Back Row Thoughts: I’m Going Home

One year. Literally, exactly, one year. On March 15, 2020, after the mayor of Los Angeles announced the city was shutting down due to the COVID outbreak, my then-girlfriend and I went out one last time to the movies together. We saw First Cow. There were two other couples in the theatre with us, for the exact same reason. It was one last taste of normalcy, one last happy memory, before the world went entirely to shit.

Yesterday, on the anniversary of that date, I got a small smidgeon of my life back. Thanks to the rapid vaccination progress in the state of California, movie theatres were moved into the “Red Tier” of the state’s reopening protocols, meaning they could resume business with certain restrictions, the largest of which being a reduced capacity of 25%. Over the weekend, I scanned availability, and sure enough, most AMC theatres in the area are set to reopen this Friday, the 19th. However, a select few opened yesterday.

There was no hesitation. I immediately reactivated my A-List account, dormant for a year, and booked a seat to see Raya and the Last Dragon. My roommates have Disney+ and have already seen it, and of course I have access and could have watched it myself at any time. But I had put it off in favor of Oscar Blitz prep, so in one of the rarest of occurrences, they saw a movie before I did. But it wasn’t just this particular film. This was going to be my grand return to my favorite place in the world, so I had to go big. IMAX, baby! With A-List, there’s no restriction on the screen format (one of the drawbacks of MoviePass when it was a thing was that you could only see standard showings, no 3D, IMAX, etc.), and I get three free movies a week, so there wasn’t even a hint of doubt. I picked a seat right on the edge of the giant mass of blocked off sections in the center, clicked the necessary boxes, and was locked in. I was going back at long last.

I made the familiar drive up Sepulveda Blvd and onto Santa Monica, pulling off at the Westfield Mall in Century City (so-named because before residential/commercial development it was the old studio lot for 20th Century Fox), parked my car, and went up the elevator, its doors opening to the multiplex, back from the dead. I did a bit of a double-take, as in the intervening year, they hadn’t cleared out any of the old posters or standees from when they had closed. There was a large Tenet standee right at the entrance, one for Bloodshot by the escalator, and dozens of posters for The Croods: A New Age and Brahms: The Boy II littering the walls. It was like stepping back in time, but for the most insignificant of reasons.

I arrived half an hour early, partly because after a year away I didn’t care if I had to sit through a 30-minute commercial block and 20 minutes of trailers before the movie started. Absence didn’t make my heart grow fonder for naked capitalism, but it did make me temporarily more tolerant in the name of getting the full theatre experience once again. The other reason I showed up so early was because I just had a feeling something would go awry, and I’d need to adjust, so I gave myself lead time, in case my screening got cancelled and I had to, say, scurry into a different theatre where the movie was starting 15 minutes earlier or later. Gotta be prepared. Nothing short of a meteorite or a highly-localized outbreak was going to stop me, so I had to be ready for any contingency.

Thankfully, the only hiccup was at concessions. The theatre, in its haste to reopen with only 72 hours’ notice, either didn’t have proper staffing, or they simply didn’t account for a crowd of people buying snacks when four auditoriums were starting up within 20 minutes of each other. Reduced capacity or not, that’s still a lot of people, and given that most of them were showing Raya at the time, there was going to be a glut of kids all wanting different things, because they’re fucking kids. As such, there was only one poor girl working the register, while three others were cooking in the back.

I’ll give AMC credit for being aggressive on the food. They had said that when they reopened it would be with reduced menu options. I figured that meant the standards only: popcorn, soda, candy, and maybe hot dogs and nachos. That’s it. But they decided to at least go to Level 2 with these things, and had their full menu of snack options, including flatbread pizzas and chicken fingers. They just didn’t have the full meal-type stuff like sliders or bowls. They did have to rescind the free refills for drinks and popcorn to avoid unnecessary contact (a separate attendant manned the soda machines, filling and topping your cup for you; so much for my normal racket of getting a large soda cup and filling it with ICEE then topping it off on my way out the door, oh well), but that’s a small inconvenience, and for guys like me who hate leaving the theatre mid-show, it eliminates all but one scenario where that would happen (potty emergency!).

Thankfully, A-List perks present themselves again, as you get to essentially jump the line. There’s a separate line for A-List customers, and it’s at the discretion of the cashier if they want to alternate or just clear the A-List line entirely before going back to the normal folks. The young lady beckons me forward and tells the family that’s been waiting patiently through at least three customers that they’re next. I assure them I’ll be fast, because in the time that I’ve been waiting, I’ve already planned out my attack. I had $20 worth of coupons saved up, activate. I have a free large soda coming to me as a birthday “gift” from last year that I couldn’t use, activate. I order a drink and their “Bavarian Legend” soft pretzel. This motherfucker’s almost two pounds of soft, salty deliciousness, but I’ve never been able to eat the whole thing. I’d either get about halfway through and give up, or I’d split it with my girlfriend when we were still together. But I missed that giant diabetic knot so badly I knew there’d be no quit in me this time. The young girl scans my phone, inputs the discounts, my “meal” is free, and I fuck off in less than a minute. I do have to wait off to the side for the pretzel, so I grab my drink, find my seat, and mark my territory with the cup and straw in the holder before going back to take a pre-movie piss and wait. Pretzel comes out after about five minutes, and thankfully they’ve stuffed the box full of mustard packets, because you have to ask for condiments and napkins now, again to avoid unnecessary contact. This sadly means that the butter dispensers are turned off, so people have to ask for little cups of liquid butter for their popcorn, but again, small inconvenience for the greater good.

Finally, I enter the theatre for good. I sit down in my seat, start chowing down on the pretzel (so warm and perfect), and right at the scheduled start time, 4:30pm, the trailers start. No commercial reel, even, so that’s an added bonus. As the welcome message starts playing, a tear wells up in me, and it’s all I can do to suppress it.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I absolutely love the Sword Art Online series, both the light novels and the anime. In the second season of the show, there’s a moment where the main characters unlock Floor 22 in “New Aincrad,” a recreation of the death game where they were trapped for two years. In that original incarnation, the two leads, Kirito and Asuna, got married in-game and lived in a cozy log cabin on Floor 22. Unlocking this new version of the floor ostensibly meant that their cabin would be there, too. Once they get there, they find it good as new, right where they left it, though of course empty of all furnishings. The pair buy the property and walk inside with their A.I. daughter, Yui. Once she crosses the threshold and sees inside, Asuna sobs, “I’m home.”

That was me in that moment. I was back. I was normal. I was me again. I was home. It took every bit of resolve not to break down crying. A year of frustration and longing washed away in an instant, and I felt lighter. I was back where I belonged, doing the thing I loved the most in the entire world. I was with my people again. The movie itself almost didn’t matter. I could have been watching 2 Girls, 1 Cup for all it was worth (okay, not really, but you get my point). But I couldn’t cry, mostly because I was in an IMAX theatre and needed my eyes as clear as possible. Also, you know, little kids and whatnot. I wasn’t about to traumatize their parents by giving the kids an invitation to let the water works flow.

There were only three trailers, probably because those are the only IMAX-available movies coming out anytime soon, and one of them was for the Boss Baby sequel, which, just, no. When the movie started, I was back in my element. I was analyzing everything while still enjoying the basic experience. My people-watching instincts turned back on for some noticeable meta moments for the film. Not only did I finish the giant pretzel, I polished that salty bastard off before the end of the first act! I sat through the credits as I always do, reading a cheeky little thank you message to the animators who worked from home, which included a Zoom joke that was better than most of the gags in the actual movie. Then I got in my car and drove off. As I left the garage, the universe seemed to be in sync with me, as my radio blared “Long Time” by Boston.

Everyone has their version of normal. It could be work, relationships, family, routines, exercise, what have you. For me, it’s going to the movies. Since I was a toddler it’s been my zen, my center. Even when I watch something truly shitty, if I’m with the right people or experiencing it the right way, it’s part of my identity. A year ago, that was taken from me by this pandemic, and perpetuated by millions of entitled shitheads who felt that their convenience took precedence over other people’s lives, to the point that half a million of us and counting didn’t make it.

Yesterday, I got my normal back, and I’ll be forever grateful to the people who helped make it happen, from the frontline workers toiling endlessly through the ongoing trauma of this disease, to the doctors and scientists contorting themselves into a pretzel to get us to the other side of it, to that poor put-upon girl working the register while people badgered her because they don’t know how long it takes to cook a hot dog. And I’m going to keep going back, safely of course, because this is who I am.

I hope you get your normal back, too.

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you been able to go back to the movies yet? What’s the first film you’ll see? Do you think you could tackle a two-pound pretzel? Let me know!

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