It’s Thursday night, and even Rawlies is packed, throbbing with overflow from the more popular liquor licensed bars in the tiny college town of Lakover. Brett keeps his pitcher of Guinness protectively near, sipping out of a heavy mug. He drinks the bitter beer slowly. Imported beer is an infrequent luxury. This pitcher is a birthday gift to himself, purchased with the fifty dollar bill his dad had crushed into his hand before leaving Sunday night in his beat-up Volvo for the six-hour drive back to Lake Worth, Florida.
Brett has been 21 for a week today, and he is trying fervently to enjoy it without bitterness. Last Thursday his old friend and birthday twin, Johnny, had called. Johnny said he called to wish Brett a happy birthday, but Brett suspects it was really to gloat. Brett and Johnny went to the same gifted program in high school, played on the same basketball team and had had all the same friends.
Brett had been prone to gloating then too, buying everyone drinks with a fake ID and his daddy’s credit card while he bragged. He took Brett to parties on Flagler, where the Intracoastal waterway glinted through floor to ceiling picture windows, pools had waterfalls, and Jacuzzis bubbled beside fully stocked Tiki bars.
Johnnie and Brett were both accepted to an Ivy League school, but Brett couldn’t afford to go. He opted for this small, little-known school not too far from home, which offered a full scholarship plus a work-study stipend for living expenses and textbooks.
Brett hadn’t talked to Johnnie for almost two years. Then a week ago there was that call, the gloating barely audible over techno and girl’s voices. Johnnie hadn’t even bothered to step outside in the midst of his all day rave. Brett had thought about the times he had taken care of Johnnie when he had gotten too drunk, punched a kid out for him when he was talking trash about Johnnie. And Johnnie didn’t even have the courtesy to step outside to call.
“Brett! How have you been, man?” Johnnie had continued without pause, “College is the best right? We’re 21 now, 21!”
Brett had been at this very bar, drinking with a group of guys he’d known since freshman year. He’d been in a good mood, celebrating his birthday and a surprisingly high score on a difficult physics test. As Johnnie had continued to talk without waiting for reply Brett had felt the old inadequacy rise and strangle his good mood. He had cut Johnnie off midway through a story about spring break in Thailand that he could barely hear over the techno.
“That sounds awesome, Johnnie, real good. I gotta go, I’ll talk to you soon though.” He had hung up while Johnnie was still saying goodbye and felt mean for the pleasure he took in cutting him off.
The conversation had been bothering Brett all week. Now, as he takes a deep sip from his mug, it occurs to him how much it bothers him that it bothered him so much. It takes Brett a moment to realize that his phone is ringing.
“Hi boy,” his dad says.
“Hey, old man, made it home last week I guess,”
“No thanks to you, not even calling to check on me!”
“I figured Mom would call if you vanished.”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“How has your first week been being 21?” His dad asks.
“Not bad at all. Nice buying beer from somewhere other than that one little store that doesn’t check IDs. Hey, you know who called? Johnnie. I haven’t talked to him in years.”
“Johnnie huh? Probably looking for a handout.”
“Didn’t he tell you? Johnnie’s working at the Taco Bell down the street. You know, the one on 34th? He flunked out of that fancy school last year and his dad was so mad he kicked him out. I chat with him when I go in to get a chalupa. Poor kid.”
“He didn’t tell me.”
“Well if he needs some help you remember how nice he treated you in high school, all those fancy places he took you, that trip to the Keys that he brought you on. Alright, son?”
“Sure thing Dad.”
Brett hangs up and pours himself another beer. He’s feeling celebratory.