Waves lapped the shore next to the beachfront restaurant patio where Ben and Kaylee sat. Theirs was the only occupied table. Kaylee was talking, but Ben wasn’t really listening. He tugged at the collar of his shirt. He didn’t wear shirts with collars that often, didn’t need to, and it was rubbing his freshly-shaved neck something awful. He was deeply uncomfortable, partially because he was on a date for the first time in (years? decades?) months, but mostly because of the three-story chicken carcass rotting half-submerged in the lake behind him.
A hunk of spoiled meat the size of a small horse peeled away from a rib bone and plunged into the sea. Ben winced as water, invisible to Kaylee, splashed him in the back and ran down his shirt.
“Are you ok?” Kaylee said. She’d ditched her dog walking gear and gotten dressed up too — short floral-print dress, makeup. She looked good.
“Yeah, I uhh….” Ben coughed. “Sorry. I’m sorry. You were talking about stand up?”
The smell of the giant chicken carcass stretched three or four miles past its actual location, blanketing most of the Northeast side of the city — and parts of Evanston — in a distinct funk. Sarah called it the “Poultry Zone”. Ben usually tried to stay out of it, but when Kaylee had suggested this restaurant, twenty feet from ground zero, he had struggled to come up with rational excuses. So, he got there early, acclimated himself as best he could, and threw up into the lake a couple times before Kaylee arrived.
“The stand up scene in Chicago isn’t what I thought it would be. It’s an improv town, you know?” Kaylee paused. Ben nodded. “You can only do the same few open mics so many times before it starts to feel like you’re spinning your wheels. I’m thinking of moving to LA. I have a friend who has his own theater. They put out a podcast every week. I should get in on that.”
“I always wanted to do that.” Ben took a quick, filtered breath through his shirt and forced himself to act normal for thirty goddamn seconds. “Move to LA.”
“Yeah, you’re like a screenwriter, right?”
“No.” Ben said. “Not really. I don’t know. I haven’t written anything since college, and everything I wrote then was just combinations of things I liked. Space cowboys, robot dinosaurs, monkeys with jetpacks. You know. Nerd shit.”
Kaylee shrugged. “I like monkeys.”
“I didn’t really have anything to say. And when I sat down to write after graduation I just…blanked. Nothing. For years. I think maybe I liked the idea of being ‘a writer’ more than I liked writing.” Another smaller piece of meat splashed down into the water. Ben frowned. “Anyway, I’m busy.”
“Well,” Kaylee unconsciously wiped water off the table with her hand. “It sounds to me like you came up with a bunch of excuses after the fact for why you were totally justified in giving up on your dreams.”
Ben looked at her, forgetting for the first time about the rotting chicken.
“Because your dreams are hard.” She smiled. She had a terrific smile. He’d never noticed until now.
“This is a great first date.” Ben said. Kaylee laughed. “You wanna get together next weekend, really dig into my physical flaws?”
“Your nose is a little crooked,” she said.
“I get hit in the face a lot.”
“I’m not surprised. What do you do at night?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you said you’re not writing,” Kaylee leaned in closer to Ben, “And every time we meet up to exchange keys, you’re all tired and surly, and it turns out you get hit in the face a lot? Which we haven’t really gone into yet.”
Ben wasn’t sure how much Sarah wanted him telling people. Their work was mostly off the record. Also, I kill invisible demons was more of a third date revelation.
“Wait, so you think I’m kind of a jerk…”
“That’s accurate.” Kaylee said, nodding.
“…but you asked me out.”
She thought about that for a moment. “I guess I like jerks? That doesn’t bode well for the future.”
Ben laughed. “This is going in your stand up set, isn’t it?”
“I barely have to change anything. Have we ordered drinks?”
“I’m not even sure this place is open.” Ben leaned back to peer into the window. It was dark inside the restaurant. “Are you super into seafood?”
“It just seemed like a date place. I’m gonna go investigate the situation and also pee. Try not to get hit in the face while I’m gone.”
She winked as she left. Ben sighed, unbuttoning the top button on his shirt. Kaylee was very nice, and he was totally blowing this. Not that it was 100% his fault. He glanced up at the gargantuan pile of decomposing meat and bones half-drowned in Lake Michigan…