The Sound of a Sneeze

This is the first time you've ever been homeless, although it's not really so bad when you think about it. It's better than living with Amy.

It's not as if you have no place to stay. You got the job at the theater so you'd have the comfortable seats to sleep in, and if it's warm enough, you can sleep in your car in the parking lot. You laugh as you think of your car. Twenty years ago, when you were a kid, a Volkswagen Rabbit was a cool car. It isn't now, wasn't when you bought it, but there's something about being uncool that makes it cool.

You've been working at the theater for a couple of months now. In that time, you think you've seen it all. The Doors were right when they sang about people being strange. People are strange, and this is where they let their guard down, let all the strangeness hang out.

How had it come to this? You'd had an easy job working for Amy, a nice place to live, even if it was her place. What had possessed you to start an affair with your boss, and not only start an affair, but move in with her? And she was your father's competitor, too, so there was no chance of being welcomed back to the family business. Why had you even started working for her, the psycho? Youthful rebellion was stupid, all that energy wasted on the young, young like you don't feel any more.

You walk into theater four with your broom and dustpan in hand. You learned on your first day that you never tried cleaning these places without gloves on. You could understand the used condoms-you'd gotten lucky at a theater more than once. You remember what it had been like back in the day.

You never want to touch a used condom without a glove, no way. That's hazardous duty, but not half as hazardous as the used tampon you found only yesterday. A condom you could understand, but what kind of woman takes out a dirty tampon in a theater? The restrooms were clean, you knew that, you cleaned them yourself. Any self-respecting woman uses a restroom.

And the could other moviegoers allow someone to change a diaper in a theater and just leave it under the seat? You know if you were watching a movie, you would have complained to someone just like the person you are now.

Hazardous duty, you think as you pull another diaper out from under a seat. And all you get is minimum wage, not even enough to rent an apartment. You find a container of popcorn that's almost full and sit down for a minute, take off the gloves, and eat it all. Dad was allergic to popcorn, not the corn, but the fake butter. Just the smell of it sent him into a sneezing fit. You smile as you think of Dad. He did everything for you. You used to feel smothered by it, but now you're not so sure. Good parents help their kids, and good parents let their kids go. Dad had let you go. For this.

You've been living on popcorn and candy you find, and you hoard your paychecks, although you're not sure why. You know you've got a plan to do something big, but you aren't quite sure what it is. You're almost scared to think of it or even try to name it, and owning it is out of the question right now.

You crumple up the popcorn container and throw it away. You don fresh gloves and work fast to finish the theater, before the next movie starts. You've never seen so many movies in your life as you have here, and it wasn't just because of Dad's allergy. You've seen them all now, and you hate most of them. You've always been too busy, thought yourself too important, to waste your time on Hollywood's offerings, and even though you're at rock bottom, you still hang onto that arrogance.

I may be down, you tell yourself, but I'm not out.

You go into the bathroom during your lunch break and you clean yourself up. You wish for a few minutes that you could be in a shower, not for a long time, but long enough to really feel clean again. You shave quickly and put on deodorant and a light splash of cologne. You don't want to smell too bad, although you're not getting paid enough to smell good.

You wash your clothes from the day before in the sink, take them outside, and smooth them out on the seats of your car to dry. It's in a good part of the parking lot, plenty of sun, and you can crack the window a bit to let in fresh air. It's not like anyone's going to rob a Rabbit. When you finish your cleaning ritual, your half-hour is over and you go back to work.

In some ways it's better this way. You have to keep busy so there's less time to think. The only problem is, the less you try to think, the more the thoughts creep in. You're pitiful, that's the one thing you know. Every day when you've cleaned yourself in front of the mirror, you've been a little thinner. You can see yourself looking almost gaunt, a shell of the man you were, or at least could have been.

And the days drag on, one after another. You're working fourteen hours, sleeping in a theater seat in a totally darkened room, eating other people's leftovers, and you find yourself strangely happy. It is totally illogical. You're miserable in your job, but you're happy. You don't love your work, far from it, and you don't love sleeping here, but you love the freedom.

Freedom. When was the last time you felt that? Certainly not with Amy. Had you felt it with Dad? He had bought your college degree for you, you hardly had to work for it. But Dad had loved you enough to let you go, you couldn't forget that. Amy bought...Amy bought you. You knew the work, you had the looks she wanted, and she knew it would hurt Dad. She didn't care about you, the real you.

Nobody knows the real you. You don't know the real you.

Maybe that's the freedom you've found, the freedom to find who you are, but you still have no clue. Maybe that's what you're saving the money for, that time when you can turn your back on the theater and walk out into the world, pray like heck the Rabbit starts, and drive away into the life you know is waiting for you if only you open your eyes enough to see it.

But you're cleaning a theater.

You sit in on a movie, an action film, and tuck yourself away in a back row. You hear noises, you know what they are, and you use your handy flashlight to shine on a couple who are in the throes of romance. You have been coitus interruptus. You laugh to yourself as you walk out of the theater, not interested in this film at all, and not wanting to stay and see what the disrupted lovers think of you or how they might want to share those feelings.

You're in the lobby when you hear it. A sneeze. Everybody sneezes, but this sneeze is different. This sneeze belongs to Dad, even after all this time you recognize it. Dad never went to movies. Has he come looking for you? You turn your back, and hope he hasn't seen you, but it's no use. He calls your name. And you feel tears welling up in your eyes before you even turn to face him. He's going to hate you, you know that, but you don't hate him. For the first time in your life you realize that as much as you complained, he was a good father,

Dad has his arms around you before you can speak and he's crying, too. You've never seen Dad cry, even when Mom died, but Dad is crying for you. And suddenly you know Dad doesn't care about Amy, he doesn't even care if you work for him or take over the business. Dad loves you. You still aren't sure where you're going, but one thing you do know. You're going home.

© 2004 Lisa Christine Svenson