Abby Slutsky is a parent and can easily imagine a situation like this that could make any parent feel anxious.
I lived in one of those neighborhoods where everyone knew each other. Even if you did not know someone, they looked familiar from the neighborhood or school. It made you comfortable to ask for favors from a friend of a friend or a person with a familiar face that you did not know well. So, there I was pre-Covid (about 22 years ago), taking my 9 year-old son to the movies at the neighborhood theatre.
By the time we waited in line for our tickets--back then there was no Fandango or assigned movie seating--it was minutes until the show started. The pungent aroma of popcorn did its job and had my son craving popcorn, but the refreshment counter looked mobbed with mostly moms and young children. I knew we’d never make the movie on time if we stopped for treats, but I promised him I’d see about refreshments later.
We snagged seats toward the back of the already crowded theatre next to another mom with two young daughters. I did not know her well, but we waited at the bus stop together, and we had worked on a couple of PTO projects together. My son asked for popcorn again, and I noticed she hadn’t gotten any either. “Hey, would you mind keeping an eye on him? I can get refreshments for your kids too.”, I offered.
“Great idea.” In case you’ve forgotten, “I’m Janet.”, she said. “I think we worked on the bingo fundraiser together at the elementary school.”
“Yeah, we did. What do your kids want?”, I asked.
I added a small popcorn and licorice to my list, and Janet’s blonde head looked down toward her wallet before handing me a twenty.
“Do not leave this seat under any circumstances.”, I told my son. “I will be right back with your snacks.” As I exited, I heard the beginning of the preview for Lion King. I hummed “I Just Want to be King” as I left the theatre.
Fortunately, there was a second refreshment stand right outside our movie, so I figured I’d be back quickly. There were primarily adults standing in line, so I presumed most kids were in the theatre. It took about 10 minutes until it was my turn to order. As I began ordering two small popcorns, licorice and a coke, a piercing alarm went off. The strident siren sound echoed throughout the theatre and hallways. I stuffed the money back in my pocket, forgetting about the refreshments. I can only imagine the look of horror on my face as I frantically raced back toward our movie’s entranceway.
Unfortunately, it felt like every movie goer was leaving the theatre concerned about a fire. As I pushed myself toward the theatre’s entrance and against the crowd, a number of people muttered, “Lady, don’t you know there’s a fire alarm going off. You need to get out of the building.” It seemed like the mob pushed me back a step for every two I took forward.
Nevertheless, I continued to push my way into the theatre while thoughts of my son increased my panic. “Would he be where I left him? Would social services take him away? I’d left him with a woman I did not know well. Would she take him outside or wait for me? How was I going to find him amid the crowd if he wasn’t in the theatre?”
I envisioned telling the police I lost my son at the theatre. I could only imagine the conversation.
Police: “Did you leave him alone?”
Me: “No. I left him with another mom.”
Police:” What is her name?”
Police: “Janet, who?”
Me: “I don’t know, but she lives in my neighborhood.” I felt sweat pouring from my hands as I pushed against the crowd. With my thoughts, I certainly wasn’t going to win a mother-of-the-year award.
It seemed like forever, but it was probably only a few minutes before I managed to get back in the theatre. To my relief, Janet stood next to my son with each of her own children grasping one of her hands. “We have to go outside. There’s a fire. Your mom would want you to come with me.”
I watched my stubborn son look up at her with his hazel eyes. “My mother told me not to move from this seat. I am not leaving.” I watched him cross his little arms and give Janet a mutinous, grim look.
I exhaled a sigh of relief even though I felt a little guilty that she and her children weren’t hustling to safety because of us. “Hey, thanks Janet. I’ve got him now. Go.”, I yelled above the blare of the siren.
We both grabbed our kids half-dragging them outside. The kids covered their ears while we stood on the asphalt outside the theatre. Finally, the shrieking siren stopped, and they announced someone had pulled an alarm. Silence sounded amazing.
As we filed back into the movie, I returned Janet’s twenty, and we never did get those refreshments.
© 2021 Abby Slutsky