“You look so different!” Sarah said as she held me at arm’s length, looking me up and down. It was too late to stop her. It was too late to do anything about what she’d seen, so I just stood there, panicking. “Sorry for chasing you up the road, but I didn’t want to yell out at some random person if it wasn’t you. Wow, though. Bit of a difference from you in corporate getup…”
There was an implicit question in that and instead of answering it, I wanted to just turn around and run home. It was too late for that, too, wasn’t it? She’d seen me in these clothes, and it was probably really obvious what look I was going for. Fuck. Fuck, I hoped she wouldn’t tell anyone at work. Why did she have to find out now? Like this?
“I’m in the middle of doing some graphics for Pink and I just ducked out to grab some dinner,” I stammered, conveniently neglecting to explain why I looked like this specifically, “and there’s a little pizza place up further…”
She groaned. “You were going to buy pizza?” When I nodded, she shook her head at herself, looking a bit disappointed. “Hah, I should have known it was too good to be true. You aren’t here to hang out with me,” she said. “Well, you’re going to anyway. By some fantastic coincidence, this place has table service open until one. You can just keep me company until the girls arrive later.” She gestured for me to follow her.
I stayed put. When she raised her eyebrows at me, I held my arms out to indicate what I was wearing. “Sarah, I can’t go in like this.”
She didn’t sound too concerned. “Uh, it’s a pub? Pubs don’t have dress codes. As long as you’re wearing actual clothes, no one’s going to throw you out.”
I opened my mouth and took a breath, but I ended up just releasing it. I didn’t want anyone from work to see me like this. I didn’t want any possible way anyone in marketing or, most importantly, any possible way Henry could find out about this. Sarah… well, Sarah, herself, she was maybe okay. She hadn’t told anyone about Bree, after all. But she was still from work, and I worried about mixing her in with this stuff.
When I didn’t say anything, her frown deepened. She was onto me. “The dress code isn’t what you meant, is it?” I shook my head. She pressed her bright red lips together for a second, looking intently at me. It seemed like she was having trouble figuring out what she wanted to say, too. Finally she took a tentative step towards me. “Can I just do something for a second? It won’t hurt.”
I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t think she’d do anything inappropriate. She wasn’t Bree. “Okay…” I said hesitantly.
She glanced over her shoulder toward the pub to make sure no one was watching us, and then stepped in closer to me. Taking the hem of my hoodie, she pulled it gently downward. The fabric pulled flat against my body and it was very, very clear I’d done something to my breasts. There was no point in pushing her away now, she’d seen what was going on. I braced myself to be really ashamed by it; I was usually hugely uncomfortable with anything to do with them. It didn’t happen this time, though. I mean, I was worried about what she was going to think, but I didn’t feel self-conscious about my lack of chest. With the thick material the hoodie was made out of, the bandages weren’t visible, either. It looked like there had been nothing there to begin with.
Her eyes widened and she released my jumper. “Wow,” she said as she stood back with her jaw open for a second. She closed it quickly, though. “Wow. Okay.”
She didn’t ask, but I knew what her question was. “It’s complicated.”
Her eyes were still wide open. “Yeah, apparently,” she said, considering what she’d just seen.
I looked down at the ground and nodded. Fuck. Well, she knew now. At least now she’d understand why I wasn’t going to come inside with her. “Yeah, so,” I said, “I’m going to go and get that pizza I was after.”
She snapped out of her surprise and stepped in front of me when I went to leave. “No you’re fucking not,” she said. It was jarring to hear her swear; she didn’t do it that often. “You’re not getting away this time, not now.” I opened my mouth to contradict her, and she interrupted me. “I don’t care what you’re going to say, your argument is void. It’s pitch black in there and I promise you no one will recognise you, seriously. I almost didn’t, and I wouldn’t have if you’d never shown me that painting you did of yourself.”
“Nope,” she said shortly, leaning on one hip and crossing her bare arms. “I have bought you lunch almost every day, and every day for the past two weeks I’ve been doing all that menial crap for you. Now, I may not be as young and cute and blonde as that little friend you’ve got on the side, but if she can refuse to take no for an answer from you, I certainly deserve to do the same.” I just stood there gaping at her as she added, “You said she’d carry you out of work if she wasn’t so small? Well, I’m bigger, and I swear to god I’ll carry you in there myself if you try to keep making excuses. It’s dark in there, Min, and you can not just leave me hanging now after the whole ‘it’s complicated’ thing.”
There… wasn’t much I could say to that. She was clearly not going to let me get away, and she was right, anyway. She had been doing a lot of stuff for me, and I had run out on her last time we’d eaten. Fuck. Fuck! Now I felt bad, too. She’d been really great the last few weeks.
I looked past her at the pub. There was a gauntlet of people along the walls to get into it, though. “Are you sure no one will recognise me?”
She snorted. “Uh, yeah. You look like a–” she winced, “well…”
I looked back down at her. “A guy? You can say it, it’s okay.”
She sighed with relief. “Yeah, even with the whole,” she indicated my chest with a wave of her hand, “I wasn’t sure if you’d be insulted if I said that. But seriously, Min, actually it’s kind of creepy how my boss now looks like an eighteen year old boy.” Her eyes were wide again. “Like, really creepy. Although you and that schoolgirl kind of makes more sense, now.”
I was not following that topic anywhere. “My ponytail doesn’t give me away?”
She considered it for a moment. “It actually just looks like a really bad fashion decision,” she said, leaning around me to get another look at it. “Like you’re some kid who’s trying really hard to be cool and mature.”
“Great,” I said flatly. “Because I was worried people weren’t going to be able to judge me, after all.”
That made her laugh. “I think you’ve just about run out of excuses. Let’s eat, I’m basically dying of a combination of starvation and curiosity.” she said, and then took a few steps towards the pub. I didn’t move. “What now?” she asked.
“Didn’t you offer to carry me in, before?” I said in a complete deadpan. “Because I’m not going to walk if I don’t really have to.”
She groaned, waiting for me as I caught up to her anyway and we continued to the pub. “I think I’ve done enough for you this week,” she said, looking sideways up at me. “Go on. Get in there and let’s get dinner.”
No one paid any attention to us as we passed them. Sarah got a couple of second glances because she looked good, but otherwise we could have been any two people off the street walking into the pub.
When we’d stepped inside, I quickly realised Sarah wasn’t kidding about the place being dark. It was nightclub dark, but there weren’t any laser lights to break it up. Several groups of people were sitting in little booths that lined the walls, laughing, chatting and drinking, but whether or not they were Frost employees, I had no idea. That was because, unless we got right up close to people, there wasn’t enough light to see the details of their faces at all.
Sarah led me over to a corner booth that had a ‘Reserved’ placard on it. She brushed it aside, explaining, “The guy who owns this places always does that for us. We’ve been coming here for like seven years.”
No sooner had she said that and we’d sat down, a greasy middle-aged guy leaned over the bar. “Sarah!” he called halfway across the floor, instead of actually coming over to our table. There was no music yet, but because there were so many people inside it was still difficult to hear him. “You want food?”
It was an interesting way of taking our order, that was for sure. “Some table service…” I said to Sarah with a smirk, and she kicked me underneath it.
“Potato wedges,” she yelled back. “A huge bowl with lots of sour cream and at least something resembling a salad.” She looked at me, and I shrugged. I was almost too nervous to feel like food anymore. Turning back to the guy, she shouted, “Times two. And a bottle of something bubbly.”
He gave us the thumbs up, and then disappeared behind the bar into what I presume was a kitchen, throwing a passing glance at a television mounted in the corner of the room. There was some sort of sports game playing on it.
“Min,” Sarah said to get my attention. I looked back at her, and she was leaning forward across the table, watching me intently. When I didn’t say anything, she prompted. “Come on, I’m dying here. This is the part where you tell me what’s going on with you. Is this the ‘personal thing’ you were talking about the other day?”
“It used to be a personal thing,” I said, and then glanced around us. And I’d kind of like to keep it that way, I thought. “What time did you say your friends were coming again?”
“Not for ages,” she said dismissively. “Their time management skills leave a lot to be desired. So, this… thing, are you…” She stopped and made a face. “Sorry if I screw up, I don’t know any of the words for this stuff. So, the point is to look like a guy, right?” I nodded, and she leant back in the booth, staring at me. “Is this just like some secret hobby, or…?”
If only. “Hah. I wish it was that simple.” She had her eyes fixed on me with an intensity which said, ‘elaborate’, so I did. “I meant, it’s secret in that I don’t want anyone to know. I wish it didn’t have to be, but it does.”
“What needs to be though? What is ‘this’ and ‘it’? I won’t tell anyone.”
Before I even considered explaining I spent a few seconds checking around us again to make absolutely certain no one could hear. It took me several more to gather enough strength to actually say exactly what was going on for me in so many words. “I don’t feel comfortable as a girl.”
I don’t know if Sarah had expected me to be so succinct, or if she just hadn’t expected that to be the issue or what, but she looked really stunned. She sat back in the booth, staring at me. She didn’t say anything straight away, either. “This is such a trip out,” she said eventually. “You’re so incredibly girly at work, even more girly than I am. You’re always immaculately dressed, with pearls and earrings and stockings and even though you’re six-foot-a-thousand, you still always wear really nice heels…”
I sighed deeply, and shrugged. “It takes me twenty minutes to get into my dress every morning. I hate it.”
She spent a few seconds letting that settle. “Fuck,” she said, swearing again. “So, you think you’d be better off as a guy, then?
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t really know what’s going on, to be honest. I just know what feels right and what doesn’t.” I paused. “You’re only the second person who knows.”
She still looked spun out. “Henry?” I shook my head. “Bree?” When I nodded, she needed to think about what that meant, too. “Fuck, Min… I mean, I kind of wondered about that painting, but I had no idea it would be something like this.”
“That’s kind of the way I’d prefer it, to be honest,” I said. “I don’t want this to go around Frost.”
She made a noise. “Yeah, you really don’t,” she said, and then looked more troubled the more she thought about it. “Wow, yeah, you really don’t. Can you imagine what—Ah, here we go…” She was looking across at the bar and getting distracted by approaching food.
The greasy man walked out from behind it with a tray in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. He plonked it all down on the table in front of us. “Bon Appetit,” he said in a really broad Australian accent, and then instead of pouring the wine or laying the food out nicely in front of us, he swaggered back behind the bar, sat on a barstool and stared upwards at the game on TV.
“Classy place,” I commented as I tried to force myself to eat a potato wedge.
Sarah went straight for the wine, filling my glass to the brim and then pouring one for herself. “Eh, he always lets me eat for free because I drunkenly kissed him on his birthday like five years ago. Actual guests get reasonable service, but me and my friends are just part of the furniture so he’s stopped bothering.”
“So much for buying you dinner,” I said with a tense smile as I accepted my wine glass from her. “I’ll just have to pick up the bar tab, instead.”
She pointed a potato wedge at me. “You’ll be sorry you said that.”
“Didn’t you say you were a lightweight? I think I’m getting a great deal, here. Free food and all I need to do is get you trashed on a couple of glasses of sparkling.”
She indulgently poured her sour cream all over her wedges. “A couple? I’ll be on the floor after one.”
“Even better. I’ll help you out of here looking like I scored the hottest girl in the place.” She stared at me for a second, and I faltered, remember what we’d been talking about. “Uh, I didn’t mean–”
She broke into a laugh. “It’s okay. I was just messing with you. But since we’re playing a long game of truth with you: I believe we were up to ‘Bree’.”
“We were?” I cringed a little. “What about her?”
“Come on, she’s basically a cut and paste job from one of those ‘Bid-on-my-virginity-dot-com’ sites, school uniform and all. She’s got the puppies out all over her Facebook page, and she was about ready to jump you in the street when I met her.Tell me with a completely straight face that you’ve never slept with her.”
I opened my mouth to say exactly that, and then remembered waking up next to her earlier in the week. Technically, that was sleeping right?
I paused for too long apparently. “I knew it!” Sarah announced, holding her hands up in the air. “I totally knew it! Oh my god, Min, you are unbelievable!”
I put my face in my hands for a second. “It’s not what you think, and she is not like that,” I said. “She does show skin, sure, but she’s just so sweet, she’s not like that!” I realised how all of that sounded, and so just to make it perfectly clear to Sarah, I looked up at her from my hands and said, “I’ve slept beside her. Not with her. Because she’s a ‘she’ and we’re just friends and I have a boyfriend.”
Sarah stopped cheering, but she still looked pretty smug. She gestured at my torso. “Yeah, but you look like a ‘he’ and you feel like you might be a ‘he’ so I’m actually not sure what’s more gay: you sleeping with Bree or you sleeping with Henry.”
“Sarah, I’m straight,” I said, pretending to cry into my hands.
“Again,” she said, making a ‘tada’ motion at me and how I looked. “You being in the situation that you are, what does that even mean?” She reached across the table and gave me a solid pat on the shoulder. “Sorry to give you the third degree but your mysterious behaviour over the past few weeks has been driving me absolutely crazy. Here, drink your wine.” She pushed the glass towards me again. “It’s going to be okay, I promise.”
I obediently drank deeply from it. “Put that in a contract so I can sue you if you don’t deliver,” I told her, giving up.
She sat back against the padded spine of the booth, eating another few wedges and washing them down with more wine as she watched me thoughtfully.
After she’d finished them, she said,“You know, when I thought you might be fun to drink with, I just had this sort of vague idea that you might have a wild streak. Understatement of the year: at the rate we’re going you might as well tell me you’re a dominatrix or a wizard or a spy or something. I suddenly feel like I don’t know the first thing about you.”
I laughed darkly. “Yeah, well, join the club.”
“Count me in,” she said, and then shrugged, holding her glass up in the air as if she was making a toast at a wedding. “Whatever, Min, I couldn’t care less what you end up as. Working at Frost is hell on earth most of the time, especially with the bastards in marketing. But these past two weeks haven’t been like that at all. It’s been great. Working with you is stacks of fun. I don’t even care what project I’m on: I wouldn’t want to work with anyone else but you.”
My chest clenched; it felt so good to hear that. Just so good, and I think I might have teared up a little if the wine hadn’t been starting to get to me. Sarah was great about this stuff, why hadn’t I just told her in the first place?
“Thank you,” I said, meaning it. “And I do have something to tell you.”
She put her glass down, all serious again. “You do?”
I nodded, looking with exaggerated drama at my wedges, and then up at her. “Sarah, I’m a wizard.”
She threw a wedge at me, and, predictably, she missed. “You’re a dag,” she said as we kept eating, “that’s what you are.”
I was comfortable around her; too comfortable, in fact. The bottle that her owner friend had got us was sparkling wine, and while I was perfectly able to hold normal wine, sparkling just went straight to my head. I’d finished my third big glass of it when Sarah whistled at the owner and got us another one.
“We’ve got to stop,” I said as she filled my wine glass to the brim for the fourth time. “I’m never going to get any work done. I need to get home at some point and get through the last couple of hundred images.” I wasn’t slurring yet, but I wasn’t too far away from it.
Sarah took a big swig from the bottle and then poured her own glass full. “Yeah, sounds fascinating,” she said sarcastically. “Or you could stay here with me and get completely wasted. They clear the floor and play bad music after one. I’m a terrible dancer, it will be really entertaining.”
I laughed once, and had been about to inform her that I was also a top contender for the World’s Worst Dancer title, when someone said something behind me. It took me a few seconds to realise it was to us, and by that time there were two gorgeous women looming over the booth. As if that wasn’t intimidating enough just in itself, it reminded me of high school when some of the girls would surround me after class. If I hadn’t been so very drunk at that moment, I think I might have actually tried to get away.
“Hey, Sarah, don’t you already have a boyfriend?” one of them asked her light-heartedly, and then gave her a bit of a clumsy shove. We weren’t the only ones who were drunk, apparently. I couldn’t tell if the girl was being nasty or not – did she actually think I was a guy, or was she having a go at me?
Sarah looked at me with alarm, and then glanced at the screen of her phone. “Crap!” she said. “What time is it? I completely forgot you guys were coming!” She held a hand out towards me. “It’s okay, though, they’re totally cool…”
These were her work friends? I inhaled sharply and looked back up at them; the two of them did share Sarah’s grade of good looks, dress sense and the I-kind-of-know-I’m-hot self-confidence, but I didn’t recognise either of them. Maybe they were other friends of hers?
At Sarah’s and my panicked expression, they both laughed. “Busted!” the shorter one declared and then held her hand out to me to shake as she spoke to Sarah. “Are you going to introduce us to your toyboy? He’s cute.”
Instead of taking the girl’s hand, I looked back at Sarah.
“I’m really sorry, but seriously, it’s okay,” she promised me. “They won’t care.”
“Won’t care about what?” the taller one asked Sarah as I looked back at the hand in front of me. “What’s going on?”
There wasn’t anything else I could do, really, so I shook the hand being held at me for a second. “Min,” I somehow managed. I hoped she couldn’t feel how sweaty my palm was.
The girl attached to the hand looked stunned for a second and then squinted at me. “Min? As in, ‘Sarah’s Boss Min’? ‘Min Lee’ Min? No way!” Wait, she was from Frost? I looked harder at her again, but in the low light I couldn’t tell if I recognised her or not.
“That’s her…” Sarah confirmed, sounding pained. At ‘her’, both heads turned back towards me with surprise. That was very telling. They had thought I was a guy, after all, and wow, it was actually a relief. They were probably just being flirty before rather than trying to insult me.
Sarah presented me with a gesture. “Everyone, this is Min. Min, this is Liz,” she pointed at the tall blonde, “and Gemma,” she said, pointing at the shorter brunette.
The girl who had gone to shake my hand had been Gemma. “You’re a chick?” Her eyes kept flicking between my flat chest and my face. She sounded genuinely surprised. “Are you sure? Because, like, wow.”
That is a very good question, I thought, but I just forced a smile. I still wasn’t sure about them.
Liz shoved her. “Don’t be fucking rude, Gem,” she said. “And can you sit down? These heels are killing me.”
I shuffled along the seat to the back of the small circular booth so that they could both fit next to me.
Liz was already talking as they sat down. “Sorry we’re late, by the way,” she said to Sarah. “My husband did his knee in last weekend’s game and the way he’s carrying on about it you’d think that he’d lost the whole leg. Gemma was over at eleven and he was all like, ‘But who’s going to change the heat pack?’ and ‘what happens when the boys come around and I can’t get to the door?’, and I’m like, ‘Geez, Chris, I’m not your slave, tell them to come around the back or something…’. We were seriously waiting for him to stop crying like a toddler and we didn’t get out the door until half-past twelve…”
Sarah was starting to relax, even if I wasn’t. “That’s okay, Min’s been keeping me company,” she said. “And I guess Chris isn’t coming then?”
Liz shook her head. “Not tonight. None of the boys are, they’re all going back to my place.” She gave us all a very pointed look. “And by the way, if anyone asks, we actually just went and had a quiet late night dinner somewhere for someone’s birthday. Chris would kill me if he knew I was just going out on the town without him. He’s such a sook.”
Sarah laughed. “Got it,” she said. “And by the way, if anyone at work asks, you never met Min, either.”
Both the other girls looked at me, and a very loud ‘why’ hung in the air. No one answered it, though.
Gemma shrugged, and Liz said, “Uh, okay?”
“It’s a pleasure not meeting you,” I said with a slight grin, before I’d given it any thought. Internally, I winced. Really, Min? I asked myself, you want to be an idiot around Sarah’s work friends?
The two girls didn’t seem to think I was an idiot, though. They laughed a little and the hesitant, polite smiles they’d been giving me relaxed into regular ones. Apparently that stupid comment was enough to make me fair game to talk to, as well.
Gemma flipped her hair over her shoulder a little self-consciously, I thought, which made me self-conscious again, too. “So how long have you been working at Frost?” she asked.
“About five years,” I said. “Which is coincidentally also how long I’ve been addicted to energy drinks and takeaway food.”
They laughed. “I hear you,” Gemma said. “There’s a twenty-four hour Subway two doors from my house and I think they actually stay open after midnight because of me.” She considered me for a moment, “Marketing, yeah?” I nodded, and then she forehead-slapped and laughed a bit nervously. “Sorry, that’s a stupid question, fuck, I’m drunk. Of course Marketing if you’re Sarah’s boss… anyway, I don’t think I’ve seen you around?”
Sarah and I glanced at each other. “She looks a bit different at work,” Sarah said carefully.
Liz laughed and leant out from behind Gemma to say to me, “We all do. As if I could wear this into a Risk meeting with Diane Frost.” She held her arms out so I could see how tiny her dress was. Actually, Gemma’s was pretty small as well, and all three of them had their hair back off their faces. Sarah looked really different with hers back, maybe that’s why I didn’t recognise them?
Gemma adjusted her dress a little. It looked really tight. “Now, on the other hand, if the meeting was with Sean Frost…”
“—Then you’d probably need to be dressed more like me to get his attention,” I said before I thought it through, adding for extra embarrassment, “I realise I need to work a lot on my guns, though.”
They all stared at me for a second and then burst out laughing. “Oh my God, though,” Liz said, leaning forward on the table again. “You’re so right. What’s going on with him and that manager from Marketing? They’re always together. Do you think they’re…”
Sarah looked smug. “I was telling Min the other day that I’d put big money on that.”
Liz took the wine bottle from the table beside Sarah and drank from it. “Well, I’m sure Chris would go in on that. Since he stopped being allowed to bet on games he’ll bet on just about anything else.”
I must have looked a bit confused, because Gemma leant towards me and explained, “Liz’s husband plays for the Waratahs, and you’re not allowed to bet on the league if you’re playing in it.”
Sarah managed to get the bottle back off Liz and poured herself another wine. “Also, he’s really hot,” she said, “and Liz totally doesn’t appreciate him.”
Liz made a face. “Because he’s a jealous fuck, that’s why. He’s lucky he’s so cute.”
Gemma gave them both a dirty look. “Shut up, both of you. You know who I share my bed with?” she asked, waiting for a second, and then answered pointedly, “My cat.”
I shrugged and said ‘quietly’ to Gemma, “To be fair your cat is probably less hairy than Rob.” I made sure it was loud enough for Sarah to hear.
Sarah did hear it and threw a scrunched up serviette at me. “Quiet, you!” she told me, but looked all rosy-cheeked at the mention of Rob.
I ducked behind Gemma to avoid the serviette, laughing. When I sat up again, Gemma was giving me this measured look. There was curiosity in it. “Are you married?” she asked, and it seemed just a little bit out of place. “Kids?”
“Neither,” I said, because Henry and I weren’t married and I didn’t really want to bring him into any of this. Across from me, Sarah raised her eyebrows when I didn’t elaborate. Gemma looked like she wanted to say something else, but talked herself out of it.
Because I felt like the two girls were okay with me, and because I was fucking drunk and Gemma called me ‘cute’ before she’d realised I was female, I looked down at her and said with a low voice and a charming grin, “Was that the answer you were hoping for?”
No sooner had the words left my lips, I could have buried my head in my hands. Min, I scolded myself, what are you doing? I was about to actually apologise for being fucking inappropriate, but before I’d done that, Gemma had put her own hands to her cheeks. Even in this low light, I could see she was blushing fiercely.
Sarah looked between us, a smile growing on her face. “I think this calls for more alcohol,” she said, and tried to wave over the owner. He was busy watching the game, though, and didn’t see us.
Liz put her hand on Gemma’s back. “Not for Gem, though, I think she’s had enough,” she said, looking very, very amused by what had just happened.
‘Gem’ managed to compose herself. “No, actually, alcohol sounds pretty good right now,” she said, a little too embarrassed to make eye-contact with me again. “Lots of alcohol.”
Sarah wasn’t having any luck with the owner and I couldn’t decide if I was horrified by what I’d done or not, so I half-stood, hampered by the table. “I’ll go over and get it,” I said, and then looked at Gemma and Liz who were blocking my way out of the booth. They shuffled along the seat, getting out so I could as well.
I don’t think either of them had realised how tall I was until I stood up beside them. Gemma looked up my body with the same surprise that Bree had had when I’d first met her. Unlike Bree, though, she didn’t say anything. She actually didn’t need to, because I could tell from her reaction that ‘tall’ was something that worked for her. Before I could talk myself out of it, I winked at her and sent her into another deep blush.
Liz laughed at Gemma’s red cheeks, clapping her on the shoulders and steering her to sit back in the booth again.
I watched them for a second as Gemma pulled herself back together and Liz and Sarah started chatting again. I did that to her, I thought as I watched Gemma, remembering her playfully describing me as ‘cute’. It was really difficult for me to accept, when I thought about it. Not only were the two girls completely okay with how I looked and dressed, they were so okay about it that they were letting me tease them based on their reaction to it.
Sarah had said they would be fine, but I still couldn’t believe it. I’d been so sure no one would ever talk to me again if they found out, but there were three people here who didn’t even care. It was surreal, and I felt… wow, really drunk. And I was just standing there staring at the three of them with my jaw open like a total idiot. Hadn’t I been about to do something?
Trying not to look as drunk as I felt, I went to go and grab that other bottle I’d been after from the owner.
“Are you over eighteen?” he asked me a little suspiciously, but he was smiling. He’d seen me with Sarah, so I didn’t think he’d really cause me any trouble. “How old are you?”
“Twelve,” I said flatly, looking down towards him because I was taller. “And a half.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, okay, I get it,” he said, easing the cork out of another bottle of sparkling and passing it over the counter.
I accepted the bottle from him, glad he hadn’t made me show my ID because then I’d have a lot of explaining to do. I pointed at the glasses hanging in the racks above his head. “Can I take a couple of these?”
He’d already turned back towards his rugby game, and waved his hand dismissively at me. “Yeah, yeah.”
I grabbed a couple and then headed back to the table, pretty impressed with the beautifully straight line I was walking in. I felt drunk, but at least I didn’t look it.
Back at the table, I practically got a hero’s welcome. “Yes!” Liz announced, letting me pour her a glass. Gemma, I played with a little. She asked me to stop when I got to what was probably one standard drink, but I pretended not to hear her and kept pouring.
She nearly snatched her glass out from underneath the bottle. “That’s enough! That’s enough!” she begged me, giggling.
I pretended to be very innocent. “I thought you said you needed lots of alcohol?” I asked her, and then flashed her a grin. “I’m just getting you drunk like you wanted.”
She stared at me for a second, and then looked away while the other two girls laughed.
Sarah stood up so I could get in behind her, giving me a secret little smirk as I slipped past. I didn’t really think about why I hadn’t just sat in front of her instead, until I realised that she’d done it on purpose to make sure that I sat next to Gemma. I mock-glared at her while I gave her wine a top-up. She took the glass and drank from it, looking pretty pleased with herself.
Liz filled me in on what I’d missed. “Gemma has a conspiracy theory about Sean Frost,” she told me, with exaggerated seriousness.
Gemma smacked her good-naturedly. “It’s not a conspiracy theory,” she said, turning back towards me. “It’s just a theory, and, actually, I think it has merit.”
Since we were all apparently humouring her theory, I nodded with the same sense of exaggerated seriousness and pretended to give her my rapt attention. I didn’t have to pretend, really, but she still smacked my arm, too. “I mean it!” she said, laughing. “You know his wife is Belinda O’Dougherty, right?” I nodded. “Okay, think about it. She’s a supermodel, but–”
Sarah had gone to check her phone and in the middle of Gemma starting to explain, she said in the top of her vocal range, “Oh my god what?” She was looking at her phone.
Gemma and Liz both turned back at her, surprised, Sean Frost and his wife forgotten. Sarah held her phone at them and they stood a bit off the seat so they could lean towards the screen. I could see it from here, and it was a blurry photo of two people I didn’t know pashing.
“Oh my fucking god,” Liz said as they both sat down again. “I knew he was into her. I knew it. I told you they’d end up together.”
When Gemma sat down again, she was a lot closer to me than she had been before, a lot closer. So close, in fact, that her leg was pressed against mine from knee to hip. In that short dress, her skin was warm against my jeans. I normally hated people sitting close to me. Henry frequently joked about the size of my ‘personal space bubble’; once, he’d even stood on the other side of the room and pretended to knock on it. I didn’t hate it right now, though. Not at all.
I half-listened to the three of them all gossip about this new couple while I was watching Gemma. Was she doing it on purpose, I wondered? Or was she just quite drunk and not coordinated enough to care what part of the seat she was on?
“Sorry, Min,” Sarah said, startling me a little. I looked up at her and away from Gemma. “Whether or not two people you’ve never met are going to hook up and get married is probably the last thing you care about.”
I made sure I kept a completely straight face. “Actually, I care very deeply about it.” They all gave me weird looks. I waited for a couple of seconds, and then explained, “Well, what do I actually market for a living?” I grinned as they all groaned and rolled their eyes at me.I pointed a finger at them. “Who’s hooking up and getting married is critically important to me. Someone’s got to buy stupidly expensive diamonds.”
Sarah locked her phone and put it back in her handbag. “Yeah, that’s what we were doing,” she said, “we weren’t gossiping, we were doing demographics research. I’m totally using that.”
Liz took a sip of her wine. “Research yourself,” she told Sarah, “You’re next.”
I looked down at Gemma beside me. “What about you?” I asked her, and I think her cheeks went a little pink again.
“What about me?” she asked.
“How does your cat feel about diamonds?”
She laughed, giving me this somewhat embarrassed smile as she glanced up at me. We held eye-contact for a little too long, and then both panicked and looked away. I would have probably been a lot more freaked out if I hadn’t been drunk, but even though my blood alcohol level was approaching 1:1, I was still scared to look back at her. What was I doing?
While I was trying to figure that out and pretend I was focusing on what Sarah was saying to Liz, Gemma put her hand on the inside of my knee. It was an innocent enough gesture, but, wow, I felt it. So much so that I couldn’t breathe for a second, and it was exactly at a time that I wanted to. A lot.
She left her hand there, too, and I was acutely aware of all the tiny movements her thumb was making as it moved in slow circles on my jeans. With a sense of dread that would have been much more pronounced if I’d been sober, I realised what all of this meant, and it wasn’t just that I was having fun teasing her.
Fuck, I thought, fuck. I’m attracted to her. She’s a girl, and I’m attracted to her. As if that wasn’t a dangerous enough thought on its own, the absolute worst part of it was that my next one was, ‘so this is what it feels like’.
“Weren’t you in the middle of telling us your thing about Sean?” Liz asked Gemma.
“Huh? Oh!” she said, sounding a bit distracted herself. She hardly looked at me as she spoke this time, but her hand was still on my thigh. “Okay, so.” She tried to compose herself – should I have been that delighted that she wasn’t composed? – and then asked, “…wait, where was I?”
“Belinda O’Dougherty,” I prompted, a bit breathless.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Anyway, she’s this huge supermodel and she wasn’t famous before she and Sean hooked up, right? And now she’s super famous and in everything with her baby and her big, pregnant belly…” Gemma paused. “I think it’s a Katie Holmes-Tom Cruise-type of deal. I reckon Sean’s not even as in love with her at all, I think she’s just this really respectable wife for a billionaire mining magnate and in return he helped her with her career.”
We all sat back and considered that, and I found it such an interesting theory that I totally forgot Gemma had her hand on my thigh.
It was possible she was right, I supposed, but Sean had looked genuinely enchanted when he’d brought up his ‘beautiful’ wife with me. I hadn’t prompted him, either. And Henry had never mentioned thinking their marriage was a fraud. It seemed like the sort of thing Henry would pick up on, especially given how much he hated Sean.
“Think about it,” Gemma continued. “He’s always with that beefcake marketing director and everyone knows they’re totally giving it to each other, and he couldn’t just go and be this big gay marketing billionaire. That’s bad for business, even now, so he made some arrangement with Belinda. I mean, have you ever even seen them together?”
“Henry has,” I said automatically, without thinking. “He went to their baby shower last weekend. He says she’s really nice.”
Gemma’s brow lowered for a second. “Who’s Henry?”
My stomach dropped; whoops. I shrunk a bit in the seat. “My boyfriend…”
The expression on her face… “Boyfriend?” she looked over at Sarah for confirmation I wasn’t messing with her.
“Yup,” Sarah said, and then gave me a weird look, like ‘why would you say anything?’
Gemma took her hand off my thigh and sat back, quiet for a few moments. Her disappointment was actually palpable. I felt stupid, like I should apologise for not telling her sooner.
“You’re straight?” Liz asked me, like she’d just found out everything she’d ever believed was a lie. “Okay, I’m sorry for just being out there like this but, seriously: what?”
I remembered Gemma’s hand on my thigh. Apparently not, I thought, and then panicked. “It’s fine,” I said, and then it all just suddenly caught up with me and even the several litres of alcohol wasn’t a match for my adrenaline. “I think I’m going to go get some fresh air for a second,” I said, fanning myself momentarily with the drinks menu. “I’ve had a bit much. Sorry.”
A fucking oracle as always, Sarah grabbed my wrist as I climbed awkwardly over her to get out of the booth. “Don’t leave yet,” she told me sternly. I nodded, and then made a beeline for the hallway.
The beer garden was closed, but there was a quaint little brick courtyard filled up with cleaning equipment and crates that was unlocked. I slipped out into it, staggering and knocking over a pile of crates in the process. Rather than just picking them up, I sat on them.
I wanted to just ignore the fact I’d been really attracted to Gemma. I actually spent a few seconds chalking it up to too much alcohol and how much I’d enjoyed making her blush, but that hadn’t had anything to do with what I’d felt. And I didn’t just like it on an emotional level the way I generally did with Henry, either. I’d felt it. Under my hand, in my stomach, and – I winced – well, everywhere you would ordinarily expect to feel something like that.
At least I wasn’t having a full on panic attack over it; I’d had too much alcohol for that. Even with all this dumped on me, I felt far too relaxed. Kind of good, actually, I really liked when I’d drunk enough to reach that point that I could close my eyes and just kind of drift away on my thoughts… I’d have to make sure I drank bucket loads of water before I went to bed, though, or I wouldn’t feel like getting out of it. Then Bree would be stuck with me tomorrow while I slept in and felt sorry for myself. Although, maybe if I was lucky, she’d just get into bed with me…
I opened my eyes wide again.
“Hey…” a voice said from the doorway and I had to try and conceal how startled I was.
I looked over, and Gemma was leaning on the door frame. Because there was light coming from the kitchen window, I could see her much better out here than I could inside. I’d actually pegged her colouring a bit wrong; I’d thought she was a dark brunette, but now I could see red highlights in her hair and a dusting of freckles across her face. It was gorgeous. She was gorgeous. I felt nervous again.
“Hi,” I said, and then looked around me at all the fallen crates. “Just in case you were wondering, they were already like this, I swear.”
She chuckled. “Sarah said you had a habit of taking off, so I thought I’d just come looking for you and try to convince you not to.”
I laughed once. “Good luck,” I said, and then patted the crate beside me. I pointed up at the gap of sky a couple of levels above the courtyard. It was completely overcast. “Want to stargaze with me?”
She came over and sat next to me, wobbling a little on her heels. She was at least as drunk as I was. Maybe because of that, she didn’t say anything straight away, and I was too fucking nervous about her sitting that close to me to think properly myself.
She did speak eventually. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to, you know…” she gestured vaguely at my knee. “Don’t leave because I can’t keep my hands to myself.”
I shook my head tightly. “I should have told you earlier.”
She laughed nervously, shifting on the crate. Her nervousness was actually really gorgeous, too, and I would have been much more affected by that if I wasn’t terrified about the fact that we were both out here alone. I was actually shaking a little, but I managed not to make it obvious.
“It’s just…well, it’s a bit of a surprise for me, I don’t normally go for girls, but it’s like you’re–”
“–it’s fine,” I interrupted her, completely fucking agreeing with her. I didn’t want to talk about it, though. It was the last thing I wanted to talk about. I’d barely come to terms with the other stuff that was going on for me, and now this. In case she was going to try again, I repeated, “It’s fine.”
“Is it?” she asked, and there was something more about that question. I was terrified of looking at her – almost to the point of feeling a bit ill – but I did anyway. Once I did, it was too late to look away.
She was watching me so attentively, her eyes dipping between my face and my body. I don’t know what she found so interesting about it, and while I was trying to figure that out, she looped a hand around the back of my neck under my ponytail and pulled me down to kiss her. I froze.
Her lips were so soft, much softer than the ones I was used to. I was so completely shocked that I just kissed back out of reflex, but when the blades of our tongues touched she made this noise at the back of her throat… Fuck. I felt it somewhere deep inside me. That wasn’t alcohol.
For just a second I started to wrap my arms around her, but instead of Henry’s big, strong body, she was this smaller, softer version. Alarm bells were going off everywhere in my head, but I could hardly pay attention to them because of how wasted I was. What I could pay attention to was how she felt against me, right up against me, pressing up into me and kissing me and touching my neck and god, that dress was so short and her thighs looked so good and okay, no, I needed to stop, fuck, I needed to stop, this needed to stop!
I pulled back far more forcefully than I’d intended. I was breathing heavily, and I had no idea if it was from panic or the fact I’d been about to get really into that. “I can’t, I can’t do this,” I said, and it sounded like a plea.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated, looking horrified at herself. “Shit, Min, I’m wasted, I’m really sorry!”
I stood up, because I couldn’t be trusted to sit next to her for a second longer. “It’s not your fault,” I said, losing the fight against how much I was shaking. I went to change how I was standing to hide it, and instead of succeeding I nearly fell backwards over another set of crates.
She tried to help me stand up, but I couldn’t let her touch me anymore. “This isn’t your fault,” I told her, taking a step away from her. “I actually am going to ‘run off’ again. But it’s not your fault, okay? You’re gorgeous. I can’t stay here tonight or I’m going to do something I’ll regret.”
She was still looking really angry with herself. “Okay,” she said, nodding. “I get it.”
I mirrored her nod, still breathing heavily, and then went straight for the exit. I could just text Sarah later; from what she’d told Gemma it sounded like she knew I was going to leave, anyway.
I walked briskly out onto the street, thinking I was probably right just to try and make my way home unassisted. Actually, though, I wasn’t really that sure how I made it home. I managed somehow, and I didn’t get robbed, or murdered or hit by a car despite the fact I was all over the place. It took me five or six swipes with my keycard to get the door to open, and when I went to go put on something cooler than a hoodie, I saw I had Gemma’s lipstick smeared all around my mouth. I’d walked out of the pub and home like this?
I propped myself upright against the wardrobe, staring at my reflection. Now that I was home and everything was normal again, I could hardly believe what had happened. If it wasn’t for the lipstick, I might have seriously wondered if I had been so out of it that I’d been hallucinating.
Once I’d washed my face, I sat back down in front of my laptop, in my drunken haze determined that the solution to feeling like everything was completely out of control was to finish reviewing the graphics. At the very least it would mean that I wouldn’t have to do it when Bree was over tomorrow and I could just relax and have fun with her.
I couldn’t concentrate on photos of landscapes, though, I could only think two thoughts: how amazing it had felt to be really attracted to someone, and how fucked up it was that I was feeling that way about a girl.
I was stuck on the see-saw of those two thoughts for god knows how long, until I caught sight of a photo that actually mattered on the other side of the room: me and Henry in Queensland together.
Henry. I squeezed my eyes closed for a moment.
Yeah, ‘conscious’ wasn’t going to work for me right now, I decided, standing up and weaving haphazardly across my apartment towards my bed. With any luck I’d just pass out and wake up remembering absolutely nothing that had just happened.
Want to read more? I’m in the process of editing this story and it’s about to be published as a book! Follow my blog here, or follow me on Tumblr (warning, lots of non-UMS related stuff gets posted there) to find out how to get yourself a physical copy of the story or an eBook. If you’re desperate to read more right now, email me and we’ll see what can be done 🙂