I work on the 56th floor of the Credit Suisse building in downtown Sydney. I tell my mother that I’m an actuary, though technically that’s a lie. The company relocated me before the final exam.
We have six other offices around the city but all the big meetings take place here. We have the view: the Harbour, the Bridge, and the Opera House. The docked cruise ship looks like a Matchbox, its basketball court and swimming pool like smudges on the glass. I often take pictures of our clients by the window, and I like to tell them I heard it crack. The Chinese businessmen always look so flustered.
I never leave the office during the day. Not that I’m busy; it’s just that I don’t need to. The air inside feels fresh and the bathroom is rarely unclean. The Thai place across the street has my credit card on file, and when they deliver my lunch, Jane the receptionist brings it personally to my desk. At first I guessed she was dating our manager, but then she started noticing me. I must say, she’s pretty cute for a brunette.
The break room has everything I need. A snack machine, a Keurig, sodas in the fridge for anyone to take; a wall-mounted flat screen, with Netflix on the company’s account; floor to ceiling windows, overlooking enough of Sydney to make you skip the bus tour. When I lie on the couch with the leg cushions out, sipping a Coke and flipping through channels, while down there Jane is sipping soup in a cafeteria crowded by five thousand cruise ship passengers, pedestrians flooding the streets like they’re in an ant farm, I feel my finger on the world’s Power button. As if I could ignore all those lives like a boring movie shut off early, and sometimes that thought makes me feel special.
But what’s weird is, that’s the same thought I’ve been having as I lie alone at night in my too-big king-sized bed—it keeps me up, thinking. I’ve been living out here for three months already and I haven’t made one close friend. I smile from park benches and train seats but the girls are scared to look. They have enough friends already; they don’t need or notice anything new. It’s tough to start a conversation with a face that’s turned away.
I said “Hi” to this girl walking alone in the Royal Botanical Garden last Sunday.
She did a full 360 before noticing me on the bench.
“Hi,” I repeated. “Can I ask you a question?”
She nodded, loosening her grip on her knit shoulder bag and bringing one hand to the side of her face.
I asked, “Are you from around here?”
She squinted at me and said, “E-excuse me?” Her accent could’ve been Spanish.
“Are you from Spain?”
“Then where’re you from?”
“E-excuse me?” she stuttered again.
“I was just saying, I wanted to know, but if you don’t want—” Finally, I said, “It’s okay. Sorry.”
She turned and rushed along, keeping her gaze pinned forward as she walked—not looking back at me, not even turning to see the duck pond or the hundred-year-old trees. She seemed to be in a hurry.
In a new city without my old friends, I don’t know how to waste time; even the casino hasn’t been cheering me up. Last week, I lost two consecutive hands on the river, all in on the second. It pissed me off so I sat staring at my lap for ten or fifteen minutes. Then, instead of leaving, I loaded up another hundred. I’ve always been like that, obsessed with fairness and success, putting everything before fun.
Looking for something else to do, I went to a brothel for the first time. Actually, I was impressed; all the girls were tested, all their photos online, decent descriptions for each. I had my first choice ready when I got there, and she led me upstairs, set down a glass of water and a condom, stripped, no questions asked. Very professional. The whole time I was telling myself, Calm down and What’s the big deal? because for some reason I felt guilty—thinking in the back of my mind that, as good as it might be, I couldn’t bring myself to go more than once a week.
Speaking of which, the next day, Jane walked into the break room in one of those tight cotton turtlenecks that outlines her chest. She flashed a flirty smile at me before marching toward the fruit bowl on the counter.
“Hey Jane. How was your night?”
After a pause, she looked over. “My night was fine.”
“Fine?” I said, with a conspiratorial grin.
“Yes,” she said. “And yours?”
“My night was fine too.” Trying not to stutter, I said, “I went to Kings Cross.”
“Oh.” She kept looking away, picking and examining fruit at random.
“Anyway,” I said, deciding to confide in her, “I wanted to ask you. An old friend’s coming to Sydney for a while, wanted to sleep by me, I don’t know. I told him to find a hostel instead. Was that, you think, unreasonable?”
“Why won’t you host him?”
“I just think that, it took me a month to find an apartment. I feel like he’s never going to leave, right?”
Jane smirked, turned to me, and said, “You’re so mean.”
I felt my jaw drop. The come-on in her tone, the flirtatiousness, the sexuality—it was clearer than a late night phone call. I couldn’t help but blush. She marched out with a fresh apple, and my gaze was hugged against her sweater.
After work, with no plans for the night, my brand new watch seemed to run out of battery. Only three minutes elapsed as I walked to the outdoor mall; a minute and a half while I watched a hot girl play guitar. She laid it across her lap, face up, flicking the strings, beating her foot, smacking the body. Not that I had the audacity to take a seat on the pavement and wait until she finished. Instead, I dropped a dollar in her case and she winked in return.
For dinner, the Thai restaurant was empty—only me and the waitresses—so the food came quickly. While I ate, they taught me how to say “Hello” and “Thank You” in Thai, and for dessert, they made me try the mango and sticky rice. I left a twenty percent tip in cash; as always, they said they’d remember me.
But my watch only read six-thirty and I was bored. Doubting that my PlayStation could last me the whole night, I went to EB Games and bought FIFA ’16. What else was I going to do? If I went back to Kings Cross after just one day—no. I wouldn’t do that.
There was a man standing outside my building, leaning on the glass doors, unshaven, hair unbrushed, wearing a dirty white undershirt. Probably collecting money or handing out flyers, maybe mentally ill. As I fumbled for my keys, he stared straight ahead, across the street, taking long, patient breaths. Then I heard: “Dan?”
I took a good look. The bright blue eyes. That face. “No way,” I said. “No fucking way.” Last I’d seen Freddie, his shiny hair was down to his shoulders, a few pubescent whiskers hanging off his chin. This guy was more, you know, rugged.
“Sorry I’m a mess. Day of traveling.”
“Actually, considering, you look pretty good.” Holding the door open, I said, “Coming up?”
He swung a backpack bigger than a suitcase onto his shoulders. Passing me, he reached out a muscular arm and patted my back.
“Wow,” I said.
I saw my apartment through Freddie’s eyes, realizing for the first time that it resembled an unused hotel suite. The walls were blank, and, apart from furniture, the floor was bare—from the bathroom, the closets, the spotless kitchen, around the corner past the couch and TV. If I had known he was coming so soon, I might not have left so much space. He was certainly remembering: Sorry, Freddie. I think my place is too tight for the two of us.
“Nice,” he said, looking around, his footsteps dampened by the thick carpet. The room was silent. So mean, Jane’s voice echoed.
“Listen,” I muttered. “If you’re fine taking the couch, then, you know.”
“Thanks.” He smiled and laid his stuff in the corner. I went to my room to tidy up and find sheets.
After only a minute, I heard Freddie begin to speak. “I’m staying by a friend,” he said, apparently on the phone. As he paced the room, his calm voice rose and fell, emitting hurried answers like flares. “Yes, in Australia.” “Working here, relocated.” “An actuary, I think.”
A forced laugh. “Yes, a real job.”
A resigned sigh. “If you want to mention this every time we talk, no, it’s no problem. Just let me know.” A sign of weakness.
I tried playing FIFA with him, but when I caught him with his eyes closed, I told him to go to sleep. Instead, I watched some videos on my bed, trying not to make a noise, stumbling in the dark when I rushed to the bathroom half-naked. It felt weird having someone sleep a few steps away. I couldn't ignore his deep, muffled breaths.
“How was the bed?” I asked him in the morning. “Comfy enough for my girlfriend?”
He grunted. “When’s she coming?”
“Tonight,” I joked. “Checkout’s at eleven.”
He turned away and felt around for his phone. After he showered, shaved, and cut his nails, I saw him grab an oversized Ziploc of clothing from his bag. He slipped out a clean white undershirt, squeezed into the same tight blue jeans he’d been wearing the previous day. As we left the apartment, I pointed to his shoes. “You sure you want to wear those?”
“I’ve walked across Southeast Asia in these flip flops. I think I’ll be fine.”
“Nobody likes a show-off,” I said.
We went to my favorite breakfast place for pancakes and eggs; while he was playing with the milk of his cappuccino, I snuck over to the register and paid for both of us. As I sat back down, I put the credit card back in my wallet and took out my business card. “You think I need one of these?”
He bellowed two loud hahs and put down his coffee. “American Psycho, right out of it. Seen it?”
“Damn, Dan. You’d love it. A businessman chasing hookers with a chainsaw. Your type of movie, plenty of action.”
“I go by Daniel now,” I said, but the waiter had come to clear and Freddie was asking for the bill. In a loud voice that should have cleared the waiter’s confusion, I said, “You’ll get the next one. Now, you’ll come to see my office, right?”
He stood by the tall window, his head slowly shaking, his mouth open in awe. I said, “Should I take a picture?”
He kept staring through the window for a minute, a real contemplative pose. He only relaxed his posture once I began to speak. “I posted it to Facebook. How many likes you think it’ll get?”
He looked over my shoulder, read the caption, and chuckled. Still a Player from NY to Sydney. I said, “Like it?”
“My travel photos usually get at least fifty. But, to be honest, I don’t think you’ll get that much on this one.”
“The description. No one likes a player, Dan.”
Freddie has a way of stating his eternal truths—learned from traveling as a kid and “experiencing the world”—that pisses me off. After almost chanting them, he stares you down, daring you to disagree. I rolled my eyes.
“No, I’m serious. I noticed the way you looked at the receptionist and our waitress and everyone on the street.” I saw that Jane had the manager behind her desk; I saw him stare at her screen and then at her. “If you want friends, stop thinking about sex whenever you look at a woman.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m not some creep.”
“Choose what you’re looking for, Dan.”
“What’s that su—yeah, I said I know.” I looked around my office and out the spotless windows; down there, I saw thousands of people shuffling past each other, in groups of twos and threes. I took a deep breath and ignored my anger. “I go by Daniel now.”
Freddie sneered. “Since when?”
I sneered back. “I don’t know, since I got a real job.”
After a pause, he said, “You heard the phone call.”
It was like a game of poker and I finally realized I had the bigger hand. “Don’t tell me you’re actually planning on working in a coffee shop.”
He was silent, his face expressionless. If I could get him to break—his eyes to fall, his posture to weaken, maybe a short sigh—if I could just get him to fold, I was thinking. Keep throwing in chips. Flush him out. “Listen,” I said. “Let me help you out. I’ll get you a job here.”
“No thanks,” he said.
“We could really use a smart guy like you.”
“Dan, I’d never.”
I laughed, but he kept staring, blank-faced. “Yeah you would.”
“You heard me,” he said, his shoulders still stiff, his eyes dead set. “It’s fucking hell in here. Like, these windows.” He pointed and I didn't look. I think that stoked his anger. The pace of his speech quickened. “They don’t make you feel trapped? The computers on every desk, you probably type more than you speak. Are you actually friends with any of these people? Come on, Dan, don’t you dare tell me you enjoy this, that this is fun.”
I’d never said it was fun. But it was a good job and he was exaggerating. It was impossible to argue with him in this mood, so I shrugged.
After he left, I approached Jane’s desk. “Did you see my friend?”
“Okay, cool. That’s the one I, um—”
She nodded, glanced at her computer screen.
“The one I hadn’t planned on hosting.” I tried to smile, but she wasn’t looking. “Sorry you didn’t get to meet.”
“It’s okay,” she said, nodding. “We can all get together some time.”
“Definitely,” I said. That made me feel a little better. It was the first time she’d ever mentioned spending time outside the office.
I don’t know what Freddie did for the rest of the day; I found him leaning against the glass doors and staring at the street when I returned. “Sorry I didn’t do your errands,” he said, handing me the lottery ticket I’d asked him to cash. “I was busy.”
We ate take-out Thai on the couch while watching his serial killer movie. Pointing to the food, I said, “You’ll get the next one.”
Freddie nodded and said, “I love how Patrick can slip in confessions while nobody’s listening.” I took an extra spoonful of chicken curry. “Imagine saying to a friend, I killed a whore last night.”
I laughed. When the movie finally ended, I asked, “What are we doing tonight?”
“I’m pretty tired.”
“No, come on,” I said.
He was silent.
“Would you come to the casino?”
“I don’t gamble.” Finally, he suggested, “Why don’t you call a friend?”
Who would I call? I wondered, as he waited for me to respond.
On the phone, I said, “You said we could get together some time. How’s tonight?”
Alongside the realization that Jane was on her way emerged another thought: the first time we’re meeting after work and it happens to be that Freddie’s around. “Freddie?”
He turned off his phone but didn’t look up.
“I don’t know how to say this, but do you mind, you know, not hitting on Jane.”
“Well,” I said, “yeah.”
“You said she’s a friend.”
“Yeah, but—I sort of like her.”
“Didn’t we just talk about this?”
“She’s different. I’m telling you.”
When I opened the door I froze. It was the relaxed way she stood, with her hands slumped into the pockets of her shining black jacket. Or it was what she wore underneath: tight maroon jeans and a light red tank top, the straps of her bra showing underneath. I’d never seen her like that before. It was like meeting someone new.
I held the door open and she walked past me, introducing herself to Freddie near the couch, already comfortable in my apartment. I stood there silent. For three months, I’d been the only one in that room; now, it was me who didn’t belong. My shirt from work was still fully buttoned, my dress socks pulled to my knee; I wondered if I should take a minute to change.
Freddie was calling to me. “Dan! Did you know Jane was also in Thailand last month?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Of course.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” He looked back at her. “How’d you enjoy?”
“Oh, please. I love traveling and meeting new people. There’s really nothing like it.”
“Yes. But you can meet new people anywhere, can’t you?”
I wondered if we’d be sitting here all night, listening to Freddie show-off or flirt or whatever he was doing. Before he continued his speech, I interrupted, “Wait, one sec—if we want to do something tonight, maybe, um, I have a case of poker chips. Interested?”
Freddie rolled his eyes. Jane said, “Sure. I love poker.”
We made room on the carpet by clearing Freddie’s stuff, and sat cross-legged in a tight circle. I distributed beer, chip stacks, and the first round of cards. I told Freddie to put down the blind.
He was a loose player; I got the impression that he didn’t care about winning. He bluffed too much, lost too often. Even a lucky string of pocket pairs couldn’t rescue him. In only fifteen minutes, he was out of chips.
Jane’s game, on the other hand, was a bit more complex. She played carefully but not very tight. When she had a good hand, her betting didn’t show it. I figured out her strategy too late: on her good hands, she’d wait for me to raise and think I was winning. For the first two betting rounds, she wouldn’t backraise or fold, stringing me along until I was too deep in. It worked, again and again. Her stack of chips was twice as high as mine by the time Freddie was out.
Freddie went to the bathroom, and I said, “You’re a great player, you know.”
“Thanks. It’s been ages since I’ve played but I used to love this.”
“Yeah, me too,” I said, trying to shuffle my chips like the casino’s all-night players. “And also, can I ask you a quick question?”
She dealt us each two cards and looked at her own. A chip rolled away but I didn’t go after it. Her tongue went up to her lip, as she threw in two chips to call my blind. “Hm?”
“Well, I really like you and I think we get along well. So, um, I’ve been wanting to ask you this for a while.”
She glanced at her lap. Then, awkwardly, she fumbled with the deck and dealt the flop. When she flipped the cards, I saw her stifle a smile. I realized I hadn’t checked what my cards were.
“What I wanted to say is, are you, you know, open to getting dinner some time? With me?”
She looked up and squinted, as if she was looking into the sun. I saw Freddie watching from the bathroom door and grimace before stepping back in.
“Oh, Daniel,” I heard. “I’m so sorry. I’m just not interested in that type of relationship.”
“Okay, but—” I started. I wanted to ask a few questions, only to clarify everything—like Why not? and Just with me? But I knew I shouldn’t and said, “Okay. That’s okay.”
She dealt the turn card and checked her hand again. Then, she sighed. “Daniel. I hope it’s alright, but I think I’ll leave after this.” We both went all in, and a Jack on the river gave her a pair for the win. As we shook hands, I felt doubly annoyed.
Freddie was smiling after she left, which really bothered me. “Why’d she say no?” I grumbled, my voice sounding nasally. “I’m a sweet guy, right? I’ve got a good job, a big place. What the hell is she looking for?”
I said, “Stop smirking at this. You’re being an ass.”
“It’s not at this,” he said. He showed me his phone and almost started chanting. “No likes on Facebook. Maybe it’s a sign.”
“They’re your friends,” I snapped. But really, I just wanted to shout: No, Freddie. It’s not a fucking sign. And I wanted to believe it.