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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

I’m (Actually Not Very) All Right, Jack

A Double Feature of Romance That Ends Horribly

This story is true, and contains two of my favorite thematic elements:

  1. black and white movies
  2. barely contained teen lust

As a bonus, it ends in horrifying personal humiliation.

Writing down my favorite “stories about movies and concerts,” I’m finding that they are often also “stories about women.” This story is no exception, and is about the first true love of my life: Grace. (sigh…) Grace was not her real name, but a nickname based on her lack of that quality, e.g., she was clumsy as an ox. She moved too suddenly, tripped, knocked things over, and laughed too loudly. Her nickname wasn’t only in reference to physical clumsiness; she often seemed ill-at-ease, alternately shy, then manic. If I spoke too seriously, or got angry, Grace would deflate the moment by exploding with laughter, but it wasn’t malicious; she was just nervous. When I got amorous, she would tickle me. She was some sort of born-again Christian, and wore t-shirts proclaiming “God is AWESOME!” and “Jesus Revives in ‘85!” She refused to read “Grapes of Wrath” because of the profanity, and she found the film “Ghostbusters” theologically offensive. You might think she was a prudish goody-two-shoes, but you’d be wrong; she was just as likely to crack a nasty joke as the rest of us. Grace was complicated. She was (and still is) beautiful, smart, and funny, and I adored her.

I met Grace in Drama class during my freshman year of high school. During our four years there, we appeared in most of the plays together (including time-honored chestnuts like “Charley’s Aunt,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” and “Ten Little Indians”). We were sometimes close friends, and sometimes more than friends. The rest of the time, we detested one another.

We were both a bit fixated. We wrote hundreds of notes to each other, which we saved in specially-decorated shoeboxes for obsessive late-night scrutiny. Until, of course, we had an argument, at which point the notes would become something to BURN in HATEFUL DEFIANCE! I once rode my bicycle several miles in a snow storm, just for the chance to see Grace for ten minutes. After we split, she wrote tragic Hemingway quotations in my yearbook. (“We could’ve had a damn good time together, Jake.” “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so.”) We “went together” and “broke up” a few times over the course of our high school years, each separation or reunion more dramatic than the last, alternately cherishing and punishing each other like passionate, petulant, self-involved teenagers.

Which, of course, is exactly what we were.

Even when we would “break up” we couldn’t seem to get very far away from each other. We were still in the same classes, plays, and social circles, so there were plenty of opportunities for further drama. In fact, some time after our “final breakup,” Grace and I wound up taking the romantic leads in a play (“Rehearsal for Murder,” my finest hour). Imagine the scene, if you will: Grace and I kissing passionately (but in-character) onstage, with my then-girlfriend (and future wife) watching anxiously from the wings. When my scene with Grace was over, I would of course have to put on a similar performance with my girlfriend, while Grace watched from the opposite side of the stage. This was a situation much too erotically confusing for a 17-year-old.

Sigh.

The following story, however, occurred much earlier. It is about my most dramatic reunion with Grace, and it takes place in a movie theater.

Like many socially maligned groups, the Drama Club was a tightly knit, protective (and completely dysfunctional) clan. Besides hanging out in Paul’s Basement, we did everything else together, too: attended concerts, wrote songs, snuck into the school at night and distributed phony election pamphlets (long story), and also went to lots of movies. Whenever a movie was related to a play we had mounted, so much the better.

On this particular night, we were all going to one of my favorite repertory movie theaters in Seattle: the Neptune.

This was a gorgeous old movie house with stained-glass murals of King Neptune (and other water-bound mythological characters) flanking the screen, real butter on the popcorn, plush seats, golden scrollwork on pillars supporting the ceiling, a balcony, the works. They were showing a double-bill of “I’m All Right, Jack” (a clever but dated b/w Ealing Studio comedy about modern industry) with “The Mouse That Roared” (not a classic, but Peter Sellers is a genius). We had recently put on the stage version of “The Mouse That Roared” and I played zany Professor Kokintz.

kokintz

So the whole gang showed up, even our Drama teacher.

For some reason, I arrived late, and everyone was already seated. In the entire row, there was only one seat empty, and that was next to Grace. We had been separated for some time, maintaining a tortured distance, but obsessing over each other all the same. This was a period of late-night tears, heart-rending notes passed in the hall, recriminating phone calls – all the requisite high school breakup rituals. And here we both were, and there was nowhere else to sit. We exchanged tense greetings and I took my seat. I tried not to look at Grace, but I could feel her next to me. She was laughing, sharing a joke with someone behind us, and I felt a searing pang of jealousy. When I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye, my worst fears were confirmed: she was just as pretty as ever. My stomach was in knots as the movie began.

For the first part of the movie, Grace and I kept our eyes firmly locked on the screen, refusing to acknowledge our proximity to each other. She was RIGHT THERE! I could feel her radiating warmth next to me, and wondered if there was any possibility… but no, that was ridiculous. I silently berated myself for even THINKING such a thing. So pathetic! And then I noticed that Grace’s right arm had moved a fraction of an inch closer to my left arm. Yes, the fabric of her shirt was definitely touching the hairs on my arm. Was she… flirting with me? Taunting me? I had no idea. I felt slightly feverish. The next move was clearly mine… but what to do? To TOUCH her arm directly was absolutely out of the question. Maybe if I just looked at her and smiled in a sort of quizzical, yet charming way… but then, if she WAS flirting, she might be embarrassed and move her arm away, and that would be unthinkably horrible. Every possible move seemed too risky, so I made up my mind not to move at all. Or breathe. Or blink. I sat next to my estranged love, stone-still, all senses on alert. Just when this was becoming unbearable, I heard Grace taking a deep breath, and glanced sideways just in time to see her chest rise and fall. This was pure provocation! My mind was racing. Finally, in a bold move, I called her bluff by moving my left leg a fraction of an inch closer to her right leg. When she didn’t move her leg away, the message seemed clear, so I casually slid my arm into actual contact with her arm. She pulled away slightly, and my bravery was replaced by mortification. What had I been thinking? I was an animal, a sexual predator, a demonic beast enslaved by my unclean urges! I could not have been more humiliated if Grace had glanced over to see me injecting heroin into my erect penis. Cold sweat broke out on my forehead, and my stomach churned. But then she reconsidered, and her arm was ONCE AGAIN TOUCHING MINE. The game was afoot.

This delicate advance-and-retreat continued throughout the first movie. When the intermission came, my every muscle was tensed, every nerve ending on my left side vibrating with over-stimulation. Grace and I were now quite obviously slightly leaning into each other and not concealing it. Our friends noticed, nudged one another, and whispered. Grace and I smiled at each other sheepishly, and then I pulled my patented “Oh-yawn-I’m-so-tired-I-need-to-stretch-and-whoops-my-arm-accidentally-wound-up-around-your-shoulders” move. This potentially disastrous maneuver was executed flawlessly, and Grace cuddled against me as the next movie began. SUCCESS! I would have rubbed my hands together with glee except, you know, my left arm was AROUND GRACE’S SHOULDERS!

During the following movie, my excitement – and my anxiety – increased. What did it all mean? Were we now officially “back together?” Would Grace regret this tomorrow? Was kissing allowed? Was I some kind of creep to even hope for that? Would it ruin everything if I put my hand on her leg? (This question was resolved quickly when Grace audaciously placed her hand on MY leg.) And – even if we were now officially boyfriend and girlfriend again – how long would it last? Would we just break up again in a month? Two months? WHAT EXACTLY WAS I HOPING FOR? And did I really “LOVE” Grace? Is this what it felt like? Like a case of the flu? I was feeling pretty rough… Oh my GOD she was so beautiful! Around and around my mind went.

By the time the second movie ended, I felt physically and emotionally drained, but I had reached some clarity. As the lights went up, I resolved to tell her what I now knew: Grace was my one true love and heart’s companion. No other girl had ever made me feel this dizzy, nauseous, or feverish. Whatever reasons we had for breaking up were insanity! We clearly belonged together! I looked searchingly into Grace’s eyes. She gazed back, her lips slightly parted, her heart open to me, awaiting the words that might repair our fractured souls, mend our broken love.

It was at that moment that I began vomiting.

“MMMNNNPPPHH!” I exclaimed, clamping my hands over my mouth.

“Jason, I…” Grace began. But I didn’t hear the rest, because I was frantically pushing my way to the aisle, stumbling over outstretched legs, fighting back the rising gorge. I ran through the lobby of the theater, vomit exploding from between my tightly clasped fingers. In my desperate attempt to avoid unnecessary spewage, I accidentally swallowed, which made me gag even more violently. My eyes and nose were watering profusely, and guttural noises escaped from my covered mouth as I sprinted to the men’s bathroom… which was occupied! Both of the stalls were in use and locked. I removed my hands from my mouth and heaved copiously into the sink, my body shuddering. When one of the stalls finally opened up, I moved in and continued the job in relative privacy. It was even worse than it sounds, but writing about it is making me feel sick, so I’ll just leave it at that. It was bad.

Thirty minutes later, ashen-faced, I staggered back to the lobby. The theater was closing, and everybody was gone. I had hoped Grace might wait around, but she was nowhere to be seen. Even my so-called friend Paul had left, which meant I had no ride. Dejected, I called home.

“(grumble grumble) Hello? (cough),” answered my dad, after which he noisily dropped the phone. He didn’t sound so good, actually.

“Dad? I’m down at the Neptune – you know, in the University District? I’m really SICK and I need a ride…” I whimpered.

“(grumble grumble grumble) At the (clears throat) Neptune? I thought you were studying with Paul?”

“Yeah, well, we finished early so we, uh, could… look, could you just please come and PICK ME UP?? I got so sick… I’ve been vomiting for the last half hour. Please?? I… don’t know… what…” I trailed off, dizzy from the effort of explaining. I was about one more stupid question away from weeping hysterics.

“Well,” responded my dad in his laconic I’m-barely-awake voice, punctuated frequently by deep intakes of breath through his nostrils, inevitably followed by the violent expulsion of a sigh, “you probably got the same food poisoning (deep intake through the nostrils) that the rest of us did (explosive sigh).

“I think it was that Chicken Ala King at McGrath’s,” he concluded. After the performance of some sort of violent throat-cleansing ritual, he mumbled that he would see me soon, and the line went dead.

They were locking up the theater, so I had to go outside and wait on the pavement. I stood under a street lamp, shivering in my vomit-stained t-shirt, waiting for my dad to pick me up, and thought again about that glorious moment, stumbling to the bathroom, gagging on a mouthful of regurgitated Chicken Ala King, when I had glanced back at Grace, and how beautiful she looked when she smiled.

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