Bored, Claire fades out of the conversation. Instead, she stares out the window of the university café and watches the world shuffle by. She stifles a yawn and hopes this will be over soon. The catch-up lunches Michelle organises are becoming less and less fun.
Claire already knows she needs a life plan. As a matter of urgency. Now she is also starting to think she might need some new friends too.
“What?” She’s yanked back to the table and to her three friends staring at her.
“Where did you go?” Michelle asks.
“We were asking why you quit working at that bar in the city?” Kate checks her teeth with her phone’s camera.
“I don’t know.” Claire shrugs. “Mostly because the boss was evil, among other things.”
“Oh.” Kerry frowns. “Pity. Now we can’t get on the door list anymore.”
Claire shoots her a look. “So I should stay in a crappy job just so you can get discounted drinks, should I?” She throws her napkin onto her empty plate.
Kerry, suitably contrite, shakes her head and looks down at her plate. “Of course not, I just—”
“Hey, how great was that place where Tara had her drinks the other night?” Michelle cuts in with a change of subject, always the one to defuse any tension. “I loved it.”
“Me too.” Kerry’s eyes brighten. “I loved…”
Claire stops listening again as Kerry pipes up. Why should she listen? She wasn’t even there. She was at work. As usual. She pushes her plate away and looks around the room, bored again.
This is exactly why she hardly ever bothers to meet them anymore even though they continue to invite her. All they talk about is what they did last night or about their mutual friends. And Claire was fine with that in high school, when she actually did the same things as them, but now…
If she wasn’t so bored with the idea of going to clubs with them, she’d probably feel left out. The other three are doing the same course in business and majoring in tourism—mostly because Kate and Kerry are such freaking sheep they wouldn’t know what they wanted without Michelle. Even now, in their second year, they still take nearly all the same courses.
She watches them talk but can’t bring herself to tune back in. She won’t know who or what they’re talking about anyway. They have less in common all the time. The fact that Claire studies something else is just one more wedge between them. Last year, when Brendan still came home on the weekends and Claire didn’t work as much, they all saw each other more, clinging to old high school social formations. Now, with the list of things they have in common shrinking by the moment, there’s not much left. They stubbornly hold on to each other for the sake of a shared history, but one that is undermined by a growing, mutual disinterest.
Claire knows she shouldn’t be surprised. Not if she really thinks about it. Their friendship in high school was created around their shared schedules and similar social rankings. Of all them, Claire only genuinely likes Michelle. Their friendship consolidated in the last years of high school when they started going out with Brendan and Jack who are best friends. Michelle is nice and smart and funny, and sometimes, when they’re together in a small group, Michelle actually has something to say.
But Kate and Kerry? They just came with the Michelle package, and Claire put up with them—puts up with them—because she has no choice. It kills her that those two twits look down on her and her degree. Even with their brain cells pooled, Claire could outsmart them in a second. Still, they seem to think what they’re doing is better than what she’s doing. Maybe it’s because there’s the certainty of a job after graduation. It doesn’t matter if they barely make it through their studies or if the job is in a partitioned cubicle inside a shiny building somewhere. Just because they can scrape a pass in Fundamentals of Finance doesn’t make them better than her.
She looks at their outfits as they talk and shakes her head slightly. At least they give her plenty of fodder to make fun of them. Recently, they dress as though they work in an office already. They put on fitted skirts and jackets for class, trying desperately to look the part. Kate, of course, takes it too far as usual. She bypasses corporate wear and lurches directly to borderline business slutty with her partially unbuttoned shirt and porn-length skirt. And Kerry, who barely breaks the five-foot barrier, looks more like a kid playing dress up.
“Claire, what are you up to this weekend?” Michelle tries once again to drag her back into the conversation.
“Working. And catching up with Cam. He’s back from that training thing.”
In truth, she probably won’t be hanging out with her brother because he’s back to work after the week’s holiday, on night shift. She just wants to mention him as payback to Kerry, who has harboured a mammoth crush on him for the last three years. Squat, blonde, and bland, Claire knows Cam wouldn’t look twice at Kerry, and that’s if he actually registers her existence at all. Kerry is too sane for Cam.
But she also tells them that because she has too much pride to admit she’ll probably do nothing.
“Well, if you’re around on Friday, come to Steph Habic’s party with us.” Michelle scoops up another forkful of her pasta.
“Maybe.” Claire barely remembers Steph from school.
“I can’t stay too late, though, because I have to hit the road early in the morning,” Michelle says as she puts down her fork. Then she flinches and sneaks a look at Claire. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Claire frowns. “You can say you’re going up to see Jack. I’m okay.”
Certain she’s blushing, Claire looks down at her hands in her lap because she doesn’t want to meet anyone’s gaze. Pity about why she broke up with Brendan actually feels worse than the actual breakup.
“I know, but still…” Michelle falters.
“It’s been months.” Claire raises her hands to stop Michelle. “I’m over it,” she tells them, unsure if it’s the truth or not.
“Really? You were going out for, like, over two years.” Kerry raises an eyebrow.
Claire glares at Kerry. Why is she always so annoying? Besides, what would she know? She’s never even had a proper boyfriend. “I know that.” She throws her a look. “I was there, remember?”
“Anyway…” Michelle reaches over and plucks at her sleeve. “Trust me; she’s not even close to as good looking as you. And she’s kind of—”
“What?” Claire lifts her head, surprised, and stares at Michelle. “You’ve met her?”
“Uh, yeah,” Michelle says as she tucks her dark hair behind her ear. “Because of Jack and Brendan. I, uh, see her sometimes when I go up and visit.”
Claire stares for a moment as she absorbs this disturbing new piece of information. She draws in a deep breath to steady herself. Why hasn’t she considered this possibility? Of course Michelle’s freaking double dating with Brendan’s new girlfriend. They’re probably friends by now too. That was how Claire and Michelle became friends, wasn’t it? Why should it be any different with this girl?
Claire breathes slowly, trying to dull the roar of blood in her ears. She cannot believe she was so busy getting over Brendan’s betrayal that she didn’t think of this smaller, yet equally significant act of disloyalty at the hand of her closest friend. “So, what? Do you all go out together?” She narrows her eyes. Michelle won’t be able to lie to her. She’s terrible at it.
Michelle drops her hands to her lap. “Uh, well, we’ve been out to dinner a few times and to some parties, I guess.”
“You guess?” Claire shoots back. “Exactly when did you meet her?” For a moment Claire’s mind flashes back to a day, years ago at her mother’s work, when her mother had placed ten-year-old Claire at the end of a large table as she interviewed one of her clients to prepare him for court. Claire watched, enthralled as her mother launched questions, one after the other, until the poor guy was dizzied and exhausted. Her mother had wanted the answers, though. Claire isn’t sure she does. But, driven by her hurt, she doesn’t know how not to ask them either.
“I don’t know.” Michelle shrugs, helpless now. “A while back?”
“So you are just, what, hanging out with her now?” Claire looks out the window as anger and embarrassment build a great red wall around her. Tears threaten, pricking the back of her eyes. She cannot look at Kerry or at Kate, who she knows are watching carefully, probably equally alarmed and excited by this hint of drama. “And you didn’t think you should tell me?”
Michelle doesn’t respond straightaway. She looks terrified as if she might be about to cry too.
“Hey, Claire, come on, quit making her feel bad.” Kate leans forward. “What is she supposed to do? She’s—”
“Stay out of it.” Claire growls at her.
Kate slides back in her seat as though she’s been stretched out on a sling and shot into the chair. She obediently shuts her mouth.
Claire turns back to Michelle. Whether she likes it or not, Kate’s defence has somehow enticed her to pull the reigns. She musters the last shreds of her Pearson dignity and pushes her chair back. “You know what? Do whatever you want.” She says it quietly as she pulls money out of her pocket. She points at her so-called friend. “Just know that I would never, ever do that to you without telling you. You should have told me.” She blinks fiercely at the embarrassing slick of tears. She puts her money gently on the table and strides out of the café without another word.
And no one calls after her either.
When she makes it out the door and onto the street, she doesn’t stop walking. She numbly pushes through the crush of people trying to get back to work, not caring who she knocks or who knocks her. She bites down on her lip and wills away the tears—tears that have sprung as much from humiliation as from hurt. She will not give in to them.
She feels like a complete idiot. And she hates to feel like an idiot. And she really, really hates to look like an idiot. Not only has Michelle broken the girl code, but she also gave the other two a new reason to look down their cerebrally challenged noses at her.
Great. She flinches as a suit bumps her in the side as he charges down the street. Now, not only do they think she’s a loser for waiting on people and for not really knowing what she wants to do with her life, but they also feel sorry for her because her ex-boyfriend is a giant asshole and her supposed best friend doesn’t care enough to show a little loyalty. And that is something she cannot bear.