want to start a regular movie thing, like with the books. You know me – we’ve talked enough about movies we like, and I know you like old movies and foreign films on TV. I…I wouldn’t ask anybody else.” I refrained from mentioning that I’d be lucky to get any girl to say yes back then, anyway. I took a long breath to steady my voice. “I really, really want you to go to the movies with me. Like a date, OK?” I gave her the sad puppy look.

“That won’t work on me, you know that.” She sat down on a bench, crossed her legs, and looked at me until I got a little nervous. “You know, ‘like a date’ isn’t actually a date,” Mouse said flatly, “So which is it? Date or not?”

I was boxed in, and I knew it. But I wasn’t going to lie to her, she was too good at reading me. I sat down and didn’t say anything until I’d thought it all the way through. That didn’t help either. Right then it ran through my mind - Why can’t life be like the movies?


“Well, that’s real comforting! First time somebody asks me for a date, and it’s crap? Thanks a lot.” She un-crossed her legs, smoothed out her dress, and looked me straight on, “Now I’m real interested in how you think you’re gonna talk your way out of this - ‘cause it’s not happening, Rob.”

She gave me a really false smile, one of her best, and not only did I know I would never win, I was sure she was gonna hit me over the head with this forever.

“I meant it for me; I’m just making it worse.” Yeah, how did I do this to myself? How did that happen, and so fast? The only person I could ask who would go with me to these kinds of movies just happens to be the only girl I even know anything about. And I couldn’t even do that right. “I kinda blew that whole thing, didn’t I? I guess you don’t have to go see it with me, if you don’t want to.” I was really disappointed, but tried not to show it.

“It’s not about a date, is it?” she looked away, “It’s just the movie, with or without me, isn’t it?”

By the look on her face, I could see this might not end well, so I had to give it another shot.

I sat down next to her, “OK, it’s not a date, even though it’s kinda like one – Please… come to the movie with me.” It was all I could get out.

“I’m sorry I took it wrong when you asked me just now, but it wasn’t anything to do with you - I mean it.” She looked sheepishly at me, “I’m ashamed to say it never entered my mind it would be you asking, but I jumped right at it, for a while there, anyway. That’s not what upset me, though. As soon as I did, I realized I was scared.” She looked away again, “You know, I used to imagine the first time a boy would ask me out, I would be excited, because he would be handsome and popular, and I would be popular just for going on a date with him,” Mouse said somberly, “It was what I was brought up to expect - the princess treatment, I guess. Later on I just hoped it would be a nice boy, it didn’t matter whether he was popular or handsome - I wasn’t holding out hope for the princess thing.”

That really slapped me down, and she saw it in my face. “I didn’t mean it that way, Rob! I know you’d never hurt me on purpose, and I hope you know I’d never do that to you – it’s just that…boys don’t seem to be interested in me very much, except for you and the books, and you caught me by surprise. Just for minute there, I thought you were being romantic, or something. I guess I’m not really ready for that stuff, and I was scared.” She reached for my hand, something she had never done before, and it thrilled me a little – I had never had any real physical contact with her, despite our lending habit.

“I’ll go to the movie with you, but it’s not a date – it’ll be just like the books, if we see more of them.” She had a very business-like demeanor now, “I think you know it already, but right now, you’re prolly my closest friend, and I want it to stay that way.”

Wow! Nobody, and I mean nobody, could have ever said a more wonderful thing to me at that age, and it didn’t even cross my mind if there was a boyfriend/girlfriend thing attached.

“I don’t know if I was more scared of the dating part, or what might happen if I screwed it up and you wouldn’t be my friend anymore. I’m not too clear, huh?” She looked anxious, “But do you see what I mean? You weren’t asking me on a date, but I thought so for minute, and I can’t make that kind of change, for anybody, right now – I just can’t.” I caught the subtext right away - I wasn’t any Prince Charming, and she was gonna hold out for something like him – dreams die hard. Maybe I had low expectations, but I could live with that. She squeezed my hand and let go. “So who’s in this movie, anybody we know?” And just like that, it started.

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