We’ve been friends for about 4 years now. It feels like we met light years ago, like we’ve known each other forever. We were both signed up to work for a new department store that was opening up just outside the city, one of those megastore profanities that were sprawling out all over the suburbs. They had an induction week (“indoctrination” more like it) and we had to go out to a school for five days and learn all about this magical company we were going to be married to and spend the rest of our lives with. There were videos and even singing. Thinking back on it now I wonder how I managed not to throw up.
Annika was there and I noticed her straight away. There were a lot of company losers at this week long party who were so into it all it was scary. Annika hung back, with a half sarcastic smile on her pretty face and I found myself noticing the perfect bow shape of her mouth, thinking how soft her full lips must be. She was like one of cool kids at school in the back row, smoking and making out behind the bike sheds. Half the time these stupid motivational videos were on I’d catch her eye and she’d wrinkle her perfectly straight nose, both of us already telepathically communicating our revulsion. I was desperate to talk to her, to be near her, near that smile.
On the last day of the induction week we were having a barbecue (light beer of course) and I found myself nervous to be standing so close to her. She was dressed in her typically cool way with vintage op-shop stuff mixed with things she’d made and stuff picked up from her travels. She was one of those effortlessly stylish people and it made me feel clumsy being near her. We got talking eventually, something completely inane about how bland the salad was. Annika was always quick with comebacks and wisecracks and soon enough we were in our own little bubble, heads leaning in close making up our own secret language about the rest of these creepy company freaks.
Turns out we had a bit in common. We’d both done Fine Art degrees, I’d majored in sculpture and she had done painting. We joked about the glorious path to retail we had ascended to after art school and how, in the flurry of first year with all the Inspiration we really had thought We Were Going to Make It. We compared notes on all the other crappy jobs that we’d done after graduating and how there seemed like little chance of a review at the National Gallery anytime soon. When she talked she had this way of moving her very long fingers, twirling her sandy blonde hair, fiddling with some random loose button or playing with the “I love Berlin” badge on her jacket. There was something about her fingers that made me ache and I’d often find myself imagining her casually touching me and how I’d have to hide the blush that was already starting to rise in my cheeks. Annika lived miles from the city in the mountains where she had grown up. She was into conservation stuff and knew the names of a thousand native plants and where they originated. I got the impression that sometimes the city upset her and she disliked all the noise and commotion. I guess I was the opposite in that sense, I was born in a big city and loved the pulse and hum of it.
The weeks until the opening flew past. We’d been hired and trained and now had to set up the store, installing the racking and then unloading endless pallets of plasticky tacky shit. Annika and I had been put in the same department; I remember the day they announced the lists, my heart was thudding loudly in my chest as they read out first my name and then hers for Home Decorating. I remember thinking at the time if we were in separate departments I would quit, I didn’t think I could go this alone.
Store Opening was looming large and the company losers were so amped. There was this palpable electricity in the break room and it was all they ever talked about. I remember walking in and seeing her, sitting under some massive “Store Opens in 3 Days!” poster, reading Bukowski, totally ignoring the frenzy of paper streamers and enforced excitement. She looked hot just sitting there and I didn’t realise I was staring till Tom slammed into me in the doorway. On the way past he said something about drooling and that’s when it all started. They were such a gossipy bunch and they loved the scandal about Annika and Jess being lesbian lovers.
Secretly I didn’t mind the joke either. I was mid way through a long overdue break up with a guy who couldn’t care less. I was amazed to find out that Annika was single, I’d have thought boys would be crawling all over her. The ones at work certainly were obsessed with her, I’d heard them talking about her a thousand times on my trips to the recycling compacter. She was kind of intimidating though, tall and aloof, with a veiled threat in her laugh. I guess these losers were probably too chicken to talk to her.
Store opening was a blur of cheering and clapping. I remember us standing at the store entrance while the ribbon was being cut. We were squashed in next to each other and every time someone clapped she’d pinch me. I screamed once because she got me in a ticklish spot but luckily it coincided with a round of cheering so I must have looked very excited about the store opening. Our uniforms were horrible, yet somehow she still looked beautiful, almost as though she was being pretty just to spite it. I’d been watching her get dressed in the locker room before, and the thought of her pink polka dot bra under that hideous shirt made me bite my lip. Even seeing the strap when she rearranged her hair over her collar was somehow intoxicating. During one agonisingly boring speech she leant down to whisper to me about being a good company girl. Her lip brushed my ear and I felt a burning blush spread from my ear, across my cheek and right across my chest. I was suddenly grateful for the baggy shirt that was hiding my peaked nipples.
Soon enough we settled into the swing of it. “Day shift, evening shift, morning meeting, store close” and other inane words took the place of conversations. I would have died from boredom if it weren’t for the little brushes with Annika that still burned my skin. We’d be lifting heavy boxes together, checking if things were straight, looking over files, always finding little reasons for a touch on the shoulder, or a flicker of those long fingers. We leaned against each other once behind a huge pile of terracotta pots we’d been stacking and the familiarity of it took me by surprise. I’d moved out from the house I’d shared with my ex and was now living on my own. I missed having someone touch me in a familiar way and when her weight pressed against my shoulder my skin nearly melted. “Hey Jessie, you got something in your eye, hold still.” Her voice purred my name and as she brushed my hair back from my face I felt giddy. She leaned in close to have a look, hand still holding back my fringe and I could feel her breath on my face, warm with a hint of cinnamon from the chai she was always drinking. She took her time looking at my eye before stepping back, messing up my fringe for fun. “You’re hair is always so tidy Jessie it drives me crazy.” No one else called me Jessie nowadays, I was always ‘Jess’ or the boring ‘Jessica’ that was on my stupid name tag and hearing the way her tongue rolled over it always pulled me into that special bubble we had made for ourselves. I imagined her tongue teasing the syllables against the back of her teeth and found myself contemplating exploring her pink mouth for the thousandth time.
Monday raced around the calendar again, not that it mattered being on a seven day rotating roster. Annika had the weekend off and I had missed her so much, especially on Sunday when it had been frantically busy. We worked well together, anticipating one another, always keeping an eye out for each other, and covering our overly long coffee runs. That weekend I’d been rostered with Elizabeth, a full on company champion who didn’t bother with lunch breaks. When Annika strolled in on Monday morning hung over from the weekend I found myself being bitchy to her, pissed off that she’d been out and picked up some guy. After she got through telling me in detail about the bass player with the tan and the muscles and the rock hard cock who cooked amazing breakfasts, I decided I had just about heard enough. I spat out something about having so much to do after Sunday’s craziness and stormed off to the loading bay. I couldn’t believe I was acting like this, jealous about some guy she picked up.
I heard someone coming down the metal staircase. It was bloody Chris, who had a knack for finding me on my own. He was good looking enough but was all Eyes for every girl that walked past, always ready with some cheesy line. For some reason when he stood extremely close I didn’t move. I was still simmering with irrational jealousy and feeling reckless. Chris leaned in a little closer, made some typically stupid joke about the new sale catalogue and I made my response barely audible, mentioning the noisy car park so he would step a little closer. I tilted my head to one side and stretched my arms behind me casually, trying to do my best to look alluring and show off some curves in this ridiculous clown suit of a uniform. Chris wised up when I moistened my lip and let my mouth stay open slightly. I commented on how much I appreciated him helping me unload stock last week in a bizarrely breathless tone. I couldn’t believe I was hamming it up this much and I couldn’t believe it was with Chris but at that moment I really didn’t care. I was angry in a way I didn’t understand and flushed from thinking about her with that man.
Chris thought my perfume was nice so I leaned in and pulled my shirt to one side so he could put his face near my collarbone. He smelled like men like him do, a mix of grass and sex topped off with an underachieving deodorant. He took his time breathing in my perfume and I gazed at his curly hair. I knew he played football and I imagined his butt would be tightly muscled and pert in those tiny shorts they wore. When he straightened up his face was close to mine and he slipped his hand on my waist casually. “I never noticed how beautiful your eyes are” he breathed back. I tried not to laugh at the well-worn line, but a part of me responded and I arched, cat like making more of a hollow for him to rest his hand and conveniently pushing my breasts forward. “This uniform does nothing for you, you’re gorgeous underneath.” I’m not sure if it was that he had told me that I was gorgeous under my loathed uniform or that I enjoyed the feeling of his hands on my waist but next thing you know my face was millimetres from his and I was staring straight into his eyes. Chris had been with a lot of women and enjoyed the game. He held my chin and teased a kiss out of my lips, staring straight back at me. I hesitated for a second with our eyes locked, feeling the dare drain away from me but Chris was already leaning forward, pressing his weight into me, and pinning me up against the wall. I had a sudden flash of Annika and her bass player and felt the jealousy flare as Chris’ mouth spread over mine. Our kiss was tangled and messy, forceful with lust. His hands roamed all over my body and the way he rubbed my breast bordered on painful. A sudden sound of a truck reversing broke us apart and I hurriedly smoothed my skirt as I stumbled out from under him, practically running up the metal staircase. He yelled out something along the lines of ‘see you later’ and mumbled something to the truck driver before they both cracked up laughing. Chris’ kiss stung my lip and the sensation wasn’t unpleasant, it had been a while since I’d had a man touch me like that and I felt uncomfortable admitting it had felt good. Damn Annika, her face and touch were melding with pictures of Chris as I straightened my skirt for the hundredth time. I couldn’t get the thought of her out of my mind and I played back images of how he would have touched her, kissed her and taken her.
I barrelled around the corner, my mind lost in my home made movies. I didn’t see her until it was too late and we collided hard. It had been entirely my fault as she had been struggling with a huge box of plastic coat hangers and could barely see over the top of them. One loud explosion and a cascade of plastic later and Annika and I were a pile of limbs and swearing. We untangled gingerly, crunching plastic as we rolled off each other. “Sorry Jessie baby, you ok?” Annika brushed a hand slowly over my shoulder. “Yeah Nikki, you?” Her eyes loomed large and she gave me that look that quietened all the growling in my head. She brushed my hair again, slowly and tenderly. I felt vaguely ridiculous standing in a pool of mangled coat hangers but would have done anything to prolong that moment. “Come on missy, if Big D sees this we’re fired.” She laughed and we both stood staring at the floor, enjoying the thought of getting fired. Big D was our manager, a quiet and fastidious German, always polite and stereotypically efficient. One day at a casual function he was wearing jeans that fitted a little too tightly. I’d poked Nikki in the ribs and after she registered the size of his package he’d been christened Big D. We crawled around on the floor collecting coat hangers and bits of plastic and joking about Big D as my eyes wandered over her curves. She was taller than I was, with long limbs and gorgeously round hips. The way her waist tapered and flared mesmerised me and way too often we’d casually stroll around the store room, her arm draped around my shoulder, my hand around her waist, stroking those lines that curved and curled about her. The lower half of the uniform was meant to be a black skirt with black stockings and black shoes but Nikki always managed to be wearing some ridiculous knee high socks and her beaten up Converse One Stars. In all my fantasises about Annika I was always touching, caressing and kissing her waist and the little mound of her belly, feeling her smooth thighs and tickling the tiny blonde hairs on the small of her back while she was wearing those insane socks.