The Empire Matinée

When Glen arrives on Thursday afternoons, she greets him at the door in a fancy dress and high heels. She’s had her hair done and wears makeup. He removes his hat when he enters, smiles, kisses her on the cheek. Smells her hair.

If it’s cool weather, he takes off his topcoat and hangs it on the bentwood stand by the door. Glen wears a three-piece suit with a watch chain, Egyptian cotton shirt, polished brown wingtips.

Glen picks a record from the stack he keeps at her place — Perry Como, Jack Jones, Jerry Vale, that sort of thing — and puts it on the console stereo. They listen to the soft clicks of the record changer, the hiss and pop. Then a soaring wave of strings rises over a pulsing beat.

They dance slowly, revolving round and round, holding each other close. They bump gently against the coffee table, on which a cut-glass bowl holds a handful of dried flower petals.

The first time he came over, Glen asked to see her closet, and the second time he brought some dresses and shoes. When she understood what he liked, she found a box of yellowing Butterick patterns in her aunt’s sewing room and asked if she could have them. Her aunt laughed, because the patterns were so ancient.

She began to make some of her own dresses, and she’s wearing one tonight. Her favourite: A high-waisted design with three-quarter sleeves and a bodice of sapphire-blue sequins. The skirt is satin, of the same deep blue, with blue organza panels that soften the sheen and lend an air of mystery. Quite elegant.

She would like to cook for him, but he insists on bringing dinner. Shrimp cocktail and tournedos, which he calls surf and turf, sometimes lobster or Cornish hen. Usually mille feuille for dessert.

She doesn’t know where he gets the food. Glen puts the foil packs in the warm oven, and slowly the apartment fills with their aroma. He keeps a forty-ouncer of Canadian Club at her place, too. Always brings a good bottle of wine. They eat by the flickering light of candles, James Last swooning on the stereo.

Once a week he sleeps in her bed.

* * *

When she was sixteen, Angela’s father finally relented and let her go with her cousins Helen and Anna to the Empire Cinema on Ogilvy Avenue. The Saturday matinée got you a cartoon, a Three Stooges and a feature — not that she’d ever experienced the matinée herself, but school friends had been talking about it for years. Angela had only ever been to the Rialto on Park Avenue with her parents for Greek comedies and musicals, or for the occasional war movie and melodrama, whose raw brutalities left her disturbed for days.

At the matinée, the atmosphere was surprisingly rowdy. The floor was sticky and the wine-red plush seats threadbare. So many young kids were throwing popcorn and spilling drinks that Angela considered she might be too old for all this. The Imperial matinée — perhaps one more thing she had missed out on and would now never understand.

The feature turned out to be A Hard Day’s Night, with the Beatles. Angela knew their songs from the radio, of course. She’d seen them on the Ed Sullivan show. But to actually see the Beatles on screen bigger than life, was something else entirely. They were so funny and quick and handsome, and their accents so unusual.

The plot was simple enough, but full of eccentric characters and jokes she didn’t quite get. The audience laughed at everything and Angela sat mesmerized. When swarms of girls chased after the Beatles and nearly caught them, as one or another of the Beatles stumbled and fell and picked himself up again, her heart quickened.

Near the end of the movie, when the Beatles performed on stage, she began to feel something of the audience’s rising hysteria. By the time John and Paul sang “She Loves You,” the kids at the Empire had joined hands and were singing along. Girls and boys surged and swayed back and forth to the music, a single sweating mass, mindless and howling with an unnamed desire. Angela found herself singing and screaming along with everyone else, screaming and crying with a frenzy of joy and unattainable longing. She released her cousins’ hands and crossed her arms over her aching breasts, squeezed her fists between her thighs. She was sobbing without knowing quite why.

The emotion lifted her high and still higher until she was looking down at the roiling mass below, and as the wave that carried her aloft gently receded, the movie credits appeared and the house lights came up.

She was once again at the Empire Cinema.

Angela glanced at Helen and Anna. All three were incapable of speech. Throats raw, faces wet with tears and sweat. Hearts still beating like trapped birds. Impossible to say whether they had been saved or assaulted.

Moments later, as the girls were shuffling through the side door on Durocher Street, still numb and silent, Angela noticed Jack on the sidewalk. Jack was tall and handsome. A little older, too, possibly in eleventh grade. He calmly took a step forward and there was no mistaking his intentions.

“Hi, my name is Jack,” he said. “May I walk you home?”

Angela’s cousins seemed to have melted away. She didn’t know where to look or what to do with her hands.

“No, thanks,” she said.

But then she saw the expression on his face.

“Well, maybe just to the corner.”

He said nothing more, but walked close beside her, their sleeves almost brushing. At Durocher and Ogilvy they turned right and continued on to Querbes. At that corner he said goodbye and walked away without looking back.

Helen and Anna reappeared beside Angela, wide eyed and giggling.

Over the following days, she saw Jack more often. He’d materialize on her way to the bus stop or when she was out with friends, and each time things became easier. Each time, they were less tongue-tied and nervous. They arranged to meet alone.

She didn’t know Jack well because he’d attended Catholic schools, while all the Greek kids went to the Protestant ones. But she’d seen Jack often enough playing street hockey with her friends’ brothers, or hitting fly balls at Piggery Park.

They’d never exchanged so much as a word, but he must have been watching her the entire time.

Jack Boyle was different from the other boys: she saw that immediately. The second time they met alone, he handed her a small bouquet of flowers — an extravagance that brought her up short. Jack made it clear that all he wanted was to talk. That, and to hold her hand.

When they finally did kiss, weeks later on a blustery spring day in May, he didn’t exhibit the grim desperation of other boys, as if the kiss was supposed to lead to something else. He simply wanted to hold her in his arms and stroke her hair, and this alone made her afraid.

Over that summer, when Jack wasn’t packing bags and filling the dairy case at the Dominion store on Jean Talon, they met at Piggery Park. He would find the hole cut into the chain-link fence and hold it open for her. They’d cross the tracks to Jarry Park, where fewer people knew them.

Angela learned to wait for Jack to spread his windbreaker on the grass for her to sit on. He’d dig his Swiss Army knife out of his pocket and open the Cokes he brought from work. They would clink bottles and laugh.

When Jack finally convinced Angela to visit his home, it was the middle of June. She found his parents to be measured in their manners and kind. They served Weston bread with soft butter at table, and called each other dear. Although it couldn’t have been otherwise, she found it remarkable that they spoke English and treated each other with such formal deference, even as Jack’s father wore down-at-heel moccasins and his mother a brown pilly sweater.

Jack shared a room with two younger brothers, whom he called “the pests.” After dinner, Angela and Jack sat on Jack’s bed listening to the transistor radio. Against the opposite wall stood the bunk beds where the pests slept, and in the corner a cardboard barrel filled with toys and sports equipment. Every few minutes one or the other pest would barge in on some mysterious errand, fetching socks from a dresser or rummaging busily in the closet. Eventually Jack kicked them out and told them to stay out, and the pests stood outside the closed door and giggled in the hallway, as the two lovers held hands.

Jack said he understood about Angela’s father but, after all, they had their entire lives before them. Solemnly, he declared that he would take care of her forever. They would marry and start a family.

She laughed at this — so preposterous did it seem, she being only sixteen and from a Greek family. A home, paycheques, a baby. Ridiculous.

He turned his mournful eyes on her and asked why she was laughing. Didn’t she know he loved her?

After a time, the idea that this older boy, with his strong arms and all the confidence in the world, would marry her, began to seem almost natural enough. Jack even suggested that he might go home with her one evening. Present himself to her father. Speak man to man.

She marvelled at his preposterous courage. But the idea was just too unimaginable.

“That can never happen, Jack.”

“But what, then?” he said. “What will we do, you and me?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “What is there to do?”

“Well, let me think about it,” he said.

This conversation, conducted on a cool grassy patch beneath an oak in Jarry Park, was the beginning. Because the moment their predicament was turned into words, as they groped toward something neither of them fully understood, a line had already been crossed.

The next time they met, Jack was bursting with ideas. He’d been thinking. He said he’d be turning eighteen soon and would have no trouble finding a job in the Alberta oilfields. He’d written to a cousin who was already out there. They would rent at first, and eventually buy a house with his wages. In the evenings he would attend technical school to become a pipe fitter or welder: that’s where the real money is. She could continue her studies and become a nurse or a schoolteacher. Angela’s parents would visit. They’d eventually come around, once they saw how in love they were.

A week before school was to begin again, Jack and Angela got on a Greyhound bus headed for Calgary. Jack had saved most of his wages from the store, and also had some savings. He hadn’t told his parents about going west, but had left a note saying he would contact them soon. Angela, swept up in Jack’s plan, had been too paralyzed to even do that. She had feigned a stomach ache and slipped out with a bag while her parents were at church.

But Angela’s parents caught wind of the plan the very same day. Jack’s mistake was to leave on a Sunday, when all four parents were home from work and would quickly miss them. His second mistake was to leave a letter from his cousin in a dresser drawer. It didn’t take long for Jack’s parents to make some phone calls and quickly find where that lovely Greek girl lived.

By the time the bus pulled into Toronto for a change of drivers, Angela’s uncle was waiting at the platform. She saw him chewing the end of his moustache and checking his watch. As soon as the door opened, her uncle said something to the driver, who called over a security guard.

She can’t remember how the rest unfolded. Nor how they separated her from Jack. He remained on the bus. All she remembers is that, moments later she was on another bus headed back to Montreal.

She remembers a taxi ride from the bus station. She remembers the taxi pulling up to their building. Her father standing outside. Neighbours on balconies and on the street, staring yet trying not to look. Everyone knowing exactly what would happen next.

* * *

The Greeks in Park Ex are getting older. New immigrants are moving in, people with darker skins and different foods. The elderly Greeks that can get out shuffle slowly to the corner store, to their church, to a neighbour’s. They wear carpet slippers on the street sometimes. Their children live in large homes in Brossard and Laval, in the West Island and Town of Mount Royal. Some even in Westmount.

Angela looks after several of them: the ones who refuse to move in with their kids or who have not been invited.

She defrosts their dinners, cuts up their food, sits with them in front of the TV. Holds their hand. When they talk about the past, she pretends to remember. Even when those long-ago joys and regrets occurred in Athens or Alexandria or Smyrna, she pretends to remember.

On weekends their children drive to Park Ex in expensive cars to pay her in cash.

After Angela’s shameful return from Toronto, not many would have anything to do with her. She left school and got the job at the Betty Brite dry cleaners, and that was fine for a while. Then Andrew came along and said he didn’t care about any of it. He was a good husband and father, and over time she learned to love him.

She cared for him through his illness, and after he was buried and both daughters were married and gone, Angela continued to care for others in the same way. There is little enough love in the world.

Angela’s daughters would like her to live with them, or at least visit more often. She’s in the prime of life and should get out more, meet more people.

Her older daughter’s husband works for a bank and was transferred to London some years ago. But the younger daughter, Emily, was offered an executive position in Vancouver. They say she’s on the fast track. Her company has installed her in an expensive area and her husband looks after the kids. Well, that’s something, thinks Angela.

She visits her daughters, stays for a week or two, dotes on her grandchildren. She takes them for walks, feeds them and plays peek-a-boo. At the airport, she sheds tears and hugs everyone goodbye. She kisses the crayon drawings the children present to her and presses them to her bosom. Angela folds the drawings carefully and puts them in her purse. The children are troubled and can’t understand why yiayia is sad and crying, she was so happy before.

But as soon as Angela is at the departure gate, with her carry-on at her feet and her magazine open, she’s anxious to get home and resume her routine. She finds a handkerchief and dabs her eyes.

The pensioners will be happy to see her again.

Twice a week, Angela likes to have black coffee and Boston cream pie at Miss Park Extension, on Jean Talon Street. It’s part of the routine she misses when she’s away. The instant she walks through the door, the counter man, Stelio, removes the glass cover from the dessert tray and begins preparing her order.

It’s a comforting place, Miss Park Extension, with its plaster friezes of half-goat men blowing their pipes, mad lovers dancing after them. With its framed photos of the Parthenon. With its fishermen and whitewashed houses against the wine-dark sea.

People remember Angela’s parents or her late husband. They nod and smile. They ask about her daughters and the grandchildren, and she obliges them with details and photos from her wallet.

One day, she’s enjoying coffee and pie as usual, when she notices a tall man watching her from the counter. He’s wearing a white cowboy hat with a western-style shirt and jeans.

Angela looks out the front window and covers her mouth, afraid she’ll laugh. A moment later he’s standing by her booth.

“Sorry to bother you, ma’am,” he says, taking off his hat. “Is your name by any chance Angela?”

“Yes,” she says. “I’m sorry, do I know you?”

“I’m not sure if you remember. The name is Glen. Jack Boyle’s brother?”

She can’t hear what he says next because the blood rushes to her face and there’s a roar in her ears.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you,” he says. “I thought you knew. Mercifully, the Lord took him quickly.”

“I hadn’t heard,” she manages to say. “But how would I, anyway? It was all so long ago. We went our separate ways, had separate lives.”

“May I sit?” he says.

She notices Stelio watching from the counter.

Slowly they begin to talk, Glen’s tall white hat on the table between them like a wedding cake. Glen tells her about his work, selling vintage clothes and accessories. He buys from garage and estate sales, sets up at weekend flea markets, drives his van to Ontario or the States on buying and selling trips.

“I specialize in high end clothing items,” he explains. “Cashmere, wool and silk, mostly. Fine leather, bespoke suits. Pre-loved inventory, ma’am.” He laughs and by laughing invites her to laugh with him, but she only smiles.

“More and more, though, it’s Internet sales,” he continues. “You’d be surprised at what you can sell on eBay. Heard of it, eBay?

He’s respectful, pausing often to leave space for her to talk, but she doesn’t say much. She studies his face.

“I do okay,” says Glen. “I have an overnight radio show, too. Country and western, on the weekends.”

“Explains the getup,” she says.

Glen is fine and gentle, and Angela allows him to believe she remembers him, as she allows the elderly Greeks to believe she remembers when they were dashing young men and dark-eyed beauties. But, truly, all she remembers are two undifferentiated little boys, the pests. The stacked beds against the wall. The small, neat room. The transistor radio tuned to CKGM.

The other brother, she can never recall his name even though Glen has told her often enough, is now a hairdresser in Los Angeles.

“You’re so beautiful,” he says, the first night he stays at her place. “No wonder Jack fell so hard.”

She winces when he calls her “Jack’s girl,” and he learns not to do it again.

“Look at this,” he says one Thursday afternoon, after he’s hung up his coat. “I brought a fresh supply of LPs. Check this out: Rainy Night in Georgia’, by Brook Benton. Big hit in, what was it — ’68, ‘69?”

“What about this one?” she says, pointing to the second LP in the stack. It’s A Hard Day’s Night, with its black and white checkerboard of Beatles portraits.

“Beatlemania,” Glen says. “There’s always a strong market for Beatles stuff. The good items are hard to come by, though. Expensive, too. They played the Forum in ‘64, you know. Let’s give it a spin.”

They dance slowly to “And I Love Her.”

Paul sings, “Bright are the stars that shine, dark is the sky. I know this love of mine will never die.”

* * *

As the first morning light seeps through the curtains, Glen’s shadowed profile emerges from the darkness. The slow rise and fall of his chest. Suit hanging on the door. Blue dress in the closet. Wan ghostly light over everything.

Neighbours have seen him leaving in the morning often enough now. Someone will tell her aunt Margo. Soon her daughters will find out. So be it.

Angela has never told Glen about the Empire Cinema, the Beatles. Nor did she tell her late husband, Andrew, how that long-ago matinée changed her life.

She considers how everything that came after that particular afternoon has been shadowed with a painful burden of longing. A possibility of loss and joy whose existence she never suspected and only learned about in that darkened theatre. Yes, nothing was the same again after the Imperial matinée. Angela had been sixteen and did not know — how could she? — she would never again feel so much.