The hostess starts playing “Cheeseburger in Paradise” again, announces it’s time for the ladies to stand and move one table to the left. I comply. I leave behind Hawaiian Shirt Stan, who’s got a bald spot on his head the size of an Oreo.
I set down my drink. I set down my jacket. The man at the table does not stand up to greet me. A guinea pig rests on a blanket in his lap like Persian royalty, quivering its nose as the woman at the next table sits down with a plate of taquitos.
“It’s a comfort pet,” the man says. He does not tell me his name.
He says the doctor recommended it after his wife died twenty years ago, to cope with the grief and all. He doesn’t say what killed her. I tell him I didn’t think guinea pigs lived that long.
“They don’t,” he says, “I used to breed them. Not anymore. I’ve been done for a few years. This one’s fixed.” I tell him I’m fixed too, after my third kid. He doesn’t laugh.
“I didn’t know they made comfort…rodents.”
“Working animals come in waves—trends, like clothing styles. You know, they’re using pit bulls in the police force to change the perception of the breed as fighting dogs. And then with the bereavement movement too it was dogs, cats, monkeys—I’m allergic to dander, by the way—now, rodents.”
He tells me guinea pigs are a key diet staple in Peru. He mentions guinea pigs are called Boars and Sows—the males and females—like real pigs are, but he always named each one Tiff. Boy or girl. Tiff was his wife’s name.
He says this “whole speed dating business” is his first venture onto “the scene” since he got married to Tiff, which makes me think of all the Wednesday nights I’ve spent at the Jimmy Buffet, the pastel crown molding and metal trays, the floral wallpaper sagging on the walls like a sigh, the burnt orange lights sinking into the wrinkles of the guests, tinting them Florida gold. After I left my first husband I only went on a couple dates, expecting love would arrive beside me at the end of the night. After my second divorce I started up at Jimmy’s and stopped counting.
“Tiff’s the only woman I ever dated. We only went out once.”
“Just got along real well, I guess. Fast chums. Engaged in a week.”
“Huh. Imagine that.”
The hostess strikes up “Cheeseburger in Paradise” again and announces it’s last call so everyone should get their fill of mini empanadas before they turn off the hot plates for the night.
“Guinea pigs are one of the only rodent species born with their eyes open, covered in fur,” he says. “It’s weird, how species develop differently, that way.”
He stands up, Tiff swaddled in his arms, and insists it was a pleasure to meet me. I know I won’t see him again.
Before he leaves I ask to pet Tiff, who chirps like an infant when I scratch behind her ears. It feels heavy, watching them exit the foyer together, leaving the restaurant alone.
Kathryn Fitzpatrick is a student at Central Connecticut State University and a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. Her essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in Out Magazine, Crack the Spine, The Flexible Persona, the anthology Flash Nonfiction Funny, and in numerous undergraduate publications. In 2013, she was the recipient of the Connecticut Young Writers Trust Award for Prose. She lives in Thomaston, CT.