The Million Dollar Girl
A Novel

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 11, 2008

Chapter 7

The Shooting Star restaurant was known more by reputation than experience among the university students. It was simply too expensive for all but the most important dates. Even at graduation, not many parents, however proud they were of their sons and daughters, took them to this restaurant to celebrate. A few students with sufficient means or overriding commitment took their dates here to impress them. Some faculty liked to brag, discretely and nonchalantly, about visiting the restaurant because they thought it lent a cachet of sophistication to their lives. The more satiric among them even had a saying about the restaurant. “The price for being sophisticated is long years of study. The price for feeling sophisticated is about a hundred dollars a person at the Shooting Star.” The satiric, of course, never ate at the Shooting Star, or they would have realized that a hundred dollars a person was just about the price of the wine by itself. Food was extra.

The restaurant was every bit as dark and cozy as the one that so famously burned each term in Professor Miller’s film. However, there were no plastic plants or hanging paper fish. Every decoration at the Shooting Star was real. The plants were live, the flowers freshly cut, the paintings on the wall genuine oils, the sculpture produced by well known artists. Every feature spoke of elegance. The thick, starched table cloths, the dim lighting, the tuxedoed waiters with little moustaches, the crystal glasses and fancy silverware. Each table was attended by a personal waiter, who stood attentively but not officiously, holding a napkin over his arm until beckoned for service. The waiters were beckoned often, as the customers quickly became drunk with the power of having someone on ready call. More butter, more rolls, refill the water or the wine, another napkin, another spoon. Even these obvious requests were almost endless. If the diners were fully satisfied with the essentials of their table, then new needs must be imagined. The candle is smoking too much, we would like some capers, and could we have more lemon for the ice water?

Although the restaurant had won only one or two Silver Award dining plaques in the past few years (Platinum being the best, or an A, and Gold next best, or a B), the food was reported by those who paid to eat there as superb.

Sitting at table 8, as she had predicted, was Gina Roper, adjusting the many eating utensils surrounding a large silver plate. She had just ordered a filet mignon, extra rare, with truffles and baby asparagus. Caesar salad and lobster bisque soup. No wine or champagne, thank you, just cranberry juice.

Her companion, sitting across from her, ordered a rib eye steak, medium well, baked potato, and broccolini. House salad with Roquefort, cream of mushroom soup, and the house Cabernet. He did not need to show his identification to the waiter to prove that he was old enough to drink wine because Gina’s companion was not Jeremy Schneider. In fact, her companion was twice Jeremy’s age, and his newly permed hair had already begun to recede in the front.

“This is really nice, Dr. Miller,” Gina said. “I’ve never been here before.” Her cranberry juice arrived in a crystal wine glass. As she took a sip, a casual observer would have thought she was skillfully taking a sip of fine red wine. Professor Miller was taken by her full lips as they seemed to caress the glass. He tried not to stare.

“So tell me. Why’d you ask me to dinner?” Gina said, putting down the glass and looking into his eyes.

“You’re a beautiful young woman, Gina.” Miller paused for a few moments to construct and test his next sentence before delivering it. “I find you very attractive. I wanted to get to know you better.” Thinking he was sounding either like a high school student on his first date or a bad movie plot, he tried to rescue his own dialog. “I thought you would be interesting to talk to. Your voice is charming. Beautiful words from a beautiful woman are like, oh, I don’t know, apricots in summer.”

Gina smiled. Miller wondered whether she thought he was an idiot. He now remembered, too late, that in the past the students had all pursued him more openly, so that he had not felt the need to be charming or to produce explanations about his motives.

“Thank you,” she said. “And you’re a good-looking man, so I’ll return the compliment. I really like your class. You’re very educated and smart.”

“Well, thank you,” he said, relaxing a little. “I enjoy thinking. And I enjoy relaxing and socializing in good company. Hence, here we are.” Gina took another sip of her cranberry juice, but said nothing. “Tell me,” Miller continued after a bit, “what’s your major?”

“I don’t know yet. I want to take a bunch of different classes and see what I like. I’ve really come here to learn all about life and have lots of experiences. I can choose a major later on.”

“This is a good place to have experiences.” They looked into each other’s eyes, as if trying to see what the other thought this sentence meant. How much reading between the lines, how much translating, how much symbolism, how much innuendo, would accurately discover the meaning? After a few moments, both looked away. Miller went on. “Got any career plans?”

“Well, I’ve thought about modeling for awhile. It’s pretty good money.”

“Well, you certainly have what it takes to be a successful model. And money is important to you?”

“Money is necessary for living,” Gina said. “I’m not after money for its own sake. I just like the things that money can buy. Things like this restaurant. I hope that doesn’t make me sound materialistic or greedy. I’m really not.”

The soup arrived and they began to eat. Miller fought with himself over the next question and rephrased it several times. Finally, he forced it out.

“Are you seeing anyone right now?”

Gina looked up at Miller, barely lifting her head, as if looking at him through her eyelashes. Her eyes sparkled. Miller was captivated. His mouth dropped open a little to let out a short, involuntary breath.

“Just you,” she said, winningly. Then she added, in an ordinary but still soft tone, “No, right now I’m kind of stuck at the university and I’m not much interested in college boys. They’re so immature, and they’re mostly cheap. No college guy would bring me here, that’s for sure.”

“And you like being here?”

“Oh yes.”

“So then, you’re looking for someone who is well heeled and willing to share the bounty with you.”

“Yeah. I hope that doesn’t sound bad.”

“And how well heeled a guy are you looking for?”

“I’ve always thought I’d like to have a million dollars.”

I am sure that by now you have seen a dozen times the setup where someone says something surprising just as the other person is taking a drink. The other person spews the liquid out, often onto the speaker. It is a dusty old bit. Unfortunately for this scene, Miller was not drinking anything when Gina mentioned the million dollars. He did begin to think, “This girl is a little gold digger, who’s going to use her assets to go for the mother lode.” However, such a goal did not deter Miller in the least because he was not interested in a long-term relationship. He already had one of those. He was thinking more in terms of weeks than of years.

Gina noticed the pause her comment had caused, so she restarted the conversation. “So, what should I major in to make that kind of money?”

Miller thought to himself that the right answer for Gina was “princes from oil-rich countries,” but he suppressed the urge to say it and instead chose something more mundane. “Business, I guess.”

“Business is yucky. Try again.”

Miller thought about suggesting history or political science as a pre-law path, but then an idea occurred to him that might help further his own plans.

“I’ll tell you what. As luck would have it, I’m giving a paper at a philosophy conference this weekend in California. Why don’t you come along and sit in on a few sessions and see if philosophy appeals to you? A degree in philosophy would make a perfect pre-law major, thus putting you on the path to a good income. At least the training in thinking and logic would enable you to make a smart choice of rich husbands. And I’m sure you would enjoy the experience.”

Miller thought he was being clever by the way he framed the question. He thought Gina might read between the lines and understand his intention, but if she got upset at the suggestion, he could say, quite plausibly, that he obviously meant they would have separate rooms. After all, professors with strictly honorable intentions often invite students to attend conferences with them. Students and professors attend conferences together hundreds of times a year, under the most innocent circumstances, he could tell her.

Miller waited to hear what Gina would say. Would she take the bait? Would she get upset? Would she bring up the issue of sleeping accommodations?

The expression on Gina’s face changed completely. What Miller saw was not anger, but a look of worldly-wise understanding. Gina gave a wry smile. She was obviously thinking, “Now I know why you invited me here and what you have in mind.” Had Miller been half the critical thinking professor he thought he was, he could have spoken up and said, “Now your sudden reconceptualization has disambiguated the agenda behind our entire interaction.” Gina suppressed a smirk and was silent for a moment. Miller searched her face to try to understand what she was thinking. She rolled her tongue around her lips thoughtfully, gazing out into the room. She saw their waiter, just arriving with their dinner.

The waiter seemed to take too long to deliver the food. “That’s fine, that’s fine, yes, just leave it,” Miller heard himself say testily. He was waiting for important news.

At last everything had been delivered and arranged and the waiter dismissed. Gina picked up her fork and then looked at Professor Miller. “Actually,” she said, “you know, the conference doesn’t sound all that interesting to me. Thanks anyway.” At least she was rejecting his proposal without getting upset.

“Oh, this steak is perfect,” Gina said, enthusiastically, as she cut into it and watched the bloody juice run out onto her plate. “Mmmm.”

They ate for awhile in silence. Miller often looked up from his food at Gina. She had a way of eating provocatively, he thought. The way she pushed the food into her mouth. Her chewing. The way she looked at him with those glistening eyes. Maybe he was being stupid, or even delusional, but he thought he saw something there. Anyway, he did not want to give up his idea completely, so he sounded the water again.

“Does anything else appeal to you? I mean, is there anything else I could do to, uh, help you, uh, choose a major?”

Gina’s eyes had a curious, unreadable expression.

“I don’t know,” she said, with a pause that indicated she was thinking. Miller felt encouraged by Gina’s lack of hostility. He decided to climb the next step.

“I’ve got a few bucks to have fun with,” Miller said. “We could go somewhere. Anywhere.”

Gina now looked at him with a trace of amusement.

She was taking her time chewing a bite of steak. Then she had to take a sip of cranberry juice. “Why doesn’t she just say something?” Miller asked himself.

After a few more moments, Gina looked at Miller, her eyes still sparkling, and said, “You know, why don’t we go to Las Vegas? Maybe tomorrow. We could squeeze it in before your conference.” This time I really wish Professor Miller had been drinking something when Gina spoke, because this would have been an excellent opportunity for the spew gag. He did at least clear his throat to bounce back a bite of steak that was too large to swallow at that moment. But the effect is just not the same. Miller wondered if he had heard right.

“We could stay at a nice hotel, see a couple of shows. I could get a massage at a spa.” Gina paused. She was picturing these things in her mind. “And we could see if we could win some money, using those ‘few bucks’ you have so handy.” Miller looked at her. It was as if he had just been told he had won the lottery, but he was afraid that he was dreaming.

“What do you think?” she asked brightly.

Clearing his throat again, he said, “Tomorrow? Uh, okay. Sure.” He could scarcely believe how fast this had happened. Gina was not one to put things off, it seemed. “Yes. I’ll get the tickets on the Net tonight. We can leave right after class, so we’ll only miss Friday.” He could tell his wife that the conference was four days instead of two and that he had made a mistake about it earlier. He would have to fly in Wednesday to get ready for the next day. Yes, it would all work out well. Surprisingly well. He looked over at Gina.

“Uh, what kind of accommodations would you like?”


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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com