Max Kraner had already changed his table at Chilli’s once. Who wants to sit by the kitchen with all the servers going in and out? Plates and glasses clanking. No, he wanted their table to be perfect: some dim lighting and a female server because he knew he couldn’t compete with those thin-waisted, blond guys who always seemed to work in restaurants like this.
Next to him, a family ate meatloaf and chicken strips. The two children kept talking about Disney World and fireworks. Starla would arrive soon. What if she looked poorly on his table selection?
The Disney family could ruin everything. Every ten seconds Max glared at Mickey and Minnie Mouse and their two kids, wishing he had heat vision to scorch their meals and make them leave. Who takes their kids out to eat on a Thursday night? Who does that?
Nervous now, Max looked around the room, rising a little off his wooden chair to view the tables past the rectangular bar, which was on a slightly lower level. The tables on the other side of the horseshoe-shaped upper level were occupied mostly by small groups of mostly overweight people.
Friday’s, Max thought. I should have told Starla to meet me at TGI Friday’s or some other romantic place, like Red Lobster. But no, he finally concluded, Chilli’s was the right choice. He’d been here before. He knew what to order. Max fiddled with the car keys in the pocket of his tan sport coat.
A couple of empty tables on the other side were empty, but he couldn’t be sure the server over there was a female or if moving would annoy his current waitress, a polite and slender girl in black slacks and a white, button-down shirt, who possibly could become annoyed with him, figure she was losing a tip, and spit into his water glass when he wasn’t looking. A friend back in high school who had worked as a busboy told him servers did that sometimes for diners they didn’t like.
And what about Starla? Maybe she would like to sit in the back by the kitchen or next to these two parents whose son and daughter, Max noticed, were now spooning their applesauce into their water glasses.
First dates were tough.
At least they had been for Max before, although, truthfully, he liked Internet dating. It got him out of his mom’s house, where he sometimes felt like Tom Hanks talking to that volleyball. Hopefully, Starla wouldn’t be like that really tall girl he met on eHarmony who asked him to pay for her gas at the end.
And Max always confronted that problem of what to talk about. Hollywood actors who weren’t sluts? Favorite television shows? The toughest questions on a GED exam?
Max was early – he always arrived early for these first dates. That way he could be the greeter instead of the greetee. He liked to be in control of the situation. Have the upper hand. He made sure to sit in the chair that faced the entrance so he could see Starla enter, and when she did, he would take the initiative, stand up, and wave her over to the table.
He had ordered a draft beer and thought about getting a shot, too, just to loosen up. But what? Tequila? Schnapps? Jack Daniels? No, stick with just the beer, he decided. When Starla showed up and saw an empty shot glass, she might think he was an alcoholic.
Still, what to talk about? Orange barrels on the highway? Blind date nerves? High school bullies? Max decided the best approach would be to ask Starla questions that were not answered on her profile. Get her talking about herself. He’d ready with a witty response like, “You almost sound like Miley Cyrus when you say that.”
A little after seven, Starla arrived. The woman with the bulky pink scarf, a pink scrunchy in her hair, and a brown and pink plaid skirt had to be Starla. Her profile on the Plenty of Fish dating site stated pink was her favorite color. But mostly, Max noticed her breasts. Her boobs were like missiles, the kind they load onto battleships. Her stomach bulged as if she had just shoplifted a bag of potatoes under her pink sweater.
Was she pregnant? God, please don’t let her be pregnant, Max prayed. It would be impolite to ask, of course, and he would try to look at her eyes instead of her cleavage. Fat was okay, Max conceded. But not pregnant. Max’s mother, in fact, was fat. He could live with fat.
As if she had radar, Starla came right to him. “You must be Max.”
Max stood, extended his hand, forced a smile. “Yes, but how . . .?” It had started wrong. He never got to wave her over. Or say, “You must be Starla.” Her breasts had distracted him. Now what?
Starla’s laugh was loud. “Darling, you’re the only man sitting alone.” She shook his hand, pulled out her chair, and sat down.
“Yes, I’m Max . . . Max Kraner.” Max sat, too. Stupid, he chastised himself. Why didn’t you pull out her chair for her like a gentleman? Max made his face smile. He sat up straight in his chair and tried to make himself appear taller than five foot six inches. He needed to gain the advantage. “Is Starla Bright your real name?”
“Maybe,” she laughed and set her bulky purse on the floor by her seat. “I’m not an idiot, you know. What if this doesn’t work out? If you know my real name, how do I know you won’t stalk me?”
As if on cue, the server was at their table, her eyes on Starla. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Umm . . ..” Starla’a singsong voice went up an octave, and she kept moving strands of her hair past her ear lobes, reminding Max of that girl he asked to the winter dance in high school, the one who laughed, believing at first Max was joking, and then said no, her voice full of pity.
Starla leaned back and looked up at the pretty girl. “I’ll have a Crown Royal, straight up, chilled.” Like she was Mrs. James Bond.
“Certainly,” the girl said and left quickly.
Starla leaned down and rummaged in her purse, and Max heard keys jingle and a wallet snap shut. Her tone got business-like. “I’ll pay for mine, you know.”
Max lifted one hand, his palm facing her. He knew what to say this time. “No, please, I contacted you first. This is on me. Order anything you want.”
“Really?” Starla chuckled. “Well, I’ll have a tall order of beefcake.”
Max got excited. She had cued him. “You almost sound like Miley Cyrus when you say it like that.”
Starla examined him as if he was drooling. “What does that mean?”
Why was she staring at him like that? Why didn’t she laugh? What did that mean? “Nothing,” Max finally said. He sipped his beer and pretended to study the menu.
Starla set her own menu on the table, leaned back in her chair, and eyed Max. “You know you don’t look like a movie stuntman?”
Max heard the question but tried to buy time. “What’s that?”
“You were in movies? A stuntman?”
“Kind of. On one film.” Max thought fast. “It’s all about the camera angles actually.” He paused. “That was when I was younger.”
Starla snickered again. “Okay . . . right.
“Well, actually . . . God, I hate those orange barrels on the highway.”
The server returned and set Starla’s caramel-colored drink on a small paper napkin in front of her and smiled broadly. “Are you two ready to order?”
Starla took the lead. “Give me a minute, honey.” She gripped her drink and grinned. “Mmm, here we go.” She took a swallow, and when she returned the glass to the table, it was half-empty. “Yeah, I need a couple of minutes.”
“Take your time,” the girl said and turned to Max. “Do you need another?”
It took Max an embarrassed moment to realize she was talking to him. “Uh, sure, why not.” He smiled mischievously at Starla and gulped the remainder of beer in his mug, but her eyes were on the menu. Max straightened his posture to peer over the top of the appetizers page. “Have you done this before?” he whispered.
Starla’s voice came from behind the menu. “Yeah, a couple of times. First time though on the Plenty of Fish dating site.” Max began thinking of a documentary he had seen – one about orangutans, how they would start to mate by jumping on each other.
The Disney family started to stand. The boy grabbed his sister’s hoodie and tried to spin her. She yelled, and the mother yanked the boy’s hand off the sweatshirt.
Starla finally set her menu back on the table and nodded slightly, waved her head a little, and narrowed her eyes at Max. “What did you imagine about me? I hope you aren’t the kind of guy who has those French maid fantasies.”
Max figured this was a joke, so he chuckled. Truthfully, he didn’t imagine her that way at all. Right now, he imagined her shopping for a bra at Sears and giving up. He kept looking for the server to return.
“No, I don’t have . . . fantasies,” Max said. Another lie. He fantasized all the time about being in movies and dating the woman in the Tide commercial.
The server came back with Max’s beer, and they ordered. Ango Salmon for Max because it sounded sophisticated even though he truly didn’t like fish that much. Starla ordered the Full Rack of Ribs, a baked potato, and fried pickles as an appetizer. Plus another Crown Royal. Her order was at least – Max quickly did math in his head – about forty dollars already. And then the tip. It figured she’d order ribs at Chilli’s. Why didn’t he suggest the $20-for-Two dinner? It sounded romantic and would have put Max in control.
For some reason Starla checked her cell phone, saw something, and sighed. Then she put it back on the table and spoke in a business-like tone again. “I want to know up front . . . Does your family have a history of mental illness?”
Max tried to remember what he had typed on his Plenty of Fish profile: never married, enjoyed movies that had airplanes in them, hated yogurt, previously a movie stunt double. “One of my uncles got drunk one night and died on the railroad tracks. Does that count?”
“No, I mean like schizophrenia or that bipolar bullshit.”
Max didn’t like being interrogated. Starla’s tone reminded him of those office managers who complained about their broken copy machines when Max arrived to repair them. “No,” he answered.
Starla smiled, “Okay, no craziness.” Then she leaned her elbows on the table.
“Now that your stunt career is over, what do you do for a living?”
Was Starla reading his mind? “I fix copy machines . . . I repair them.”
Starla chuckled. “A long way from Hollywood, huh?”
“I was younger then, and it wasn’t really Hollywood . . . more like location shots,” Max didn’t say anymore. He was relieved when the girl brought them their drinks.
“What about you?”
“I work at a drycleaner. Please don’t ask for any discounts.”
“No, of course not.”
“You ever try Datecraft?” Starla went on. “All they want to do is play videogames, but they’re not as bad as those freaks on Zombie Harmony. They won’t go on dates during the daytime, and it’s not just for zombie movie lovers.” She leaned forward to whisper. “Some of them don’t have limbs.”
Max waited until she leaned back and took her boobs off her appetizer plate. “I tried Darwin Dating,” he admitted, “but they dropped me because they said I wasn’t attractive enough.”
Starla turned her face left and right, offering a profile shot. “Do you think I’m pretty?”
Max kept his eyes off her chest; he looked instead at the little pouch of skin under her chin and her puffy cheeks, which made him think of Picasso paintings. He decided to lie. “Sure.”
That made Starla blush. “You’re smart to give a girl a compliment when you meet her for the first time. Once, I dated in a pen pal way this prison inmate, and he’d write compliments all the time.” She took a long swallow of her Crown Royal.
“You dated a guy in prison?” Max reached into his coat pocket and gripped his car keys again.
Starla set her glass on the table and played with her napkin. “Not really dated, just letters and dirty talk when I visited him. But I dumped him when I found out he was on death row.”
Max gulped his beer. “Have you dated a lot?”
“Oh sure.” And she stared at him as if this was an obvious fact. “You?”
“Not in a while,” Max admitted. “I’ve had a busy schedule.”
Starla snickered. “Those darn copy machines.” She finished her drink and waved the empty glass above her head until their server noticed her.
“Yeah . . . They’re . . .” Max wanted to say they were a bitch, but he held back. “They require a lot of work.”
“I’m sure.” Starla didn’t sound sincere, but maybe, Max thought, she was. Did she have the upper hand now? Max couldn’t be sure.
Satisfied the server knew what to do, Starla turned back to Max. “I found out my last boyfriend was cheating on me.” She said this like she was reading it out of a newspaper.
Max leaned back and widened his eyes – his surprised look. “How did you find out?”
“He told me when he broke up with me.”
“Oh.” What else am I supposed to say her? “I’m sorry.”
Now Starla’s eyes got wide. “Your voice . . . Why are you talking like Scooby Doo?”
“Jesus, you’re still doing it. Is that your favorite TV show or something?”
Max was afraid to speak, but he knew he had to. “Maybe when I was younger . . . Sorry.” He looked off to find their server. How soon before she brought their meals? How many more times was he going to say, “Sorry”? Maybe he should have ordered that shot after all.
He was saved by the waitress, who suddenly appeared next to Starla. “Here’s your Crown Royal.”
“Come to mama,” Darla cooed.
“And you sir?”
Max glanced at his beer mug. Take control, he told himself. “No thanks, I’m good for now.” He turned back to Starla. “I bet you had a lot of boyfriends.”
Starla nodded. “One was this Greek guy. He always smelled like garlic.”
Max suddenly envied Starla, her head teeming with memories, and wondered what he smelled like.
The girl finally arrived with their meals, and Max leaned back so she could put his salmon on the table in front of him. Starla hungrily eyed her plate, which hovered for a moment at eye level. When the server went away, they both dipped their heads and started eating.
Starla was almost machine-like with her fork and knife. First, she scraped the greasy-looking meat off the bones of the ribs and slid them into a small pile on one side of her white plate. Then she started eating, using her finger to block the food as she piled as much pork and potato onto her fork as she could. She ate so strategically, so methodically, Max felt forgotten. Even worse, she showed no interest in his meal selection; the salmon apparently didn’t impress her at all. Max ate only half of it.
Later, after the girl had removed their plates and delivered the bill, Max paid the check. He noticed Starla watching him pull bills from his wallet, and for a moment Max finally felt in control and very masculine. Their meals cost seventy-four dollars, so Max fanned four twenty-dollar bills in front of Starla and said to the girl, “Keep the change.”
Then Max made sure to get out of his seat quickly so he could pull out Starla’s chair for her.
“Why thank you, sir,” she gushed, and Max suddenly felt his stomach get less flabby, his hair thicken, his teeth whiten. He took her arm in his and formally escorted her to her car – actually a Ford pickup.
Starla stopped by the driver’s side door and peered at Max. “My real name is Heidi.”
“I just thought I’d let you know.”
Max did a slight bow. “Glad to meet you, Heidi.”
Heidi stepped toward him and put a hand on his forearm. She was all business again. “If you want, I’ll do you.”
Heidi stepped back to the door of the pickup. She dipped her chin, glanced at his crotch, lifted her head again, and smiled. “You know.”
“Oh.” Max paused, considering this sudden offer, the consequences: kissing her afterwards, cuddling with her, possibly going on more dates. “Thanks anyway,” Max finally said.
“Scooby Doo again?” Starla almost yelled. “’Thanks anyway’?! What the hell is wrong with you? Do you have a retarded donkey brain?” She turned away, got inside the truck, and slammed shut the door. The engine rumbled.
Max stepped back just in time as the Ford squealed out of the parking lot. He watched the truck move out of sight down the road and then he checked his watch. He had plenty of time. His next date shouldn’t arrive for at least twenty minutes. She was a girl with a Chinesey name he had also contacted on Plenty of Fish. Didn’t Chinese people bang on gongs when the dinner was ready? Gongs were okay. Emperors were introduced by gongs.
He peered once more down the street to see if Heidi was coming back, but no, she was long gone. Max sighed into the night air – there were plenty of fish in the sea, right? – and went back inside Chilli’s to scope out a good table.