I’ve been going to the Regal Cinemas Spotlight 14 in Norman for almost five years. It’s a grimy, aging theater which hasn’t been remodeled, I’m guessing, since it’s opening, based on the stained, fading carpets and the odd, misplaced humidity. The movies themselves are often too dim or the audio is weird, too-soft music and too-loud dialogue, and every once in awhile the employees forget to turn off the fluorescent lights they turn on for cleaning, leaving the audience sitting in a gross, eerily bright room while previews play until someone (often me) goes and talks to the ticket taker, an old man who reads revisionist fiction about World War Two (he’s not a “sweet old man” and he seems to hate his job and me; I love him).
My earliest memories of the Regal are during the early winter when the snow seemed like it was perpetually falling. I have a picture of my friends walking in the parking lot, with the asymmetrical neons on the building glowing in the deep dark. I’d gotten this big, brown coat as a gift from my mom which I primarily used for smoking outside our apartment, and I wore it there every time so I could sneak in whatever I wanted.
We used to go to Regal reeking of cigarettes with me wrapped in my coat, the ground all crunchy and slippery with snow and ice. One time, Will and Chris showed up with Whataburger in their jackets for a showing of Kingsman: The Secret Service, which we followed up by having a terrible, difficult conversation about all our friendships. Another time, Ty and I, both heartbroken and not doing so well, saw Still Alice, a movie about the pain of Alzheimer’s, and then did donuts in the frozen parking lot; we were feeling several things at one time.
Back then, I was not in a good place. I will be the first to tell you that (and I probably have). I was craving everything. I wanted to feel good, better than I did, and I latched onto whatever helped. I drank, I smoked, I watched a lot of movies, I read new books. And I went to the Regal. Whenever I was there, I felt very good, because everything melted away and it was just me and whoever I was there with, often no one.
In the fall of 2015, I met Mary Kathryn. And she didn’t do what the girls do for guys in movies and vice versa; she didn’t heal all my broken parts or fix me with her goodness and kindness. What she did was, she went to the movies with me. She wore big sweaters with her hair tied up in a bun, I wore sweatpants and slippers. We both wanted to be by ourselves, but not alone. That’s what the movie theater provided.
The first movie we saw was Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, which was great. We’d just gotten off an RV where we’d lived with several others for three days and somehow we still wanted to go to the movies, where we were completely alone in the late-night theater. The next week, we saw The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which is probably my favorite movie that I both love and constantly forget. We kept going to the movies, at least every other Monday, that whole semester, even though Tuesday worked better for our schedules (and was student night at the theater). Sometimes we dragged others with us, like the time we brought Ty to see Carol, during which we laughed the entire time because the husband — who Carol was cheating on — was named Harge, pronounced Har-j, and we kept calling him variations of his ridiculous name.
Mary Kathryn and I were both depressed and tired and bored all the time. We were worship leaders at church but we were confused about faith. We’d go to IHOP and she’d study while I wrote papers. I think for a long time, what we really did for each other, was provide a safe, comfortable friendship, someone who was just there.
When we started dating, it wasn’t a surprise for anyone but us. To me for so long, she was a sibling and more. When we were in rooms together I felt connected to her, like I was hers and she was mine, in a way I haven’t felt before. It was not romantic, not platonic, not in between. I think I always saw the movie theater as this place where that sort of connection could exist without the tension of everything outside.
We don’t go to the movies as often anymore, though not because we don’t still want to. I graduated and work full-time, she’s in grad school, and the nights don’t belong to us anymore. In three weeks, Mary Kathryn returns from her clinical rotation for occupational therapy school on the same day that Mission Impossible: Fallout comes out. We’ll go see it and I’ll remember everything and try to react to the heavy gratitude in a reasonable, healthy way. She’ll smile at me, I’ll smile back.
I like to hope, though I doubt, that some other pair of weird friends are taking the same solaces we did at the Regal in the late nights. I hope they’re hearing the distant music of the empty upstairs arcade as they buy tickets inside and splurge on popcorn and candy. I hope when they get mistakenly arrive an hour-and-a-half before their movie, they go and play Pac-Man multiplayer and laugh the whole time, like my friends and I did. I hope they realize, as I did, that the dilapidation there is actually a positive (it’s not). And I don’t really care if they fall in love, like we did, but I do hope they use the Regal as a place to breathe, and rest, and enjoy a few hours away from it, because it’s a lot.