As Time Goes By

I’ll just come right out and say it: No, I have never seen Casablanca.

Which is a shame for anyone, but specific blasphemy for a screenwriter. The paradigmatic depiction of love on film, and I have no idea what it’s all about. Some guy in a hat. Some girl with an accent. Someone named Sam who plays things again if you ask nicely.

I thought my excuse was a good one, solidly idealistic, at least as romantic as everyone claims the movie is, anyway: I made a promise to the first woman I ever loved. And I kept it.

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She was a much older woman. Or at least what seemed much older at the time.

She was 34, my age today.

It was the kind of romance that if you scripted, lit and shot it with any elegance, it would be a sumptuous surprise summer hit—Kate Winslet would be heartbreaking as the lead. Horndog pre-adolescent boys would leave the theater with wonderful, unrealistic expectations of what lay ahead once they started shaving. But if I just gave you the basic plot, it could come off a mite creepy.

She was introduced to me as Mrs. Girard, although I quickly came to call her Karin. She was an SAT tutor recommended by my neighbor who swore that Karin was the reason her dull daughter got into Penn. There are few more saleable statistics in Jewish suburbia.

We worked in her house full of books, all with well-broken spines, where she lived alone. Karin was midway through a divorce. My first thought on meeting her was that she couldn’t possibly live alone for long. Long dark hair, almond-shaped eyes a shocking kryptonite green. She had a voice like warm maple syrup. When she told you not to worry, you stopped worrying. I stared at her a lot.

Unlike my high school teachers, she made you want to work hard for her—which I did. Which in turn earned me the right to crack a distracting amount of jokes while we were supposed to be working. She shared with me a cat’s sense of humor: The torment of others was funny.

Because of all this—and because she was often just inches to my left, huddled with me over vocabulary lists—I fell for her, utterly besotted. And at some point I slipped and said so.

And then she told me, irresponsibly, truthfully—impossibly—that she had feelings for me right back. She was wearing a pale blue sweater, loose at the neck. Her dark hair fell forward. We kissed.

I told no one. I had that much sense.

In the weeks that followed I had few thoughts that didn’t include her. She wrote me beautiful letters on the thin blue paper used for overseas mail. We talked on the phone for hours.
And then there were the movies.

Before Karin, my taste in film was pitiful, even for a kid raised in the ’80s. I had an Atari-inspired aversion to anything black and white, preferring RoboCop to The African Queen, John Hughes to Howard Hawks.

Karin would not abide. She was, after all, my tutor.

So we developed a routine: I’d tell my parents I was going to Ari Weinberger’s house and go to hers instead, stopping on the way to buy candy. She would pick the movies.

We watched, in reverse order, every Best Picture winner from 1950 to 1970, more often than not making it to the end of the movie before we’d attack each other, break a few commandments, then eat the candy.

I was surprised at how watchable the classics were.

“Just wait till we get to Billy Wilder,” she teased.


“So funny. So romantic. And, oh, there may never come a better way to tell someone how you feel than Bergman did in Casablanca. ‘I was lonely, I had nothing, not even hope. Then I met you.’ God.”

I admitted I’d never seen Casablanca.

Karin’s eyes went wide as moon pies. “You simply must. Right away.”

“Then I will. I’ll rent it tonight and watch it at home.”

A rare flash of disapproval from the kryptonite eyes. “You can’t watch Casablanca for the first time by yourself. Let me show it to you. Promise you won’t ever watch it without me.”

It was an easy promise to make. We arranged to watch it together the coming Sunday.

But events, as they do, overtook the first round of plans. And the second.

The SATs came soon after (I did well, thanks to her) followed by summer. I assured her I’d keep my promise until we found the time. I’d wait as long as it took.

At the start of my senior year, Karin moved away—just far enough so that the effort highlighted the inappropriateness of any plans we might make. Convenience accounts for much of sin.
We called less and less often. I began hooking up with a girl my age, something Karin encouraged. I think she was coming to regret the indulgence of caprice.

When I went off to college a year later, it was without a call. I wondered if she’d forgotten I was leaving at all until a package arrived for me at my dorm. It contained a number of well-chosen books, a dozen wind-up bath toys, a VHS copy of Casablanca and a note: “Winter break, then.”

When my sophomore-year roommate, Josh, an encyclopedia of film trivia, asked to borrow my Casablanca tape to watch with the girl he currently needed to be with, he was surprised to find it was still in the plastic.

“You haven’t seen it?” Josh looked angry. “Come watch it with me and Ginny. See how it makes her love me.”

“Sorry. I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I promised someone I’d wait for her.”

“People break promises. If you’d seen Casablanca, you’d already know that.”

They watched it in the common lounge while I stayed in our room and wrote a paper on Romantic poetry. By the time the movie was over, Ginny was nuzzled tight under Josh’s arm. They dated the rest of the year.

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It’s been over a decade now. Karin and I have long since lost touch. Much to my surprise, I am now an actual adult with a mortgage, a career and strange hairs growing out of the tops of my ears I pick at absently while reading.

There is another development. Her name is Amber.

Amber: She’s funny and smart and filthy and pretty and her goddamn hair sheds everywhere. Sometimes in the kitchen she’ll pirouette badly, and some mornings she’ll wake me up so I can help pick out her underwear for the day. I love her the way I always wanted to love somebody.

In fact, the only time I ever feel anything other than comfort with her is the day she tells me her favorite movie is Casablanca.

She asks me what I think of it. I don’t lie. I tell her about Karin.

Surprisingly, she completely understands. All she asks is: “Do you want to see it?”

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Would I wait forever? I’ve never thought of it that way. The truth is, I’ve become sort of proud of not having seen Casablanca. The blank spot in my edification is a mark of pride, an original sacrifice on the altar of idealized love. As long as I avoid it, I can prove my reverence.

On the other hand, I’ve been accused of being emotionally withholding by more than one girlfriend, and here is an experience that I am quite literally withholding, reserving for someone all but imaginary by now. I’ve squinted at a girl asleep in my bed and thought, “Sure, she likes to read, and hates shuls that use bongos… but is she someone I’d watch Casablanca with?”

The idea of finally seeing the damn thing has gotten so built up—sort of the way sex was built up back when I was 17 and lusting after my tutor—something I’ve romanticized so long it can only come as a disappointment. Then again, isn’t a promise made with such a racing heart all the more sacred?

It is the miserable sort of irony Karin would have insisted didn’t meet the strict definition: In order to watch the most romantic movie of all time I would have to negate the most romantic moment of my life.

I actually consider finding Karin so I can watch it with her. I could tell Amber I was up all night working a deadline—or better, that I went to Ari Weinberger’s house.

But I don’t. There’s a reason I hadn’t called Karin in 12 years. I am over her. It is time to allow for new most-romantic moments in my life.

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I go to the store, pick out the two-disc collector’s set, decline to renew my Barnes and Noble membership (it seems wrong to save 10 percent on a rite of passage), make a heap of popcorn, cut up the cheddar cheese I know Amber likes with it… and ask her if she would watch Casablanca with me.

She slides onto the couch without a word.

She is wearing a blue zippy, stolen from my closet, over a pink T-shirt with a picture of a churro on it.

The movie comes on.

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For a moment I worry:

“What if it sucks?”

“It doesn’t.”

“That’s what everyone said about Episode I and it sucked like crazy and I waited years for that.”

My concern lifts with the opening mockumentary, which explains the circumstances of those struggling to flee the Third Reich, by way of Lisbon, by way of Casablanca.

And it doesn’t suck. The movie is an impeccable piece of filmmaking, living up to any expectation. The story unfolds like silk. The scenes slide along like stockings over a hardwood floor. Bergman steps into Rick’s Café Américain and is as breathtaking as everyone would have you believe. Sam knows it the moment she walks in: Trouble follows a face that perfect.

“She’s gorgeous,” I whisper.

“She broke more hearts than butter,” Amber says.

We get to the scene where Rick sits in the dark drinking angrily and making Sam play “As Time Goes By,” the song he can’t bear to hear because it reminds him of his lost Ilsa, and it occurrs to me, with some shame, that I’ve been avoiding Casablanca the same way.

Suddenly uncomfortable, I shift, and Amber eases under my arm in what I realize has become a familiar routine, an act so much more intimate and nourishing than the sex Renault tries to extort out of that desperate Bulgarian hottie. I am in a relationship with an unspoken choreography.

I see why the film has been allowed to define love for so long. Love in Casablanca is the kind of thing that destroys a man before it awakens his conscience.

To be open to it is to be open to mistakes and bullets, and nobody ends up happy. It leaves Rick a shell of a club owner, well-dressed and popular, but unable to taste the fine brandies in his cellar. And then it makes him a hero again, willing to suffer a concentration camp to let the woman he loves live on—with another man.

Yes, Rick makes that ultimate cinematic sacrifice. He lets the girl go. He walks off into the misty night with Renault, fugitives, finally righteous. We don’t worry he’ll die fighting with the French resistance; we know God protects nobility, even in such a heavy smoker.

I wonder what love would make of me.

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The movie ends. A beautiful friendship begins. And my promise is broken.

Amber leans over, kisses me. “Thanks for letting her go.”

She could have been talking to Rick.

What do you think?

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