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There is always that one person who needs to prove themselves the hero of every story.
Somehow, they can do no wrong. I have plenty of those tales. One time, I near single-handedly saved Christmas for my younger siblings. Another, I ran my pudgy fifth grade self after a car, all to give my brother a gift that he still talks about today.
But in trying to lead an examined life, it’s the tales where I don’t sparkle that reveal the most. Sometimes, I need to remember when I was the villain.
“Gladiator” was the hot ticket across the country, and my identical twin brother already had it burned into his mind. He insisted we had to see it. Had. To. So, with the only remaining showtime of the day being after 11 p.m., we got in the car and drove over to the theater.
There was one small problem with this plan, though. I had a driver’s license, but my brother did not, nor any form of photo ID, and with an R rating waiting, that was going to be an issue. We came up with a clever solution (at least at the time we thought it was clever): his birth certificate—undeniable proof we were related and of age.
Between my name and birthday on the license and a matching birthday on the certificate, surely, they would let us buy tickets. Again, identical twins.
This was before ticket kiosks and advanced purchases. This was a crowded lobby filled with the scent of stale popcorn, fake butter, and sugary, overpriced soda. No beeps from a handheld scanner device—only a near-constant ripping across perforated edges that ended with a bland, “Your theater is down and to the right…”
There was one other phrase heard that night: “Have your photo IDs out and ready!”
Suddenly, the plan felt foolish. People were being thrown from the line for not having the same thing my brother was missing. Panic swelled between us—all for a movie, I might add.
Two people were working the counter: a guy who shared our dark features (might even have been a long-lost brother) and a little woman. I’m not going to guess at her height or try to assume what her condition may have been. I don’t want to potentially disrespect her more than I already did.
My villain origin line: “Let’s aim for the guy. He’s our age and won’t be jealous of our height.”
We kept moving and hoping. Hoping the person who looked like us would be willing to just let the rules slide. Assuming that anything less would be unfair. It was like watching some sick race as they worked, counting off people still ahead and betting on where we would finish.
“Next!” she said.
I tried charm, but my explanation of the situation seemed to confuse her more. She listened, and then there was hemming. Some hawing, but ultimately, she called for her manager to decide.
He came over in that out-of-place-three-piece-suit-in-a-movie-theater way and seemed unimpressed with our impassioned plea for a chance to go in. We had all the evidence! We had facts and faces!
Our case was found lacking.
Standing there as he walked away, we were unsure what to do next. It was my brother who insisted I see the movie alone, that he would wait in the car for more than three hours just so I could watch it.
I asked her for one ticket. Two printed. She smiled brilliantly and whispered, “If you get caught, you didn’t get this from me.”
Memories of the movie have faded, but not of her. She is who we discussed on the ride home, guilt-ridden and tired. I still can see her face as she slid those tickets slyly across the counter, smiling at someone who didn’t deserve that warmth.
Lesson learned, though, right? A simple act of kindness taught me that all people should be respected. That’s a moral of many stories. All tied up neatly in a bow and presented to the world as a newly reformed human being—never to happen again.
No. That’s a terrible message. She shouldn’t have needed to do anything beyond her job to deserve respect. While I am eternally grateful, I can’t help but think of how many others have to play teacher to the world.
How exhausting must it be to be held to those unfair standards—one slip, and judgement gets passed on an entire people. Do BIPOC or LGBT+ individuals get to have bad days?
Look at who has to remain poised and composed and who doesn’t. Who must be calm and yet still be called unqualified or nonjudicial. And who can sob and be lauded and raised up without nary an issue.
Look at the movies. The ornery racist meets the kindly black woman and sees the errors of their ways. All is forgiven! The school bully is helped by the gay kid; suddenly, there’s a cure for homophobia and hate. Why is the onus to always be good and kind on minorities?
There’s an old adage: Don’t judge a book by its cover. Seems fair. Doesn’t go far enough.
Don’t judge a book.
Whatever happened between those covers was written with words that may never be understood or in a language of trauma and pain that defies explanation. Snippets can be revealed, but true understanding would take a lifetime of reading. The spine may already have been broken and doesn’t want to open any longer; it is still worthy of love and respect.
We live in a library! Rather than trying to find genres that feel comfortable or make sense, read the stories. The truths. Even if they are difficult to understand, that doesn’t make the words any less beautifully written. Or purposefully written.
I wonder what would have changed had I been truly denied. Where would the blame have been laid? What bias could have formed that night? I wasn’t owed a chance at redemption, but I got it.
I was the villain. She is my hero.