“Watch What You Love”
by Emily Lackey
If there is one thing that has always stood in the way of my father and me being friends, it is distance, and if there is one thing that has always brought us back together, it is movies. Even when we lived in the same house, I mostly saw my father on the weekends. His work as a salesman always had him flying to conventions, always driving to business meetings in other states. For the first four years of my life, the only time I saw my father was when he would come home from work, change into sweatpants, stretch out on our plaid couch, and put on a movie for us to watch. We watched Dumbo and Care Bears back then, my father lying on his side and stacking his legs so I could fit perfectly between his bent knees and the back of the couch. Back then, I would pretend that everything beyond my father’s body was unmapped seas, savage and unsafe: the carpet, the coffee table, the dark hallway that led to bed.
When I was four, my parents divorced, and my mother moved us two states away, which made the distance between my father and me bigger. My weekly movie dates with my father turned to once a month, when he would drive up from New York for his court-appointed weekend and rent a room in a motel. We’d hole ourselves up with only pizza and soda to sustain ourselves, stretching out on our individual queen beds and watching movies all weekend long. The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Delirious and Joe Versus the Volcano.
A few years later, when my father moved to Seattle, our one weekend a month moved to summer vacations and every other holiday break. I was only eight, but I didn’t mind the distance, mainly because those were the best times for blockbusters. My father and I would see them all, sitting side-by-side in those movie theater seats, our boxes of Snow Caps and Junior Mints balanced in our respective laps. Jurassic Park and Men in Black. Independence Day and Speed. Die Hard 3 and Batman Forever.
When I was thirteen, my father moved to Florida. I think it was then that the distance between us began to feel insurmountable. It may have had something to do with how endless that summer felt, all sunburns and sweaty shirts, swimming pools and sun-strained eyes. Or maybe it was the fact that I was thirteen and looking critically at the world for the first time. Whatever it was, that was the summer that I remember thinking that my father must take me to so many movies was because he didn’t know how to relate to me in any other way.
Of course now I know that all thirteen year olds feel some version of this—this feeling of being uniquely misunderstood and utterly alone—but back then (and, if I’m being honest, for the next twenty years), everything only reaffirmed the distance I felt between us: our silent drives to see Clueless and Armageddon, our ability to watch Forrest Gump and Titanic without saying a word.
The thing that ultimately brought my father and me back together was the same thing that always had. It started in my early thirties, when I broke up with a man I had almost married and moved into an apartment I couldn’t afford. Two weeks into this new life, my Apple TV stopped working. Netflix was the first thing to go, and when it happened, I remember sitting on my couch confounded, pressing the home button over and over again, waiting for one of the movies I turned to when things were terrible to magically start playing: Baby Mama and Bridesmaids. Bridget Jones’ Diary and Bachelorette.
When my father called to check in on me, I told him about my movie shortage, and he offered to help. He said he had just purchased a new TV. A smart TV, actually, which meant he didn’t need his external streaming devices anymore, and I could have his.
When his Roku arrived, it didn’t take me long to realize that all of his login information was saved in all of the apps, and it took me even less time to decide that I wouldn’t sign out of any of them before purchasing enough movies to get me through my first month alone.
The first phone call from my father came when I charged one too many seasons of The Real Housewives of New York to his Amazon Prime account.
“What exactly is RHONY,” he asked, “and why is it showing up on my credit card?”
I apologized quickly, and then I lied. “I must have forgotten to sign into my account,” I said. “I’ll pay you back I swear. I’ll send you a check.”
But a few months later, I was even more broke than before, and I became convinced that the only thing that could help was the latest season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
This time, when my father called, I made up another lie: I had to restart the Roku after a power outage, I said. It must have magically signed back in with his information. Maybe, I hypothesized, it was set up to sign in to his account by default.
But my father just laughed and said, “Add it to your tab.”
For the record, if I were keeping records, my tab now includes five seasons of The Real Housewives, the most recent season of Big Brother, a thirty-minute yoga video I promised myself I would do every morning and then never did, Surviving R. Kelly, and a list of movies I’ve rented for $5.99 that is so long, Amazon no longer keeps track of them.
After that, my father stopped calling to ask about the unidentified purchases that showed up on his credit card bill. Instead, when he quit cable for good, he gave me his Sling information so I could watch TV live. When my ex-boyfriend kicked me off of his Netflix account, my father gave me the password to his. And when he told me about a documentary he watched and thought I would love, he gave me access to his HBO Go.
I don’t know when it was that my father and I started watching the same things, but I think it started when I decided to spend a year on the road. I started the year with a month-long stay at my father’s house where I was storing my things, and I don’t remember much from our month together other than what we watched. Seasons one and two of The Crown. Twice.
Last Thanksgiving, too, we got McDonald’s because it was the only thing open, and sat side by side on our individual couches in his den, watching all nine Thanksgiving episodes of Friends. At Christmas that same year, when I was so stressed after being around our family for four days and told him I needed a break, my father sat with me and watched The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
It was after that trip that things really started to change, because two hours into that absurd show, I remember looking at my father on the adjacent couch and thinking, only a man who really loves his daughter would sit through an entire afternoon of this.
Since then, our shared streaming habits have picked up. These days we watch from the comfort of our own homes—me, from my one-bedroom apartment; my father, from his four-bedroom home. We text each other whenever we find anything good.
“Watch The Bookshop,” my father wrote to me the other day. “I rented it on Amazon for forty-eight hours.” He ended his text with five smiley faces.
When I went to watch the movie thirty-six hours later, though, it wasn’t available.
“Just tried to watch The Bookshop,” I wrote to him with a frownie face, “the rental period was only twenty-four hours.”
“Rent it again,” he wrote back. “It’s that good.”
My father and I have bonded over The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, talking at length about what the second season lacked that the first season did so well, and Vice when we realized we were seeing it in the theater on the same day. And when I rented Forrest Gump on his Amazon Prime account, I sent him a picture of my post-cry face, red and covered in tears, with the caption, “Man, that movie really changes as you age.”
And then, the other night, I found Eighth Grade on Amazon Prime. The movie is, among other things, about a girl in eighth grade who tries over and over again to navigate the treacherous waters of early teenage hood. But to me, the movie seemed to be so much about kindness, particularly in the face of cruelty, and how sometimes we find it in the places we least expect. Kayla, the protagonist, lives alone with her ever-encouraging father, a man who does not waiver, even when she is awful and impatient with him, and after a particularly harrowing scene in the backseat of a boy’s car, Kayla comes home to her father, who tells her that he doesn’t worry about her—that he has never had to worry about her—because she has always been so strong and so good.
When it was over, I picked up my phone and texted my father. “Just watched Eighth Grade on Amazon,” I wrote. And then in all caps: “SO GOOD.”
“I’ll give it a try,” he wrote back, and then we texted for a bit about our plans for the weekend, about my new boyfriend, about how much easier it is to find good wine in Massachusetts, about the drool-worthiness of a Costco hot dog.
Two hours later, he texted me again. “You were right about Eighth Grade,” he wrote. And then in all caps: “SO GOOD.”
A graduate of Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf School of English, Emily Lackey received her MFA from the University of New Hampshire in 2014. She was a fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in 2017, an artist-in-residence at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in 2018, and a resident at Newnan ArtRez. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, Post Road, The Literary Review, and Longreads among others. She lives and writes in Western Massachusetts.