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Jenny Carratello

Movie night is my favorite. We always go to the downtown theater: the one with the  crystal chandelier, the popcorn machine as old as the building, and the vintage movie posters framed in dull brass. The theater is older than our parents. Only the ICEE machine and the iPad for cards break the illusion you've stepped back in time.

Today, we arrive so early that it’s still late afternoon. Sunlight pours through the front windows, bouncing inside the chandelier and washing the lobby in rainbows. 

“Are you getting popcorn?” she asks. 

I shake my head.

Once, I would have said, “Of course.” I would’ve bought the biggest bucket available—the collectible metal one with superheroes and unlimited refills— and saturated it with sticky butter oil until it pooled like soup at the bottom of the tin. I would’ve set it on the armrest between us so we could both reach it as we surrendered to the world we were about to see. By the end of the movie, the bucket would’ve migrated to her lap and my fingers would be slick and sticky. 

But that was before. Ghosts don't need to eat or sleep, so she doesn’t. There’s nothing left to anchor her anymore, except me, and only because she lets herself be anchored sometimes. She vanishes to hang out with other ghosts for days at a time, only  to return as if everything is fine. As if I haven’t been fretting that she might be gone for good this time. If she wanted, she could sink down into the core of the earth or float up into the sun, and all I would be able to do is watch. It looms over us until I really look at her, and I’m reminded again. She’s barely a wisp now: tall and willowy and ethereally pale in the dim lights of the lobby. I try not to look at her. When I do, I conspicuously blink to keep tears from sliding down my face. She’s drifting, and there’s not a goddamn thing I can do. 

So I don’t get popcorn. I sail right past the concessions stand. I show my ticket to the  slouching guy who could be attractive if his eyes weren’t glazed over. In monotones, he points me to the right theater. I dart down the hall, slipping into the cool embrace of the theater’s shadows and thud of the sound system. 

She reaches for my arm. Goosebumps sprout and hair rises where her hand should be. “So what do you think he’s doing?” She grins at me, cold and sharp. “Weed? Coke? Speed?” 

Was she always this callous? “He’s earning minimum wage to stand there all day. Maybe he’s just bored. Or depressed.” I force a shrug and pull open the door to our theater. 

Here, I pause. I turn to check that she’s still with me. She's drifting to my side so we can scope out seats together. The theater is only half full; everyone is evenly spaced out to allow maximum distance between parties. The trailers haven’t started yet. Half the audience ignores the screen in favor of chatting with their pals. The lonely half watch the screen, even though it’s only playing ads for local businesses. 


“Up there?” She whispers. She points to the middle seats up in back. She likes it there because it’s higher up. She hates having to crane her neck upward to see all the action. Movies aren’t worth getting neck cramps.


Do ghosts even get neck cramps?

I nod and follow her.

We’re invisible here. Even surrounded by people, it’s still just the two of us in our  world. Before, the invisibility of the movie theater was blissful. I could imagine I was a superhero: the ones that fly across the screen. Now, I’m just thankful. She and I can come here and forget the world, forget our troubles, forget the wary looks I get everywhere else. 

We sit and I glance at her. She shifts until she is comfortable. The edges of her spectral form disappear into the chair’s cushions. I’m glad the theater is half full. To everyone else, I’m sitting alone. Someone could take her seat, and then what would we do? 

We watch the trailers for all the new movies.. Their optimism is breathtaking.  Not the actual trailers—those are all more action flicks like the one we’re here to see—but that there are trailers at all. We’re not even to the main event and already we’re being invited to come back to the theater. Is it that easy to assume we’ll all be eager and able to return in three to six months for another movie? 

The movie stars Ryan Reynolds or Gosling—I can never tell them apart. It’s the kind of  movie that would have been a blockbuster before superhero movies started getting philosophical and winning Oscars. It’s good, mindless fun, intended for people who want to check out of reality for a couple hours and stop reexamining their lives. 

We meet the two heroes at the same time they meet each other. They’re hesitant to form an alliance but need each other to take on their common foe. It’s a nice, generic beginning, as simple as the birth of any other friendship. 

An hour in, I reach over for the popcorn. My hand finds only empty air. 

“What are you doing?” she asks softly.

She watches me, her eyes glittering unnaturally in the dark. 

Right. Things are different now. No popcorn. 

“Sorry.” I shove my hands under my thighs and press down hard enough to squeeze the circulation from my fingers. I resolutely return my eyes to the screen and slip back inside the story. 

There’s the classic villain monologue. When the tension between the heroes grows until it explodes into a hero-on-hero fight. The battle ends with both heroes calling truce after they're too battered to go any longer, like a few good punches is the cure for built up bitter resentment. 

The heroes, now reconciled, are a well-oiled, unstoppable, crime-fighting machine. Together, they tear through their enemies, easily cutting through the ranks of henchmen they struggled to escape from at the beginning of the movie twenty-four in-movie hours earlier. They move on to find the villain and offer him one last chance at redemption.  


The heroes are the good guys because they give the villain a chance. It’s the moment between breaths. Even though everyone knows what’s coming, it’s glorious to imagine what it would be like if the villain chose the better path. And then the last hope gets yanked out from under you. 

I reach beside me, muscle memory seeks out a hand to hold through the excitement.


On screen, the villain turns away for a final time, and the music swells as weapons  emerge. The final battle is about to start!  My hand grasps at empty air. I lose my balance and tip over. I catch myself before I fall into the empty seat next to mine. 

What counts as an empty seat? There’s no tangible, fleshy body in  the space next to me. It’s just her: new, bright, airy.

She doesn’t  notice my stumble, even though I fall through her forearm. Her luminescent eyes stay on the screen. She’s lost in the same explosions and snarky one-liners I was just a few moments ago. When I push myself upright again, my head passes through her shimmery shoulder. She doesn’t even glance at me. She’s the ghost, but I’m the phantom, invisible and ignored. 

The movie fades to the background, and the crackling roar of blockbuster fire vibrates through the room. But she sits still, untouched by the sound waves rattling the room. 

The rest of the movie passes in a flurry of flashing pictures and rumbling noises. It’s all white noise compared to the screaming void of serenity throbbing next to me. 

There was a time, before, when I thought we would do everything together. College. Move to a big city. Find girlfriends or boyfriends. Settle down. Start families. We’d invite each other's partners and families to dinner every week and force our kids to be playmates and friends. Our kids would become as inseparable as we were in our youth. 

Even in my dreams, I never hoped for more. 

But that’s all fading, just like her. Now, we just have these moments. I reach for this last vestige of what was and pretend that someday it will be enough. She has an entire new plane of existence to explore, and I can’t follow her. 

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