Volume 21, Number 1

Friday Night at the Movies in Buffalo, N.Y.

Elizabeth T. Hansen

The man and woman, with a few other hardy souls, dashed from the frozen parking lot and squeezed through the Cineplex doors, everyone eager to escape the punishing cold. Management, as a tribute to their intrepid patrons, had set up a dummy thermometer in a comer of the lobby, faithfully updating it every few hours. At seven forty-five on this particular Friday evening, the moveable plastic arrow pointed to four degrees above zero.

Thumpity-thumpity-thump-thump-thumpity. The man's heart was throwing a tantrum. True, he had put on a few pounds in recent years, but he told himself that at forty-seven he should be able to manage a sprint of 30 to 40 yards without inviting a heart attack. Also, his ears burned. He rubbed them gingerly, conscious of frostbite.

"Sensible people would rent a video and stay home in weather like this," he grumbled.

"Sensible people wear hats in weather like this," the wife replied. "Especially when the top thatch is thinning." She was unwinding a thick woolen scarf from around her throat.

“I look silly in a hat."

"You’ll look sillier when your ears fall off."

A smell of burnt canola oil cancelled the whiff of cold air carried into the lobby on the skin and clothing of the moviegoers. Corn popped unenthusiastically in its glass cage. The man drifted toward the refreshment counter. Did the wife want a snack? No. She was dieting, remember? How could he forget? She'd been dieting since he married her. He chose a packet of peanuts from the candy display, an itty-bitty packet, the kind the flight attendant used to pass around when she brought your complimentary cocktail (ah! the good old days!), gave the counter girl two bills and received a nickel in change. Outrageous! The middle class was being bled white by an inflation the Feds claimed didn't exist, an inflation that kept five steps ahead of wages. Once, in an economizing mood, the man suggested they bring snacks from home, to the horror of his ten-year-old son.

"Freak me out, Dad! Theater food is part of the movie experience."

Kids today! They talked like college professors and argued like lawyers.

The son was spending the night at a friend's, leaving the man and wife free to attend an R-rated movie, one that enjoyed multiple Oscar nominations: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Performance by a Supporting Actress, Best etc., etc. In spite of the hype, cinema 3 was conspicuously empty for a Friday night. Only crazy people go out in weather like this, the man observed, but only to himself. A trio of adolescents up front was staging a popcorn war—they must have gained entry with fake IDs—and a suspicious-looking character, his overcoat collar turned up to the eyeballs, slumped in a seat near the wall.

Suspicious-looking! The man rebuked himself, as he had many times, for succumbing to a nascent paranoia. His imagination ran wild whenever he was on the road too long and spent too many sleepless nights in cheap motel rooms. Sales rep for a company that manufactured small engine parts and was currently foundering on the globalization iceberg, his territory stretched north to the Canadian border and southeast to the mid-Hudson valley. Sometimes, driving the Thruway at night in his aging Datsun (after downsizing, the firm had reclaimed the company car), he'd become obsessed by the idea that his son had been kidnapped on his way to school and that his wife, at that very moment, was reading a ransom note demanding thousands of dollars they'd never be able to raise. Or he'd have a sudden, terrifying vision of a small, mangled body lying inert in the middle of a busy intersection. Then, no matter how late the hour, he would fumble for his cell phone and call home, often rousting his wife out of bed, only to be reassured that his son was safely asleep in the next room. Once, on a trip to Wappingers Falls, he dreamed three nights running that his house was on fire and frantically called a neighbor at two in the morning, begging him to go to the window and check. His wife was convinced these delusions were spawned by anxieties about his job and insisted he see a therapist before he drove them both crazy. He hadn't the heart to tell her the company planned to drop health benefits at the end of the month, and they could no longer afford a therapist.

The couple settled themselves in a center row with a direct sight line to the screen. The theater was overheated, and as the man unzipped his jacket, he surprised himself with a jaw-cracking yawn.

"Don't you dare fall asleep like you did the last time," his wife whispered. "It's embarrassing."

"I wasn't asleep. I was resting my eyes."

"You were snoring like a drunken sailor."

"Ah! You know what a drunken sailor snores like."

"Don't be crude." She slid a stick of sugarless gum between her lips.

As the house lights dimmed, the inevitable latecomers groped for seats in the stygian dark. A couple dressed in puffy down jackets, looking like lost moon-walkers, took seats directly in front of the man and wife, ignoring the dozens of empty seats around them. The wife made a moue of disgust, poked her husband with an elbow, and they gathered up coats, gloves and scarves and moved crabwise along the narrow row of seats toward an unimpeded view of the screen. The man cursed softly as half the packet of peanuts spilled to the floor.

After a numbing procession of promos and local ads—Andy's Pizza, keep your eye on the pie; John's Dry Cleaners, we can take the spots off a leopard—the feature title appeared on the screen in man-sized letters, and the award-winning theme rocked the theater from floor to ceiling. Production credits rolled over a hazy background of two people in bed. The man emptied the remaining peanuts into his mouth as the camera teasingly panned the set before settling in sharp focus on the naked couple. The actress, a one-time ingénue, was coming onto her partner as if Tim LaHaye had announced the Rapture, and she wanted to get the job done before their bodies were zapped heavenward.

The man chewed his peanuts carefully to avoid a tooth with a missing filling, his eyes glued to the screen, amazed that when people had sex in the movies there was all this panting and thrashing about that never happened in real life. At least not in his real life.

The woman in the film was on top now, her hair falling over her partner's face as the camera zoomed in for a two-second close-up of rosy bum. The man stole a furtive glance at his wife, trying to gauge her reaction. Her jaws worked quietly at her gum, an expression of benign boredom softening her features. He, however, had had an electrifying thought, an epiphany almost, a revelation so implausible it had to make sense. Those two on the big screen weren't pretending. They were actually screwing for the camera, having sex in front of millions of slack-jawed viewers, while the crew and extras stood around eating Chinese take-out or Tex-Mex. The man warned himself that lack of sleep was affecting his judgment, but the idea was unshakeable. Those two were having real sex, pretending to pretend while the world looked on—acting worth a truckload of Oscars. The medium was still the message, and the producers' message was clear, at least to him. The film was a wake-up call to a society on the verge of moral and financial bankruptcy, a challenge to rebel, as his parents' generation had rebelled in the sixties. Screw the conventions, the producers were saying. Screw the corporations. Take life back from the Politicos and establish a New World Order. Only this time make it work.

What was his wife thinking? Was she turned off by the uncompromising nudity, or might she find some of the action inspiring? In fancy he substituted himself and his wife for the two people in bed: his wife as she'd been when he first met her, firm and flat-bellied, himself as the young stud he kidded himself he still was. How long had it been since they'd made love? He couldn't remember.

The scene shifted suddenly to the inside of a public building. A bank. Tellers stood at their stations, hands raised, while actors in jumpsuits and ski masks waved guns at the ceiling and people sank to their knees, or lay belly-down on the floor, their hands clasped over their heads. Without warning, our man in the audience was seized by a yawn that brought tears to his eyes. The eyes closed. The movie continued without him.

* * *

"Did I snore?"

"If you had, I would have kicked you."

They were in the car, waiting for the engine to warm up and the defrosters to work so the man could scrape a blanket of ice from the windshield.

"Well," he said, keeping his voice neutral, "what did you think of it?"

"Too much violence." She was speaking through the muffler covering the lower half of her face. The burry sound set his teeth on edge. "I can't believe you slept through all those screaming sirens and car crashes."

He decided to take the plunge. "How about the opening scene with the two of them in bed? Didn't it seem a bit too realistic? Know what I think? I think they were really doing it, really getting it on for the cameras."

She tugged the muffler free of her mouth. "Know what I think? You get nuttier every day, that's what I think. It's Hollywood, not Porn City."

"Maybe we should rent one some time," he said.

"One what?"

"Porn movie.”

"God help us, you really are crazy. Linda told me Bob brought home a blue movie the night they had Gary and Paula over, and Paula spent the night in the bathroom puking up beer and pretzels."

"We wouldn't have to invite Gary and Paula."

"Shut up about it, will you please? And will you please, for God's sake, turn up the heat? I'm freezing."

"It's up as high as it will go."

Streets, avenues, boulevards, all deserted, an Arctic wasteland, an entire city frozen into immobility at ten o'clock on a Friday night. Lights burned in the windows of cave dwellings buried under two feet of snow. The man drove automatically through familiar neighborhoods, past the SUNY campus, past derelict flats converted to student housing, ignoring patches of ice, barely skirting five-foot drifts, concentrating on the nude scene, playing it over in his mind, letting his imagination fill in the details, fully convinced that what he had witnessed on the screen was an actual act of love, a not-so-subtle message to a society in need of redemption, an invitation to join the conspiracy to save the world, couple by loving couple, to spark a new summer of love during a harsh Buffalo winter.

He would offer to make a fire when they got home, using the sweet-smelling apple wood they'd bought last year at the County Fair. Suggest a glass of wine. A good German Liebfraumilch sat on the pantry shelf awaiting a special occasion. Well, sex was a special occasion, wasn't it? It seemed to roll around less often than Christmas. And candles. Women liked candles. Then there was the extra bonus of an empty nest—no precocious ten-year-old begging to stay up for Letterman because there was no school tomorrow.

His wife's voice startled him out of his revery. He'd almost forgotten her actual presence in the seat beside him.

"We have to stop at the market. There's no milk in the house."

Obediently, the man turned into the darkened mall, pulled up in the fire lane close to the supermart entrance, let his wife out and turned off the heater fan. The warm air was making him drowsy. He had come home that afternoon after four days on the road to find his son needing a ride to the friend's house across town and his wife suffering from cabin fever. It was rough on her, he knew, his being away so much, and he tried to make it up to her whenever he could: tonight's movie, for example. Rough on him, too. He estimated that since starting his sales career he had driven to Australia and back at least eighteen times. He used to wonder if he could keep up the pace for another ten or fifteen years, until it was time to retire; now he wondered if he would still have a job at the end of the week. A friend of his, an expert in textiles, had been laid off recently when his company moved their operations overseas. The man's wife had gone back to work and the friend drove a school bus part-time.

Suppose it should happen to him? He was no longer the young fire-eater eager to spread a messianic message about his company's product. Would he find a job at a comparable salary? Would he and his wife be able to keep up with the mortgage, the insurance on two cars, the boy's violin lessons? He saw the derisive look on his father's face as the old man greeted him for the umpteenth time with: "Hey, loser! Find a job yet?"

His head snapped forward, jolting him awake. The car windows had glazed over, and his fingers on the steering wheel felt numb. What had he been thinking about before dozing off? Ah, yes, making a fire! That, he reminded himself ruefully, involved a trip outside to the woodshed in the bruising cold. Also, it might be wise to hold on to the Liebfraumilch should he need to gift a special customer during the holidays. At any rate, he should have his heart checked out before joining any conspiracies that might strain that delicate organ—and before the insurance expired. Life, after all, was not a movie, and he was no Hollywood idol.

Mentally he urged his wife along from dairy case to checkout to car, no dawdling. If they hurried they could catch the eleven o'clock news and the football scores—the Bills were having a disastrous season—and maybe, just maybe, hear an encouraging weather report. He envisioned himself in front of the TV, a hot cup of coffee and a roast beef sandwich beside him, just a few steps away from a warm bed and the merciful oblivion of sleep.

A wind off Lake Erie sent a smattering of dry flakes against the windshield. A numbing chill traveled up the man's legs, encasing his body in an armor of cold. He had a vague feeling that he had managed to avert disaster for another twenty-four hours. Unable to resist any longer, he opened his jaws wide, yawned the mother of all yawns, and turned up the heat.