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Nicole Norton Mueller won an essay contest (and a small cash prize) during her freshman year of high school, and has been looking for excuses to write ever since. She previously served as a writer for “The Iowa Journalist,” and has created marketing copy for multiple non-profits. Her essay, "Mrs. Norton's Daughter," was recently published in the anthology "Will Work for Apples." Learn more at nicolenortonmueller.com
It was the Monday after Thanksgiving 2018, and I took my 7-year-old daughter to a showing of "Ralph Breaks the Internet" right after school. I already knew that the movie theater was this kid's happy place, but this trip ended up being extra special. We were the only two in the theater. Not only did we loudly talk and make jokes throughout the showing, she got up and danced around the empty theater during the credits. I mean, ran up and down the aisles shaking her "groove thing" to "Zero" by Imagine Dragons. And then as we were walking out, she said, "I'm gonna tell them this is the best time I've ever had in this theater." And she did. Bless that teenage concession stand employee that listened to her speech and smiled at me over the top of her head. I think this is the first time I've fiercely hoped my daughter would remember a moment for the rest of her life. But the more I thought about it, I realized that it wasn't my first "memorable moment" at the movies. It's the summer of 1999, and I'm with a large group of friends heading to the movies. We've driven 20 miles to see the new releases playing at the Capri V Theatre in downtown Ottumwa, Iowa. More specifically, we're here to see "The Blair Witch Project." Now I can't remember all of the people in our group, but I do remember that I was the last person in line to buy a ticket and Jessica was right in front of me. Jess and I were both 16 at the time. There were two people selling tickets, and when Jess got up to the counter, one of the employees asked her how old she was. Let me reiterate that. They didn't ask to see her ID, they just asked her how old she was. And as I heard her say 16, my heart sank. "Blair Witch" was rated R, and now they weren't going to sell her a ticket. All of our friends ahead of us in line (some only 16, some older) already had their tickets, and to be perfectly honest, I was pissed off. She told the cashier that she'd like a ticket to see "Bowfinger" instead. I gritted my teeth and bought my own ticket to "Bowfinger" so Jess wouldn't have to go to the movies alone. In case you don't remember that film, it's a PG-13 comedy starring Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. I'd like to tell you more of the plot, but I honestly don't remember. I was way too angry to actually pay attention. I do remember how Jess kept forcing herself to laugh too hard at the jokes and looking over at me in the dark as if she was trying to "will" me to enjoy myself. It wasn't going to happen. I was way too angry at her for "ruining" my evening. I was angry for her automatic honesty. Which, nearly 20 years later, seems crazy. I was mad at my best friend for telling the truth. I recently read a book by Gretchen Rubin were she writes that "what you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while." And while it's hard to believe that Jessica Eakins was completely truthful every single day, I do know that she was truthful MORE than once in a while. If there is an underlying theme in all my memories of Jess, it's that she was an honest friend that never set out to hurt anyone's feelings... but often told people what they needed to hear. The Capri V Theatre closed a year after Jess died. And I can't remember the last movie I saw at that location, and I honestly can't remember the last movie I saw with Jess. I often wonder if this moment - this "life lesson" at the movies - would even be burned in my memory at all if Jess hadn't died less than five years later. But it is. So strive to be honest... more than once in a while. Even if you end up forcing someone else to watch "Bowfinger."