“Do not open if you are Superman.”

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Angus Poster

Angus (1995)
Directed by Patrick Read Johnson
Written by Jill Gordon
Starring Charlie Talbert, George C. Scott, Kathy Bates, Chris Owen, Ariana Richards, Rita Moreno, and James Van Der Beek
90 minutes, rated PG-13


The line of dialogue I have selected for the title of this entry is not actually a spoken line of dialogue. It is written down on a cardboard box. The characters read it. The camera lingers on it. The audience reads it and understands its significance to the plot. But it is never uttered aloud.

Inside the aforementioned cardboard box is a plum-colored tuxedo. The line of “dialogue” has been written by Grandpa Ivan (played by George C. Scott) and is intended only for the eyes of his grandson, Angus (played by Charlie Talbert). Earlier in the film, Grandpa has encouraged Angus with a seemingly-random monologue about Superman. Grandpa insists that Superman isn’t brave. Superman is indestructible and knows it. He is unbeatable in the face of conflict, so stepping into the heat of battle requires no courage on his part. Courage is reserved for the normal joe — people like you and me —  people like Angus, who has decided not to go to the winter dance because he knows he is the target of a cruel prank orchestrated by Rick Sandford, the cool kid in school (played by James Van Der Beek). Grandpa seems to be saying, in his borderline-dementia manner, that going to the dance, an act of unprecedented bravery, would make Angus better than, stronger than, considerably more courageous than even Superman.

Angus is not one of the cool kids. He’s overweight, much larger than the rest of his class (the plum-colored tuxedo is the only tuxedo in the entire store large enough to fit him). His best friend, Troy (played by Chris Owen), is the opposite: smaller, ganglier, physically more awkward than everyone else. They’re both on the football team, but Troy never plays and Angus, the impenetrable wall, serves no purpose other than clearing the field for Rick Sandford to get all the touchdowns and acclaim. Rick even gets Melissa LeFevre (played by Ariana Richards), the unrequited object of Angus’s affections since they were both young children.

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Angus becomes the victim of a cruel prank when Rick somehow arranges for Angus to be elected King of the Freshman Prom. At first, Angus intends to blow off the whole affair. He can’t dance. He’ll have no date besides Troy. He will certainly look foolish in his tuxedo that is seven shades more . . . uh . . . purple than the tuxedos worn by any of his peers (“I look like Moby Grape,” he quips).

But then Melissa LeFevre is elected Queen. Troy convinces him that this may be the only shot that Angus ever gets to dance with the girl of his dreams before he heads off at the end of the year to a magnet science school, a school where no one knows Angus and he believes he will no longer be a laughingstock.

This is a really charming movie. I’ve loved it ever since I first saw it.

I saw it in the early winter of 2001, a good five years after the film’s release. It had been recommended by Judy. It was one of her favorite films.

Who is Judy, you ask? 

Judy was a girl.

She broke my heart.

To be more accurate, I should say that I let her break my heart. To be even more accurate, I suppose I should say that I asked her to. I knew it was coming. I watched it as it happened. And I still did everything that I did as I pretended that I didn’t care.

Judy and I met in the months after I had broken up with Sara. We were both employed at a hotel on the campus (I was a desk clerk, she worked in the sales office) but had little interaction with each other apart from her dropping off invoices for management approval. Usually, her offices were closed and she was halfway home before my shift even started. But over a weekend in August of that year, myself, Judy, my immediate supervisor, and another member of the front desk staff headed to Chicago for a Customer Service Training event. It was at this event that Judy and I realized that we had quite a bit in common. We discovered by the end of the weekend that we really enjoyed each other’s company, a fact that did not go unnoticed by my supervisor and co-worker.

Several months later, after spending an evening watching movies at the home of said co-worker and his girlfriend, Judy and I were driving in my truck when she surprised me with an unexpected question. Out of the blue, completely apropos of nothing that we had been talking about, she asked if I believed I was capable of unattached sex. I got dreadfully quiet as I contemplated the ramifications of what she was asking me. I didn’t know what to say, how to respond. This was a confusing question that I was certain had a right or wrong answer. Was she trying to trick me? Why is she bringing this up?

The look of what I’m sure was confusion on my face prompted her to clarify further: “Could you have sex with a friend and still be friends with them after?” And I knew that the answer was yes– I’d been there before– but I didn’t want to say yes because . . . I just don’t want to have this conversation right now . . . because . . . so I hesitated again. And then she asked again, in words that clarified even heartbreakingly further: “If a girl was not your girlfriend, would you be able to have sex with her without wanting her to be your girlfriend as a result?” I still didn’t want to say “yes”. To be clear, as I’ve said, the answer was “yes” . . . but admitting that, right now, in this situation, to her . . . would mean that I was admitting that she wasn’t my girlfriend. That we were just friends. And until this moment, this conversation, it never even occurred to me that friends was all we were.

I tried to play it off like I didn’t understand the question. Maybe I was misunderstanding her, after all. Maybe this was just a general question that had nothing to do with our relationship. I mean, that’s possible, right? Right?

“Do you mean, like, you and I?” I asked. And when she confirmed that this was precisely what she was talking about, I answered as honestly as I could and said, “I don’t know,” because I didn’t, in fact, know anymore. She said, “Ok,” and then proceeded to move on with our normal lives and conversation as if nothing had ever happened. We went back to her place, where she still lived with her parents, and listened to some music and talked for a while. Eventually, I feigned being tired and went home because I just wanted to be alone.

I kept telling myself She’s not your girlfriend as I sat on my back porch for the next couple of hours, but I couldn’t stop adding a question mark to the end of the statement. She’s not your girlfriend? Because it sure seemed like she was. 

Over the last several months– almost immediately, in fact, after returning from the trip to Chicago– Judy and I had spent almost every available second together. It started out chaste enough as we got to know each other, learned the idiosyncrasies of how the other one ticked. It didn’t take long for conversations to evolve from general getting-to-know-you type discussions to more personal interrogations of how where we had been had made us who we are. Over time, the relationship between us became more physical. I’m not referring to sex, though. Just a general coziness, a safety and comfort in touching one another. As I sat on my back porch contemplating how I wanted to proceed, I recalled her standing on my feet with my arms around her waist so that she could see a little better above the crowd at a Matchbox Twenty concert. I recalled stretching out on the couch in her basement (in what can only be described as “a spoon position”) to watch The West Wing or Freaks & Geeks. I recalled afternoon naps, a lot of handholding. Frequent hugs and kisses on the forehead. I even recalled her younger brother, who had become a regular audience member at the weekly improv show, telling me how glad he was that his sister and I were dating. She was present during the conversation when he said that. She didn’t correct him. If I wasn’t her boyfriend, then what was I?

In retrospect, I should have called her on it. I should have demanded some answers. But to my mind, the fact that she was even asking such a question in the first place– or, I suppose, more telling– phrasing the question in the manner that she did, was a sure omen that she and I were not on the same page. This relationship– whatever it was– was not being defined in her head the way that it was being defined in mine. This was heartbreaking to me.

I went to bed that evening ready to call everything off the next day. At the very least, I was prepared to initiate a very important discussion . . . but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was clear within minutes of seeing her the next day that she was not fazed in the slightest by our conversation the night before. She acted, in every way, like absolutely nothing was different. Like absolutely nothing had changed. She was the same old Judy, brushing my hair out of my eyes, calling me the same old nicknames. It was a stupid thing to do– I knew it was stupid as I did it– but I decided to let it ride. I needed her around. I needed the comfort of her companionship, and it was remarkably easy to convince myself that the heartbreak of this coupling not ever being what I wanted it to be (thought it was) wasn’t going to kill me. What we had right now was better than nothing, right? Right?

It was around this time that we first watched Angus. We were in her car this time and she had excitedly turned up the radio because a song that she liked came on. I didn’t recognize the song but I recognized the singer as Billie Jo Armstrong from Green Day. Typical Aaron/Judy conversation ensued: me, flabbergasted that there was a Green Day song that I didn’t know; her, teasing me about not knowing everything, pleased with herself that she had “pulled one over on me”. She told me that the song was from Angus and then let out an incredulous gasp when I told her that I hadn’t seen it. Whatever plans we had that night immediately changed to a trip to Blockbuster Video to rent this movie.

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She knew me well and knew my tastes because I really loved this movie. I loved its smart screenplay, its sharp-witted exchanges (GRANDPA: You’re at an irritating age. ANGUS: So are you.), its optimistic cynicism about the high school experience. I loved that the actors were all the right age to be playing high school students and awkward enough in their own skins to be doubly believable and credible. I loved the soundtrack, especially the marching band version of “Am I Wrong” by Love Spit Love that runs through the opening credits. I loved the final showdown at the prom between Angus and his nemesis (“I want to be who I am: a fat kid, who’s good at science and fair at football. That’s who I am! I can live with it. Why can’t you?”) And I loved Grandpa’s speech about Superman and his lack of bravery versus the average person (such as myself) that sallies forth regardless, even knowing that there’s a chance that they might be destroyed. For obvious reasons, even if they were not contextually intended by the screenplay, I related to this.

Judy and I didn’t last much longer than that evening. We had a disastrous trip to her old stomping grounds in Iowa. We had planned the trip many weeks prior and probably shouldn’t have gone. It was awkward, to say the least. Not only because we were sharing a hotel room, but because Judy was actively acting different. She was touching me less, seemed less comfortable with our proximity being like normal. At a party, we ran into an old boyfriend of hers. I had heard about him (she and he had broken up right around the time that Sara and I had). He was rude to me and then rude to her. I was uncomfortable, had had plenty to drink, and told Todd exactly what I thought of him. I, apparently, also told him that I was in love with Judy and was willing to fight for her. I have no recollection of this. I only know about it now because Judy called me on it several days after we came home.

That stretch between returning home and her calling me to explain why we shouldn’t see each other anymore was the longest stretch of time that I had gone without seeing her for almost six months. I had already drunkenly cried with my roommate about having ruined everything because I knew it was my fault even if I was unaware of what I had done. In our conversation, she told me that she had been seeing someone for a couple of weeks. She told me that the new boyfriend was very uncomfortable with the closeness of our relationship. She had wanted to talk about it while we were in Iowa but that my anger with Todd frightened her a bit. She didn’t, given what she had heard me say to Todd, believe that I was in the moment equipped to handle what she might have to say. She then asked if I wanted to talk about what she had heard me say and I told her that I did not see the point. She was seeing someone else now.

This was in the early winter of 2001. I haven’t spoken to her since.

I did, over the next couple of days, write her a long letter. Right around seven pages. In the letter I talked at great length about my general confusion about the state of our relationship. Strangely, though, I remember thanking her in that letter for helping me heal after the disaster that was my relationship with Sara. And I also remember divulging that I was in love with her. I knew it wouldn’t change anything, but I thought that she should know. I mailed the letter through regular mail, postage stamp and everything, because I couldn’t face her without sobbing and didn’t believe that she would read it if I emailed her.

Almost a month passed before I received an email from her. It was terse and to the point: “I received your letter. I didn’t know what to say so I lollygagged. I did want to say that I am sorry.” The subject of her email said DO NOT OPEN IF YOU ARE SUPERMAN and I really, really, really, really wanted to hate her for using that line on me. Instead, I emailed back a response, a general census of how she might be doing, that she never responded to.

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The end of Angus is refreshingly ambiguous about whether or not our hero gets the girl. My own story this week is not so ambiguous, but it does have a parallel. I was not a fat kid. I was never that good at science. I’ve never been even remotely close to being fair at football (I don’t think, if pressed, I could even tell you the rules). But I have been in love with a woman who didn’t love me back. Even acknowledging now that the feelings I felt back then were probably not really love at all, I can understand Angus’ desire to have that one dance, to hang suspended in one moment since that one moment is all you are ever going to get. I’m luckier than Angus because I got more than one.







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