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Cassey’s hair is encrusted with hairspray that I can smell from two tables away. Her pink nails are at least a centimetre too long and click against the taught leather of her clutch. It’s black, with diamantes glinting along the silver clasp. I hate everything about this woman.
“Happy birthday!” My enthusiasm sounds genuine and I throw my arms around her. We bump breasts and cheeks and pull back quickly. Her eyes scan my face – skin kept pale out of Sydney’s summer sun, black mascara, long earrings. She keeps looking, searching for something that isn’t there anymore, but smiles at the same time, keeping a polite pace to the conversation.
“Thank you! I’m so glad you came. Here, do you know everyone?”
I glance around the table. Her clones are already a bottle or two deep in prosecco.
“Of course, hi everyone!”
They shriek back their greetings, their eyes traveling down my indistinct black top to my jeans and, most astonishing of all, flat shoes. But it’s a birthday! I can almost hear their brains frying with the confusion.
“Grab a glass, there’s plenty of bubbly left,” Cassey says, too busy being the centre of attention to hand me one herself.
“Thanks, but I’ll go to the bar.”
Someone shrieks and I presume it is about what I said, until they all raise their hands and start singing. A song about chandeliers. I leave them to it.
While I wait in line at the bar, the words of the song grow familiar. Blowing off the cobwebs of repressed trauma, I think. The most traumatic thing these women have seen is lipstick where it shouldn’t be.
The bar is long and heavily staffed, and I place my order quickly. A whiskey, specifying its Irishness, and soda. He doesn’t blink, just turns to the cascade of bottles behind him. My reflection in the mirror is partly obscured by spirits with colourful labels, but my paleness stands out in the sea of fake tan around me. Even the man beside me, his arms bulging through a polo shirt a size too small, is a strange orange colour. He grins at me, an instinct he quickly corrects when I don’t respond. He has better luck with the woman on his other side.
I pay and return to the table, where someone has bought two more bottles of prosecco. The empties rattle in their metal buckets, and the table is slick with condensation from the glasses. Someone is telling a story, something about a dodgy phone contract. The topic seems unusually dull, even for this audience. Cassey’s eyes are wide as she nods in sympathy, but her expression becomes glazed when the story continues for longer than anticipated.
“You had problems with your phone, didn’t you Cassey—” someone interrupts, reaching a heavily manicured hand across the damp table “—in Fiji? Didn’t they charge you some exorbitant amount?”
“Oh they tried,” Cassey flicks the hair off her neck, as though priming for a fight. Everyone giggles. “As if Matty would let them get away with that.”
“Finally, that law degree coming in handy!”
Everyone laughs, and she basks in the reflected glow of her competent, and highly-qualified, boyfriend. Her eyes meet mine, and linger. I raise my arm and take a long, slow taste of my drink. The short tumbler sits among their towering glasses like a frog among flamingos. I run a chiselled nail along the condensation on the table, then flick the water off.
“So, Peta, what are you up to these days?” Their faces swivel to look at me for the obligatory small talk. I sit straighter, lengthening my collarbone as though pleased to partake. There is a grease stain on the right thigh of my jeans. Mayonnaise must have slipped from my sandwich on the train without me realising.
“I’m doing my PhD.”
Someone should study groups like this. It is a strange phenomenon watching eight women lose interest simultaneously, their deadened expressions as well-matched as their stilettos.
“Weren’t you doing that last year?” someone asks. She has aquamarine nails.
“Yes, it takes a few years.” The last three of Cassey’s birthday parties have included this conversation. I wait for someone to ask what the topic is, and decide that this year I will give the extended answer. I shouldn’t talk down to them, after all, as though they were imbeciles. But no one asks.
“Where are we going next?”
The chorus is almost harmonised and they laugh. A group of men, including my polo-shirted friend from the bar, pass by, and holler their approval.
“I didn’t know we were going anywhere else,” I say. Cassey can pretend not to hear me from the other end of the table. Her hand is on the downy forearm of a bloke with teeth that gleam despite the darkness. The woman with aquamarine nails answers me instead.
“Charlie’s is having a two-for-one night on bottles of prosecco, plus the DJ is a friend of Matt’s.” She stops talking suddenly, as though confused by her own words.
“Jackson is playing?”
“Yes, I think so.” She turns to the woman next to her as though needing to confirm the name, but it is clear she wants to avoid seeing me digest the information. Jackson is Matthew’s best friend. He and Matthew wore matching footy shirts when they went clubbing. Matthew told me he wore it ironically. I liked that he cared enough about my opinion to lie, it seemed like a good sign.
Cassey has released the arm of the man, though he winks at her as he leaves. She turns back to the table and fans herself with her hands, blowing through her lips as though she is suddenly too hot.
“Gee – zus,” she says, and everyone giggles.
“Oh as if you’d be tempted!” someone shrieks, and slops wine out of her glass with the excitement. “Not with dear darling Matty waiting for you at home!”
Cassey stops her playacting and smirks, satisfied that her friends are suitably jealous.
“Where is home, these days?” I ask. What I mean is, are you still living in the flat I helped him find? Are you still sleeping on sheets that we fucked on first? But there is something in her continued smirk that makes me realise her answer is better than that.
“We’ve bought a house, over in Franklin.”
“It’s gorgeous!” someone adds, drawing out the word like she could wrap it around the house and carry it away with her.
“Amazing pool,” aquamarine lady says.
“Thanks to Matt!”
I imagine him in the backyard in the dusty flat suburb they chose because it’s where families live, sweating through his t-shirt as he digs and digs, building her a pool. Except, of course that’s not what they mean. They mean he paid for it.
“Sounds nice,” I say. My whiskey is finished and I want another one, but not if we’re moving on. Cassey will expect me to come with her and her gaggle. I was always the leader on our nights out. Every Thursday night for years ended with me dragging her to just one more bar. We would trip through doorways, giggling, delighting at the surprise our disparate appearances had on the crowds. We were above the superficiality of a well-matched friendship. We liked each other because we loved each other, not because of some inconsequential interests that made us compatible.
“More bubbles!” All the bottles are empty but there is no point staying, so everyone collects bags then we sit without drinks while someone goes to the bathroom and returns with freshened lipstick.
Outside, the night is too warm, a heat that rises from the ground to meet its brother descending from the sky, trapping us in between. There is sweat behind my knees and I wish I wasn’t in jeans. The women around me are fresh in their short dresses, bare legs skipping with ease through the heavy air. Everyone wants to be near Cassey, which means I can hang back. I know the bar we’re going to – Charlie’s! – and have no desire to get there quickly. Seeing Jackson again is a feature of this night that I can do without.
A few groups are at the small tables. Cassey has reserved space for ten people, and the bartender waves us towards a collection of odd-sized tables that have been shoved together in the middle of the main space. I go straight to the bar and get myself a whiskey, then, because I’m feeling generous or lost or perhaps a bit of both, I buy two bottles of prosecco as well.
My eyes probe the dark corners of the room as I wait, but the DJ desk is empty and Jackson is no where to be seen. The music is that electronic pop which is everywhere now, and sounds generic in places like this when it loses all its distinguishing features under the squeals of birthday revellers.
I deposit the bottles on the table, but only aquamarine seems to notice. She says thank you as she starts pouring, and there are a few vague smiles thrown in my general direction, but no one wants to be beholden for the next round. The whiskey here is rougher and burns like cigarette ash rather than a wood fire. My whiskey pretention only arrived after Matthew left me, but it has blossomed into full-blown fervour since then. He would have ordered me a Jack Daniels and I would have drunk it with ease, but not anymore.
“Does Matt know his girl is out looking like a total bombshell?” Jackson swoops over to the table and Cassey disappears into a bear hug, though I can hear her shriek from under his chest. He steps back and surveys the group; his eyes rest on me. “Oh,” he says, and everyone watches as he tries to control his reaction. “Hi, Peta. Long time.” And then, catching himself, he strides over and hugs me too. His cologne is the same as Matthew used to wear. “How are you?”
“Fine, I’m doing my PhD.” It is the only thing worth reporting about my life. “How are you?” I ask, as it becomes clear he has no reaction to my information.
“Great.” He wiggles his hand at me, and it takes a moment before I see the ring. “Married Elle last month.”
“Congratulations.” He and Elle got together at the same time as Matthew and I, and those first months of shared dates hover between us.
“I’d better get to work. Any song you want, tonight, Cass!” He bellows at Cassey as he leaves. I’m too hot, sitting at the end of the table, furthest from the door and its fresh air. My whiskey is almost gone, already. The lights start pulsing in time to the first song Jackson spins. There is a shouted conversation happening around me but I can’t hear enough of it to join in. My heart is beating too fast. I force myself to breathe slowly, regularly, out of time to the music. Some of the women are dancing already. I get myself another whiskey, and when I return my head tunes in to the conversation, finally. It’s about Jackson’s wedding, and Matthew’s best man speech.
“Jackson will have a lot to live up to when it’s his turn!” aquamarine squeals, and everyone laughs. My breathing stops again, like I’m relying on a faulty machine with a mind of its own.
“When Matty finally asks, you mean,” Cassey shouts, and it’s a joke and everyone laughs but there is something spiky about her all of a sudden. Her eyes are on mine as she fills her glass with cheap yellow bubbles.
“Jackson and Elle have been together longer,” aquamarine says, and eyes swivel to me as though I stole the first year of Cassey’s relationship. My whiskey is finished again, already, and I tap the tumbler against the table. Someone, surely, should buy me a drink. A song starts, Aretha Franklin but with a different beat that suits the dark and the lights and the dancefloor. The table empties and the women are wiggling, just barely in time. I stay where I am, wishing there was table service.
“You know,” Cassey appears in the seat next to me. Her forehead is shining, she was always a sweaty dancer. “I’m glad you came tonight.”
“I always come to your birthdays.”
“I know.” She burps, suddenly, but doesn’t seem to notice. “Except for that first year.”
I grab a bottle of prosecco and empty it into my whiskey glass. “You mean the year I lost my boyfriend and my best friend? Yeah, I wasn’t much up for partying that year.” The bubbles catch in my throat. Aretha has been joined by George Michael.
“You didn’t have to lose either of us.” Her hand comes down to mine, it’s sticky from the sweet alcohol. “You and Matty weren’t right for each other, not romantically, you know that. But we could have stayed friends. We should have stayed better friends.”
Someone is calling for Cassey to join them on the dancefloor but she waves them away. She is still an emotional drunk.
“Why would we stay friends? We have nothing in common.”
Except Matthew, of course.
“That never mattered to us.”
I don’t know which “us” she is talking about – her and Matthew, or me and her?
My glass is empty again. Aquamarine is back at the table suddenly, bottles clasped in her hands. She fills our glasses. “I’m glad you switched!” she yells, as she tops up my tumbler with bubbles. I drink, and it tastes like metal. Cassey has disappeared into the messy mass of the dancefloor. I am glad not to have to talk anymore. I come to these things to keep one point of contact going – so she can see I am okay, so that I will know when they finally get married. But I can’t talk about why we don’t speak on any other day of the year.
“It’s great you came!”
I didn’t realise that aquamarine was still sitting beside me. Her glass is clasped in two hands, like something precious she needs to protect.
“I come every year,” I say again. Why is that so hard for people to remember?
“Yes, but this year especially. It’s good that you came.” Her lips are all wet and wobbly, and I realise she is on the verge of tears. My glass thumps back to the table as I look around for a distraction. “She hasn’t been out in months, you know. Not since her mother’s diagnosis.” Her voice pitches and rolls with emotion and alcohol. “She is so dedicated and so selfless, it’s just really good she gets this night out.”
I stand, knocking against the table. “Toilet,” I say.
The toilets are grimy and along the sinks are discarded glasses with drenched limes huddled in the bottom. I wee, then stand at the sink for too long. My face warps in the dark mirror and I am suddenly five years younger, waiting for Cassey to finish throwing up in the cubicle behind me. “Hurry up,” I’m yelling, but she is still retching.
“You go,” she manages to say between heaves, and I consider leaving, but then there is a knock on the door and Matthew is there.
“Are you two ready?” he is asking, and I yell again at Cassey to hurry up. He blinks at me, like he is seeing my reflection in a funhouse mirror. He disappears, and is back minutes later with a glass of water which he pushes under the cubicle door.
“Thank you,” Cassey’s voice is weak and pathetic. Last week, that was me, and she got me water. I grab Matthew’s hand.
“Let’s dance,” I say but still he looks at me like he has never seen my true shape before.
“Cassey,” he says, ignoring me and tilting his head closer to the graffitied cubicle door. “I’m going to stay right here, let me know when you’re ready to go and I’ll get us a taxi.”
And I am blinking in the mirror trying to remember why I had wanted to leave my best friend alone in a club toilet and why that made Matthew see me differently, truthfully, my stubborn selfish streak suddenly exposed. And from then on he was with Cassey and her vomity selflessness.
I return to the table but everyone is dancing. I finish my glass of bubbles and push my way onto the dancefloor. I grab aquamarine’s arm as she raises it to do the Y in YMCA. “What diagnosis?” I yell into her ear. It takes a minute for the words to filter through the alcohol and noise. She yells back, and I see Cassey watching us. I push through more bodies until I am next to her. “Your mum is sick?” I yell into her ear. She doesn’t stop dancing and her shoulder bumps into me as I lean closer. She flicks the hair off her neck and shrugs. “I didn’t know,” I yell, and she shrugs again. Jackson is watching us, his head moving with jerks to the beat of Destiny’s Child. “I didn’t know!” I yell again, but she still doesn’t respond, and there is nothing for her to say. Would I have acted differently tonight if I had known? She doesn’t know, and neither do I, really. I am probably still the woman who leaves her friend behind. Matthew chose the kind woman, and it is only in the heat of the dancefloor as Cassey shakes her shoulders in a terrible shimmy that I realise he is a better man for that decision. I put my hand on her arm and yell, again, “I’m sorry!” But she doesn’t want to talk. She takes my hand off her arm and holds it in the air. Jackson is still watching and I wonder what he will report back to Matthew. I drop my arm around her shoulders and we raise our free arms high, our lungs opening as we bellow the lyrics to a song I haven’t heard in years. Her long nails flash through the dark and I am enveloped in the smell of her hairspray. It is familiar as my childhood bedroom.
Hours later, when the music has ended and Jackson has left, we stand on the street outside. I am drenched, my jeans feel like I have waded through a river. Cassey is fanning herself with her clutch, the diamantes spit and sparkle at me.
“Did you have a good night?”
“Yes,” she says. She tries to look at me steadily but her feet stumble and she throws an arm out. “You can go, if you like. Matty will be here soon to get me.” Her friends have migrated to the pizza kiosk down the block. I don’t want to see Matthew. I don’t want to see her climbing into his car. I don’t want to see whatever greeting they have for each other.
“Maybe,” I say. She staggers again. A man with a ripped t-shirt whistles and his friends roar. I hold her arm. “It’s fine, actually. I’ll stay.”
Her arm loops through mine and it’s warm and sticky. She is everything I hate in the world, but that is nothing to do with who she is. So many nights out together, and so few ended like this: me standing here, waiting with her.
I know it’s Matthew’s car before I see him in the driver’s seat. He pulls up in front of us and shows no reaction at seeing me there. “See,” I want to say. “I can be a good person.” I help her into the car.
“Thanks Peta,” he says, and clasps Cassey’s hand as they drive away.