I’ve never died before, but I’m pretty sure I know what dying feels like. I mean scientifically, death happens when the heart stops beating, right? When the brain stops working, when you can no longer breathe, when the body gives up and the spirit floats away.
When Ari Ellis started crying in the passenger seat of my car three days ago and told me she couldn’t be with me anymore, all of those things happened to me. My brain is barely functioning, the air in my lungs disappeared, and I’m pretty sure there’s just a decomposing mass of goo where my heart used to be. Love is a murderer, man, and death is a permanent broken heart.
I met Ari Ellis while I was working at the Majestic 10 movie theater. It was a Saturday shift, 8 AM to 4 PM, the part of the day when it’s mostly older people and little kids coming to the movies to waste a weekend afternoon. The hottest ticket that day was for a children’s movie called Billy Bear and the Great Gumball Adventure, which is just as terrible as the name lets on. But beggars can’t really be choosers, I guess, when it’s a rainy April morning and bored kids need something to do because we sold out almost every show. My manager, Ralph, took me off snack-bar duty and asked me to help out with cleaning theaters between shows.
“Little kids,” he said, making a face. “A lot of spills. Everything is really…sticky in there.”
When the 1:15 show let out, I took my little cleaning cart over to Theater 8 and stood at the back, watching patrons filter out as the Billy Bear credits rolled onscreen. It’s Majestic policy not to clean until every patron has left the theater, “in order to make the moviegoing experience as comfortable as possible” or whatever, so when the girl sitting in the fourth row (left, second seat from the wall), didn’t move after the credits ended and the lights went on, I started clearing my throat in that loud fake way, thinking she’d take a hint and get out of there so I could start the glorious work of removing dried pools of soda and bits of half-chewed gummy worms from the floors.
“You should see a doctor about your throat,” the girl called out, still facing forward even though there was nothing on the screen.
“Um, miss?” I began. “You’re supposed to leave?” I hate when I do that—make statements into questions. I didn’t even realize it was a thing I did until Ari pointed it out to me months later. “Dude, you need to stop doing that,” she’d said. “It makes you sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about, and you do. I mean, you get like straight A’s. You’re smart. Don’t second-guess yourself.”
But that was After Ari and this was Before Ari, when I still second-guessed everything.
“Miss?” I said, a little louder this time. “You have to leave now? The movie is over?”
“Oh my god, OK!” the girl said. She turned around and I saw her big brown eyes and messed-up teeth. I felt lightheaded.
There are some people, if you’re lucky, that will sort of float into your life, surrounded by some kind of otherworldly glow and you’ll find yourself asking what you’ve ever, ever done to deserve to even, like, live on the same planet with someone who radiates such loveliness. Ari Ellis is that kind of person.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But uh, it’s my job? To, um, clean the place?” I wanted to die right there, surrounded by over-buttered popcorn kernels.
“That sucks,” she said. “Do you need any help?” She surveyed the theater. “This place looks pretty gnarly.”
“That’s OK. Thanks, though.”
She started to get up from her seat and then paused, put her hand on the back of the chair, and let out a big, dramatic, CW-worthy sigh—the kind that’s meant to call attention. “Hey,” she said. “Would it be OK if I stayed here? Just for the next show.” She looked down at the floor and kicked around some popcorn, which was super cute but totally unhelpful as far as my cleaning was concerned.
“Are you trying to win a bet?” I asked. I couldn’t fathom any other reason why anyone would subject themselves to multiple viewings of Billy Bear.
“First of all, don’t judge. This movie is hilarious on so many levels, you don’t even know,” she said. “Secondly, I just need to stay here for a few more hours. My parents think I’m on a date.”
“What kind of shitty date takes you to see Billy Bear?”
She laughed and said, “An imaginary one. Bruce Patman. I stole the name from Sweet Valley High. My parents have no idea.”
“My imaginary boyfriend was Rick Starch,” I said.
“That’s the fakest name I’ve ever heard.”
“Yeah, well, I was 12 and I wasn’t ready to tell my parents that my actual date for the seventh grade dance was—” I stopped myself. “Well, it wasn’t Rick Starch.”
She sat back down and stared at the screen. “What was her name?” she asked. Explosions from the action movie next door rattled the walls; it felt like we were just beyond a terrible storm, like the danger was on its way, but for now we were safe.
“Kylie Taylor,” I said. I pushed my little cleaning cart around, trying to act nonchalant about the whole thing, even though I knew I was on the clock and had to keep working.
She turned around and gave me a sad smile. “I’m Ari Ellis,” she said.
“I’m Ashley Carp. My friends call me Ash, though. And, um, you can stay if you want. I won’t tell anybody.”
“Yeah?” I was hustling now, trying to get everything spotless for the next show, so that if Ralph came in, I could just pass Ari off as an early arrival.
“Do your parents know now?” she asked.
“Yeah, they know.”
“And they’re OK with it?” I could tell by her tone that I didn’t have to ask about her parents.
“They were kind of surprised, but yeah, they’re OK with it. They’re pretty great, actually.”
“Rad.” She turned back to the screen. “Thanks for letting me stay.”
I gathered all of the trash into an industrial-size bag and slung it over my shoulder like some demented junkyard Santa Claus. I had to go, but my feet were stuck to the ground, even though I’d already cleaned all of the sticky apple juice from the concrete. “Well, it was nice meeting you,” I said, because “I think you’re beautiful” seemed a bit much.
“You too,” she called back. “We should go to the movies sometime.”
She showed up every day for two weeks after that. Fourth row, left, second seat from the wall: the love of my life.