Thanks to Mr Crumpet who walked all over me at 8am until I got up and fed him, I missed a golden opportunity to sleep away half the weekend and avoid thinking about the fact I’d gone to a lesbian bar last night. Furthermore, because I was up so early, I ended up needing to address it whilst also being super hungover.
I’d also apparently passed out without changing into my PJs last night, and so when I faced myself in the bathroom mirror with panda eyes, crazy hair and the now-crinkled red dress, I pretty much looked how I felt: like a giant mess, inside and out.
Perfect, I thought sarcastically, if I’m having an identity crisis I might as well look the part.
I had hoped a shower would fix my foggy head so I could think more clearly about the whole am-I-gay question, but I was so distracted with it that by the time I got out, I discovered I hadn’t washed the conditioner out of my hair. Also, while I was worrying about whether being distracted was a sign I subconsciously knew I was gay, I nearly poured orange juice into my cereal, and then I fed Mr Crumpet again forgetting that I’d fed him only an hour ago.
When my phone dinged with a message from Sarah saying, “Morning, Sunshine! Let me know when you’re up and I’ll bring you some café brekky 🙂”, I basically freaked the hell out.
I didn’t trust myself to reply at all, but if I didn’t reply, she’d probably come around anyway. If she came around anyway, there was no way in hell I’d be able to lie convincingly to her about where I was last night—I was a bad enough liar normally without being super distracted and hungover—and I had this horrible, horrible mental image of me saying something, or even doing something to give away the feelings I’d had about her.
There was only one solution: I threw on some clothes and fled my house.
I went and loaded up on caffeine at a café—not any of the ones Sarah liked, though, because I didn’t want to bump into her—and then spent a couple of hours at the local Westfield before I remembered how much I hated shopping. I’d never been the kind of person to go out and see things like museums or landmarks or whatever, so I ended up at the only place where I could be seedy and not judged for it: Dad’s.
When I wandered into his garage, he looked like he couldn’t believe his eyes. “Gemma!” he said, rushing over to give me a big hug and in the process getting engine grease from his latest mechanical invention all over me. “What brings you all the way out here?”
You’re a great excuse to not be home, I thought, and then felt really guilty. “I’m a bad daughter and I don’t visit you enough?”
He laughed. “Don’t feel obligated to visit me, I’m not in a nursing home yet,” he told me, and then added, “But if your mother keeps fighting me for the house, it might be the only place I can afford pretty soon. Anyway! That’s enough of that. Let me put the kettle on.”
It clearly wasn’t enough of that, though, because while he was making me tea, I got to hear all about how Mum was dating someone who was oh my god thirteen years younger than her can you believe it and who was apparently straight from Spain. “And do you know what she said loudly in front of me at Sandy’s 60th?” he asked as he ferociously heaped sugar into his tea, “she said, ‘It’s nice to date someone with a tan for once.”
Ouch; Dad was as fair as I was.
“Anyway!” he said, trying to change the subject again, “Are you dating anyone at the moment?”
After his ongoing saga with Mum, that was a bit of a loaded question. I shook my head. “Nope. Still single.”
“Good,” he said with feeling, waving the spoon at me. “Stay that way. Relationships are for suckers who want to hand over half of everything they’ve worked their whole lives for to thieving adulterers. You’re too smart for that.”
Yeah… it’s definitely that I’m ‘too smart’ for it, I thought dryly, not that I’m hopeless with strangers or that I don’t even know whether I should be dating men or women anymore…
I briefly wondered what he’d do if I did bring home a girlfriend to him; it wasn’t that much of a mystery, though, because Mum would definitely disapprove and that was the only thing in the world that made Dad truly happy. I could probably count on his support. Plus, he’d always really liked Sarah.
I paused mid-sip, horrified with myself for making that connection.
Dad let me hang around all afternoon in his garage while he tinkered with his latest design, and we chatted about things that weren’t the fact I went to a lesbian bar last night, that I was attracted to my best friend and that I didn’t know what to do about either of those things. I even earnt major brownie points for ignoring my phone while it went nuts in my bag. It was only when I was sure it was too late for Sarah to drop by that I caught the train home.
Back at my place, even my go-to movies on Netflix didn’t tune me out like they usually did, because I kept noticing all the straight couples in them and wondering if I was like them or not. It got to the point where I had to turn Netflix off, get out my tablet and spend the rest of the weekend trawling through online libraries to see if there were any sure-fire tests psychologists had constructed that would give me the definitive answer on my sexuality.
By Monday, I’d not only expertly avoided Sarah all weekend, but I’d also read so many papers online that despite the fact it was Bree who had her Psych exam today, I might have actually been ready to sit it myself. I was unfortunately no closer to figuring myself out though, or figuring out how not to act on the feelings I already had.
I’d resolved to spend my train ride to work getting my story straight about Friday night so I knew what to tell Sarah when I saw her at lunchtime. You could imagine my panic when I’d tapped my Opal card and I heard a familiar voice call, “Hey, Stranger!” from the other side of the turnstiles.
Sarah was waiting there for me on the platform, giving me a big, warm, welcoming smile. I couldn’t have imagined it better myself.
I stopped in place, halting the line.
I was so conflicted. This was exactly what I’d missed the last few months: our old routine of catching the train together. I couldn’t enjoy it now, though, because I immediately worried about what I was going to tell her about Friday, and that my first thought upon seeing her was wow, she’s so beautiful.
She had to step forward and tow me out of the way before someone yelled at me.
“Oh my god, Gem, I forgot how much of a space cadet you are in the morning!” she said, pulling me aside and giving me a one-armed hug so her bangles jingled musically next to my ear. “Don’t worry, though, I’ve got something that’ll definitely wake you up!” She’d been holding something carefully in her other hand, and she dropped her arm from my shoulders so she could try and give it to me.
It was a jumbo coffee cup, just like the one I’d missed out on giving her last week. I gaped at it.
“I know, right! Isn’t is ridiculous? I thought I’d drop past our old café to grab you a coffee for old times’ sake, and the second I saw this bathtub of a cup, I thought, ‘oh my god, I have to buy this for Gem!’” She pushed it into my hands, helpfully adding, “Don’t drink it all at once, though. George put four shots in it, and I think there’s a fine line between ‘lethal dose of caffeine’ and ‘enough energy to tell Sarah everything I did last Friday’…” With that, she pointedly gave me her full attention.
There it was, oh gosh. What do I say?! What do I say?! my brain screamed while I forced out, “There’s really nothing to tell…?”
She gave me a tired look. “Gem. That is the worst lie you’ve ever told.”
“I’m not lying,” I lied and, of course, went bright red in the process.
“Right…” she said at length, eyeing my pink cheeks. “That’s forty-nine. And I don’t believe you for a second that nothing happened. Come on,” she said, slinging an arm around my shoulders again. “’Fess up, Ginge! Tell Sarah all the dirty, dirty things you did last Friday night as penance for sneaking off without her.”
There was no way in hell I was going to tell her where I’d been last night—it was only a small step from ‘likes women’ to ‘likes me’, and I’d rather anything else in the world than to damage our friendship—but I knew Sarah, and I knew she wasn’t going to let go of the issue until she’d gotten a confession and a really good story out of me.
I tried the safest one I could think of, glancing around us to make sure no one could hear. “You really want to know?” I asked her, feigning defeat. “Fine: I got drunk off my face and when a younger guy hit on me, I hid in the toilets and then ran away.”
I don’t think that was the story she was expecting. She just stared at me for a couple of seconds, and then burst out laughing. “Okay, that does sound like you,” she said, totally buying it. I could actually feel her relax against me; I didn’t even realise how tense she’d been until that point. “You really honestly didn’t do anything?” I shook my head. “Not even a cheeky handjob on the dance floor?” She laughed at the expression I gave her, and then spent some time looking thoughtful. “Well, what was the point of going out then? I don’t get it.”
Shit. I pressed my lips together, staring down at my jumbo coffee. What could I possibly tell her? “I guess I just changed my mind…?” I attempted, my voice wavering.
How closely she was watching me was making me sweat. I wouldn’t have believed that was the full story, and I bordered on being the most gullible person on the planet. So when Sarah went, “Hmm, okay,” and then shrugged and let it go, I didn’t know what to make of it.
It made me uncomfortable. I felt like the conversation wasn’t really over, so I tried to end it. “Anyway, yeah: I didn’t pick up. Sorry to disappoint you. You went to all this trouble to give me caffeine poisoning and I don’t even have a good story for you.”
She didn’t look very disappointed; the opposite, actually. She spent a few moments thinking about that, and then looked across at me. “Can I be honest with you?”
That question made me really nervous. “Of course?”
“I’m actually kind of relieved,” she said, as if she was just realising it.
…huh? “You are?”
She thought more about it before she answered, and when she did, she sounded deceptively casual. “Yeah. When I went over to your place on Friday night to surprise you with dinner and found out you’d lied to me… it really hurt, Gem.”
“And then when I went home to my empty house and thought about that, I couldn’t sleep. And when you didn’t answer any of my texts all weekend, I thought you were obviously having an amazing time with whoever you’d picked up.” She exhaled. “Anyway, I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty or anything, it would just eat me up if I didn’t let it out.”
I nodded, my chest tight. That wasn’t even the half of the stuff I was hiding from her… I felt a bit ill. “I’m sorry,” I told her. “That’s the last thing in the world I wanted.”
She nodded, linking arms with me. “I know,” she said. “I know.”
We’d gotten on the train before she spoke again. As we were going over the bridge and gazing out at the harbour together like we always used to, she looked across at me. She had a faint smile on her face. “It’s nice to be catching this train with you again.”
If I had any doubt left I had feelings for her, it was gone now. She was giving me this beautiful open expression—completely vulnerable—and I’d never wanted to kiss anyone so much in my life. All I’d need to do was lean up to her, tilt her chin with my fingertips and kiss her right here, in the middle of this crowded train. I had to look away from her so she couldn’t read it on my face.
I could see a ghost of my reflection in the train window, and I stared at it, lips parted. I think Min’s right, I realised, oddly aware of the fact I was surrounded by a hundred strangers and that I might be different from every single one of them. I think I might actually be gay.
I hadn’t recovered from that feeling by the time I got to work, even though the rational part of my brain was reminding me I had 28.9 years of experience not being attracted to someone who was the same gender as me and it was extremely unlikely that one experience made me gay.
Then again, ‘extremely unlikely’ was basically what I traded in, and ‘gay’ would nicely compliment all my other outlier statistics, wouldn’t it? I could have the full set of ‘different’, I thought dryly to myself as I sat down at my cubicle and looked up to see if Anil had noticed me come in on time.
He hadn’t because his door was shut.
Huh. “Is he still upset about the offshoring thing?” I wondered aloud.
Spud looked over at me and shook his head. “HR’s in there with him,” he told me. “Probably grilling him about what happened last week when half of his department was off getting drunk on the Frost payroll.”
“Either that,” someone else said from behind a partition, “or we’re all about to find out we don’t have jobs any more. It’s Henry Lee in there, and why else would the Director of HR bother to visit Anil unless there was some serious issue?”
That made my ears perk up. Henry was in there talking to Anil? Maybe they were discussing my Marketing secondment!
“Why are you so happy?” Spud wanted to know, and I had to wipe the big smile off my face and pretend to be very busy.
I wasn’t, though, and I kept one eye on Anil’s door so that when it opened I could try and gauge if they had been talking about me after all. When they came out, though, no one so much as cast a glance in my direction. Henry was busy speaking in hushed tones to his assistant manager as he left and didn’t look over me at all. Spud did, though. It was unnerving.
I was both excited and nervous to see Sarah again at lunchtime—I couldn’t get the idea of kissing her in the middle of a train as it rattled across Sydney Harbour Bridge out of my mind—but she only had about three seconds to spend with me, anyway.
“I have a meeting with Diane Frost to discuss my reports at one o’clock,” she complained dryly, trying to wolf down a half-stale sandwich in under a minute. “That woman doesn’t eat and so we aren’t allowed to, either, apparentl—oh!” she said suddenly and sat up straight. “Speaking of eating, I nearly forgot!” She patted herself down for an envelope and handed it to me. “I was a big emotional mess this morning and nearly didn’t give you this. Bree would have killed me if you didn’t show up.”
She kept talking while I opened it. “Henry’s shouting us all to dinner at Rockpool tonight to celebrate Bree’s last ever exam being over and to thank us for helping her.”
It seemed a bit odd that Henry would be doing the shouting given that Bree was his ex’s new girlfriend and that Min had cheated on him with that new girlfriend, but Henry had never been like Dad and Mum and held a massive grudge against Min over it, so I supposed it wasn’t that weird.
Dad would still probably love him, I thought ironically as I read the invitation. They could exchange tragic stories about whose ex had fucked who over more, and I could listen and feel better about the fact that I’m not the only person with a non-existent love life.
“Huh,” was all I said.
Sarah had been watching for my reaction. “I know,” she said, in a tone that suggested she’d had the same reaction to Henry’s invitation as I had. “But he and Min are still really good friends, I guess? Anyway, meet you downstairs at 6:45. We can walk there together.”
That was enough to make me look forward to it, even if I’d have to sit at a table with Henry and be self-conscious for an hour or two as a result.
Min and Bree were waiting out the front of Rockpool for us when we arrived—Bree shrieked and waved when she saw us—and they were both very dressed up. Min, I’d seen in a suit many times, but Bree had neatened her curls, put on a cornflower blue party dress and was wearing something other than thongs on her feet for once. She looked adorable, but that could also have been because of how excited she was.
“Thanks to you guys, I’m not a high school student anymore!” she declared and went to throw her arms around our middles, forgetting that Sarah’s middle wasn’t as accessible anymore and bumping into it. “Sorry,” she told Sarah, rubbing her stomach and looking sheepish.
Sarah clearly didn’t mind. “How’d you go today?”
Bree shrugged. “Alright, I guess? I don’t really know. I just can’t believe it’s all over and I did it! I made it to the end of the year!” Behind her, Min was beaming.
The only person missing was Henry. Sarah checked her watch, and looked around us. “Still waiting for Moneybags?”
Both Min and Bree chuckled at that nickname and then looked horrified at themselves. Min composed herself first. “He’s in Rockpool’s boardroom—more meetings,” she said, and rolled her eyes.
Sarah glanced up sharply at Min. “Wait a minute, meetings off-site?” she asked, and was immediately suspicious. “If he was meeting with anyone from Frost he’d just have done it in the building, so why isn’t he back there?” She’d clearly made up her mind as to why. “You know what? I bet it’s the unions.”
Min shrugged dismissively. “Well, whoever it is, he should be nearly done by now, he said he’d meet us at the table.” We followed Min and Bree inside.
The restaurant looked as exclusive as its menu, and between the two-story marble pillars, the dark interior design and the haughty hostess that showed us to our table, I was scared to even touch the cutlery. I was just looking upwards at a rack of hundreds of crystal wine glasses beside us when I felt a hand on my arm.
Sarah leant over to me. “Looks like they knew you were coming,” she said with a smirk, eyeing the hundreds of wine glasses. I gave her a tired look and she snickered at me. “Anyway, I’m just going to duck off to the ladies and do something about my lipstick. Be back in a sec,” she told us, and disappeared.
Bree was busy drinking in our surroundings and looking absolutely delighted. “Can you imagine running a place like this?” she asked, obviously doing exactly that. “It has three hats!”
I had no idea what that meant, but from Bree’s reverent tone, it was apparently very impressive.
Min watched her thoughtfully for a few seconds while she was gazing with starry eyes at the open kitchen, and then smiled privately to herself and went back to reading the menu. Under the table, I could see they were holding hands with their fingers interlaced. They looked so settled in their relationship; it was so weird to think just six months ago, Min and Henry had been together. I wondered how Min had figured out she liked women, and I would have asked her if Bree hadn’t been with us.
Min caught me looking at her and gave me a wink. I blushed and hurriedly buried my nose in the menu.
While I was looking through the menu and trying to manage my guilt over the exorbitant prices, Sarah appeared next to me again and sat uncomfortably in her seat. She looked like she was about to explode with something.
When she was sure we were all looking at her, she put her hands up in a ‘yield’ position. “Okay, I’ve done something I’m not proud of, and before you all judge me, I want you to know that I did it for Gemma.”
My eyebrows shot up. What on—? I gave her the weirdest look. Min and Bree glanced at each other, and Min’s expression mirrored mine.
“Okay,” Sarah said, “Okay. So Henry’s obviously meeting with the unions, right? So I thought I might just kind of… sneak over there and have a listen so I could see if I could hear anything about Gem’s job…”
Min’s expression hardened. “Sarah.”
“I know, I know!” she said, sounding genuinely remorseful. “The way I figured it, there were two possible outcomes: either I’d hear something useful and then I could give Gem the heads up, or I wouldn’t hear anything and I wouldn’t need to tell anyone what I’d done.”
There was something about the way she was listing those variables… “But you were wrong?”
She looked at me, stricken. “I was, like, so wrong. So wrong. Okay, so I went over there and just stood at the doorway to get a gist of what they were talking about to see if it was the offshoring stuff. But I could only hear two voices, so I thought I’d just take a little peek through the open door…”
“…And?” Bree prompted her.
“And: sorry to say it, guys, but there’s no way that’s an official union meeting. Henry’s in there having a private dinner with the hottest woman on the planet. No wonder he’s feeling so generous.”
We all stared at her.
I—actually wasn’t quite sure I definitely believed it? Sarah had a habit of jumping to conclusions about who was sleeping with who, especially if it smelt like scandal. “Are you sure? Maybe the union lady just happens to be attractive?”
Sarah gave me look. “Believe me. I’m sure.”
Bree was looking across at Min with some concern, but Min’s expression was completely unreadable. Bree turned back to us, determined. “Okay, I need to see this,” she announced, and stood up.
Min reached for her arm. “Bree…”
Bree expertly evaded it. “Be honest, you want to know, too,” she told Min, and then spun and jetted off towards the boardroom.
Min swore under her breath and stood up to follow her, and Sarah took off after Min. And since I wasn’t going to be left sitting here at the table, I grabbed my handbag and followed the lot of them over to the corner where the doorway was.
Besides… I kind of wanted to see what Sarah’s definition of ‘hottest woman in the world’ looked like.
The door was open a crack, but it wasn’t open enough for four faces to peer through. We all jostled for a position, and even Min eventually gave a long-suffering sigh of resignation and bent down to have a quick peek.
From what I could make out, Henry was sitting across a board table from a woman who had her back to us. All I could see of her was long black hair and a dress that was every bit as red as the one I’d worn on Friday night, but where mine was kind of tasteless and revealing, hers was haute couture, perfectly tailored, and complimented with black patent stilettos. Those were actually the clincher: despite the board table and the formality of the room, I began to think Sarah might be right because nobody wore something that bold to work. That was date wear, and it was being worn by someone with a killer body.
Wow. So while I’d been feeling comforted by the fact Henry was at least as tragic as I was and joking about his generosity, he was actually secretly dating a solid 10/10.
Meanwhile, I was probably a 7 at the most and apparently doomed to become an old lesbian cat lady while everyone else in the known world was on a smooth trajectory towards happiness and fulfilment. I was busy trying to cope with that when Bree bumped me and I fell against the door, making it creak slightly. To my horror, Henry’s eyes lifted off his plate and looked directly at us.
“Shit!” Sarah hissed as we all stood away from the door, staring with wide-eyed panic at each other. “Go! Go!” she whispered, gesturing back to our table.
We’d begun to scuttle off when the door opened wide and Henry stepped out of it. He had a very tired expression. “It’s too late for that,” he told us flatly when he saw us trying to escape.
We stood in place and turned back to him, probably looking as guilty as a bunch of schoolkids caught somewhere they shouldn’t be. I’d never seen him act like a manager before, but I felt like I was about to be reprimanded like an employee. He had a quiet anger that was actually kind of terrifying; I hoped it wouldn’t somehow effect my potential secondment…
“This is all my fault,” Sarah said frankly.
Henry looked like he wasn’t interested in confessions. He gave us all a very pointed look, and then swept his arm out towards the private room with a heavy sigh. “Well, you’re here now,” he said, “this wasn’t exactly how I’d planned to introduce you all, but you might as well come in.”
We were all too embarrassed to do anything except follow his instructions, so we filed into the room like naughty children. The woman in the red dress had stood from her chair to face us, and was leaning with one hip against the table and her arms crossed over her ample chest.
I immediately saw what Sarah meant: this woman was gorgeous. Like, predatory gorgeous. She was very tall—maybe nearly as tall as Min and Henry?—and had a sharp face with savage features. She knew she was attractive, too: she oozed self-confidence. It was terrifying. I hoped she wouldn’t try to talk to me; I had no doubt my cheeks were as red as her dress.
She and Henry shared a glance, as he indicated us one by one. “This is Min, Bree, Sarah and Gemma,” he told her, and then held his arm out towards her. “And this is Natalie Heiser, partner at Heiser & Anderson, and head legal counsel of the Mining and Energy Union.”
Continue to Chapter Eight