Jessica could always tell when seafood wasn’t fresh. It had a distinctly sour smell to it, like it’d spent the last three days thawing on ice in a warm cooler with a broken seal. Jessica wrinkled her nose as soon as they entered the restaurant and plastered a phony smile when Whitmore turned to her for validation. He’d said it was his favorite restaurant to eat, had the best fried catfish in town, and she didn’t want to disappoint him on their first date, despite hating catfish, but the place was rank—like Bradford pear tree blossoms, rank; like wet mutt, rank; like a trash heap that missed garbage collection, rank; like dirty panties tossed in the hamper, rank; like an unclean crotch, rank; like a common area bathroom in an all girls dorm after the residents’ menstrual cycles synced, rank.
Whoever had decorated the interior was obviously an ex-employee of Red Lobster and didn’t give a damn about his job. The walls were covered in a tacky nautical wall paper—complete with images of anchors, sailor hats, compasses, telescopes, and steering helms—and was peeling at corners. There was an eight-foot long fish tank sitting in the middle of lobby, right next to the hostess stand, and it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. The water was a murky dark green, and Jessica could barely see the brown shells of the crabs moving around inside, if they were moving at all—they looked dead. She made a note not to order the crab legs—probably best to avoid all shellfish, and she damn sure won’t eat the catfish. She wondered what non-seafood options were on the menu. Every eatery had to have at least two, for those stubborn patrons like her who refused to order seafood at a seafood restaurant. She flipped to land entrees. Fried pork chop with garlic mash, and chicken Alfredo. The only setback about ordering “turf” at a restaurant that served mostly “surf,” the food still tasted like “surf,” because the chicken was cooked in the same pan with the seared fish fillets, the pork chop battered and fried in the same grease as the trout, flounder, and whiting. She settled on the popcorn shrimp, accepting her inevitable fate of mercury poisoning, while Whitmore ordered the catfish.
Unfortunately, it took over an hour for their food to arrive. The kitchen couldn’t have possibly been backed up, but the reality was the restaurant was crowded, overcrowded even; there were people packed in the lobby like sardines waiting on a table. Whitmore had actually called ahead to make reservations. Reservations, for a place like this, which couldn’t have had more that a B+ sanitation rating. But he’d gotten them a good table, despite sitting directly underneath a vent that was blasting cold air, giving her goosebumps across her shoulders. However, they were away from most of the chatter of the larger parties, and thank God out of sight of that horrendous fish tank, where she would certainly lose her appetite.
They used the extended wait time to get to know each other more, though Jessica did most of the talking, babbling on and on about herself while Whitmore listened intently, nodding and laughing at all the right pause points. He was a good listener, which made him even more attractive—that he was intrigued to know every detail about her—but then she started to think he couldn’t hear her, because the couple at the table behind them had three young boys who were kicking, squealing, and rough housing in the booth while the parents ate absently as if they didn’t notice or care. In the few moments when Whitmore spoke, it was as if he were whispering. She asked him more than once to speak up, they weren’t in a library, but he still spoke in a low voice, and she leaned in closer to get a least a fragment of his words.
When the food finally came out, Whitmore dove into his plate, and Jessica hesitated. Her French fries where soggy and a burnt gold color, as if they’d been fried in old grease, or possibly fish grease. No coating of ketchup could save them, but even the ketchup was acidic and watered down. The hushpuppies were fried hard, and the shrimp was more breading than meat and extremely salty. She’d had better meals at Libby Hill.
“How’s your food?” she asked Whitmore when his plate was nearly empty.
She thought he might have said good, but truly she couldn’t hear a thing, and before he could mumble anything else, his mouth full of the last bites of what looked to be dry, overcooked catfish, there was a loud crash and shattering of dishes by the kitchen. A waitress had just dropped her entire ticket on the floor, right at the feet of the six-top she was about to serve, and was on the brink of tears.
Jessica sighed. There was too much chaos in this restaurant, and for the subpar food, it wasn’t worth the trouble. She’d had better dates with worse men, but she wanted to give Whitmore the benefit of the doubt. At least he was trying.
“How about I chose the where for our next date,” she suggested.
Whitmore smiled and nodded, but Jessica suspected he had no idea what she’d just said.