Illustrated by Christopher Ikonomou (Xe/He)
This piece was originally published in our Winter 2022 Volume 2 print issue “Wanting: A Queer Beauty & Burden.“
Since checking into work that morning, Lynn had done little besides load up the popcorn machine with fresh kernels and flip through the comic book in her ratty canvas knapsack. It was a Saturday and matinees were always slow in Wallace. At the onset of February in Idaho, with spring still waiting to set in and turn the streets to mushy slush, she had to build up the courage to push through the double doors of the theater into the freezing cold. Yet, someone had to change out the movie posters for the week, even as her breath fogged up her glasses and her huddled body shivered in front of the ticket booth. She shook her head, fumbling with the keys to the poster’s glass case, and finally put up a poster of a fiery, green-eyed actress in a safari outfit with her trembling hands. Banged up pickup trucks and Fords occasionally rattled past on the narrow road, but otherwise, she only heard herself humming bits and pieces of a Hank Williams song.
Lynn liked working at the movie joint, despite the dull tasks of that day. She had stumbled upon the hidden movie theater after school a few months ago and had latched onto it like a castaway to a stray liferaft. There was not much to do but escape this small town, even if for a few hours of the day a few times per week. She was methodical in the way she did her tasks at work, her daily routine feeling so utterly banal that she thought it best to attach an air of seriousness, even sacred rituality, to her Saturday practice.
But lately she had started to think about what it might be like to be the person sitting in the audience with someone at her side, instead of the girl crouching behind the rickety projector. The tiny theater was vacant and lonely at this hour of day, its one showing room silent except for the continuous crackling noise of the speakers. Beyond the 50 velvet seats clustered close together and the walking rail that ran through the center of the room, nothing signified that anything had ever inhabited this room besides spiders and the occasional ghost. Lynn had asked Mr. Dawson, the seventy-year-old owner of the theater, if he had ever advertised that they put on matinee screenings — seeing as she had never seen a soul buy a ticket for Saturday morning — and if, perhaps, they might only open after noon for everyone’s comfort. He had merely grunted in reply, his glasses slipping further down his nose as he sorted through the change in his pocket and handed her some paperwork to file in the backroom. Lynn had not brought up the question since, seeing that it was not so bad to have the room all to herself.
Instead, she dutifully loaded up the film reels in the back room, if it could truthfully be called that — from her outside perspective, it more closely resembled a spacious broom closet with a projector and a stool — and watched as a cheesy 1940s cowboy movie flickered to life through the carved-out window. She had seen this one a few times (it was one of Mr. Dawson’s favorites), so she took out a small notebook from the set of drawers on the back wall and began to add to a sketch she had started the week before. A girl’s face appeared on the page, features coming together to reveal the image of one of her friends from childhood. She had moved away last year and left Lynn alone in a town she had never come to call a home.
Putting her pencil down after a few minutes, she let her mind wander and began to think about the countless couples she saw cycle through week to week in the back row of the joint. I don’t understand them, she told herself right before each Friday and Saturday evening, I don’t understand. Nothing was as safe as her own company, she believed practically, even boyfriends, and then each night, in the still frigid spring air, the frost would crunch beneath her feet and she would think in the back of her mind an icy thought: I have no choice but to be alone.
“I don’t wanna miss anything.”
Lynn snapped back to reality to see Clark Gable smiling back at her on the screen, wishing that it had not felt as if he was reading subtitles from her mind. She adjusted her bulky winter coveralls, turned the reel’s case over, and saw its title on a piece of tape: “Honky Tonk.” Lynn straightened up on her stool and put her feet back on the bottom rung, as the wood was beginning to cramp up part of her leg. She then pushed her thick-rimmed glasses up her nose to see a silhouette in the front row of the theater. That was unusual. She scooted forward slightly until she was perched on the edge of her seat and saw, without confusion or doubt, that yes, indeed, there was someone sitting in the front row. A girl.
She looked like she was around her age, mid-teens at least and fashionable, judging from the curl of her bob in the shadowy room. Then abruptly, almost as if she could sense Lynn’s stare, the customer stood up and turned around. Though she could only see the girl’s outline in the dark, she could sense that her figure was staring right through the projector at her. Lynn scrambled onto her feet. Was the tape still running? Had she aligned the reel wrong and stopped the movie? She hurriedly found a small flashlight in the toolbox in the corner of the room and reexamined the projector.
“Hello there?” A high voice echoed through the theater and through the projection room walls. Lynn, nearly lost beyond return in her thoughts, picked up her head from where she was focused. The girl is talking to me, she reflected in her head as she scanned the expanse of the empty theater through her tiny window. There was nothing witty or casual to say in return, no smart remark to quip back with.
“Hi?” She responded and smacked her leg in embarrassment.
“I was hoping there was someone back there! Would you like to come watch with me?” The girl paused. “I won’t tell your supervisor.” She was coming closer now, her Mary Janes clicking up the steps, and Lynn squinted to see her in the dark. The girl’s hair was red. She was wearing a gingham dress — one of those new summer shifts in the catalogs that all the girls were dying to buy — and had a white headband neatly placed in her hair. Vaguely in the back of her mind, Lynn wondered how the girl could stand the cold outside in such an outfit. This thought was abruptly interrupted by the strange sense of deja vu that overcame her upon seeing the redhead’s face. The stranger was familiar, recognizable in the way that a celebrity was if you passed by them too fast on the street. It was an uncanny familiarity; it stole her breath away and kept her staring. She could easily have been in one of her classes at school, sitting every day in the same front row spot in History, perfectly off center and a foot away from the teacher’s desk. Even in this room, lit up only by the outlines of cowboys negotiating deals and quarreling, the girl was clearly beautiful. Lynn had a feeling she was clever, not the kind of person who had to try too hard but was already blessed with a decisive mind, a special kind of thoughtfulness.
Before she fully processed the girl’s request, Lynn leaned her face up to the projection room window and shouted out, “Alright!” Barely containing her excitement, she flung open the door to the theater lobby and went down the long passageway to the main room.
I am doing something, she repeated, I am the captain of my ship. She thought to herself that Mr. Dawson would be very proud of her initiative at this moment. He was always grumbling about her shyness — a kind of weakness that unkind customers could spot right off the bat — and had advised her to greet people as they came in to combat her nerves. Lynn laughed to herself before pushing through the door by the snack bar.
I had better hurry, she ruminated, I don’t want to miss anything.
With this thought, she entered the theater and was greeted with near blindness, the roar of gunshots filling her ears as a shootout took place on screen. Lynn tried not to disturb the movie and tiptoed the few paces to the first row where the redhead had returned to her spot. She sat down with a seat in between them.
“So you work here, then.” The girl leaned over the empty chair.
“Yes, I do,” she began to stumble on her words. “Do you, uh, come here often?”
I should go back to the projector now, Lynn thought, this was difficult and painful and–
“Every Saturday night.”
“Oh, I can understand that.”
“I’m not fully sure why we have the Saturday morning shows when no one comes.”
“Really? I think I like the matinee more.” Lynn looked back at the girl. She was smiling at her but not in an unkind or mocking way. Instead, she was waiting. Lynn did not know what to say but shifted her weight around in her chair. “Better company, don’t you think?”
Lynn chuckled. “Yes, definitely.” In front of them, the movie was coming to a close. She would have to get up to make sure the film did not get damaged.
The redhead looked down at her watch quickly. “I better go now actually. I’ll see you next week then?” Lynn watched as the girl picked up her satchel off the ground and walked back up the aisle. She turned, her strawberry blonde bob flouncing with her, and gave a little salute as she exited the theater.
Lynn smiled to herself; it was a small grin but a hopeful one, a half crescent which only grew as she sat in the flickering glow of the credits. She began to think tiny hopeful thoughts too, scuffing her sneakers on the well worn floor. I wonder if she likes the same films that I do, she mused. I wonder if there are any of her favorites in Mr. Dawson’s collection. I wonder what she’d think if I offered to play it for her. And then there was another thought: I wonder if she’ll come by again.
The redhead returned the next Saturday. At first, pacing outside the front of the theater and looking over the rows and rows of empty seats, it seemed like she might have imagined all the happenings of last week, as good things were not usually apt to last. She had cursed herself throughout the past few days for all she had forgotten to ask in that first, crucial getting-to-know-you moment; how could she have forgotten to ask for a home phone number, a mailing address, even a name. I am not used to such fast friendships, she comforted herself each time such thoughts cropped up, I am learning. There would be a time when she would be grown up and have all these childish things sorted out, when all that would be left to confront was the adult issue of love. Yet, until that far off day, she was left to walk in circles by the snack bar, praying that this would not be like every other matinee before.
At last, finding that it was twenty minutes after start, she reluctantly turned around and headed into the movie theater. She had already set up the projector and begun playing the film, all that was left to do was watch it in the comfort of the audience. There was no one in the theater as per usual, so there’d be no harm in settling down again in the front row.
Lynn walked down the short, narrow hall to the main room and wondered how long this building had been standing — perhaps it had been here since the early 1930s. It was rare that things changed in this town to the point where they were unrecognizable. There was a romance to the old, crumbling plaster that made up the walls of the bathrooms and storage closets, and she loved the gilded wood trim that decorated the outside of the building. The theater had never been a movie palace — barely anything more than a storefront for the first twenty years of its existence — yet it was just as tremendous and grand as any Hollywood construction when she was allowed to wander inside alone.
Sometimes she would pretend to converse with the original architect of the theater, imagining that he had come back to check up on the place, though he was long gone by now. His fictional appearance varied, one day he was a stout man in rumpled clothes furiously jotting notes on a pad of paper, the next he was tall and stoic with a 5 o’clock shadow.
What do you think of the place? She would ask, gesturing around the hall like a principal giving a tour to the new student at school.
They would look the hall up and down, mulling over odd corners and the slight droop of the ceiling, before replying, I like what you’ve done with the lights. Then, a little pause, not too long but noticeable to someone who is held in suspense and hoping to please, before they would add, Maybe you should give the floor a good cleaning sometime. That much was true, she concurred to herself.
When she finally came through the doorway and stepped onto the carpeted floor, she stopped in her tracks to see the redheaded girl sitting in the same spot as before. How had she missed her walking in? She swore that she’d been at the front door since she started the film at 11. Lynn frantically backed up a few steps and dug her hands into her pockets. Yes, she thought, I’ve still got it. In a stroke of good hospitality earlier, she had taken a pack of gum, a chocolate bar, and a few peppermints from the snack bar and left her spare change by the register. She had wanted to make a decent second impression, knowing that the first time she had been caught quite off guard. Still, she found herself speechless and nearly motionless again, even as she slid into the seat beside the girl.
She was turning the gum packet around and around in her hands now, watching for the right moment — a break in the action or the moment after a swell of music when the notes echoed past their ears and into the rows behind them. A few minutes later, she turned to her, tapped a finger on the velvet arm of her chair, and put down the silver foil wrapped gift. I can’t bear to look, she thought, I can’t bear to look away. Watch the movie, she willed herself, but she could not help staring as she always did.
The redhead noticed the stick of gum. She met her gaze and smiled a wide, easygoing grin. Lynn noticed that she had dimples in her cheeks.
“Why, thank you so much,” the girl said softly.
And, Lynn found herself suddenly and inexplicably happy, filled with a warm feeling that settled in her stomach and spread through her arms to the tips of her fingers. She thought to herself, I think we might get along if I could just talk to her in this room, where I am welcome and where I have made myself a kind of home and belonging and way to be useful. We could be close—
“I was wondering where you were,” the redhead murmured as she turned to her.
“I didn’t see you come in.” And she hadn’t. Now that she thought deeply about it, the redhead must have slipped by her while she was digging around at the snack bar. Lynn felt her skin flush, feeling deeply ashamed at having neglected her guest. I’ll come a bit earlier next week, she promised herself in her head.
Yet, in the weeks that followed, the same, peculiar phenomenon unfolded. Lynn waited by the ticket booth each Saturday, one hand braced upon the window and her other on her hip, only to find that the girl had already stolen inside without so much as a greeting. She had begun to accept this as routine, something as predictable as the sun rising or the seasons changing.
On the fifth Saturday in a row, while they sat side by side, shoulders almost touching, the movie came to a close and something new happened. As she adjusted the collar of her shirt and watched the final frame of the film on the screen — a silent German horror flick — fade to black, the ever-so mysterious girl turned to Lynn and dropped a note into her lap.
In a loopy, glitter pen cursive it read:
‘MIDNIGHT SCREENING. TONIGHT?’
She looked further down the paper to see a little line of hearts along the bottom. Yet, when Lynn looked up from the note, the girl had already left, the curtains on the movie theater door rustling lightly.
That Saturday night was cold. Winter had crept back in over the course of the day, the sky darkening before dinner and snow banks holding solid along the road. It had taken awhile to scrape the ice off her bedroom windows after dinner, but she could not make any noise when she snuck out at thirty minutes to twelve. As her snow boots clomped down the street, marking out a trail on the sidewalk, she noticed the night was much more beautiful when she had somewhere to be. She imagined someone walking in step behind her, playfully jumping from footprint to footprint in her path. Then, she would turn to the person and they would move to hold her. Two hands on her waist. Her face pressed into the shoulder of someone she knew. It would be so nice, dancing to a tune only they could hear. If she listened closely enough, she could almost hear the sound of crunching snow to the beat of a long forgotten melody. So graceful, so real…
Something touched her side and Lynn jolted up straight. She turned to look behind her slowly, and found that there was nothing to be seen – only an empty street and a cold breeze that had not been there before.
She ran inside the warmth of the movie theater lobby, pulling off her gloves and tossing her coat by the door. Then, she moved into the theater and felt herself entranced by the loud music coming from the room. It was funny; she had not remembered entering the projection room or picking out a reel. Nevertheless, Lynn saw the large opening titles in front of her and a familiar figure in the front row.
Her body slid into the theater chair, still feeling drunk on the night air and the sudden drowsiness that came with the cozy room. She could barely focus on the film, so it passed quite quickly. Instead, she was mesmerized by a gentle jaw, a pair of beautiful green eyes, and a long neck that reminded her of a sleeping swan.
“This is my favorite part,” the girl said. Above them, a young pilot ran across the tarmac to a woman waiting for him. A tear slid down the redhead’s cheek and she slid her hand over Lynn’s where it rested on the arm of the seat. When Lynn moved to interlace her fingers with the girl, she saw something strange. The hand was translucent and hazy at the edges, moving in and out of focus like a hazy beam of light. She was holding her right now, her hand resting on her wrist, but she could not fully see the lines of her fingertips. As soon as she tried to focus her eyes on any certain part of the girl’s hand, the image grew blurry and faded away till she had to look again. Lynn pulled away in fright and pinched her face. She could feel her heart speeding up, a horrified expression forming on her face. I have to ask, I have to ask, she thought.
“Are you real?” She carefully looked up into a set of moss-colored eyes; they looked so human, so alive.
“I’m whatever you want me to be.” The ghost girl reached out and cupped her chin. As real as she looked, Lynn barely felt a hint of a touch. It was like snow falling on her skin, the lightest sigh. Then, she kissed her deep and warmly. “It’s nice being with you.”
When Lynn finally saw the redheaded girl in her arms, she saw parts of a dozen faces. There were fragments of her first best friend, then the substitute teacher in her English class, the girl next door, and the redheaded heroine of a dozen blockbusters. Pieces of their smiling eyes and pink lips and curved noses came together and separated again like film developing in a dark room.
And the tape in the projection room kept spinning, and the ghost girl of her own creation was in her lap, and Lynn realized she had never been happier. I am not alone, she remembered.
I have the movies, I have this room, I have la rousse.
Author: Kristin Haegelin (She/Her)
Artist: Christopher Ikonomou (Xe/He)
Copy Editors: Bella (She/They)