“Have you ever seen Capote?”
I took a sip of my wine. “That’s the one with… oh, what’s his name… Neil Patrick Harris?
“Neil Patrick Harris? No, do you mean Philip Seymour Hoffman?”
I blushed. “Oh, yeah. That’s who I mean. I know about that movie. Based on In Cold Blood, isn’t it?”
“I read that book once for a class. It was pretty good. Is the movie good?”
“Well, it’s one of my favorite movies.”
He paused. We sat blankly for a moment. The restaurant was busy with pointless noise, so deafeningly quiet with a forgotten referent.
“Well, I never saw that. I like Philip Seymour Hoffman though. I love that movie Synecdoche, New York.”
“You mean Schenectady? My grandpa is from there,” he said.
“No, synecdoche. It’s like, a wordplay of that place. It takes place there.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“Oh, it’s a movie. It’s a Charlie Kaufman movie. It’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s really good.”
“What’s it about?”
I paused. “Well, like I said it’s kind of hard to explain. It’s basically about this playwright, and it goes on about mortality and shit–and stuff.”
“Do you like Charlie Kaufman movies?”
“I don’t know. What has he done?”
“He did that movie Adaptation if you saw that.”
“No, but I’ve heard of that. With Nicolas Cage, right?”
“Yeah, he’s in that. It’s based off this book The Orchid Thief. Kind of, anyway. It was about his struggle to write a screenplay off that book. Or was it an essay? I think it started as an essay but ended up as a whole book. By Susan Orlean.”
“No, I never saw that.”
“Well, have you seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?”
“Oh yeah, I saw that. Years ago. My ex-girlfriend really liked it. Jim Carrey… he’s a funny guy.”
“Yeah, he’s funny.” I looked around, my hands sort of shaking. I wanted to go home and I wanted him to like me.
“I don’t know what “synecdoche” means. I guess I’m sort of stupid.” He looked around too, then down at his hands, then up at me. I shrugged my shoulders and decided not to tell him, as if I didn’t know either. “You know, Jim Carrey is kind of crazy.”
“Yeah, I think all those guys are.”
“Yeah, like Robin Williams killed himself.”
I stared at him. The server was taking a long time to get to us. I was bound by the restaurant’s choreography.
“So are you from the area?”
“No, not really.” He said, “I grew up in Buffalo.”
“Oh, lots of snow.”
“Yeah, lots of snow. I moved here after college because I got a job at this environmental engineering firm.”
“Oh, cool. Do you like doing that?”
“Yeah, it’s cool. I get to wear jeans to work.”
“Nice,” I said. I looked at the menu, searching for the salads.
“Well, I grew up around here.”
“Are you a Steelers fan?”
“Yeah, definitely. I only started following it recently but I really like watching football now.”
“Yeah, I’m a Bills fan, of course, but I lived in Maryland for a while, so I got kind of attached to the Ravens.”
“Oh, look out!” Why did I say that? “The rivalry, I mean.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Did you know the Ravens used to be the Browns?”
“No, what do you mean?”
“So, the original Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens. And that’s kind of the history of the Browns. They’ve been just mismanaged and inconsistent.”
“The Browns suck.”
“Yeah, they do. Every year I hope they win, though.”
“Gotta love the underdog, right? Cheers.”
Our drinks had been refilled, and we scrunched our faces up as we toasted to life, as if to disguise our feelings behind an imperceptible face.
“Yeah, that movie with Jim Carrey is good. Another one my ex liked was The Squid and the Whale,” he said.
“Oh, with the cum.”
“That little kid. I can’t remember exactly, but in that movie he was like, smearing cum on books.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Really? What do you remember about it?”
“Well, the parents were divorced.”
He paused. “My parents are divorced.”
“Mine too,” I said. “How old were you when they broke up?”
“Oh, that’s hard.”
“What about you?”
“I was six.”
He rattled the ice around in his drink. “It’s hard to say what’s worse.”
“Yeah, it is.”
We were silent.
“It was definitely hard on me,” I said, treading lightly not to scare him off.
“Me too. I got a tattoo like, immediately after. I fucking hate it. It’s a bunch of nautical stars. On my thigh.”
“Oh,” I laughed, relieved at the humanity. It was actually sort of funny to me, and cool. “I maybe would have gotten that too at fifteen.” I wouldn’t have.
“What were you like in high school?”
“An idiot. Like, one time I went into a haunted house when I was fifteen, but we were really underage drunk the whole time.”
He laughed. “That sounds really shitty. Like a real haunted house, not a planned Halloween one, right?”
I laughed and nodded. “It was kind of shitty. I didn’t want to be there. My best friend at that time was dating this guy, the guy who had the alcohol–which was just the worst, bottom shelf rum– thought it would be a good idea. We didn’t even know we were going there. We just drank out of the bottle in the car and like, had driven to this place. Our one friend didn’t drink so at least we weren’t drunk driving. It was in the middle of nowhere. We had to walk a mile to get to the house. Totally fucking stupid. I threw up on one some old furniture that was left from the last time someone lived there. There was just a lot of garbage in it. I think we kept hearing ghosts because we were so quiet, and everything sounds like a ghost when you’re quiet and expecting ghosts.”
“I have only been truly drunk a few times,” he said. “I stay pretty sober. I just drink socially and did weed a few times.”
“Oh, smoked weed? I smoked a lot of weed in college.”
He gestured that he was cool with me. “Yeah, that was always fine. I hope they legalize it.”
“For me – well I hope they legalize it – but for me I just got stoned constantly for a few months, like woke up in the morning and started smoking until I fell asleep.”
“But it should be legal.”
“Yeah,” I said. I had finished my glass of wine, my second one already, and he still had a half left. I tapped my fingers and asked my server for another drink as she walked by.
“Yeah,” I continued. “When I was smoking a lot of weed, I got like, really depressed.”
“I’ve had depression,” he said. “Makes it really hard to get through life.”
“Totally,” I said, “Like, one time, I stayed in bed more or less for a month straight.”
“Wow, that’s bad.”
“I mean, it’s terrible of course. I don’t remember much. I almost got fired, and was doing bad in my classes.”
“Oh, I always did well in school.”
“Me too, but I just didn’t do as well. Like I got Bs that semester.”
“I had a 4.0.”
“Good for you. I wish I had.”
“Yeah, it was hard since I was an engineering major. We used to bash you humanities majors all the time. Like, you wouldn’t ever get a job.”
I laughed. “I guess. I have a job, though.”
“You work at that startup doing communications, right?”
“Yep, yeah. I do that. It’s fine. It’s not my ideal situation. I like my boss, but some of the people he hires, like you can tell this is their first job.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, like, they don’t get a lot of stuff done like they should.”
“So, I have to make these weekly reports to send to people who have invested, or who are interested in partnerships, or promoting, or whatever, our product–people who are involved more than just an individual consumer. The exercise app my boss made. And they never seem to have the information I need about improvements to the software or what we can expect moving forward, usage data, things like that.”
“It is. So I’m constantly having to, like, run them down and be like ‘Hey, what the hell have you been doing the past two weeks?’ and they just seem so perplexed that someone would even ask something like that.”
“Oh, yeah, I know what you mean. It’s like – well how old are you?”
“I’m 25,” I said. I remembered he said on his profile that he was 28. I had to be honest about this.
“You’re still young. Wait until you get to my age,” he said, laughing into the space above his head, where his age floated in the air to confirm his opinion.
“You’re not that much older than me,” I said.
“No, I’m not. It just makes a difference.”
“Not that much of a difference.”
“No, not that much.”
I looked to my left, he looked to his right. The server came by and took our orders. I was having a chicken salad and he was having the prime rib. I thought I’d try to pay, but not now.
“Can we also get the wings as an appetizer?” he asked. I don’t like chicken wings.
“Absolutely,” the server said. “Can I get you each another drink?”
“Yes!” I nearly shouted. “Yes, I mean, for me anyway.”
He laughed. “I’ll just have an iced tea.” Whatever, I thought. Too late now.
She took our menus and disappeared. She spoke to another worker, whispering in the level that only the staff at a place can make, which hides below any of the noise around them. I know they were talking about us, obviously on a first date, talking about their assumptions and why.
“I love wings,” he said.
“Yeah, me too.”
“This place is cool. I’m glad you recommended it.”
“Yeah, well, like I said, I’m from around here. I know a lot of the spots. It’s kind of got like hybrid cool but lowkey. I really like it.”
“I’ll definitely be coming back.”
Another bout of white noise. He looked nice, with neat hair and thoughtful clothing. He was about my height, in the place between thin and soft. I probably weigh more than he does, I thought. But he will never know about that. Or what if we have a medical emergency, and he has to find out at the hospital that I’m heavier than him. I wonder who would feel worse about that. He would surprise me with being much more thoughtful than I imagined. We would go back to our apartment, all glossy and new. I’d take pictures of it and us.
A new party sat down at the table next to us, and they all had very loud voices. He looked over to them with me, and we shared a look of anticipated hysteria in case this ended up being really bizarre.
He said something to me across the table, but I couldn’t hear.
“What’s that?” I asked.
He said it again, I made out a word or two, and slowly shook my head.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I still can’t hear you. What did you say?” How could he hear me saying this to him, but I couldn’t hear him. He repeated and repeated, I gritted my teeth.
“I’m sorry I still can’t–”
He interrupted me. “Forget it, it doesn’t matter.”
“No, I can hear you now, what did you say?”
“It’s just stupid. I was gonna ask you what your –”
He was interrupted by the server, who placed a big plate down in the middle of the table.
“Looks good,” I said.
“Yep.” He took a bite, “not really too spicy though.”
“It’s not too spicy?”
“No, it’s sweet. Not spicy.”
I took a bite, which was scorching hot. I fanned my half open mouth. “Hot,” I said, barely.
“It’s too hot?”
“Yeah, it is hot. I should have warned you.”
I swallowed. “It’s okay.”
“What’s your favorite book?”
“That’s hard to say. I really liked Madame Bovary, and I just read that recently, so right now that’s my favorite book. What about you?”
“Well, anything Chuck Palahniuk writes.” Oh.
“I liked that one with the girl who was in a cult, but I haven’t read that in a while.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that one.”
“I forget what it’s called.”
“I really liked Fight Club basically.” Oh.
“I actually thought the movie was better.”
“The book is always better,” he scoffed.
“No, I don’t believe that’s true,” I said, my voice higher pitched and quiet. “Cause, like, in the case of Fight Club, the movie was better.”
He looked incredulous. “No, the book is always better.”
“Because. Well, number one, it’s usually first. So it’s the original.”
“I guess, but –”
“Number two, stories are better told in print.”
“I don’t think –”
“Three,” he said, his voice getting louder. “Movies are made so people who don’t read can hear the story too. Lazy people.”
My mouth was falling open. I sucked it back together. “Well, like what? Remember that movie I told you, Adaptation?”
“I haven’t seen that, like I said, but that definitely seems like a different case.”
He waved his hands around, and tried to look kind. “I can’t keep up with you.”
I wondered how he got to be here, like literally right here and the phantasmic here. It’s okay, the way that he is. I don’t want to ask him how often he reads. I know the answer. Tomorrow in his fantasy he reads with his wife; they have a beautiful cabin in some beautiful woods.
“Well, I like both books and movies a lot.”
“I don’t watch much TV.”
“I do. Just on streaming services.”
“Oh, well I do that too. I just use my laptop though.”
“I have a TV,” I said.
He shook his head. “Not me, not for me. No one in my entire family owns a TV. We all share the same Netflix account. It’s really not important to us. We prefer to…” He trails off. He knows not to say he reads. I feel badly that I embarrassed him about reading. He is thinking.
“Hike. We prefer to hike, and stuff like that.”
“Very cool. I don’t hike much.”
“It’s good for you. Oh, man. I love it.”
“That’s good. I’m glad you get to do that.” The last guy I dated broke up with me because I talked about myself too much. I’ll never do that again.
Our plates were empty. He chewed the skin on the inside of his cheek, and I couldn’t wait to slouch my shoulders.
“Well, what do you think?” He asked, paying for the meal.
“It was good. Thanks so much for dinner.”
“Of course. No problem.”
He took a sharp inhale. “Well, it’s about 9:30.”
“Yeah, not too late.”
“Well, but I have a thing in the morning.”
“Oh, what’s that?”
“Actually, a big hike with my family.”
“Cool. Enjoy that.”
“Thanks, I will.”
I was slightly drunk but walking home. We hugged outside the restaurant. As we turned away, the fog from our breath lifted in the air as we finally exhaled, alone.
Madeline Weiss is a writer living in Pittsburgh. She has poetry forthcoming online at Big Lucks, and has previously been published online and in print through Nauseated Drive, Reality Hands, h_ngm_n, and NAP.