No matter how many times I see her, I can't help but ask myself: What sort of woman comes to the movies alone, night after night?
A lonely woman, obviously. But, she doesn't look lonely. She's beautiful, pale and porcelain in the reflected glow of the pure, white light as I lug reels of film to the old projector to change titles between shows. She doesn't come every night, but when she does come, she stays for every show, not leaving until the sun bloodies the eastern sky. She must sleep all day, I think. This is something we share. Shortly after the hospital went from trying to heal my mother to "making her as comfortable as possible," I'd started a protracted, fruitless battle with an insomnia that settled on my chest each night and fled with the sun's first rays. I'd given up a moderately promising career in having a career and become this--a projectionist in an obscure, little theater, standing amidst the chain stores and the parking garages of Tribeca, showing vintage movies on a Vitalux that might have shown them to new couples, him back from the war, her looking forward to starting a life and a family. In two years, we haven't shown a movie made later than 1958.
If the owner, whoever he might be, thought this would make him a fortune, he must be disappointed by now. People come, particularly when we show a real classic. Tourists come here to say they've been, even if they don't actually watch the movie. Film students come in waves and troughs. It's never enough to fill the theater and there's always room for her to sit off by herself when she comes. At first, I thought she came for a place to be alone, but she watches avidly, leaning forward in her seat, head scanning back and forth as if she's trying to commit every face to memory. Some nights, she's the only one there. I feel a strange familiarity at those times with a woman whose face I've never seen clearly, as if I'm showing her films from my own, private library.
Making this more ironic is that I can't even hear these films I show her most of the time. The Vitalux wheezes and flickers like it's caught some exotic fever like Bogart in The African Queen. This isn't new. The machine rattled like it would shake itself to pieces the first time I turned it on. Once a month, a specialist comes in to look at it, shakes his head, and goes home. Sometimes, but less often than not, he brings in a part that will keep the projector running just a little longer and replaces one of the original vintage. I think it makes the machine quieter sometimes, but never for very long.
I met her once. I didn't mean to. We were the only two awake in the theater. Seeing her outside of the darkness of the theater was a shock, a violation of sorts. I'd fantasized about approaching her, but I figured that a beautiful woman who came out alone night after night like that didn't do it because she was looking to be social. So, I'd given her the peace and quiet I thought she sought.
It was the most prosaic of moments. I was rushing back to the projection booth from the bathroom in the lobby--the only place there were any bathrooms in the theater. I always rushed there and back. Sometimes, the Vitalux snagged and melted through the old cellulose. I didn't know where the owner got the films we showed, but it seemed like he chose them from a fifty year-old newspaper, not just showing the classics, but every movie that might have shown in a theater in first run. Most of the films were rightfully obscure--pointless romantic comedies, offensively racist war propaganda, patently bad adaptations of pulp novels nobody remembered. Half the time, I suspected we were showing the only surviving copy of a movie. If I could save them from burning, I would.
I rounded a corner and ended up almost nose to nose with her. I was too surprised to jump back. She looked confused for a moment, then grinned, "You're the projectionist."
"I am." She seemed to be waiting for more, so I added, "John."
"Dana," she said.
"You're leaving?" It was a dumb question. She had her coat and gloves on.
"I've seen this one already," she looked thoughtful. "The projector flickered and I missed something near the beginning last time. I've seen it now."
Finally, I stepped back. The scent of violets had risen off of her and I'd caught myself sniffing it. The perfume reminded me of something my grandmother had worn, old-fashioned and only subtly flowery. She'd said it reminded her of when she'd been a young woman and dating my grandfather. I looked Dana over. Tall and slender, she wore a tan raincoat with a classic cut, her black hair shorn close to her pale skin. She had a poise that reminded me of Audrey Hepburn, even though there was no real physical resemblance, "I could put something else on if you like. You're the only one here."
"No." She smiled, "Enough looking for tonight. The city's out there."
After that, the ice had been broken. Dana and I would see each other from time to time at the end of the show. She would smile and wave or I would nod. As relationships went, it was uncontaminated by anything so vulgar as actual contact. It was almost a year before we'd spoken again.
For almost three months, she vanished. Because she could often go for a week at a time, it took me a while to notice. But, a string of nights went by where there was no one in the theater at all. I didn't even know she'd come back until I saw her in the lobby one night, an hour before dawn.
"You're back." A year of familiarity hadn't improved my conversational skills.
"One more try." Dana gave a resigned smile. "You're showing Dracula movies this week?"
"Only the finest." I hoped my smile was properly ironic.
"He might be in one of those," she said absently. "He would find it very funny."
"You're ... looking for someone specific in these films?"
Dana nodded, "A man I knew. He said once that he worked in films, but that he only took small parts. I've seen him in a dozen things, always using different names, playing different roles. I ... think it amused him to leave these little parts of himself on film. One of the few things he ever bothered to teach me is that we need to be discreet. But, I don't think he could resist leaving some mark. I wonder if he knew..." She looked in my eyes, "I should stop talking. I'm sure I've already done an excellent job of convincing you that I'm a little crazy."
"Eccentric, maybe." By the time I said it, I was talking to nothing more than empty air, faintly scented with violet.
That winter, I caught the flu. At the same time, the Vitalux got a seemingly perpetual case of the shakes. Martin, the camera repair specialist, had made a special trip out, looked the camera over, and shook his head, "I know what she needs, but I've been looking for parts for months with no luck at all."
"What should I do?" I sniffled, eyes puffy and nose running in spite of all that modern pharmacia had offered me. "I can't show movies like this. The shaking makes the images all blurry."
Martin did a slow circuit around the projector, considering it carefully. Finally, he shook his head again, "Get something heavy in here. Brace the feet. I'll keep looking for the parts."
I wiped my nose with a tissue, "Won't it eventually shake itself to pieces if I do that?"
Martin shrugged, "I'll keep looking for parts." To me, it sounded just like, "We'll do everything we can to make her comfortable."
As winter wore on, the flu faded, but a new fever came on. The days shortened and I woke each day closer to sunset. Soon, I was barely seeing the sun at all. I had never been cut out to walk among the diurnal, but I found myself missing the sun, missing human contact. Sometimes, I went for days without talking to another person. Murray, the theater manager, was usually asleep in his office when I came in. I usually emerged in the hours between last call and first bell so that neither the drunks nor the high school students shared the sidewalk with me. Having escaped the daytime world, I found myself missing it.
"I thought you were showing 'Pirate Cove' tonight." Dana said. There was no accusation in her voice, just curiosity.
"We were going to." I pointed meaninglessly to the projection booth. "It was just too brittle. When I tried to spool it up, it broke in three places before I could get it halfway through. We're going to show 'White Goddess' again. The film students seem to like that one."
Dana nodded, a melancholy smile flickering past her lips, "Another one gone, I guess. How long until all of these old movies are gone?"
I chuckled, "It's not that bad. We've lost less than a dozen in two years. And ... I doubt any of them were unique."
Dana pursed her lips, "But, eventually, they'll all be gone. You have to let go eventually."
"Not in my lifetime."
"No." Dana gave me an odd look, "I suppose not."
Even as I got better and winter melted into spring, the Vitalux continued to decline. I went from bracing the feet to jamming the whole platform with anything available to keep it from shaking. Still, the films blurred and sometimes even flickered back and forth across the element before I could catch them and reseat them properly into the feeder. Murray knew. Martin knew. I presumed the owner, whoever he was, knew. I never found out what the attachment to that old projector was. There were plenty of more common machines that would show the films with simple, modern efficiency. Of course, if the theater got one, they didn't really need the odd collection of technical skills and core strength that allowed me both to lug film canisters from place to place and minister to the projector. That kept me from stating the obvious.
"The films are getting blurrier."