relationships

Coming Back

The train clicked along the rainy countryside, its passengers still reveling in final moments of their liberty pass. Kurt sipped coffee from a cheap and ugly brown mug while his crew sprawled out across the car.

“You pig! It’s definitely a rash!” Heinrich yelled followed by a bout of laughter from the others as Thomas pushed him away, trying to hide his insecurity about the possible souvenir he acquired from the lower wharf whorehouse. The submariners, in fresh clothes, washed and clean shaven only looked respectable from a distance. To look at them for more than a moment was to see them for the loud and crass brothers they were. The smell of diesel fuel that never seemed to go away or the grease that rested in the corners of their fingernails were the true uniforms of their trade.

“Herr Kaleun! How were the girls in the officer’s ball?” Willie called out, waving a half-empty stein of beer. Kurt gave him a look that was equal parts officer and friend.

“Better than you’ll ever see, Matrose.” He answered with a look that quietly told Willie to check himself. The burly Saxon sheepishly nodded before guzzling down the second half of his beer. The men continued to talk and revel amongst themselves, still lost in the nightclubs and brothels they had squandered their wages on. A few of the lads, the machinists from Bavaria, had kept themselves in good order, sending letters to mothers or sweethearts down South. Whether in letter or twenty minute intervals, they had all reached out for something, a comfort to remind them they weren’t at sea.

Kurt closed his eyes, trying to fold away his memories like photographs.

You have to focus on the little details, she had whispered to him in the morning. He smiled at her words tickling his ear with her cute Swedish accent. The scent of jasmine that always followed her or the way her cinnamon brunette hair refused to ever cooperate with her designs come the morning. Even with all her style and makeup, she never looked more perfect than when she rose from the bed, its covers and sheets scattered from amorous friction. Even the overcast grey of morning seemed to brighten and she wrapped the crème colored sheet around herself.

There she was.

Minerva given life.

One of the navy attendants entered the car and the band of hooligans reined themselves in.

“We’ll be in Wilhelmshaven in about half an hour,” he paused, “You are to report to your boat immediately and be prepared to get underway before dark.”

The mood darkened instantly.

Wilhelmshaven. The name made every man’s skin bristle. It was the gateway to their hell on earth. Once they passed through the checkpoint, it was back to sweat, salt and exhaust. Each man knew he was just a quick review by the Kaiser’s favorite admiral of the week away from being thrust back into the terror of the North Atlantic.

Doing the best they could to keep bright their spirits before the seawater extinguished them, the men chatted far quieter now even after the attendant in his heavily-starched uniform left.

“Will you be here when I come back?” He had asked her, admiring her as she made no attempt to dress herself in anything more than the sheet.

“That depends. Will you come back?” she replied.

“For you? Always.” He said, giving her a cheeky smile. She had glided over to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. He could still see the flicker of fear behind her bright green eyes.

“You’re incredibly selfish, you know that?” she said, the echo of tenderness dampening the impact of it.

“That seems a little unfair, no?” He said, smiling coyly. She let the sheet fall off her body.

“You know what I mean.” Kurt shifted, reaching for a cigarette from the silver case on the nightstand.

“That’s what your other lovers are for.” He said, perhaps a touch too pointedly as he struck a match. Before he could even move the flame she reached out and pinched it dead before clasping his chin in her hand.

“I don’t miss any of the others,” her face hanging mere millimeters from his, “I miss you.”

“I love you too” he said, his smile naked on his still bearded face. She frowned at him and pressed off of his chest. He sprang into action and delicately wrapped her in his arms, kissing her neck as he did. He smiled as he remembered how her skin felt on his lips.

The train rolled along, bringing Kurt mile by mile back to the war. From the arms of his Minerva back to the cold gaze of the angel of death. But still, Kurt smiled to himself.

The men glanced at their captain, sitting quietly in his seat, his face locked in a half-smile as his closed eyes pointed out the window.

“Bloody officers. Probably nothing but caviar and dancing girls in those parties.” Willie grumbled.

“Oh come off it. The Kaleun’s not the white glove type.” Heinrich said, to the chuckle of the men listening.

They amused themselves by painting cartoons in whispered voices of their oil-stained and rough-hewn captain breaking glasses to the horror of prim and proper surface fleet officers.

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Summer Job

Wyatt broke another piece of drywall over his knee and tossed it in the pile he’d been building for the last two hours. The powdery grey dust clung to his face and choked his throat. The afternoon sun was bearing down, baking the construction site and making the white of the drywall harsh and bright. Wyatt’s back ached from the constant hunching over and lifting. All he wanted to do was drink an entire gallon of water before lying down to return to his sleep, interrupted at 5 AM.

Wyatt’s boss, TJ, pulled up in his battered red pickup truck to make a final inspection before he left for the day.

“How’s it going, bud?” TJ asked, stepping out of the cab. TJ was a scrawny wire-frame of a man inside work boots and faded blue jeans. As usual, he had an almost empty bottle of diet coke in one hand and a Marlboro burning down to the butt in his mouth.

“Almost finished here, boss.” Wyatt said, wiping the sweat from his face. TJ nodded in approval and slipped the butt of his old cigarette into the coke bottle before pulling out a fresh smoke.

“I’m sorry to stick you on this by yourself.” TJ said, exhaling smoke as he did.

“It’s no biggie.” Wyatt broke down another piece of drywall and added it to the pile.

“You got all the loose shit out of the house right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Alright. Well just get all this in the dumpster and you’re done for the day. Here’re the keys for the dump truck. Just put em through the mail slot on the office door when you’re done.” Wyatt nodded, though the idea of reloading all the drywall was exhausting.

“Thanks.” TJ said before climbing back into his truck and making his way down the neighborhood to inspect the concrete foundation pouring on the other side of the development. Wyatt held the keys TJ had tossed him and with a sigh of resignation, trudged down the sidewalk to get the dump truck.

The cab of the dump truck was filthy and covered with a thick layer of dust, baked in by the days’ worth of unshaded sunlight. Just the act of climbing into the driver’s seat stirred the dust and dirt into a cloud that stifled the already cramped space. The smell of the old pleather seat and the stale odor of cigarette and fast food were all made even more unbearable thanks to the heat.

Wyatt sat for a moment, his foot engaging the clutch, feeling the August day weighing down and enticing him to sleep, in spite of the discomfort. All he’d have to do was lean his head back and close his eyes and the buzzing of insects and muggy air would do the rest. He turned the key and the engine rumbled to life.

When he pulled up to the pile of discarded and broken down drywall, he set right to work in loading it, feeling the urge to be done for the week welling up inside him. Clasping pieces together and heaving up as many as he could at a time, Wyatt set to work in loading the truck.

Slowly, armful by armful, the pile shrunk.  The grass and trees of the neighborhood were vibrant green with a yellow tinge brought on by the sun. Gone was the sun-bleached white of high noon. Wyatt could feel that the work day was slowly dragging to a close. The occasional and far too short-lived breeze of air kissed his neck and promised him a cooler evening.

One armful after another. Beads of sweat trickled down his forearms leaving traces in the dust that clung to his skin.

By the time he had moved the truck and unloaded the discarded material into the massive red dumpster in the construction vehicle parking lot, Wyatt felt almost numb with exhaustion. The green of his t-shirt was darkened with sweat and his arms glistened in the setting sun. He could feel the soreness setting into the small of his back as he took a seat on the side of the dumpster, his boots knocking idly against the metal.

The houses on the row all followed a similar layout with only the smallest of differences in their overall plan. Some stood fully constructed and only awaiting families to furnish them while others still only had the wooden skeletons of their frames standing. The bricklayers had been building up the chimney in the lot next to where Wyatt had been working. He envied them their trade in constructing something more permanent. They could always drive past and point to the structure they helped erect, brick by brick. Wyatt looked into the dumpster full of broken drywall and shook his head.

As he parked the truck, his phone buzzed to a text from his girlfriend Melissa.

How was work?

Wyatt was too tired to really get into a conversation about it.

It was long but it’s over now.

Wanna stop over here? We can order some food if you want 🙂

Wyatt hadn’t planned on stopping at her place. As much as he liked being with her, her house wasn’t home. He stood by the door to the construction office, mentally weighing the decision in his head. He sighed and put the truck keys through the mail slot.

Sure. I’ll be over in a few minutes.

The drive to Melissa’s was a short one. Wyatt left his music off and didn’t bother to turn on the air conditioning, instead opting to just put the windows down. He was still sweating like a pig but knew that there was air conditioning in his immediate future. A few miles down the road and he was in a development that looked eerily similar to the one he’d come from. But instead of the drab yellow backhoes and vacant lawns, there were cars and some form of children’s toys in each yard.

Wyatt pulled up to Melissa’s house and slowly pulled himself out of his car. He walked up the path winding through the professionally maintained lawn and rang the doorbell. In the shade, he felt just a touch cooler enjoyed the setting sun’s light changing from yellow to amber.

Melissa opened the door and greeted him with a smile and a quick kiss. Her large brown eyes were the first warmth Wyatt had felt all day that he didn’t mind. Her dirty blonde hair was as usual trying to hide her face. Even in her jeans and faded pink t-shirt, she still looked put together and pristine. Wyatt stepped into the sweet air-conditioned air and felt all the heat that was weighing down on him peel off in a moment.

“You look funky.” Melissa said as Wyatt pulled off his boots.

“I feel pretty funky.” He replied with a half-smile, acutely aware of how dirty he was.

“Did you want to grab a shower? I’ve got a pair of your jeans still here you can wear after.” Melissa said, smiling. Wyatt nodded and thanked her. He walked through the house up to the second floor shower. As he did, it still struck him as odd at just how immaculately clean the house was. Everything looked ready to be modelled for a perspective buyer. Were it not for the collection of photos and the odd piece of mail, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a model house. Even the kitchen was neatly maintained and organized. The carpet was crisp and cream colored, and all the furnishing smart and new-looking. It looked incredible and artificial at the same time. Wyatt treaded carefully in his socks, fearful of leaving some stain or mark that would betray he was ever there.

He stepped into the bathroom and pulled the sweaty t-shirt off his back, revealing his pale skin underneath. His arms were darkened with sunlight and grime while the rest of him was merely flushed. Melissa stepped in for a second with a clean towel for him.

“Thanks.” He said, embarrassed to be disturbing the pristine bathroom with his grime.

She smiled and kissed him again.

Despite the great sensation of removing the dirt from his body, Wyatt kept his shower brief. He was far more interested in laying down than washing. He clambered out of the shower and quickly threw on the jeans Melissa had brought him.

He exited the bathroom and walked into Melissa’s room. Like an oasis, her bed was resplendent in its soft purple comforter and thick pillows. Without a second thought, Wyatt laid down and let out an audible groan of satisfaction as he did. The pain in his back dissipated and he felt the exhaustion slip off his body like the shower water had a moment ago.

Melissa stepped into her room and shut the door behind him.

“Feel better?” She asked. Wyatt nodded and felt his eyelids grow heavy. Melissa climbed on top of him and sat there with a playful look on her face. Normally, this was enough of a cue for Wyatt to take a hands-on approach, but now, he was content just to rest.

She leaned down to kiss him and he weakly put his arms around her.

“What do you want to do for dinner?” she asked him. Her voice sounded distant and the words only half-registered.

“Babe?” Wyatt’s hands slipped down her back before coming to rest on her hips.

“Wyatt?” The light had gone out and his breathing had slowed. Melissa asked him again but he was fast asleep.

Words

Sam wiped the tears from her face and took a deep breath. She’d finally stopped crying but still felt raw. The shattered picture frame was still in pieces by the bedroom door. She checked her phone again, even though she knew there was no response.

Why did she have to needle him? She should have noticed when he came into the apartment that he was in no mood to talk about it. She should have just let it be for the night.

But why did she have to put things on hold for him? You can’t just not have a response to someone saying ‘I love you’, it wasn’t fair to her to have to sit on her hands for him to decide to talk about it. Sam felt more tears creeping up behind her eyes. Her feelings were so churned they were tying her insides in knots.

Every item in the bedroom sent a fresh bolt of emotion through her. The little grey teddy bear he’d bought her on their third date, the almost empty bottle of clubman aftershave that he had clumsily asked her for, the Notre Dame sweatshirt he’d specifically ordered two sizes too big for her, everything had some story or history attached to it. All she wanted was to rewind time to a week ago when they were a normal couple.

Sam kept replaying the way he left in her head. In her mind’s eye, she could see him clench his jaw and see him twitching with frustration and anger. Then something inside him snapped and he turned around. Not a word or even an angry slam of the apartment door, just a turnaround and then he was down the hall.

Fine! Just fucking go! She had screamed at him as he left. She might have even meant it at the time. What she really wanted was for him to let it out. He’d been off since her birthday and she wanted him to just talk to her about it. It wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

Her feet were freezing but she couldn’t bring herself to lay down. She just sat at the foot of the bed, feeling the fallout cling to every piece of fabric as it poisoned the memories around her. The bright white numbers on her phone read 2:40 AM. She felt completely spent but had no energy or desire to sleep. The melted yellow light from the streetlights filtered in through the windows, casting a dim haze on the otherwise still and dark apartment. The air still smelled of winter night as the cold crept through the glass pane.

Sam’s ears perked as she heard a key unlock the door and John walk in. Her heart fell down into her stomach and all the air in her body jammed itself in her throat. He stood before her in only a button down and his slacks. His shoes were still untied and caked with melting snow. Even in the low light, he looked terrible. His hands were cracked and his eyes looked sunken.

The two stared at each other for what felt like ages. Sam no longer tried to fight the tears as they rolled down her face. God, she needed him to say something, anything. The apartment was so quiet she could hear his wristwatch tick, second after second.

He stepped forward with heavy and exhausted steps. The smoldering repression was gone from his face, replaced with weariness and pain.

“I can’t go” he said.

“What?” Sam asked, not fully sure what he meant. John paused for another moment, as if one wrong word might unleash an avalanche.

“You told me to go. But I can’t” he said. Sam felt regret burning up inside her. She had a million things to say right, all bubbling inside her throat. But before she could even start talking, John slowly cupped her face in his hands.

His skin was frozen and sent shivers down Sam’s spine but she kept her eyes on John.

“Not now…” John continued, his voice wavering. Vulnerability resonated off his body as much as the cold did. He looked at Sam like she was fate itself. She’d never seen him like this before. He was so raw and unprotected. It filled her with a sense of fear that even the slightest breath might shatter him.

“…cause I love you” John said, the words leaving his mouth like a prayer of absolution. The collage of emotion inside Sam continued to blend and overlap as she felt warmth slowly pour into her soul. John slowly put his arms around her and held onto her like without her, he might collapse. His shirt was damp and cold but Sam didn’t care. She ran her hands through his hair and kissed him as softly as she could as he hung his face on her shoulder.

Birthday Girl

Sam smiled as her friends snapped off another picture. Her college roommate Andrea gave her a huge hug after the flash blinded them for a moment.

“8 Myles girls!” she cried out, excited and tipsy. All of Sam’s friends from college repeated their freshmen year slogan. Their group broke off from their table and charged the bar. Within a few minutes, a fresh round of shots were being poured and distributed amongst everyone.

“To the birthday girl!” somebody called out and they all toasted their shot glasses. Sam downed her drink as best she could. The rail vodka went down rough and hot, bringing back contact memories of college. She looked down the bar and saw her boyfriend, John, sitting further down turned to face her group.

She slipped out of her mob of friends before they decided to do another round of shots. John’s smile was warm and reserved. His broad shoulders were relaxed and he actually looked relaxed. Normally, it was a war of attrition to get John to come out a bar like this unless he was already hammered. She was thankful he’d been so agreeable tonight.

“Are you alright, babe?” she asked him but the DJ drowned her out with another Taylor Swift song. John just kept smiling at her. When they first started dating, she thought it was goofy and kind of dumb-looking. She still made fun of him for it but secretly she’d come to love it. He looked so at ease when he smiled that way.

“Are you alright?” she asked again, louder and closer to his ear.

“I’m great, just sitting this one out. I don’t want to cause a panic with my killer dance moves” he said, giving her his fake “cool guy” face. John couldn’t dance to save his life. She’d tried with him once and the two of them had to sit down because they were both laughing so hard. She smiled at the memory and kissed him before turning back to her friends.

At first, her friends said that John was too opposite for her. He was the overly-serious, “old man” in school. She’d go crazy with such a downer, they all said. But now, they all saw it. Sam and John just clicked together. He challenged her and didn’t let her just float by on charm alone. It drove her crazy and she loved it.

In fact, she was ready to admit she loved him. Sam smiled to herself as she joined her friends dancing. It’s not like John was the first boyfriend she’d loved before. But that didn’t mean it still wasn’t something important to her. She felt like she was in high-school again, getting over-excited about a crush. She couldn’t put her finger on it but something felt different about this relationship. The song switched and all she could think about was how she wanted to drag John off his barstool and make him dance with her.

Sam looked back at the bar but he was gone.Probably in the bathroom, she thought to herself. As more friends crowded in around her, she quietly agreed that she’d tell him tonight.

Inner Sanctum

Mira opened her eyes and stretched out her arms, taking in the lavish comfort of the soft cotton sheets she was sleeping in. The morning light was punctuated with the dull vibrating hum of the airship’s main engine. She had worried that the noise would be unbearable yet now that the craft was lazily floating along the countryside, its distant yet constant presence felt like a lifeline to the ground, which was something she welcomed.

Through the large glass window panes, she could see the rolling barley fields and deep green hills of Tybernia stretching out for miles. She had often seen the penny-artists trying to sell paintings of the countryside and had even worked on a farmstead before moving to the capital but to see the vastness and the purity of it all from so high above was truly breathtaking. It was so incredible a vista that the trappings and furnishings of the cabin almost came across as an annoyance to her. But then, she considered the owner of those trappings.

At the head of the cabin, facing the bow of the airship was the minister’s writing table. An ornately carved and handsome piece of lacquered mahogany, it was covered with a sea of letters, papers, books and maps. Sitting on top of a stack of books was a small marble ashtray. A hedge of extinguished cigars jutted out of the top of the tray in every direction. Mira could smell the smoke on everything in the cabin and felt a tinge of sympathy for whoever was tasked with tidying up this hermit’s den whenever the airship came down to earth.

She laid back down in bed and closed her eyes, wondering how many other women had been allowed into this inner sanctum. Could she truly be the first person to share this cabin with him? Her thoughts were interrupted by a new aroma. It was the smell of cinnamon and coffee. She opened her eyes as her stomach awoke to see Viktor placing a serving tray on the nightstand. “All I ask is avoid spilling if you can. I hear enough complaints about ash.” He said, stealing a biscuit off the tray.

“Good morning to you too.” She said, giving him a playful smile. He seemed distracted as he sat at his desk, dipping his biscuit into a small porcelain cup.

“If you’d prefer something more substantial, I’ll see what can be arranged.” He said, rifling through the papers on his desk, looking for a matchbox. This was the first time she had ever seen Viktor truly at work. All the times she’d seen him in his office, he was either rakishly relaxed or impatient as a child. But here, floating above the world, she saw a different man.

Everything about him spoke of a man who was lost in the machinations and turnings of a runaway mind. His feet were bare and his suspender had slipped off his left shoulder. Instead of the traditional dressing gown favored by the nobles, he simply wore a white dress shirt unbuttoned and partially tucked into his trousers. It was so strange to see him like this after a year of seeing him constantly put together.

She rolled over to the nightstand and gingerly dipped a biscuit into her coffee.  The hard crunch of the biscuit gave way to the sweet taste of sugar and cinnamon. She helped herself to the tray as Viktor sat, writing away, occasionally standing to check some map or dig through a mountain of correspondence. As he worked, a new stack of letters took shape by his side. How he kept track of it all, she could only guess. With no discernable pattern or rhythm, he wrote letter after letter. At times he would stop writing one letter only to start a three page memorandum before returning to his original task. It was dizzying to watch.

“And there!” Viktor finally declared, blowing a smoke ring onto the last letter he wrote. He sealed it and added it to one of his many piles. Mira was startled by the sudden outburst which had broken the morning stillness. He turned around to face her and seemed surprised to find her watching him. He nervously fumbled with his hands and snubbed out his cigar. Before her eyes, this posh and proper old hound had transformed into a bumbling youth full of nervous energy and totally lost in his own world.

“I’m terribly sorry for that. You must be bored stiff.” He said, his fingers fumbling with one of the buttons on his shirt.

“I enjoy watching you work.” She said, her voice amorous and genuine. Viktor smiled back, running a hand through his salt and pepper hair.

“You do?” he asked. She laughed at him and nodded her head.

“Well I feel simply dreadful. What a neglectful host I’ve been.” He said, the aristocrat slowly regaining control over the tone of his voice. As she watched, it was as if he were putting on a jacket. His nervous fidgeting slowly faded and the embarrassment departed from his voice. His dark green eyes regained their focus on her as he stepped out of his head and back into the cabin.

He slowly but purposefully walked towards the bed like he was approaching the Emperor’s throne. For all of his bluster and pageantry, Viktor had the natural grace that seemed to be a growing rarity amongst the highborn. He climbed onto the bed and crawled to meet her.

“I beg your forgiveness my lady. How may I correct this terrible slight?” he asked, the devilish twinkle in his eye now fully returned.

Morning Thoughts

He feels the cold on his shoulders before his eyes open. She’s wrapped herself in all the covers. He slips out of bed and walks to the bathroom. He can’t remember her name as he brushes his teeth. A million questions run through his mind. All of them are about her.

He returns to his bed and lays down next to her. He looks up at the ceiling, waiting for answers. She finally stirs and his pulse quickens. She turns and tucks herself into his arms. This moment won’t last, he thinks. Best to savor it then. They both smile.

Confidence

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.

Jake hesitated.

“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.

“Yeah.”

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?”

Twentysomethings

I’m drunk on my victory
And I’m high off of whiskey
And I saw that you see me
And I think that you’re pretty.

Our hands’ moving quickly
And your clothes come off nimbly
And you smile and get cozy
And I’m glad you came with me.

My body’s so chilly
And my mind’s weighing heavy
And I know that you’re ready
But I’m still so unsteady.

Our walk is unfriendly
And my silence is petty
Cause I still think you’re pretty
And I don’t think you’ll miss me.

The chessboard

“Here it is: my replica of the conqueror’s chess set,” Mark declared to the small audience he had. It was beautiful set, each piece made of porcelain and accented with gold. Ray rolled his eyes at the back of the party.

“The original was made in 1679. Rumor has it that Louis the XIV would challenge his mistresses to a game. If they could defeat him he swore to give them the crown of France, but he took the queen, they’d have to go to bed with him,” Mark continued to boast, a shit-eating smile from ear to ear as he talked. “Napoleon had  the queen piece laced with gold and silver to reflect his love, Josephine. It’s the most valuable piece on the board,”

Nice to have money, Ray grumbled to himself. Every extravagant piece of art, every foreign treasure called for a speech about the rarity and myth behind it. Mark came from a family with cubic money to begin with, and then he got lucky with a few lucky investments. He was the type who was born on third base and thought he scored a triple. Ray didn’t even want to go but his best friend Luke was close with Mark and which meant Ray was being dragged into yet another awkward engagement.

“Over here is a Monet painting I picked up during my semester abroad,” Mark launched into another speech. Ray slipped out from the pack, unable to stomach any more self-aggrandizement and made his way back to the living room.

The living room alone was bigger than his apartment. A high-end TV, full wine bar and appliances that made his George Foreman grill and electric stove top look like cave-tools. At least the host was kind enough to allow an open bar for the night. Ray poured himself another vodka and soda.

“Oh thank god, it’s an open bar,” a female voice said behind Ray. He turned to see Nicole; the un-reciprocating object of Mark’s affections. In Mark’s mind, she was basically his wife. But then again, money doesn’t solve every problem.

“What are you drinking?” Ray asked, keeping a friendly and relaxed smile on his face.

“Rum and coke,” Nicole answered. Ray moved to the priciest-looking bottle and quickly whipped up a drink. She took it off his hands and gave him a gracious smile.

“Glad to see I’m not the only one who needs a drink to get through this party,” Ray said, taking a sip of his drink.

“Oh god, if he tries to ‘talk to me alone on the balcony’ again, I’m going to pull my hair out,” Nicole said.

“And ruin that hair of yours? It’d be a sin,” Ray said, with an eyebrow cocked.

“That was good. Well played,” she said with a sarcastic smile, but a sparkle in the corner of her eye.

“I’m just warming up,” Ray said, surprised with himself for being so direct.

“Well I guess we’ll see if you’re as impressive when you’re warmed up,” Nicole replied before walking away. Ray couldn’t help but catch an eyeful of her as she glided through the throngs of people. Then, predicable as a watch, Mark swept in to make sure that his most cherished piece of art didn’t have any fingerprints.

##

Ray checked his watch and was amazed to find it was already 11:30. He swore to himself that he’d be in and out in an hour. That was three hours ago.

Maybe it was the vodka going to his head but he was certain that Nicole had been making eyes at him. He didn’t see the harm in seeing how far he could push the envelope. He was going to walk over when Mark slithered up from the crowd and took her arm, gently as always. Whatever kind of asshole Mark was, he was polite one. It made him that much more annoying. With his chief interest spirited away to the next room, Ray took another sip of his drink and squinted at the dark green bottles in the wine bar.

Conversation around him ranged from art snobbery to refreshing admissions that the chief allure for these kinds of parties was the promise of free high-quality booze.

“There you are! You having a good time?” Luke’s voice cut through the subdued chatter.

“Yeah, man. Having a great time. I just needed a second to regroup. I’ve been doing work on that bar’s stoli,” Ray responded in an upbeat and casual tone. Luke patted him on the back, “My man,”

Mark and Nicole reemerged, one of them looking ever so slightly uncomfortable.

“Some kind of get together where there’s no dancing,” Ray felt the words slip out before he could catch them. All that vodka had loosened up the gates on his inner thoughts.

“You’re absolutely right,” Mark replied. “Come on, let’s get a little music playing. Care to take the first tune, Ray?” he asked.

“I’ve been out of the leading hits loop,” Ray countered.

“No radio in your office?” Mark dug-in a little deeper. There was an awkward charge to the air. Luke probably didn’t think anything of it when he told Mark that Ray worked in sanitation. But now it was an unspoken point to lord over.

“No,” Ray said, keeping calm. Luke sensed the stand-off and offered to be the DJ. Luke may be clueless at times, but he always seemed to be right on point when it mattered most. The apartment was soon full of half-dancing fools who’d had little more wine and beer than they planned. Ray was minding his business when opportunity presented itself again.

“Is this your kind of dancing?” Nicole asked him.

“When it comes to dancing, I say go big or go home,”

“So you like to dance big?” Nicole asked with a laugh.

“With the help of some alcohol…or the right girl, sure,” Ray replied.

“Are you always this cheesy?”

“Depends. Is it working?” Nicole looked at him for a moment, weighing up whether to take a gamble or stay in the tranquilized apartment.

“Let’s say it is. What’s your next play?” She said, carefully.

“I’d say how’d you like to do some real dancing?” Ray said with a genuine smile.

After another moment of considering what she might be getting into, she gave him a smile, “I’d say that sounds like fun,”

“I’ll leave first. Wait a dance then come meet me by the elevator,” he said, already running through the list of bars and bartenders he knew. She gave him a smile that a child gives when they’re included in mischief and turned away. Ray turned towards the exit but made one quick detour.

Away from the guests, it sat in the study. Ray couldn’t restrain his puckish side. With a careful hand, he re-arranged the pieces to leave the final word. He probably wouldn’t notice it the first time he came in but eventually he’d grasp the cruel metaphor Ray had prepared. Ray turned and exited the room. Eventually, Mark would notice his prized chess set had been moved. He’d then see the golden-laced queen sitting on the opposite side of the board, and in her place: a lowly smiling pawn.