Cat’s out of the Bag

I took another sip of my drink, just to give myself something to do.

The 2 people next to me didn’t have that problem, though. Lucky them, I though in a snarky tone. Ever since we got together after work, they were yapping away about dogs. Then travel. Then who knows what. Last I checked, the conversation was centered around fireplaces, and how it got there was beyond me, or my interest level.
Stacey, Mallory’s work friend, caught my eye from across the table. “Ugh. This must suck for you,” she said quietly enough so they didn’t catch what she said. I just shrugged. What could I do? I mean, Nic and Mallory got along, and I didn’t perceive any romantic vibe from them whatsoever, so I was worried in that aspect. And girls and guys can be just friends, right?
I signaled the waiter for another drink, and asked him to bring a menu as well. If the last 2 week’s happy hours were an indication of things to come, then I was going to be here for awhile. Mallory and the group had such a good time at the happy hour to congratulate my new role that they wanted to make it a regular Thursday thing. Subscribing to the quote “Keep your friends close, but enemies closer”, I agreed, thinking that of all things, it couldn’t hurt to get on Mallory’s good side at work.
“So, Maddie, getting excited?” Mallory gave me a wide smile from across the table, and I noticed how her perfect red lipstick popped against her skin. As usual, she looked like she just walked out of the beauty salon. My hands flew up to my hair, where I’m sure it was a staticy mess with the winter weather and long day at work.
“Can’t wait! I leave on Tuesday!” Despite my crappy mood, thinking of Jessie’s wedding genuinely did cheer me up.
“Tuesday?” Mallory looked confused. “I was talking about your new job. Where are you going on Tuesday?”
“Vegas. Didn’t we tell you?” I looked at Nic who shrugged.
“Couples trip?” Mallory asked quickly.
“We have a wedding down there,” Nic answered. Dang it. I really wouldn’t have minded Mallory thinking we were at the couples-vacation phase in our relationship.
“Not your own, right?” Stacey asked in a teasing voice, and we all laughed, though I could see Mallory glancing at me.
Nic held up his hands and shook his head. “Nope, none of that business. My brother and her cousin are getting married, and we’re the best man and maid of honor.”
“Super stoked. Nice warm weather, the pool, seeing my family, bachelorette party… then I come back and start the new job and move!” I was just filling everyone in on my new house when I felt a presence behind me. Turning, I said, “Oh great, I’m ready-” and realized it wasn’t the waiter.
“Oh,” I choked. “Hey TJ! I wasn’t expecting you!” Most people don’t exactly expect a (very) tall, dark, and handsome NBA player standing 5 inches from them unexpectedly, ya know?
TJ’s smiled at me, though I noticed his smile was nowhere near as big as Mallory’s, which looked like it was going to split her face in two. “You’re ready? Ready for what?” He joked.
I flushed. Leave it to me to mistake a professional basketball player for a waiter. “Just thought you’d be the waiter,” I said, inserting a little laugh to make it hopefully less awkward. By the look on Nic’s face, it didn’t work.

TJ just shrugged, looking amused. “I can take your if you really want. I’m an expert you know – I spent 3 years in high school and college flipping burgers at Burger King.”

My mouth dropped and he laughed as he grabbed a stool and pulled it up at the side of the table between Nic and Mallory. From Burger King to multimillion dollar contract within a few years? Damn. And here I thought I was good going from undergrad to graduate school and finally being able to afford a car. I mean, I know I’m supposed to feel good about my own accomplishments and blah blah blah, but really, I’m not the only one who feels like a complete slacker when they meet someone their age that accomplished about a thousand times more than them in less time, am I?
“So, kids, what are we talking about?” TJ folded his hands expectantly and looked at the table, earning a little laugh from the 4 of us.
Nic rolled his eyes. “Dude, you’re the youngest one here!” He punched TJ in the shoulder. “Kids.”

TJ just shrugged and gave what I was beginning to notice was his trademark smile. “Still taller than you, though.”

Nic and TJ started punching each other in the shoulder in what looked like some kind of elaborate manly affection, and Mallory crossed her legs towards TJ. I looked down. Girl wasn’t messing around with all that leg she was flashing.
“Just chatting about Maddie’s new job and house,” Mallory purred. “Just chit chatting. By the way, I caught the game last night. Great job on that 3 pointer.” A shudder of embarrassment ran through me. If it was any more obvious what Mallory wanted, she would have been holding up a sign saying TJ + Mallory on it.
TJ flicked his eyes over to Mallory. “Thanks. Was a hard one.” Looking over towards me, he went on. “New job, eh? That’s big news! Where at?”

“Oh, um, just at my current company. I’m going to be the assistant to the president.” I flushed even more deeply, feeling stupid at explaining my job as an assistant to someone who probably had an assistant.

If he noticed my embarrassment, he didn’t say anything. Nodding, he said, “That’s a great job to have. My  mom was an assistant to a VP for years. A good one is invaluable to the president.”

Surprised, I started to thank him when Nic butted in. “Yeah. The president who is her ex-boyfriend’s dad.”

My mouth fell open and I turned to Nic. “You really had to go there?!” I exclaimed. “Really?”

Nic didn’t even get a chance to answer over Mallory’s outburst. “You dated Joshua’s SON?!” She was even more shocked than I was over Nic’s proclamation. “Is that how you got the job?” She stopped and stared at me.

I inwardly screamed at Nic. I knew he wasn’t thrilled that I was working for Joshua instead of Mallory, but really. It’s not like I was going to be hanging out with Theo – this was a professional job with a professional man who I happened to really like and get along with!
“Well, yes, that’s how I met Joshua,” I finally admitted after a few seconds of silence. “But I got the job because of my skills, not because of Theo. He has nothing to do with the job at all.”

Nic was looking disgusted and Mallory smirked. Desperate, I looked around the table and caught Stacey’s eye and she gave me a sympathetic smile. “Don’t worry, I won’t mention anything at work,” she promised.

“Thank you,” I said gratefully. “You too, please, Mallory. This is just a job, nothing more or less.”

“Okayyyyyy…..But really. You  know you could have come work for me. I had that opening. Why did you choose to work for Joshua? Not exactly best career move, right?” Her tone indicated that I might have had ulterior motives for choosing that job, and I started to steam. This happy hour was going downhill quickly.

Luckily, TJ caught the mood. “Don’t be dissing her choice, Mal. Let the girl choose her own career. And it’s not like the ex-dude works with his dad or anything. I don’t ever see the kids of the people I work with, do you?”
I was so grateful I could have thrown my arms around him. Mallory seemed torn between joy for TJ calling her a nickname and pissed off for calling her out. “Fine, I get it,” she finally answered.
Having enough, I made a big show of looking at my phone. “6:30 already!” I exclaimed. “I have to meet my group for class at 7! I better wrap up here!” Really, I wasn’t meeting them till 8, but they didn’t need to know that. I started to pull out my card and put it on the table when TJ shot Nic a look.
“Don’t you worry about that, sweetheart. The gentlemen here got it, don’t we?” Nic finally looked at me since the first time since my job was brought up.
“Oh. Yeah, of course.” He took my card off the table and handed it over. Slinging his arm around my chair, he pulled me close and said in a voice low enough for just the 2 of us to hear, “Sorry I was a little crabby. Hearing about the job puts me out a bit.”
I smiled at him. “Don’t worry about a thing. It’s not even like that,” I whispered back. For a second, it almost seemed like things were normal between us and I felt happy.
Nic gave me a quick kiss on the forehead. “Gotta go?” he asked. I nodded, not really wanting to dip out any longer now that the mood was lifted, but not really having a choice after I lied.

I stood up and grabbed my bag. TJ stood up too. “Bathroom,” he explained at my curious look. “I’ll walk you to the door too.”

“Thanks, man,” Nic said, giving him a quick fist bump before turning back to Stacey and Mallory.

TJ and I walked in silence to the door while I hailed an Uber. Suddenly, he spoke. “You and Nic doin’ alright?” he asked, curiously.

Panicked, I checked how long it would take for my car to arrive. 4 minutes. Damn it. I did not want to get into this conversation with Nic’s friend. “Pretty well,” I said. “He’s just a bit miffed over the job, but soon enough he’ll see that it’s no big deal at all.” I prayed he would, at least.

He nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah. You need to do you, ya know?” I nodded in agreement, though I didn’t really know what he meant, exactly. TJ went on. “I mean, Nic, he’s a great guy and a close friend of mine, ya know? But sometimes I think he’s a little consumed with his own needs -” he abruptly stopped himself.
I looked up at him, my neck almost straining from having to meet someone a good 18″ inches taller than myself in the eye. “What do you mean?” I asked curiously.
TJ was already shaking his head. “Don’t you worry about nothing. I said too much, ok?” He smiled down at me. right as my phone went off, showing my ride was there.

“Ok…sure,” I said more confused than ever and wondering why TJ was spilling this information. He seemed like a good guy, definitely not trying to hit on my like a sleazy behind a friend’s back, so what was the deal?

TJ pushed the door open into the frigid air and we both shivered, him more than me because he didn’t take his coat with him. “You’re a great girl, resourceful. I just like seeing people like you get ahead,” he said as some sort of explanation as he reached for the car door handle.
“Oh, and if you need help moving? Give me a call. I have some people who can help out.” I sat in the car, door open while he pulled a card out of his pocket. “Don’t share this number,” he ordered, handing it to me. “I only give it out to friends.”
Nodding, I thanked him. “I’ll definitely give you a text,” I promised. He just smiled at me and shut the door. As I turned to watch him jog back inside, the Uber driver spoke up.
“That’s not TJ, the shooting guard, is it?” she asked, curiously.

“Oh, it’s just a friend of mine,” I answered, smiling down at the piece of paper in my hand.



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