It had been nine weeks after Prudence’s injury. She had a quick, uneventful recovery, got her cast removed, and was starting physical therapy. She still was on crutches but otherwise, she was getting around more easily. She texted her friends to meet her at Leon’s Pub the next afternoon, and said she would be bringing Penn.
Pru’s text arrived on an afternoon when Ellowyne and Lizette were hanging out with Amber at her house. They were looking through Amber’s closets and trying on some of her crowns. “About time,” Lizette said when the text showed up on her phone.
Amber said, perhaps too eagerly, “And she’s bringing Penn. Glad we’re finally getting to meet him.”
“You know, Pru sure seems to have less time for us now that he’s in the picture,” Lizette added.
“Oh, I know!” Ellowyne exclaimed. “Don’t you just hate it when a girl drops her friends to spend more time with a guy?”
Lizette and Amber looked at each other in disbelief. Amber rolled her eyes, and Lizette said, “Um, now that you and Rufus have finally gotten together, you do spend a lot more time with him than with us.”
“And he does hang out with us a lot,” Amber said.
Ellowyne’s jaw dropped. “I still spend time with both of you and Prudence,” she protested. “And Rufus and I hang out with all of you. Maybe I tell him to not come around so often with us.”
“Come on, Ell. Rufus is our friend and we like having him around,” Amber responded. “But it would be nice to have another guy in our circle.”
Lizette asked, perhaps a little too eagerly, “Do you think Penn and Prudence are dating?”
“I don’t know,” Ellowyne replied. “I just hope she hasn’t lost herself in a new relationship and–oh, wait! I need to go. Just got a text from Rufus.”
Lizette and Amber looked at each other and tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle their laughter.
The next day, everyone met at Leon’s. Prudence and Penn were the first to arrive, and they sat at the end of the circular booth, with Prudence on the outside so she could rest her leg on a chair. When they got into the pub, Amber and Lizette scrambled to get to the table and sit next to Penn. Unless Penn was actually Prudence’s boyfriend, they figured he was fair game. Lizette was just a little faster, and she flashed a toothy smile at Amber, who half-heartedly sat next to her. They were all involved in a lively conversation when Ellowyne and Rufus finally arrived. “We were just talking about you,” she exclaimed.
Ellowyne leaned over to hug her friend but was slightly taken aback. “Really? What did you say about us?”
Penn stood up and proffered his hand to Rufus. When they were done shaking hands, he said, “Prudence, Lizette, and Amber told me you were two of the best friends they’ve ever had. They also told me you’re a talented poet, Ellowyne, and that you’re a brainiac, Rufus.”
Rufus laughed genially. “Wow! Ellowyne is a creative genius, but I’m not sure if I can live up to my reputation,” he said, as everyone else chuckled at his comment.
“Now, Ellowyne, you go to State like the rest of us, is that right?” Penn asked.
“I do”, she answered. I’m majoring in creative writing, with a concentration on poetry.”
“I’d like to hear you recite some of your poems sometime. And you, Rufus?” Penn inquired.
“I’m at Berkeley, doing a double major in mechanical engineering and math,” he said.
Penn whistled. “You really are a brainiac!”
The server came with Rufus and Ellowyne’s drinks, a craft lager for him and a cranberry vodka for her. The six of them started to chatter again, and Ellowyne asked Penn about his studies. “You said you go to State, Penn. What’s your major?”
“Actually, I’m in the nursing program,” Penn said.
Rufus, who was usually sensitive and rarely obtuse, stumbled right into a verbal booby trap and asked, “So you’re going to be a male nurse?!?”
Penn waited until Rufus was taking a generous gulp of his frothy beer, and said, “Well, I thought about becoming a female nurse, but I didn’t want to have the surgery!”
With that, Rufus snorted beer out of his nose. When everyone stopped laughing, he said, “Okay, I deserved that. We don’t have a nursing department at Berkeley, and I’ve never met any guys in nursing. Wait. There’s my buddy Jamal’s brother and he’s g—”
“Rufus!” Ellowyne snarled as she kicked Rufus on the shin. Hard.
Penn mercifully decided that Rufus didn’t need another snout full of beer, so he laughed and said, “Not all male nurses are gay. Some are but most aren’t.” He turned to Prudence and asked, “Do you think I’m gay, Pru?”
Much to the chagrin of Lizette and Amber, Pru leaned over to kiss Penn. She looked at him, her eyes sparkling with affection and admiration. “Tell them how you decided to get into nursing.”
“Well”, Penn said. “I joined Army when I graduated high school. I figured I’d be fixing and driving trucks or get into communications. I never had an interest in health care, but they assigned to be a combat medic. I’ve done three tours of duty in Afghanistan, and while I’m in school, I’m in the Army National Guard.”
“Ah, geez, I’m sorry, man, for being a douche,” Rufus said. He stood up and shook reached for Penn’s hand again. “You are the real thing and deserve respect. You have mine. Thank you for serving our country.”
Penn nodded. “No problem, man. But the next time we go out for beer, you’re buying!”
Ellowyne spoke up. “At the risk of sounding as ignorant as my bae, why did you choose nursing instead of medicine?”
Penn took a thoughtful sip of his ale. “I found out I like being on the forefront of care. Too many doctors waste time on other tasks but as a medic—or a nurse—I can have more direct interaction with patients. I’m also impatient. If I decided to go to medical school, I would have needed a bachelor’s degree. I don’t want to go to school for eight years.”
Amber asked, “So what do you want to do as a nurse?”
Penn replied, “I like the fast pace of the emergency room, and my Army background comes in handy if I’m taking care of trauma patients. Eventually, I’d like to be a helicopter nurse. Or maybe I’ll stay in the Guard and see what happens.”
Prudence furrowed her brows and appeared to be on the verge of tears when Penn said he might remain in the Guard. During their short time together, she noticed that Penn startled easily, especially if there were unexpected fireworks or other loud noises. Sometimes he told her about his nightmares, which almost always reflected the things he did and saw while deployed. Sometimes, when he was stressed, he’d become angry, although he got over it as soon as it started.
Lizette queried, “How far along are you in the nursing program?”
“Like all of you, I’m a junior this year. I did two years of prerequisites and am finally in the nursing program. I should graduate when you do.”
After chatting for what seemed to be only a few minutes, Lizette looked at her phone and saw what time it was. “We’ve been here for more than three hours! I need to study biochemistry tonight.”
“I’m glad we all switched to pop a couple of hours ago,” Ellowyne commented.
“It’s been great to meet all of you,” Penn said. “Rufus, maybe you and I could hang out sometime. Remember, you owe me a beer!”
Rufus nodded and seemed to be relieved that Penn forgave him for being a jerk.
The friends shuffled out the door to their cars, “Your friends are great people, Pru,” Penn said as he was helping her to get into his car.
“Maybe we should say OUR friends,” Prudence replied. “I hope that you’ll be hanging out with us when you can.”
Penn nodded in agreement, then took her face in his hands and kissed her. “Our friends. I like that.”