For the first time in 16 months, Kaitlyn feels young. Back in Afghanistan, age didn’t matter. Strength did. Strength, and how quickly you could make the right decision under extreme pressure, extreme heat. That’s what kept you alive. That’s why Kaitlyn, at age 19, is home and at the bar tonight, while Fran, and everyone else who had her back over there is resting peacefully, unfairly in the ground.
She feels a little out of place. That’s what she told her friends, but in truth, the last time she felt this out of place was as a freshman in her AP Calculus class and at least then, like in the army, age didn’t matter. Intelligence did.
She scans the room, remembering again why she left. She had no patience for stupidity and in this town, there was nothing but hot air in the heads of her peers. She had let her friends dress her for tonight, and for the first time, her muscles were referred to as sexy, worthy of a magazine cover, not strong, worthy of carrying three children out of a burning building at the same time.
She had used one of her army badges to get her into the bar. Not only did the bouncer let her in underage without question, but he thanked her for her services. It took all of Kaitlyn’s strength not to list off the names he should really be thanking. Like Fran.
Kaitlyn bites her lip and straightens her shoulders. Fran would want her to have a good time tonight. She smiles then and laughs along with her friends though she had completely missed the funny part. She grips her glass and takes a long sip, letting the ice cubes cool down her lips. She carefully scans the room again.
Charlie sits at the bar wondering at what age he should tell people to start referring to him as Charles. How does one make that switch? When does little Dicky become Richard and Billy become William? As a post-grad unpaid intern, being referred to as Charlie only felt that much more degrading. Would he have to be CEO before he could start using the infinitely more serious Charles? Is calling himself Charles the ticket to getting him laid? He makes eye contact with the bartender and taps his empty glass, ready for another.
He is alone tonight. The last time he had been alone at the bar was the night he came home from school. With no direction toward his future and his only job offer being unpaid, he felt he was living the 2013 version of The Graduate. It had been six months since graduation and at this point he’s almost jealous of Ben Braddock because Ben didn’t have Facebook or even internet porn for that matter. There was no comparing himself to others and at least Ben’s dramatic love affairs were relatively tasteful and set to the tunes of Simon and Garfunkel. What did Charlie have to look forward to each morning? Witty banter with the barista who clearly knew he was just an intern on a coffee run? With that, Charlie finishes his third drink and heads out for a smoke.
Slim pickings as far as she is concerned. When had Kaitlyn raised her standards in men? Certainly it wasn’t in high school. Maybe at training? But the army guys had been such pigs. Except for Joe. Maybe she just liked guys with sad back stories and certainly none of the guys here fit that description. None of the guys here would ever be able to relate to what she’s gone through, mostly because she would never give them the chance. What she had seen, Fran – nobody needed to know that. “Kait!”
Kaitlyn looks down at her empty glass. She hadn’t even realized it was empty. How long had she been sipping on melting ice cubes? “Yeah, sure.”
“Another Jack and Coke?”
“Um, no. Something stronger.”
“Ah, good to have you back Kait!”
“Yeah. Good to be here. I actually have to go to the bathroom, though.”
“I’ll go with you,” said another of Kait’s friends.
“No, that’s okay. I can go by myself.”
“Okay, well we’ll be right here.”
Kaitlyn stands up slightly annoyed by the maternal tone in her friend’s voice. If she could survive a war she could sure as hell survive the girls’ bathroom. She walks away feeling a little looser now from the alcohol, her head a little lighter. On her way to the bathroom she notices a small deck outside filled with people smoking. She hadn’t had a cigarette since ‘stan. She smiles to herself remembering the jokes and all those white sticks of sanity she shared with the guys on the squad.
“Charlie! What’s up, dude!”
“Erik, hey!” Charlie really had not planned on seeing anyone tonight. It had been several days since he last shaved, and coming straight from work, Charlie still had that coffee stain running down his shirt. “Haven’t seen you in ages, man. What’s going on? You working?”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that.” Charlie pulls a cigarette from his pack and lights it, hoping Erik will change the subject. “Yeah, dude. Work sucks.”
Charlie exhales into the chilly night air. “So, what have you been up to? Still lifeguarding?”
“Yeah. Yup. I actually think I’m going to run a surf camp this summer.”
“Oh, yeah? That’s cool.” Charlie takes a deep inhale, praying the cigarette will somehow burn faster so he can go back inside, away from Erik.
“Yeah, so, hey, I’m actually glad I ran into you. Well, not you exactly, but you know, someone I know. My friend gave me these pills. Supposed to loosen you up a little. I’d take them but there’s this whole drug test thing I have to take in a couple of weeks. So here, you take them. Free of charge. Totally harmless. Just slip it in your drink and you’ll be feeling just right.”
“Yeah, thanks, but that’s not really my thing.”
“Okay, well here. I’ll just put them in your front pocket here – nice coffee stain- and if you decide to change your mind, again, just pop it in your drink, and well, cheers! I actually gotta run, but peace out dude. Great catching up with you.”
Charlie stands there with his mouth slightly opened. Did that just happen? Was Charlie that drunk? He looks down at his shirt pocket and sees a small bag filled with four pills, small and white. He quickly takes it out before anyone notices, slips it into the front pocket of his khakis and stubs out what is left of his cigarette. He walks back inside with his head down so no one else can recognize him. “Oh, excuse me.”
“Sorry.” Charlie steps out of the way so whomever just bumped into him can pass. “Charlie?”
Great, another one. He looks up and his eyes go wide. “Kaitlyn?”
“It’s so good to see you!” Kaitlyn wraps her arms around the neck of her sister’s ex boyfriend. “It’s been forever. What’s new?”
“Oh, not much. I thought you got deployed.”
“Just got back.”
That’s great! Welcome home.”
“Thanks. Hey, I’d love to hear what you’ve been up to. Are you still writing?”
“Yeah, a little bit.” Charlie couldn’t help but see so much of Jess in Kaitlyn. Jess had been the best thing that ever happened to Charlie right up until she became the worst thing. After months in therapy, he found out there was no baby. She made the whole thing up. “Can I buy you a drink at the bar? Or is that weird? Sorry, I don’t really know how things ended between you two.”
Something sparked inside Charlie at that moment, something the judge would later refer to as revenge. “Yes. Yes. I would love a drink.”
Kaitlyn orders two beers at the bar before running back to her friends to let them know where she would be. While she was gone, the beers came and in a matter of two seconds, not nearly enough time to be considered hesitation, Charlie dropped two of the pills into her bottle. “Hey, sorry about that. What was I saying?”
“You were telling me about how you hate Jess’s new boyfriend.”
“Oh, was I? My God, I’m sorry. Poor judgement. Haven’t had alcohol in a while. We don’t have to talk about that. Here, cheers. To happiness.”
“Cheers.” Charlie watches Kaitlyn, a spitting image of Jess now that he really gets a good look at her. Kaitlyn makes a few jokes about being in the army and not being able to legally drink. Sounding as hot-headed as everyone else at the bar, she tells him the story of how the bouncer thanked her and how her friends had dressed her, all the while completely oblivious to her own slurred speech and Charlie’s hand on her thigh. About thirty minutes pass with Kaitlyn slipping in and out of vivid descriptions of Fran when her friends come looking for her. “Kait? You okay? Ready to go home?”
“Oh, already?” says Charlie, “We’re still catching up.”
“Okay, well maybe another night. Looks like Kaitlyn’s had enough.”
“Okay, yeah maybe you’re right. The bar will be closing soon anyway.” Charlie hands his card to the bartender to pay off his tab. “Why don’t I take her home. I can get a cab and her house is on the way.”
“Is that okay with you, Kaitlyn?” Lost in nostalgia and not paying any attention to the conversation, Kaitlyn smirks and nods her head. When Charlie sees her friends get into a cab, he grabs her hand and leads her out to his car. “Charlie, where are we going? I want to go home now.”
“Shut up, Jess.” He yanks her arm.
“I mean, Kaitlyn. Sorry. Kaitlyn. I am taking you home. And it’s not Charlie. Call me Charles.”
With Kaitlyn slumped down in the passenger seat and her eyes wandering into the past, Charlie starts the car. He smiles, intoxicated by this new-found power. He unbuttons his pants and pulls out of the parking lot singing along to the radio. “God bless you, please, Mrs. Robinson. Heaven holds a place for those who pray, hey, hey, hey.”
Kaitlyn, in a semi-unconscious stupor begins to giggle and turns to him. “Every way you look at this you lose…”