There was something exhilarating about the idea of going to the Square by myself. When I first told them, I think my parents thought I was crazy, or lonely, or depressed. I mean, who wants to see a movie alone? Not the Matt they knew. Enter my mom:
“Honey, are you sure you don’t want to go with Jake? Or Dave? Or Ryan?”
Truth is, people have this strange notion that they constantly need to be around people. They’re wrong. Being alone can be just as comforting as the presence of others. I’d never been to see a movie by myself; I figured it was something I had to try at least once in my life.
Besides, who knew who I would run into there? It could be anyone: the new guy with the tire tattoo on his palm (I’d always wanted to ask him about that), or a person I had never noticed before but that once I got to know him was really cool. Or it could be Alice.
Yes, it could be Alice.
That’s how I found myself standing in line alone at the Square on a Saturday afternoon, on the lookout for an adventure. Instead, I found Sadie.
Actually, she found me.
She was behind the counter, scooping popcorn into bags and refilling the kernels when they ran out. Her hands looked unpleasantly greasy, her uniform made her seem a bit boyish, but her blue eyes gleamed beneath the rim of the sunvisor she wore (despite the lack of sun in a movie theatre).
“Matt! Over here.” She leaned over the counter, her arms crossed in front of her. I had noticed her in English class, before—I mean, it was kind of hard not to notice her. She was the kind of girl who remarked on the roundness of the world or the way the ceilings seemed higher every day. Other than a few conversations, we had never spoken before. But here she was, the last person I ever expected to see here, smiling at customers and flitting from the popcorn machine to the soda fountain and back. I had always pictured her in used bookstores full of dusty paperbacks or cartwheeling on a beach. Not that I’d ever really tried picturing her. But if I had, it wouldn’t have been here.
Still, the Square suited her—the black and white movies, the wooden floors and old-fashioned seats. It was the oldest movie theatre in town, but it was also my favourite.
“What movie are you seeing?” she asked me, her hands leaving buttery prints on the counter. None of her coworkers seemed bothered that she was neglecting her work; she probably did this sort of thing all the time.
“Frankenstein.” It was the last showing today. There were only a couple of movies playing every day, and I had arrived just in time to catch the last one.
“Good choice. 1931. Are you buying any popcorn?”
“I was, actually,” I said, and ordered a regular. She turned away for a second to scoop my popcorn into a bag. Her short blond ponytail stuck out the back of her hat and bounced when she walked—actually, all of her movements had a bounce-like quality to them.
“Here you go,” she said, handing me my change. “Enjoy the movie!” She winked at me. Actually winked. I didn’t think people actually did that. Then again, if someone were to do it, it would be Sadie. Not trusting myself to wink back (I was sure it would look like there was dust in my eye), I nodded toward her and headed to the theatre.
What always surprised me about the Square was how empty it was. For such a beautiful theatre, a theatre that still had a stage and a red curtain and curling scenery carved into the walls, I never understood why it wasn’t overcrowded. Nevertheless, it was, as per usual, mostly empty today. Only a few other couples had taken their seats on the red velvet, and the movie was a few minutes and a few faded lights away from beginning.
This was where the adventure began, I thought. This was the part where someone walking in would recognize me, point me out to his friend, and take their seat next to me.The part where we would talk and get to know each other and learn that we had things in common. The part where I saw a pretty girl sitting alone, walked up to her, and asked if the spot next to hers was taken. Even better: the girl could be Alice.
It wasn’t like I was in desperate need of friends. I had plenty of friends (cue my mother, spewing Jake’s, Dave’s, and Ryan’s as if she kept a list). Only, it became boring after awhile, going to school every day with the same people in the same flickering light in the same bland hallways.
So I waited. Waited for someone to show up, for something to happen. It did, eventually, when the lights went down and the curtain parted like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind crossing a room. None of my adventures came true, nobody showed up. I didn’t know what I had been expecting, honestly. By the end of the movie, I had declared my adventure a failure and was resigned to go home. Did I really think I would run into Alice here?
When the lights came back on, I rolled up my half-empty bag of popcorn and gathered my coat, ready to leave. But when I came to the aisle, there was a Sadie in my way.
She was different without her uniform. Of course, I saw her every day without it at school, but it was different in this light, the Square’s light, warm and low like a candle. She was leaning against the exit, her pink coat between her hands. Her ponytail was so messy that I didn’t know whether or not it could still be considered a ponytail. It looked like she had stuck her head behind an airplane just as it was taking off.
And she was watching me.
“My shift ended,” she said, pushing herself off the doorframe with one shoulder. “Doesn’t it look like the curtain is smiling?”
I turned away from her to look at the curtain, and indeed, the folds looked like wide smiles etched into a crimson face. “I guess so,” I said. “It’s like the theatre speaks for itself instead of having employees to welcome people.”
She smiled at that, and it felt like I had passed some kind of test. I didn’t know why, exactly, my passing made me feel so good, but it did. It felt like I had entered another dimension, a dimension where the world is rounder and the ceilings higher.
“It’s beautiful when it’s empty,” I found myself saying. The air seemed clearer with less people, almost like a church on a weekday. It all seemed so holy. “I wish I didn’t have to go.”
“You don’t.” She was walking out of the theatre toward the lobby. “I can give you a tour if you want,” she said, turning back to look at me with eyes that were almost too big for her head. She was almost too everything. If she took it all one step further, she’d be a character straight out of Singing’ in the Rain or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Her realness would be shattered.
She was almost too much to be real. Of course I said yes to the tour.
Sadie led me up a few flights of stairs past a “NO ENTRANCE” door, the kind of stairs that creaked as if they were about to fall apart. I trusted the Square, though. It would never break down, not for me.
“How long had you been standing there?” I asked her while we climbed. Her running shoes squeaked on the wooden floors.
“Just to watch the end of the movie. It had been too long since I’d last seen it.”
“You watch a lot of old movies?”
She stopped then, and turned back to me. “Are you kidding? I spend all my time here.”
I realized then that I had never seen her anywhere other than at school. Never at a person’s house, never at a party, never at the mall with a bunch of her friends. She was a mystery, but it seemed that she was finally leaving behind some clues. For me, at least.
We entered a small room filled to the brim with movie reels. The way they were stacked up on the shelves and on the floor made it look like a busy city. Chaotic, messy, yet with a certain order. I was sure there was some sort of elaborate organizational system in place. It felt like I was in another world, a world where the lights were lower, the movies older, everything old-fashioned and elegant. Sadie’s world.
“Am—Am I allowed to be in here?”
She spread her arms wide, and I worried that she would knock the antique reels off their towers. Her pink shirt rose up with her arms, revealing a slim line of pale stomach beneath it. “Of course. The theatre is closed. Besides, no one would mind; they love me here.”
Hard not to, I thought, until the implication of that thought registered in my mind. I quickly justified myself by saying that obviously people would love her when she was always this happy, always this excited about everything. Her happiness was an incurable flu, and I had come down hard.
She dropped her arms. “Pick one,” she said.
My eyes skimmed through the titles, most of them ones that I didn’t recognize. She was still waiting for me, but in this Wonderland of movie reels, how was I supposed to choose? “I can’t,” I said. “Your choice.”
Closing her eyes, she reached her hand out blindly until it touched a reel sitting at the top of a steep tower. “Rebecca,” she said. “Oh, I love this one. 1940.”
“Do you know the release date of every movie in here?” I laughed.
“Probably. I spend so much time in here. All my breaks.” She looked at the reels tenderly, with so much love that it was hard not to feel it too. They were like family to her. “C’mon.” She grabbed my hand, and hers was warm and free of any popcorn butter. “Let’s put it on.”
“What? Are we allowed?”
She laughed. “Stop worrying so much about whether or not it’s allowed and just do it!” I couldn’t believe the way she could both talk and laugh at the same time. Every one of her words were bubbles, and a laugh erupted every time one of them popped. I could almost see them floating around her head.
Her soft, butter-free hand pulled me to a separate room, where the vintage projector stared into the theatre. We could see everything from there, the curtain and the seats, all lit up in the Square’s low light. It felt amazing to be able to see everything from a single vantage point, to be able to look down on everything like a superior being. It was strange to see the Square from a different perspective, after all the times I had ever seen it from the ground. It seemed smaller from high up, like dollhouse-sized movie theatre, yet no less grand.
“Matt,” Sadie said. “Run downstairs and open the curtains while I start the movie.”
I raced down the stairs, jumping down the last few steps to go faster, and ran down the aisle toward the stage. It was taller from up close, the wood old and pale from countless footsteps. The curtain, though, was a beauty, not faded in the least. I wondered for a moment how old it was, before looking for some sort of strings with which to open it. Failing to find any, I pulled the fabric aside, heavier than I had anticipated.
The minute the curtains were parted, the projector turned on, the bright light shining into my face. My figure made a shadow on the screen, and I imagined the black and white pictures projected onto my cheeks. The music began, and I felt, for a moment, like I was inside the movie.
Through the blindingly bright light, I saw Sadie running down the aisle. She pulled me off the stage, and I, stumbling and laughing, followed her up some stairs to the very back of the theatre. We sat in the last row, on seats that would have been sat on a thousand times before, but were somehow still comfortable after all these years.
The world turned to black and white then, just like the movie, except for the bright kaleidoscopic presence next to me. Everything was Sadie, and she was everywhere, while still being in a single spot next to me—like an electron. Not even our shoulders or knees touched, yet I could still feel her. She was like a light brighter than the projector. She was noise and sound, louder than the speakers. And suddenly, after around thirty minutes of silence, she leaned toward me and whispered, “What do you think?”
“Of the theatre or of the movie?” I asked.
“I like it,” I said. “Actually, I love it.” I wondered if she could tell that I was only partly talking about the movie.
“Good. You’ll be able to choose next time. You’ll come prepared.” She smiled into my ear, and our elbows touched. The minute her skin no longer touched mine, I felt its absence like an amputated finger. I wanted it back.
“Next time,” I murmured.
When she stood up, the wind the movement created brushed against my cheek. It felt different than air: more solid, more Sadie. She walked away from me and toward the stage, and I followed, of course; she was a presence to be followed, the kind that soldiers would follow to their death. I would follow Sadie anywhere, into battle, into fire, into the very movie.
She sat on the edge of the stage, and I sat next to her. Rebecca was still playing in the background, but that was all it was: background music, the soundtrack to our life. Still, we didn’t touch, only sat with our backs to the screen and stared into the empty audience.
“Sadie,” I said, and I liked the sound of her name. It sounded like the ocean in my mouth, like rolling waves on a far-off beach. I said it again, and she looked at me. “What happens after this? After the movie ends, when the credits roll and I close the curtain? What happens?”
“I’m leaving,” she said.
“Going home?” I asked. I tried to imagine her family, her siblings, her pets, if she had any. Her room. But Sadie was all here, and I couldn’t see her anywhere else.
“No. I’m going to California.”
I jumped away from her, noticing for the first time that I had been slowly leaning toward her. “What? You’re moving?”
She stared at her feet in white sneakers dangling off the edge. “Not moving, not exactly,” she sighed. “I felt like I was never really here in the first place.”
“What about school? What about the Square?” I asked. “What about me?”
She looked up at me with her blue eyes, almost too big for her face, swimming in the middle of her pale skin. “I’m sorry, Matt. I should have told you.”
Why was it I felt so deceived? I felt betrayed, like a promise had been broken and I was left to pick up its pieces. We had never spoken before that day, never at school or at a football game or for homework. But it was Sadie, larger-than-life Sadie, and she couldn’t just leave me here. “So all this…” I gestured to the theatre, to the projector and the seats and the curtain. To myself. “What was it for? What happened to ‘next time’?”
“I was handing over the Square. Handing it over to you.” She took my hand, and I wanted to keep it there forever and never let it go. Never let her go. “I need someone to come in here and love it for me. Someone to smile back at the curtain once I’m gone.” She apologized again, and I thought about movies and how this was the spot where I was supposed to kiss her in the middle of a sentence. But though Sadie was too much to be real, I was too little. I was stuck in the real world, and although I could pretend this was all black and white, the colours suddenly seemed painfully bright to me. And Sadie’s colours were fading.
So Sadie walked away, down the Square’s carpeted aisle, and I watched her ponytail bounce away, her sneakers and her pink shirt. The movie was still projected behind me, the actors playing out a story just as mine felt like it was ending. The world felt so round, the ceilings so high, and I thought that the Square wouldn’t have seemed so empty if Sadie hadn’t just left it. Then again, I was the only one there, a single person sitting on the edge of the stage.
I thought of Alice, how she never would have played me like that. She never would have left me alone in the middle of a theatre without telling me how to turn off the projector or lock the doors. Then again, Alice never would have been here in the first place, never to sit on an old stage and talk about smiling curtains. She never would have given me—theoretically—an entire theatre. She wasn’t Sadie, but Sadie was gone.
As I listened to the buttery-smooth voices of Rebecca, voices falling in love and living life the way it was meant to be lived, I wondered if I would ever see Sadie again. If I had ever seen her at all.