Kristina got back into her seat next to Aiden. She caved. Aiden raised his glass to her, and she clinked it as quietly as she could. Things weren’t going so badly so far. There was still nobody here, the pipe bomb had been disarmed, Scarlett was ready to play her stuff, and Kristina was out with friends that she hadn’t seen naked. Going out with Nikki and Sarah separately was fun, but when all she saw was either one of them at a time, girls’ night out got a little repetitive. She loved seeing Sarah and Nikki socially, but they never brought friends.
She sipped from her beer while Aiden prattled on about something his boys had done at school, but Kristina wasn’t really listening. She was sure it was all very interesting to him, but she really couldn’t care less. She made it seem like she was paying attention by nodding at all the right moments, smiling and laughing, agreeing, and altogether keeping him talking. That was what you did when you were out with someone, right?
“Don’t you think so, Kristina?” Aiden turned to her with quizzical eyes.
“I try to avoid doing that at all costs,” Kristina replied.
“What was I talking about?”
“The mating habits of the East African crocodile,” Kristina guessed fruitlessly. “I zoned. Sorry. It happens sometimes. You should be used to it by now.”
“Yeah, probably,” Aiden replied. “But it’s just been so long. Do you pay attention to anything?”
“Of course I do,” she said. She pointed over at the bar, where the gay couple from before was seated. “You see those two over there? The Giant and the Shortie?”
“I don’t know that I would call them that,” Aiden said. “One of them is only slightly taller than the other.”
“Yeah, sure, but how else are we gonna tell them apart?” Kristina asked.
“One of them is a blonde, and the other is a brunette,” Mark offered helpfully. “That’d be the first thing I’d notice.”
“Whatever!” Kristina said with finality. “They’re dating, obviously.”
“Your powers of observation never cease to amaze me, Kristina.”
“Shut up, Liz. Let me finish: they’re not just dating, they’re recently engaged. Shortie has been flashing the ring all night long. He won’t put it away. It can’t have happened more than a few days ago, and it’s most likely that it happened earlier tonight. I bet I can tell you which one proposed. I bet it was the Giant.”
“You mean the one not wearing the engagement ring?”
“I’m not finished,” Kristina said. “I didn’t say that he necessarily wanted to propose. There’s some kind of pressure there. I’m not sure what, but my money is on a crumbling relationship. You see the guy he keeps making eyes at over on the other end of the bar?” She pointed over to where Cadie Harris was sitting, and the attractive young college guy who had come in with his girlfriend hadn’t noticed the Giant’s eyes. “He’s looking at other guys on the night of his own engagement? That is not a man who is ready to get married.”
“Maybe they know each other,” Aiden suggested. “The taller guy could be doing a double take. Maybe they don’t know each other.” The four friends watched as the Giant’s eyes flicked down to the college boy’s feet and traveled up his body before finally resting around his waist.
“I’m sure they’d like to know each other,” Kristina said condescendingly, patting Aiden on the leg. “Now shut up and let me finish. It could be a money thing. Look at the Giant. Look what he’s wearing.”
“He’s dressed to the nines for going out to a dive like this,” Liz said. “He’s got a button down and slacks. It’s not a bad one either. He looks like he just got off work.”
“Are you even paying attention?” Kristina said. “Don’t look at the clothes themselves, look at the brand and the wear. Look how faded his two-dollar loafers are. Look how frayed the laces have gotten at the edges. He’s worn those for a few years at least, if he didn’t grow up with them. His clothes are clearly Walmart brand knockoffs. Look at them. Do they look like the dress clothes of someone who has a real job?”
“What do you wear to work, Kristina?”
“I’m a stripper, Liz, I don’t wear anything,” Kristina snapped. “And the other guy, Shortie. T-shirt, jeans, sneakers. But look at them: the sneakers are clearly pretty new. The jeans don’t look like they’ve ever been washed. The t-shirt is a Hollister, so clearly he isn’t poor. We all know that Hollister costs an arm and a leg and your firstborn son.”
“As opposed to Hot Topic, which is so reasonably priced,” Mark quipped into his beer. “Which is, of course, why you shopped there for most of high school.”
Kristina ignored him. “And look at Shortie’s ring. There’s nothing there. It’s just a regular old band of metal topped with cubic zirconium.”
“You can tell that from over here?”
“Look at the size of that thing,” Kristina said, pointing. “There’s no way a guy who wears those clothes can afford a diamond that size.”
“Mine’s bigger,” Liz said quietly.
“Motion of the ocean, dearie,” Kristina said with a sneer. “Let’s see, Shortie is going to college on daddy’s dime, the Giant is working somewhere around here doing something blue collar, construction or waitressing, probably, maybe bartending, though he isn’t quite pretty or cool enough for that. I bet he was a big fish in his high school, probably in sports – I mean seriously, look how built he is – but now the real world sucks and he wants to get married before he’s too old and no one will want him anymore. Sad, really.”
“You can’t possibly know that.”
“I can and I do,” Kristina said to Aiden. “Watch him slouch. Look at his fingernails. He’s got nothing there either. He has no money for a real engagement ring, no money for clothes, no job prospects, but this handsome guy is interested in him for some reason.”
“And why is that, all-knowing one?” Mark asked with a smile. “What reason could such an apparently rich guy have for wanting to marry such an apparent loser?”
“He’s all decked out in daddy’s money, but not daddy’s love,” Kristina said, which was more of a guess than she let on. “He wants somebody to take care of him when daddy’s money runs out.”
“Okay, you definitely don’t know that,” Aiden said. “How could you possibly know that.”
“Look how much he’s showing off that rock,” Kristina said. “Could he be trying to draw any more attention to himself?”
“Maybe he’s just happy.”
“If he was happy, he’d be showing off his fiancé instead,” Kristina replied. “If he was happy about the engagement, he’d be celebrating with his fiancé instead of hanging off of him like a scarf and showing the rock to everyone in sight. He’s happy about having emotional security. Watch him cross his arms when he’s at rest.” As if by magic, Shortie stopped talking and moments later, he crossed his arms across his chest.
“He’s trying to make himself small,” she went on. “It’s not cold in here, and he’s crossing his arms with the ring facing outward. He wants people to see it, but he still needs to hold his guts in with his forearms. He’s not confident, but he wants everyone to look at him. What an interesting contradiction. These people sound interesting, or at least they would be if I hadn’t just completely and totally figured them out.”
“From the looks of things, I’d guess that she’s got a handle on that,” Mark said. “I forgot how little fun you were when you pulled your Sherlock Scan, Kristina. Have some more beer.” And at that moment, the door opened, and a sharply dressed couple walked in.
“Clara!”Aiden thrust his hand in the air and waved her over to his seat. She had changed out of her pencil skirt and jacket and instead put on a dark red t-shirt and jeans. There was a man with her whom Kristina could only assume was Mr. Clara. What had she said his name was? Dukane? He was dressed smartly in a pinstripe suit that was completely and totally out of place in this dive. The two of them made their way over to the table, and Liz, who was on the end, scooted further around the circular booth to make room for the couple.
“Hello!” Clara said brightly. “I’m so excited you guys are all here. It’s been forever since we were last together. We were all such children then. It’s unreal.”
“Aren’t you going to introduce us to this strapping young gentleman?” Mark said as he raised his glass. “Well, introduce them. Quentin and I have already met. Haven’t we, Q? He likes it when I call him Q?”
“Sure, that can be the answer we go with,” Quentin replied. “I tolerate you because you’re related to someone I love.”
“That’s close enough, right?”
“I feel like you and I are going to get along swell, Quentin,” said Kristina. She cast Mark a sideways glance. “It’s not fair that you got to meet him first. If you’re not careful, you’ll make me jealous.”
“I’m a little insulted that I have to try,” Mark said as he threw a hand to his chest. “I had hoped my manly, rugged good looks were enough.”
“Aw, isn’t it cute? It thinks it’s manly,” Kristina cooed. “Look how adorable.”
“I don’t need this from you,” Mark said, pretending to be hurt. “I can get any guy or girl I want in this bar.”
“Including the one whose engaged?” Kristina scoffed at him and clapped him on the back. “Get on it, son. If you’re really so desirable, prove it. Steal the fiancé. I’d say we have faith in you, but that’s a lie.” Kristina pushed him out of the booth and he stumbled into the table next to it, apologizing to the couple whose table he knocked into. Kristina gave him an encouraging wave and he slipped over to the bar and waggled his eyebrows at Shortie.
“Oh god, I can’t watch,” Clara said, hiding her face in her hands. “Let me know when the train wreck is over.”
“Train wrecks are too slow, too difficult,” Liz said, watching Mark flirt. “This is definitely a car accident. It’s something you can’t see coming nearly as easily, and isn’t nearly as preventable. Oh god, it’s like watching a monkey drive a Prius.”
“Yeah, thanks for that,” Kristina said. She got up and began to walk towards him.
“Wasn’t this your idea?” Aiden asked.
“If he actually starts hitting on this guy he might get into a bar fight,” Kristina said. “And I am so not jumping in to save his ass when that happens. Are you?”
“I think I’m obligated to as his big sister,” Clara sighed. “Quentin, will you defend my honor on my behalf?”
“Do I have to?”
“Only if I tell you you have to.”
“Fair enough, I guess,” Quentin said dejectedly. Kristina rolled her eyes. No help there. Mark was going to get his ass kicked by an engaged fairy and it would be all her fault.