When Navid Abhari was twelve, going to the movies meant parting ways in the theater lobby. He felt very strongly that the only way to watch a movie was among strangers.
They would stand in line together to buy popcorn. Then, upon exiting the snack bar, he would say, “Well, this is where we part ways.” He was slightly apologetic but resolute. Something weighty happened to him in there during the movie. He could see the life of the movie go into the other people in the theater. Well, he told himself, that’s why they’re here. They’re enjoying the movie. But he could not shake the feeling that he wasn’t supposed to see it go inside them as clearly as he did.
It did not have to do with how good the movie was. It happened whether it was a good or bad movie. He did not know how to think about it other than to think of it as a weight.
Whatever the thing was, when he watched a movie with strangers, he could be sure the feeling of the weight would have an endpoint. Maybe it would be when everyone came out of the theater, although probably not because generally, it would last for a while. Maybe it would be when he got home, or maybe it would be the next day. But it would have an end because you couldn’t remember strangers for too long after seeing them.
When Navid came out of the movie, that was the one saving grace. When he imagined sitting in the movie theater with people he knew, people he would be going home with and going back to the ordinary life of his house with, it was too much to bear.
His older sister Yasi was the first to bring the matter up to him as a problem.
“Look, Navid,” she said, “What are you going to do when you go to a movie with a girl? You can’t tell her, ‘This is where we part ways.'”
It felt very good to find out that Yasi believed he would, one day, go to a movie with a girl.
“We can do something else.”
“Eventually, she’s going to want to see a movie,” Yasi said. “What do you think all these romantic movies are for?”
He had never thought they were for anything other than being a movie.
“I don’t know.”
“They are to move the romance along.”
The next time Navid sat in a movie by himself, he thought of how the romantic parts of the movie were intended to move the romance along, and it added to the weight he already felt watching the movie among strangers.
When he saw his family in the theater lobby, his mother said, “Tell us about it, Navid.”
“When everybody was coming out, I saw an old man smile.”
“I mean, tell us about the movie.”
He told them about the movie, but his heart wasn’t in it. The story seemed incidental, but he didn’t know to what.
“Aren’t you going to ask about the movie we saw?” his mother said in the car.
His mother told him about the movie they saw, as Yasi interrupted her to fill in some parts, as his father interrupted her to fill in some parts, as his younger sister Elham sat looking out the window.
“When do you think you’ll come to a movie with us?” his father said.
Just then, it felt like Yasi was right. It was unsustainable, not entirely because of the dream of going to a movie with a girl one day, although that was a big part of it. He felt like if he had a year of watching movies among strangers, that was a good, solid length of time. It would provide a strong foundation with which to sit in a movie theater among people he would continue to see after the movie ended, around whom he would carry the memory of what the movie had done.
“When I turn thirteen,” Navid said.
Elham turned from the window.
“You will?” she said.
A year was a long time if you thought about it. He had never committed a year of his life to anything else before. It was enough time to get a handle on what the weight was when he watched a movie with other people. He didn’t expect to have it fully figured out, just some flexibility around carrying it in a way that would give him a whistling, easygoing posture, like in those movies where the con artists were the good guys.
Knowing there was an end date to Navid’s self-imposed separation made everybody loose and freed them up to joke good-naturedly about it. His mother, father, and Yasi took turns saying, “Well, this is where we part ways,” after they bought popcorn. All except Elham, who still treated it with seriousness.
And Navid himself felt good to know that this was the year of understanding the weight of sitting in a movie. It made him feel there would be years of other things in his life, and his overall story would have a clear order and direction.
Someday later, when he went to the movies with a girl, he would tell her there was a year when he could only watch movies among strangers. The girl he imagined telling it to didn’t think it was strange.
As his thirteenth birthday grew near, Navid began to feel excited about watching a movie with his family again. He had gotten something out of watching with strangers. Specifically, he had become comfortable with the way he could feel both closer and farther from people when he watched the movie take up who they were. Those two things could happen at once. He was interested to see what it was to put this knowledge to practical use.
They were planning to go to a movie on his birthday, to celebrate his return. However, the day before, Elham announced to the family that she was going to sit and watch a movie by herself when they went.
“Now you?” her mother said.
“I want to see what he saw.”
“I wasn’t trying to see anything,” Navid said.
“What were you doing then?”
“I was trying to not see something.”
Everyone looked at him.
“What were you trying not to see?” their father said.
“I didn’t want to see the movie take up all you are,” Navid said.
“Why would it do that?” his mother said.
“That’s what it always does,” he said. “I don’t know if it has to, but that’s how it’s always been. I look at the people afterward, and it always takes up all they are. I think there’s somebody who watches a movie, and it doesn’t take up all they are. I mean, they look like they’re already taken up enough by who they are. There has to be somebody like that.” At this point, Navid let himself feel for the first time how much he wanted to be the person who could watch a movie without letting it take up all of who he was. He did not say it, but just the thought of it brought a sudden generosity towards his family. “With you all, I know you’re taken up enough by who you are because I know you. I just didn’t want to start wondering about it.”
Nobody said anything, but they suspected that it was nice that Navid didn’t want to start wondering if they were taken up enough by who they were at the movies.
“I still want to see it,” Elham said. “I want to see a movie by myself.”
“It’s the same movie,” her father said. “It’s the same movie whether you see it by yourself or with us.”
Navid made a face to suggest it was not the same movie. Having just finished a year of watching movies by himself, his opinion had some weight to it.
“What kind of mother lets her ten-year-old daughter sit in a movie theater by herself?” his mother said.
“Why did Navid get to do it for a year?” Elham said.
“He did seem to have some reasoning behind it,” her father said. “Although I still don’t fully understand it. I feel like I’m taken up enough by who I am, even at the movies.”
“What about when you see a political movie and start talking to the characters?” Yasi said.
“That is still me. I am on the side of justice.”
“How about this?” Navid said. “How about if we go see the same movie and Elham sits far away from us?” He looked equitably between his mother and his little sister, arranging his face to look like that of a fair negotiator.
“Only if we sit in the back,” his mother said.
“I’ll sit in the front,” Elham said.
“It would be nice if we could all sit together on your birthday,” his father said.
“This is more important,” Navid said. He didn’t know why it was more important. He didn’t know what his sister would see watching the movie among strangers. But it would be something. He was excited for her opinion as to whether the movie takes up all of who the people watching it are and whether or not that was even a good thing. He didn’t know. After a year of it, he still didn’t know. But he did feel that he had come as far as he could in his study of it for now, and it was a good time to broaden his inquiry into the matter alongside the wider world.
Siamak Vossoughi is a writer living in Seattle. He has had stories published in Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Bennington Review, Columbia Journal, West Branch, and Gulf Coast. He has published two short story collections, Better Than War and A Sense of the Whole.