Fiction · 02/21/2018

Love Story In A Movie Theater Where A Loud Man Is Smoking A Cigarette

The plan (unspoken but mutual) had been to break up after the movie. It’s over, but let’s spend an evening mourning it, externalizing its collapse onto flickering lights in a dark theater. For me, the simultaneous closeness and distance — sharing an armrest and a bag of popcorn, yet silent and facing forward, no more intimate with each other than with the people to her left or my right: a woman who loudly announces whether she would or would not see each of the films advertised in the previews, and a man who struggles so mightily to outsmart the plastic packaging covering his candy box that I worry, with a parent’s helpless urgency, that he could not possibly make it in the world on his own — all of that enacted the stifling silence that had taken hold in our apartment: the paradox of proximity and isolation; for her, I imagine that the film’s empty pyrotechnics — once excuse enough to spend an evening in prepaid air conditioning; now barely worth the energy of its cumbersome prerequisites: agreeing on a time and place, et cetera — represented how our tastes and needs have changed, how we aren’t who we were at the beginning.

So, as the two lovers in the film (or robots or dinosaurs… the plot is evasive) encounter obstacles over the swell of rising music, I reach my hand out to her and she takes it, and there is sweetness in our mutual recognition of the end, and though there is sadness in the knowledge that the object of this empathy is its own finitude, it feels as if we are on this precipice of these opposing sentiments condensing into something like poignancy and catharsis…

…Except, there is this large guy in the front row who won’t stop laughing (which is strange because I had been certain that the film was unrelentingly sad). His laugh is loud and throaty, as if he were choking on an Elephant Seal, but also joyful, as if the Elephant Seal in question bears him no ill will. And I suppose we have no right to tell him what is or isn’t funny (for my part, I crack up any time I see a duck near a man with his back turned to it… as if the duck were sneaking up to pick his pocket; she laughs to the point of crying when she sees dogs in sweaters, even though she thinks doing the same to cats is cruel) but the large man is also smoking a cigarette, and the plumes of smoke are visible in the projected light, making the film appear more independent and pretentious. Someone behind him asks him to put it out, which only leads him to light a second cigarette, which is just wasteful (all those kids who can’t afford cigarettes), but also raises the possibility that he will continue to light another cigarette every time he is confronted, and makes us wonder how high he can go, how many he can hold in his mouth and fingers at one time.

Eventually an attendant comes to confront him (young and slim: the sort of boy who, in a simpler time, you might just dismiss as a “pipsqueak,” but now makes you think about how many of the flakey kids you went to high school with end up getting jobs working for Homeland Security at the airport), but clearly he has no authority (he is half the age and, at best, half the size of the smoking man) and the only response he can elicit from the large man is the offer of a cigarette for himself which, despite being a non sequitur to his request, and despite him being too young to legally smoke, clearly tempts him. He leaves (perhaps to quit his job, or, if not, to plumb new depths of indifference to bring to bear on how he performs it) and is replaced by a manager (we deduce this status because he is wearing a suit, and not the standard vest and clip-on bow tie costume that is meant to make you feel like you are in a simpler time). The manager loudly tells the large man that he has to leave the theater or else security will remove him (and we wonder how this would work mechanically, wedged into the seat as he is); The smoking man stops laughing only long enough to ask the manager for a Martini with olives, not onions, unless they didn’t have Beefeater, in which case it didn’t matter how they garnished it so long as the garnish was plentiful. Also he would like an opium pipe prepared in the classic French Colonial style, as the combination of being at the movies and the standard uniform of the employees had, successfully, made him harken for a simpler time.

The manager escalates the situation, first by pointing his finger (which only serves to demonstrate that it is not as long and foreboding as he imagined it to be, no doubt having practiced regularly on his stable of half-conscious subordinates) and then by pulling out his walkie-talkie and asking for security (and we are both disappointed that he does not say something like WE HAVE A CODE ORANGE HERE, but, in fairness, it would be hard to anticipate having to remove a large man who won’t stop smoking cigarettes and laughing from your movie theater, or at least to anticipate it happening with sufficient frequency to require its own code, and then to decide what single word or phrase would be adequate and appropriate to represent it) and then while waiting for security to show up (we are rapt with suspense as to how many security officers will arrive and whether they will be any more up to the task than their colleagues) it is clear that the manager doesn’t know what to do with his body in the recess: he appears to contemplate momentarily sitting down next to the man, as if to keep him under supervision in the manner of a U.S. Marshall transporting a prisoner by train, but refrains from doing so either out of a sense of propriety (as if sitting close to him would be a kind of tacit endorsement) or a fear of being hit by the end of a cigarette in the apogee of its vast gesticulatory orbit. He also holsters and redraws his walkie-talkie at least four times despite sending no additional messages on it, perhaps pantomiming a western gunslinger in order to increase his confidence in advance of the impending showdown, or perhaps simply out of nervous energy (a resource of which he appears to possess an ample and renewable supply).

He is obviously relieved when his security force arrives: one rent-a-cop — distinguished by his plastic badge — and three regular employees, though one of them has removed his clip-on bow tie (we speculate that this irregular dress is sanctioned by the manager in order to maximize his range of motion in the event of physical confrontation). The three regular employees have (we hypothesize) been selected to the squad solely on the basis of their above average size (though we like to imagine that the manager scoured the application forms of his entire staff, paying particular attention to the section labeled ADDITIONAL SKILLS in order to put together his emergency removal security team. We also do not know if this squad was assembled just now, ad hoc, or if these four are, regardless of their default duties, on-call to come and remove a large man with a cigarette whenever such a situation arises, and, if so, if the squad have a name. I whisper to her that I would name them THE REMOVERS, but she shakes me off and says that they would have a name with more mystery, something simple and opaque, like DARK SQUAD. And I agree with her).

So, the four men of DARK SQUAD form a semi circle between the smoking man and the screen, while the manager — clearly lacking the poise and character to be a DARK SQUAD member himself; just look at his posture! — stands on the outside and tries, pathetically, to assert his authority by pointing at the smoking man from safety, sticking his hand through the gap between DARK SQUAD arms like a child taunting a caged lion. The largest member of DARK SQUAD (who we first decide to name NITRO, but then realize, apologetically, that this is too campy, so we name him STONEHENGE instead), STONEHENGE positions himself directly across from the smoking man (whom we agree, solemnly, could have no name, in large part because, from our vantage, he has no face; he is an orb of smoke punctuated by dots of cigarette ember and outbursts of drunk — yes, we agree now: drunk — Elephant Seals).

The large man blows smoke into STONEHENGE’s face, but STONEHENGE doesn’t flinch.

Sir, he says to the man. Sir, you are going to need to go.


And by this time we have missed the dramatic climax of the movie, which is fine in one sense: because we are more invested in the outcome of DARK SQUAD VS THE FACELESS MAN than we ever were in the film. But is not fine in the other sense: that we had been hoping that the film would have beautiful closure and so then (if we held hands while we watched it) we could graft our relationship’s end onto its end, and we could have beautiful closure too. Instead, we can barely remember the movie’s premise, and, though we are captivated by the live drama playing out in the theater, we have no idea what a large man who won’t shut up or stop smoking in a movie theater has to do with young love on the brink.

So. Fuck it.

We stay together.


Daniel Paul received his MFA from Southern Illinois University. His fiction, poetry, non-fiction and humor writing has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Passages North, The Pinch, Puerto Del Sol, Hobart, New Delta Review, and other magazines. He has been awarded prizes for short fiction from Briar Cliff Review, Yemassee, and elsewhere. He lives in Ohio where he is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Cincinnati.