By Hannah Michnya
I turn to the sound of my name being called. It is a call of recognition and of happy surprise. Instinctively, my eyes roam the large, outdated theater lobby searching for the person who had called out to me, studying each passing face intently for one that I will recognize and can cheerily greet.
But I cannot find a familiar face. There are at least fifty people in the lobby, some queue for concessions, while others stroll to and from the restrooms; some just now pass through the large glass entranceway. Families linger against the wall, divvying up their large popcorn buckets equally into smaller, and clear plastic trays for each of the children. Men idle outside the restroom doors, waiting for their sweethearts. There are a few people in line behind me: one old lady with purple glasses and curly white hair, a stunning couple taller than six feet; and a group of three young girls all with heads bent down to stare at the glowing screens on their cell phones. I recognize none of them.
Confused, feeling nervous, I give up the search for a friend or acquaintance and turn back to face the concessions. The family of three in front of me have finished ordering; the father reaches absentmindedly for the receipt of their transaction. They step away to the right. The cashier smiles, waves me forward and greets me as I stand across the counter from him.
I am not looking at him. My eyes have locked on a particularly appetizing looking chocolate chip cookie in the fresh-baked section of the glass cases, when he says, “Rachel!”
I look up in shock. He is looking at me, too, our eyes on each other, and I probe my mind for any memory of this teenage boy. I do not know him; I could not be more certain of this. I do not know a spindly teenage boy with acne scars, long black hair, dreadfully thin lips, and ear lobe gauges. I hardly know anyone in this city, except for a few coworkers, two neighbors, and the book club ladies that I meet on Zoom twice a month. I do not think there is a single teenager in the entire city limits who knows me. I wonder if this is who called my name a moment ago, who I obviously had not seen because he had been blocked from my line of sight by the family of three. How could this boy have called me Rachel?
“Do I know you?” I ask him, my voice filled with confusion and curiosity.
He pauses and shakes his head. “No?” his tone taking an upward inflection that makes the word sound like a question.
I feel uneasy.
“But you called me by name just now,” I counter.
“I did not.” He replies with a finality that does not allow any room for rebuttal. Did I mishear him? Was it someone else who spoke? I turn to look at the line behind me again; it has grown longer. Two new patrons have come to stand behind the group of young girls. Once again, I recognize no one.
I feel sick to my stomach, the chocolate chip cookie that I had intended to purchase has lost its appeal. I ask for a large Coke, thinking the carbonation will help my upset stomach and hoping the caffeine will clear my overactive, imaginative mind. The boy does not speak to me again as he completes my request. I linger too long at the counter after he has returned my change. I long to remember him; I force my mind to conjure pictures of all the young people I have known in my life, but no one comes to mind.
I drag my feet and head toward the old maroon theater door. I watch people come in and out. I will not admit it, but I know that I am standing here waiting to find the person who called my name earlier. With every unfamiliar face that passes by, I feel a deeper sense of dread, a stronger sense that I do not belong here.
I enter the theater and clutch my oversized cup of soda. It is dark inside, as is normal for theaters, and the upcoming films are playing on the expansive screen. Feeling fearful for reasons that I cannot explain, I walk up a few steps to one of the middle rows, shimmying in front of people to reach a section of unclaimed seats. I am two seats away from a couple on my left, and there is one man in the last seat of the row, six seats to my right. I glance too long at each of them, wondering if I know them from somewhere, wondering if they know me. I do this despite the facts that it is getting harder to breathe and the tip of my nose feels frozen.
I watch a young woman with long, kinky hair, about my age, enter the theater, look around for a seat, and lock her eyes into the open gap between me and the man six seats to my right. As she is crossing the row, she looks down at me, and her eyes flash in recognition.
“Rachel!” she whispers joyfully.
I cannot breathe.
My heart drops. I do not know her; I have never seen her before in my life. Suddenly, I feel there is no air in the room, not enough space for me next to her. Space starts to push back on me. Did she call to me earlier?
I feel sick.
I feel the ends of anxiety’s long, black tentacles latch onto my ankles, constricting unrelentingly. My heart beats faster in response, in frightful anticipation of the panic it knows is coming. As automatically as a wild animal runs away or camouflages itself from a predator, I begin focusing on my breathing, attempting to slow my heart, to allow for each exhale to be longer than each inhale. The attempt is futile.
Her face is right in mine, leaving maybe an inch of space between us. I cannot see, cannot hear. I can feel the way my blood is sloshing through each of my veins, in every inch of my body, and I hate it. The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stand straight up, leaving a tingling sensation on my skin. I am scared, worried that I am dying, possibly already dead, and I cannot identify why. Space is still pushing on me, making me feel like I will fold into myself if it continues. My head spins, my stomach lurches, I feel both hot and chilled at the same time, sweat and goosebumps covering me jointly from head to toe.
I think I might die.
I grasp the armrests of my seat as tears stream down my cheeks. I feel horror, I feel like the wild animal who is running or hiding, I feel bewilderment. The sounds from the trailers are too loud and jarring though I cannot hear them; the colors and images on the screen are too stimulating and overwhelming though I cannot see them.
I am certain I am about to vomit.
A warm, gentle hand rests lightly on my right shoulder, and though I am spiraling, panicking, crying, heaving, I can appreciate the touch and how grounding it feels. I choose not to look at whose body the hand is attached to. Instead, I focus on that delicate, warm sensation to block out the tentacles that have travelled up from my ankles all the way to my chest to suffocate and squish me. With my eyes closed and my attempts to lengthen my exhales becoming more successful, I lose the nausea and the urge to vomit. As the small hand rubs up and down my upper arm, I return to myself. I know it has been a long time because when I open my eyes again, I feel uneasy still but not panicked. The trailers are over and the film that I came to see is playing on the screen.
I look over to the young woman with the long, kinky hair. She has a deeply kind face made even more welcoming by her warm smile and the care I see in her eyes.
“Are you okay?” she whispers.
“I don’t like crowds.”
“I’m sorry,” she says, and she means it. She drops her hand from my arm and twists it into my hand. Her eyes ask if this is okay, if this helps, and my eyes, filled with tears again but this time from overwhelming gratitude, tell her that it is.
She turns her head to face the screen, and I do the same.
We watch the film this way, hand in hand. My heart, now beating completely normally, jumps with joy over my first successful public outing in years.