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A Night at the Drive-In

Saturday, 7:00 PM.  The first day of the summer to crack a hundred degrees in the heat index.  Sweat drips like I stepped out of the shower as I wait in line.  I consider backing out so we can go home.

"Wanna just watch movies at home?" I ask.

She looks at me with more disdain than I can comprehend.  "We're already here," she says.

Not that it would do me any good, anyway.  The line of cars behind us is an immovable wall.  There is only one direction we can go.  Slowly, ploddingly, we roll forward with the traffic to the ticket gate at the drive-in.

There is an odd scent in the air: the reek of fetid standing water mixed with the tantalizing grease of a thousand french fries.  My mouth waters and I fear the Pavlovian response I may be developing; what will happen when I pass by an unclean port-o-potty sometime in the future?



The car in front of us waits at the ticket booth as two cars in the lane next to us pass by effortlessly.  It is a red SUV, a vanity license plate that says, "PRDMOM."  I hear a thick voice ahead asking where they put their wallet.  Another car passes.  That's three cars now to PRDMOM's one.  What is their problem?  Don't they understand that there is a natural beat to this exchange?

"This is unbelievable," I mutter.

My wife looks away.  She knows that a rant is coming.  I could stop now, spare her the agony, and save my breath.  I'm not that smart.  I unleash a torrent of bilious words about the traffic, vital in that moment and unmemorable.  Another car passes during my diatribe.

PRDMOM moves.  We get our tickets and park.

"I can't see," she says.

"You want me to move?" I ask.

"Whatever," she says, looking away again.  She is expressive in her inexpressiveness.  I know this fight is lost no matter which army I support.

The drive-in is an incomplete sea of cars.  Gaps hang between vehicles like missing teeth and taunt me.  If we parked over there, we wouldn't have to worry about this jackass in front of us with his rear door hanging open.  If we parked over there, we wouldn't have to deal with this guy on the right and his little chatty hellions.

But if we park anywhere else, it would mean more effort on my part.

I sigh and accept our fate.  We chose this parking spot.  It is where we we will watch our movies tonight.

We set up our chairs.  "Do you want anything from the snack bar?" I ask.  "I'm going to get something to eat."

"Whatever," she says.

I already know what she wants.  A meatball sub, a lemonade, and a box of gummy bears.  Maybe a fresh bottle of water, too.  Maybe ten.  The heat is killing me.  And yet, she doesn't sweat.

I catch another whiff of the outhouse where they're deep-frying doughnuts.  Maybe it's me.  I wonder if I can discreetly sniff out myself - I knew I should've brought a stick of deodorant with me.  In this weather?  It's uncontrollable, the sweat.  An invisible raincloud hovers over me.

I get in line for the concessions.  In front of me there is a skinny guy and his skinny wife, and their two fat kids.  The guy and his wife talk to one another in nasally voices, asking one another about low-fat burgers and non-dairy cheese, as if these are things that exist.

I'm hit with a burst of body odor.  It is thick and viscous like a mucous fog.  It hits my throat like lye and lemon.  I want to cry - but no, I'm in public.  I cannot cause a scene.

I look around for the culprit.  Maybe it's that skinny couple's kids.  They look like they might be at that age where they haven't fully grasped the importance of good hygiene even though their bodies are begging for it.  Maybe it's that guy three feet ahead of me who decided that wearing a zipped-up leather jacket in the middle of July was a good idea.

I sniff again.  I can't help it.  I have to breathe.

The stench gets me again.  I think I've identified it this time.  The nine o'clock position: two youngish people, one guy, one girl.  Late teens.  They wear tank tops that cover bathing suits, still damp from what I hope was a pool and not just from them sitting in the car waiting to get into the parking lot.  Their hair is stringy and their presence aloof.  I detect the fine prickle of chlorine and butt.

Somehow, despite the unsavoriness of the concession hut, I still manage to read the menu.  I add a large popcorn and a burger to my mental list.  I notice a sign that says there is a discount if you use cash - I'm thankful I remembered to hit an ATM before we came.

The line moves slowly.  I grab a tray and fill it with the items on my list.  The smelly swimmers clear out and the haze lifts.  Finally, the untainted tang of fast food.

I reach the cashier.  She totals up my tray and overcharges me by a dollar fifty.

"I thought there was a discount if you paid with cash?" I ask.

The cashier cocks her head at an angle.  "There's a what?" she asks me.

The line behind me shoves.  There's an angry white man behind me.  He has opinions and wears them on his face with open hostility.  He would very much like me to move.  Now.  He has food, and it needs to be eaten.

"A discount?" I try again, hitching a thumb at the sign that is almost unreadable from this vantage point.  "If you pay with cash."

She cocks her head at the other angle.  "I have no idea what you're saying to me right now."

The angry white man grunts.

This is our civilization now, I think.  We've come to a point where you can plainly lie to people and then pretend that you don't understand what words mean when they don't go your way, and when you feel upset about something, you don't even need to speak.  Where's the justice?  Where is my picket sign?  Why are we not rioting over this sort of thing?

I pay the cashier.  I've lost out on a dollar fifty.

I take the food back to our car.  My wife has been waiting for me with a mix of impatience and dull frustration.  The good news is - it's not me this time.

There's some asshole in the car behind us who keeps getting and dropping a phone call.  His phone blares four measures of a new Miley Cyrus remix, filtered through the shittiest speakers invented by mankind.  He does not answer until at least four measures go by, even though he is already holding the phone in his hand and he already knows that somebody is going to be calling him.  Each time it rings, he looks at the screen, thinks carefully about whether or not to answer, finally decides that yes, he should answer it, then swipes the "accept" button, holds the phone to his ear, shouts, "HELLO?!", waits for a response, then shouts, "I'M AT THE DRIVE-IN!  YOU COMING?!  HELLO?!", and then stares at the mysterious device in his hand that has just stopped working.  Then Miley comes back again, and he starts it over.

The asshole repeats this five or six more times before the caller finally connects properly.  Then the asshole shouts, "I CAN'T TALK NOW!  CALL ME LATER!"

My wife gives me the death-stare that was meant for him.

I sigh.  "Do you want to move?"

She just shakes her head.

The sun sets.  The announcer crackles over the loudspeakers and tells us that the first movie will be starting soon.  We exchange one last tired look as the opening titles fill the screen.  It is a look filled with weary thoughts and lost arguments.  It is a look of exhaustion.  It tastes mildly of terror.

This isn't the end of us, is it?  A bad night at the drive-in and suddenly we're over?

My fear of an uncertain future looms and stabs.  I think to distract myself with popcorn.  But I'm not hungry.

The movie begins.

For the next hour and a half, it is all that exists.  We are in a silly world of animated pirates on a silly adventure.  There are no celebrity voices to distract from the palpable subtext of Achieving Your Dreams! and no cheesy pop songs to induce nausea.  It is just a simple animated comedy, warm and inviting.

We laugh.  The audience laughs.  The characters laugh.

Halfway through, she reaches out to hold my hand.  I take it.  My appetite returns and I reach for the popcorn with my other hand.  It tastes too salty, but I don't notice yet.  The movie continues.

When it ends, we are both smiling.  We exchange another look.  A smile.  Comforting eyes.  We don't even remember why we were fighting in the first place.  Or at least, I don't - she'll probably remind me.  Some other time.  Not now.  Not while we're happy.

This won't end, she tells me.  We're strong enough to beat a crappy day.

The fat kids scream and argue about something as the skinny couple drives away.  They're among dozens of other families that came for exactly one feature, failing to grasp the point of a "Dusk 'Til Dawn" night at the drive-in.  Kids will do that to you, I suppose.

When the bustle to clear the lot ends, it is only roving packs of teenagers and mid-twenties couples who remain.  A respectful quiet rushes through as the next feature begins.

The next three movies are going to be complete crap.  There's a new Sandler piece, some bullshit about vampires, and a family movie about a kid who thinks he saw Jesus in the subway and runs around New York City trying to find him again.

But we knew this ahead of time.

We scoot our chairs closer together and she holds my hand more tightly.  It'll turn out to be a good night after all.