If I'm being honest with myself, then yes, I'm nervous. I feel bad for my girl, and I just want things to start getting a little easier for us. It took a long time for me to get Charlotte to think of me as more than just a friend and reach this place. Now, it seems like everyone wants to drag us backward and make things harder by telling her that I'm no good for her or that her and John were so good together.
This lunch is important. Ridiculously important, and I need to be confident in my abilities to show her mother, Mrs. Virgina Livingston, that I am, in fact, good for her daughter. And not just good for her, but better than that douche.
You know, I feel bad for calling him a douche when he's unconscious in bed, but I still hate him. Not hate him enough to wish that he'd die, though; I've learned my lesson. If I hope for him to die, and he dies, there will be innumerable consequences which will just continue to drag Charlotte and I through the muck and mire again. So now, I'm going to hope he recovers so I can tell him to go fuck off.
Charlotte tells me that her mother is a stickler for punctuality, and that if you're not fifteen minutes early, then you're late. And, sure enough, when we pull into the entrance of the UPMC Mercy to pick her up at ten after noon (even though I specifically told her twelve thirty), she's already standing outside waiting for us. This woman is a piece of work. I can't even think of any other way to describe her.
Charlotte slides into the back while I throw the car into park, and hurry to open the passenger side door for her mother. "Are you ready, Mrs. Livingston?" I ask with a wide smile.
She doesn't even acknowledge me as she gets into the car and says something to Charlotte, something about how Mercedes are better vehicles than BMWs. I'm glad she can't see my eyes roll as I trot back around to the driver's seat.
"Mom, where would you like to go for lunch? Max thought he'd let you pick, but I thought we could go somewhere distinctly Pittsburgh, like Primanti's."
She groans. "You know, Sweet Pea, your father used to rave about that place." She turns to me and says, "Her father was originally from Pittsburgh, you know."
"I know," I reply, trying to remember exactly what Charlotte has told me over the months we've known each other. "But he went to college in Chicago, and that's how he met you."
I can feel as she watches me while I'm driving. Inspecting me. "That's right."
"So, Mom, do you want to go to Primanti's or not?" Charlotte asks, ruining the potential break-through moment we may have been having. I almost showed her mother how good of a listener I can be. And a man that listens—and remembers what he heard—automatically wins brownie points from women.
"Oh, I don't know. What else is there? You say I get to pick?"
"Absolutely," I reassure her. I run through all the places I can think of, most of which are the ones I'm familiar with on the South Side. Mike & Tony's. Nakama. The Cheesecake Factory. Buca—
"The Cheesecake Factory," she interjects, making her decision.
"Okay," I say, pointing my car in the right direction.
"Mom, there's one in Chicago. Let's go somewhere—"
"No," she says, cutting her off. "I got to pick. Right, Max?"
"Most definitely," I reply. Her mother smiles at me for taking her side, I smile back at her, and then I look at Charlotte in the rear-view mirror. She's pouting in the backseat, and I try my hardest not to laugh. Typical women: when you please one, you upset the other. Well, right now I'm worried about making a good impression on her mother. I'll worry about pleasing Charlotte later, when we're alone.
I let the valet take the car when we arrive down at the plaza, and I think about all the fond memories I have of this place. The movie theater where Charlotte and I just so happened to see All About Steve together as our first unofficial date, seeing as though I didn't even know her name at that point in time. Getting our coffee and sitting on these benches the very next morning, talking and getting to know each other and then sharing that first kiss that sent her running.... Oh, to go back to the simplicity of those days.
When we get to the main doors of the restaurant, I hold the doors open for them and then hurry to the counter to put our names in. There are a few people waiting around, and I hope to use some of my pull in the city to get us a table in a hurry. I don't want to wait around, and I want to get this lunch over and done with. Yeah, I want to impress Charlotte's mother and win her over into joining my side, but I want to do it quickly. After all, I want to leave my afternoon open for relaxing with my girl after these hellish few days.
"Hello, Mr. Talbot," the hostess greets. "It's been a while since we've seen you here."
Okay, it sounds conceited, but I say it anyway. "Well, I'm a busy man."
"That you are," she returns with a smile, flirting a little but not going over the line. "Three of you?"
"Yes, please," I say. The hostess nods and grabs menus for us, ushering us past the other waiting guests. "Ladies first." I wave my hands and let Mrs. Livingston go first, and then Charlotte. I place my hand on her back as we to the other side of the restaurant, and I can feel as she shivers from the contact. I lean down and speak in her ear. "How'm I doing?"
Charlotte waves her hand in the air, as if saying that I'm doing okay or lunch could still go either way, but she's also smiling. It can't be that bad.
I hold out the chair for her mother, trying to be a gentleman. She nods and sits, and I join Charlotte in the booth side of the table so she's against the partition and I'm blocking her into the seat. I move to place my arm around her shoulders, but she subtly shakes her head so I place it on the back of the booth instead and pretend this is a comfortable position. Charlotte places her hand on my knee and squeezes.
"So, Mrs. Livi—" I begin, but she cuts me off.
"They know you here," she says.
"I'm here every so often," I reply.
"They know your name," she presses.
I open my mouth to explain that a lot of people in this city know my name, but then I'd have to explain why, and Charlotte told me that it's best if she doesn't know I'm a hockey player, even though it would clarify the situation. And I can't think anything off the top of my head that would explain why people know me.
"He's a big tipper," Charlotte says with a smirk.
"Oh." Her mother looks at me as if the way I look betrays the size of my wallet. It's difficult to not say something, but Charlotte's vice grip on my leg prevents me from opening my mouth. It's like she can read my mind. "What is that you do, Max?"
Charlotte speaks before I can. "He works at the Mellon Arena."
"I'm, um, in charge of... entertainment," I blurt out, as the first thing that I think of. And it's kind of true, isn't it? Scoring goals, making big hits, killing penalties, and dropping the gloves can be very entertaining to the hockey fans of Pittsburgh.
"Oh." It's her mother's common reply. Charlotte's hand relaxes and blood can flow through my leg again.
Before she can think of another question for me, the waiter walks over, greets me by name, and tells us all about the specials, and we place our orders and wait quietly for a moment before any of us speaks. Charlotte caves first and breaks the silence. "So, Mom, are you staying with Granny and Pap Pap while you're in town?"
Mrs. Livingston purses her lips. "Yes. You know, I haven't seen them in years, even though we've kept in contact since the funeral. They're back after their Thanksgiving vacation, and they went so far as to invite us over for Christmas. Like we don't have our own family to visit with."
Charlotte reddens. "They're still a part of our family, even if Dad passed away. They don't just go away, and they're still my grandparents."
"But what about my side of the family? And your stepfather's family, too. We always have Christmas in Chicago, and I'm not going to ruin tradition just because of their invitation."
"Why don't we invite them to come out to Chicago? They'll probably say no, and visit with their family out this way, but if they were nice enough to invite us, we should include them, too."
"Don't you think there will be enough people this year? And I suppose I should ask if you're bringing Max along?" she asks, her eyebrows raised to her hairline, but her words aren't biting. It doesn't sound like she's happy about it, but she's not completely adverse to it.... Could I be making headway?
"If he wants to come," Charlotte replies quietly, not looking up at me.
"Actually, Mrs. Livingston, I was hoping that I could steal Charlotte for Christmas, and take her up to my home in Montréal to meet my family." When I say that, Charlotte looks up at me with wide eyes, not expecting that response. "I know that it's such a big holiday, but I don't get to see my family often, and I especially don't get to go home often either."
"Christmas is out of the question. She didn't come home for Thanksgiving, and Christmas is too important of a holiday for her to miss it as well." She pauses before she adds, "If you wanted to, you would be welcome to celebrate with our family."
The hand on my knee begins to rub small circles. This is good. This is definitely good. "I thank you for your invitation, Mrs. Livingston. I must respectfully decline, though," I say. "My mother is already expecting me home, and it would break her heart to tell her that I couldn't all of a sudden."
"Oh." She purses her lips and analyzes me again. This is starting to get annoying. "Well, I have to respect that. A man who abides by his mother's wishes is a good man, in my book. I wish my children listened to me like you listen to your mother."
I grin widely as Charlotte scowls. Maybe I don't have her mother on my side yet, but I'm on her side. And that's a step in the right direction. Our food arrives and we eat, avoiding deep conversation and only talking about how good our meals are and how great the service is. I know that the waiter approaches our table often because he wants to make sure I'm happy, but Mrs. Livingston appreciates the attention, and she's almost... glowing with this type of treatment. Charlotte's nervous, so she continues to drink her glass of water, and the waiter constantly refills it.
Charlotte barely touches her salad, and her mother is quick to notice. "Aren't you hungry, Charlotte? Are you sick?"
"No, Mom. I'm saving room for dessert. Max always insists on ordering cheesecake when we come here."
"Is that so?" she asks.
"Of course! Why come to The Cheesecake Factory and not get any cheesecake? It's almost blasphemous," I laugh. As if on cue, our waiter appears again with menus in hand. Before he can say anything, I ask him, "Do you still have any of the pumpkin pecan cheesecake on hand?"
"Well, it's a seasonal thing, Mr. Talbot, but I'll check to see what we have," he replies, turning to leave.
"Two slices, if you have it," I tell him, and he nods with a smile as he walks away. Luckily, they still have some, and he sets a plate down in front of each of the two women at my table. They both dig in and eat, and I sit back and watch. They say that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, and I would argue that the way to a woman's heart is a good piece of cheesecake. It sure as hell works for Charlotte, so I hope it works for her mother, too.
The waiter checks on us one last time and leaves the check, so I quickly slide my card into the flap and hand it back to him.
Charlotte's squirming beside me. "I have to use the restroom," she says quietly. "Mom, will you come with me?"
"That's okay, Sweet Pea, I'm fine."
She looks at me and then back at her mother. "No, I guess I'm fine."
I slide out of the booth and pull her behind me so she can get out. "Go on. We'll be fine," I tell her, even though I mean to tell her that I'll be fine. She doesn't seem to trust the situation, trust me, or trust her mother, but she does leave us, and I slide back into my seat across from Mrs. Livingston.
I know what she's doing; I know what this whole thing has been about. She wants to make sure that I can provide for her daughter. I sure can; I may not have a contract the size of the Kid's or Geno's, or even Orpik's or Dupuis's, but I can sure as hell give her what she needs. Instead of playing this game, I'm going to just come right out and say it. Before I can, we get interrupted by a few patrons that ask for my autograph. I sign and smile until they leave, and then I get back to business.
"Autographs? Who are you?"
"I have to tell you that I may have not told you the whole truth. I'm... a professional hockey player for the team in Pittsburgh." She purses her lips. "I make decent money, Mrs. Livingston."
"That's so blue collar," she sighs. "Having to physically work for your money."
What a unique perspective; I would think that the physique of a professional athlete would more than outweigh the notion behind having to physically work for a paycheck. I lay all my cards on the table. "I'm not rich, but I make enough to be more than comfortable. I'm good at my job, too. I'm successful. I'm a good looking guy, if I do say so myself. But most of all, I love Charlotte more than anything. I can and will provide for her, and I'll care for her no matter what. I'm everything you could possibly want for her. I want you to want me for her."
The waiter hands the check back, and I sign my name and leave a large tip in cash on the table. She's silent as she stands, and we head toward the door and meet Charlotte along the way. Her mother is quiet as we leave the restaurant, our hefty leftovers in our hands, and I hand my ticket to the valet.
Charlotte's worried that no one's talking, but we still remain silent as I drive Mrs. Livingston back to the hospital. I remain in the car as the two of them get out and exchange words animatedly as I wait. At long last, they hug and she gets back in the car. I shift into gear and head toward my house. "So?" I ask, impatient to hear if I have accomplished anything I had set out to do.
"You have impressed her, but not because of you. Because of who you are. That you're famous and people know who you are and think you're God's gift to the Penguins. Not because you're a great guy and I love you or anything important like that," she sighs.
I smile. "It's better than nothing."
"But those aren't the reasons I like you, Max. I want her to like you for all of your good qualities. Not because you get special treatment—ergo, she gets special treatment—when you go out."
"Eh," I say, shrugging my shoulders. "I guess that's just a perk of being a superstar."
She rolls her eyes. "Don't pull that superstar shit on me, Max-A-Million. It won't work."
I laugh. "Why don't we go home? I'll give you a little superstar treatment, and we'll see how you change your story."