On my recommendation (and after much coaxing away from chicken fingers) Max orders escoviech fish; I order ackee and saltfish. As the waiter sets the two plates down, I catch Max eyeing his dinner choice skeptically.
“As far as I know, that dish hasn’t killed anyone yet,” I stage whisper.
“That’s encouraging,” he mumbles and pushes the fish around on his plate.
He takes a cautious bite of onion.
That’s when I realize what’s going on. I swallow my own food, and then point my fork at him accusingly. “You don’t like trying new food!”
Max finally spears a piece of fish with his fork. He looks up at me with an apologetic look. “Not really,” he admits bashfully. “I’m a terrible cook. Mostly I subside on canned pasta and PB&J.”
My nose wrinkles at the mention of canned pasta. “Eww.”
He rolls his eyes and still doesn’t try the food. I sigh exasperatedly. Finally he takes a small bite, barely chews it, and swallows it in one big gulp. But at least he doesn’t gag.
“The second bite is always better, you know,” I pressure. “There’s always a learning curve with trying new foods.”
“It’s much better than it looks,” he allows. “But I just don’t know that it beats Chef Boyardee.”
“Bless your boring little palate.” I shake my head in disbelief.
“How’d you even find this place?” Max asks, taking another cautious bite. He looks around the patio area and restaurant. It’s shabby and run down. The bright Jamaican flag painted proudly on the side restaurant is badly peeling; the cast iron railing that sections the patio off from the street is leaning haphazardly. “It doesn’t seem like the kind of place you just try on a whim.”
I hesitate. In all honesty I didn’t discover this place—Mark did. He brought me here the day it opened. He had known the original owners, and so we had gone to support another local chef. The first night there had barely been enough people served for the little restaurant to break even on sales. I remember thinking how surprised I would be if Sweet Spice survived its first quarter. I never would have guessed that five years later there would be a line of people wrapped around the corner just waiting for a table.
But, of course, I can’t tell Max that. Because then I’d have to explain who Mark is and drudge up all of that history. This is only our third date. Plus I’ve already spent way too much time dwelling on Mark today as it is. So instead I say, “My brother suggested it to me.”
Actually, my brother got food poisoning from the chicken fingers. But that’s a minor detail.
The answer seems to satisfy Max. He takes another bite—a bigger one this time—and grins. One point to Inez.
It’s no surprise that Max lunges for the check again almost as soon as it arrives. But it’s still abrupt and unfamiliar to me. Before I can say anything though, he’s slipped some cash inside and handed it back to the waiter. I have a feeling that if we keep seeing each other, that it’s going to be a while before I’m quick enough to nab that little black book.
After the waitress leaves, Max turns back to me. “What now?”
“Now we put those after dinner mints use?” I blurt, and then can’t believe I actually just said those words. From across the table Max is laughing, but not unkindly.
“Oh, we’ll get to the after dinner mints,” he promises as he starts to stand. I watch as he readjusts the position of his legs with his hands and then grabs the crutches and uses their support to push himself to his feet. Not for the first time I wonder what exactly is up with him. Naturally, he catches me staring; he chuckles and rolls his eyes. I’ve really got to work on my stealth.
I let Max lead the way out of Sweet Spices patio area and onto the sidewalk. The evening is cool and quiet, but it’s humid and muggy even this late in the day. Even so, Max starts to walk down the sidewalk, looking around at the different storefronts curiously.
“There’s not much to see in this part of town,” I tell him as we walk. “A bunch of ugly strip malls and halfcocked construction.”
“Ooo, my favorite.”
As Max scans the windows of the tacky shops, I watch him. His movements are slow and deliberate. Arms and crutches go forward, followed by hips, and then his legs slowly shuffle forward, one at a time. The right one drags a bit. When he’s looking at the window displays he doesn’t fidget or sway. Unlike me. There is nothing extraneous or inessential about the way he moves. Except for maybe the fact that he uses the crutches in the first place, instead of the wheelchair. I wonder the reason for that, but don’t ask.
“Here we go!” he exclaims suddenly after we’ve walked down a block. I look at him curiously, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “Could we pop into that antique store over there?”
Max nods to the area in front of us. Across the street I see the front of a small shop that is surely no bigger than the break room at my office. The façade is flaking with old paint and the sidewalk outside is littered with old bed knobs, a rusty ironing board, and cheap looking paintings—junk—that is for sale.
“Really?” I ask incredulously. “There are way better antique stores downtown. Alex Raskin’s, Jere’s...”
I start to tick them off but I stop when I notice that he’s not listening to a word I’m saying. He’s just smiling a one-thousand watt smile at me, knowing already that he’s found my kryptonite. There’s no way in hell that I’ll ever be able to say no to that smile. So I roll my eyes and sigh exasperatedly. “Just lead the way.”
It’s curious to me that a man like Max would be so enthusiastic about a tiny little antique shop on Waters Avenue. As we walk through the already open door, I ask Max why he’s so interested in the place. “After all, aren’t you a marine biologist?”
“Yeah,” he laughs. “But I’m always on the prowl for new merchandise to put in my own shops.”
What? His explanation only leaves me with more questions.
Questions that will have to wait to be answered, because as soon as we’re fully inside the store Max spots the clerk office in the far back corner. Without another word to me, he lumbers carefully towards the back, maneuvering around oak dining sets and ugly floor lamps. He braces himself and leans heavily on his left crutch and then raises his right hand to lightly knock on the door. I hear a muffled “Come in,” from inside and then he awkwardly opens the door and shuffles inside.
It’s weird and rude and it irritates me. After all, aren’t we on a date here?
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I try to push my irritation aside and bury it, rather than letting it fester. I notice that the office has a small window, and I can see Max sitting in a chair, showing an older man something on his phone. They’re both talking and gesturing animatedly, and then suddenly Max starts to laugh. I can hear the muffled sound from across the small shop.
I have no clue how long Max and the owner are going to be talking, so instead of stewing (and resisting the urge to eavesdrop), I start looking around the shop. To my surprise, the inside isn’t nearly as disparaging as the outside. There are ceramics, paintings, and three of the walls are lined with bookshelves. It’s almost promising.
I start with the books, of course. Scanning the titles, picking one up here and there and flipping to the title pages to see the edition notes. There’s a first-edition A Farewell to Arms listed for $900; a first-edition of Tender is the Night sits one shelf below marked for $2,500. I quickly replace the tattered books on the shelf.
Before I get the chance to pick out any more books that I could never afford, I hear a familiar chuckle behind me. “Of course you’d be in this section.”
I spin around. Max stands in front of me, supporting his weight on his left crutch and shoving a piece of paper into his wallet with his right hand. I don’t say anything. The irritation is rushing back full force.
“Sorry for deserting you like that,” he apologizes after a beat of silence. I can tell from his tone of voice that he doesn’t miss the peeved expression on my face. “Robert is actually a business associate.”
“A business associate?” I roll my eyes before I can stop myself. I’m such a bitch when I’m pissed. “I thought you were a marine biologist. He seems like an antique dealer.”
Max winces. “Yeah.”
And that’s it. Even as we leave the store and start walking down the sidewalk, he doesn’t say anything else. The lack of an explanation is just one more thing that pisses me off.
The farther we walk, the more I work myself into a frenzy. There was something...off about the whole antique store situation. By the time we’ve gone a block, I’m convinced that Max is hiding something and I should go ahead and cut this budding relationship off at the pass.
Just like I should have done with my ex-fiance.
But then I turn and look at the man beside me...and I instantly lose my resolve. He’s funny and sweet and smart and handsome. As I continue to list all the things I’ve already come to like about Max in the short time we’ve known one another, I also convince myself to chill the fuck out.
Then finally, when I’m not hyperfocusing and making mountains out of molehills, I realize that Max isn’t beside me anymore. In fact he’s lagging a good three steps behind me. There’s a faint sheen of sweat glistening at his hairline and each step seems to be taking a tremendous amount of energy.
Looking around, I guess we’re at least another block from my car--and I have no idea where his might be. But thankfully this is Savannah and there’s literally a bench every fifty feet. Or so it seems. Sure enough, I spot one about ten feet in front of us and suggest taking a break.
“That might be a good idea,” Max agrees. There’s a hint of sullenness in his voice.
I sit and then watch as Max sinks down onto the bench beside me. I hear a soft sigh of relief escape his lips, and I know sitting was a good idea. Right then, his right leg starts to shake ever so slightly. He frowns and starts to knead his thigh with his hands. A moment later, it stops.
After that he leans back against the bench. He wraps his arm around my shoulder and tugs slightly, indicating I move closer. When I don’t--because I AM a woman and therefore not completely chilled out just yet--he sighs, and then looks up at the tree. A long moment of silence passes before he finally says, “There’s a lot of Spanish moss around here.”
Spanish fucking moss. But still no explanation.
“Yep.” My reply is incredulous. I pause before I say anything else, reminding myself that I really like this guy and to not be too big of a bitch. “So what, antiquing is a hobby of yours or something?”
Max just smiles. Either he’s oblivious or being deliberately obdurate. “Something like that.”
“Max, come on. Enough with the vague answers.”
“It was my mother’s hobby. She loved getting up early on the weekends and spending the day getting lost in little places like that.” Max’s voice is soft and his thoughts seem to be a million miles away. My snappish response doesn’t seem to have phased him. “She saved for thirty years so that she could eventually open an antique store after she retired from teaching.
Suddenly, I feel embarrassed and silly. Worse, I have a feeling that this conversation is drudging up history he’d rather forget—or at least not remember right now.
“Back in 2005 she purchased a little shop near me in Athens. Called it Antiques on Atwater. She was planning to open a sister store with Kate--my little sister--up in Lexington, Kentucky where I grew up and where Kate still lived, but she never got around to it.”
Antiques on Atwater. That name rings a bell, but for a moment I’m not sure why. Then I remember: one of the articles that had popped up during my and Meg’s cyber-stalking session of Max had been about an antique store called just that.
Thinking back to the article, I breathe a sigh of relief. I know it isn’t what I should be taking from this conversation, but I just can’t help but feel ecstatic that the Katelyn Ellis mentioned in the article is most likely his sister, Kate. Maybe my worries have been all for naught and Max IS a good guy.
“Going into business with your mom is probably the most wholesome thing I’ve heard in awhile,” I can’t help but smile as I tell him that because it just makes me like him even more. I feel my irritation beginning to ebb away, and I scoot closer to him. Just like I should have done in the first place. “You guys must be close.”
Max gives me a small smile, but it’s tinged with sadness. “We were.”
I wonder at his use of the past tense, but I already feel like one of those girls for freaking out in there. So I don’t pump him for more information. Instead I just nod.
“Sorry for dragging you in there,” he says after a while.
“I overreacted,” I admit, looking up at the Spanish moss. I sigh heavily and look him in the eyes. “Secrecy sort of makes me skittish.” I let that admission hang in the air. Then I give him a pointed look and continue. “You better be careful, Max.”
He looks at me, alarmed.
“Put me in a room with a bunch of old books and leave me again...I might just forget all about you.”
“You’d forget about me?” Max feigns offense.
“All about you,” I tell him with a coy smile. I’m grateful the mood is lightening again. “Books are pretty stiff competition for an archivist, you know.”
“Even though books can’t do this…?” his voice trails off as he starts to lean towards me, and my heart speeds up. But then he pulls away suddenly at the last minute. I look at him, bewildered. He shrugs. “Oops. Just remembered: no one likes garlicky kisses.”
I swat at his chest. “You're a jerk.”
My insult has the opposite intended effect. This is fine by me; really, because a moment later Max is pulling me close again and all of the red flags, weird behavior, and garlic breath almost evaporate from my mind completely as soon as his lips touch mine.