On July 21, 2023, that weekend when the Barbie and Oppenheimer movies came out, I invited my old mentor to watch Oppenheimer at the local theater. I did this partly to spend time with him, partly to push myself out of my social comfort zone, and I thought this might kill two birds with one stone. On the days we have long, rambling conversations, he eventually turns the topic to nuclear physics and the history of the atomic bomb. Occasionally, I sprinkle in details related to our university, given its position in the history of the Manhattan project, but for the most part, I listen. How he knows so much about the field, I’m not sure, but it’s one of our few conversation topics unrelated to research and our lab.
Having ordered our tickets online, he follows me into the theater. The attendant tells us we’re good to go, and we’ll be in theater four. I start walking, though my mentor lags behind for a second before catching up.
“Wait, there’s more than one theater?” he asks, turning from me to his ticket.
“Yeah, there are four screening rooms.” I respond, still looking down the hall.
“But, how will we know which one is ours?”
“Oh, they have signs next to the doors.” I point to the metal “four” on the wall.
We walk down the aisle, looking back and forth between the row numbers and our tickets until we reach the front of the auditorium. On arriving at our seats, I lean forward and brush the screen with my fingertips. Reclining in his chair, my mentor’s shoes stop mere inches away from kicking the trailers. We turn to each other and pause for a brief moment before breaking into laughter. I glance over my shoulder, checking if there were any empty seats we could switch to. There weren’t.
“Hey,” I whisper, “let’s wait for the movie to start, then we can try and look for better seats.” He nods, and we lean back.
Suddenly, the lights dim, and I see before me—in stunning black and white—the button of a suit jacket. I look up, first seeing a chin, then a mouth, a nose. I scan left-to-right as fast as I can without giving myself whiplash, catching two ears, two eyes, and two eyebrows. Before I can look above the forehead, the scene ends, and I’m left staring at someone else’s nose. A few scenes later, I finally notice Oppenheimer is wearing a hat.
Hoping to give my neck a break, I turn my body to my mentor, watching his eyes dart back and forth in hopes of catching all the details on the screen. I turn back to the screen to play this lightning round of I Spy. This goes on for another 10 minutes before I finally gather the courage to move. I tap him on the shoulder and motion to the aisle. We crouch down and begin shuffling to the back. The view from the back wall doesn’t quite capture the level of detail available three feet from the screen, but at least we can see the whole frame at once. Satisfied, I sit down on the ground before looking up again, now finding a chair in the way. My mentor begins sitting down before I look up at him and shake my head as I stand back up. I scan through the crowd before finding two seats right next to each other. I quickly step through the rows of the audience before sitting in one of the seats. My heart races as I wait for the people on my left and right to tell me the seats are taken or shoot me a dirty look, but nothing happens. Finally at ease, I wave my mentor over. He hesitates, so I make a bigger motion. He starts walking over, and I turn back to the movie.
“Can you see from there?” a voice whispers just behind my shoulder. Whipping around, I see my mentor and calm down.
“Yes, of course. Come sit.” I turn back to the movie, hoping to catch up on all we missed. He takes his seat. While I enjoy the rest of the film, my mind can’t help feeling a little pride for dealing with that strangely new situation.
Three hours later, the credits roll, and we get up to leave, immediately discussing historical accuracy and commenting on the references to the University. We continue talking while making our way past the “four” sign and out the doors of the theater. It’s raining, so we step under an awning, my mentor still discussing his plan to research every major character in the movie. I suggest he calls a Lyft, since the rain doesn’t look like it’s letting up soon. He pulls out his phone and we make a few jokes about sphere packing in a fish bowl and wine glass. I don’t quite know when, but at some point, he slips in that this is his first time going to the movies.
“In the US, right?”
His Lyft pulls up, so he waves goodbye. I probably mumble something about seeing him in lab as I wave back. The sound of the rain cuts out as the gears whir in my head. I don’t know if it was a few seconds or a few minutes, but eventually, I put on my jacket and step out into the rain.
I guess there’s a first time for everything.