The only good thing about being completely doomed was that I ended up getting my wish after all: Sarah knocked off work at a reasonable human hour and caught the train home with me. Under less dire circumstances that would have totally made my night, but I kept thinking about how it might be the last time ever that I caught this train with her and I ruined it. I couldn’t cry, though, because I didn’t want to ruin my beautiful eye makeup.
Sarah looped an arm around my shoulder as we got out at our station. “Cheer up, Gem,” she told me, “even if it is true and your job is being offshored, you’re talented and gorgeous and we’ll find somewhere else for you to work in no time.”
I don’t want to work anywhere else, I thought miserably, laying my head on her shoulder as we walked.
She took that as a sign I was really upset and gave me a firm squeeze. “Seriously, look on the bright side: that job has no opportunity for advancement, you didn’t really have your own team—”
“—that was a ‘plus’,” I interrupted her. “I like working by myself.”
“Well, trust me, it’s way better to have people to whinge with,” she told me. “I think you’d enjoy working with people if you were working with the right people.”
That sounded pretty upbeat for someone who never stopped complaining about her department. “I thought you hated your co-workers?”
Sarah shrugged. “At least they answer to me,” she said, and then added somewhat ominously, “until this big project is finished and I’m not Lead anymore, anyway. Then I’m by myself in a department full of misogynists again.”
I lifted my head off her shoulder, brightening. “Hey, maybe we could look for new jobs together?”
She made a face. “Sorry, Gem. I feel for you, but I’m finally starting to get somewhere. Now is the worst time I could leave.”
I exhaled. It was worth a try.
We stopped by the bottle-o on the way home so I could grab some sparkling white, and since Sarah didn’t want me to drink by myself again, she invited me around to her place and added, “Rob’s out of town so you can stay over if you want.”
That definitely would have made my day if I hadn’t been on the cusp of hardly ever seeing her again: when Rob was out of town, Sarah let me sleep beside her in her bed. I was busy buzzing quietly inside and wondering how long I’d have to wait before I declared that I was really tired, when I noticed a familiar eyesore missing from the driveway as we walked up her front stairs: Rob’s banged up ute. Wait a minute… “Hang on, if Rob isn’t around, how did you get to work this morning?”
She let us in and ducked into the first door off the hall to get changed, saying over her shoulder, “Min drove me.”
Min was Sarah’s handsome and androgynous ex-co-worker who’d somehow managed to achieve something in two short months of friendship with Sarah that I’d failed to in ten long years of it: being invited to live in Sarah’s spare room. It was kind of awful for me to be even a little bit jealous of that, though, because I didn’t get outed at Frost as non-binary transgender, get treated horrifically and get fired like she did. Apparently it went as high as the two CEOs, so not even her HR manager ex-boyfriend had been able to protect her and she’d ended up nearly homeless. She was getting her revenge by secretly sub-contracting the graphics she’d been originally hired for under some ridiculous and insulting pseudonym, though.
When I wandered into Sarah’s living room Min was actually in the middle of doing exactly that, hunched over her graphics tablet and squinting at her laptop screen. She didn’t look up when I came in. “Just FYI, I’m not going to finish this tonight.”
I blinked at her. Was she—talking to me? Or skyping someone, maybe? Reflexively, I glanced over my shoulder to see if Sarah was there. She wasn’t.
“—because I’ve tried a thousand variations and there is no way this essay is going to fit on a billboard.” She was apparently still trying, anyway. “Are you sure you really need to have that part about ‘surprising her’? Because the main surprise will be if anyone can actually read the text at the size I’ll need to make it to fit.”
When I just stood there uncomfortably, she glanced up and double-took when she saw it was me. “Oh.” She laughed nervously and then scratched the back of her cropped hair, looking sheepish. “Um, sorry, Gemma. Hi.”
I exhaled with relief. “Thought I was Sarah?”
She flashed me a grin. “I bet you get that a lot.”
For a second I thought she was totally serious, and I’d opened my mouth to tell her that one of our old friends used to mix our names up all the time at uni. I was midway through saying the first word when I realised she was joking because of how different we were, but I’d already made this really weird, half-a-word sound and the sentence was unsalvageable. I panicked and clamped my mouth shut, that weird sound I’d made haunting me forever.
Min just stared at me.
Sarah made it even worse. She chose that exact moment to stride into the living room and was in the middle of asking, “Hey, are we minus one small blond schoolgirl? Where’s your girlfriend, Min?” when she noticed something was off and stopped in her tracks.
“She’s off studying for the Psych exam she has next Monday,” Min said casually, like we hadn’t just been having a really awkward moment.
Sarah had a sixth sense for things to tease me about, though, and could basically smell it. She narrowed her eyes at us. “Spill, guys. What did I miss?”
Min shook her head. “Nothing unusual, just Gemma spectacularly ruining another one of my jokes.”
Ugh… That weird sound I’d made was still echoing in my brain… why couldn’t I hold a conversation like normal people? Why? Why?
Sarah had been laughing, but stopped when she saw my expression. “Whoa, whoa, wait a second…” She put a hand on my shoulder and walked around me to get a better view of my face. I tried to hide my burning cheeks from her, but I couldn’t. “Is that… Yes! Yes, it is! That’s 46 for me!” She put her hands in the air like she’d scored a goal.
Min looked insulted. “No way, she only blushed after I accused her of wrecking my joke, that one’s mine. Which means—drumroll, please—” she held her hands up as if to say something really momentous, “my grand total comes to 62.”
Sarah wasn’t backing down. “She would have blushed just from what I said if you hadn’t stolen it from me.”
I couldn’t believe these two. They couldn’t be in the same room together. “Okay, let me settle this: you’re both terrible,” I told them, putting my bottle of sparkling white on the table with a pronounced clonk.
They finished cackling together and Min looked properly chastised. “Sorry, Gemma,” she said, and then nodded at the bottle. “So what are we drinking to?”
“My misery,” I told her flatly. “I’m probably going to lose my job.”
That immediately sobered her; she’d been through hell with hers. Her smile fell. “Shit, what happened? Are you okay?”
Sarah answered for me. “Her whole department’s going to be offshored.”
“Oh…” Min paused for a second, considering me. I was wondering if maybe I’d brought back some of the awful memories or something, when she stood up and said with exaggerated cheer, “Well, that’s fantastic. Congratulations! This is your chance to be free from that soul-sucking purgatory forever.” She took a few steps over to give me tight hug. “That’s definitely something to drink to!”
I let her hug me for a second and then shoved her off, groaning. “Min, I’m actually sad about this, I like working there.”
She let me go, giving me a weird look. “Don’t you want your soul back?”
Sarah grabbed a couple of wine glasses off the cabinet. “Her manager is actually one of the good ones,” she told Min, putting a wine glass by the chair in front of me and another beside Min’s laptop. “And so is your new one, don’t you think? Really good, actually. Amazing. Probably the best manager ever.” She preened herself.
Min rolled her eyes again, chuckling. “‘Contractor’ and ‘employee’ are not the same thing.”
“Whatever, the important thing is I’m the boss of you,” she said with a big grin and an eyebrow waggle, and then popped the cork on my sparkling white. “Okay, let’s get Gem drunk so she can hold a conversation without being really awkward.” She winked at me as she poured us a glass each.
My stomach fluttered. I didn’t even mind the ‘awkward’ jibe.
Min reached for her glass. “You’re not going to hate us forever for drinking in front of you?”
Sarah shrugged as we all sat down at the dining table. “Well, I’d love to be joining you two, but Junior here isn’t 18 yet and I don’t want to break the law.” She patted her belly. “Anyway, Gem, while you’re letting the booze sink in, would you mind if I got Min to show me the billboards she’s been working on for a sec? I have a progress report to write tomorrow. I promise I’ll give you my full and undivided attention afterwards.”
I liked the promise of her full and undivided attention, so while the two of them had their heads together agonising over such critically important things as font size, I drained my glass and watched them. I had no idea what they were talking about—my eyes kind of glazed over whenever they went into marketing mode—but what I could tell was that there was a lot of brainpower right there being wasted on whether or not a diamond advertisement needed to contain the word ‘surprise’ or not. The more wine I drank, the more ridiculous it seemed that a pair of really great minds were being used to sell diamonds to rich people instead of, like, curing cancer or fixing the economy or something.
Then again, I was fixing spreadsheets for a living, so who was I to talk? I sighed and poured myself another glass of wine.
When they were done, Min went to top up her drink only to have one solitary little drop of wine fall into her glass. She raised her eyebrows.
I grimaced. Whoops, I guess I got a little carried away. “Uh, sorry…”
She snickered. “That’s okay, I just made it to 63,” she said with a cheeky grin, and then didn’t dwell on it. “Besides, you probably need it more than I do, anyway. When’s your last day at Frost? Is it soon, or did they give you lots of notice?”
“They haven’t given me any notice,” I told her. “There was some big union meeting today and the unions apparently told everyone what they’d sniffed out.”
“Oh,” she said, immediately looking a bit sceptical. “Well are you 100% sure you’re even losing your job? Because the unions have been warning us we were all going to be offshored for years. Don’t get me wrong, they do great work, but they’re all a bunch of doomsayers.”
I shrugged. “Well, I wasn’t there, but everyone in Risk looked pretty sure. They were all miserable, even my boss. The whole department’s going, apparently.”
Sarah had been watching us, deep in thought. “Maybe Min’s right,” she said eventually. We both looked at her. “Like, you got told that Risk is being offshored, yeah?” I nodded. “Well, are you even part of Risk?”
I pulled a face. “Officially, I think? I’m not sure, though.”
She leant forward in her chair, pointing at me. “Exactly. So even if they are being offshored, maybe you’re still safe?” She looked at Min. “And wouldn’t Henry have hinted to us anyway if something like this was happening?”
Min shook her head firmly. “No way, Henry always told me when we were still dating that he’d never use his position as HR manager to give me any sort of advantage over other people, so he’d be the same about you guys. He has really strong ethics about this stuff.”
Sarah didn’t look very impressed by his ethics. “But what if Gem asked him directly now that the word’s out? Everyone knows, so just confirming her position is going isn’t unfair, is it?”
Min gave us a very deep shrug. “She could ask him…”
Sarah still wasn’t satisfied. “I don’t get how you could not know anything though? Like, you didn’t hear a phone conversation, or catch a glance at something on his desk when you’re over at his house, or—”
“—Sarah,” Min said pointedly, interrupting her. “The only thing I’ve noticed is that he has a lot of union meetings recently. That’s about it. He literally tells me nothing, and I don’t ask.”
She sighed at length, and leant back in her chair. “Well, I guess I can go see him tomorrow and ask. Maybe I could read his face.”
“He’s not going to give you information about another employee. If anyone should go, it should be Gemma.”
I’d been swimming in a pleasant alcoholic haze, but my ears pricked to attention at my name. “Me?”
Sarah looked a bit entertained by my reaction. “Oh no!” she said, mimicking how I said it, and then added, “You’ll have to talk to a man while sober!”
I mock-glared at her. “I’ve talked to Henry before.”
I ignored that. “But since Min says he won’t tell me anything, what’s the point?”
Min made a face. “He might. I don’t know.”
Sarah was grinning at me. “Looks like you’re going to have a one-on-one with Mr HR Manager tomorrow.”
I suddenly really wasn’t looking forward to tomorrow. “But won’t he be really busy?” I attempted. “Can’t you ask him for me?”
Min was feeling around in her pockets for her phone. “I can ask him to put an appointment in your calendar for when he’s free.”
“Okay, that’s settled, then,” Sarah said, totally without consulting me at all. “Let us know if you find out anything, Gem. Anyway, you guys want something to eat? I’m pretty sure there are some leftovers in the fridge.”
Sarah nuked a few things in the microwave for us and we chatted and ate—but Min had been compulsively checking her phone every two minutes and eventually it buzzed and she announced she needed to go and collect her girlfriend from the station.
“Can I borrow your car again?” she asked Sarah as she stood.
“Keys are on the hall table,” was Sarah’s automatic answer, before something occurred to her and she twisted towards Min in her chair, “Wait, how much did you have to drink?”
Min gave me a pointed look. “Not much.”
“That’s 64,” Min said with a smirk, and then called over her shoulder as she went up the hall, “I’ll be fine, Sarah.”
After Min had gone, I figured I’d waited long enough for it to be realistic that I was tired, so I declared I was oh my god exhausted and wanted to go to bed. It wasn’t even 10.
“We’re getting old,” Sarah said, stretching as she stood up. “I can’t believe I’m actually looking forward to going to bed!”
I wished she hadn’t put it quite like that, because the idea that she was in any way looking forward to sleeping beside me made me practically float down the hallway on cloud nine. Well, on cloud alcohol, anyway.
“I have some comfy old t-shirts in that drawer if you want to grab one,” Sarah told me as she ran a brush through her hair, pointing me towards her tallboy.
I rifled through it for few moments, and then came across a t-shirt I recognised: it was from this one time we were in Germany and there was a death metal band near our backpackers’. Neither of us had any idea about death metal but, just for the hell of it, we went. The whole venue stank like weed and we met this couple there who were painted up like evil KISS but who ended up having their doctorates in sociology. It was wild. Sarah bought a t-shirt to commemorate the occasion; it was really faded now, though.
I held the t-shirt up, turning around to say, “I can’t believe you kept this!” but I only made it halfway through the sentence.
Sarah was topless, and facing me.
Panicking, I spun back around, my cheeks burning. My brain was screaming, ‘What do I do??’ but I didn’t have an answer for it, because the memory of all that tan skin and those perfect breasts was completely paralysing. I desperately wanted to turn back around, but there was no way in hell I was going to be able to do that.
Sarah noticed. “That’s 48,” she said smugly as she finished dressing, and continued, “It’s hard not to stare at it, isn’t it? It’s like someone shoved a beach ball in there.”
Oh thank goodness, she thought I’d been looking at her stomach.
While I was taking deep breaths and trying to get my act together, she grabbed my wrist and forced me to turn towards her, and before I could protest or say anything or recover she’d wrenched her pyjamas up and put my hand on her stomach. “There’s a human in there. Here, feel, she’s going nuts now.” I was busy trying to deal with the fact I was touching Sarah’s bare skin, when I felt something inside her stomach push against my hand.
I must have looked pretty alarmed, because Sarah laughed. “I know, right? It’s creepy as hell. All I can think of is that scene from Alien.”
She let me retract my hand, and then climbed under her side of the doona. It was only at that point that I realised I was staring again.
She smirked. “I mean, you can sleep in your work clothes if you like, but I think adding ‘slept in’ to ‘covered in cat fur’ is probably going to get you sent home to change.”
I looked down at the t-shirt. Sarah was watching me, and had actually started to chat about something—I think about her belly again?—but I was only aware of every hair on my body standing on end as I shrugged off my blazer and unbuttoned my shirt. It was only by accident that I was wearing a really nice bra—my comfy bra was dirty and I kept forgetting to wash it—but Sarah remarked on it as I unhooked it and let it fall over my shoulders. I don’t know what she said; all the blood that should have been operating my ears had either rushed into my cheeks or gone down south. Gosh, I was facing her like that. She could see everything. Every inch of my skin and every freckle on my body was on fire for every millisecond until I’d pulled that long t-shirt over my head and climbed under the doona beside her.
It took me a moment to be able to breathe again. It didn’t last long. I could roll over, I realised, thinking of her lying there facing me in that thin pyjama top. If I did, I’d almost be on top of her.
Suddenly, that seemed really weird and out of place; did I really just think that? Roll over and what, Gemma? What exactly did I plan to do to my pregnant best friend when I got there?
I mean, it wasn’t as if I didn’t kind of know what was going on with me, but it was one thing to think ‘she’s really amazing and I have this silly girlcrush on her’ and another to be like ‘okay, let’s have sex’. I must have been way drunker than I thought.
While I was feeling around for the lamp switch, wondering if my desire to do illicit things to her would fade when the alcohol did, I heard the familiar rattle of an old engine pull into the driveway.
My heart sank. I guess I wasn’t going to find out tonight.
Conversely, Sarah sat up in bed and I had to watch her face light up before she sprang out of bed to get the front door. “Rob’s back early!”
Someone whistled cheerfully all the way to the front door, and when Sarah opened it, I could hear her jumping into his arms and kissing him soundly on the front porch. I wrinkled my nose.
“I thought you weren’t back until Thursday!” she said when they broke.
Of course he’s back before Thursday, Sarah, I thought, of course. Because the universe wouldn’t let my happiness level get above four, it was forbidden. I put a pillow over my head and groaned into it.
Rob’s broad Australian accent always sounded super broad when he was happy. “Nah, they let us go early because we got everything done!” I heard them kiss again. “So I asked myself: do I want to sleep across from this bloke who snores as bad as I do, or do I want to drive for four hours and sleep beside the most beautiful girl in the world?” he said, and could hear him stepping off his Blundstones in the doorway. Before Sarah could stop him, he’d pushed the bedroom door open and then I was staring at him in his high-visibility vest with his buzzed head and five o’clock shadow. He stopped in the doorway when he saw me on his side of the bed.
I felt guilty, like I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t be. “Hi, Rob…”
Sarah peered around his big tree-trunk arms. “That’s what I was trying to say: Gem’s here.”
He looked guilty, too. “Geez, sorry Gemma!” he said, turning around like he’d seen something he shouldn’t have. “I’ll get a blanket and sleep on the couch, it’s cool. It was a bit assumptuous of me to just show up, I guess, hah! You ladies just go back to bed.”
As much as I wanted to let him—as much as I really wanted to let him—he’d driven four hours to see her. They’d probably want to have sex too, because he’d been away for a couple of days and Sarah had the libido of 100 rabbits in heat. Ugh. “No, it’s okay…” I said reluctantly, sitting up. “I’ve got to go home at some point, anyway. It might as well be now.”
They both made a big fuss of inviting me to stay and I had to actually physically restrain Sarah from getting out the blanket and wrestling me down onto her couch, but in the end I won and they let me get dressed again and leave.
“I’m so sorry, Gem,” Sarah said, giving me a big hug in her thin, practically transparent pyjamas before I left. “I hope you feel better now, anyway. I bet Henry will be able to tell you what’s going on with your job tomorrow, and maybe he’ll have a solution, too, and everything will be okay.”
With the way the universe clearly had it in for me, I sincerely doubted there was any good news waiting in Henry’s office tomorrow. I forced a smile anyway, hugged her back and then trudged out onto the street. I could hear them continuing their passionate greeting to each other in private as I left.
To make matters worse, the station was literally a two-minute drive away and Min wasn’t back yet, which meant she and her girlfriend had found something else to do to with their time instead of driving back. I half-expected to walk past Sarah’s car parked on the side of the road and find them necking in it.
Meanwhile, my flat was silent as I unlocked the door.
I did nearly trip over Mr Crumpet curling around my feet as I walked in, though, and he gave me this beautiful mournful mew like he’d missed me. I crouched down and gave him and cuddle. “At least you’re happy to see me,” I told him, rubbing his lovely fluffy side on my cheek.
…he struggled violently and wrenched out of my arms, retreating to his food bowl. He then sat down beside it and gave me a really demanding glare.
Of course he did. Even my cat didn’t want my company. I filled up his kibble bowl anyway—which was already half-full, mind you—and he sniffed it distastefully and then went off somewhere to sulk that I hadn’t given him wet food.
I ignored his tantrum and wandered into my empty bedroom, shrugging off my blazer again and draping it over the end of my unmade bed.
Everyone else in the known world was probably having great sex with their significant other right now, and meanwhile, I hadn’t had a significant other or great sex since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Thinking about that, it suddenly made perfect sense why, at 28, my silly girlcrush on Sarah had begun to morph into a full-blown thing every time I was around her: I was probably so lonely I’d fall for a greeting card if it said hello to me every day. That totally explained everything.
But how was I supposed to rectify that when conversation with cute strangers was in my No-Go zone? I mean, I was nervous about talking to Henry by myself, and not only had I met him dozens of times, but I actually had a legitimate reason to speak to him beyond, ‘So, do you come here often…?’
The obvious solution was also the impossible one: I couldn’t just be drunk 24/7 in case I bumped into someone I fancied and needed the confidence to say something beyond HELP.
I was going to need to figure this problem out, though, or everyone else was going to be well on their way to a three-bedroom house with two children and a picket fence, while I was still stuck crushing on my female best friend and sleeping alone with my ungrateful cat.
Continue to Chapter Three