“Come to the Kimball tonight,” Melanie said. “They’re showing that French movie I told you about, with the dog.”
She knew I didn’t speak French, didn’t much like foreign films or her friends. But I went anyway because she was tall and blonde and her voice hit me right in the solar plexus every time, y’know?
The Kimball was one of those run-down theaters, worn-out red velvet seats, old-timey 35-millimeter film. Used to be a big deal, before the hipsters moved in. When I pulled up on my Harley, Mel was already there with her art school friends. You know the type: fake-ripped jeans and rectangular glasses. Wouldn’t see anything that came out of Hollywood. Therese with her stupid skateboard strapped to her backpack and her white-girl dreads like everybody didn’t know she graduated from Payton. And then there was me, in the only pair of jeans that I hadn’t ripped yet and barely twelve credits at the community college.
My best shot with Mel, I figured, was to make nice with her crowd, learn their language. Only I couldn’t follow half of it: symbolism and camera angles and people just don’t understand Art. I stood in the lobby trying not to look stupid until I couldn’t stand it anymore and ducked out for a smoke. The only other person out there was this tiny little thing in bell-bottom overalls with rainbow suspenders. I barely gave her a second look.
“Need a light?” she asked, pulling out a Bic. “I quit last month.”
I said, ”Sure, thanks,” even though I had a lighter in my pocket.
I figured I oughta make small talk, as long as we were both there. Asked if she was here to see the movie. Like a pro.
“Seen it,” she said. “About thirty times.”
“God, I’m sorry,” I said. It just kinda slipped out.
Her laugh was light, throaty. Turned out her name was Kaya and she ran the projector. “It’s not about the movies,” she told me. She liked being in the booth. Liked the sound of it, the gentle heat of the bulb and the hypnotic motion of the platters.
“Mostly,” she said, “I like being in control.”
Well. Me being me, I gave her a wicked grin. “Really?” I said, thinking I was gonna make her blush. Only she didn’t.
“Yeah, really,” she said, and shot me that same look right back.
That’s probably what started it, that look.
They couldn’t run the film without the projectionist, of course, so she had to get back to the booth. And I had to get back to Mel. I sat through that whole fucking movie trying to forget that look while Mel played hard-to-get. By the end of the movie Mel let me hold her hand. She was so goddamn smug about it, like it was this big deal, holding another girl’s hand. Maybe it was for her, I dunno.
I started hanging around the theater, buying tickets with money I didn’t have to watch films I didn’t like. I learned her schedule, showed up even without Mel. Those nights I’d catch Kaya outside before the show, borrow her lighter. It was kind of a running joke. I’d wait with her, after, until her bus came, smoking cigarettes I didn’t even want.
I stopped watching the movies; started watching the blue-white brilliance of the projector’s bulb instead. It flickered and pulsed like a heartbeat, and I imagined I could hear her whispers in the steady whirring of the projector, like she was showing these movies just for me, only it wasn’t about the movies, it was about the beam of light running through my veins. I started seeing her in the glow of the marquee, the reflection of headlights in the rain. Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw her face in the afterimage.
One night she invited me up to the booth. It wasn’t allowed, but what the hell, right? The projector was this ancient mechanical thing, and she had to thread the film on there just right. She wouldn’t let me help, just made me sit in the back of the booth and watch.
There’s something about a girl who knows how to use her hands.
I don’t even remember what the movie was, because next thing I knew she was in my lap and I was thinking, why the fuck was I working so hard for Mel? Kaya didn’t care if I thought art films were stupid. Didn’t care about making an impression. She cared about the moment, the connections we make, the blue-white arc of electricity when two people touch.
Twenty, thirty minutes went by–we weren’t exactly paying attention–and this guy walked in and stopped dead. I don’t blame him, really.
Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t tossing clothes around. We were decent. Only, it was Kaya’s boss, who never came by during a show. He kicked me out so fast I didn’t even have time to get her number. I waited around outside until the movie was over, and who walked out? Mel. She thought I was there to surprise her, and wasn’t this romantic, and hey girls, look who’s here. By the time I peeled her off me, Kaya was gone. Hopped on the bus when I wasn’t looking.
She wasn’t there the next night; not before the show, not after. I sat through an entire movie with no dialogue, staring at the booth until I thought I’d go blind. And she wasn’t there. I don’t know who was running the projector, but it wasn’t her. Same thing the next night, and the next. Finally, the ticket guy told me she got fired.
I stood outside the Kimball a long time that night, eyes closed, trying to fix her face in my mind.
Just as the image faded, her voice cut through the shadows. “I hoped you’d be here. Need a light?”
“Yeah,” I said, drawn into the blue brilliance of her eyes. “Yeah, I do.”
Originally published in Crush: Stories about Love by MidnightSun Publishing, September 2017. Reprinted here by permission of the author.