These days, I miss the smallest, strangest things I took for granted in my pre-pandemic New York life: the relieved gratitude on a stranger’s face when you give them good directions; genial, and occasionally metaphysical, small talk with bartenders; the sheer ecstasy of finding a clean, spacious public bathroom in a store from which you can easily escape without buying anything (O, Seventh Avenue Buy Buy Baby, do you even still exist?). A very specific thing I miss, though, is also one of my favorite pastimes: going to the movies alone. Something about public solitude in a cavernous, underlit room puts my mind and social inhibitions at ease in a way I find difficult to describe.
Still, I’ve tried: Over the years, I’ve developed the semi-compulsive habit of jotting down accounts of my solo moviegoing experiences. It felt like a relatively pointless exercise until very recently, when I was missing the afternoons and evenings whiling away in dark movie theaters so badly that my chest stung. (No, I have not ventured out to see Tenet; this is one of several reasons why I am not as brave as Tom Cruise.) But then I found these fragments, and I realized what they’d been about all along: the preservation of old, unspectacular, yet suddenly rarefied air.
How to Be Single
The self-serve ticket kiosk at Bow Tie Cinemas is rarely working, but I try it anyway, just to avoid saying the title of this film aloud to another person at 10:35 on a Tuesday morning. After I’ve unsuccessfully swiped my card a few times, with increasing and visible frustration, the woman at the empty ticket booth calls me over and asks which movie I was trying to see. As she swipes my credit card, she asks me if my last name is Hungarian. It is not.
I like coming here because the theaters remind me of luxury jets, except instead of a cockpit there is just a big, omniscient in-flight movie. This morning, there was only one other person in the theater. She sat in the middle, and I was in the very last row, so when I went to the bathroom for a probably-pooping duration, she did not even notice. How freeing. When I came back, she had her phone out and was on Rebel Wilson’s Wikipedia page. Usually a lit-up phone in a movie theater would infuriate me, but something about this inquiry felt pure and allowed.
I spent a lot of the movie thinking about how much I liked Dakota Johnson’s haircut, but when I looked in the bathroom mirror, I realized, with a bit of shock, that was because it was very similar to my own. For the record, I wasn’t pooping. I was looking in the mirror for way too long and asking myself, When other people look in the mirror, do they see more easily than I can the movie-star parts of themselves? When other people look at me, do they see more clearly the parts that are like Dakota Johnson, or the parts that are not?
I’m trying to get better about doing things alone. “Solitude strength training,” I’ve been calling it, to no one in particular. Writers have to be comfortable alone. Observing people, taking in details, writing them down: These things take time. The company of others can distract you, talk you out of your wildest impulses, or, worst of all, make you squint until you’re trying to see things through somebody else’s eyes.
But — here is my conspiracy theory about why our society is so much more hostile to women artists — being alone in public is different for women and men. Stereotypically, a man sitting somewhere alone is Deep in Thought, Doing Important Work, perhaps on some kind of Inward Spiritual Quest. By that same dumb stereotype, a woman sitting somewhere alone is incomplete, maybe a little sad, and certainly yearning for a companion, if she’s not already waiting for someone.
I used to review a lot of concerts, and I would usually attend them alone. I was there to do work, but even with a notebook out, I was constantly approached by men who didn’t believe that. The worst instance had to be when a man came up to me and said, with no previous introduction, “Would you like to go outside and see the butterfly tattoo on my chest?” I started to see why Virginia Woolf advocated for women writers to seek rooms of one’s own. If she did her work in public, she never would have finished a page of it, because she would have been interrupted by men asking if she’d like to go outside and see the butterfly tattoos on their chests.
Speaking of a society inclined to confuse masculine self-confidence with genius: Back to my review of Steve Jobs, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. This has been an interesting exercise in my solitude strength training, testing the outer limits of what I will and won’t do in public alone. For example: The theater is playing this movie pretty much every hour on the hour. Interestingly, I notice that I feel paralyzingly self-conscious about the idea of seeing Steve Jobs alone at 7 p.m. on a Monday but perfectly fine with seeing it alone at 5 p.m. A 5 p.m. showing says “I have other things to do later, perhaps at 7 p.m., and definitely with other people,” even if on this particular night that is a lie.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar
I didn’t expect this repertory screening to be so popular, but it’s at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, so there’s barely an empty seat. I finally find one next to a slumped-over old man in a long coat who audibly labors to get up and let me pass. When the movie starts, I am suddenly aware of not only its sexually charged nature but of this man’s long coat. It turns out he sighs on every one of his exhales, and I spend the first ten minutes physically unable to turn my neck, unsure if he is jerking off or if he is so old that that’s just the way he breathes.
It turns out to be the latter. Yay! I end up feeling less guilty about the fact that I thought this man was a public masturbator than I do about the fact that I determined he wasn’t based on the fact that he only laughed at the most intellectual jokes. When Diane Keaton first meets Richard Gere, who is trying to pick her up in a bar, she tells him her name is Sonya Raskolnikov. Gere believes her and starts calling her Sonya, and the old man found that hilarious. It’s odd that I am comforted. As if creeps don’t read Dostoevsky.
I don’t think I’ve ever actually confessed this, but ever since the Aurora shooting, and the Lafayette shooting, and whatever shooting has happened in the time since you’ve been reading this, I sometimes get nervous in movie theaters. Like, overcome with this vivid vision of somebody shooting up the place. I see it playing out in my head, and sometimes I survive and sometimes I don’t.
For reasons including but not limited to this, I recently went on a new anti-anxiety medication, and the first time I consciously noticed it was working was during a 2 p.m. opening-day screening of the Nancy Meyers film The Intern. “That’s impossible,” my friend said to me later. “You just started taking it the day before. I think that general sense of well-being just came from the fact that you were watching a Nancy Meyers movie.”
Regardless, about midway through the film, a very placid voice comes into my head and says, “Honestly, if you were a sociopath picking which movie to shoot up, the odds are very slim that you are going to choose a 2 p.m. opening-day screening of a new Nancy Meyers movie in that unrenovated back theater of Cobble Hill Cinemas.” I am so contented by this that I almost laugh aloud. Even the worst-case scenario is kind of funny: I imagine my picture printed on tomorrow’s newspaper along with the other octogenarian casualties. “2 p.m. opening day?” my friends are saying. “She couldn’t even wait until opening night to see The Intern?”
Queen of Earth
That tiny theater in the back of IFC Center that is basically the size of a minivan. I take the last available seat, in the second row, next to a really cute guy and, oh, his model-gorgeous girlfriend. The movie is almost unbearably tense as Elisabeth Moss’s character gradually descends into histrionic madness, but I’m more tuned in to an equally tense story playing out next to me.
The girlfriend is having a self-contained temper tantrum about … something. She keeps whispering to her boyfriend, at an ever-increasing volume, “Can’t you say anything? It’s so … LOUD!” I strain to hear whatever she’s complaining about — the soundtrack? — but can identify no obvious irritant discernible to human ears. She keeps broadcasting her annoyance, though: sighing sharply, stomping a foot on the ground, generally becoming more of a distraction than whatever it is that’s distracting her. Then, in beautiful synchronicity with Elisabeth Moss’s hysterics, the girlfriend explodes. She leans forward to the elderly couple in the seats in front of her and shouts, “Can you stop chewing your popcorn for even one second?!”
I am very happy in that moment to be at the movies alone.
The Lincoln Square AMC, one of the first theaters in town to attempt assigned seating: It is a testament to this film’s delicate power that the requisite (if nastier than usual) preshow dispute over who was actually supposed to be in seats B17 and B18 didn’t spoil the mood.
When it was over, I walked all the way to the Herald Square Macy’s and impulse-bought myself a gift, a bottle of Dolce & Gabbana perfume, which might not sound like much to you but is maybe one of the most luxurious things I’ve ever impulse-bought that is not for another person. This movie had me feeling tenderness toward myself, and, anyway, it affected me so deeply that I felt a little changed, like I wanted everything in the world to smell a little different, sweeter, after having seen Moonlight.
Magic Mike XXL
You’re not going to believe me. You’re going to think I’m making this up, or that it’s a florid metaphor for something, but I swear to God I mean this literally: There was a butterfly in the bathroom.
Six floors up in Times Square! Right after the 10:45 a.m. showing of Magic Mike XXL. The theater was sparse, and almost everyone in it was in business clothes, probably going to lie about having had a morning doctor’s appointment when they showed up late but spiritually refreshed for work. When it let out, while I washed my hands beside a woman in a navy-blue pantsuit, a butterfly flitted through the fluorescent-lit, otherwise empty bathroom. I gasped. I almost made a terrible joke to the woman about “magic.” Instead, we just looked right at each other, wordless, and laughed.
I get to the 7 p.m. Monday-night showing at BAM about 15 minutes early. I consider working on a crossword puzzle, but the lighting was bad, so instead I sit there and think about fear.
Everyone in this theater has paid $15 to — best-case scenario — be scared shitless. And yet a lot of people in my life tell me they are terrified to do what I am doing right now, which is seeing a movie that I very much wanted to see by myself at 7 p.m. on a Monday night, on which I had nothing better to do.
There is one other person there by himself. I pigeonhole him, perhaps unfairly, as a legible trope: The guy who is there alone but kind of above it all and thus broadcasting his every reaction to the strangers around him. Whenever something strikes him as, I guess, cliché, he lets out an exasperated sigh and sometimes slaps a hand to his bald head. His vocal disdain interferes with my silent, secret enjoyment. He reminds me of that person who lets out orgasmic sighs in a yoga class, whose arrogant hypercomfort has the effect of making others uncomfortable. Pardon the sweeping generalization, but, in my experience, these people are very often men.
I’m enjoying the movie, though no one can tell. It’s creepy and fucked up and, I think, piercingly beautiful. I will congratulate myself upon waking the next morning for not having nightmares about it. My favorite part of the movie is in the last five minutes, when the devil materializes as a goat named Black Phillip and asks the heroine: “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” Yes, she says. Yes, I almost mouth along with her. When the movie is over, I feel flushed with the strange and destabilizing power of being a woman alone but not lonely. Was I the witch?
There are only four of us in BAM’s cavernous upstairs Theater 3, spread out with vast rows of empty space between us. We didn’t know it yet, but in a few days’ time, there would be a name for what we were doing. “Socially distancing.”
In all these months holed up by myself in my apartment, I’ve been thinking, again, about the difference between solitude and loneliness. I think I finally get it: Solitude is an affirmative quantity, something you chose. Loneliness is a lack, something imposed on you against your will. What I miss is having that choice.
And if I’d have known this would be the last one for God knows how long, I would have chosen movies more wisely: Something less depressing than a Russian movie about despair in the aftermath of World War II. If I’d have known this could be the last one, I would have gotten up and watched each and every scene from a different seat, just to take in all the angles of that decadently large room. I’d have rolled around on the soda-sticky ground pocking my skin with ancient popcorn kernels until my entire body was covered in them. I’d have never left. I’d still be there now, months after the credits rolled, breathing in and out the sweet, recirculated air of strangers.