Glowing 'Box Office' sign

The show could go on

A blindingly bright foyer narrowed into a dimly lit passage, phosphorous blue from the overhead lighting. Popcorn crackled in a machine in the distance. Chattering crowds formed clunky queues before swirling into the screens like soap water through a stubborn drain. A state-of-the-art surround sound system provided a worthy counterpoint to the deafening silence outside save for the occasional dragging foot. And, then, I heard it. The creak of the cleaning trolley accompanied by the reticent clip-clop of its reluctant controller. My gut sensed it. The moment was here. She was here. I had to speak.

Two months ago I had moved back to Aberdeen, Scotland’s third most populous city. With a little over 2,29,000 people (a far cry from the 10 million where I grew up), Aberdeen was quaint. It was also where I’d finished my Masters before moving to England for work. Now, with a return to India imminent, I saw it fit to spend my last few months where it all began. A recent breakup and a change in life plans called for some quiet times and a gig at the cinema seemed like a great shout. It helped that there wasn’t much action except for the occasional ‘screen jumper’.* My other jobs** didn’t afford quite the same serenity.

The mop slid off the rack, enjoying freedom for a fleeting second, before greeting its bucket with a gentle splash. Holly, the (part-time cinema staff and full-time student) cleaner for the day and the lady in question, was a skilful mopper, each swish belying the resignation behind it. After all, every mopper that has a why can bear almost any how. Dark haired and probably good-natured, she’d caught my eye a few times when I’d walked into work as I hoped I would have her’s.

“Why can’t you be more spontaneous? Don’t you know how to have fun?” These words were ringing in my ears the past few months. Young and full of pop culture, I bought into a rather flimsy narrative of love and life and saw it fit that my actions would result in expected outcomes. Spontaneity just wasn’t an option. But, the interviews weren’t working out, a three-year relationship had ended, and a broken collarbone hadn’t done wonders for my sporting ability. The time for change was upon me.

“Right, screw this, I’m going to give this instinct a shot. Spontaneous, shmontaneous. I’ll show you.”

I’d never really asked someone out until then but had been in a few relationships with the most recent (and most realistic) having ended a few months ago. “How hard could it be? Think of something witty that needs a follow-up and then see how it goes. Easy.” Now that my 2-step homebaked seduction guide was in place, I prepared myself for the grand moment, the prestige. This part needs you to visualise the actual setting. The passage above (yes, the one with the hue of blue phosphorous) in the passage above*** had a sharp T-shaped bend that led to six movie screens, three on either side. Cleaners would typically start on the left and work their way up to the right before walking back to the foyer. Facing that bend was a spot around 2-feet wide. That was my position, a vantage point that allowed me a view of a few of the screens, the passage, the foyer, and any miscreants (patrons). The bend took all of a second to turn into, and that was my moment to speak with Holly. Any later and we’d be looking at a 15-minute wait before repeating the process. And I was done being one for waiting.

I took a few deep breaths (calmer minds allow for a more articulate voice, after all), drew my shoulders down and back (yes, posture, YES!) and steeled myself to seize this fleeting blip of time. Holly was approaching the passageway. My heart started to quicken, and my mouth decided on dryness as a great option, but I had this covered – reading blog posts about meditation was almost as effective as meditation.**** She was nearly at the bend now. I decided to bail.

“You don’t have the right words. What if you get shot down? Is this worth the rejection?” This indecision lasted all of a few seconds as self-assurance kicked in with the vigour my brain refused to exhibit. “Trust your instinct. Breathe. Trust your instinct.” So, I did. I took a deep breath, gathered all my courage, and decided to let my instinct take charge.

“Hello instinct, you’re up!”

“Awesome. I won’t let you down. I really won’t. I might be primitive, misguided, misunderstood, but that means nothing, NOTHING! I also almost always confuse simple deadlines with an attack on your life, but I’ve got this. Yeh, I’ve got this.”

“Umm, okay. I trust you?”

And then it happened.

Just as she was going around the bend, I took a couple of steps towards her. Our eyes met, mine exhibiting fear and hers exhibiting fear that my well-honed Indian man instinct interpreted as attention. Eager to quit while I was ahead, I cleared my throat, took a deep breath and mouthed the following words as cheerfully as I could: ‘Hey Holly, are you afraid of death?’

For all my talk of a fleeting moment, this ceased to be one. Time flies when you’re having fun, but not when you clip its wings and bludgeon it into immobility with copious amounts of stupidity. No, in that situation, time stalls because it’s having fun. My question seemed to cause in Holly a sensation somewhere between an itch and a convulsion as she uncomfortably twitched her way out of the scene with the grace of an eel and the stealth of a ninja. The embarrassment, on the other hand, was mine to savour.

Then, dear reader, right then, with all the clarity of a drunken sailor snacking on a rusty saw, it came to me. The instinct is a dodgy bedfellow. While my gut’s desire to respond wasn’t in my control, choosing to use that response was. Being an idiot was a choice! Soon, probably after her fear subsided, Holly went back to her perch behind the concessions counter, and that was that.***** I spent the next few hours dissecting the mechanism of my gut-brain-mouth interface. I’d never been one for ‘spontaneous’ and I’d just been presented with a resounding reason for that choice. I followed through somewhat blindly, and the outcome followed suit.

Anecdote complete.

Here’s what I learnt. Right from the time I grew up, I was led to believe (and for a while considered) that there was a set way to do things.

“Study hard so you’ll be successful.”
“Trust your heart, and then you can never go wrong.”
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“Your gut knows more than your brain does. It may take some time to realise that.”

The problem with these ‘truisms’ is that they are right some of the time but expected to work all of the time. That thinking is no different to using a toothpick in a lobotomy or a toothbrush to fight off an unusually persistent shark. Things have their place and so do personality traits and views. Your instinct is no GPS for excellence, otherwise just listening to it would guarantee bonafide success (did someone ask for hogwash with a side of air?). Ascribing any deliberate intent or scientifically-driven efficiency to your instinct is self-assurance masquerading as reason. Excellence takes work, the logical route takes effort, and I don’t think humans have an innate appetite for tough choices. Listen to your instinct, but it might help to analyse its output as objectively as you would someone else’s. Over the years I’ve practised listening to my automatic response and then making a decision either in line with it or with some tweaks. This effort has dramatically refined my social process.

“Hey there, how would you want to go?”

“What do you mean, weirdo?”

“To dinner, of course. Drive or walk?”

“Oh, let’s walk. Sorry, I misunderstood.”

“It’s alright. But if I were curious about your preferred way to pass, what would it be anyway? I’m not interested, only asking because you brought it up”.


“Good chat.”

So, the improvement may not have been drastic, but I’ll get there. Something tells me I will. I reckon it’s instinct.

Image Courtesy: Connor Limbocker on Unsplash

*in this cinema they only checked your ticket at a single entrance, not every screen. A screen jumper is someone who’d  buy a ticket for one movie but would sneak into a bunch of others too

**these included being a dancing bear, playing host at a strip club, and working as emergency response security at music festivals

***the one without any hues of blue; I’m using a synonym for ‘paragraph’ as a pun to show off literary skills *applause*

**** it isn’t

****in case you were wondering, I had a wee chat with her later. More importantly, if you thought I screwed this up, then the joke is on you. After chatting for a few moments, we decided that my question was quirky, and laughed about it. I got her number. There was a first date. We spent this time discussing how I would leave the country in two months and had no interest in a fling, therefore, rendering this whole shenanigan pointless. We also considered her relationship with her sister and the rest of her family before arriving at the tearful decision that she needed to connect with them. Then, once a demonstration of financial chivalry was complete, I walked her to meet a boy she fancied. There wasn’t a second date.