Off Kilter

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What were the odds of running into Julie here? Even as she slipped down the red leather upholstery of the couch and into anonymity, Chris knew that sentence was a conglomerate of exaggeration. This was, after all, a very average establishment in the city they both lived and worked in. And as for running … Well, here Chris was sitting, nursing her beer and minding her own business. And there had been no great speed involved in Julie’s gait as she stepped into the room like a high-heeled, impeccably dressed, perfectly groomed coyote and continued purposefully towards the bar.

Chris stole a glance around the backrest of the couch. Julie was ordering. It was strange to see her in a skirt, and a short and tight one at that. At work, Julie donned a CEO’s business suit, tailored to fit her no-nonsense figure. Skirts and dresses were for secretaries and PAs at best. As soon as you wanted to sell anything, perhaps apart from yourself, and especially IT security solutions, it was a man’s world and you wanted to be taken seriously. Julie told Chris this when she hired her and went on to note that Chris was a good name, especially in writing. Chris had never asked why one could only be taken seriously in trousers. But she had understood the bit about her name when a client sheepishly told her that he’d assumed she was a man at their first meeting.

A young couple passed Chris’ table. They were talking in shouted whispers over the music pulsating through the air from speakers somewhere in the ceiling. Julie had placed herself on a barstool with crossed legs now. One hand was playing with a lock of hair and she was aiming a suggestive smile at the bartender shaking a drink. And then she turned.

Chris whipped back to an inconspicuous position, merging with the seat to the best of her ability. It wasn’t that she didn’t want Julie to see her. Just … Just what? Just, she was here on her own, drinking on a Thursday night. So was Julie, though. But she was probably waiting for someone. A group of friends. A partner. Maybe even a business associate or a client who needed some TLC before they were ready to buy. Chris could be meeting someone too. She could easily claim that she was. Still, there wasn’t exactly anything wrong with being here alone, so why did lying seem like the best option?

She sipped her beer. It was getting lukewarm. Another group of people entered the bar. No, not one group. Three women together and two men who might have been a couple, but turned out not to be when one of them waved at someone who was already sitting down and sauntered over to him. The women staggered towards the bar, already drunk or unused to high heels, but they stopped at the edge of Chris’s field of vision and didn’t appear to have anything to do with Julie. The remaining man stood for a moment with an unmistakably searching expression. Almost lost. Then he glanced directly at Chris. Chris met his gaze, friendly, but not inviting. The man smiled, nodded as if he had come to a conclusion and moved on.

Chris bent down to smooth out the hem of her trousers and found herself in a convenient position to peek around the corner. From this angle, she was watching the room and its occupants off kilter as if someone had rotated everything 90 degrees and she was the only one noticing it.

The man approached Julie, said something and made a gesture in the general direction the glass in front of her. Julie shook her head, bared her teeth in a playful smile and replied. Chris had never seen her like that. Her mannerisms were void of command as she battered her eyelashes and held out her hand to the man like a limp fish, leaning over to give him a clear view of her cleavage.

Hopefully the world would follow suit when Chris sat up straight again. For a moment, she closed her eyes and tried to tune in on Julie’s voice. But it was impossible. She could imagine it, though. Strange. Until this very moment, she had not thought herself capable of imagining Julie meekly flirting with a stranger.

What was Chris supposed to make of it? Nothing. That was what. Her boss didn’t know she was here, and what Julie did in her spare time was none of Chris’ business.

Chris took a last mouthful of her stale beer. It was time to get home anyway. She stood up, put on her jacket and decided not to look back over her shoulder at the bar. But at that moment, the music faded, and Chris heard a familiar voice over the chatter, “No, I’m not really good with numbers.”

The music resumed, pounding out another cookie-cutter radio hit. Chris found that her feet weren’t moving. She inhaled the smell of perfume, alcohol and sweat. And then she turned around and made her way towards the bar.

“Julie! Hi!” she said.