"I'm not quite sure that this is a good idea."
The words hung in the air, and each of the two women walking down the hallway interpreted them in an entirely different way. Nicole, who had said them, actually wanted to say, "This is a terrible idea," but Chastity was the sort of friend who had a way of working on your brain and convincing you to do things that, well...let's just say you regretted them when you woke up in the morning on someone else's couch and realized it was twenty minutes before work and you were still wearing last night's clothes and you didn't know where your panties were. For example. (It was a source of deepest irony to all of her friends that Chastity's parents had decided to give her that particular name.)
So twenty-five minutes ago, when Chastity had come up with this plan, it was a terrible idea. And deep down, Nicole was pretty sure it still was. But Chastity had worn down her resistance to the point where she was walking down the hallway with her, getting ready to put this plan into action, and convincing herself that her misgivings were probably nothing...but saying, "I'm not quite sure that this is a good idea," in the hopes that Chastity would suddenly stop dead and say, "You're right! This is a plan that's probably going to blow up in our faces and make someone really miserable! I'm glad I have such a sensible friend!"
Chastity, on the other hand, who had heard them, interpreted them as, "I really want to do this, but I'm the 'sensible' friend, so I have to pretend that I'm reluctant so that you can 'talk me into this'." About which no more need really be said.
"Oh, come on, Nic, it'll be great. You'll love it, I'll love it, and Paula will love it too...eventually. She just needs to get out a bit, is all. Socialize. Remember what you were like when you first met me?"
Nicole nodded and smiled ruefully. "Oh, what happy days those were."
Chastity grinned a grin that probably set off danger signals in Nicole's 'sensible' brain cells, but Chastity knew that a little liquor would anesthetize those little trouble-makers. "Come on," she said. "I'm actually willing to play designated driver for this, which is probably a once in a lifetime occurrence in and of itself, so all you need to do is come with. I'm even buying."
Nicole sighed. "Alright, but don't say I didn't tell you so..." They rounded a corner and came to a cubicle decorated with pictures of cats. A slim young brunette was sitting at her desk, dressed in sensible clothes, gathering up her things and cleaning off her work area for the end of the day. She smiled on seeing the two women approach. "Chastity!" she said. "Thanks so much for giving me a ride home. I don't know what I would have done without you."
"Um..." Paula said hesitantly, her hands folded in her lap, seatbelt securely fastened. She pushed her glasses up on the bridge of her nose. "I think you missed my exit, Chastity."
"Well," Chastity said, "I know it sounds kind of silly, but I thought that maybe as long as we were out, we could, you know, maybe stop someplace, have a drink or two...just get to know each other better. I thought it might be fun."
Paula looked out the window, clearly uncomfortable. "I really should be getting home," she said. "It's already close to seven o'clock..."
"Oh, don't worry!" Chastity said hurriedly. "I totally understand. We won't be out late." Nicole, sitting in the back seat, had heard Chastity deliver this speech often enough that she could spot the sinister undertones to it, but Chastity had sworn her to secrecy. "Just a quick drink or two, a little girl talk, and I'll have you home in a jiffy."
Paula shifted position in her seat just a bit. "I, um..." she said. "I don't drink."
"No problem," Chastity said. "You can just have some iced tea."
"It won't be one of those smoky places, will it?" Paula asked. "Only the smell gets into your clothes and it takes days to get out."
Chastity shook her head. "No, no. There's a city ordinance about that now. You won't have to smell any cigarette smoke. The important thing is that you socialize a little. I mean, we've been working in the same building for over a year now, and we barely know the first thing about each other."
Paula blushed a little. "Oh, there's not much to tell, really."
There will be after tonight, Nicole thought as Chastity accelerated down the highway. Really, though, she was beginning to see what Chastity meant. Paula looked as though she'd never had a fun night in her life. Not that she was prissy or anything, she didn't have a stick up her ass. (Not like Marilyn, from Human Resources, who still gave Chastity dirty looks over the office Christmas party three years ago.)
No, Paula was polite and friendly and very, very quiet. When everyone else talked about their Saturday night on Monday morning, she just listened and smiled. Whenever anyone invited her out for drinks, she just apologized (really sincerely, too, none of that "I have to wash my hair" bullshit) and said she needed to get home. Maybe Chastity was right. Maybe Paula really did need to get out and have a little fun, and maybe it was going to take something like being "kidnapped" while her car was in the shop to loosen the poor girl up a little. A night at the bar wouldn't be so bad.
Chastity exited the freeway, and Nicole felt that familiar sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that Chastity tended to induce as she realized exactly where they were headed. Oh, she wasn't...
She was. They pulled into a parking lot that was already half full, and Nicole looked up at the sign above the door with a sensation of mounting dread. 'Hunks--A Club For Women'. Chastity had left this bit out in her description of the night's agenda. Dear God. Nicole understood that Chastity wanted to corrupt Paula, even supported the idea, but did she really have to try to go the entire distance in one night? Any second now, she thought as they got out of the car, Paula was going to pull out her cell phone and call for a taxi.
She didn't. She looked down at her watch a few times, and finally said to Chastity, "You're sure we won't be staying long? Only I really do need to get home..."
Chastity looked her square in the eyes with an expression of pure, sincere goodwill. "Trust me," she said. "Just a few drinks, and then home."
They went inside. Nicole waited for the explosion, the "Oh, my God, you said we were just going to a bar!", perhaps even a scream as Paula saw the three stages ("Three stages, all action all the time!") and the men wearing nothing but bikini briefs on said stages...but nothing. Paula just looked around with that same polite smile she had when she listened to other people talk about their Saturday nights.
"Well?" Chastity said over the music, gesturing at the gyrating men. "What do you think?"
"It's a bit loud," Paula said, trying to raise her own voice up over '7 Boom Medley'. "Might make it a bit difficult to talk."
Nicole almost giggled. Chastity had her work cut out for her tonight. Girl goes to the first strip club of her life, and her response? 'Could you tone down the music, I'm trying to have a conversation, here!' Only more polite.
"You'll get used to it!" Chastity shouted as they weaved through the growing crowd. She found them a seat up near the stage, and said, "I'll go get the drinks! You two watch our seats!"
A suspicious impulse made Nicole say, "Actually, I'll come and help you carry. Will you be alright on your own for a moment, Paula?"
"Oh, sure," Paula said, reaching into her purse. "I have my sudoku." Nicole stifled another giggle as they headed to the bar.
Sure enough, all of Nicole's suspicions were confirmed when they walked up to the bartender. "Hi, I'll need a Long Island Iced Tea, a Manhattan for the lady next to me, and a diet cola, whatever brand you serve."
Nicole frowned as the bartender walked down to the other end of the bar and began mixing. "I can't help but notice that there are two alcoholic drinks in that order," she said. "Which means that either you're planning to give your keys to Paula at the end of the night, or..."
"Or?" Chastity's eyes sparked with mischief.
"Or you're about to do something fairly mean." There. She'd said it, it was out in the open, and she couldn't take it back. She'd actually called Chastity on one of her crazy bullshit stunts instead of going along with it like she always did because Chastity just had a way of making it seem like a good idea at the time. Because the time was now, and this didn't seem like a good idea.
"Mean? What's so mean about buying someone a drink?" Chastity was trying to keep that light, innocent, 'Who, me?' tone in her voice, but Nicole could hear the underlying defensiveness.
"Paula doesn't drink," Nicole said reproachfully. "You heard her."
Chastity made a dismissive gesture. "Everybody says that, Nic. She just doesn't feel like she can open up enough yet to admit some of her...bad habits, is all. She doesn't want us to think less of her. Trust me, she'll be fine with a few inside her."
Nicole shook her head. It wasn't going to be that easy this time. "And what if she doesn't drink because she's a recovering alcoholic, or for health reasons? No, Chas. Dragging her to a strip club is one thing, but spiking her drinks, that's dirty pool. Just order an extra soda, and I'll make sure the Long Island doesn't go to waste."
Chastity put a friendly hand on her shoulder. "Come on, Nic, listen to yourself. 'She's a recovering alcoholic'? Look at the girl. Seriously, take a good look at her." Nicole's eyes flashed over to the young woman at the table, holding a pencil and staring at a tablet of paper with a look of absent concentration while a nearly-naked man gyrated less than six feet away from her. "You know as well as I do that Paula's never had a drink in her life." Nicole opened her mouth to ask how that squared with Chastity's 'everybody drinks' spiel of thirty seconds ago, but Chastity kept going, steamrollering right over her objection before it could begin.
"She's never done anything fun. Ever. So yes, I want her to have a few drinks, maybe even more than a few, and get a little drunk for the first time in her life and do something just a little stupid with some guy. No harm's going to come out of that. You're going to be watching her. I'm going to be watching her, and I'm perfectly sober. We're going to take care of her and make sure that her first, and quite possibly only night of wild hedonism turns out to be a good experience. And if I wind up having to apologize a little to her tomorrow, I swear I will. But you know I won't let anything bad happen to her, right?"
"I..." Chastity gave her the puppy-dog eyes. "Well, I know you don't want anything bad to happen to her..."
"And I promise you that I am fully in control of the situation." The bartender returned with the drinks. "So is this cool? Are you just going to drink your drink and let her drink hers and let me worry about you two for the rest of the night?"
Nicole sighed. This was definitely a mistake. "All right," she said.
"Great." Chastity scooped up two drinks, letting Nicole carry her own Manhattan. "You won't regret this."
Me, I'm not worried about, Nicole thought. But you might regret this...and Paula almost certainly will.
Paula looked up as they returned to the table. "One iced tea as ordered," Chastity said brightly, handing the drink to Paula.
"Oh, they're big here!" Paula said loudly. Nicole paused for a moment mid-sip, trying desperately not to do a spit-take. Nobody could be so innocent that they said that by accident, could they? But Paula just took her drink and set it down in front of her. If she was kidding, she had a great line in deadpan humor going.
"Yeah," Chastity said. "This place is known for their iced tea, they do this special herbal stuff. It's really good."
Paula took a long swallow. "You're right," she said after a moment. "It's, um, different, but...good."
Nicole took another drink. She felt like the first mate on the Titanic.
At first, though, it didn't go so bad. Paula turned out to be a witty conversationalist; she was careful not to actually badmouth anyone, but she did do a brisk trade in discussing the foibles of some of their co-workers and clients. Pretty soon, the three of them were laughing and giggling, and a second Long Island Iced Tea probably didn't hurt the atmosphere any.
They chatted about bosses, current and former; boyfriends, current, former, and very former (Paula didn't have much to add to that conversation, but she made a very appreciative audience); about the new crop of TV shows and the movies that they'd all missed, because a night at the movies had gotten so expensive. That led to good-natured grumbling about raises and performance reviews, which led in turn to complaints about Human Resources--Chastity worked in HR, but was the loudest and most vocal in complaining about her own department.
By the fourth Long Island Iced Tea, though, Paula was back to looking at her watch. "Oh, is that the time?" she said, her words just ever so slightly slurred. "I didn't realize it was getting so late. I really have to get home."
Chastity patted her on the shoulder. "Why don't we let Nicole finish her drink first? She probably won't take long. I'll go get you another iced tea to drink while we wait." Nicole knew that was her cue to drink slowly. It really was shameful the way they'd gotten so good at this sort of thing, she mused idly as she took the world's tiniest sip of her second Manhattan.
"Alright," Paula said, rubbing her forehead, "but I really can't be out late. I know it's Friday night and all, but..." she trailed off vaguely, looking into the bottom of her iced tea with an expression that Nicole knew all too well, one that meant, 'When the hell did I finish this?'
After a few drinks of her fifth iced tea, she set the glass down, blinking slowly and glassily. "I, um...I feel kind of funny," she said. "There wasn't anything in that one, was there?"
Nicole could almost recite this next bit word for word along with Chastity, as her friend said, "You know, they might have accidentally given me a Long Island Iced Tea that time. Tell you what, you give it to Nicole to finish and I'll go get you another one."
Paula slid the drink over to Nicole, managing not to tip it over in the process (which Nicole considered rather impressive at this point, given that Paula had no tolerance, not much body mass, hadn't eaten anything in hours and had been sucking down gin, tequila, vodka and rum like they were real tea.) Chastity got up and headed back towards the bar, and Nicole knew that when Paula next talked about going home, Chastity would mention how Nicole hadn't finished that Long Island Iced Tea quite yet...evil. The girl was evil.
Paula put her head between her hands for a long moment, and Nicole put her hand on Paula's arm. "Hey," she said, "you okay?" Suddenly, all the worries that had been simmering gently under the surface since she'd originally agreed to go on this little girls' night out boiled up to the surface, as Paula looked up at her with an expression of confusion and misery on her face.
"I'm sorry," she said with guilt-inducing politeness, "I'm sure I'm not being very good company. I just, I feel dizzy and my stomach hurts and I really, really should be getting home..."
Just then, Chastity sat back down with another tea. Nicole tried to send little signals with her eyebrows that enough was enough, but while she was trying to engage Chastity's attention, Paula was taking another swig of her drink.
"Better?" Chastity asked, a sly wink in her voice.
"I, um...can we please go now?" Paula said. "I'm afraid I don't feel very well."
"Oh, I've got just the thing for that!" Chastity said. "I was talking with one of the guys behind the bar, and I asked him how they felt about private performances here." Oh, no, Nicole thought. Oh, she didn't. She couldn't have-- "And he said that he could arrange one. And I thought, well, you've never been to a place like this before, and really, how could I let you leave without having the full experience?"
Nicole was now making frantic little gestures to Chastity, but the other girl was having none of it. "So I talked to him, and he talked to Georgio, and Georgio remembered seeing you in the crowd, and..."
And sure enough, just when Nicole thought things couldn't get any worse, there was Georgio walking down the stage towards them wearing just a pair of Speedos and a set of swim goggles dangling around his neck. He looked like he'd just stepped out of the shower, and the way his swimsuit clung to his body made Nicole wonder why her friend hadn't treated her to the lapdance instead.
Because Paula looked anything but appreciative. When Georgio hopped lightly off the stage next to their table and swung Paula's chair out away from the table with her still in it, she looked more like she was about to be seriously ill than like she was aroused by his sensuous muscles.
Georgio acted like she was the hottest thing he'd ever seen, though. He said, "Hello, beautiful girl," in an Italian accent so thick you could spread it on foccacia bread, and carefully stepped so that his feet were on either side of the chair. He practically towered over Paula's tiny form.
"Just relax and enjoy, Paula," Chastity said. "You're not allowed to touch, but you can look as close as you want." Chastity couldn't see Paula's face, it being blocked by Georgio's truly spectacular ass, but Nicole was at an angle where she could see both Georgio's butt and Paula's face, and Paula looked anything but relaxed and joyful. Paula looked like she was about to cry.
"Georgio likes it when you look, beautiful girl." He flexed his pecs at Paula, slowly thrusting his hips back and forth. It all looked pretty good from where Nicole was sitting, but Paula just looked up at him, overwhelmed.
Nicole grabbed Chastity's wrist and dragged her close. "OK," she whispered tightly, "fun's over. Enough's enough, time to go."
"Are you kidding?" Chastity said, her eyes more on Georgio than on Nicole. "We bought a fifteen-minute performance! And afterwards, I was thinking maybe--"
"She is not into it," Nicole hissed. "She is not into the drinking, she is not into the dancing, she is miserable and she wants to go home. I can tell, you'd be able to tell if you were paying any attention, and why I ever let you talk me into this I have no idea."
"Oh, come on," Chastity said, getting a little defensive. "She's fine. You're just being--"
Nicole never found out what she was just being, because at that moment, Paula shoved Georgio backwards as hard as she could and ran for the exit, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I have to go," she said as she left, her words Dopplering behind her to sit like poison in Nicole's gut.
"What the hell?" Georgio said in a voice that sounded more SoCal than Sicily. "What's her deal?"
Nicole stood up. "Sorry, she just had a bit too much to drink, she probably thought it was nicer to run out of the room than throw up on you. Chas, take care of the bill. It is time to go." She headed out after Paula.
She found her by the car, squatting down with her head between her knees. When she heard Nicole's approach, she looked up, and Nicole was reminded of nothing so much as a half-drowned kitten. "I...I'm really sorry," she said, and that just turned the poison into acid.
"No, it was our fault." Chastity's fault. OK, Nicole could have probably stopped her, but maybe not, and it was better to go along with it and try to rein in Chastity's crazier ideas than to throw a fit and leave Paula to her tender mercies all alone, right? The justification didn't make Nicole feel a whole lot better. "We should have listened to you when you said you wanted to go straight home from work. Please, don't feel bad."