If you are my younger son, then you were born in the middle of July, which happened to coincide with a rather hotly anticipated movie release this summer. When you’re nine, and the seventh and final Harry Potter film opens the very weekend that follows your birthday, your birthday party becomes (in your mind, at least) a total no-brainer. This will dismay your mother, who prefers birthday parties with goofy homemade cakes and crooked streamers and pin the tail on the donkey and three legged races and other olde games of yore. Of course, she’ll see your point, and agree (with convincing enthusiasm) that of course, of COURSE you may take two friends, and your brother, and maybe one of his friends as well, to see Harry Potter (in 3-D, natch) for your birthday.
But if your mother is a tiny bit selfish, and her last 3-D film experience was the Emperor’s-new-clothes-esque Werner Herzog prehistoric cave movie in a theater so crowded she had to sit in the absolute front row, feeling sicker and sicker as Herzog and his European paleo-art cronies in windbreakers waggled their flashlights in ever more vomit-inducing squiggles on the undulating cave walls, chances are you won’t be seeing one of the very FIRST showings of the Most Important Movie You Will Ever See [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MahTKZDHXaA[/youtube] even if it is your birthday. Your mom wasn’t born yesterday. She will expertly hem and haw for a few days until the biggest hype dies down, and then slyly offer to take you and a couple of your pals to a matinee. There will be fewer loud teenagers at a matinee, she figures. And whoever sits directly in front of her will probably be short of stature.
Never mind that she snuck out and saw the movie herself with her boyfriend while you were with your father, despite having been strictly forbidden to do so. (Never mind, also, that your older brother snuck out and saw it himself with his best friend, despite having been strictly forbidden to do so.) She has graciously decided to allow you to forsake the birthday party she wants you to have, in order that you may bow to the relentless pressures of cultural imperialism. With two friends! And, if you’re extra good, maybe even a tub of popcorn!
But then you throw a monkeywrench in the works. It turns out your friends–whose parents already screwed up your plans by hogging the two weekends right after your birthday with complicated, expensive birthday parties of their own (which your mother committed you to back in April, then forgot about till the last minute)–have already SEEN the film opus of the decade by the time your invitation rolls in. You’re not interested in being the only neophyte in the room. With trembling lower lip, you announce you want to see the movie “just with family.” Brother, mother, father, birthday boy. Your father is all over it, and starts sending text messages with showtimes at various theaters (taking into account every possible permutation of the little league baseball playoffs, of course) along with plans, backup plans, contingency plans, backups to the contingencies, and so forth.
Your mother is less enthusiastic, which no one notices. Perhaps she’s remembering the last movie she attended with your father in that very theater, right before they told you and your brother that they were splitting up. The movie was Sweeney Todd, which felt, at the time, like a blithe and carefree domestic comedy of manners. Perhaps she’s also remembering that she and your father held hands throughout, and that it felt like doom, like the desperate last-ditch intimacy of a couple watching their lifeboat slowly fill with water. She spends the next couple of days fretting about the movie. She floats the idea of “just you and Daddy” and is quickly shot down. In the end, the movie ambushes you all: your team plays so well that the ten-run “mercy” rule kicks in, and baseball wraps up just in time for that night’s 8:15 showing. “I’ll go get the tickets and meet you in the lobby,” your father says, while you and your mother and your brother climb into your mother’s car after the game.
Your mother is a nervous wreck as she drives to the theater. Chief among her worries is this: when she saw the movie with her boyfriend, a preview for this movie played. Twice. One would not think the target demographic would be attending Harry Potter, but then again she has also seen the trailer while watching South Park and Tosh.0. Evidently, we’re right smack in the middle of this movie’s publicity juggernaut–there’s a billboard for it on a passing bus right now, in fact–and there will be no escape. Your mother can imagine few things more awkward than sitting near–or, god forbid, next to–your father while larger and louder than life actors weep about divorce and infidelity. Flinging oneself into the aisle for some trumped-up emergency won’t work, because the first lines of the trailer are a dead giveaway. She’d never make it in time.
At the theater, there are small awkwardnesses. Your father has indeed bought tickets for everyone, and refuses to let your mother pay him back for half. His generosity makes her feel guilty, and unaccountably sad. She offers to buy everyone popcorn (perhaps she can wait out the previews in the line for the concession stand?) but there are no takers. The theater, it turns out, is practically empty. You and your brother rush ahead, which would place your divorced parents next to each other–thereby guaranteeing your mother a two-and-a-half hour case of the yips. At the last minute, she scoots like an eel across both of you, so there’s a nice insulating layer of rapt child between her and her ex-husband.
And then you all don goofy glasses and the lights dim. The special 3-D version of the coming attractions does not include a single film about marital drama, and your mother relaxes visibly as the movie starts. Movies, in your experience, are a rare treat, and your parents have a lingering affection for the whole HP franchise, which is–if their benevolent glances at each other over you and your brother’s heads are to be believed–presently manifesting as a kind of lingering affection for each other. For the first time since they separated, your parents seem not only calm together, but even happy. When the dragon breaks out of Gringotts, the four of you laugh in unison.
Afterwards your mother feels a bit sorry for your father as he traipses off alone to his car, but the joke’s on her–he gets to go home to peace and quiet and a nice stiff drink, while she’s got to feed you guys (supper was omitted, somehow, between baseball and blockbuster) and hustle you into bed. She lies with you for a while in the darkness, absently stroking your hair. It was an excellent birthday movie, she agrees. What was your very favorite part?
And while you chatter about wands and Dark Lords and goblins, she remembers reading the first several Harry Potter books out loud to your older brother while your father listened (and, after you were born, wrangled you into listening as well). She thinks how silly it was to let things get to this point, where she’s afraid of her ex-husband–a quiet man who buys movie tickets–and how it turned out to be so easy to sit in a darkened movie theater with him, how it felt bizarrely normal and peaceful and even right. She remembers the moment when the lights dimmed and she suddenly relaxed into happiness as the familiar music swelled dramatically. How thin the line between miserably married and contentedly divorced is, she thinks. How impossible this all would have been only a year ago, and how very simple it seems now.