Steve curled up in the bar, the small area he thought of as a holding pen, while he waited for his date. Setting his one, pink, rose on the polished, gray slate bar, he fussed with the little drink napkin for a moment, rolling one corner to a sharp point before he caught himself and put it down. Fidgeting would look bad. He wanted this first date to go as well as possible and that meant not giving off a negative first impression. Katie was cautious. He had no doubt would look at him, fumbling nervously with things, and think he was not the man she was looking for. Pushing the napkin away from him he brushed lightly at his jacket sleeves, removing imagined specks of lint. The jacket was brand new, bought just for this Valentine’s Day first date. His lapels were sharp, the cuffs clean and his collar impeccable. He had spent time polishing his shoes last night, making sure he could see himself in the shine.
The bartender moved to the sink and began washing glassware and his cutting board. The green, citrus smell of freshly cut limes rose up from the basin. Steve inhaled the scent and held it as Katie walked through the door.
His first thought was, wow, she’s beautiful! Shoulder length brown hair that looked so soft he wanted to touch it to see if it was real. He knew her eyes were almond shaped, brown and had blue-green laced throughout. The only real surprise were her small ears, set at just the right angle to her head. He was an ear fanatic so this first glimpse was like an eyegasm. The dating app had provided them both with photos and profiles of each other. Her photos were always head-on with her ears hidden beneath a baseball cap or just her hair. They had exchanged several emails and spent hours chatting in real time on the messenger. The conversation had seemed to just flow so well between them. Steve had strong hopes that this might be the start of something real for him.
“Katie?” His heart was beating a little fast. Grabbing the rose, he stood up and tried to look her in the eye like a man, not stare like a fanboy. She was dressed to kill in a mid-thigh, black dress with slender ties around her neck as opposed to sleeves or straps.
“Yes. Steve?” Those gorgeous eyes sized him up and crinkled a bit in the corners as she smiled at him.
“Yeah, that’s me.” He smiled back magnanimously. “It’s a real pleasure to see you.” Did she just frown? Steve held out his hand feeling suddenly awkward. Was there something in his teeth? Something in his nose? God, he hoped it was his teeth. Maybe an eye booger? Oh crap, please let it be my teeth? He wanted to wipe at his various organs and ducts but couldn’t just yank his hand away before she even took it. She was hesitating. Oh c’mon, shake my hand so I can dig at things!
Katie paused for just a heartbeat more, then smiled again and put her right hand firmly into his, shaking like a professional wrestler. Steve tried to not look surprised. When she let go he held out the rose, distracting her attention while his slightly crushed, right hand danced over his face.
“I am pleased to meet you, Steve.” Her expression widened a fraction as she watched him rub at his eyes.
“I’m a little allergy prone.” It wasn’t a lie even if it wasn’t an accurate explanation. He noted her subtle frown again. He nodded toward the rose in her hand and shrugged. She looked blankly at it, then realization lit her eyes. Lifting the flower to her nose she inhaled. It looked like a mechanical movement as opposed to genuine appreciation. Steve felt his stomach tightening with worry.
“Let’s get a table and sit down, eh?” He opened one arm to invite her to lead the way. Katie smiled tightly and turned away from the bar. He gave her a couple steps worth of lead before he followed along.
Something was off, but what? Did he look different than she expected? Was he too tall? Too short? Their height was comparable so neither of them had a disadvantage there. He tried to recall if his picture on the app was current. He thought so. He had been brutally honest in his likes and philosophy. He thought it was better to be rejected for what he was than what he pretended to be. So what was wrong? They hadn’t even finished saying hello and she was throwing off unhappy vibes.
“I see your date has arrived, sir. A table for two then?” The Host, looking excruciatingly calm, plucked two leather-bound menus from his podium and looked at Steve for acknowledgement.
“Yes. Could we have something a bit private? Not right in the open, maybe?” He could swear he could feel Katie relaxing. How strange? He fought back the urge to put his hand on her waist as they moved through the dining room.
“Certainly sir. Right this way.”
They were seated in a booth toward the back with a clear view of the entire room. Steve thought it was a bit more conspicuous than he had asked for since the whole room would also have a clear view of them but, he accepted the arrangement and stood politely while Katie slid delicately into her seat. The menus were laid before them, the water glasses filled, then the Host made himself scarce. Steve tried to make small talk while they scanned the menu items.
“I’ve read several good reviews of this place. They’re noted for their steaks. The cook’s supposed to be some kind of a beef genius.” Again he felt the shift in Katie’s attitude. She did not look up or change her position at all but Steve could swear that she was displeased. What the hell is going on? Every time he said anything she seemed to get on edge? He decided to just lay his the question on the table and see what happened.
“Katie… What’s going on here? I feel like you’re unhappy right from the start but we’ve barely even begun?” He was quite surprised to see her visibly shudder now. Lifting her head she tried to smile but it was very strained.
“I am sorry. I really thought, based on our conversations, that you understood. Obviously I was mistaken.”
Steve goggled at her, completely lost. His mind raced through their online conversations in the blink of an eye but found nothing to indicate what she might be talking about. His stomach dropped as he realized he was about to get the brush off.
“Your writing…” She waved a hand through the air like she was penning a letter. “You never use contractions when you type.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“You see, I am a Trekki. Most importantly, I am a Data Emulator.” Katie was looking directly at him, almost challenging him to comment.
Steve stared back and let his hand fiddle with the napkin roll.
“Data emulator…” he repeated slowly. “What’s that?” He was familiar with Trekkies but not specific branches except for the obvious ones like Klingon or Vulcan.
“Data is an android who is incapable of using contractions. His words are always separate, never contracted together.”
Steve thought he understood what she was getting at.
“So you thought, because I didn’t use contractions when I typed that I didn’t use them at all?” Every message and email he had sent had been painfully edited. He had gone over each line several times to be sure he was saying exactly what he meant and not leaving any false impressions. Evidently he had been too thorough and given one unintentionally.
The blunt answer made him aware of how many contractions he had just used. He felt his insides implode with self-righteous anger. What a stupid reason to brush him off. He had polished his damn shoes! And he had really liked her. The time they had spent together online had given him a real feeling of connecting. Why couldn’t she just say he looked different from what she had expected? He smelled funny? Anything that made sense!
Seconds ticked by as Steve sat there digesting what was happening. He wanted to leave. He wanted to say something, anything, that would leave a mark on her but his mind was a blank. All he found were images of their messages to each other saying how much they were both looking forward to their date. This date. Valentine’s Day.
“I see our positions have changed.” Katie noted. “You are now the one feeling… off.” She gave him an empty smile. “I guess we should stop this before it becomes too uncomfortable.”
Steve nodded carefully, holding his face as still as he could.
“Right. I’m sure my excessive use of contractions will cause you an unbearable amount of discomfort. Won’t it?” Bitterness dripped from the last words. He slid out of the booth and dug into his pocket for his money clip. Scowling, he thumbed out a twenty dollar bill to leave on the table for the busboy who would have to clean up after their ten minute usage of the table
“Take care of yourself, Steve. It was nice meeting you.” Katie remained seated, sipping her water and showing him her perfect ears.
Steve took a deep breath, missing the smell of the fresh lime from the holding pen. How strange, he thought, to miss something that was only ten minutes ago. Ten minutes ago he had been nervous, excited and hopeful. Now he was holding a stomach full of molten lava. He exhaled sharply and glowered at Katie.
“Yeah, you too. And I’m deleting you as soon as I get home.” Snatching the rose from beside her he turned and stalked away, shredding the petals onto the carpet as he went.