Kyle met Judith on a cold night at the end of the worst year of his life. He’d gone to see a film at The Academy, the art-house theater downtown. It was the kind of faded movie palace that used to anchor every main street in every small town, a throwback to the days when people lined up to see their favorite stars on the silver screen. It had long been abandoned for the neon-lit multiplex outside of town, which was why Kyle preferred it. He came here at least once a week to escape for two hours, pause the nonstop monologue in his head. Better than sleeping, which was all he really wanted to do anyways.
Judith was behind the concessions counter, writing in a small leather journal with a silver pen. She was new. Kyle stood in front of her for a full minute before she lifted her eyes. “Large popcorn,” he mumbled, gesturing to the hazy glass candy case. “And a box of Raisinettes.”
“That’s an unusual choice,” she snipped, her lip curling slightly in a mean-girl way. “I don’t think I’ve sold a box of those yet. Except maybe to an eighty year old.”
Growing up movie-obsessed in this college town, Kyle had bought hundreds of boxes of Raisinettes from this counter, from girls just like Judith. English majors usually, grad students more often than not, always bookish types in smart-girl glasses. He’d gone out with a couple of them, way back when.
He snapped back, annoyed. “Maybe you should try them before you judge.” Judith raised her eyebrows and handed him his change. Her maroon vest sagged a bit where her name tag hung, making her small frame look a little lopsided, like a cake pop balanced on thick-soled boots. There was an endearing cuteness underneath her literary swagger. Kyle brushed away a pang of regret as he moved towards the comfort of the dark theater.
The next week, Kyle went back to The Academy. This time, he was looking forward to a new film. His mood was much better. He spotted Judith behind the counter. She pushed a piece of dark hair out of her face and glanced at him. He smiled, a sort of apology, and stepped into line behind an annoying couple in matching sweaters, their arms twisted like pretzels around one another. The couple kissed, ordered their snacks, then drifted away as Judith turned to take his order. “Oh, it’s you,” she drawled. “Let me guess...”
“Raisinettes.” They said it in unison, then chuckled at the same time. She handed him the slim red box. “Popcorn?” She picked up a dented metal scoop.
“You’ve got skills in the memory department,” he slid two bills onto the counter. “I’m Kyle. I was kind of an asshole last week.” Judith peered at him through the oily popcorn machine glass.
“I’ve met a few in my life, but very few self-identify.” She said, setting the overflowing tub between them. She pulled at her name tag. “Judith. But you already knew that.”
Kyle took his change from her outstretched hand. “Enjoy the film, Kyle. It’s good. I’ve seen it twice.”
Kyle settled into his usual seat in the middle of the theater, basking in the low light before the velvet curtain parted. He set his popcorn on the faded red seat next to him and leaned back. For the first time in a very long time, he noticed the familiar details of this once-grand movie palace; the ornate gilded ceiling, the Art Deco chandeliers, the small coved seats flanking the screen. Everything in his life had felt flat since he’d moved home. It felt good to appreciate this place again. He chuckled softly to himself. It felt good to flirt a little, too. He hadn’t really looked at a woman since Emma. He decided to ask Judith for her number after the film. She gave it to him.
He texted her during work the next day. She responded right away. Over the next couple of days, they fell into an easy rhythm, sending flurries of flirty texts. He enjoyed their banter. She didn’t ask much of him. She made him laugh, the ebb and flow of their conversation keeping him afloat.
Late one night, Kyle’s phone chimed. The first real winter storm had rolled in, and it had been snowing on and off all day. Judith texted that she’d stayed in the library too long studying. She was starving. Everything was closed. Kyle told her he’d buy her a box of Raisinettes. She protested.
There’s a convenience store around the corner from the theater
Open 24 hrs
I’m in my pajamas
If pajamas are good enough for the library they’re good enough for me
When he swung his truck into the parking lot, Judith was standing in the snow, wearing a puffy jacket, fleece pajama bottoms and her clunky boots. Her arms were hugged around her body and a knit hat with a round purple pompom on top slouched on her head. She looked a little sad and childish, and Kyle felt an impulse to swing her up into a bear hug. He stopped himself.
“Let’s get you some snacks,” he said instead.
They wandered the fluorescent aisles, joking about the nutritional value of junk food, finally settling on a unicorn slushy and a bag of spicy chips. She laughed at a funny turtle-shaped lighter so he bought it for her. They didn’t have Raisinettes. She laughed about that too. She was bubbly and sparkly, and Kyle liked the feeling of her next to him.
Back outside in the cold, Judith joked about the irony of the icy slushy. Then her face became serious and she stuck out her hand. “Thank you for my presents,” she said.
“You’re welcome, concession-stand girl.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pressed his lips gently to her forehead. Her hair smelled like strawberries.
As he drove home, Kyle thought about everything that had happened in the past year. The scripts that nobody wanted to read. The directing gigs that never materialized. The jobs that never paid enough. Emma. The decision to move home. Dreams popping one by one, like soap bubbles on a breeze. Los Angeles disappearing behind him in the rear view mirror. The suddenness and the finality of it all.
Kyle shifted under the seatbelt. He had been eating junk, drinking too much, his stomach was soft. His pants pulled and bulged in all the wrong spots. He’d let his beard grow a little bit too long. His shoulders sloped in a perpetual shrug. He was a thirty-four year old loser skidding towards rock bottom and he just didn’t care. Returning to his old a job at the hardware store was the hardest thing he’d ever done. Swallowing his pride and agreeing to take over the business, which had been in his family for generations, felt like the nail in the coffin. His dad had been thrilled. The decision that had hovered over him all his life now it sat in the pit of his stomach, a constant reminder of his failure as he bobbed along in the familiar eddy between ambition and obligation.
Judith texted that she was leaving for winter break. Four weeks, three hundred miles away. Kyle was a little relieved. He wasn’t sure where their flirtation was going. Judith texted him daily, chatty blurbs, links, pictures. A confetti-filled text on New Year’s day, followed by three kissy-faced emojis. Their banter felt distant, a warm hum in the grey blur of his days.
She came back on a Sunday, texted him as soon as she landed. She was hoping to see him. Kyle told her needed to get to the hardware store to catch up on inventory. He’d been wasting time all morning. She texted again. He promised they’d get together soon. She responded with a flurry of jokes and memes. It was mildly annoying. She was persistent. He finally gave in and asked her to go to a movie with him that night, a serious film about genocide that he’d been wanting to see. A friend of a friend had worked on it, he respected the director. It had good buzz.
Lol r u serious?
I am. Pick you up at 7?
It’s playing at the Multiplex. Let’s go there. You owe me big time
Kyle’s phone chimed again. He laughed and shook his head, expecting a meme or some floating balloons.
The text was from Travis, his best friend since childhood, his partner in crime. A thousand back yard movies, years of arguing over scripts, shots, sets. Film school, the cross country move. Emma. Their team had become a threesome. Their dream, shared equally between them. All of it incinerated in the shabby living room of a faceless apartment in North Hollywood. Travis and Emma, sitting close on the stained secondhand couch, hands clasped as if holding on for dear life. “I’m so so sorry, Kyle,” Emma had sobbed. “It just happened.”
Kyle’s phone dinged again. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to unsee see the words on the screen.
Emma and I are getting married. I thought you should hear it from me.
Kyle had always wondered what it would feel like to float in outer space. Now he knew. He wrote a text to Judith canceling the movie and never sent it. He closed his door, crawled under a blanket and stayed there as shadows crept into the corners of the room and settled into darkness.
His phone chimed, waking him from a deep pool of sleep.
Where are you? We’re going to miss the movie.
Crap. Running late. Sorry. Be there soon.
NM. Meet me at the multiplex.
Kyle skidded into the parking lot. There was slush on the ground, the neon lights were garish. His head pounded. Judith stood next to a blue Vokswagen Bug, her big coat swallowing her whole. The air smelled faintly of gasoline. She was happy to see him. She pecked him on the cheek and held his hand as they wove through the parked cars.
The movie was horrible. Depressing and pretentious. A terrible choice for this sad excuse of a first date. Judith looked miserable. Kyle thought he ought to make it up to her. “So do you want to go get a drink?” He hoped she’d say no. He wanted to disappear, go home, throw the blankets over his head. Weep.
“Sure, I guess?” she said.
Kyle clawed himself out of his fog. “So, where to?”
Judith smiled. She suggested a divey bar in the college ghetto. He thought of something better. A new speakeasy downtown, recently opened by two old friends from high school, the returning heroes, fresh from New York, bringing new life to their faded downtown. Kyle envied their success.
When they arrived, the line snaked around the building. Judith was fidgety and pensive. Kyle was deep in his own head, trying not to get eaten alive by his regret about Emma. His plans. His life. This date. God, he should have fought for her. He took her for granted. Acted like an arrogant ass. Let her walk into the arms of his best friend. Married. They were getting married.
The line moved forward. A bouncer at the door waved him through and as he moved inside, a woman tapped him on the shoulder and nodded towards the street. Judith was standing forlorn on the sidewalk, shivering. It had started to snow and a cold blue light illuminated her face. She was turning her ID over and over in her hand. “Sorry!” she said. “This is so embarrassing.”
“How old are you?” Twenty. A sophomore. All that chatter about that gap year or whatever the hell they call it. She never told him she was two years out of high school.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” she said, blinking away tears. “They don’t let me into cool places like this.”
She looked sad the way she had that night at the convenience store. “Please don’t feel bad,” said Kyle. He wrapped her in a hug and kissed the top of her head. She laughed, brushing the tears away. A complicated wave of feelings washed over him, one after the other. Judith was going on and on about being an idiot and it was adorable and he wanted to kiss her, so he did. It was a sloppy kiss. Something about their mouths just didn’t fit. Teeth and tongues in all the wrong places. Even so, Judith had made him feel something again and he wanted that feeling to carry him, carry them, even just for tonight. He grabbed her hand and led her into a sports bar down the street.
They talked for two hours in a deep wooden booth, laughing and joking around. It felt like their texts had come to life. Their smooth, flirtatious back and forth here in the real world felt good, with the sounds of sports on TV, the clink of glasses and bottles, the warm varnished table between them. The rushing in his ears smoothed into a dull hum. Judith’s face was warm and her eyes bright. Pink spots had formed on each of her cheeks.
Abruptly, Judith slid her beer bottle across the table and looked Kyle in the eye. “Should we get out of here?” she blurted. “Let’s go to your place.”
“You’re drunk,” he said accusingly as he escorted her out into the snow.
“No, I’m not,” she said, sticking her nose up, “just a lil’ buzzed.” She pressed against him and he sighed, wrapping her in his arms.
“I’m taking you home, lightweight,” he said, steering her towards his truck. Once inside, he put the key in the ignition. She leaned into him expectantly. He kissed her again, their incompatibility like a hard slap on the face. God, he was an adult working at his teenage job, living with his parents, making out with college girl.
He pulled away from her and started the truck. “I’m sorry, Judith, I really am. I can’t do this.”
“Well, I never really liked you anyway,” she looked down at her hands, falling into a stony silence.
He dropped her off at her dorm, made sure she got inside. She didn’t speak, didn’t look back at him as she slid her key card in the slot and disappeared into the warm hallway.
Kyle steered the truck away from campus and turned down the highway towards home. The clouds had parted and the moon had come out. The fields alongside the road were flanked by stands of trees. Everything was covered with a thin layer of snow. Kyle pulled over and switched his hazards on. He stared out the windshield for a minute, then slammed his hands on the steering wheel until they ached.
He rolled down the windows and took big gulps of cold air. Outside, a movement caught his eye. A deer had walked out into the open, a young buck. The moonlight drew silver highlights on his coat, his antlers. Kyle slid his cell phone out of his pocket, held it up, flipped to record. The buck turned his head slowly toward Kyle’s truck and looked directly at him. Kyle held his breath. Suddenly, a wolf shot out of the trees. Without a sound, the deer bounded across the field, the wolf trailing behind, a silent tableau bathed in an otherworldly glow.
Kyle lowered his phone, the raw beauty of the moment washing over him. A deep sense of satisfaction spread outward from his chest. He hadn’t been behind a lens for a very long time, but in this moment, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was exactly where he belonged.
Kyle pulled his truck into the driveway of his childhood home. Christmas lights were still twinkling on the eaves. A soft light glowed in the front window. The walkway needed to be shoveled. He’d do it before he went to bed. He put his key into the door and slipped into the living room. His dad was stretched out on the couch, sleeping, a book tented on his chest.
“Kyle,” he said. The book slid into his lap as he sat up. “You’re home.”
Kyle sat next to him. The old oak clock on the mantel ticked steadily in the quiet.
“I’m drowning, dad” he said, finally. “I can’t stay here. The store...”
The old man rubbed his chin. “The store will be OK,” he said, placing a hand on Kyle’s shoulder. “I want you to be OK, son. That’s what’s important to me.”
For the first time in months, Kyle exhaled. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and opened the image of the deer. “The most beautiful thing just happened, dad.” An old, familiar excitement laced his words, “I want you to see it.”