It was the third time he noticed her, sitting in a back row of the theater, staying until the end of the last credit. He thought he was the only person who did that.
She was not attractive, but she was pleasant looking, with mouse-brown hair and what looked like a decent figure. She always dressed in long skirts, with oversized cardigans covering up her top half. It was hard to see her face, lit only by the flickering movie screen.
The last credit rolled, the screen blanked. The house lights came up, showing a magical illusion for what it was… tatty, old, sticky with spilled sodas, the screen curtains fraying, their threads waving lazily as the curtains lowered. It was the last showing of the day.
His indecision tore at him. Should he get up and leave first? Wait until she left? Try to leave at the same time, so he could strike up a conversation? The thought of conversing with her left his tongue curled up tightly to the roof of his mouth. He didn’t know her — she was a stranger. Who knew what kind of person she was? It could be she would laugh at him, point at him, and ridicule him for the amusement of the cleaning crew. OK, he would leave first, not risk the humiliation of failure.
The house lights clarified that her seat was empty. When had she left? Why had he not realized? He was too busy worrying to pay attention to the real world, that was always his problem.
Resigned, but secretly relieved, he got up, carrying his tweed jacket folded over one arm. The pathway to the lobby seemed like a grand exit, as if to carry that movie magic one more minute. Then the lobby door opened, and all was noise and chaos. Usually, that was how it seemed. But being the last show, all the other patrons had left, and it was only the cleaning crew left. They glanced at him incuriously and returned to their work.
The aroma of slightly burned popcorn drifted sourly in the air, overlaid with floor cleaning solution. He was careful to walk on the floor that hadn’t been mopped yet, not wanting to add to the cleaning crew’s work.
He pushed open the main lobby door and walked out into the dark, humid night. He wouldn’t need his jacket. As he walked across the parking lot toward his car, he relived bits of the movie in his head. He particularly liked the poignant scene when…
“Why do you stay until the end? Are you following me?” The woman seemed to come from nowhere, slipping out from the darkness, until she stood in front of him, confronting him. It was the woman he had seen twice before tonight, of course.
Thousands of words cascaded through his brain, desperately struggling to catch hold of a few and make some sense of them. He opened his mouth to talk, but only his throat clicked. He swallowed and tried again.
“I’m not following you.” He ducked his head to avoid having to make eye contact with her. This close, he smelled a fragrance, something cloying and heavy, reminding him of an elderly aunt from his childhood. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, unable to stop fidgeting. He cast a sideways glance at her. She was standing stolidly, arms folded, feet spread as if they were planted in the earth. Her frumpy gear was matched by an unpleasant scowl on her face.
Desperate, he went on the offensive. “Why do you stay until the end?”
She was taken aback. Maybe no one had ever asked her that before. Her scowl slowly dissolved into a wistful smile. It changed her whole appearance, made her appear welcoming and warm.
“My father left us when I was young to find work in the movies. He never made it as an actor, so he worked off-screen, doing any job he could. He worked on a lot of movies over the years. I like to read the credits, and see his name scroll down the screen. It’s as close as I’ll ever be to him.”
He was taken aback. Her blunt honesty astonished him — sharing such intimate details with a total stranger. He didn’t know what to say to her. At a loss, he stood, mute, hands hanging by his sides like lumps of meat.
“What, does it sound strange to you?” Her voice sounded defensive. “It happens to mean a lot to me. It’s like, for a second, my dad is there with me, and I’m seeing what he’s done.” Now her tone was wistful. “I found out he died a long time ago. These are the only moments I’ll ever have with him.”
Now that she had shared those details with him, he knew what was coming next. His insides squirmed, worms in the intestines, writhing in a tangled ball. He knew that wasn’t real, but that was exactly what it felt like.
“Why do you stay until the end?” Her question dropped with a thud into the silence between them. His ears were ringing. He glanced at his car, but it was too far away for him to run for it. Cornered, he capitulated.
“I, um, I like the illusion of magic.”
“That’s it? That’s your only reason?” She would not let him off easily, not after the way she had spilled her heart and soul to him.
How could he explain? Entering the theater on hushed carpeting, sitting in a plush seat, screening the previews, followed by the movie. Magic started, and he wasn’t a stammering loser. He was a muscular blond laughing carelessly, a dark, curly-haired man with a mustache charming a woman at a beachside table. He always had the right word, smoked expensive cigarettes, fought the bad guys, always stood up for what was right, for the little guy… and the women. They fell for him every time, closed their eyes and lifted their mouths to him. It was magic, and at the end, he was desperate for the magic to cling, for a little longer. He read every line of the credits, not wanting them to end. Only when the house lights went on, could he force himself to leave. Sad, empty, missing some essential part of himself. Back to being a beige man in a gray world, dull and dreary and empty.
“Well, you see, in magic the illusion must be handled skillfully, such that the observer thinks it really is magic. You don’t want them to see the hands switching the cards. Magic is a combination of good dexterity for sleight-of-hand, and the heart of a showman, to create the successful distraction.”
She looked at him, lips pursed as if she had bitten an unripe persimmon. “That is interesting, but it doesn’t explain why you stay through the credits. By that time, the magic is done.”
He shook his head, buried under the weight of his unspoken words. “I, um, I, I, I…” He took a deep breath.
“Idon’twantthemagictostop.” A cold sweat broke out on his brow, and his hands trembled.
She thought about what he’d blurted out. A smile slow as the dawn broke over her face. “You’re like me. You want to be close to something you can’t have, but you can pretend for a while.”
His eyes widened. No one had ever said so succinctly what he felt. He felt as if she had given him a key and unlocked his own thoughts for him.
She smiled, a brief ray of sunshine. “See you at the movies.” With that, she turned and walked away, leaving him cradling this newfound knowledge like a delicate infant.