She loved the theater despite its flaws: the faded carpets and cracked poster frames, its lack of a curtain call. She clutched broom and dustpan and strained to hear the happenings in the dark room. Sometimes people clapped at the end, and she could pretend winter had passed and spring had come and she was on stage as Sandy in Grease. The director told her, after posting the cast list, that she might be the first Afghan American ever to play the role in a high school production. When she heard that she’d felt like there was a small sun in her throat, aching to get out.
And: yes, there, the clapping. Someone whistled. She practiced her bow as bodies flooded the lobby.
This was one of those dumb comedies. People fled once it was over, guffawing, repeating favorite lines in a way that would get exhausting over cheap pizza. Three middle-aged women emerged from the group of teen boys, laughing, hiding smiles behind manicures, rushing away from Theater 12 to stand next to the more respectable period drama for their post-show rundown.
She poked her head in again. Credits still rolling, but emptier by the moment. Enter, she thought, stage right. Holding her head high she imagined a crowd cheering when she appeared, clapping so loud the show stopped. She assessed the audience. So it wasn’t a full house, but there in the third row were those two guys—she’d ripped their tickets, the ones with the big smiles. Nice white boys, the whole town was full of them. These were embracing.
She’d been working at the movies since the summer, and was no longer scandalized by couplings of any kind. She never mentioned them to her mother. When inevitably interrogated after work she would leave this out, the strange and almost lovely way one man bent over the other.
Anyway, if she retreated every time she saw a couple going at it, she would never join another musical, or scrape the popcorn off the floor. Ducking her head, she let them do what they had to do, sneaking one more glance to sigh at the broad shoulders on the darker one, who was probably Italian.
She swept up fallen M&Ms and imagined her mother’s face if she invited the Italian or his blonde friend over for kofta kebabs. It was difficult to picture. Her mother worried and prayed and worried and worked and worried, but, after all, she did agree to the Grease audition, and to this job at this cinema. She thought of her mother like a rock, shaped by time and by the steady seeping of lovely, boring America.
The front rows were maddeningly clean, and she paused when she got to the boys. They were not making out, as she had thought, and she was happy for the reprieve from the PDA she had to endure at her high school. There, everyone wanted to express affection in physical ways, tilting heads to avoid noses, rushing towards each other like waves breaking over the clash of lips and tongues in a movement so coordinated and violent that she didn’t think she would ever participate, let alone master it. No, the boys (they were probably men, but in her experience every non-father was a boy, so she would continue to think of them as boys) weren’t kissing. The pale one was curled in his seat, every line and angle pulled taut. The dark boy’s head was close, not in a kiss, but as if trying to make sure his companion was still breathing.
It was a scene, and she read it like she would a play: THE ITALIAN, a scruffy looking fellow, sits in a darkened theater after a cheap matinee and attempts to shake his friend THE BLOND out of a waking nightmare.
She leaned against her broom and wondered how much a soldier would appreciate help from a brown teenager. Even if she were the only one in the theater—maybe even the whole suburb—who knew those gestures. Who knew that look. It was the one that said: you’re okay; you’re home; I’m here.
She had a job to do, and theaters to clean, and sometimes people who were used to wearing guns noticed she was a Muslim and little else, but she retreated to the lobby anyway. Not for the pale boy. For his darker friend who probably smelled of the sea.
The front room surprised her, with the big glass doors that led to the small Pennsylvanian world made blindingly bright by its blanket of snow. She got a bottle of water from the employee breakroom and asked Barb, a paraplegic who sold tickets at the counter, to keep the lights low in Theater 12.
“A big spill?” Barb asked, which was code for vomit.
She nodded a lie and retreated across the stain-studded carpet.
Abandoning the cleaning equipment entirely, she reentered with all the false confidence that she was cultivating for the musical. She flashed a smile, the cheerleader one she’d been practicing, at the maybe-Italian boy, who, up close, was a dead ringer for her Grease love interest Danny Zuko.
She gave him a bottle of water and he barely looked at her when he said, “Thank you.”
She’d predicted the choreography. The way eyes would flicker to her scarf, not her face. The pursing of the lips.
Perhaps this was a scene, too, a small one: THE ITALIAN ignores the GIRL in the hijab. She’d predicted the choreography. The way eyes would flicker to her scarf, not her face. The pursing of the lips.
It gave her an opportunity to look at him. This T-bird had high cheekbones and an elegantly curved mouth. He smelled not of brine but of a mother’s nightmare, of back rooms and back seats and possibilities. His friend looked like a pale and crumpled version of Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan, like he’d seen too much of explosives, or a desert.
She had cousins in the war on the other side of the world. She’d seen their bodies curl for cover, just like this. How their eyes followed invisible phantasms, just like this.
She felt like she was intruding. She had other jobs to do. But Danny Zuko was handsome and in his twenties and when she looked at him her stomach twisted, so she stayed, and ventured a guess. “Iraq?”
Danny Zuko looked up and she felt all at once exposed. This time they locked eyes. He took in every inch of her, the long sleeves of her uniform, the chipping French tips courtesy of a sleepover party. And he was surprised, as if she was mind-reading and not simply following the stage direction. “Afghanistan,” he said.
“Oh,” she said, biting her bottom lip. She could leave, of course, and let these two fend for themselves in the dark. She had given them water and as an employee of the theater perhaps she owed them nothing else. But instead she leaned her broom against the wall and took the seat closest to the aisle.
The other boy, the soldier, seemed to be trying to remember how to breathe. She tried to think of something to say over the silence. “Did you like the movie?” She winced immediately at the way her voice sounded, high and lilting and young.
Danny Zuko had a hand on his friend’s knee, and the grip looked firm. “It was the fireworks at the end.” His eyes were like flints. Combine that with her skin, the color of dead wood left to bleach in the sun, and she knew that if he leaned forward just a bit they could burn the world. “He’s been okay.” He flexed his fingers. “But the fireworks.”
She nodded. He uncapped the water and offered it to his friend. When he didn’t move, Danny Zuko drank deeply, and handed it to her. She thought of his lips on her lips and blushed as she shook her head no. Her mother could probably smell Italian saliva.
The boy took another long swig of water, then capped it and asked, “What’s your name?”
But there was good drama and bad drama, and America coming to save the day was a bit dramatic. So instead she said “Marina,” which was the name of her sister.
There was a true answer: America. She’d won the name honestly, from parents who were thankful to have a daughter born in a suburb of Philadelphia instead of the outskirts of Jalalabad. But there was good drama and bad drama, and America coming to save the day was a bit dramatic. So instead she said “Marina,” which was the name of her sister.
“Joe,” the darker boy said. “This is Seth. He’s a good guy, really. Only good guy I know who joined up. But he just got back. I should have known about the fireworks, but I just didn’t think.” He took a deep breath. “Anyway, thanks for the water.”
Seth was leaning back in his seat, gripping the arms. His hair was still in its regulation buzz cut and shimmered gossamer in the low light. He would, America thought, be entirely beautiful when he grew up.
“We’ll be out of your hair soon,” Joe promised. He had extraordinarily long eyelashes.
America wondered how to make him kiss her, wondered what flouncing and flirting she’d seen on TV would work here, in the dark. She wondered if he would kiss her, even though she was still growing into her long legs and was waiting for her breasts to catch up with her height, even though she was brown all over and spoke Arabic at home just like the terrorists on TV. And yet she leaned forward. Just a little bit. She would have to kiss onstage in the spring and wanted her first experience to be something less scripted.
He smelled like soap and something fresh, maybe rosemary. He had an array of freckles on one cheek and the other side was smooth except for a scar the size of a fingernail right next to his nose. She was pretty sure he was leaning towards her, too, that it wasn’t just the rotation of the earth. Was she doing this right? His lips looked soft and warm as a summer’s day.
When Seth gasped, Joe jerked away, his hand reaching out towards his friend. America watched, heart hammering, for what could have been.
She sensed her scene coming to a close. She stood, wondering if she were a bit player in their story or if they were a duo who had wandered into hers.
“Stay as long as you like,” she said. Her broom was still by the door, and there was Theater 13 to clean before the next show. She hesitated. The boys seemed apt to disappear when the dark was dispelled by the luminescence of the silver screen.
She plunged a hand in her back jeans-pocket, came up with an old receipt and a stub of golf pencil. “Stay away from these movies.” She listed the new action flicks, obviously, but also one that had a ritualistic cannon ceremony and another whose crashing waterfall could sound like the thunderous chaos of an infantry. She paused, then wrote down a new animated movie, too—for kids, but there was a surprisingly violent death by exploding car.
Joe took the list. “What’s left?” he joked, then lifted his eyes to hers. “Thank you.” Their fingers touched. She guessed she’d have to settle for that.
She wanted to tell him that it could get worse, nightmares and daymares, or it could get better, a gradual lessening of tension until only the fear of fear remained. She wanted to tell Joe her name, and ask how old he was, and if he’d mind taking a just-legal America out for a spin.
Seth was curled away from her, the back of his shirt hitched up. She wanted to touch his skin, to see if it felt like it looked, like the shuddering flank of a war horse.
Instead, she said, “Thank you for your service,” and left.