Thursdays at Red Lobster

Thursdays at Red Lobster
by Stephen S. Mills

I wonder if I have ever cried in a Red Lobster. A lost memory floating somewhere in the ether. I’m not a big crier, but maybe as a child a tear was shed over a cheddar biscuit or a fried shrimp. Upset over not getting my way: a middle child thing. The world seeming to crash at my feet and me always ready with a healthy flare for the dramatic.

How many times have I eaten at a Red Lobster? None in recent memory. A vegetarian now. Seven years. A real one: no seafood. And now I live in New York City where eating at Red Lobster would seem even sadder.

But maybe I did cry there at least once in my thirty-two years on this planet.

***

In the winter of 2000, I sat in a movie theater in my hometown of Richmond, Indiana and watched American Beauty for the first time. It had only come to my town because it had been nominated for eight Academy Awards. Otherwise, I would have had to wait for the VHS.

I sat there as a 17-year-old closeted gay boy who knew he had just seen something that would change him forever: a film, that even fifteen years later, sends a rush through my body. I didn’t fully know why, but everything on the screen made sense to me from the strange homoerotic moments to that plate of asparagus leaving Kevin Spacey’s hand and landing on the dinning room wall.

It wasn’t a mirror to my own upbringing (which was happy, mostly), but it spoke to central fears that have long been in my mind (even at seventeen): questions of authority, of what to make of your life, and a deep fear of being ordinary, which Angela (Mena Suvari) says is the worst thing anyone can be. I believe Angela.

***

Film critics have named 1999 one of the great years for movies. A century was ending and the film industry seemed on the brink of something refreshing on nearly all fronts. 1999 was the year of American Beauty and The Matrix. Of The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, and American Pie.

I spent so many nights in theaters beside my best friend soaking in these startling films. The future seemed so bright. So full of possibility.

What happened?

***

It was Annette Bening’s performance as the uptight, perfection-seeking Carolyn Burnham that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Early in the film there’s a scene where she readies a house to be sold (she’s a real estate agent). She removes her dress and frantically begins cleaning the windows, vacuuming the carpets, and scrubbing the countertops in her slip. As she works she repeats, “I will sell this house today. I will sell this house today. I will sell this house today.”

As a viewer, we see both drive and desperation on display, which gets knocked up a few notches when the open house fails to win anyone over. After all the potential buyers leave, she’s left alone to cry against the vertical blinds covering the patio doors.

But this isn’t just any cry. It quickly turns violent as she pounds her fists against the doors and then slaps her own face while repeating, “Shut up!” It’s a burst of emotion that is at first comical then disturbing. Just as quickly as it starts, it ends. She wipes her eyes, the camera pulls back, and then she walks straight at you and out of the frame.

The camera lingers on the empty room. The blinds sway from her movement. There’s something unsettling about how Bening exits the room, walks off set, and how the camera stays just a second too long. It holds you and perfectly showcases that empty feeling of suburbia, of even small dreams unfulfilled. Carolyn will never be a top agent. We know all we need to know about her from that one moment.

It was enough to strike fear in my heart.

*** 

Red Lobster has a certain odor so close to actual seafood and coastal towns that the naïve nostrils of Midwesterners are often confused. It’s the mix of frozen food thawing and dirty tanks full of living lobsters clumsily lying on top of each other — claws taped shut — as the hostess seats the next party of four.

I can just picture some potbellied father smiling and tapping the glass as he tells his kids, “I’m going to eat that one right there.” His youngest child squealing with disgust and rushing to the mother who will shoot the father a playfully mean look.

This is a typical Friday night or Sunday after church scene in cities across the Midwest: a place I was born and raised. A place where dinner at a Red Lobster is a special occasion. A treat. A break from home-cooked meals.

I remember when my hometown (population 44,000) got our Red Lobster (for there will never be two). It meant my family of five would no longer have to drive more than hour to reach that smell of soaking lobsters and cheddar biscuits. This didn’t, however, make the occasion any less special.

It was around tables at chain restaurants that my family celebrated birthdays, new jobs, graduations, and an occasional holiday. Not the big ones though, because no respectable Midwest family celebrates Thanksgiving or Christmas in a restaurant.

***

In American Beauty, Angela tells Jane (Thora Birch) how every Thursday night her parents would take her to Red Lobster. A ritual. It was there she first saw how men looked at her, fantasized about her, and wanted to sleep with her even when she was as young as twelve.

There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary.

Even at Red Lobster, Angela felt beyond mediocre.

*** 

Annette Bening lost the Academy Award to Hilary Swank who won for Boys Don’t Cry. Because I’m part of the LGBT community, I’m supposed to be pleased about this.

I am not.

***

I’ve spent many nights in gay bars pressed against walls hoping to not seem ordinary. I didn’t want to be perceived as someone who knows the smell of Red Lobster or knows the taste of corn fresh from the dirt.

There were years I attempted to escape my Midwestern past. My fairly “normal” upbringing. My lack of dramatic stories. No abuse scandals. No older man ever tried to teach me the ways of the flesh as a kid. No one ever killed themselves. Or overdosed. 

I’ve spent many nights in gay bars pressed against other bodies. Some more ordinary than mine. Some extraordinary. Sometimes the taste of another’s tongue is enough to keep you going.

Sometimes I’ve cried in gay bars.

***

Towards the middle of the film, Jane has a scene that mirrors Carolyn’s open house breakdown. She is coming home at night and notices the creepy boy next door, Ricky (Wes Bentley), filming her.

She rushes in, turns off the lights, and peeks through the curtains to see if he’s still there. He is. She presses her back against the curtained windows and smiles slightly (which is rare for her in this film). Then she, too, walks out of the frame. The curtains sway. The camera lingers a second too long. We know what we need to know about Jane, about our own desire to be noticed, and about the emptiness of rooms.

***

My favorite gay bars smell like male sweat mixed with poppers mixed with leather. There’s a rush in sliding past bodies. Pressing against them on purpose or accidently. Or to just stand in the shadows and watch. To record it all.

***

Boys Don’t Cry is a fine film. Important. Well acted. And of course boys do cry, which is part of the point I guess.

But it’s no American Beauty.

And I don’t like that we live in a world where Hilary Swank has two Oscars and Annette Bening has none.

Life isn’t fair.

***

Sometimes I’m Carolyn slapping the failure from my face. The disappointment at myself, but really my disappointment at how the world works. A world that once seemed so full of potential but then gave us years of recycled crap.

Sometimes I’m Angela trying to fuck the men at Red Lobster. 

Sometimes I’m Jane standing naked in front of the mirror wishing everything was different until the boy on my bed tells me otherwise.

Sometimes I’m Ricky nearly crying at a plastic bag dancing in the wind (long before Katy Perry ruined the image). There’s so much beauty in the world.

And sometimes I’m Allison Janney drying a dish with the saddest face I can muster, and I’m not even sure why.

But I’m never Lester — not yet. Maybe when it’s over — life that is — I, too, will see how extraordinary it all was.

***

Stephen S. Mills holds a MFA from Florida State Uni­ver­sity. His work has appeared in The Anti­och ReviewThe Gay and Les­bian Review World­widePANK, The New York Quar­terlyThe Los Ange­les ReviewKnock­outAssara­cusThe Rum­pus, and oth­ers. He is the author of two books, A History of the Unmarried (Sibling Rivalry, 2014) and He Do the Gay Man in Dif­fer­ent Voices (Sib­ling Rivalry, 2012), a final­ist for the Thom Gunn Poetry Award and winner of the Lambda Lit­er­ary Award for Gay Poetry. He lives in New York City.