When Ashkii had been told off by his academic advisor and told that he should withdraw, cold sweat had run down his back, and his whole mind had gone numb. He couldn’t hear what anyone around him said after that—not when he left the office, or administrative building, and not when he walked down the street to his car. Heck, he didn’t even hear the loud blaring music when he had made his way into a local pub and sat at the edge of the counter next to the pool table with rowdy drunks.
He was just numb.
So numb that it was hard to do anything but playback what had happened in the office.
He knew his grades hadn’t been the best. He knew he had clearly been struggling, but what he hadn’t expected was to not be given a chance. Everyone got probation when they pleaded hard enough, promised to be better, and wrote a letter to the dean about how they would change the next year, but that hadn’t even been presented as an option for him, and it was devastating.
He had started attending university two years ago, on special conditions, in hopes of graduating with a computer science degree. It had been a full-ride scholarship the first year, but that had been quickly stripped away by his second year when he struggled to barely make the passing GPA not to be put on probation. He had applied for non-academic scholarships and had scraped up enough to continue, but his grades tanked, and they became worse than they already were—so bad that his academic advisor had seemed perplexed he was even asking for any sort of probation. There was no comeback from a 1.0.
He would have to explain this to his parents. He would also have to go home to his reservation and have everyone look at him in pity and whisper behind his back. The thought of it alone made him panic. Made him dread being so boastful about being admitted into MIT. He should have known it would have been hard. It was nothing like high school, and it was nothing like the silly code he wrote for fun—
Ashkii would have been stuck in his thought bubble if the cold feeling of someone’s hand hadn’t shocked him into consciousness. A shiver ran down his spine, and his lips parted as his eyes snapped to the slender hand on his arm.
He heard a small, “sorry”, and the cold hand was retracted.
His eyes looked up, discovering the person who the hand belonged to. It was the bartender. Ashkii hadn’t taken much notice of him when he had strolled in. He had simply asked for the hardest drink he could swallow and insisted his tab be kept open. Now he was having a good look at him. The deep brown eyes darted about with curiosity and what looked like concern. The man had full lips, and his dark hair was mid-length, cutting around his mid-neck in thick curls. Ashkii couldn’t tell if the man had tanned skin or if the club lights were very dark, but he could tell the man was slender, and tall---taller than Ashkii for sure—Ashkii wasn’t very tall in the first place standing at 5’8.
“Are you there?” The bartender asked, making Ashkii blink, before looking away, realizing how much he had been staring
“Yes, just a little out of it,” Ashkii managed to get out, rubbing the back of his neck before reaching out for the glass mug that still had some beer in it, but he was startled when it was pulled away from him by the bartender, and slid just behind the counter.
“I think that’s enough, you’ve been here for hours,” the bartender said, standing upright. “It’s almost one in the morning.”
“W-what?” Ashkii blinked, looking about the pub. The crowd at the pool table wasn’t there anymore, but there was a man at the far end having a cigarette. He looked around the walls for a clock and checked his phone for the time when he found none. “Oh,” he said, swallowing his breath. It really was almost one in the morning. He had been at his academic advisor’s office at noon and left there not long after. How was it already the next day?
“I have to close,” the bartender said, leaning on the counter. “If you don’t mind.”
Ashkii shook his head. “I don’t.” There was a coarseness to his throat that he hadn’t noticed, and it made him gag a little. “Can I have the bill?”
The bartender looked at Ashkii, and then the glass, and then back at Ashkii. “You know, you can just walk away, I don’t think you have three hundred dollars on you to pay for your refills.”
“Three… three hundred?”
“It’s on the house, don’t worry.”
Relief poured over Ashkii, and he took a deep breath. He felt bad not paying, but it wasn’t like he had the money to anyway. He’d been living off his part-time work and student grants—grants that he wasn’t going to get any more for that matter.
“Thank you,” he said, tucking his hands into his pocket. He was a little chilly, being January, and he hadn’t bought a coat. “If there’s anything I can do to pay you back—”
“No,” the bartender said stopping him. “Don’t worry about it.”
There was an awkward silence that Ashkii didn’t know what to do with. One part of him wanted to turn around and leave the pub, but another part of him felt it was wrong to just scurry away with a three-hundred-dollar unpaid bill.
“Too drunk to drive?”
“Maybe,” Ashkii said, blinking hard. He wasn’t a terrible drunk. Just very slow and out of it when he had a glass too many. He hadn’t even considered driving home. Great, another thing to worry about.
“I have a spare room upstairs if you want,” the bartender said, pointing upwards. Ashkii blinked, realizing that the pub was just part of a split apartment complex. He hadn’t noticed that. But to be fair, he hadn’t been noticing a lot today.
“Thank you…” Ashkii trailed, watching as the bartender nodded his head and walked out of the serving area. He was holding a towel and immediately started whipping the surface of the nearest table. “You can just sit and do what you want as you wait,” he said, standing straight before focusing on the quiet smoker in the corner. “We’re closed!” he yelled, watching the man scurry up from his seat
“I have to go but he gets to stay?” the smoker said, adjusting his jacket as he gestured to Ashkii with his chin. “You like them young, don’t you, Giovanni?”
“This isn’t about you,” the bartender said, with a frown on his face, making the man pause before laughing and shaking his head.
“Whatever you say, Giovanni, I’m just saying I don’t get the same star treatment.”
“Fucking pervert,” he whispered, watching the man leave through the main door. The bell jiggled, and he turned his attention back to Ashkii.
“Ignore him, handsy regular,” Giovanni said as if that was enough to explain the whole exchange. He went back to cleaning, and Ashkii went back to watching the man dressed in all black wipe down tables and pick up stray cigarette butts and glass mugs.
“So, what was on your mind today,” the slender man asked, abandoning his rag for a broom to sweep the floors. He was almost done. “That’s if you’re comfortable sharing.”
Ashkii thought about it for a minute before shrugging his shoulders. He might never see this man again after tomorrow, so the embarrassment of his situation wouldn’t follow him long term. “I got kicked out from university,” he explained, looking down at his shoes—battered sketchers that he wore everywhere. He really should look into getting winter-appropriate stuff. “My grades were really bad.”
“Oh,” Giovanni said. “That’s unfortunate, I’m sorry.”
The words ‘I’m sorry’ did something to Ashkii. He wasn’t sure quite what they did, but he knew that one minute he was numb and emotionless, and the next minute he was struggling to breathe as tears rolled down his eyes.
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “It is unfortunate.”
“I had a scholarship, and I got to move out here, and now I have to go back and figure out what to do with myself.” he sat down on the high stool by the counter, taking in a deep breath. “I don’t want to go back to Utah,” he said, letting his eyes settle on the bartender. He was rambling now, but he needed to get his feelings out, and the bartender didn’t seem put off.
“I spent two years here. I tried. I really did.” He did try his hardest on his schoolwork. He did spend hours on end in the library trying to figure out assignments and study for exams but being ‘talented’ wasn’t enough to do well in his degree. There was math, there was chemistry, and so many other electives that he just couldn’t figure out. There was no way to do advanced math if his math lessons in high school put him so far back.
“I’m sure did,” the bartender said, leaving the broom behind to come to stand right beside him. He rested a hand on Ashkii’s shoulder. “It’s disappointing, but it’s not the end of the world. University isn’t for everybody.”
“It’s the end of the world for me,” Ashkii said, whipping his nose with the back of his hand. He had on a long-sleeved sweater, though it was thin, and couldn’t keep him warm.
“It’s not the end of the world for you,” the bartender said, squatting down a little so that they were on the same level. “What did you do in school?”
“Are you good at it?”
There was a pause because Ashkii didn’t know how to answer. He wasn’t sure. Was he? He was good at coding, but his GPA said he was terrible at everything else.
“I got told to withdraw—”
“I’m not asking if you sucked at school, I’m asking if you’re good at it,” the bartender said, cutting him off.
“Y-yes.” The answer was unsure, but the bartender seemed to be satisfied.
“There are many ways to get into that gig without a degree. You can go to technical school, and you might do better there since it’s more on hand, or…” the bartender trailed, standing up before pointing at the plaque just beside the cupboard holding the beer mugs. “You can get a few certifications they’re not that expensive.”
“If you’re worried about money, it’s winter, there are openings in construction. You look meaty enough for that sort of stuff,” Giovanni said, making Ashkii look down at himself. Sure, he wasn’t very tall, but he was strong and broadish. “And if you absolutely hate it, I’ll give you a job here.”
“Thank you…” Ashkii wasn’t sure what else to say.
“No problem, what’s your name?”
“I’m Giovanni. I own this place.”
Yeah, Ashkii figured. He smiled a little. All the drinking and the outburst made him feel a bit tired, but he felt better. He watched Ashkii finish up with cleaning before locking the doors and leading him up the stairs. The apartment was small, but there was a spare room just as Giovanni had said. The bartender had lent him some pajamas and the next day, had guided him through a certification website after Ashkii brought it up in between a breakfast of chicken wrap and coffee. They had exchanged numbers, and Ashkii had kept coming to the bar. It was his favorite place. Talking to Giovanni always put him in a good mood. He felt like he could do and be whoever he wanted after a chat with him.
Ashkii simply adored Giovanni—more than the man could ever imagine.