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**PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006. | PAST BROADSHEETS |

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Peter Vaeth

J., Administrative Assistant, Veteran Office Worker. Psychotically allergic to popcorn. Not really allergic: there is no medical evidence or even a doctor's note to justify her contention that the smell of popcorn makes her sick. But she acts the part, really commits to the role. When she catches a whiff of a bag of microwave popcorn popping in the copy room, she rejects it with every cell of her body. Her already wrinkled, overly make-upped face folds into a single swath of rouge. Her arms pull tightly to her sides, elbows stick to her stomach rolls, making insect arms. She clomps her heels noisily up and down the aisle between cubicles spraying hairspray as popcorn repellent, working her thumb double-time on the pump trigger. Tsk-ing and sighing, she makes sure everyone knows how inconsiderate she considers the making of popcorn in her presence. It is clear to everyone in the office, indeed everyone who knows her, that this aversion to popcorn is psychosomatic. All in her head.

J. is also an ardent movie-lover. Film buff. A purist, videos don't do it for her. She believes the only way to see her favorite stars, like Julia Roberts and Joan Allen, is up on the big screen. Loves the whole experience of going to the movies, the anticipation, the previews, talking about the movie afterwards over coffee and pie at IHOP.


Is there a terrible incident from J.'s childhood she associates with popcorn that has thus ruined for her popcorn as a viable snack option and made her vehemently opposed to its popping and consumption in her presence?

Did her father, angry about her 3rd grade report card, scald her with the bottom of a Jiffy Pop pan? Did her mother, in the worst of her many alcoholic rages, duct-tape her mouth open and strap her to a kitchen chair and play Throw the Hot Unpopped Kernels in J's mouth? Was J. only 7 years old at the time? And how bad was her mother's drunken aim? On J.'s first-ever date did Walter Anders, following through on a triple-dog-dare from his bad-influence buddies, Bouncy and Spike, poke a hole in the bottom of the cardboard popcorn bucket, place it in his lap, and stick his doo-hicky up through the hole? Did innocent and unknowing J. grab hold of Walter's buttery doo-hicky? When she dove in for another handful of popcorn did she get a handful of slippery boy-snake instead? Was she so mortified that she ran crying out of the theater and all the way home? Did she not date again until college, when she met her future husband, whose doo-hicky is the only other she has ever touched besides Walter Anders's? Is this husband sensitive to her popcornaphobia? When he has a craving for popcorn, does he go next door to their neighbor's house? Or the little shop in the mall in the quaint downtown of the tree-y suburb in which he lives with J. in a quiet ranch house? Or does he think she's nuts like everyone else, that this popcorn thing is all in her head? Does he secretly dream of running away with Leslie, the widowed neighbor with whom he shares popcorn, Leslie the coquette with the flowing brownish-blonde hair and a mind open to all kinds of smells and snack foods? Or does this husband harbor instead violent fantasies involving a hoe, shears, and several garbage bags?

Is it plausible that someone could appreciate both Julia Roberts and Joan Allen, given their opposing natures as actresses (without comparing their talents), like J. does?

Does the whole (previously mentioned) first-date scenario really work as a childhood pre-cursor to an adult double-bind of popcornaphobia and cinemaphilia? Isn't it equally as likely that the inadvertent-groping-of-Walter-Anders-first-date scenario would have left J. with a vehement and psychotic opposition to movie theaters instead of popcorn, thus killing the whole double-bind idea, or forcing it to be reworked into a vice-versa'd double-bind involving a violent opposition to movie theaters and a love of popcorn? Wouldn't this new vice-versa'd double-bind not only be implausible, but force a time-consuming reevaluation of the whole character? Would it be easier and better to just go with the deranged father or drunken mother context instead?

Does J. know that on Friday, her day off, the popcorn pops freely in the office and one resentful popcorn-loving co-worker likes to pour her bag on, and eat it at, J.'s desk? Would it bother her if she did know? Does J. begrudge the enjoyment of popcorn by others or pay it no mind? Or is she deeply jealous and secretly longing to be free of her phobia, to enjoy a healthy natural snack food and lick butter and salt off her fingers? Does J., more than anything else, really just want to fit in? And does not fitting in fuel the obvious bitterness of her hair-spraying anti-popcorn office tirades, outbursts which only further her being ostracized from the others? Wouldn't J. then be sadly complicit in a self-fulfilling prophecy of not fitting in?

How does J. cope with her double-bind? Does she wear a clothespin on her nose when she goes to the theater, or is this too cartoonish? Maybe she wears a surgical mask over her nose and mouth, a mask scented strongly enough with raspberries or lemon to overcome the smell of popcorn wafting through the theater? Does J. not mind being mistaken for one of those germaphobic freaks that we usually assume people wearing surgical masks in public to be? Or, while willing to tolerate some embarrassment over wearing a surgical mask in a public movie theater, does she nonetheless seek to alleviate this embarrassment as much as possible by attending Midnight shows when there are less people staring at her and mumbling? Does her husband sweetly attend with her these late-night movies and considerately resist his own jones for popcorn that surges within like compulsion each time he inhales the glorious buttery popcorn smell of the theater's air? Or has he gradually over the years stopped being sweet and considerate and left her alone to see movies by herself, late at night, with that insane fucking surgical mask on her face?

Peter Vaeth lives and writes in the suburbs of Chicago. He enjoys spelunking, doomsaying, and no limit Texas Hold 'Em. He is the co-editor of Fiction Funhouse, and his various writings appear regularly here: