Amber’s mom takes us to the seven o’clock showing of Titanic at The Murderplex.
Of course, that’s not the actual name of the cinema, but that’s what everyone calls it. A few years ago some people got shot there during a screening of The Godfather III on Christmas Day. After, it became the first theatre in the country to install metal detectors, which is the kind of thing that makes me feel safer and more scared at the same time. It’s okay though—on the other side of the detectors is a concession stand where they butter my popcorn in the middle and on top.
There goes the fuckin’ neighborhood, Amber’s mom says to the security guard as she empties her purse into the gray bin: two packs of Marlboro Reds, a boatload of pennies, and a nubby brown pencil responsible for her eyebrows. She’s the kind of woman who doesn’t alter herself no matter who she is around and I like that, like she knows I’m already a grown-up. When Amber confronted her after school with what Ms. Chapel, our fourth grade teacher, taught us about second-hand smoke, Amber’s mom said, Well, that’s a great load of goat shit, lit a new cigarette, and rolled up her station wagon window with us inside. Whenever I come home from a sleepover at Amber’s, Mom makes me wash my hair twice.
Amber’s room is entirely pink except for where the walls are turning yellow. Amber is my second best friend but she’s getting too proud of that blonde ponytail of hers. She brushes it one hundred times a night. Not 99, not 101, a perfect even 100—a ritual for the beautiful. Then she sets her brush down next to a framed picture of Jesus, turns the key inside her nightlight, and lets in the dark.
We take our seats as close to the screen as possible without getting a neck ache looking up at a god-sized Leonardo DiCaprio, the kind of guy Mom would call a hunka-munka. He’s the real dreamboat of the film, if you know what I mean. If I had to choose between third class in the rat-infested pits of the ship with Leo, or first class without him, I know what I’d choose. No question.
I cannot wait to be loved.
Rose has just told Jack she wants to be drawn Like one of his French girls, which I am mature enough to know means naked, and maybe with armpit hair. I stop chewing when she says this. The popcorn in my mouth sogs. She holds the necklace modeled after the real-life Hope Diamond in her upturned palm when she whispers, Draw me wearing this, and only this. Jack and I swallow hard at the same time.
And then Rose drops her robe.
The only boobs I’ve ever seen on screen before were at home—and they were more so the suggestion of boobs rather than actual ones–—on the scrambled channel 55 I found by accident one day. And now keep finding on purpose.
Jack sharpens his pencil with a knife, curves it along the page to capture the curl of Rose’s cheek, the cursive of her hair, the backward capital C of her left breast—when a screech bulldozes through the moment and I spill my Cherry Coke on my lap. Fire alarm.
Of fucking course, Amber’s mom says, standing up to usher us out of our seats. A couple rows behind, a teenage boy stands and shouts in protest, But this is the best part! Kate Winslet is still naked on the screen. I slip my sneakers back on my feet halfway, crushing the heels of them into hurried clogs. Amber’s mom shuffles us sideways out the aisle as Jack’s stern eyebrow concentrates over his sketchbook and locks Rose in the vault of his gaze. Move it! Amber’s mom says. Move it! I keep turning my head back. Jack employs his pencil to add shadows between her breasts, her legs, for cleavage, for hair. Amber’s mom shoos me toward the exit sign. But I want to see. I don’t care if I burn.
Outside The Murderplex, Amber and I have an unspoken agreement that in the minutes her mom is up ahead complaining to the box office, we will pretend we are old enough to be here unchaperoned. Our girl-breath is hot in the December air. Our exhales take shape. There’s a chance we might even look to be reveling in a cigarette from far enough away.
No fire, Amber’s mom says as she ambles back to us, some hoodlum just pulled the alarm. Her mouth is a tight line she’d dare that hoodlum to cross before she breaks into her yellow smile and says, Look what I got, fanning out not three, but four free movie passes. I have a feeling we could scratch these tickets with nickels and win the lotto.
Amber’s mom offered the spare ticket to my mom, along with her personal life motto—If it’s free, it’s for me—and Mom agreed to come with us the next night, breaking her vow of never stepping foot inside that theatre again.
It’s not like the shooting at The Murderplex was our town’s only violence. We live on the border of Long Island and Queens. Right beside the cinema is The Green Acres Mall, which is steps from our house. A man was stabbed in the Victoria’s Secret there. That’s how he left this world: dyeing the Wonder Bras a deeper shade of red.
After that, our little town of Green Acres wanted to wash the blood out of its name. Ballots arrived in our mail slots with options to christen our town something holier, names made to adopt Long Island and disown Queens. There was also a blank space where you could write your own suggestion, which Mom decided against, said it was like voting for Ross Perot. Rick and Cindy Adler wrote in Blakestown. Their son, Blake Adler, is the most popular boy in fourth grade because he’s good at every sport, is smart without trying, and looks like a Backstreet Boy in Training. The school rule is that if we give out Valentines, we have to give them to everyone in class, but all the girls save the best ones for Blake Adler’s desk. Sometimes it really does feel like the world is his.
So we voted on a name fit for a place where nothing ever happens. Years in the future, a Walmart store greeter will die in the Green Acres complex, trampled to death by my neighbors as they race toward a Black Friday sale. We’re a town that loves our TVs. But for tonight, Mom and I walk through what we now call Millbrook. It might be below freezing, but we are on an exercise plan, and it only takes ten minutes on foot, less if we pump our arms and power-walk. We pass all the neighbor’s Christmas light displays and exchange our annual gossip: how the Romano’s inflatable nativity scene is totally overdoing it, but the lit-up reindeer on the roof of the O’Connor’s is impressive, and how tragic it is that since the Walsh’s divorced their house is devoid of light. We turn back to look at our brick home nestled in the belly of the cul de sac, where a single plastic candle illumes every window, and a red bow on an evergreen wreath adorns our door. I confirm that yes, our house is the classiest on the block. We leave it behind as we turn left and there it is: the parking lot of the great big mall, cars parked outside of Macy’s doing their last-minute shopping. Let’s make sure we don’t eat all of the Junior Mints during the previews, Mom says, even though she never does that.
Amber is lucky enough to travel by car because her mom doesn’t drive anywhere she doesn’t have to. Once we saw her at the supermarket cruising down the aisle on one of those seated electric shopping carts. She winked at us as she slid an arm full of Ruffles potato chips into the cart’s attached basket, then stepped on the gas.
I see the sign before I see the cinema. A glowing bar in the sky advertising what’s playing on all fourteen screens, visible from Sunrise Highway. As we approach, a slight man in a baseball cap pulled low with a shadow of stubble on his face flashes last night’s free movie vouchers like a winning hand. Why pay full price? he asks as we bustle past him, If you already know how it ends?
Scalper! Mom whispers, and yanks me closer. Her white down jacket smells like birds that can no longer fly. We ignore the man, but he shouts at our backs, It sinks! The ship sinks! then capsizes in his own laughter. We meet Amber and her mom inside.
The best part about tonight is that I get to watch Jack and Rose fall in love again. There is something about reliving love that seems even better than living it the first time. Rose almost jumps ship again, Jack saves her with that blue-look again, and again he teaches her how to spit—far and wide.
In the future I will be a girl obsessed with disposable cameras, dark rooms, photo booths—I will beg for a digital camera for Christmas. I will steal slivers of boys with a click, capture them in a flash, pump formaldehyde into moments already ghosts. In the corner of my closet I will keep a box with every scrap of proof that to someone, I was beautiful. Souvenirs from places where I was desired: concert tickets that still have music in them, boarding passes of lovers who thought I was worth hurtling through the sky for, an old gray sweatshirt someone loaned me once because they cared that I was cold. I will flit through the box whenever I am sad.
Being loved will be great, but it will be nothing without evidence.
When Rose drops her robe again, I look around the dark theatre, curious if the heat of this scene is what set off the fire alarm in the first place, but beyond the glow of an exit sign, all I see are people transfixed. All I hear is the soft soundtrack, and Jack’s pencil trying to get her beauty right.
By the time the iceberg has made its point and the ship relents to the sea, I am crying an ocean all my own. Amber and I are in an unofficial competition of who can cry the loudest. But I am winning. Crying is my sport.
Now that Jack is dead, I want to die too.
When Rose finally croaked—an old lady in her bed—just as Jack made her promise to do, she got a one-way ticket to the end of the line. Heaven, it turns out, is on the Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio waiting for her once more upon the grand staircase. I vow to be good in this life. I’ll start making my bed. I’ll stop spying on my brother. I’ll only eat one dessert. I’ll almost never turn on channel 55.
A few nights later, when Mom doesn’t know I’m within earshot, I hear her on the phone with Amber’s mom. Through the crack in her bedroom door, I see her, hair wrapped in a towel. The poison aroma of L’Oreal boxed dye pierces the house. I watch her pick her teeth with the corner of the Newsday crossword. Ever since she got the gaps bridged, food gets caught in her smile, and she can no longer shoot a stream of water through the two front ones, always aiming for the back of Dad’s head. She twists the tendril of the landline in her fingers and she is pretty even with a terry cloth beehive for hair, even in the navy blue Crystal-Lite nightgown she only wears to dye her red hair redder. Let’s just say, she says, her voice dropping into a whisper, that we left the movie, but the movie did not leave her.
I tiptoe away from her bedroom door and slip through my own, into my room which is blue and covered in clouds we painted ourselves. When she comes to tuck me in, I tell her what’s on my mind: I think Heaven is Leonardo DiCaprio waiting for me on a big ship.
Oh honey, she says, rustling my hair, I think a lot of women think that.
She walks over to my lamp to switch the lava off, then exits through the door which she leaves open just how I like it––a sliver––a perfect slice of light.
Women, she said. I close my eyes. Then open them. Is that what I am now? Now that I want to die because I am so in love?
Santa gifted me a life-size poster of Leo and Mom helped me hang it on my closet door. When I forget to shut it, which I often do, the poster can be seen from the street.
Before we leave for the first day back at school, Mom points up to my window on the second floor and says, Look! It’s like Leo is up in your room. Meg, it’s like he’s waiting for you!
At school, as we take our notebooks out, Ms. Chapel instructs: Put “What I Did Over Winter Break” at the top of your page. I scribble all about the movie during free-write time. Before the ten minutes are even up, I raise my hand (as I always do) and offer to share my words out loud. I tell the story of the Titanic and what I now love knowing about icebergs: how you can only see 10% of what they really are. How they don’t look like much on the surface. No one knows how important an iceberg is, I say, looking around at all my peers, until it’s sinking something unsinkable. I tell the class about Jack and Rose.
Ms. Chapel listens while leaning against the chalkboard, which always paints the back of her pantsuits white. No one ever informs her because no one really likes her. When I’m finished reading she nods, turns to the board and writes Historical Fiction in squeaky chalk. She underlines fiction three times. While the Titanic really existed and really did sink, she announces, turning on her loafer’s heel to face the class once more, Jack and Rose are MADE. UP. CHARACTERS. She walks toward my row. Megan, she says, her hands grip my desk like she could steer it, tell me you know they’re not real?
Blake Adler lets out a laugh from two desks over, which is the cue for the other boys to do it too. One of the boys slips a hand under his Hanes white tee into his hairless armpit and pumps his wing to make a farting sound. I look over at Amber, who casts her eyes to her hot pink marble notebook, concentrating as if reading it, even though the notebook is closed. I hatch a plan to drop out of fourth grade.
I stop raising my hand during journal share time. I start preferring fiction.
Halloween is around the corner and I don’t know what I’ll be until I’m walking in The Green Acres Mall with my father and I spot the answer practically winking at me from a jewelry kiosk outside Forever 21––The Heart of the Ocean––glittering in the display case, a sapphire encrusted in diamonds. In Titanic, it’s supposed to be the most expensive necklace in the world, but right here in my backyard it’s just $39.99. That’s basically a STEAL, I tell my father, tugging on his baseball mitt of a hand to get a closer look.
I’m not spendin’ forty dollahs on somethin’ you weah ONCE, Dad assures me in a Brooklyn accent so loud the rest of the mall is also assured. But when we get home, Mom’s on my side. I will wear it every day for the rest of my life, I promise. I try to show off my arithmetic. If you divide the cost of the necklace by the days of my life that I’ll wear it, it’s practically free! Math is not my strong suit but I am pretty sure this checks out.
Plus, Mom adds, Can you believe they uncovered it from the BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN? She winks one blue eye in my direction before turning to my father. Don’t be cheap, Bob, she nudges her elbow into his rib. He’s got a full foot of height on her, and at least one hundred pounds, so her elbow jab shouldn’t hurt him but his face looks like it does.
The next day, my father fumbles with the clasp but eventually gets the thing around my neck.
Mom helps me pick out a red dress to match at The Halloween Store. One of those costumes-in-a-bag. The label says Scarlett O’Hara. I don’t know who that is, but Mom and I decide it doesn’t matter. It will definitely pass for Rose. Mom lets me wear her lipstick, a shade called Raisin Rage, which stays on Cindy Crawford’s lips for up to six velvety hours. Mom takes the curling iron out and tries not to pull too hard on my scalp as she creates what she calls face-framing ringlets from my boringly brown hair. I begged her to let me dye it Rose’s auburn, but she says, Not until you’re fifteen.
When I walk into the gymnasium, amongst the Wicked Witches of the West and the Power Rangers, I swear that I am first class.
Across the court, Amber and Abby and Sadie and Katie and Gabbi sport their matching costumes, each of them a different color of M&M. There are only five colors of the hard candy and they didn’t want any doubles. I head toward their hard candy shells when Blake Adler and his army of boy-shadows cut across the court and block my way.
Who are you supposed to be? Blake asks, wearing his regular clothes—a polo shirt with a tiny crocodile stitched over his heart, hair gelled up to perfect blades. This is the year some kids are too old for costumes.
I lift the pendant from my clavicle, hold the sparkling blue heart out like a badge. To increase authenticity, I reply in a British accent, What, you haven’t seen Titanic? I punctuate my question with a small, but wealthy laugh.
You could never be Rose, Blake says, with a hazel stare that sees right through me.
Maybe it’s the Converse on my feet. Every single year I beg for shoes to match my costume but Mom always says no. They’ve got to be sensible, she argues, for Trick-Or-Treating. Do my feet give me away?
Rose was pretty, Blake clarifies. The boy-shadows pretend to hide their laughter behind fists, but really it’s a choreography to exaggerate the laughter. Surrounding us are ten-year-olds dressed as skeletons, dalmatians, unicorns, and Freddy Kruegers. But I am the least believable thing.
Rose, he adds, was skinny. He looks me up and down, as if waiting for me to excuse myself from the room that is the air around him.
It’s been one-hundred-and-ten years since the Titanic sunk in the ocean, and twenty-three years since it sank in my eyes. I have written and rewritten the end of this story so many times.
In the first draft of this essay, I took us back in time to The Green Acres Mall, when no one had been murdered there yet. When I didn’t even know that word. I promoted my father to a prominent character. It’s one of my favorite stories––the one where I climb into the giant fountain filled with penny-wishes in the middle of the food court and wade my way to the center. My father casts his voice like a line to try to reel me back, but I just keep splashing while he hollers my name from the store-lined shore. In this version, there was a bit about how no one would ever say, You jump, I jump, to me and mean it, but then this memory: my 6’2” father hopping in to scoop me out of waters where no one ever swam before.
Another ending I considered was a feminist body-positive commentary. Did you know Kate Winslet was bullied by her classmates? They called her Blubber. Locked her in cupboards. Said she’d be lucky in acting if she’d settle for fat girl parts. How, even as the leading lady on set, director James Cameron altered her surname from Winslet to Weighs-a-lot. Which isn’t even clever. I would write a scene of triumph, a celebration of Kate and I, a party where we invited the Blake Adlers and James Camerons of the world and offered them nothing to eat but their words.
I considered the plot twist that nagged at me every time I paused to extol a young Leonardo’s beauty. And while that obsession, even now, remains devout, in a little more than a decade from that moment in the gym as a chubby fifth-grader, I will be as queer as the Titanic was large. Maybe considering the preoccupation with boobs on page three, you realized that before I did (and thus, it’s not really the twist I’d hoped for). Maybe I’d recall for you what boys like Blake Adler said back then—Leonardo DiCaprio looks like a girl––like it was a bad thing. And then I wouldn’t be able to resist playing with gender a bit, thus titling this piece, “I’m King of the World.”
I could end with string instruments and melancholia, which really is my signature. After Blake says what he says (Blake, of course, being a composite character, as there were so many Blakes, and I am sure you had your Blake too), I could flash to the scene of Rose before she meets Jack. The scene that taught me the word suicide. Rose, straddling the hull of the ship, considering the knife pit of the Atlantic below as somehow softer than her life where she belonged to a man she could never love. I could pick up a bow and soundtrack my own sinking while I struck notes of what was to come on my imaginary violin: five summers at a weight-loss camp, birthdays where my cake was an apple with a candle in it, the toothbrush I never pushed far back enough into my throat to pass for a rose.
I am desperate to tell the story about how, at twenty-seven, I fell wildly in love with a person, a poet, who was born with a name like Kate, but was dressed and angular and just as charming as Jack, how I wrote them a love letter all about my romance with Titanic (including that awful Halloween). I folded that note around a piece of jewelry which had been collecting dust in the corners of my closet since October 31, 1998––a promise I broke to my father. This gift was less a metaphor for giving my heart away, and more about giving away my pain. That bullshit tale of what makes me unlovable. The one I’ve been telling for years.
Stay with me here—because there was a magical ending too––where I decided to cry so hard I sunk the entire gymnasium until all of my classmates, but most especially Blake Adler, were bobbing around like blue apples in the frozen moment of my epic grief. It was one of those moments where I really loved being a writer because a mile away, Leonardo DiCaprio peeled himself from the life-size poster in my room, cracked his knuckles, jumped down my staircase and out my front door because he heard my distress signal––saw my elementary school sinking in the distance from the window of my house at the end of the cul de sac, then shook off his boots when he got to the gymnasium, jumped into the icy waters of awful kids, and swam to me, believing he could save me in time. Why’d you do that, huh? he’d say. You’re so stupid Rose! and when he kissed me, there was channel 55 static in his mouth. (Even for a queer woman, I admit that was fun.)
I decided to scrap the whole thing because it was getting way over the top. I mean, he even said, Listen Rose. You’re gonna get out of here. You’re gonna die an old lady warm in her bed, but not here not this night. Not like this, do you understand me? You must do me this honor, Rose. Promise me you’ll survive. That you won’t give up, no matter what happens, no matter how hopeless. Promise me now, Rose, and never let go of that promise.
But what’s true is that I did do him that honor. I did not give up. Even then. Even then. Even then.
Come with me now. It’s 1997 again. My mom and I are about to walk into Sunrise Cinemas. That’s the real name of the theatre where this story began. A man has just yelled something at our backs. I turn over my shoulder to look at the bedraggled scalper standing on the corner. I know that sinking is only part of the story. And even though my mother is trying to yank me along, ignore him, walk faster, I pull away. Why pay full price––the scalper starts to say. But I stop him. I stare at his eyes, and then through them. I open my mouth, and defend, You’re wrong, man. You’re wrong.
I have no idea how this ends.