It was nearly 9:15 AM when Whitley stepped into the Corner Grill. Visibly hung-over patrons waiting near the door shuffled aside and stared up in awe, none standing any higher than her armpits. Assessing the space, Whitley frowned with visible disapproval at the narrow walls and cramped, noisy dining area. Eli, her interviewer for the morning, waved his hand from a back corner booth and she acknowledged him with a nod. Snagging a menu from the front counter on her way, she looked it over as she inelegantly squeezed between the tables, ignoring the stares as she had conditioned herself to do from years of practice.
"You're Eli, yes?" she more stated than asked.
"I am. Hello, Whitley."
Eli extended his hand, but Whitley only made a ridiculous half-attempt at a curtsey before folding herself into the small booth. Seated as she was in the center of the bucket seat, her elbow nearly touched the wall, and her knees met the underside of the table. She grumbled, and moved towards the outer edge of the seat, putting one leg in the aisle. Eli started to gesture towards an open table, but Whitley shook her head, indifferent.
"I was a little surprised you picked Corner Grill," Eli said. "John Hardy's is only five blocks down the road."
"I've been there. I'm new to town, so I figured I'd try all the local places. You could have warned me the place was built like a dollhouse, though."
"The breakfast fare is good, but yes, it's a little compact."
A young redheaded waitress appeared to take drink orders and asked if they needed more time to look at the menu. Eli was about to say yes, but Whitley jumped in.
"I'd like a bowl of oatmeal, four boiled eggs, the blueberry pancakes with bacon and hash browns, an extra side of turkey sausage, a tall orange juice, and coffee in the largest mug you have."
"All right!" the waitress enthusiastically replied. "You sir?"
"Veggie scramble with fruit." Eli had just enough to cover her order with cash provided by the newspaper, and he'd have to pay for his meal.
The waitress thanked them, took the menus and headed to the kitchen. Before Eli could say anything, Whitley excused herself to the bathroom, extracting herself from the booth with some effort. Minutes later, she emerged and walked right past, muttering that she had forgotten something in her car, and she returned looking glassy-eyed and reeking of marijuana. She banged her knee as she hastily dropped into the booth, but didn't seem bothered by it. Young people, Eli thought, though he probably wasn't much more than ten years her senior.
"So, I can thank Coach Richter for this?" Whitley asked, taking hold of what would otherwise be a large coffee mug.
"We got a message from her saying the new NU assistant volleyball coach was a former NCAA Player of the Year and nearly played on the USA Olympic team." Whitley folded her arms and waited expectantly. "And, yes, she did mention your exceptional height."
"There it is," Whitley said with a nod. "Not that I'm surprised. It sounds like Coach Richter is looking for publicity for her program."
"Possibly. Height aside, is all of that accurate?"
"Mmmhmm," Whitley replied, swallowing a large gulp of coffee. Eli expected her to elaborate, but she sat quietly, letting her eyes wander about the room.
"I get the feeling you've done interviews like this before."
"Indeed," Whitley said, again declining to elaborate.
Eli spent several more minutes struggling to launch a conversation until the waitress placed several plates of food on the table. Whitley immediately lit into her food, which improved her mood considerably. Where she had previously seemed dismissive and impersonal, she now appeared relaxed, or at least as relaxed as one can be while shoveling a full bowl of hot oatmeal into her mouth in one go.
"Truthfully, I could write the article based on the first two pages of 'Whitley Valentine' Google search results. After browsing those, I admit I got pretty curious to meet you."
Whitley arched an eyebrow, before setting down her empty oatmeal bowl and narrowing her eyes. "You aren't recording this, are you?"
Eli held up the digital recorder in his pocket. "I could, but I'm not...well, not yet. I figured we could talk about the direction of the article and the interview before actually getting started."
"Like you said, you've read plenty of them already. What do you want to write about me?"
"What do you want people to know about you?"
"No one's ever asked me that before. Are you sure this is a newspaper interview?"
Eli laughed. "Yes it's an interview, I just—," Eli noticed an empty, syrup-stained plate between them and wondered how he'd missed Whitley eating the three pancakes that he swore had been on the table seconds ago. Whitley noticed his bewilderment and smiled proudly. For a moment, he found himself again intimidated by her stature. While she had no reason to do so, she could easily reach across the table and press his face into his eggs without even leaning over. He chased those thoughts away for the time being.
"I imagine you've attracted a fair amount of attention over the years."
"You saw the search results," Whitley said, popping an entire hard-boiled egg into her mouth, which she held in her cheek. "Damned near every article about me reads like a Weekly World News piece. Yes, I realize a woman being this tall is unusual, but if people want a special interest puff-piece, they could just read some of the fan fiction about me."
"There's fan fiction about you?"
"Google is your friend. You don't want to read it, though, trust me. The characterization is terrible. It's like, come on, there's more to being tall than big feet and ducking under door frames. Do you know a salon once charged me extra for a leg wax?"
"The truth is stranger than fiction," Eli said, struggling to maintain some level of control over the conversation. "So, speaking of truth and fiction, I read you were an English major."
"I was. When it wasn't volleyball season, I wrote for the sports section of the newspaper."
"Have you thought of reaching out to the NU newspaper? From what I've heard their staff advisor is only temporary until they hire a new one."
"Journalism is not for me," Whitley said, fully absorbed in scraping up the remains of her hash browns.
"Don't like the hustle?"
"I don't like journalists."
Eli snickered. "Well, I've done some workshops for the Writing Center, and I know some folks there. Judy shared your writing portfolio with me."
Whitley stopped chewing and looked at Eli. "Seems unscrupulous to me. I don't see that having anything to do with your article."
"While I don't work at the college full-time, I advised the hiring committee for the admin position. Judy's my wife." Eli expected a reaction but did not get one. "Don't worry. I wouldn't mention any of that. I am a little curious about what's not in your portfolio, though. There's that piece 'When You Can't Hide' you wrote for your junior-year Non-Fiction III class."
Whitley's eyes nearly popped out of her head. Eli smiled and shrugged. "Google is your friend. I'm a reporter. Give me some credit." On his tablet, he pulled up a three-year-old post from the Durrenburg University ENG 412 class blog and showed it to her. Whitley's expression did not change. She was either unsure of how to react or, again, trying hard not to. Eli started reading.
"I'm a foot-and-a-half taller than the average woman. I don't blend in. That doesn't mean I can't have secrets, but I can't hide who I am, so I won't. I refuse to starve myself at lunch just to pretend like I don't consume 5,000 calories a day, nor will I slouch to make someone else's view any better. I can't buy clothes today assuming I'll fit into them tomorrow, nor can I act like all the articles, videos, fan sites, and Photoshops of me on the internet don't exist." He stopped reading and looked at Whitley. If anything, she seemed amused. "I can go on if you'd like."
"While I've enjoyed your reading, I'll go ahead and kindly request you not include that in the article either."
Eli laughed. "I wouldn't dream of it. I was going to say you should tutor for the NU writing center. I think the place could use some livening up."
"You aren't the first to tell me that. Tell your wife to hit me back in a couple of weeks when I'm a little more settled."
"You know, Whitley, if you don't like what people say about you online, you might consider taking control of that."
"You aren't the first person to tell me that either."
"Well, perhaps it's time to listen."
Whitley said nothing and chugged the last of her coffee. "While we're candid, you are a pretty shit interviewer. Are we done?"
"Nope. Actually..." Eli tapped the record button on his digital recorder and gestured to the waitress for a coffee refill. "We're just getting started. Now, let's talk about your thoughts on coaching volleyball."
"Yes," Whitley said with a smirk. "Let's start with that."