Walking into a concession area within a movie theater should stir excitement. You’re most likely eager to finally watch a film that’s taken forever to come out. There’s one essential piece to your movie-going experience: freshly popped buttered popcorn.
It surrounds you, enticing you to come closer, like a delicious lit candle sending out an irresistible aroma. It’s a distinct smell, one that no microwavable bag at home can replicate. Yet, for me, it’s a tidal wave of nausea. One whiff invokes vastly different experiences from my thirty-three-year-old memory library:
1) Weekends during high school when I worked part-time at a movie theatre.
For hours, I filled up large plastic buckets (adorned with whatever movie poster was big at the time) with hot popcorn. Each tub was overloaded with “butter,” which was just oil salted and dyed a bright yellow. Most of the buttons were broken on the dispenser, so when you pressed it, magma-like oil would spray out in all directions as you tried to angle the bucket.
I’d come home from my shift with my black polo shirt covered in large blobs of oil stains, which were impossible to clean. Even after blasting myself with water hot enough to melt plastic, I’d still come out of the shower smelling like burnt popcorn.
2) That one night spent working the projection booth as my male manager cornered me against a machine and nearly sexually assaulted me because I “wanted it.”
Of the two memories, the endless popcorn buckets tend to stick out first. I don’t know if this is a deliberate choice on my brain’s part or just my preferred memories. Or, as I like to call it, “selective memories.”
The occasional recollection of my first near-miss sexual assault has invaded my thoughts every blue moon. Just not enough to call for constant flashbacks. After all, it’s been said that we experience near misses all the time. I mean, how many times have we all almost been in a car crash? The actual number is probably staggering, yet most of us still choose to slide into the passenger seat for another ride.
The exact details are sometimes obscured, like rippling a calm lake’s surface, but the important parts are well-preserved tattoos.
Though the hallway was devoid of people (besides me), the whizzing and whirring sound of all twelve large projection machines simultaneously running overpowered my hearing. It always reminded me of tv static, which was oddly relaxing yet steady.
The year was 2006 when most theatres were transitioning from film reels to digital, and with that move came the end of “real” projectionists. I was one of three who could splice together film, and load up the almost fifty pound rolled plastic reels onto the machine.
I would push a button, check the sound systems, and stand at the small square window that you see behind the rows of chairs until I was positive no problems would occur. Like on the opening night of “Eragon,” where the audio system went haywire as smoke came puffing out from the back as if it was casually smoking a cigarette.
It was during one of these times spent looking through the window, bent over, that I was caught off-guard. During all the hoopla, he had snuck up on the other side of the machine, watching me. I jumped up into a standing position, with my hand quick to move to the walkie-talkie clipped on my belt buckle. He walked over slowly until he stood directly in front of me, trapping me against the machine and side of the wall. He was massive, outweighing me by two hundred pounds, and his head nearly reached the ceiling.
The guy was relatively new and kept mostly to himself. We had a nice conversation late one night at closing about his experience at a major art school in the south. Overall, I had maybe one or two small interactions with this man. Yet nothing about him or his presence has ever screamed “run away!” or had me wanting to avoid him at all costs. He was a twenty-something college graduate working as a movie theatre manager to make ends meet.
Also, up until this point, I was a hopelessly shy and slightly overweight virgin.
No one had ever shown any sort of liking or sexual desire for me. So, to be blocked into a small space upstairs, all alone except for this gigantic older guy who could easily hurt me, was confusing. Much like a squirrel running across a road, my mind darted so fast that it caused me to freeze during that terrifying moment.
“I finally got you alone,” he said, smirking as he inched closer.
Immediately, my first thought was, had someone put him up to this? The guys who worked here were notorious for pranks, such as sword fighting with broken overhead tube lights and filling up each other’s cars with bags upon bags of stale popcorn. The managers weren’t exactly role models. I accidentally walked into the main office late one night to witness one male manager snorting cocaine off his desk. Working at this theatre spread some grimy grit amongst my wholesome comfy upbringing.
He lifted his right arm and placed it against the wall before lowering his face close to mine. He smelled sweaty, and his eyes were laser-focused on mine. It was like being forced into an unsettling staring contest, and God only knows what awaits the loser. I stood there, motionless and clueless, as to what was happening.
It gets hazy at this point as if my own memory film reel has bubbles of emulsion.
I remember saying something, but it was most likely incoherent, or I laughed it off as a dumb prank to not appear disheveled.
“What are we going to do about this?” he said, pointing back and forth between our chests. I stood there, filled with humiliation and fear. Mortified to be put in such a compromising situation by a man who pushed aside all morals to intimidate a teenage girl. Afraid of what would happen once I made it clear that his assumption of my attraction towards him was mistaken.
I ducked quickly under his thick arm and began speed walking out of the booth towards the end of the hallway. Hopped down the stairs, two at a time, to the safety of the vast women’s bathroom. Having learned about “fight or flight” during my junior Psychology class, I came to realize while sitting on an open toilet seat in the handicapped stall the reality of what had just occurred.
We all hear stories about girls getting raped, beaten, or kidnapped. Some of us brush it off, unable to ever imagine being “one of those” who become prey. I had just learned, firsthand, that those stories were not urban legends made up to scare girls into behaving.
I didn’t cry or let anyone know. It didn’t feel like an attempted assault; it felt like another case of classic bullying.
In my mind at this time, it was no different than if someone at school cornered me in the classroom and tried to play it off as hitting on me. It was cruel, but not anything to snitch about.
I’m one of the fortunate who hasn’t been physically assaulted, and for that, I’m so thankful. But my experience is just as serious as everyone else’s, regardless of the outcome. There’s no competition in the “sexual assault wheel of misfortune” where one person’s experience is more traumatic than another’s. Every single one of us still must reckon with the aftermath. The pain and fear are immeasurable, and we’re all worthy of deserving empathy no matter the severity. I have a permanent reminder to never let a man corner me and always be mindful of my surroundings.
The greatest impact left behind from my narrowly escaped sexual assault is an emotional scar. One that reflects my unease with men, whether strangers or even family members, for the last fifteen years. And rather than let the familiar smell of fresh popcorn be associated with that event, I’ve chosen to rewrite my smell memory. But I will never buy a bag of hot popcorn again.