Sarah tucked her hair behind her ear so many times she looked like a machine, wanting to stop but programmed to fidget. She was always a mess on second dates. The stakes were higher, especially after six years off of the dating field. One hand played with her hair, while the other fed her pieces of popcorn. She nibbled, unlike her tendency to inhale handfuls at a time.
Next to her sat Jimmy. He sold solar panels for a living and dreamed of owning a boat and spending his retirement on a beach. He owned the same shirt in five different colors but made sure to wear something new for tonight. Although their initial dinner wasn’t lively like an episode of Maury, Sarah gave them another chance. Her therapist said healthy relationships could feel boring.
Just then, boredom vanished. Although Jimmy asked her a question, she didn’t hear anything. The fifty-foot screen blurred. Her hands dropped, so it was on him to catch her paper bucket. While he waved a hand in front of her face, she did not flick. Her eyes remained locked on the man who sent her to therapy. Five years of gaslighting, reading all her text messages, and telling her what to wear. Her last second date before this one. As he walked up the steps, Sarah squeezed and choked her arm rests and prayed he’d sit at least seven rows in front of her. Her wish was granted, and the woman he was with decided to sit within the first five rows. Once he sat down, Sarah blinked and returned to her date.
“Sarah, what’s wrong?” Jimmy asked.
“Shh. Please don’t say my name.”
“Call me Tina.”
The lights dimmed. “The previews are starting.” She grabbed her snacks from him and faced the screen. For the next two hours and eleven minutes, she did not look at anything else besides the back of her ex’s head. She tried laughing as much as everyone surrounding her. She tried following the storyline but only had the headspace for watching the clock. Every second, she looked at her phone. With each new minute, she’d sigh but then inhale, waiting for the next tick. She tensed up like she used to when driving home after upsetting him. Whether she forgot to tell him where she was going or posted a photo online wearing something he didn’t approve of, she hated going home those nights. She hated going home to him. She wasn’t allowed to make mistakes then, and she couldn’t make one now. Her only option was to escape the theater unseen.
Once the credits began to roll and the lights came back on, Sarah averted her eyes to the floor and dug around for the sunglasses in her purse.
“Did you want to get out of here?” While Jimmy rambled and apologized for sounding like a sleazy dude wanting to take her home, she stared at her ex’s head.
“Why isn’t he leaving?” She muttered to herself and surveyed the room. Within thirty-two seconds, only eight people would be left including her, her date, and the couple she was trying to avoid. “I need to get out of here.”
Jimmy stood up. In a typical situation, he would have correctly understood his cue. However, Sarah tugged on his sleeve to seat back down. “We can’t just go.”
“But I thought you wanted to leave?”
“I can’t be seen.” She pointed to her target. “I can’t let him see me.”
With this, Jimmy gave Sarah his coat and led her down the aisle. With his arm around her shoulders, they took it one step at a time. He walked in between her and the danger, shielding her from any chance of being hurt again. Each step carried the weight of one thousand. She clenched the handrail so hard she almost couldn’t move. Within two steps of his row, she blacked out and didn’t come back until she was outside. The light of the marquee flooded her vision and brought her back to life. She thought she had fainted but was standing on her own two feet,
“Sarah,” a man started. “We made it out alive!” With a few blinks, her vision refocused. His foggy silhouette regained its details. Jimmy was smiling. If it wasn’t for the transparent doors in front of her, she would’ve joined him. Instead, she dashed, leaving him to chase her. She left her ex just to continue running away from him.
“Sarah, where are you going?” With these words, she folded over, closed her eyes, and covered her ears. “Sarah.” She still heard muffled words. “Are you okay?” She tightened her grip on her ears. “Sarah,” he repeated and touched her back. With this, she spun around and swatted his hand away from her. Once her eyes and ears were open again, she looked at the man she hit. With big eyes, Jimmy looked back at her. Hovering in the background, the marquee was the size of a cereal box.
“I’m sorry,” she cried.
“It’s alright,” he replied with his hands up. “I have no problem with watching movies at home.” They both chuckled, as she wiped away her tears and realized how fast her heart was beating. “Let’s sit down.” With ringing ears and tingling fingers, she felt like she was floating. She didn’t know Jimmy had left until he returned with ice cream and a cup of water.
“I wasn’t sure which flavor you liked, so I kept it classic.”
She turned toward him to see two perfect scoops of vanilla and chocolate, each with their own cup and spoon. She tried to speak but soon realized how much it hurt to talk. She croaked and tried clearing her throat.
“Here.” Jimmy handed her the water. She nodded and sipped.
“Thank you,” she said with an exhausted smile. “Chocolate’s my favorite.”
“So I got it right!” He gave her her favorite and took the vanilla for himself. It wouldn’t be until their fourth date when she’d learn his favorite was chocolate as well.