Jake threw back another shot, trying to calm his nerves. He had been trying to stretch out his first whiskey for a while. He didn’t want to be completely trashed before Kelsey got there.
He checked his phone again and took a deep breath.
What did he have to be nervous about? He wasn’t the same guy she knew in high school. He wasn’t the fat kid on the bench of the football team anymore. A couple of years of hefting concrete and bricks gave him muscles for the first time in his life. He had some money. An apartment. He wasn’t sitting on his mom’s couch jerking off like his step-dad.
Nothing to be nervous about.
He forced himself to look around the bar, to wait a little longer before he checked the time again. The bar was starting to fill with patrons. They were all nine to fivers, with ties and button down shirts. Jake thought of wearing the one button down he had from high school but it was way too small on him and the collar cut into the back of his neck.
Then again, tight shirts and skinny pants seemed to be the style, even with the guys. Jake shook his head.
The bartender with the sleeve tattoo asked him if he wanted another drink. He nodded and she grabbed the bottle of Jack sitting in the middle of the shelf. While she was pouring, Jake looked at the doorway again.
“Jake?” his heart punched the inside of his ribcage.
“Kelsey!” he stood up to give her a hug. It was a slightly awkward hug: the type you give when you’re caught unprepared or you weren’t expecting it.
“Oh my god I almost didn’t recognize you. You look great.” She said, a warm smile beaming behind her short blonde hair.
“Thanks, so do you.” Jake tried to return the compliment. She giggled and put in her order for a beer Jake had never heard of.
She was dressed in a lady’s sports coat and a polo shirt. On anybody else, it would have looked odd but he liked the way it looked on her. Though for the first time since he walked into the bar, he suddenly felt underdressed.
With a sip of her beer, she unleashed a flood of questions, trying to get up to speed since high school.
“So how long have you been down here in the city?” she asked.
“I’ve been down here a little over a year. How bout you?”
“I found this job through one of my professors. I got lucky and managed to skip the internship step and jump straight to a paying job.” She said.
“That’s cool. Where are you working?” He asked.
“The Institute for Economic Evolution. It’s a think tank down here specializing in evolving global markets and progressive globalization.” She said, as if Jake had any idea what in the hell that meant.
“I know I make it sound all fancy and important but right now I’m just doing a lot of data entry but it’s a really interesting field.” Kelsey continued.
“Sure it sounds like it.” Jake nodded and sipped more of his whiskey.
“Yeah. Princeton’s got some awesome professors. So what are you up to?” she asked.
“Well the company I work for just got a big contract building the Ritz Carlton downtown. We’ve been working on that for a while now.” Jake said.
“I didn’t know you were in construction. Did you major in architecture or engineering?” she asked.
“Neither. I’m one of the masonry and concrete specialists.”
“Oh wow. That’s pretty cool.” Kelsey said, her smile still warm as she took another sip of her beer. Jake stumbled around trying to explain what his job was. Kelsey kept a polite and warm smile on her face the whole time. Eventually, he finally stopped rambling and the two were quiet for a beat.
“So have you seen anyone else from high school?” he asked.
“Not really. I mean I try to keep in touch with people but it’s tough. It feels like everybody’s always moving or they’re abroad. And it’s hard getting back home, ya know?” she asked as the bartender put another beer down.
“Yeah I know what you mean.” But Jake’s reasons were for a different kind of tough.
The two exchanged some stories and made small talk. Jake had another glass of whiskey. He might not have a job in a think tank but he could still make a move. Asking her out would show confidence.
Girls liked confidence.
He just had to be confident.
He’d be confident and ask at just the right time.
The bar was crowded now, with people milling around ordering for groups or having loud conversations. The dull buzz of the air turned into a low roar. Jake couldn’t quite hear exactly what Kelsey was saying so he nodded and focused on the words he could hear. From the character of her nods, she was doing the same thing.
“Jeez. This place got packed quick. Well I think I’m gonna head out now.” Kelsey said as she gestured to the bartender to close her tab.
Jake saw an opportunity to be suave. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his roll of cash.
“I got you covered.” She smiled, “Oh no that’s okay. Thanks.”
“C’mon, it’ll be my welcome to the city present.”
She smiled again, “You’re so sweet but I got it, really. Thank you so much for even thinking of it though.” Jake relinquished. She got her card back and was calculating her tip. Jake swallowed his drink and jumped.
“So we’ll have to get together again and let me get you a drink or maybe some dinner.”
“Definitely.” Jake’s insides lit up like a firework, “Some of my co-workers were looking to do a happy hour and try some of the bars around here. We could use a seasoned pro to show us the way.” She said, her smile as warm and unchanged as it was when she came in.
“Sounds like a plan to me.” Jake said, throwing up a wall of friendliness.
“Awesome. It was so great seeing you again. Are you heading out?” she asked, putting her blazer back on.
“I’m gonna stay for one more drink. It’s been a crazy kind of week.” He said.
“It sounds like it from some of those stories. Well get home safe okay?” The two hugged again. It wasn’t awkward this time. It was just empty.
“Will do. You do the same.” And with one last goodbye, she was lost to the crowd and out of the bar. Jake muscled some drunk fool away who was trying to take the seat.
He sat down and waved for another drink.
He could feel his earlier liquid courage catching up to him as it swam into his skull.
“Rough week?” the bartender asked as another glass of whiskey slid into his hand.
Some confidence, dickhead, Jake thought to himself as he stared at the brown liquid. For all his work, everything he did, nothing had changed.
By the time he stood up, he could barely keep his legs underneath him. He could feel sweat on his forehead and his mouth was numb. The crowd was blurring together as he weaved his way through. He could have started laughing as he replayed Kelsey’s exit. Must have looked pretty stupid, Jake thought and started laughing.
He stumbled down the steps to the first floor of the bar and looked at the people waiting for drinks. The girls there were in groups or with their guys. Jake rolled his eyes and his whole head followed.
“Just show em some confidence.” He muttered to himself. He scanned the bar, trying to will his eyes to see straight for a moment when he saw a short redhead sitting alone. She was looking out at the bar so Jake could see her face. She was a cute type, probably shy too.
Just go for it, he thought.
He slapped himself on the cheek to try and pull himself together before walking down the rest of the steps towards her.
“Hey doll. Are you alone?”