My coworker said he doesn’t get the point of popcorn, at a holiday party, with a white elephant gift exchange where three of the presents were popcorn related. I laughed at first because I thought he was joking. It seemed a strong stance to take against a widely appreciated salty snack. I suggested he must like it at the movie theater and he insisted he does not. I thought about it for longer than I should have, about why exactly I do like a snack that sticks in my teeth and doesn’t always have much flavor, unless it’s covered in butter or salt or cheddar cheese powder or caramel, at which point you might as well eat a candy bar.
But for me, popcorn, especially the movie theater version is all tied up in memories.
Sleeping Beauty (1986)
The first memory I have of seeing a movie in a theater, I was around 7. I sat in a row in the middle of the theater on First Street next to my little sister and my cousins. It was one of those old-style theaters with two auditoriums, the velour seats frayed and worn from decades of use. The theater sat next door to the donut shop, but no one wanted donuts on a movie day. We wanted popcorn.
At the concession stand, my mother ordered the biggest bucket of popcorn for us kids to share. We passed that bucket back and forth down the aisle, no one holding possession of it for longer than it took to grab a handful. We didn’t have microwaves at home, though Orville Redenbacher had already invited the quick cook bags. My parents had one of those finicky air poppers that required a special kind of oil and always seemed like it might burst into flames at any moment. So popcorn was a treat reserved for the county fair, for when the circus came to town and for the movies.
Cool Runnings (1993)
I asked Brandon if he wanted to see a movie with me on a Friday night. And my two best friends, I said. To make it clear it wouldn’t be a date. Though I’d had a crush on him since the start of the year when we were grouped together in English. I looked through the local paper early in the week for the movie listings and picked a cool movie, or one I thought Brandon would think was cool.
But after my mom dropped us all off and we got to the box office, the movie I’d picked out wasn’t playing anymore. We bought tickets for “Cool Runnings,” which seemed lame and wouldn’t start for another hour. Brandon took it in stride and suggested we walk down the block to a grocery store to get candy.
He filled his baggy skater short pockets with chocolate and gummy bears. When we got to the theater, he bought a bucket of popcorn. In the theater, Brandon and I sat down first in a middle row, in the middle seats. My friends, not very discreetly, decided they really wanted to sit in the top row and left the two of us alone. In the dark, Brandon couldn’t see my blushing. Brandon held the bucket of popcorn in his lap and tilted it my way to indicate his willingness to share.
Reality Bites (1994)
My best friend got her driver’s license so on spring break, she borrowed her dad’s old Chevy truck and picked me up. Our first independent destination wasn’t somewhere new, but a place we’d been many times before because her father gave her a limit of a 15-mile radius. So we headed to the six-plex in Morgan Hill. I paid for the popcorn and red vines because she drove, the salty taste of independence on our lips as we watched the movie. I imagined I’d grow up to be a cool filmmaker like the main character and my best guy friend would realize he was in love with me, neither of which happened.
Out of Sight (1998)
Michael asked me to the cinema. That’s what he called the movies because he was Irish. I met him shortly after I arrived in Coleraine, in Northern Ireland, for a semester abroad, and the trip to the movies happened a few weeks before I was scheduled to leave.
I couldn’t tell if he meant the trip to the cinema to be a date because my housemate, another American girl, invited herself along, too. We had to take a cab two cities over because there was no movie theater in the university town where we lived that semester. Michael paid for the cab and for popcorn. I offered him some pound coins, but he refused to take them.
All semester, Michael wore the same sweatshirt and had disheveled hair, but that afternoon he had a freshly laundered button-down shirt and he got his hair trimmed. Score a point toward date. I sat between Michael and my housemate, and he lifted the arm rest between us. Score another point toward date.
The houselights went down and in the dark, we both reached into the bag of popcorn at the same time, our hands grazing, a spark between us that I hoped wasn’t one-sided.
High Fidelity (2000)
When I saw the trailer for the new John Cusack movie, I already knew the story because I’d read the book by one of my favorite authors, Nick Hornby. I wanted to see it, but I had no friends around. I was a senior and all my friends were juniors who chose my last semester of college to study abroad. That semester I panicked and began sending off for graduate program brochures because for the first time in my life, I didn’t know what the next step should be. To get out of my head, I started going to the movies alone.
Instead of driving to Ontario Mills Mall where there was a theater with 30 screens and one with 22 screens, I drove to the Aztec Theater in Montclair that offered second-run movies. The theater smelled dank and the floors were sticky from spilled sodas and icy drinks, but on a weekday sometimes I could score a screen all to myself, and a small popcorn only cost $1 on Thursdays.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)
The first time James called me to make plans to hang out, he said he wanted to see the new Harry Potter movie. We didn’t see it until our third date, but the fact that he wanted to see it made me think he might just be more of a nerd and less of a jock than I imagined. I’d met him 10 years before, when we both worked at a university and I’d had a big crush on him. He looked like the all-American guy, blond hair, blue eyes, tall. I assumed he played sports in high school and had been popular, and was out of my league.
We planned to see the movie in the afternoon and I made the drive from Gilroy to Santa Clara, where he lived. Just two miles from his place where three major freeways intersected, someone in front of me slammed on their breaks and I couldn’t stop in time. My adrenaline kicked in, my heart raced, as I crashed into the bumper in front of me. My hands shook as I gripped the steering wheel. Three cars piled up in a spot with no shoulder, and the middle driver insisted on calling the police.
I texted James to tell him I was running late, but not why. By the time I arrived at his apartment, we had missed the movie and he could see I was visibly shaken. He invited me to sit down on the futon in his living room. I talked through what happened. I stressed about dealing with insurance and car repairs. He said we could reschedule the movie, but after an hour with him I felt calmer, more settled, and I knew I couldn’t deal with anything on the weekend anyway.
He drove to the theater up the block from his apartment. I paid for my own ticket because at the time I wrote a movie column for the newspaper where I worked. He paid for his ticket and he bought popcorn to share, a large diet Pepsi and water for me. I knew that trip to the movies was a date, and it ended up being the first of many movie dates together.
The theater in Gilroy closed for a renovation in 2019, with plans to reopen in early spring. Then the pandemic hit and everything closed down indefinitely. The theater owners decided to try out a popup drive in theater in their parking lot, with concessions for sale. They coordinated it so there was a space between each car for social distancing, everyone had to wear masks if they stepped out of their cars, and only 6 people were allowed inside the theater to purchase snacks at a time.
My son was 3.5 years old and had never been to a movie theater. We sat in our SUV, with my parents and sister parked in a car two spaces away. My son grabbed popped kernels in his chubby baby hands, pieces spilling onto the floor of our Honda and onto my clothes. He fell asleep in my lap 20 minutes after the movie started, the buttery smell all over his face and hair, and I clung to that bit of familiarity and normalcy, his soft breath against my shoulder.
And that is the point of popcorn.