A fairly weathered friend

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?”

“Charlie’s!”

“Charlie’s!”

“Charlie’s!”

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.