I got dizzy. My thoughts scattered from me. I felt sick. My throat closed in on itself. There in the mall, scrawny and young and timid, I tried to gather my senses enough to confront this pervert. The scene played out in my mind. I would tower over him, harden my jaw, give him the steeliest glare, and bloody his nose. He would crawl out the door in tears. I would report him to the authorities, explaining everything that had happened in a tranquil, collected manner. He would be put in jail for pedophilia. I would read about it in the paper, smile at the headline, laugh at the mug shot, and pride myself on being a hero. In the real world, however, I had run away.
The mall took on the dimensions of a maze as I maneuvered through the crowds of strangers. Every sleeve I brushed against, I knew, was concealing a switchblade. Every hip I bumped into, I knew, was bulging with a revolver. The woman standing by the escalator was holding a bottle of chloroform. The couple talking in front of the pretzel stand were discussing the details of a ransom note. The man trying on jeans was discreetly touching himself. At last I found the restrooms.
I shuffled past a security guard who seemed to be sucking his teeth at me. In the men’s room, I frantically locked the door of a stall, mouth dry and eyes wet, telling myself it was all in my head. None of those people out there wanted to hurt me. It was my fault, I thought, for letting it happen. I shouldn’t have talked to the man. I shouldn’t have sat there so long. The very last thing that went through my mind was that I could never tell anyone about it. My pulse slowed down as I washed my hands.
Half an hour later, my father picked me up outside the mall, its parking lot blurry from heat mirage. He asked if I was okay. I gave him a nod.
“All set for the picture show?”
“Ready as a Freddy.”
“Sure you can handle the movie?”
Over the years since that day, I’ve met people whose lives have been irrevocably altered by far worse events. One friend had so many suicidal thoughts after her rape that now her eyelids are always heavy on absurd doses of lithium. She once cried for ten hours straight before admitting herself to a mental institution. Another friend listened while wearing pajamas with feet as his mother ranted and raved while being carried away in a straight jacket. He promised himself years later never to let his own children see such a thing. In films, people have had their jaws unhinged by toasters swung via electrical cord by their husbands. On television, people have accidentally shot and killed their best friend while playing with their dad’s gun. In books, people have cried silently as their uncle slid his dick between their prepubescent thighs. How could my story compare to those? Nobody wants to hear about the time as a child I was offered a blowjob.
My father and I caught the matinee at Northpark Cinema. The weekend crowd lined up in front of the concession stand. Years before that day, when I was four years old, the box-office clerk at that very theater, peering at me over the counter as I stood there in my overalls, said the R-rated movie was inappropriate for a child my age. I responded, “That’s okay. We only like movies with lots of sex and violence.” My father has told me that story more times than I can remember. There in the lobby buying a bucket of popcorn, however, I could only think of one story I could not, despite my common sense, tell him. My father asked for extra salt.
Although movies are usually considered an escape from reality, they were for me an escape from myself, the white noise of my introspection, the blinding light of my insecurity. Movies allowed me to become someone else. I was no longer the quiet kid, and I was no longer the shy kid. That day at Northpark, though, watching a movie whose title, Indecent Proposal, seemed too fitting to be true, I could not shake loose of myself. The theater became a sort of confessional. On the screen, a husband chastised himself painfully for letting his wife sleep with another man, and in my seat, I absolved myself of any guilt pertaining to the incident in the mall. Consequently I came to a realization. Reality can influence fiction as much as fiction can influence reality.
“What’d you think?” my father asked me as we walked out of the theater. “Thumbs up or down?”
Across the parking lot, the outline of Northpark Mall silhouetted itself against the setting skyline, one giant square of black. The night was getting cool. Outside the theater, climbing into our car for the ride home, the simple question, “What’d you think?” seemed to lack, back then in my young mind, any genuine answer.
I told my father it made me sad, and he responded it’s just a movie. Till this day I have not said anything to anyone about what happened that day so long ago. Why have I now? Nothing is just a movie.