(Excerpt from Keeping Score, the precursor story to Capturing Captain America)
Kaja was always busy on Thursday night pub nights. College kids turning 21, jocks, sorority and fraternity groups, and graduate students needing a break from grading papers. This was going to be a big tip night. People were ordering mojitos and shots like crazy. Kaja was perplexed at how easy it was for girls to lose control after just a few drinks. It was as if they were Raggedy Ann dolls for their boyfriends or dates. Kaja counted the rounds and tallied in her mind the tips. Tonight would be a very profitable night.
Her eye caught Ronan at the entrance. He was alone this time. No beauty queen on his arm. It seemed that Miss Orange County needed beauty sleep before the State competition. Life really came down to your number. A girl who scored a perfect ten won a $10,000 scholarship or something like that. Kaja was betting the odds that Ronan would soon trade up Kendra for the reigning Miss San Diego, Jayma Rose, the odds on favorite to win. Ronan loved glitter and trophies. They increased his social rank. Jayma was a step up because her family was old Southern California money and she resembled a young Rita Hayworth.
“Wonder how he ended up alone tonight,” she muttered under her breath.
Ronan looked directly at her. His expression appeared friendlier. She nodded to acknowledge his presence. Captain America wasn’t going to know how nervous he made her. It was like a stomach ache with her skin sweating like it was on fire. She feared speaking too much around him. Her face muscles tightened to subdue the gushing smile she felt loomed every time he showed up. Ronan was her Captain America but she wasn’t any number to him. Not a perfect 10 like Kendra and Jayma.
A group of college boys called her name. Her regular customers from the UCLA soccer team. Eric, the team captain, always bought a round of drinks to start the night until all team mates bought shots for one another. Eric was another Bay Area transplant who went to a rival high school to her own in the Berkeley Hills. She remembered him from the math competitions she participated in from grade 9 through 12. He was never a match for her but was her biggest fan when it came to mojitos.
“Hey Kaja. Anything special tonight from the bar?”
“You mean like a round of Black Russians?”
Eric never met a liqueur he didn’t like. He quickly made a toast to France for the next World Cup.
“Vive La France!” he yelled just before taking a shot of the Black Russian.
“To Russia with love!” He was already drunk.
Kaja’s knack was speedy service and as she mixed the drinks as fast as a soccer team could wait she did not notice Ronan taking a beat at the bar. Only on her way back from joking with Eric over the next World Cup odds for France did Ronan capture her eye again.
Ronan noticed the side of Kaja that he never could fathom. The playful, funny, sociable side that was comfortable around men. For a moment it looked like one of the UCLA soccer players was trying to make a move. Kaja wasn’t defensive when she argued the odds of France over Italy with the guy named Eric. She was somewhat loose and comfortable despite the frantic pace of a busy bar. The second she walked back and noticed him her body language changed back to its usual stiffness. Maybe strangers were okay to talk to but those familiar were not.
“So I hear you make a legendary type of mojito?
“Sorry, you’re only 19. This isn’t Canada or England where it’s 18 and legal to drink.
“It’s a question not an order. I’ll just have ice tea on the rocks.”
Kaja reached for the ice tea bottle on the back shelf behind the bar, grabbed a tall frosted glace, scooped large chunks of ice, and poured the entire contents into a drink. She handed it to him with precision of a seasoned bartender who had the speed any manager would appreciate.
“Do you want some lemon or lime with your ice tea?”
“Neither. I came to talk to you about your last exam.”
“You calculated the long answer in an unusual way. I’ve never seen that kind of algorithm. I wanted to know what you were thinking/”
“Yes. I know you can talk while you work. I’ve heard you can discuss The Fountainhead while making a Highball, Manhattan, Godfather, and Rum Runner. You don’t lose a step in the mixing or in the logic of you argument.”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I think you should consider going beyond just an undergraduate.”
“And why do you care?”
Ronan was stunned by her crisp blunt response. Was it the Marines t-shirt he was wearing that got her defensive? Maybe her Berkeley roots were beginning to show tonight. Or was she taking this competition for TA next year a little too seriously? Like a roll of the dice could change her fate in some way if she landed the job or not.