There is a moment of weighty silence after the movie has ended. This fierce moment that punctures that so-called “suspension of disbelief” and lands us with a thud back into a dark, cold room. The lights haven’t come back on, and it is a terrible, wonderful moment where you are alone with your simmering thoughts.
In the dark theater, I hear you bite down on a piece of popcorn from the bottom of the bag. I turn around to the sight of your plump lips closing around a stubborn, half-popped, salty kernel. It resists you, but finally gives up in a crackling heap.
I know the sound well because it’s usually the one I’m making.
The sound of you, a stranger, biting on a raw kernel, causes me to think of the third Cassavetes film I saw. I was 19 and living in Hungary, and the theater near the Opera House was playing a week of Cassavetes. I had seen Shadows by myself earlier in the week, then Killing of a Chinese Bookie the next day. On Thursday, I slipped out of a raucous, after-work drinking affair to catch the 9:30 showing of A Woman Under the Influence. Somebody—he reminds me a little of you—followed me out.
He couldn’t bear another shot of Pálinka. He needed more smokes. He didn’t want to get in another conversation with Iren from the desk. Besides, he’d been wanting to see Cassavetes. When we got onto the crowded subway car, Hungarian men, sour with sweat and cheap gasoline-canister wine, pressed against us and we moved closer together. He grabbed my hand, and held it all the way to the Oktogon stop.
Dark silence in the theater that day was excruciating. A small carton of popcorn sat in my lap, but remained there, uneaten. The piercing sound in the dark theater of kernels caving loudly and crumpling under the crush of my teeth was intolerable. Every time he moved, I hoped he might take my hand again. He smelled faintly of snow and bitter peach pits that lingered from the alcohol. As the untethering of Gena Rowlands came before us on screen, he slumped further down into his chair. When he looked at me, his eyes looked sorrowful. Even in the dark, I saw the little brown spot punctuating his ice-blue eyes. When we left the theater, he asked if I’d go with him to visit his girlfriend near the Astoria. Her name was Adrienne, and she had been working second shift as barmaid. I had seen her once, ruddy cheeks and tousled hair.
We walked up to her together, and her impenetrable brown eyes made me nervous. He looked at her with an expression that could have been hatred or desire. I couldn’t tell the difference. They started an immediate fight where she shattered into a million shards of anger and hurt. He accused her of fooling around with the bartender, and became ever-more distant. It was the middle of winter, but the room was steamy with the pipe furnaces pulsing and sweating. I backed away, meeting his eyes.
When I got home, I pulled out my carton of popcorn in the dark and finished eating it, alone. It seemed that each once-hardened kernel had taken a terrible risk bursting forth into these starchy, flowering maidens. Only then to disintegrate back into sheaths of leftover hull, wedging themselves into the hidden spaces of my teeth. I was annoyed with them stuck there, too salty on my tongue, but I couldn’t stop taking bites for their creamy disintegrating texture and their bitter floral overtones. Bite after bite, I swallowed them down wondering why so many exquisite things in life end up being so frustrating, too.