Just in Time: Finding True Companionship Before Sunset

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunset | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

In the Time Before Streaming, I had an unusual go-to video store. As a freshman at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, I would frequently drive the five minutes north on Hamilton Street to the Yoke’s on North Foothills Drive. There, at the end of an aisle you could easily miss, they had 99-cent rentals on Tuesdays and—even better—$1 cold pizza slices. I’d grab a new movie, two slices, and head back to the dorm. Through this sweet deal (and any cheap deal is a sweet deal when you’re a college student, calories or common sense be damned) I burnt through a lot of movies.

But I didn’t just burn through them out of love for film. I burnt through them because movies, with their subtitles, were one of the few interactions I had in my life where everything made sense. That fall of 2005, I was still a full 10 months away from the first open-captioned showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men’s Chest, at the Regal Valley Cinemas, a 10-minute sprint alongside the highway from Gonzaga, and another 14 months from making multiple trips between the Valley theater and my dorm in an effort to ferry as many hearing friends as possible to see Scorsese’s The Departed as their first theatrical open-caption showing. Until the birth of open-caption showings, I only went to loud comedies like The 40 Year Old Virgin (where you can lip-read more easily because they want to make sure everyone sees and understands the jokes) or hoped for exquisite visual storytelling while line after line fell between the cracks. For most of my life up to that point, I had to rely on the home video release, where I could luxuriate in the understanding that comes with subtitles. Hence, the local Yoke’s and their 99-cent Tuesdays.

During my first days as the lone Deaf person on campus, I spent the majority of my unstructured time hiding in my room. It was easy to explain away with the mounting homework, the impossible-to-please (but totally right) English teachers, and the dusty, dark shades that covered our windows. I’d go to all the trainings and gatherings with my interpreters—who would become my best friends—and then I’d head straight on back to the dorm. I’d come from a high school environment in which I not only knew just about everyone, but in which just about everyone also knew I was The Deaf Guy. What may have been alienating to others was comforting to me. There was no mistaking who I was. But only three of those high school peers moved onto Gonzaga with me. By mid-week, I couldn’t do it. I called my mom, in tears, asking for her to come help, somehow, anyhow. She took me downtown to the annual Pig Out in the Park and we shared a meal. I was back in my world, at least temporarily, of being with someone who truly knew me.

From there, I found connection with my interpreters on a frequent basis. They gave me balance.  We certainly benefited from the beauty of having professors who didn’t know sign language and couldn’t tell if my signing in the middle of class was to check for understanding or ramble about the latest movie I’d watched. But I struggled to carry the depth and width of these conversations over to my peers and professors unless it was through text, Facebook messages, or one-on-one time during quiet office hours. Everything I needed in order to understand people ran counter to the loud, chaotic college experience many found themselves drawn to. When I finally had the confidence to attend off-campus parties—and it wasn’t often—I’d willingly take on the role of dishwasher. I’d hide in the kitchen, trying to convince drunk friends that yes, I really did love washing the dishes. That I really did love seeing the visual change of something that was once dirty become something pristine. And no, we didn’t need to use the dishwasher, that fancy piece of machinery! What I didn’t want to tell them was how dishwashing gave me an escape. It was much easier to do something with my hands that everyone would love me for than to attempt broken conversation in a loud room fueled by booze and the occasional weed.

So, movies. They became my out. My party. My everything. All I had to do was turn the subtitles on and enjoy watching life in a way that made sense to me. I watched a lot of movies that freshman year—often alone, always with my scrappy HP laptop by the window, headphones over a lone Phonak hearing aid on Telephone mode—but none stood out more than Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset. For someone who didn’t try weed for the first time until the age of 31 (sorry, Mom!), Before Sunset was the closest thing to taking drugs. Because what could possibly be more intoxicating than finally seeing your dream relationship onscreen? 

An Identity in Formation 

It took me until college to understand that my family reunions growing up were not normal. With nine combined aunts and uncles and over 20 cousins from my mom’s side alone, we always had a blast. Kids ran around, volleyballs got tossed, delicious food got served. But my favorite activity was the least mobile yet widest-spanning: conversation with my five uncles. There’d be a lot of repeated bits from stand-up comics. There’d be a lot of political jokes (I blame them for me drawing my first and only political cartoon in seventh grade) and streams of verbal love spilled forth over movies like Sling Blade and Midnight Run, and bands like The Who. I learned how to talk about the things I loved most with my uncles. I learned to carry a conversation with these hearing people that so often tripped me up. There were definitely lines and bits I missed—I always did—especially when their lips sometimes hid behind luxurious mustaches. But so much more stuck with me. It became such a part of my life as to be woven into my identity, even more so than the deafness that led to me always trying to pass as Hearing.

So when I saw Jesse and Céline for the first time, I couldn’t move. Here were two people, clearly into each other, walking all over Paris and simply having a conversation with depth and width, with silliness and earnestness all at once, a sweet and salty concoction that satisfies and inspires. In other words: the exact kind of conversation I had with my uncles growing up and struggled to consistently maintain with my college peers.

In AP U.S. government my senior year of high school, Mr. Kautzman blessed us with The West Wing. We’d have popular watch parties after school, supplementing them with long, invigorating conversations about the U.S. government through the prism of Aaron Sorkin’s show. This is where I fell in love with Allison Janney (a love that has only grown). Where I first saw Deaf actress Marlee Matlin on screen with a hearing love interest. Where I grew to have some hope in the power of good government before my adult years saw it depressingly deflate. But there’s one thing I always loved about The West Wing, and it was the link I could mimic the least: the walk and talk. Because in order to be able to do this, you had to at least be partially looking in the direction you walked. Otherwise you’d stumble or bang into something or just look really, really uncinematic. And this proved particularly difficult to pull off as someone who needs to rely so heavily on lipreading. The West Wing helped me develop these skills of playing vertical Frogger while keeping eyes glued to fast-moving lips. But I still needed someone to stride down halls with.

So when I saw Before Sunset, with its long takes down never-ending streets, it felt like the perfect fusion of the intellectual West Wing fan with the romantic I was convinced I had within me. But still: I found this walk and talk exceedingly difficult. If it was all quiet on the auditory front, I could do okay. But only because the path ahead of me was flat and well-known. This was easy on a campus with wide sidewalks. It became significantly harder when I went on a date just after graduation with a girl I really liked, but who tried to do the walk-and-talk (also a West Wing fan!) with me in the dark, with only the occasional streetlamp to light her face. It was easier for me to fake understanding than it was to admit I couldn’t understand her, that night walks would probably never be truly productive, and that she’d have to work a little harder so I could keep up. When you’re a Deaf guy in the dating world, burdening the other person feels like the last strike. You do everything you can to ease it, to hide the weight of anything until you realize you’re so far out of who you are that you’ll never quite be comfortable.

Best and Honest Self 

Once I could mimic the walk-and-talk of Before Sunset, I found myself glomming onto Jesse. I recognized much of myself in him. The mix of romanticism and cynicism. The pretentious poeticism. The need to make a joke to cut things down to size when they got too serious. But what stuck with me like broccoli in my teeth for the entirety of my college career and long after was the internal argument he makes on their boat ride along the Seine. There, as they sit at the bow, the Paris sun giving them gorgeous magic hour light, they finally dig a little deeper into their lives. They talk about Notre Dame. About the hardships of moving beyond relationships. And then Jesse talks about the constant battle between the Best and Honest Self. That maybe he pushed himself into a marriage he wasn’t sure of because the best men he knew were married. “I had this idea of my best self,” he says, “and I wanted to pursue that even if it might have been overriding my honest self.” 

I thought about this nearly every day of my college career. I did presentations and papers on it. Part of me wanted to become a writer. But part of me also knew there would be bills to pay and journalism—the only money-making direction for a writer I could dream up—would likely not be keen on supplying interpreters for a newbie reporter. So I went into Special Education. I thought the conversation between my Best and Honest Self was about artistic expression versus economic responsibility. You know, that old chestnut. It wasn’t until I moved to Austin that it became something else.

When I moved to Austin, Texas (coincidentally Linklater’s home base) in the fall of 2012 to teach at the Texas School for the Deaf, I had to confront a whole new aspect of my identity. I could no longer get away with passing as “Hearing.” I had to contend with just how Deaf I saw myself as. I was told, rather derogatorily, by several people that I was “Hearing-brained”—that I was in denial of who I really was. When you’re in your mid-20s, post-college life and struggling with identity already, this kind of thing can wound you. And it certainly had that impact on me. In a bigger, louder city, it was harder to walk and talk. From there the questions formed, from people around and then eventually from within me: did I see a life passing as Hearing, or more Deaf, or constantly threading the needle of both worlds by being Hard of Hearing? And in the chaos of figuring out my true identity, Jesse and Céline and that growing daydream of a walk-and-talk partner seemed even further from me. Would I have to change my self-concept to make it work, to override the honest self for the best self?

Just in Time

In the closing minutes of Before Sunset, after Céline sings her waltz for Jesse, a song so clearly dreamed up to bring them together just like the book he wrote that brought him to Paris, he puts on some Nina Simone. The song is “Just In Time,” which includes the lines, “My bridges all were crossed nowhere to go/Now you’re here, now I know just where I’m going.” Linklater never dwells on the song, letting it bob in the background as Céline talks about the time she saw Simone in concert and does her best impression of the way the singer bantered with the crowd. But it’s an unmistakable choice. We don’t really learn just how much these characters are struggling apart until the brutal, cathartic van ride preceding the apartment visit. We know how badly these two need each other, leaving that soft fade to black ending about the most hopeful thing Linklater could possibly offer.

When the story of my wife and I truly started, we had both crossed all our bridges and had nowhere to go. My mother had flown into town that weekend to see the life I had built in Austin, and the life I was about to leave. After seven years, I felt I had checked the boxes. I had looked and there was nothing to hold onto any longer. It was time to head back home to the Northwest. So we were all at Cosmic Coffee this Friday afternoon, my mother and myself for a happy hour with my department, and my future wife working across the courtyard, across benches and beers, on a workshop she would be leading. She was in the middle of a divorce and had accepted the eventual title of being “the cool aunt who travels a lot.”

From the time she reached out to me that day, asking for a friend to go see A Quiet Place, I had a feeling. I had remembered the many ARD meetings we had spent sitting across from each other over the years, her the interpreter and me the teacher, and the many random things we would talk about before, after, and during these meetings. We undoubtedly connected, but something always kept us apart—relationships, marriages, or the need to head to the next meeting. But something felt different that Friday afternoon. Like we were coming into Paris, about to have our Jesse and Céline moment of truth. I very awkwardly forced my mother into saying goodbye to this woman she had never met as we left the cafe, so sure that in just a matter of weeks or months I would call her and ask her if she remembered “that redhead.” Sure enough, that phone call happened, but only a couple weeks later, during which I broke to my mother, once so excited at the idea of her firstborn son coming home, that I’d be in Austin a while longer. 

To Be Seen and Understood

In the months leading up to our marriage, we went through our learning experiences. I explained to her why sudden, emphatic gestures to get my attention put me on edge and made me feel like I was disappointing someone. She explained to me why being quiet and distant wasn’t fair to someone who didn’t know what they did wrong. We went on a month-long trip to Australia and New Zealand in which we got to sign to each other underwater alongside the Great Barrier Reef, where we got to sign our way out of awkward encounters with unusual strangers, and where we got to walk and talk over many, many miles of steps and stops and trips and lunges across the land Down Under. After a particularly frustrating day in Taupo, in which we walked over five miles in cold weather to deal with a flat on our rental car, we slid into a hot springs pool and everything melted away. Just as the steam rose from the surface, we realized how lucky we were to sign with each other, our own private conversation bubble, while others swirled around us.

A big part of what makes Jesse and Céline’s connection so electric, from Before Sunrise through Before Sunset and even to Before Midnight, is the difference between being heard and being understood. Often, when people say something to me and I don’t respond, they say I didn’t “hear” them. I explain that I definitely heard them—the noise they made, at least—but I didn’t understand them. Sometimes they get it; often they look at me like I’m playing a game of semantics. But it’s the truth. There is a difference. What Jesse and Céline say to each other may not be that much different than what they’ve said to others—we’ve all told all our stories in some way before—but when you feel understood, it feels like the first and most important time you’ve told the story. Smiles creep up. You become smitten. You feel like you’re alone in the world together.

In the days before our wedding, my wife told me to keep our vows short and sweet. I honed my vows down to what I felt fit the requirement. But when I heard her vows for the first time, I felt as understood as I’d ever been before. It felt like, for the first time in my life, my Best Self and my Honest Self had become one. And in front of me stood the only person to ever truly, deeply understand that. “Lucky” didn’t do it justice. Entire worlds that didn’t make sense before had converged, as if it was meant to be that way all along. 

The month after our wedding, we walked through Turkey and Greece, over cobblestones and across ancient ruins, signing and talking and never losing track of our conversations. We’d bring up stories from our past and tell jokes and reminisce about how much we missed our cat and hoped he wasn’t doing too badly at home (update: he survived).

Last week, I showed my wife Before Sunset for the first time. It almost felt like she already knew these people. They were on the walls of our new home, as framed posters, after all (largely because they fit the color scheme my wife designed for the room, and because she knew how much Jesse and Céline meant to me). The film remains as timely as ever. There are so many lines that ring out just as loudly as they did 15 years ago. When Céline says, “Let me break it to you, OK: the world is a mess right now,” you don’t need to be reminded. When they talk about the hope that comes from people being more educated and speaking out because there’s more awareness of the issues, it gives you hope it’s still true today. When Céline says, “Men need to feel essential, and they don’t anymore,” well, she just about nailed the central patriarchal society issues that have really sunk us.

But the thing that stands out the most to me this time around is when Céline says, “A memory’s never finished as long as you’re alive.” My memory and my connection with Before Sunset (and the entire Before trilogy) will remain with me the rest of my life. I’m just so glad and so grateful, to have someone to walk and talk with. There are echoes of Jesse and Céline, with every step we take together and every pillow talk we exhale in. What began 15 years ago as a life I desired flickering before me on my laptop has become one I now live, because we found each other just in time.