“That doesn’t look like a Red Bull,” Henry remarked as he leant over my partition, his eyes on the full coffee cup in the centre of my otherwise empty desk. I was frowning at it, too. “Are you trying to quit again?”
Hah. I’d long since surrendered to the fact I would be drinking myself to death on those things. Instead of saying as much, though, I just bent forward in my chair, picked up the cup and held it at eye-level for him so he could read the text.
He squinted at it. “’Is 7am too late for…’” His eyebrows lowered for a moment. “Am I missing something?”
I sighed and put the cup down on the desk in front of me, sitting back in my chair and staring at it again. “Those schoolgirls I told you about last night,” I explained. “One of them left this on my doorstep this morning.”
His frown disappeared. “Ah,” he said, and then spent a couple of seconds observing me rather than the coffee. “But you’re not going to drink it, are you?”
“Doctor Freud, you’ve cured me,” I said dryly. “Of course not. Who knows what could be in it?”
As usual, he didn’t even flinch. “You’re absolutely right. The milk might be low fat.” He gestured at it. “They’re schoolgirls, and by your account, big fans of yours. Do you actually think there’s going to be anything other than coffee in there?” I pressed my lips together rather than concede he was probably right. He would make that abundantly clear, anyway. “You didn’t throw it out, either, so I’m guessing you don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with the coffee, either.”
Of course I didn’t throw it out. I had been going to – but in the lift on the way down, the creepy lopsided smiley faces on the cup and I had been staring at each other and I just couldn’t do it. I’d paused by every rubbish bin between home and Frost International and not managed to toss it into any of them. When I’d made it to work, I’d even spent a couple of seconds staring into the bin under my own desk before just putting it beside my keyboard.
“Maybe I’m just keeping it as evidence to be tested in case I go missing,” I said half-heartedly. The creepiest thing here was how quickly Henry cut through everything. He was right, they were just schoolgirls. What was I expecting? Arsenic? Rohypnol? There was almost no chance it was anything but coffee. I sighed. “It was just weird, that’s all. If fans of yours ever went leaving coffee on your doorstep, you’d be freaked out, too.”
“If they were that proactive? I’d hire them, actually,” he said. “At the rate Diane goes through personal assistants, it would be good to have a standby waiting in the wings. And speaking of that,” he waved a stack of manila folders he’d had tucked under his arm up in the air. “As much as I love your company, I actually came up here to give these to that poor girl.”
They looked very similar to the piles and piles of folders that had been all over the assistant’s desk yesterday. “What are they for?”
Henry sighed. “Diane and Sean are at it again,” he said, making a frustrated gesture up towards the ceiling. It was common knowledge that the co-CEOs did not get along with each other, so that wasn’t a surprise. They were also twins; sometimes it felt like the premise of a B-grade movie. Between them they’d managed to draw battle lines along different departments so each of them was in charge of something they were better at than the other. There were frequently turf wars, though, and HR was always one of the contentious areas. Officially it was Sean’s, and Sean was Henry’s boss, but according to Henry that didn’t stop Diane from meddling in it. Or with him.
I laughed once. “What happened this time? Did he forget her birthday or something?”
Henry shook his head. “With them, who knows? I just do what I’m told.” He pointed at my coffee. “Are you really not going to drink that?”
I looked at him.
His eyes twinkled. He reached over the partition and plucked the little star-shaped shortbread from the lid of the cup, popping it in his mouth. Then, pretending to look shocked, he grabbed at his throat with his free hand and made exaggerated choking noises.
Since I hadn’t put my handbag away yet, I looked hurriedly around us to see if anyone else was watching and then thumped him with it. “Shut up! It’s creepy, okay? She must have followed me home.”
He stopped. “You’re in the Whitepages,” he pointed out. “It’s how your mother got your landline.” Well, that was true… “Anyway, let me solve your grievous dilemma about what to do with the coffee.” He lifted it off the table and drank deeply from it. Because it wasn’t hot anymore, he was able to just pour the whole lot down his throat. When he was done he very politely returned the empty cup.
I placed the cup back next to my keyboard so those lopsided smileys could stare at me. “Well, I hope you have me listed as a beneficiary on your life insurance at least. I need a holiday.”
He laughed, and then stopped being silly. “Sometimes people are actually just being nice, Min,” he said with a smile, and then went to deliver the folders.
I swivelled my chair so I could watch him leave.
He wasn’t really a big coffee drinker, which meant he’d only done that to make a point. I couldn’t figure out exactly what that point was, but whatever it was, a big component of it was, ‘I’m right’. I narrowed my eyes. The most frustrating thing was that he was usually right about people, and he was usually right about me, too. Usually. I was still yet to figure out how he’d never managed to notice how much I didn’t like sex.
I spun back towards my empty desk. I still hadn’t been assigned a team, and it was weird having nothing oh-my-god-urgent to do.
Being teamless actually continued for several days. I didn’t hear any more about this top secret project Diane was planning and when I crossed paths with Jason in the kitchen he didn’t mention anything, either. As a result, I had been having grand visions of leaving work on time and maybe getting to the game store before they closed, but, alas, it wasn’t to be. As soon as word got around that I wasn’t assigned yet, I suddenly became everyone’s best buddy and tragically it wasn’t because of my dazzling personality. It was because if they could get someone to work on their layouts and colour schemes, that was money they’d save in outsourcing design. The project leads didn’t alter their timelines for me just because I was volunteering my services, either. They kept me back late with everyone else.
Leaving the building after dark did drastically reduce the likelihood I’d run into those girls, though. It was stupid for me to be worried about it; they were just kids, at nine at night they’d probably already be in bed, right? Still, I loitered around the doorway and peered down the street just in case. The security guards were just about ready to have me committed by the end of the week, and still the girls didn’t turn up outside.
That blonde one just messaged me a few times on Deviant Art, instead. Each time I answered I must have spent at least half an hour trying to make sure every word in my one or two sentence replies was on message. They had to say: I am appreciative of your attention, but hopefully my dismissiveness is enough to put you off trying to meet up with me again.
By Monday I’d almost forgotten about the whole thing and when I walked straight out of the building, looking down at the screen of my phone, I nearly collided with her. The only reason I didn’t was because I stumbled at the last minute, nearly falling ungracefully onto the asphalt. I stood up straight again, staring down at those blonde curls and trying to steady myself. Who stands in the middle of the pavement right in front the door of an office building?
This girl, apparently. She smiled brightly up at me. “Min!” she said, and then her smile faded. For a moment I thought she might actually apologize for nearly giving me a heart attack. That moment passed quickly. “Or should I, like, call you Miss Lee?”
Yes, I’m far more likely to be offended if you call me by my first name than, say, if you were to use the internet to stalk me to my house. Or scare the hell out of me outside my work. “’Min’ is fine.”
As the shock faded and my senses returned, I remembered what had happened last time she had accosted me. Looking around us, I was grateful there were far less people on the street at this time of night than there had been last week. I checked my phone. “…It’s seven.”
The girl smiled. “I know,” she said, and then changed the subject. “You can call me ‘Bree’, too. No one can pronounce my surname anyway. Have you had dinner yet?”
I was still stuck on the part where she was waiting for me outside work at seven pm. “Aren’t your parents going to be wondering where you are?”
At the mention of her parents, she made a face and her nose crinkled. “No,” she said more firmly than I expected. “I said I’m at Courtney’s and Courtney owes me so she won’t say anything.”
I wasn’t that happy about a schoolkid lying to her parents about her whereabouts to lay in wait for me outside my work. Actually, that was way back up there with putting coffee on my doorstep in the small hours of the morning. Bree didn’t seem the least bit bothered by the fact she was lying to her parents, though. She didn’t even have anything more to say about it.
“Anyway, I’ve been here for ages and I’m really hungry,” she just said. “I was thinking we could go grab some dinner. There’s this great restaurant in Darling Harbour, you’ll love it.”
Hang on a second, what? “Slow down,” I told her, holding my hands up. “You’re in the city at seven at night by yourself, your parents don’t know where you are, and you think it’s a good idea to stay out even later? You need to go home right now.”
She didn’t look deterred at all. “I’m not by myself now,” she pointed out. “Trains run until midnight, anyway, so I can just get one later. One of your earrings is falling out.”
My eyebrows went up and automatically I reached up to my ears. She was right, so I fixed it.
As I was doing that, she slung her Cloverfield bag over her shoulder. “Come on,” she said, as if I’d never told her to go home. “The restaurant is like ten minutes this way and believe me the food is awesome.”
I didn’t budge. How the hell did she expect this was going to turn out? “Bree,” I said, feeling weird about using her name, but I wanted to get her attention. “What on earth are you doing, exactly?”
She turned back towards me with a blank expression. “Darling Harbour is this way and that’s where—”
“Waiting here, I mean,” I said, interrupting her. “The coffee, the messages. All of this – lying to your parents. Why are you doing all this? What’s the point?”
She looked so earnest. “I’m going to make friends with you,” she said. “I decided it last week. And it’s not like I can just hang out with you in school, is it? So here I am now.” She held her arms out to present herself.
I didn’t even know which part of that to be more alarmed by. “At seven pm on a school night.” Then the rest of what she’d said hit me. “Wait a minute, you’re going to? Just like that?”
She pointed a finger at me as if she was telling me off. “It’s not my fault you work long hours. I’ve been waiting here since four-thirty. You took so long even my iPod went flat. If you worked the same hours as a normal person I’d be home by now.”
I can only imagine the expression I had on my face. “So the fact you’re out late is my fault now?” I didn’t even know where to go with that. Was she completely insane? “And you’ve just decided that’s how it’s going to be? That we’re going to be friends and that’s that?”
She just nodded. She just nodded?
I didn’t even know where to start. I’d only just met this girl and already I wanted to wrap my hands around her neck and shake some sense into her. She drove me nuts. Who the hell stalks someone to their house just to leave coffee for them? And Henry had just drank it, too, like it was nothing. If he’d have known what sort of nutcase she was, he’d probably have left it. I second-guessed that. No, he’d have said very calmly that some people are difficult but that doesn’t mean they are crazy. He wouldn’t get angry, he’d just focus on rebutting what was said by focusing on key details.
But, fuck, I was no Henry. I tried anyway. “Bree,” I said, trying to be calm and not strangle her. “I’m twenty-five. I don’t know how old you are, but—”
“Eighteen,” she said, interrupting me. She paused for a second. “Okay, not really. But my birthday’s in a couple of weeks, so…”
I had been about to explain that the age gap was too big for a friendship ever to work, but then before I said anything I’d counted in my head and realized the age gap was seven years. Seven years, that was the same gap as between Henry and I, and we got along really well. Shit. I’d pinned her at maybe fourteen or fifteen and what I had been about to say had been based on that. Now I didn’t really know what I could say. If she was that close to being an adult, I also wondered if it was such a huge drama that she was out at seven on a school night, too.
Sensing a moment of weakness, she went in for the kill. “Come on,” she said, with a big grin on her face and big puppy-dog eyes aimed right at me. “It’s just dinner. What have you got to lose?”
I could feel myself wavering on that decision and I didn’t like it, not at all. This wasn’t going to happen. It couldn’t, it was stupid. She was a school kid. “What makes you so sure you want to be friends with me?”
She was leaning on one of her hips, and she was smiling at me like she already knew what was going to happen. “Uh, because you’re awesome?”
Nice try, I wasn’t ‘awesome’, that was for sure. I didn’t like the smug edge on her smile, either. “I don’t know why you think that, or why you think it’s going to work—”
“I don’t think it’s going to work,” she told me as if she was delivering a universal truth, “I know it’s going to work. My grandmother cured her cancer like that. It’s all in the mind.” She tapped her head and her curls bounced.
She was missing the point and I wasn’t sure how I felt about being compared to a terminal illness. “But I’m not ‘awesome’ and I don’t know who you think I am. A couple of weeks ago you thought I was a guy, so, no disrespect, but you have no idea about me. I’m not whatever you’ve decided I am.”
She actually laughed at me; it was a really unexpected reaction and for just a second I felt really humiliated. “Min, you are so uptight,” she said, walking up toward me. “Come on, let’s just go have dinner!”
I put my hands up to stop her from coming any closer. I just… did this girl have no boundaries? This was absolutely and completely ridiculous and it was not going any further. She wasn’t even listening to me. “Look, just stop.” I said. “I don’t want to see anyone, I don’t want to have dinner with anyone. After work I just want to go home, put on something comfortable and relax. I’m going home.”
“You can relax in this restaurant, it’s really comfy,” she said, again missing the point.
Yeah, no. “Bree,” I said firmly. “I’m going home.” I even went as far as to attempt to keep walking up the road past her, but one of those little arms shot out and grabbed mine.
I looked down at my trapped wrist, and then up at those rosy cheeks. Bree beamed at me. “Trust me, you’d rather be in this restaurant with me.”
That was the last place I would rather be and just as I opened my mouth to say as much, she released my wrist. Before I realized what she was doing and what was going on, she’d wrenched my handbag off my shoulder and ran a few paces away from me with it.
I couldn’t say anything, I just gaped at her. Did she really just do that?
She had a wide grin on her face. “Now you have to come,” she said, holding up my handbag under her chin, and then glancing back down at it. “Wow, is this Coach? It’s really nice.”
“Bree!” I said, listening to the ragged edge in my voice. “What the fuck are you doing? This is not okay, give that back!”
She was smiling so widely her teeth were showing. “Come and get it.”
I still had my phone, and I held it up. “I swear to god I will call the police if you don’t give it back.”
“Or,” she said mischievously, “you could just come have dinner with me.”
She waggled my handbag.
I had literally dialled triple-0 and had the phone to my ear, rehearsing what I was going to say in my head when I realized how stupid it sounded. How stupid it made me sound. I put my phone down again. She was tiny, what the hell were they going to say if they did come? I sighed.
Bree lit up. “You’re going to come? Really?” she asked, and the genuine excitement in her voice just gave me a stronger desire to beat her to death. It was cute, and that made it harder to focus on the part where she was a crazy fucking stalker-criminal.
“Give my bag back to me right now,” I said. “And I might consider it.”
Obediently, she trotted over and delivered my handbag. My original plan had been to get my bag back, lecture her on her appalling behaviour and then just storm off. But she was looking right up at me with those adoring eyes and, actually, I just felt bad. She wasn’t twenty-five, she was a teenager. She was just being young and stupid, and she just wanted to have dinner with her favourite artist at any cost. And what was her favourite artist doing? Being a grump.
“Okay,” I said, regretting it even as I was saying it. “Just dinner, and just once. But you have to promise not to ever do anything like this again.”
She stared at me for a second like she couldn’t believe it, and then jumped up and down. “Oh my god, really?” she said, practically squealing. “Really? Yes, okay! I promise!” And just in case there was any way in which I wasn’t extremely uncomfortable with everything that was happening, she reached across between us and took my hand to lead me. It was like being dragged along the footpath by the human version of a small fluffy terrier.
Bree talked the whole way. The whole way. By the time we were seated at the table on the balcony of an ugly modern restaurant that clearly took itself far too seriously, I think I knew everything about all of her classmates and could also draw some of their family trees. Slumped in my chair, I stared across the table at her as she babbled away. I had never met anyone who talked as much as she did; she filled every second of airspace. I actually wasn’t sure I’d said as many words in my life as she’d said in half an hour.
I looked around us to see who was listening. One of the waiters smiled at me, but it was a very professional smile. I wondered what he was really thinking about what was going on. A chatty schoolgirl eating dinner with, well, whatever I looked like. I’d had a long day at work so whatever it was, it was probably terrible. My hair was probably all over the place, and it probably looked even worse next to Bree’s. There was no chance we’d be mistaken for relatives, either. Maybe they’d think I was her teacher?
“My cousin had her wedding reception here,” Bree was saying, oblivious to my discomfort. “It was wild, there were like two hundred people and we were so loud someone called the police on us and it wasn’t even midnight. Are you vegetarian?”
I blinked. “Uh,” I said. “No.”
“Neither am I,” she said, playing with the swan-shaped folded serviette. She put the serviette ring on its head like a crown while she kept talking. “I tried for, like, two weeks once but then this friend of mine had her birthday had TGI’s and I was like, ‘I could just starve or I could enjoy myself’, you know? I only did it in the first place because there was this guy who was into me and he kept trying to make me eat at his family’s restaurant and I wanted to make him feel so bad he never asked me again. So I was, like, ‘Yeah, sorry, I can’t eat any of those sweet little baby lambs you’ve hacked up and shoved on a skewer’.”
While I was just shifting awkwardly in my seat and listening to her, the smiling waiter walked up to our table and placed menus in front of us. I was glad I had something else to do other than just sit there are try to look relaxed when I really wasn’t.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the gold-leafed menu was the price of the food here.
I’m pretty sure I made some awful, strangled sound. It wasn’t like I’d have trouble affording anything, but the presumptuousness of this girl was unbelievable. Two hundred dollars for a steak? Was the cow educated in Swiss finishing school and ritually blessed before being hand-carried to the restaurant by twelve virgins dressed in white? What the hell could make a steak be worth that much money?
I was going to need some serious assistance to deal with all this. I held the wine list up at the waiter and pointed at one of them. “In a glass, please, but fill it to the lip.” The waiter nodded and left us to select our meals.
Bree was giggling at me as I took a deep breath and braved the menu again. My opinion of the prices must have been obvious. “Now you know why I can’t come here by myself!” she said, and then flipped the pages of her own menu. “So how much do you get paid, anyway? You work at Frost, so it must be heaps.”
I looked up sharply at her. “Why?” I asked flatly. “Are you planning on robbing me? Because I hate to tell you, but you missed a golden opportunity to do that before.”
She looked delighted I was finally speaking in full sentences. “Yeah, totally! I’m going to steal all your money. That would go really well. I’m like half your size, you could just, like, breathe on me and I’d blow off into the distance.” She’d felt pretty strong when she was dragging me down the road. “You’re really tall, by the way. That must be so cool. I always wondered what it was like to be tall.”
Hah, ‘cool’, sure. I didn’t really want to talk about what it was like being my height. “Have you thought about what university you’re going to go to yet?”
She didn’t look surprised by the fact I’d changed the subject at all. “Nah,” she said, rolling with the topic change. “I don’t even know if I’m going to go to uni. My cousin went to uni and now she doesn’t have a job and she has an enormous HELP debt.” While she was talking, she’d stuck her knife into the prongs of her fork and was trying to balance them on the rim of her glass. “I guess it doesn’t matter now, since she’s pregnant. She’ll probably just stay at home. Do you have any kids?”
She was giving me whiplash. “No.”
“Do you want kids?”
Henry wanted kids. “Do you?”
Bree grinned. “Yeah,” she said. “I’d have heaps so that if any of them turn out like my brother I can just focus on the other ones. Would you be, like, really disappointed if I just ordered Fish and Chips? Even if it’s really boring? I just kind of want something extremely deep fried right now.”
Yeah, I didn’t know how I was going to cope with her ordering Fish and Chips because I’d pinned all my hopes on her ordering the Holy Steak. “Order whatever you like, I’m still going broke.”
She laughed and stood up in her chair. Before I could stop her, she was shouting out to the waiter inside across all the softly talking patrons on the balcony. “Hey! We’d like to order!”
When she sat back down again, I think I’d shrunk as low in my chair as I could without actually sliding under the table. “You’re supposed to wait your turn.”
She shrugged, not at all worried. “Yeah, but they might take ages and I’m really hungry,” she said. “What are you having?”
No idea, I thought, since you haven’t given me the opportunity decide. I’d probably just have a warm salad, anyway. I’d had a lot of bad food during the week, and as Mum said, I didn’t want to be fat as well as tall.
After we’d ordered, I looked over the balcony and realized the sun was setting. Where we were seated had an unobstructed view of Darling Harbour, and with the sun disappearing behind the buildings, it was colouring the water. The scene was very beautiful, especially with all the neon lights and torches along waterfront. It would make a good painting, actually, and this angle was just perfect.
While I was trying to figure out how I’d frame it, I heard a fake shutter click.
When I looked abruptly back at Bree, she had her mobile pointed at me. Tilting her head a little, she considered the picture. “That’s the first time I’ve seen you smile,” she said, glancing up at me over the screen and then raising her eyebrows when she saw my expression. “…And there it goes.” She held her phone out at me so I could see the photo. “Look? It’s nice.”
If I was in it, it wasn’t a nice photo. I did her the courtesy of looking at it anyway, but I just snorted. That was not a nice photo.
She made a face, snatching her phone back and examining it again. “Are you serious? It’s great!” She unpinched the screen and zoomed in. “Look! You have a dimple.”
I did not have anything of the sort. She was the one with dimples. I looked again, anyway, and saw how high my collar was sitting and wished I’d worn something else. Or just gone home and taken everything off. As I was scrutinizing myself, her phone locked automatically again. That painting I’d done was her lockscreen.
A glass of red landed in front of me on the table and I thanked the waiter, glancing at Bree and wincing. He gave me a secret smile back as he left. Bree was still looking at the photo, and I was worried if I just left it she might try to take more. “I don’t really like being photographed.”
“I’ll fix that,” she said immediately and with the same conviction she put behind everything she said. “Why, anyway? Do you have a thing about your nose or something?”
My hand shot up to the bridge of my nose. I’d never even thought about it. Was there something wrong with it? “My nose…?”
She looked surprised for a second and then laughed. “Oh, like, I don’t mean there’s anything wrong with your nose! It’s just some people have weird issues with random body parts and don’t want to be in photos, that’s all!” She paused, watching me feel the shape of it. “Oh, my god, do you really have a thing about your nose? That’s stupid. You’re gorgeous.”
Bree looked like the adult version of one of Bouguereau’s cherubs, so I didn’t think she’d understand what it was like to not resemble a classic masterpiece and therefore not want to be photographed. I certainly wasn’t going to try and explain it to her, either. Anyway, it wasn’t parts of me I had issues with, it was the whole thing. I took a sip of my wine as Bree took photos of her serviette swan with the serviette ring crown. Then again, was it actually the whole thing I hated? I’d really liked that painting I’d done of myself, and there weren’t many parts of me I’d changed dramatically for that. Just two, in fact. I looked down at them in my blouse.
No sooner had I done that, my heart pounded. I put my wine glass back down on the table so I didn’t spill it.
Dangerous fucking ground, Min, I told myself firmly as I closed my eyes for a moment. Just stop. You are who you are, learn to deal with it.
“Hey, can I have a sip of your wine?”
I opened my eyes again, still a bit spun. “You’re underage,” I reminded her, “that’s against the law.”
She scoffed. “We jay-walked on the way here and that’s against the law. It’s too late, you’re already a criminal. Just give me one little sip, okay?” Before I could stop her, she’d reached over and wrapped her fingers around the stem of the glass. If I tried to struggle with it, red wine would probably spill all over the table and all over me. I couldn’t do anything else, so I just let her take it.
She did not just have ‘one little sip’. “This is gross,” she said, wrinkling up her nose as she swallowed big gulps of it. “How can you even drink this?” Despite her assessment, she kept going and she’d drunk nearly half the glass before she gave it back to me. I stared at it while she said, “It’s probably best you don’t drink it all, anyway.” She giggled. “I don’t like my chances of being able to carry you home.”
Home sounded great right about now. God, I was just so damn tired all of a sudden. I just wanted to shut myself somewhere.
“Just you wait,” she said, leaning across the table to pat my hand. “You’re going to love the food! It’s completely awesome. You’re going to wish you could have dinner here every night.” She stopped to think for a second. “You probably could afford that anyway, right? Oh, my god. If I could afford it I’d eat every meal at this place. Maybe I’d start a food blog.”
I knew what I’d call it, too: Adventures in Bankruptcy: Culinary Edition. It was a great idea. I could go bankrupt and get fat, all in one. Then I could be tall, fat and broke. How attractive. Well, at least I’d be well-fed, I thought, as the waiter came bustling over and placed two very large plates in front of us.
Bree was actually right about the food. It was great. Although, given the fact the price rolled into three digits for each dish, I would have been pissed off if the food hadn’t been life-changing. It was so great that it even succeeded in distracting me from my pathetic self-loathing for at least a few minutes. I’d have to remember to thank the twelve virgins dressed in white before I left.
I had thought maybe the food would shut Bree up, but she just kept talking through every mouthful. “So the school dance is in April,” she was saying, “And Courtney wants to take my brother which is so fucked up I don’t even know where to start. She was like, ‘You can just take my brother’, but her brother is this hideous monster who talks about girls like ‘pussy’ this and ‘tits’ that, and I’m like, ‘why would you force me to spend time with that loser’?” Bree held her fork up towards the ceiling, examining a chip she’d speared with it, before putting it in her mouth. I supposed I should be happy she was at least using the knife and fork and not her fingers. “She just wants to feel like she’s not an awful person, I guess. Whatever, though. Would you date your best friend’s brother?”
“Yeah, exactly,” Bree said, interpreting that as my answer. “It is so not right. I don’t know what I’m going to do about it. Maybe I just won’t go. I really don’t want to see them be all gross together. I hate it when people are like that. Do you have boyfriend? Hang on, didn’t you mention him in one of your messages? He works for Frost, too, right?” She didn’t even stop for a breath so I could answer. “Wow, it must have been really hard finding someone as tall as you. Is he as tall as you?”
Even though I knew she wasn’t trying to be mean, that comment stung me a little. I was already not feeling that great about myself. “Yeah,” I said dismissively. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
She shook her head, peeling the batter off her fish and eating it first. “I go to an all-girls school,” she said. “St. Anthony’s is our brother school, but all the boys there are idiots, and they only want one thing anyway, you know? They just stare straight at my boobs and, like, why would I choose to date that? So how long have you known your boyfriend? What’s his name?”
“Does that matter?”
She gave me a stern look and waved her fork at me. “Friends know friends’ boyfriends’ names.”
“It’s Henry,” I said, giving up.
“Henry,” Bree repeated, testing the name out. “That sounds so totally proper. Is he Asian, too? Or Aussie?” He’s both, I thought, but didn’t say so because she’d probably miss the point, anyway. Trying to follow all of this was really draining me. “Must be weird to work with him. Weird and cool. Actually, it would kind of be cool to work in an office. I always wanted to work in an office.”
I sighed at that, and she noticed. “Careful what you wish for.”
She stopped eating for a second to watch me. “I thought you loved your job?”
Loved? Hah. “I’ve got a good job, that’s true.”
She actually spent a few seconds considering me where she didn’t talk. “You’re this amazing artist, so I don’t really know why you do the whole Corporate Barbie thing, anyway,” she said, going for another mouthful. “It totally doesn’t suit you, you shouldn’t bother with it.”
Wow, I… felt like I’d had a knife shoved into my chest. Had she really just said that?
It knocked the wind out of me and I sat there reeling for a second. I knew it didn’t suit me, did she think I needed some crazy, hyperactive teenager reminding me of that? I knew no matter how much I curled my hair or bought expensive makeup or wore Jimmy Choos, it didn’t suit me. I still felt like an imposter. But I didn’t have any choice, so what the fuck was I supposed to do? Go to work dressed in a sheet?
Just, no. No. I was exhausted. I’d had enough, I couldn’t do this. I’d spent at least a couple of hours with this girl, I’d earned myself some space. I pushed back my chair and stood.
I just really wanted to go home and lock my fucking door and forget everything that had happened between seven and now.
Bree’s face fell. “Where are you going?” she asked, and I could hear the waver in her voice. “We haven’t even had dessert yet!”
I shook my head, I didn’t want to explain. She guessed anyway and looked stricken. “I didn’t mean it like that, Min,” she said, standing and trying to reach for me. I avoided her as I neatly collected my bag and walked up to the desk. While I was handing my credit card over, Bree abandoned her meal and came running up to me. “I meant that I just hate the whole Barbie thing in general and that you seem like the kind of person who would be above all that superficial image stuff!”
I had no idea if that was true or not and I didn’t have the energy to think about it. The waitress looked between us, but didn’t comment as she ran my card and let me sign the receipt.
Bree put both her arms around one of mine. “Please don’t go, Min,” she said. “I’ll be quiet, I promise!”
Somehow I doubted it. “Where do you live?” I asked her calmly. She frowned at me. “How far away from here is your house?”
“Courtney lives near Parramatta,” she said when she figured out what I meant. She sounded crestfallen. “I’m going back to hers tonight.”
I took a fifty out of my wallet, opened her hand and gave it to her. She just stared at it. “That should be enough for a taxi,” I told her, deliberately not looking at her so I didn’t have to be subjected to those big puppy-dog eyes. “I’m going home. Please don’t try and stop me this time.”
Of course she did, anyway. She followed me out of the restaurant, and as I was walking along the waterfront she grabbed my wrists and tried to put the fifty back in my hand. “Min, I don’t want your money. I didn’t mean it like that. Just come back in and have dessert.” She didn’t sound as enthusiastic as she had earlier in the evening, and I didn’t think she was channelling her cancer-curing grandmother anymore. She just sounded really disappointed.
She probably was disappointed. But I just couldn’t do this, I felt really weird and I just wanted to go home. “You managed to get your dinner,” I said, probably sounding as tired as I felt. “Now can you just leave me alone?”
She didn’t let go. “Please,” she said, sounding desperate. “Please don’t go. I’m sorry. I know I say things without thinking, but whatever I say I never mean it like that. You’re awesome. Please just come back inside. The dessert here is incredible, you’ll enjoy it, you really will…”
I had to physically pry her fingers one by one from my arm in order to get her off me. This time, though, she let me. She didn’t even steal my handbag again. When I was free, I gave her one last look. “Make sure you get a taxi,” I told her. “Don’t risk the train this late at night, okay?”
She just nodded mutely, her hands by her side for once. She didn’t say anything else and I could hardly fucking bear to look at her because she just looked so upset. Over a goddamn meal, seriously? Who was this girl?
I turned away from her and continued towards the bridge, feeling my stomach sink. Now, on top of everything, I also felt like a terrible person. I just seriously didn’t have the energy to deal with her right now. I just couldn’t, no matter how upset she was. I felt like complete and utter crap in general, and my feet were killing me in these stupid shoes. What had I been thinking in the first place, anyway? I should just have gone straight home after work. Then I could have avoided hurting her feelings, avoided having mine hurt and felt like crap quietly in the privacy of my own apartment. Somewhere that didn’t have people walking past me who all double-took when they noticed how tall I was. I wonder if they all thought I shouldn’t bother, as well.
Before I stepped onto the footbridge, I looked back towards the restaurant. Bree was still standing there on the waterfront, watching me.
As if I wasn’t feeling crap enough.
She’ll be fine, I told myself, she can catch a taxi home. I kept walking.