Matthew pushes open the door of the tiny apartment. Naomi’s leaning over a hamster cage by the far window, and she’s still in her nightgown, with her hair a tangled mess on her shoulders.
Matthew frowns. “Door’s unlocked. You know that, right?”
She shudders, and he sees the tears on her cheeks.
“Naomi? Are you alright?”
“It’s – it’s my hamster. Was.”
“My hamster died.”
She mutters something under her breath and stands up briskly, seizing the cage by the handle. Matthew stands awkwardly in the doorway.
“Well come in,” she says, and marches into the adjoining kitchen with the cage swinging from her hand.
He swallows. “I’m sorry.”
“Can I lock the door?” He glances back at it, as if he expects it to be following him.
“No reason. We’ll be leaving soon.”
“Oh so you’re coming in today?”
She throws him a glance and shoves her foot down on a pedal to open the trashcan.
“Why wouldn’t I come into work?”
“Well, you’re not dressed. And it’s 8am.”
“We need to be there at 8:15.”
“Exactly. Which is in fifteen minutes. And I wanted to be there early to look around, meet the people we’ll be working with, shake a few hands.”
“Should’ve gone straight there then,” she says.
He shifts on his feet. He would have done that, okay, but Naomi’s his best friend. They’ve done everything together. For every major life event they’ve taken the first step together.
He’s not ready for that to change.
Matthew stares as Naomi starts shaking the contents of the hamster cage into the trash. He catches a glimpse of the fluffy hamster body.
“Um Naomi –“ He starts towards her.
She glances down at what she’s doing. “Right. Of course.”
She sticks a hand in and yanks out the plastic hamster wheel. And shakes the remains into the trash.
Matthew swallows tightly. He grapples in his pocket for a handkerchief and dabs quickly at his face. So there’s an animal’s body in the house. In the kitchen. Where food is made. Attracting other animals, no doubt – probably ants, cockroaches.
No big deal. Sure.
“You’re sick?” she asks, plopping the empty cage on the countertop.
“What? No. Just – sweaty. You going to empty the trash now or…”
“No time, gotta get ready for work,” she says, and strides into the bedroom.
With one last agonising glance at the empty cage and the bulging trashcan, he hurries after her, stumbling over clothes and papers strewn on the carpet.
It’s a nice apartment, he knows that; it’s small, but practical, and although it only has a bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and lounge, they’re all rather open-plan. Everything leads off of the lounge, and since Naomi doesn’t believe in doors, you can see into every other room from any given spot.
But yes, Matthew would do some renovating if this were his place. Except it isn’t, and he’s learnt from experience that suggesting a good clean or tidy will do nothing to persuade Naomi. The best he can do is snatch up a cushion and place it back on the couch when she’s not looking, or carry dirty plates to the sink, or sweep dust from the floor with his boots. It’s better if he gets dirty, you see, because at least he has a tailor and a cook and maid to clean him up afterwards.
He wanders into Naomi’s bedroom.
And sees Stewart, lounging on her bed. The sheets and covers are in a mangled heap on the floor, and Stewart’s wearing shoes. (With very dirty under-soles, to be precise).
Stewart nods at Matthew. His mouth swells with food, and crumbs litter his creased green shirt.
Matthew grimaces. “How long has he been staying with you?”
“Um, a week? I think,” Naomi says dismissively. She’s salvaging in her cupboard for clothes, which is ironic, Matthew thinks, because most of them are piled at her feet.
Stewart hasn’t finished chewing, but he clearly thinks it’s alright to join in the conversation. “Can always count on my little sister, right?”
Matthew swallows a tight sigh. “Naomi, this is our first day as interns. At one of the biggest accounting firms in the city. We need to be there now.”
“I’m coming, chill.”
It’s when she starts stripping that he retreats to the lounge to wait.
* * *
“This is not a first impression I wanted to make,” Matthew hisses as he and Naomi run up a flight of gleaming white stairs, voices buzzing in the background, windows on their right, stretching out over New York City.
“This way, they’ll remember us.”
“How will they remember us?” He glances at her. “And what are you sucking?”
“A mint. Want one?”
“No. Why are you sucking a mint, you can’t suck anything when they talk to us –“
“Relax, would you rather they got a whiff of my unwashed month?”
He stops at the top of the stairs, horror sweeping his face. “You didn’t brush your teeth?”
“Shush,” she says.
There are two people coming towards them, dressed impeccably in business suits. Matthew longs to yank out his handkerchief – he’s sweating all over, he’s sure of it. But if sucking a mint were bad enough…well, he is not mopping up his sweat in front of his new bosses, that’s for sure.
The man and woman smile coolly. Everyone shakes hands. Matthew barely comprehends what they’re saying because he’s expecting Naomi to say something inappropriate any minute now.
But suddenly, the man and woman are walking away, and Naomi is exhaling loudly. She turns and grins at him.
“Wasn’t that – what is wrong with you, Matt, you look like a freaking bubble about to burst, and not in a good way. More like a…uh, a puss filled bubble. On a flab of flesh. Oily and –“
“You’re not taking this seriously,” he gets out.
She’s still for a moment, the bright morning light forming a glowing halo behind her and then kissing the blue sky.
She says, “Excuse me?”
Matthew sighs. He has to say it sometime, right? They need to have this conversation sometime, right? Might as well be now, before she ruins anything. He knows Naomi, okay? He knows who she is and what she’s like. And today, of all days, he cannot risk anything going wrong.
“It’s nothing personal –“ he begins.
“Oh please.” She crosses her arms over her chest and stares at him. “When you start a conversation like that, it’s always personal.”
“I’m doing this for your own good,” he murmurs, glancing around to make sure no one can hear them.
“What?” she says loudly.
“I just don’t – I can’t have anything go wrong right now. Alright? This needs to work.”
“What makes you think I won’t make it work?”
“It’s not an accusation, I’m just saying. You tend to take things…less than seriously, you know? Again, not a criticism.”
“Baloney,” she says.
“I’m taking this seriously, alright, I’m not messing anything up –“
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, if this experience ends up like any other aspect of your life, it’ll probably result in a messy workspace, skimped duties, offensive chit-chat, oh, and yeah: your brother sprawled across it.”
He hadn’t meant to get so heated, but she was asking for it. This is how he has to behave with Naomi, anyway. She needs to know what’s wrong.
For a long time – too long – she doesn’t say anything. And then, “I better go.”
She turns around and starts hurrying down the stairs.
“Hey,” Matthew says, and then louder, “Naomi!”
She keeps running. Her heels click against the tiled steps.
Matthew stands there, no idea what to do or where to go. He didn’t hear the instructions from the business people a few minutes ago – he’d been thinking – worrying – about Naomi. Which is understandable, right?
He stands there, tapping his foot, sweating through his newly tailored grey suit. He feels like a fraud. He feels lost without his best friend. He feels lost without his only friend.
* * *
For the rest of the day, Matthew can’t concentrate on his work. He fetches coffee, he runs errands, he sits in on some meetings and presentations, but he’s barely aware of any of it. His chest is a writhing swarm of anxiety. He’s sweating more than he’s ever sweat in his life. He’s hyperaware of every move he makes, every glance thrown his way, every word directed at him.
He blames Naomi, of course. When she left – on their first day, at the very start of the day – she didn’t just make herself and her work ethic look bad, she made him look bad. She hurt both of them. She hurt their opportunity; an opportunity, Matthew thinks smugly, he created. He was the one who got their internships. He was the one who put in the effort. And this is how she repays him?
When the workday comes to an end and the lights of the city are dimming in the evening glaze, it’s all Matthew can do not to run out of the building. So instead, he power-walks. He power-walks all the way to the bustling street and hails a cab.
He gets in. Snaps his destination at the driver. And then he thinks.
Matthew and Naomi have known each other since they were kids. Family friends and all that. He’s always looked out for her, helped her with her homework so she got good grades, punched Levi Stephenson when he tried to kiss her (to be fair, Naomi got in a few punches in herself), and he knows her better than anyone else. More than that, Matthew believes he’s a good judge of character – he knows what Stewart’s like, he knows what Naomi’s like, and he knows where Naomi would be without him.
He wants to help her. He wants to help everyone. And he thinks that he does help her, except now... well, Matthew doesn’t understand the situation.
He climbs out of the cab the instant it stops and marches towards Naomi’s apartment.
* * *
Naomi’s not home, but surprise surprise, the door is unlocked. Matthew steps inside, muttering under his breath, and is greeted by the sight of Stewart, slouched in the La-Z-Boy by the tiny TV. The balcony’s door is open – cold air sweeps through, slapping Matthew in the face the moment he enters the room.
He slams the front door. Deliberately.
Stewart glances over, waving a hand in “hello”.
“So what are you doing here?” Matthew demands, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Popcorn?” Stewart offers him the plastic can in his lap.
“No I don’t want popcorn. I want to know why you’re here. Why your sister made the mistake of letting you stay here.”
“Mistake?” Stewart’s eyes are on the TV.
There’s nothing else for it. Matthew marches up and yanks out the cable.
“Naomi’s lost her internship, you realise that right? She left and that sends a message, a very bad message, it shows she doesn’t care, and it affects me too, alright? It does. Even if she didn’t realise that. She ruined things for both of us.”
“You need a drink,” Stewart says. “Why are you red in the face?”
Matthew strides over until he is directly in Stewart’s face and breathing in the cheesy stench of cheap popcorn.
“Why are you here? You lose a job, you mess up, and she just lets you eat her food and lounge around -”
“Hey!” Stewart gets up, and Matthew jerks backwards. “You have no clue what you’re talking about, ok?”
“Oh I do. I have you pegged. You and Naomi –“
“No you don’t,” Stewart yells. He stares at Matthew like he has two heads. “She has a job, you know.”
Matthew stills, his breaths snipped. “What?”
“She has a job, she’s a waitress. She loves art and music, and she hates accounting – did you know that?”
“I got her this internship. I got it for both of us.”
“And you just assumed she’d be grateful? That’s messed up, man.”
“I didn’t – I didn’t know about the job.”
“Yeah, well, she has one. And so do I. I moved in here because my ex-wife took my house in the divorce. Naomi stepped in and helped me out.”
Matthew doesn’t know what to do. The rage – the indignation – is leaking out of him. The whole situation is shuddering under his grip and he doesn’t understand it.
The front door creaks open. He turns sharply. Naomi stands there, frozen at the sight of him.
“What are you –“ she begins.
“Can we talk?” Matthew asks. His voice is soft, and he is sweating. He’s bright red, too; he can feel it. He wants Naomi to yell at him. To tell him to “get out!”
But instead she simply says, “Okay.”
* * *
Matthew and Naomi step out onto the balcony. The air’s cool, and the light is dying, casting the houses beyond in a frosted yellow-grey blanket. The sky is a muted baby blue spayed with streaks of fiery orange and electric pink.
“I’m sorry,” Matthew says. He stares at her, pain surging through his chest. He wants to leave – to disappear. He wants to hit himself, or maybe let Naomi do it.
“What for?” She doesn’t meet his eyes. Her hands are stuck in her pockets.
“For everything. Naomi. I didn’t know,” he whispers.
“You have a job?! You hate accounting?! What is wrong with me that I never knew that.”
“You never asked,” she says.
That one’s hard to swallow, but swallow he does, even though it tastes revolting.
“I thought I knew you.” He throws up his hands, runs his right hand through his hair and feels his throat close, the tears already behind his eyes. “We’re best friends, I thought – I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. What else don’t I know about you? What else did I never try and find out, what else –“
“Shut up,” she says, but her voice is begrudgingly tender, “we are best friends.”
“But I –“
“Yeah, you’re a prick. But you had good intentions. Matt, you’ve always been there. Always helped me. I never had the heart to be completely honest about what I was doing, and that’s my fault too. I was didn’t…I just couldn’t face disappointing you.”
“I deserved to be disappointed –“
“Well, maybe, yeah, but we’re best friends. We needed to be transparent. Instead, we played roles.”
“Was the best friend thing also a role?”
She glances up at him. Shrugs. “I don’t want it to be.”
“But look at us. We’re messing with each other. We’re so different from the kids we used to be. We’re different people –“
“I still see you as the ten-year-old I helped with her homework,” Matthew murmurs, shifting on his feet. “Naomi I’m –“
“Hey,” she says, and touches his arm. “I forgive you, okay?”
“On one condition.”
“You can hit me.”
“What? No. Shut up.” She grins. “On the condition that I don’t do that internship.”
Matthew nods, and tries to squash the anxiety that’s rising. What will she do, then? Will she ever get a qualification? Or work experience?
“Hey,” she looks him in the eye, as if reading his mind. “Don’t worry about me. Don’t try and –“
“Control you? I’m a jerk, Naomi –“
She scoffs. “Ok, you were never controlling. I don’t let anyone control me –“
“That is true.”
“But I also need you to back off. I still want to like you. I still want us to be best friends. But this is me – the real me. Can you see that?”
“The real you: who is creative, and free-spirited, and generous, and helps her brother.”
“Right.” He nods firmly.
“Let’s go back inside, yeah?” she says, and squeezes his arm gently. “Let’s watch TV for a while.”
He swallows. “On one condition.”
“We don’t eat out of Stewart’s popcorn container.”
She snorts, and leads him back inside. ‘That’s assuming he’d even share.”
Matthew sighs. “I was wrong about him too. I didn’t know about the divorce thing.”
“Yeah, again, huge misstep. But I’m sure if you buy him some popcorn he’ll forgive you.”
Matthew frowns, and Naomi grins at the expression on his face.
She pulls him into a one-armed hug. “As for me, you could simply stop critiquing the state of my house. Start there.”