My hometown cinema had an offer on each February, watch all ten Best Picture nominees for twenty dollars. We loaded up my mother’s station wagon with girls in fur-lined parkas, sharing seatbelts with lanky boys whose stubble edged up around their cheeks because they had not learned to shave yet, boys who wanted to be men and were not. We had all grown up together, from cootie-infested childhood through awkward voice-creaking knee-aching puberty, learned to touch each other, touched each other knowing what each others’ houses smelled like and dogs’ names and everyone we’d ever kissed, touched each other knowing that for both of us this was the first time. The twin reassurances of familiarity and inexperience.
They screened Oscar pictures in the smallest, oldest theater with its carved wooden balcony, velvet curtains, a stage pockmarked by dancers’ feet. We slipped into the dusty blackness lopsidedly, careful not to crush the popcorn and chocolate and gin hidden beneath those winter coats, jostled each other trying to sit next to the boy we secretly loved, a task made more difficult by the nonchalance required. It was no good to be close to him if he knew you wanted to be. To let the tension build, to feel him looking at you and stare resolutely at the screen — this was the most satisfying bit, the orchestral music swelling up before that first kiss always better than the disappointing aftermath, the hero’s death, the heroine’s descent to sin. You could not die if you had not been kissed yet. And so we waited.
I cannot recall the vaguest plot details for any of the films we watched. The live show far surpassed them. I remember Danny Rainsford jumping up on stage between reels and reciting the monologue from The Great Dictator, how we all cried, wiped the tears from each other’s cheeks with thumbs and handkerchiefs and lips. I remember tossing popcorn into Cam Hutton’s open mouth as he moved back further and further into the nosebleeds, until he was a shadow, reduced to the snap and flash of his white teeth. I remember rising from my seat to use the water fountain and staring back at Jack Ashby, our eyes meeting for the briefest frame, how I could not see his irises, which were filled with the murder scene on screen. How he rose and I spun on my feet. I remember walking towards the door as he followed me, not looking at him, feeling his hands on me and, without speaking, being pressed up against the wall in the dark entrance to the theater, the EXIT sign glaring overhead. We only ever kissed that once, a scene made possible by stolen gin and novelty and restlessness; “A masterpiece,” the critics said, but warned that it was a fluke, a single stroke of youthful brilliance, impossible to be repeated.