Years ago, during a Craigslist phase, I clicked on an ad titled “Ivy League Tutor for GRE”.
The listing was short and contained more than one set of ellipses. Twenty dollars an hour to help someone study for the graduate school entrance exam.
I had taken the GRE myself a few years ago, though I couldn’t remember my scores and hadn’t yet gone to grad school, but at that tax-free pay rate I sure could pretend to be an expert on how to study for it. I sent in my resume.
I met Rob the tutee at the Borders bookstore cafe in Wynnewood. He wore a tweed sports jacket with elbow patches and told me all the things we had in common based on my resume. Very good, very good, but let’s get to the twenty dollars an hour. So we dove into studying for the GRE, meeting up three times a week to review vocab and work through practice tests.
He was an odd duck. Anti-social, maybe. This was at the very beginning of the smartphone era; few people had video cameras on their phones, much less used them to film everyday interactions or record someone losing it over cutting the Popeye’s line. Rob told me he made a habit of pulling out his phone and filming any awkward encounter with a stranger that he or anyone else fell into. He showed me one video: he had taken someone’s parking spot, and the guy came over to challenge him about it; saying nothing, Rob started filming the guy at close range as he raged in his face.
One day we were reviewing some math when an older woman happened by our table. She introduced herself: his mother. They exchanged awkward hellos and she asked what we were up to. Rob was silent, so I said cheerfully, “We’re doing some tutoring.”
She said, “Who’s tutoring who?”
I don’t know why I felt some kind of loyalty to the Tutee but I didn’t want to blow his cover just in case so I said, “We’re kind of helping each other,” which she found quite amusing and asked Rob if he would be home for dinner that night.
That night, I was looking for additional gigs on Craigslist when I saw it. “Ivy League Tutor for GRE.” Rob had posted his ad again, just two days ago. I emailed him immediately: “What is this? Am I being fired?” He remained evasive, but the next day when we were studying, it all came out. He was meeting up with another tutor today after me, and I needed to leave before she got here because she didn’t know about me.
He was two-time tutoring.
I said, “You advertised for a tutor so you could meet girls.”
He said, “Maybe.”
I said, “Are you even taking the GRE?”
“Yeah,” Rob said. “I just figured I would kill two birds with one stone.”
I made it clear that we were certainly not going to go in that direction, but I was willing to keep tutoring, because twenty dollars an hour...is twenty dollars an hour. So we continued, and he continued to speed date other potential tutors, but it didn’t interfere with our sessions. In fact, we almost were becoming...friends. Is that what we were? We must have been, because a few nights after he took the GRE exam and our tutoring was over, I invited him to hang out. My friend Chrissy and her boyfriend Kyle and I planned to go see a movie, and the tutee was going to come along.
It was a midnight movie at the Neshaminy AMC 24, a mall theater right outside of northeast Philly. The lobby was swarming with late night movie goers. The Tutee showed up wearing a Far Side t-shirt tucked into Levis with combat boots. The place was packed, not a seat empty. We sat in a row: Kyle on the end, Chrissy, then me, then Rob the Tutee.
The movie was The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. They work together and hate each other, but for green card reasons they need to fake an engagement, and hijinks ensue. Plus, Betty White.
About a third into the story, loud snores erupted from the other side of the theater. We were right in the middle of the scene between Ryan and Sandra about her bird tattoo, it’s a very key moment (you know it if you’ve seen it), and the crowd started rustling in response to the snoring guy, whose sounds were filling up the room. Rob looked around with a delighted smile on his face. After a couple of minutes of the snoring, a girl sitting directly two rows in front of us with her boyfriend started yelling. “Yo! You’re snoring! Wake up!” The snoring guy had what appeared to be his girlfriend next to him, and she nudged him awake. There was a merciful silence, and we all settled in to continue watching.
Further along in the movie, Sandra was trying on Betty White’s vintage wedding dress, and the snoring started again. It was even louder this time, echoing across the theater and drowning out the voices on screen. The same girl two rows in front of us, who yelled before, took charge.
“Yo! Wake up! We’re trying to watch the movie! Shut up!”
A ripple went through the crowd, and Rob was clearly loving it. The girlfriend of the snorer woke him again and the theater once again fell silent. The attention of three hundred people was trained on the screen. We were getting to the climactic scene. Ryan Reynolds was racing from Sitka, Alaska back to New York City. Ryan Reynolds was rushing into the office building to find Sandra Bullock and tell her that he really, truly - not for fear of losing his job, or to get her a green card - loved her. He ran into the elevator. He burst into the open-plan office. Magazine staffers lifted heads from desks and watched incredulously. Sandra Bullock, holding a cardboard box of her belongings as she made her farewell walk, turned around. Ryan and Sandra’s eyes met.
The snoring started again.
The girl two rows ahead of us had had it. She stood halfway up in her seat, turned, and aimed an empty plastic Sprite bottle high in the air before chucking it directly at the snorer, like a right fielder in thick maroon knee socks who put down her Miller Lite can to peg the overly ambitious asshole who thought he could turn a single into a double during a Sunday afternoon adult recreational softball game at the Mayfair playground. She had impeccable aim, because the bottle hit the snorer’s girlfriend, right next to him, and bounced off.
Someone let out an “Oooooooooh,” middle-school-cafeteria-fight style. The snorer awoke and the noise stopped. We all turned back to the screen, settling in to enjoy the final scene now that business had been taken care of.
The silence didn’t last long enough to catch Ryan’s next line of dialogue. The girlfriend of the snoring guy suddenly appeared in front of us, leaping over the final seat on her journey to get to her attacker. There she was, two rows up, standing over the girl who had thrown the bottle. The snorer’s girlfriend held up her movie-size-large plastic cup filled with ice and diluted Pepsi, and dumped the entire thing over the girl’s head.
Chaos ensued. The girl in front of us jumped up, reached into her jacket and pulled out a knife, the blade flashing in the light of the movie screen. “I’ll cut you!” she screamed, moving toward the snorer’s girlfriend. “I’ll cut you with my knife!” Knife Girl’s boyfriend leapt up to hold her back. Snoring Guy had arrived and was holding his girlfriend back. The two girls were screaming and flailing, the hand with the knife flying all over.
Next to me, Rob the Tutee pulled out his phone and started filming.
Remember, this was back in the day when it was not yet regular practice for someone to be filmed in the middle of their drama or freakout. As Rob held the phone high up, stretching his long arms to lean it toward the direction of the fight, I panicked. Knife girl was inches away from us. If she saw him filming, she might leap over the seat and start stabbing.
“Stop! Put it away!” I whispered, smacking his arm. Chrissy looked over and saw Rob with his phone, and the scared look on her face turned into one of horror.
“No, this is great,” the Tutee said aloud, face lit up with pure joy. I shrank further toward the floor. The rest of the theater was in uproar now, people trying to run out, everyone yelling. In front of us, Knife Girl wrenched herself free from the grip of her boyfriend to start chasing the other girl, who ran for the lobby, running right out of one Fioni by Payless leopard-print flat and leaving it behind in the aisle like a gangster Cinderella.
The boyfriends followed in a dead heat. The entire theater cleared out after them, while we stayed shellshocked in our seats. Onscreen, Ryan and Sandra were kissing and I didn’t know how it had happened. The credits started rolling.
The Tutee was still filming.
Chrissy and Kyle and I hustled out of there, past the chaos that was now centered in the lobby, and straight out the front into the parking lot. Rob the Tutee stayed lingering by the doors, probably hoping to catch any further action, and I yelled back at him that we were leaving.
As we drove home, I was certain of two things.
One, I needed to see the movie again to find out what happened with Ryan and Sandra.
Two, it might be time to cut ties with Rob the Tutee.
It had been an experiment, I told myself. Like when you take something that’s only been behind closed doors and expose it to the light, or giving a wild animal an audition in a domestic situation. I didn’t think it was going to work.
A year later, I thought I spotted him walking down South Street and ducked into a coffee shop, trying to simultaneously peek out the window to see if it was him and also hide my face. It was only a lookalike, though.
I did see The Proposal again - two more times. It’s a very underrated film. Ryan and Sandra end up together. In case you were wondering.