Pescado

The warm water pours down on me, washing away the dirt and grime. I grab a bottle of shampoo and squeeze it over my head. More shampoo than I should use, so much that it’ll probably ruin my hair. I don’t really care, I need to be clean.

The suds wash over my body as I scrub myself, using the shampoo as soap. Even after all of the shampoo is gone, I stay in the shower. I know that, as soon as I step out, the nerves will return. Eventually, I sigh and turn the water off.

I step out of the shower, wrap myself in a towel, and wipe away the fog on the mirror. I look over my face, my beard is a bit long and I decide to trim it. Someone, I think it was my father, told me once that it’s best to shave after a shower because the hair is warm and easier to cut. I don’t know if that’s true or not.

I pull the electric beard trimmer out of the cabinet below the sink. Not the straight razor, my beard is too long to shave without trimming and I only want to trim it. Plus, I suck at shaving with a razor. I look at the plastic razor guards lying in the cabinet; I can never remember if I’m supposed to use the light grey one or the dark grey one for my beard. I make my choice, put the guard on the trimmer, turn it on, and push it across my chin.

It shaves off all of the hair on my chin. Fuck. I decide that I will completely shave my face; I don’t really have a better option. I consider leaving the mustache; I decide against it after looking in the mirror and seeing that I look like a child murderer. I pause as I reach my sideburns. I look better when they’re shaved, but it’s hard to make them equally short. I slowly push the trimmer up my face, carefully trimming my sideburns. Then my hand slips and I accidentally cleave off the hair above one of my ears.

Okay, shaved head. Why not? I run the shears across my skull, shaving off piles and piles of hair. It falls down onto my chest as I shave; I know it’ll itch later.

I glance at my phone. Specifically, at the clock on my phone. “Fuck,” I say quietly.

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!” I say much louder.

I hastily brush my teeth and wipe off the hair from my chest before bursting out of the bathroom. I run into my bedroom and frantically put on my clothes. I cannot be late.

I pocket my phone and wallet and burst out of the apartment. I don’t wait for the elevator, I don’t have enough time and instead run down the stairs.

I run so fast that my hair begins to dry out. I rush outside and sprint down the sidewalk. I barely stop at the end of the block. A car rushes past, so close I can see myself in its mirror. This glance, as short as it is, is enough to sour my mood.

As if to punctuate my newfound poor mood, the sky above me opens up and drops a torrent upon me, soaking me again. I look back at my apartment building in the distance. I look at the clock on my phone. I don’t have time to go back for an umbrella.

I trudge through the rain. By the time I arrive at my destination, every inch of my body is covered in enough moisture to turn the Mojave into a wetland. I trudge through the door and look around for my date. She isn’t down yet. I walk up to the security guard. “Is there a bathroom I could use?” I say, water dripping from my nose onto his desk.

I follow his directions and hide in a small men’s bathroom. Looking in the bathroom mirror, I see that things have only gotten worse. I pull out paper towel after paper towel, frantically trying to dry myself off. After my hair and skin are “dry”, I pull off my t-shirt and crush it between my hands, releasing its water into the sink.

I walk back to the lobby. My date isn’t down yet. I panic and for a moment think that she hasn’t come down yet because she hates me. It’s a ridiculous conclusion, one that I will come to time after time before the night ends.

Eventually, my date walks down into the lobby and all of my fears are silenced. “You didn’t have to wait long, did you?” she asks.

“Not at all,” I lie. I realize that I absolutely had time to go back for an umbrella.

“So, what’s this fantastic place that you wanted to take me to?” my date asks.

“It’s this great comedy club.”

“Where is it?”

I pull out my phone and read off the address. My date scrunches her nose. “That’s on the North Side, right? It’ll be a long trip.”

I curse myself for choosing the first result that came up when I searched “Comedy Club” without bothering to check its location. I’d planned for the two of us to have a nice leisurely walk. The distance alone is enough to quash that plan, never mind the rain.

“Don’t worry, I called an Ovar before I walked here,” I say. “Here, let me check to see when it’ll arrive.”

I pull out my phone and call the Ovar taxi that I should have called before I left. It arrives twenty minutes later. “I can’t believe it took so long,” my date says.

“Don’t worry, I’ll leave a bad rating,” I say. It’s a lie. I’d never leave a bad rating, even if the driver was actually bad.

An old grey SUV pulls up in front of my date’s apartment building. The driver honks his horn at us and we hop into the back of the SUV. “Going to Second City?” the driver asks. I nod my head. “I have heard many good things about them.”

“Have you ever been?” I ask.

“No. I work nights, so I do not have time. My customers have told me great things about it, though.”

The car pulls out into traffic and the driver slams his foot on the gas. We soar through the streets of Chicago, dipping in and out of traffic. “So, is there a special occasion tonight? An anniversary, perhaps?” the driver asks.

“No, nothing like that,” my date says. “We’ve only been going out for a few weeks now.”

“Ah, the early days of a relationship can be so beautiful,” the driver says. I blush.

“How do you like being a cab driver?” I ask, desperately changing the subject.

“I am not a cab driver, the company is very clear about that,” the driver says.

“Okay, how do you like working for Ovar?”

“It is very nice, I get to meet so many interesting people,” the driver says.

“I love your accent, where are you from?” my date asks.

“Nigeria.”

“Oh wow, that’s so far away.”

“Yes, but Chicago is a very beautiful city. I am happy to be here. Very cold, though.”

“How long have you been in the US?”

“Three years now.”

“Have you been home at all during that time?”

“No. As you said, it is very far away. I call when I can, though, so it’s not so bad.”

“Still, three years, that must be tough.”

“Where are the two of you from?” the driver asks.

“Well, I’m from Chicago,” my date says. “And this guy right here is from-”

“Iowa,” I interject.

“Where in Iowa?” the driver asks.

I sigh and tell him the name of my hometown. I never know what to say when people ask me where I’m from. It’s not like they’ll know my tiny hometown. No one knows my hometown. Half of the people who live there don’t know my home town.

I glance around the car and notice a large yellow spot on the carpet beside my feet. The driver notices my stare and speaks up. “I am sorry about that, a child threw up in my car yesterday,” he says. “I cleaned the car as best I could, but that spot remained.”

“Couldn’t you have taken your car to the cleaners?” my date asked.

“Cleaners are expensive. And going to the cleaners means I cannot use my car for a few days, and I cannot do that,” the driver says. I notice a sadness in his eyes through the reflection in the rearview mirror. “I am sorry that my car is not in a cleaner condition on your date.”

“Don’t worry, it’s fine,” I say. We arrive at the comedy club and wave goodbye to the driver. I don’t leave a bad review because of the stains; what kind of asshole would threaten someone’s livelihood over something outside their control. As the driver drives away, I think to myself how lonely a life he must have, constantly moving around and only spending minutes with people. Then I kick myself for being arrogant enough to pity someone I don’t know.

My date and I huddle under the awning at the door of the comedy club. The door is locked. “So, when does the show start?” my date asks.

“It starts in,” I begin as I pull my phone out of my pocket. “90 minutes.”

“That’s a long time to wait in the rain.”

“Don’t worry, there’s this great restaurant nearby that I was planning to take us to,” I lie.

I lead my date down the murky street towards the restaurant I just made up. “What kind of restaurant are we eating at?” my date asks.

I glance around, hoping to spot a restaurant. I see a restaurant on the other side of the street and say its name. “It’s this great Mexican place called El Pescado.”

There is a patio in front of the restaurant; we get a table inside for obvious reasons. The restaurant is small and cozy. There are those day-of-the-dead paper things hanging from the lights. A hostess takes us to our table and hands us our menus.

“What are you going to order?” my date asks.

I scan the menu. I see an item that looks amazing, a massive burrito smothered in cheese. El Burrito Gordito, the menu calls it. I decide against it, I don’t want to look like an animal in front of my date.

The waiter comes by and asks us for our drinks. Neither of us order alcohol. I tell people I seldom drink because getting carded is a hassle, but that’s a lie. The waitress asks us if we’re ready to order and we say yes.

“I’ll have the Tacos Pescado,” I say. I picked up enough Spanish in High School to know that means fish tacos, something healthy and classy. “And, uh, an order of chips and guacamole for the table.”

“I’ll have El Burrito Gordito,” my date says.

A few minutes later, the waitress returns with a serving cart containing a knife, a bowl of salsa, a large empty bowl, some chips, some limes, some tomatoes, and some avocados. Without warning, the waitress grabs the knife and brings it down on the avocado. She slides the knife around the avocado, separating the green flesh from the large central seed, and drops the avocado meat into the bowl. She slices the remaining avocados, adds in diced tomatoes and lime juice, and smashes the mixture together. The waitress sets the chips, salsa, and fresh guacamole in front of us and pushes her cart away.

“You didn’t mention that this place makes fresh guac,” my date says, a smile on her face.

“Must have slipped my mind, it’s one of this place’s trademarks,” I lie.

“Well, it’s really fun.”

I take a chip and dip it in the salsa. The salsa is thick and orange. “The salsa is odd,” my date says after trying it.

“Yeah, it tastes different than normal salsa, but I can’t quite place what it tastes like.”

“Tomato soup!”

“Yeah, tomato soup! It tastes like tomato soup!”

“It isn’t bad or anything-”

“Just odd.”

“Yeah, odd.”

The waitress returns ten minutes later and places our respective meals in front of us. My fish tacos, covered in lime and corn and red onion, and my date’s massive burrito. My date picks it up and takes a bite; cheese and meat and beans drip down her face and she quickly wipes her chin with a napkin. “Oh my god, this is so good,” she says, her mouth still half full of food.

I try my fish tacos. They’re fine. “Want to try a bite of my burrito?” my date asks.

“No, I’m fine,” I lie.

“Come on, you’d love it.”

I cut off a small bit of her burrito and eat it. She’s right, I do love it. I offer her a bit of my tacos and she takes it. “Not bad,” she says.

After dinner, we walk across the street to the comedy club. It’s still raining. The walls of the comedy club are covered in photographs of various successful comedians, alumni I recognize from films I watched as a child. My date follows me to the stage on our tickets and we sit down in the front row.

Four improv actors walk onto the stage, all college-age white men. The leader of them, a clean-shaven bald man with glasses walks up and introduces the group. “Hi, we’re Room for Improv-Ment,” he says. “Are you guys ready to laugh?”

The audience cheers. “Okay, that isn’t really an answer,” BaldGlasses says. “I’ll pretend it was a yes. I need one of you kind people to shout out a scene for us to do.”

“Working at a bank!” someone in the back shouts.

“Working at a bank, that’s always fun. Now, someone give me a character-”

“Arnold Schwarzenegger!” my date shouts.

“Governor Terminator, got it,” BaldGlasses says.

BaldGlasses’s companions walk off the stage, leaving him alone. BaldGlasses mimes out working as a teller, leaning his elbows on an imaginary counter and holding a fake magazine in his hands, which he pretends to read.

Another one of the performers, a man with a beard and glasses, walks in. His movement is slow and he’s bent over, pretending to hold a cane in his hand. “Hello sweetie,” GlassesBeard says in his best approximation of an old lady voice. “I would like to take out a deposit.”

BaldGlasses flexes his muscles and takes a deep breath. “Hahlo, Ah ahm Gahvahnah Ahnald Swahtzahnahgar,” he says in the worst Schwarzenegger impression I’ve ever heard.

“Hello, Governor. Would you mind selling me some money?”

“Ah will doo thaht, beecahz thaht is how winning is dahn,” BaldGlasses says.

My date raises an eyebrow. “Does he think Schwarzenegger was in Rocky?” she asks

BaldGlasses bends over to grab a box of imaginary money. Another one of the improv actors, a man with glasses but no beard, runs on stage, pretending to hold a handgun. He points it at BaldGlasses Schwarzenegger. “Freeze, I’m robbing this place!” he shouts.

BaldGlasses slowly turns around. “Yoo tahking tah mee?” he asks, holding his arms up.

“Oh heavens, it’s a bank robber!” GlassesBeard shouts.

“Ah zed, ahr yoo tahking tah mee?”

“Yes I’m talking to you! Now get me the money from the vault before I shoot you!”

“Okay, Ah’ll be bahck. Yoo know, lahk in Tahmahnahtah.”

“Yes, I’ve seen Terminator. Just give me the goddamn money before I splatter your brains all over this bank!”

BaldGlasses bends down and mimes out opening a safe. Evidently, in addition to having never seen a Schwarzenegger movie, he’s never been to a bank before. “Ahr yoo feeling lahcky, pank?” BaldGlasses asks as he twists the dial on the fake safe.

“I’m feeling pretty lucky, I am about to get away with a bank robbery.”

“Yoo shouldn’t feel so lahcky, beecahz there is ah gahn in this sahf!” BaldGlasses yells. He pulls the fake gun out of the fake safe and shoots it at JustGlasses.

“Bahng!” he shouts.

“Oh no, I am slain!” JustGlasses shouts before falling to the floor.

“Oh, thank you for saving me with that wonderful deus ex machina, Mr. Schwarzenegger,” GlassesBeard says.

“It wahs nahthing. Jast doing mah jab, mahking sure criminahls dah hahrd,” BaldGlasses says. He expects a laugh for this relevant reference to Die Hard, a film that definitely didn’t feature Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Yeah, you really terminated that criminal,” GlassesBeard says. This line gets a slight chuckle, the closest thing to a laugh that Room For Improv-Ment has gotten thus far. The crowd gives a halfhearted applause, more out of obligation than anything else, and all of the performers but JustGlasses walk off stage. The performer who didn’t participate in the bank robbery scene, a man with a beard but no glasses, joins him on stage. “For our next scene, we’re going to be playing a game called questions,” BeardOnly says. He turns to face JustGlasses. “Do you know how to play Questions?”

“Isn’t it that game where you lose if you say a sentence that doesn’t end in a question mark?”

“Have you played before?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Why are you being cagey with your answer?”

“Why does it matter?”

“Why won’t you just tell me if you’ve played Questions before?”

“Do I look like a person who’s played questions before?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“When was the last time you looked in a mirror?”

“When was the last time you looked in a mirror?”

“Do you really think it’s fair to just repeat my question?”

JustGlasses pauses for a moment, trying to come up with a response. “No,” he mutters under his breath.

As the audience claps, my stomach begins to churn. The fish tacos aren’t sitting with me very well. “Excuse me,” I mutter to my date before popping out.

I step outside to get a breath of fresh air and am doused by the rain. I sigh and walk back inside. I buy a can of lemon-lime soda and chug it in the lobby; someone, I think it was my grandmother, told me once that carbonated beverages are good for an upset stomach. I don’t know if that’s true or not.

I get back in time to see the final game. Room For Improv-Ment asks the crowd to give them a word and someone shouts Country Music. The bald man with glasses smiles. “Okay, this next game is called Sex With me is Like,” he says. “Sex with me is like country music: generally pretty bad.”

The man with glasses with no beard steps forward. “Sex with me is like country music,” he says, “Used to be good, but has declined with time.”

And so they go, making admittedly dirty jokes comparing their sex lives to country music. An acquired taste, only fun when you’re in a car, disappointingly pale, the best is down south, has a lot of cowboy hats for some reason, doesn’t feature many women, features a lot of strumming, best experienced when drunk, etcetera.

We clap as Room for Improv-Ment bow and walk off stage. “That last bit was actually pretty funny,” my date says. “Let me try one, sex like me is like country music: no suits allowed.”

I laugh. “Okay, let me do one,” I say. “Sex with me is like country music.”

“Oh? In what way?”

“Both are usually religious experiences.”

At first, I’m worried she’s going to turn her head in disgust. Then she laughs, and everything is okay. I blush and almost forget the storm in my stomach.

The Ovar is waiting for us in front of the club, I summoned him right before the final scene. He pulls up in an old white van with darkened windows. The driver pops out and pulls the side door. The van is so full of junk that there is only room for one of us in the back. “Sorry about the mess,” the driver, an old man with a white beard, says. “Helping my kid move, didn’t have time to unpack before my shift started.”

“Uh, it’s fine, sir,” I say. I turn to my date. “Do you want the front seat or the back one?”

“You can have shotgun, I don’t mind sitting in the back,” she says. “Unless you’d prefer me to sit in your lap…”

I blush and hop into the shotgun seat. The driver pulls out and begins speeding to my date’s apartment. He drives fast, so very very fast, weaving in and out of traffic. The fish tacos in my stomach make themselves known.

“So, where are you two from?” the driver asks.

“I’m from the city,” my date says.

“Iowa,” I say. My stomach feels like it’s going to burst. I’m actually glad that the van was full of junk and I was forced to sit up front. Someone, I think it was my mother, told me once that sitting up front can quash nausea. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I pray that it is.

“I used to go hunting with a friend who lives in Iowa. Where in Iowa are you from?”

“A small town about an hour southeast of Iowa City,” I say. “You probably haven’t heard of it.”

“My friend lives in that area. Have you ever been to Williamsburg?”

“Yeah, I know Williamsburg. Used to buy new clothes at the outlet mall.”

“What town you from, Oskaloosa?”

“Sigourney.”

“Oh, I know Sigourney. My buddy went to High School there. The Savages, right?”

“Yeah. My dad was one of the football coaches, actually.”

“No kidding? Small world,” the driver says. He drives over a pothole and my stomach lurches. Some of the junk in the van falls over, making a loud crashing noise.

“You alright back there?” the driver asks.

“I’m fine,” my date says.

I glance at the window. My stomach feels washing machine and I would kill for a breath of fresh air. There’s a button on the door to lower the window. I don’t press it. I don’t want the rain to get my date wet.

The bile rises us my throat like a geyser and I cease caring about my date. I slam my fist on the button; I’m too late and half of the chunky orange liquid splatters on the descending window, bouncing back onto my coat and the pleather car seat.

“Jesus Christ!” the driver shouts. He slams on the breaks and pulls over to the side of the road.

“Oh my god, are you okay?” my date asks.

“I’m fine,” I say before ejecting another load of half-digested spew. This time, all of it actually goes out the window, falling on the side of the car and washing away in the pouring rain.

I burst out the door, stomping into the diluted vomit and ruining the bottoms of my shoes. “Listen kid, are you okay?” the driver asks.

“I’m fine,” I say. It’s a lie.

“You don’t look fine.”

I throw up again. I look up at the driver, tears dripping from my eyes and vomit dripping from my lips. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay, I’m not mad-”

“I’m so sorry. I will give you a big tip. A big tip. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ll give you a big tip.”

My date starts to open her door. “Don’t! Don’t get out,” I shout. I throw up again.

“I’m worried about you-”

“Take her home! Her address is in the app thingy, take her home,” I shout at the driver. “I will give you a big tip!”

“Buddy, I’m not going to leave you on the side of the road when it’s raining.”

“I’m begging you,” I say. “Please, just take her home.”

“I’m not a child, I can deal with a little carsickness-”

“I’m not carsick! I don’t get carsick, I’m not a child. I just have…food poisoning. From the fish.” I don’t even know if this is a lie or not but I still say it with all the conviction I can muster. “Please, just leave. I’ll be fine, I just don’t want you to see me like this.”

They drive off and I am alone in the rain. Completely, utterly, hopelessly alone. My mouth tastes like rotten milk. I spit; it does nothing to fix the foul taste in my mouth. I walk down the rainy streets of Chicago. Occasionally, I pass under an overpass and am given momentary relief. But, for most of my walk, I am wet and cold and miserable.

I see a convenience store and walk in, making a beeline for its bathroom. I wipe the water and vomit from my coat with single ply toilet paper; it transforms into a crumpled wet wad as it touches my skin. I toss it into the trashcan and stare at my reflection in the mirror. And I hate what I see.

The bags under my red eyes and smudged glasses are deep. Stress acne dots my forehead. My poor attempt at shaving has left patches of missed whiskers and half a dozen red cuts. My buzzed hair is uneven and patchy. I punch the mirror. It doesn’t break, I am far from strong enough.

I exit the bathroom and glance around the store. It would be rude to use the restroom without buying something. I buy a lukewarm cup of black coffee. I don’t even like coffee, I just need something strong to wash out the taste of vomit. I take a large sip as I step out the sliding door and spit it out onto the sidewalk.

Eventually, I am home. My keycard doesn’t work; the security card lets me in anyway because he knows me and knows the maintenance office won’t fix my card for some reason. I crawl my way up the steps, don’t want to force someone to stand next to me in the elevator.

I enter my apartment and my roommates say hey. I ignore them and peel off my soaking clothes. I step into the shower and the warm water pours down on me, washing away the dirt and grime.

After I finally work the courage to step out, I grab my phone from the counter and pay the driver the biggest tip I have ever given. I’d pay more if I could.

Then I get the text, the text from my date that I’ve been dreading. i had a really fun time tonight i hope youre okay. Call me.

And I smile.

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