by Ariella Carmell
The letters on the marquee jammed against each other: Ingmar Bergman Retrospective, the billing read, words cohered into a smear of black.
Greta’s breath clouded as she waited by the box office. She paced on the balls of her feet, toes pointed upward, arms outstretched. The theatergoers, trickling in like the drops of a leaky faucet, lifted their brows at her. She had seen them all here before, but they had never seen her.
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Her fingers grazed the two tickets, snug within the fleece of her jacket pocket.
Enclosed within a glass box, the cashier slid another ticket across the counter. Lara had to work the box to keep her spot in the school’s film society. Today she had forgotten the issue of Rolling Stone she always had spread about before her to occupy her time during those long lulls. Now she lifted her focus to Greta with raised eyebrows; the girl’s constant strolling back and forth was giving her a headache.
Lara leaned towards the opening in the glass and yelled out, “Are you going in or what?”
Greta spun around, coils of copper hair clinging to her forehead. She held up the two tickets. “I’ve got a date.” The smile broadened on her waxen face.
“The movie starts in ten.” Lara tapped on her watch for evidence.
Greta’s glow faltered, but only a little, like when a wisp of cloud drifts past the moon for a brief moment. “He’ll be here soon,” she said with glittering gray eyes. Snowflakes had gathered into a circlet upon her head.
He would, though right now slush was gathering in his shoes as he dashed across campus. Only twenty minutes earlier Neil had sat in front of a typewriter as he stared at the protruding, blank leaf of paper.
He had tottered back in his chair and planted his feet on the desk. Bob Dylan crooned about simple twists of fate, Velcro voice wafting from the record player in the corner. Neil deliberated between writing a paper that wavered in the spectrum of B+ and A-, or following through on something else. Both options caused a groan to make its way out of his throat.
It had been, he reminded himself, a vague promise, one suffused in a theoretical tone. They had met, after all, in an Introduction to Literary Theory class, so nothing from him at that time should have been construed as fact.
Greta was the girl who watched as the other classmates argued between themselves. She drew swirls in her notebook while the quarrels left the topic at hand and descended into ad hominem.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Philip Weiss once remarked to his current opponent, a burly bohemian. “You’re an ignoramus.”
Sometimes Neil could see a blush creep up her neck and into her ears, a rapid rash, when the professor solicited her opinion. She would squeak out something about Marx and then bow her head.
He had taken a seat beside Greta and grown accustomed to her tics; how she would lick off her lipstick entirely by the end of class, the bobbing of her leg that nearly shook the table. In a sea of furious discourse, she was a schooner on her own. When his attention drifted, which it often did, he counted the polka dots on her shirt. He did all this without turning his head.
They only formally introduced themselves on the day Neil needed to borrow her book, though they had known one another’s names for the past two months. In a mad dash for breakfast, he had foregone his hefty book bag and glided to the cafeteria, unburdened by the weight.
She pushed all 500 pages of the critical anthology toward him. “Excuse the rambling annotations,” she said, softly, before holding out a pale hand to him. “I’m Greta.”
He took her hand in his. “Neil.”
She was an English major, and he undeclared. A dabbler.
“But I’m leaning toward Anthropology,” he added.
It soon got so that he made sure to leave behind his book before class. When he returned her copy back at the end of each session, they would share quick bites of conversation.
“Thanks.” She hurried to pack up her bag. “How’d you find the class today?”
And from there they would extend the class discussion, the one that neither had participated in, while they walked out of the classroom. They roamed across the tumbling campus green. Greta plucked verdant blades of grass and rolled them between her palms. She spoke of Agatha Christie and Flannery O’Connor.
“They frighten me,” she said, running her hand across a tree trunk. “And fascinate me. Isn’t that the best combination?”
Neil talked music.
“Cat Stevens was one of the best out there. That is, before he gave it all up,” he mentioned, mournful.
When she professed to know nothing about music past Gershwin, he said he would loan her some records.
This amble evolved into a ritual. Neil’s vinyl passed from his hand to hers, along with the guarantee that she would return them unscratched. Greta gave back albums like Tea for the Tillerman and The Stranger and Blue, flushed with excitement, as though discovering a new sector of the galaxy. And Neil, meanwhile, felt a twinge of pleasure in educating this girl, bereft of sweet, sustaining music for her whole life. He felt like a do-gooder for the first time.
Their shared class days were waning and the sky had taken on a perpetual hue of gray by the time Greta gave him something of her own, a frayed copy of A Good Man is Hard to Find and, with it, an offer. They sat on a bench that needed a good sanding.
“There’s this tiny old movie theater on campus,” she told him. She tugged at a splinter in the seat. “Nobody goes there much, except a lot of Cinema Studies majors, mostly, but they show some of the best films there. People really should give it more of a chance…”
Neil knew where this statement was heading, and a sense of dread lodged itself in his stomach. He had heard of that theater; he and his friends had all deemed it the hive of the socially inept, the decrepit place where wan film geeks would plant themselves to hibernate. When he saw movies—and they were movies, not films—he usually went to the Cineplex, nestled twenty minutes away by bus in the city.
“They’re showing a double feature this Friday night,” Greta continued. “I was wondering if maybe you’d like to go with me.”
Her eyes lifted and he could see disappointment flash across her face. Neil realized he was grimacing. He twisted his mouth into a neutral smile as he thought of what to say. Pretenses flashed across his field of vision like fluorescent advertisements. His term paper, impatient to be brought into the world. A dinner with a professor. A date.
But how could he say any of these things? She appeared braced for his rejection, shoulders bunched up to her ears, biting her lower lip. How many days had it taken for her to muster up the courage and make that one request?
The words surfed out of his mouth without warning. “Sure,” he said. “What time?”
And Greta could have floated away right then, becoming a child’s balloon lost in the clouds. She told him that the first film started at seven. That day, he went to his dorm and fell asleep with A Good Man is Hard to Find resting on his chest, dog-eared on page six, rising and falling with his breath.
And now she waited at 6:50 PM on Friday, the eyes of an ornery cashier locked on her. Her buoyancy dissolved, hissing out of her pores. She considered going inside where it was warm and the film would flicker and she would forget all about him.
Greta had only asked Neil because he looked like James Stewart, lanky and mellow, and he paid her some attention when she felt like she could have disappeared in the breeze. And because, she admitted to herself, she didn’t want to go to the movies alone again. She hugged her torso to absorb the warmth of her arms.
Lara tapped on the glass. “6:54, kiddo. You’ve been here for twenty minutes.”
Closing her eyes, Greta didn’t need reminding that she had once again been naïve, overeager. But she imagined that it must be unpleasant, to be trapped in glass while everyone else got to see the movies.
When she opened her eyes, she told herself she would pivot on her heels and march into the theater and never look back. Her eyelids flicked open, and there he was, warming his hands with his breath. He raised his eyebrows at her in greeting. She rushed up to him.
“You made it,” she said.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
That last half hour faded from memory. It seemed as if all along they had planned to meet at this time. None of it mattered. She pulled Neil by the arm and guided him inside, forcing herself to take small steps.
The theater had walls of white brick and crumbling mortar. Unframed posters for films like L’Avventura and À bout de souffle hung off tacks. When the door opened, they flapped in the onslaught of wind.
“No popcorn?” Neil laughed, eyeing the concession stand.
Arm still entwined in his, Greta turned and frowned at him. This was the type of film in which snacking was sacrilege. She winced at the thought of chomps breaking the quietude, the celluloid spell.
She brought him to her favorite spot, burrowed in the back corner. They sat on the upholstered cushions. A few heads sprouted out from the field of tattered seats, and the light of the screen transformed them into silhouettes.
Greta held a finger to her lips and, burbling with giggles, hushed Neil.
The first selection was Persona. As the sylphlike forms of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson caressed each other on screen, Greta’s euphoria slowly paled, lips curling into her mouth. She hadn’t realized how experimental the film was, the unease that settled in the pit of your stomach. Her senses heightened so that she was acutely aware of every shift Neil made in his seat, every cough and intake of breath. Now every fault of the film belonged to her, each one a knot in her abdomen.
She sunk into her seat, face heating, wanting to bask in the glow of the film but unable to ignore his lolling head. A crease appeared on his forehead, like a coin slot. Maybe if she deposited a quarter there it would go away. At this point she was red enough to blend with the upholstery.
Only when the lights went up for an interlude before the next feature did the tension expel itself from her muscles. She pulled her knees up to her chest, peeked at him from above her stockings.
Neil rubbed the space between his eyebrows. “You see this stuff regularly?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “I love Bergman.” But she didn’t know if she could see Persona ever again without the phantom pains of mortification.
He stood and stretched. His joints cracked. “It’s getting kind of late…” he said, glancing at his watch.
“You can leave, if you want,” she said. She looked straight ahead. “Don’t stay because you feel bad for me.”
Neil opened his mouth, perhaps to protest, to defend himself. But he closed it and looked away and all he said was, “I’ll see you in class.”
She watched him slipping on his jacket as he walked through the aisle.
Greta felt like a hollowed container of ice cream, cast aside. But she couldn’t tell if this emptiness echoed more of loss or relief. In any case, the lights were dimming again, and there was nobody there beside her to dank up the air with his breath.
The next picture was The Seventh Seal. Sometimes in foreign films she liked to close her eyes and imagine that the Swedish was a secret language whispered into her ears alone. Sometimes she would miss key pieces of dialogue that way, but she had already seen this one, so it was okay. All was dark now, and she was warm.
Ariella Carmell is an 18-year-old writer from California. Recognized by the Poetry Society of the United Kingdom, Falmouth University, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cadaverine Magazine, Burningword, Crack the Spine, Vademecum, Crashtest, Eunoia Review, and Canvas Literary Journal, among others. She also serves as a blog contributor for The Adroit Journal. Come next fall, she will attend The University of Chicago to study literature and creative writing.