Magic Lanterns

Mike Malloy

You want some coffee? Some kind of crazy mocha thing? I like going to this place because you’re more or less expected to get the gayest possible coffee drink. And I don’t mean gayest in some kind of derogatory way. Like, look at this Raspberry Mocha I bought—this drink has sex with other drinks of the same gender. And I’m fine with that. But there’s no point in pretending that this is a heterosexual caffeinated beverage.

So you want to hear the story about me and Claire? She’s pretty, right? Short cherry blond hair, eyes the color of green ink just before it dries. She dresses in that cool “I used to be a punk back in middle school” kind of way. She can look casual, or like a gypsy, or like a pirate. But a casual pirate.

She’s short. Petite. Even a little fat, actually, but in the kind of way that makes you want to put your arms around her so much that if she’s not there you feel the absence of her body across your chest and hands, as if your skin is still accustomed to a garment you just removed.

I was in love with her. Am in love with her. I probably always will be in love with her, although it’s difficult to know these things for sure. Sometimes I feel like the private eye in a film noir movie—somebody cool, like Robert Mitchum. My girl’s been gone for such a long time, but someday soon she’ll come back into my life and slowly events will bring us together again. But I’m not to that part of the story yet. She and I don’t talk much, at this point. The dramatic events that will bring us together again haven’t occurred.

In the movie of my life I’m currently living in the backstory, the bits the audience will never see.

I think Claire lives in Minneapolis now. I can’t imagine her in snow. She used to always wear these denim short-shorts with patches, the kind that show a lot of leg but somehow don’t seem dirty. They seem innocent, the way Claire always did.

I have this vivid memory of her sitting next to me on the couch and stretching her legs across mine so she could lie down. I think I must have acted like I was annoyed, but thank God she didn’t take me seriously and move her legs. I used to balance my hand inches away from touching her.

Did I ever tell you about the time we got together to watch It’s a Wonderful Life for the last time? The last real time, I mean. The last time that would count. It’s a Wonderful Life was number four in Claire’s top five movies of all time (she was a big Republic Studios buff actually, but of course she also had an abiding affection for Frank Capra). She told me that It’s a Wonderful Life would no longer count as the same film after Donna Reed died and disappeared from all her scenes in the movie.

That was in ’86, when Donna Reed was dying of pancreatic cancer. At that point the movie was already pretty well shorn. There was no Mr. Potter, no Violet Bick, no Ma Bailey, no Mr. Gower. No Peter Bailey, no Sam Wainwright. No Bert, no Ernie. Every one of those actors had died.

When Clarence, the angel second class, tried to recite a litany of all the people George Bailey had helped, the sum appeared far more paltry than it must have seemed back in 1946, when the movie premiered.

Oh, and incidentally, by ’86 Clarence was already dead too.

With all those characters missing, you might think that Claire would have long before decided that It’s a Wonderful Life was no longer a coherent movie. But it still had Jimmy Stewart, and it still had the love story. She said every story is basically a love story, and the rest is just the side stuff. Family ties, friendship problems, personal crises: nothing but coleslaw dumped near the cheeseburger and fries that is true love.

That was her metaphor, not mine.

She’d say things like that and your heart would feel like Humphrey Bogart’s must have in Casablanca, when Ingrid Bergman first appeared in Rick’s CafĂ© Americain. Words would form in the back of your throat, would scratch and tickle the skin there the way the smoke from Bogie’s cigarettes would. But you’d never say those words to Claire.

At least, I didn’t.

In the movie room of my suburban tract house Claire sat on the big blue couch. It was the kind of couch you’d never buy, but once it was in your possession you would also never throw this couch away. The walls were covered with movie posters—Angels with Dirty Faces, The Philadelphia Story, Out of the Past. It must have been about seven o’ clock.

When I slid the Beta tape into the player Claire was sprawling on the couch with her feet on the glass-topped table. She was trying to sit in the most disorganized, space-absorbing fashion possible, in the hopes that this would upset me. She had a Pepsi bottle in her hand that looked sweaty with moisture. She was smiling, the corners of her pink-painted mouth curved upward like a reel of film spinning up around the bottom of a spool. Claire was always in motion.

I pressed the square play button on the side of the TV and the clunky RCA box groaned into life. It was the kind of VCR that snatched the tapes from your hands like it was a friend who was mad at you but wasn’t going to say anything. Somewhere in that plain box little mechanical arms unwound a long spool of inky black film. The pixels on the screen assigned themselves grayscale tones. The film’s corporate logos flashed by and then came the credits, a litany of names, the people mostly deceased. Claire applauded when James Stewart’s name flashed up.

“Still among the living,” she said. “Humanity one, God nothing.”

“I’m not sure that’s how that works,” I told her.

“How else would God keep score?” she asked.

“Well, if Catholic school taught me anything (which it didn’t), it’s that the score is God: negative one, humanity: a bajillion, because Jesus died for our sins.”

“James Stewart was born without sin,” said Claire. She puffed her cheeks out and bulged out her eyes, then let the air escape from her mouth, deflating her cheeks. She grinned a goofy grin.

“You’re weird,” I told her. I used to get this incredible urge to tap her nose with my finger. This usually happened when she was being especially cute, which to me meant that she was being especially Claire-like.

I tapped her nose.

In the movie, Clarence, who was not present, was learning of George’s life from God, who was not present. For a while the movie simply showed a view of the stars. Then it flashed to George and Harry as kids, sledding down an icy hill. Young George and Young Harry were still in the movie. Those actors were still alive in ’86, though I don’t know if they are anymore. Come to think of it I don’t think I’ve seen the movie at all since that night with Claire.

“George still gets to save his brother from the ice hole,” I told her.

“But for how long?”

“I suppose he could save Harry from death, but not disintegration. It’s a real shame considering what a war hero his brother was,” I said. “He saved every man on that transport.”

“Every man on that transport died!” cried Claire, theatrically. She slid still further back into the couch, so that she was almost horizontal. She stretched out her arms and yawned theatrically. Her arm was behind my head on the couch—not wrapped around me, but in a position where it could.

We kept watching the movie like that for about ten minutes or so, until Claire asked me to pause it, saying she needed to get some popcorn. I hit the pause button on the boxy remote control and she got up, moving her arm and its attendant opportunity away from me. She walked into the kitchen and I pretended not to check out her ass, then felt like a dirty old man—although at that point I was, what, seventeen? Maybe eighteen, but barely.

I got up and followed her into the kitchen. She had already put the bag in the microwave and was watching it slowly inflate. I stood behind her, her back turned to me. I had an incredible urge to put my arms around her and grab her breasts, and pull her close to me, and kiss her neck. Her hair would smell like nectarines and she would smile as my lips touched the skin of her neck. She would coo slightly as I spun her around to kiss her on the mouth.

With a beep the microwave shut off and she removed the bag of popcorn. She took out a blue plastic bowl and filled it with the popcorn, and we returned to the movie room.

The movie played on, and George Bailey wished he had a million dollars.

“Hot dog!” he cried. Mary and Violet Bick came into Mr. Gower’s drug store and ordered ice cream sundaes. George peevishly prepared them and Mary asked him which was his bad ear. He told her and she whispered into it:

“George Bailey, I’ll love you ’til the day I die.”

As he did so my arm, more or less on its own, reached around Claire and pulled her close. She made a high surprised noise and dropped the bowl of popcorn on the ground.

“Oh, dammit,” she said, and pulled away from me, off the couch and onto the floor, to pick up the popcorn. I got off the couch with her and picked up some of the spilled kernels.

“Claire,” I said.

“Yeah?” she responded, not looking up. I wanted her to lift up her head and look into my eyes. If she did I was pretty sure I could say or do anything. As it was though she just kept picking up the kernels. So I decided I’d do something I saw in a movie once.

As she reached to pick up one of the kernels I reached for the same one and took her by the hand, draping my fingers over hers. Her skin was cool and soft. She looked at me.

Imagine the first motion picture: a horse running, still images strung together to create the illusion of motion. Our minds fill in the gaps. I think that’s how it is with life: a series of isolated, self-contained, infinite moments, strung together with the illusion of time by our needy brains.

Maybe Claire is really just another girl. Maybe she is not the reincarnation of Clara Bow, Veronica Lake, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn all in one. But in the projection room of my mind she is still huge, the 50-foot woman (emotionally speaking), like a tiny frame magnified by the light of a projector into something that flickers forever on a blank impressionable screen.

I dated Claire for seven months after that. Once during those months of happiness (for me at least), she told me that she was sad she’d have to break up with me.

“Why will you have to do that?” I asked. She explained that people either break up or get married, and she didn’t want to get married.

“There are just too many people to date out there,” she said.

“It’s not like I just proposed to you, you know,” I said.

“Consider this a preemptive strike,” she said.

Funnily enough, that night we watched It’s a Wonderful Life for the last time, Donna Reed must have died halfway through our viewing, because Mary disappeared from the film. But George did what he always did, stuttered and hemmed and hooted in his Jimmy Stewart way, as if she were still there. To love absurdly and completely, inexorably, without fear of loss like that. To behave the same way if the woman is there or gone. He must have been the happiest man in the world.

“I was born and grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, influenced equally by the city and the woods. I spent my time exploring, getting to know eccentric characters, and watching many movies. Currently I attend Vassar College, where I’m a junior studying English and History.” E-mail: mimalloy[at]

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