“You don’t want the bumpers. Life doesn’t give you bumpers.” — The dad (Ethan Hawke) in Boyhood.
On a Saturday last July, I decided to see Boyhood. It was a movie I’d been itching to see since first learning about it and the unique method in which it was filmed a couple of years prior. I was, and am, something of a Richard Linklater fanboy. I’ve seen all of his films, most of them multiple times. I own the Before trilogy — Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight — on DVD and occasionally quote lines from the films. Friends who’d already seen the film were positively glowing in their praise for it, calling it things like “a once-in-a-lifetime movie” and “one of the most remarkable movies I’ve ever seen.”
Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to seeing Boyhood. Had been for some time. And I was determined that this was going to be the day I was finally going to see it.
There was, however, a catch: Boyhood was only playing in a limited number of theaters at the time, and none of those theaters were located in New Orleans. Further, it was not scheduled to begin screening in New Orleans for another three weeks, and the closest theater to me showing Boyhood that particular weekend was 350 miles or so away in Houston, where much of the film is based. (The only other cities the film was playing in at that time were Austin, New York and Los Angeles, as I recall.) I’m sure I could have easily found an illegal download of it on the internet, but that was not something I wanted to do. No, I felt that Richard Linklater and IFC Films deserved my twelve bucks (or whatever it was) for this one (not to mention that I never watch illegal downloads of movies) and I wanted to see the film on a big screen with big speakers pumping in its sounds. But there was also something else, something greater, at play.
You see, a few weeks earlier I’d broken up with my then-girlfriend. She and I had initially bonded before we’d ever met in person by discussing our shared love for the Before trilogy via Twitter DM. I’d been looking forward to seeing Boyhood with her, even thinking that we could make a fun little weekend trip to Texas to see it together before it ever got to New Orleans. But, obviously, that was not meant to be.
There’s no such thing as a good breakup, but this one was terrible. Really terrible. It was sudden and dramatic and baffling and oh so very crushing. If breakups were cancers, this one was ass cancer. Yes, it was the ass cancer of breakups and I had been something of a human mess in the six weeks or so leading up to this particular Saturday, much more of a mess than I’d let on to anyone. As anyone with life experience under their belt can attest, a bad breakup does something to you, alters your brain chemistry, leaves you teetering on an emotional knife and is just generally a colossal mindf*ck. And there’s nothing a mindf*cked person wants more than to somehow find a way to unf*ck their mind.
And so it was that I found myself boarding Amtrak’s Sunset Limited at 9:00 that morning for a 9 hour, 18 minute train solo trip to Houston. I was going to go see this movie, this movie that I had been dying to see with my ex and was certain we would both love and talk about for hours over drinks afterwards, and I was going to see it without her and I was going to love every second of every aspect of it, dammit. I had sort of bizarrely come to view this weekend trip without her as a way to somehow exorcise some of the post-breakup demons that had been haunting me. This was going to be an amazing and it would mark a turning point in my “getting over it.”
That was what I had hoped, at least.
The full span of the Sunset Limited, which began operating in the late 1800s, runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles — a trip that takes 48 hours to complete. (If this were Europe or Asia that full trip would likely only take roughly the amount of time it takes to get from New Orleans to Houston via Amtrak, but alas this is America where comparing train travel to European or Asian train travel is like comparing the Zack Morris phone to the iPhone 6 Plus.) While I’m sure the amount of time it takes to travel via train in the U.S. deters many, I enjoy it greatly. There’s a certain romanticism to rail travel that I enjoy immensely and find stimulating.
Along the way to Houston the Sunset Limited passes through the heart of Louisiana’s Bayou Country, my homeland that was captured so beautifully in True Detective, with stops in places like Schriever — which is just outside of Thibodaux, the town I was born in — New Iberia, Lafayette, and Lake Charles. It features a glass-encased Sightseer Lounge car, which provides passengers a communal space with spectacular views of places rarely seen by people who have never traveled via this particular train.
There’s almost always an interesting, eclectic mix of people on board, and — unlike air travel, where striking up a conversation with a complete stranger is often an entirely uncool and unwanted annoyance to others, potentially leading one to become a pariah trapped inside a metal tube floating through the sky — conversation with complete strangers is embraced and even encouraged in the dining car, where complete strangers are often sat with complete strangers.
My dining companion on this particular day was Dee-Dee, a profoundly precocious 10 year-old from Austin who was traveling with her grandparents. After telling her I was going to Houston to see Boyhood she responded, “You’re traveling just to go see a movie? That’s AWESOME!” Dee-Dee totally got it. Dee-Dee, who said she wants to be a surgeon when she grows up, has a black lab named “Prince” and two border collies named “Eli” and “Peyton.” Eli, she says, is “really, really dumb.”
Dee-Dee was my new best friend. This is Dee-Dee, eating chocolate syrup out of little plastic container with her finger…
Traveling coach on Amtrak is far more comfortable than traveling coach on any U.S. commercial airline. The seats are big and comfy with enough legroom for even an NBA center to stretch his legs fully, a welcome comfort for someone who’s a shade under 6’6’’, as I am. Still, for this trip I got fancy and reserved a “roomette,” which Amtrak describes thusly: “Our Superliner Roomette is ideal for one or two passengers, with two comfortable reclining seats on either side of a big picture window. At night, the seats convert to a comfortable bed, and an upper berth folds down from above.”
When I asked Dee-Dee if she prefers traveling by train or plane she said the following: “Can you stretch out and lay down and go to sleep on a plane? No! Can you have a good dinner in a dining car on a plane? No! Can you look out the window and watch the country go by on a plane? No! So the answer is train, obviously.”
In my roomette, which could probably easily pass for one of those “pod” hotel rooms in New York, I had plenty of electrical outlets, ample air-conditioning (it was hotter than a cast iron skillet at a fish fry that weekend), a giant window to take in the passing scenery, and complete privacy. I brought my laptop, iPad and iPhone to do work, watch movies, play around on social media, etc., and brought plenty of stuff to read, and in the course of doing some reading I stumbled across a profile in Garden & Gun on an old roommate of mine from when I first moved to New York who I’d lost touch with before social media came along and made losing touch with people virtually impossible. That was kind of cool.
I arrived in Houston around 7, checked in to my hotel and was delighted to find a rootin’-tootin’ rubber ducky at the foot of my room’s whirlpool bath.
After a quick shower and change of clothes I headed over to my favorite Mexican restaurant anywhere, the original Ninfa’s, where I took a seat at the bar. To my left a trio of sales bros were discussing their respective golf games, a planned weekend in Vegas, and how they all planned to hit their sales targets for July. To my right two mid-30s, blonde divorcees bitched about their ex-husbands in between joking about going home with the bartenders later. I had two margaritas, some queso dip and chicken fajitas — and was soon going to be sitting in a theater watching Boyhood.
Everything was completely wonderful.
The Uber ride from Ninfa’s to the River Oaks Theater couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes in total, and it was around the 13 or 14 minute mark of the ride that I received a text message from a friend informing me that my ex-girlfriend had just walked into a bar in my neighborhood with another guy, someone she appeared to be on a date with. Why my friend felt compelled to share this bit of news with me — something I did not care to know about, ever, much less when I was mere minutes away from seeing one of the most highly anticipated movies of my life — remains a mystery, but needless to say it was distressing. I barely remember the next few minutes. Getting dropped off, walking into the theater, getting Junior Mints at the concession stand, taking a seat inside the theater, watching the various trailers — all virtually a complete blur. That first time post-breakup you see someone you once shared your life with with someone else, or hear about them being with someone else, is always a firm punch to the gut. And the timing of this particular gut punch made it nothing less than ferocious.
When the movie finally started I took a deep breath, did my best to pull it together, and gave myself an internal pep talk, hoping to foster a sense of optimism. Perhaps the timing of this incident, rather than being tragically wrong, would turn out to be right? After all, I had a distraction at hand. I would lose myself completely in this 166 minute-long film I’d be waiting for years to see.
“Don’t let what just happened ruin this for you,” I told myself.
Yeah, well, so much for that. Despite my best efforts, I could barely focus on what was happening on the screen for more than five minutes at a time, and that’s probably being generous. My thoughts kept drifting to her, who she might be with and what they might be doing. I had to get up and go to the bathroom twice to cry. It was all so pathetic and ridiculous (though it’s kind of funny to look back on now).
After it was over I went back to my hotel room and had one of the worst nights of sleep of my life. The train trip back to New Orleans was devoid of all the romance and charm that the train trip to Houston held. The roomette and the solitude it provided that I loved so much on the first leg of the trip became my own personal hell for the second leg of it, a torture chamber of sorts where I spent the better part of nine hours hopelessly mired in a mental and emotional cesspool. The dining car sadly provided no refuge. There was no new Dee-Dee. Instead, I was paired with an aging bullshit artist from California on his way to an Amway function who wouldn’t shut up about Obamacare or his time in Vietnam.
The first half of my trip to see Boyhood, the part that came prior to getting that awful aforementioned text message, was like a delicious, nourishing meal for my soul, while the second half, the part that came after getting that awful aforementioned text message, was like the violent, chronic diarrhea one gets from food poisoning. The two parts could not have been more diametrically opposed.
I still haven’t seen Boyhood again. At this point, I wonder if I ever will. You know how hearing a song you haven’t heard in a while can transform you to another place and time and evoke vivid memories of who you were and what your life was like at a certain point in time? Well, just hearing that song that’s so synonymous with the film — Hero by Family of the Year — will often do that to me. It takes me back to that weekend and the crushing misery I felt overcome by. And I’m fearful that seeing the movie again will do the same thing, but tenfold.
For a time I thought that maybe, just maybe, in some twisted, incredibly f*cked up way, the only way to exorcise the demons of that weekend would be to see Boyhood with her, my ex, when and if we became friendly again. I’m still not sure if that’s a good or a bad idea. It’s probably a bad one.
Meanwhile, I don’t know how to feel about the fact that there’s a good chance Boyhood will win the Best Picture Oscar tonight. I’m not sure if I should pull for it or against it. I’m so confused about so many things when it comes to this movie. Obviously.
That said, two things concerning Boyhood are abundantly clear: the first is that life most certainly does not give you bumpers, and the other is that you should never, ever travel to see a movie you’re dying to see. Just find an illegal download of that shit, man.