But I Don’t Really Want This, Chapter 29
Things were going well for Tina. Her grand plan to get her life in order had so far gone well very well. Her job was fun (or at least it had its moments) and it was interesting to be in proximity to the rich. She was doing well at it and she was sure that if she kept her eyes open there would be opportunities for advancement.
Nicole was a good boss to have. She was kind and supportive. And because Nicole used to be employed at Tina’s level, she was sympathetic to the demands placed upon her. Nicole was no slave driver like some of the other managers in the company. Which is not to say that Nicole was a push over. She wasn’t, but she recognised that Tina knew how to work hard and was doing a good job, and so she understood that there were occasions when the slack could be loosened.
Nicole was also spectacularly good at her job, and so Tina was learning a lot from her. She was incredibly organised. A bit too organised perhaps for Tina’s tastes, anal even. But Tina could see how her organisation made her better at her job and was adopting some of those habits in the workplace.
Nicole was also brilliant at handling the super rich. It wasn’t just that she was hard working or organised. She knew how to conform to their ideas of what someone doing that job should be. Professional. Diligent. Deferent. Intelligent. Able to improvise. Able to interpret what was unsaid. Deep knowledge across many domains, lending the appearance of a polymath.
And of course, all of those male clients also had ideas of what a woman doing that job should be. They loved to be surrounded by beautiful women, so much so that it was clearly an unofficial part of the job description. Nicole certainly fit the bill for that. Tina actually looked down on Nicole for not fully taking advantage of this. Nicole didn’t hide her beauty and she absolutely knew it was an advantage. But she didn’t milk it the way Tina knew she would choose to if she was the boss.
It wasn’t just beauty that the clients enjoyed, it was sexiness too. Nicole was sexy by default, Tina thought. With a face and body like that you automatically were. But imagine if she was actually trying? If she would occasionally show some cleavage, or wear tighter clothes, or maybe a skirt with a split up her thigh, and oh, yes, why today is my meeting with Mr. Finch. And yes, as we discuss this redevelopment opportunity, I do have that hint of a smug smile playing on my lips. That smile that says yes, I know I’m the hottest person in the room—and probably the building—and I love it. And yes, Mr. Finch, I can tell that you know that I know that you were looking, but that’s OK. I enjoy that too. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying our work.
If I was her, Tina had mused to herself more than once, I would have bagged myself a billionaire by now. I’d be jetting off this weekend to my fourth home. Not New York or Monaco, no, this weekend I want to get away from it all, I need to rest and recuperate. This weekend will be like a wellness retreat for one. I’ll sit by the pool and allow myself to be waited on and maybe shop where no one knows me. So I can truly feel like me. So I can truly feel free of the stresses of this world. Yes, my fourth home in my boutique city of um,... Madrid or Barcelona or ummm, she rattled her brains for a bit,... Lisbon! Yes! That sounded suitably ‘boutique’ she supposed, suitably ‘away from it all’. Nicole’s been in management for over a year now and she’s still with cheating Will? Love is for fools.
She wasn’t the only one ‘disappointed’ with Nicole’s ambitions. The big talk of the office when Tina had first started was Nicole’s boob job and new lips. And everyone had been in agreement that her ass had certainly filled out a bit (and still hadn’t stopped a year later). Just you wait, one of the girls in her office friend group had confidently predicted. 6 months from now she’ll be living in the Virgin Islands.
Will certainly doesn’t mind her new figure, Tina had smirked to herself, remembering how enthusiastic he had been about the results of her own cosmetic procedures. She had allowed herself a reverie of one particularly sweaty afternoon. Such a pity he’s off the menu now, she mused. Doubly so, since she now worked as his girlfriend’s assistant. Not that either Nicole or Will had figured out that connection yet. She had avoided all work functions where there had been a chance that Will might make an appearance. Fortunately Nicole only went to the functions that she couldn’t get out of. Obviously Tina hadn’t told anyone in the office about that affair. That was dangerous information that could find her looking for a new job.
Nicole had tried to be friends with Tina when she first started, had tried to be her mentor, but Tina hadn’t wanted to spend any social time with her. That was how she might end up bumping into Will. Sure, maybe he wouldn’t want to tell Nicole that Tina was his ex, because then maybe Tina might retaliate, spill the beans of their affair two years ago. But still, the sensible option was avoiding Nicole outside work. Hopefully, she could learn everything that Nicole had to teach her within the office.
Not that Nicole was capable of teaching her ‘everything’. Everything that was explicitly in the job description, sure. But not everything that might be implicitly required. Nicole was attempting to rise through the company using her talent for the job alone. She wasn’t playing politics. And that had been fine when she had been on the lower rungs, but the game had changed for her when she was promoted to management. Nicole didn’t appear to have illusions about this. She didn’t want to be CEO anyway. And she was too smart to not know that this would put a ceiling on her rise. But Tina wasn’t placing any limits on what she wanted from this job or life, so she was very interested in developing those skills.
Fortunately Tina was not starting from scratch here. She had always been a political animal. Admittedly her experience was from the politics of the lower rungs of the personal and professional ladders, and she knew that the competition would get fiercer if she climbed higher, but she wasn’t starting from nothing. She was ready for the challenge. She couldn’t wait. To wage a silent war behind the veneer of courtesy. To build coalitions and cultivate alliances. Everyone at Nicole’s level was at it. Tina wanted in. And she had done a good job so far. She may only be an assistant, and she may only have been there just over a year, but her name was known at the higher echelons.
Partly Nicole was to thank for that. Tina’s Christmas bonus had been generous. About as large as could be expected for someone at her level and for someone who had only joined the company in the Spring. Obviously Nicole was sending good reports of Tina’s work up the food chain. And Nicole wasn’t expecting anything in return. Lovely. Right now Tina’s own success depended on being Nicole’s assistant, so Nicole wasn’t an enemy, but maybe one day, who knows, maybe Tina’s success would be independent of Nicole’s. When that day came, Nicole couldn’t expect any favours.
And partly Tina had herself to thank for her accumulated political capital. She had made friends within the company. Well, she didn’t really consider them to be ‘friends’ friends. They were ‘work’ friends. If she left the company tomorrow, a very small number of them she might consider remaining in contact with because she did genuinely enjoy their company. But others she hung around with because of what she believed they could do for her, if she massaged their egos the right way, or because they were smarter and understood that at its heart it was a quid pro quo relationship.
Jay was obviously the jewel in the crown of her allies. A high flyer in the company who repaid favours. Everyone in the office knew that they had been in an open relationship practically since she started at the company. He didn’t want to be tied down and Tina absolutely was fine with that arrangement. Jay was skilled in many, many ways, but in many, many other ways he was an idiot. As they had gotten to know each other better, her contempt for him had grown. Fortunately he knew how to have a good time and he definitely knew how to fuck, so she could hide that opinion of him as long as they didn’t spend too much time together. So an open relationship was ideal for Tina. Jay could open doors for her. Even if he might open some of them unintentionally.
There was no doubt that Jay was exceptionally good at many aspects of his job. But given that his job was just to arrange a good time for the more hedonistic clients, and to clean up the occasional amusing misunderstanding that might result, it wouldn’t have been impossible to find someone else to do it. Sure, not everyone had the skill set for it, but a lot of people did. When he had first started, Jay at least had had the qualification that he had already been a partying rich kid to begin with. Not as rich as any of the clients, but the ‘step-up’ hadn’t been too big a challenge. It also hadn’t hurt that one of the board member’s own playboy son’s had been friends with Jay. And that this board member had known Jay’s father back in Chicago. And that this board member understood that someone like Jay would be required for certain clients.
Jay hadn’t actually needed the job, but he knew that he could make a lot of money from it. Like, A LOT. Not from his salary, but from the connections he could make, from the ventures he might be invited to join, from the information that he might be privy to. He might not be as rich as some of his friends and all of his clients, but his proximity to them was his ticket to their level. This is where I belong he assured himself.
No you don’t, Tina would hold her tongue when she recognised that maybe they had spent a bit too much time together over the last few days and that now she needed a break from him. Tina didn’t know how smart she was, but she knew she was smarter than Jay. True, she had learned a lot from him and she guessed that she owed him for that. Tina had never had any significant assets so investing was not something she had thought about much before starting this job. It had never occurred to her that if she had some money, then opportunities would just drop out of the sky if you spent enough time with these people. Jay had shown her that.
If she ever found herself in his position though, she wouldn’t be taking investment advise from him. He wasn’t terrible exactly, he was making a profit, but he wasn’t as careful as she knew she would be. Jay took the advise of his friends at face value, he rarely did his own due diligence of the proposed opportunities. So he could have been doing a lot better if he just stopped to think.
He also didn’t seem to realise that some investments, though they turned a profit, weren’t worth the trouble. He often would invest in things because they or their location seemed exotic. He liked to brag about the unusual companies and locations on his portfolio. He also liked to visit them, to turn up and be grovelled to by the people running the operation on the ground. He didn’t seem to know or care that his ego was hurting his returns. Tina would have cared if it was her money. Why are you wasting your time on this shit, she never said to him.
Jay also loved to gossip. And because Tina worked where he worked, he loved to gossip with her about work, with someone who knew the people involved. Maybe while smoking after sex, maybe while rolling, maybe just while having breakfast. Who would be promoted, who was on thin ice, who had been flirting with a board member. All important information that Tina may one day be able to use to her advantage. But not all of the gossip was at that level. On a couple of occasions over the last year he had let slip far more dangerous information. Information that he really should NOT be spreading. She couldn’t believe how idiotic he had been. That wasn’t information that you told anyone unless you knew what you were getting in return. And he gave it up for free.
For example, she knew both the supposed reason why one manager had been fired (that what he had being attempting to procure for a client was so illegal, that—if leaked—the resulting public anger would have destroyed the company’s reputation) and the actual reason (he had failed to be adequately discreet, and so several board members would have been unable to provide plausible deniability in the event of a leak).
She wondered what Nicole would do if she had that information. Probably she’d quit on the spot. Go straight to the police. Destroy everything. Not see it as information from which she could benefit personally.
But some of Jay’s gossip was absurd. Clearly fabricated. The most obvious example had been about Nicole. Clearly a malicious lie on Jay’s part. After all he wasn’t above inventing a rumour, and he certainly had a motive to target Nicole.
Nicole had recently landed the account of Chinese-American Ye Zhen. This had been a surprise to everyone, including Nicole. Jay would have been the ideal candidate. Everyone knew it; Tina, the board, all the other manager’s, even Nicole, who had admitted it to Tina after the board rejected her request to be unselected. Ye was a playboy, so his account should be managed by a playboy, or at least somebody with those tenancies. That wasn’t Nicole. But Ye had specifically requested Nicole and the board wanted him to be happy.
Tina had been delighted. All of Nicole’s clients were the older, more sedate members of the elite. They were all arts or charities or wanting a building named after them at their alma mater. Finally being Nicole’s assistant could get really interesting.
Jay had been furious. He had lobbied for Mr. Ye’s account from the start, but had had the misfortune to be in Hawaii the week Ye had turned up out of the blue. He had raged about how much money he could have made through this client, about the lost opportunities. Raged about how insignificant the money in his sugar cane farm that he had been visiting was in comparison. You fucking moron, thought Tina.
Mr. Ye’s personal wealth was modest by the standards of most clients, but what he would one day inherit? From his father’s Chinese telecommunications empire? Stratospheric. With this client, things were going to happen. Anyone who managed his account right, who built a relationship with him, was going to be set.
And so Jay had invented a rumour to explain how Nicole had landed the account.
Tina had tried to tell Jay that Nicole had requested to the board that she be unselected, but he hadn’t believed it. He had inhaled on his cigarette. No fucking way. Bullshit. She’s lying. I know the truth of how she won that account. She was gunning for it from the start. Acts like she doesn’t get her hands dirty? No intrigue? Doing everything by the book? No, that’s just the face she shows us, and I believed it. Ha! But now I see she’s playing the same game that the rest of us are. She’s really not, thought Tina, but didn’t say anything. Once Jay had made up his mind on something, he usually stopped thinking about the issue permanently. There was no point arguing. Stubborn fool.
‘Fine, what’s the truth?’ curious as to what he’d say.
Another pull. ‘She went to the meeting with her tits hanging out. A dress open to here’, he indicated his navel. ‘Kept bending forward to hand him things across the table, or to point out things in documents.’
Tina burst out laughing. The very idea! ‘You’re fucking lying! She’s never had more than the top button undone the whole time I’ve worked with her.’
‘I swear, I heard it from Fenchel,’ he said, protesting. Fenchel was a German client of Jay’s, one of those who had been present at the rooftop party that Jay had ‘invited’ Nicole to years earlier. ‘They hang out together sometimes. If Fenchel’s in Beijing, or if Zhen’s in Frankfurt. I’m pissed with that German fuck for not giving me the heads up that he was coming.’
‘That’s pure bullshit. You’re just angry you didn’t get it. She doesn’t have it in her to put that much of herself on display. Never. She isn’t the type.’
‘I’m not debating this, it’s true. I won’t force you to believe me.’ He paused. Another drag. He carried on anyway. Of course he did. Why put it to rest when you’ve been called out? ‘And you know, she did her fucking homework, cos the way Fenchel tells it, that fiend has a thing for women who have had some work done.’
‘Ha!’ she had laughed. ‘You think I have a chance then?’ winking, lifting her breasts, smiling, and feeling the heft of her implants. Trying to change the subject.
He was too enveloped in his own bitterness to take this opportunity for levity. ‘Oh your his type, alright. Nicole too. He’s going to like working with you guys. You won’t be dealing with his assistants or anything, you’ll be ushered straight to him.’
Interesting, she had thought to herself. Can’t wait.
‘Actually,’ Jay had continued, ‘I’ve never met the guy, this is just from what Fenchel tells me, but he says that sometimes Ye looks for “more”,’ and here he turned to her, raised his eyebrows, looked down at her breasts, and then back up at her, to make sure she got the message, ‘in a woman.’
Jay hadn’t restricted the lie to just Tina. Probably everyone in the company knew it. And because no one worked as closely with Nicole as Tina, because no one spent half the time with her that Tina did, and because people needed a reason to know how Nicole had gotten Ye’s account, many of them ate the rumour up. And Nicole would never know because she wasn’t interested in being friends with anyone there, or with having allies. So no one would reveal the joke to her either to protect a friend or to demonstrate some form of political loyalty.
Within her friend group at work, the rumour had become an over done in-joke. Some did believe it and some didn’t. But everyone pretended to believe when Tina was around, they found her reaction to it—how stupid she found it—hilarious. She could see their point, so she had stopped objecting to it. The joke hadn’t died yet. Maybe another few weeks?
But a few weeks later the joke still wasn’t dead and probably wouldn’t die for a long time. Tina’s own fault, she knew, for spreading the latest gossip about Nicole. Nothing that confirmed any part of the story, but certainly stuff that fit the image of the Nicole in the story. Tina couldn’t help herself. She knew that the gossip would keep the joke alive, but this news had been huge. She couldn’t not tell people this stuff!
One morning, Nicole had told Tina that she had booked two vacations soon and that more would be expected of Tina during her absence, dealing directly with clients and such. You are absolutely ready for it, though, Nicole had assured her. Later, after going over her increased responsibilities, Tina had small-talked ‘so what will you be doing on your vacations?’
The first was innocuous enough. Thursday, Friday and Monday off for a long weekend in Los Angeles. But the second had started a cascade of neurons firing in Tina’s brain. ‘Oh, just staying at home, relaxing. Having some me-time.’
‘Me-time.’ It had been before Tina had started, but she knew the story. Nicole had had two weeks vacation after she had been promoted to manager. Staying at home, ‘me-time’ was what she had told everyone. And then, well, everyone knew what had happened next. You hit the jackpot Will, she smiled to herself later. I know you, that’s the way you like ‘em, boy.
By the way, Nicole had added, I’m leaving after lunch today, I have an appointment.
At lunch Tina had announced Nicole’s plans to her group. The response was as muted as it is possible for guffaws and hoots to be. The rumour is so true! someone said. Any talk of Nicole always came back to Jay’s rumour. They pumped Tina for as much information as she had. She didn’t have anything else. Just that phrase ‘me-time’ and the knowledge—which everyone confirmed—of the last time Nicole had used it. Maybe she doesn’t do it for us, someone else said, but that’s a girl who likes to be looked at. Solemn nods of agreement. The joke demanded it. You get it, don’t you Tina? the girl beside her said, ‘accidentally’ nudging a breast with an elbow. Roars of laughter. Tina wasn’t usually the kind to blush, but she hadn’t expected that at the lunch table. The girls shrieked. Only two guys there, but they made a show of making eye contact with each other, nodding and smiling knowingly, approvingly, before directing their approval at Tina. She crossed her arms over her chest, but made a show of suppressing laughter, letting them know she was doing it for comic effect, that she got it too.
Fortunately Jay had never included the snippet he had let slip to her about Ye’s sexual preferences in the rumour. So no one was able to join those dots. Thank God. He had used—invented, Tina was sure—that detail on her because she had called out his lies. No one else had needed that. Even the people who didn’t believe the story, still found it fun and had eaten it up. They hadn’t needed that extra spice. Besides, not even Jay was stupid enough to spread rumours of a client’s personal preferences to people who didn’t need to know. He must trust me to some degree, Tina realised.
Jay hadn’t been at lunch, but Tina’s report of Nicole’s upcoming holiday had reached him. He had texted Tina later. A single sentence with no context. ‘She knows exactly what she’s doing.’ Tina couldn’t respond though. She knew the truth. There was a much simpler explanation. Tina knew Will. Tina knew what Will liked. Nicole loved Will. Very simple. but she couldn’t tell anyone. No one could know of that affair. So she’d just have to endure this idiocy.
The next day at work, Tina and Nicole hadn’t seen much of each other. Nicole had being attending meetings on behalf of clients off-site, and she had sent Tina off to learn more about a new luxury development which had been announced off the strip.
The day after, Nicole had had a presentation to attend in the office along with a couple of other managers. Nicole had asked Tina to accompany her. The two of them had sat opposite each other at one end of the boardroom table. The presentation was being performed at the other end of the table, so they were both turned in that direction. There was no one sitting beside them at the head of that end of the table. No one to Tina’s left, Nicole’s right.
At some point it had occurred to Tina that, out of the corner of her eye, something had seemed off with Nicole. Something about her face. Or that she was irritated somehow. Something was different. Fortunately last year’s short hair-do had grown out just long enough that she could conceal the attention she was now giving Nicole.
What’s wrong with her lips? She kept moving them. As if they were uncomfortable or didn’t feel right. Are they...? No, she already had huge lips. That couldn’t be it. It’s insane how big they ar though. More movement, muscles tensing, relaxing, tensing again. She can’t keep them still. Biting one, moistening it. Now relaxing again, now chewing the bottom one, now the top one, moistening them again. Releasing them. And now, just for a 4 or 5 second period after release she seemed to find comfort and let them settle in place. They do look..., I mean they were already so pouty, she couldn’t have! Really?
She didn’t appear to be wearing lipstick, or any other product that she might be getting used to the taste or oiliness of. Nicole didn’t wear much make-up at work. Tina had noticed, and the other girls agreed, that what she did wear was certainly better applied now than it used to be, but there wasn’t much of it. One of the girls had been very impressed with the job she had done with her face at a recent work event, when she had allowed herself to go further. She’s obviously been practising, everyone agreed.
She opened her phone and scrolled through the photos. There was definitely a few of Nicole in there. She found one where Nicole hadn’t been posing for the camera. She zoomed in and studied it. She held the phone to her chest as she glanced back at Nicole who once again couldn’t keep her lips still. Tensing, relaxing, tensing again. Almost as if unused to them, Tina mused to herself with rising disbelief. Tensing, relaxing, chewing and moistening the bottom one, chewing and moistening the top one, release and... relax. Tina glanced down at her phone and back at Nicole. They are bigger!
Nicole started moving her lips again. Her eyes seemed to still be on the presentation. Did she know she was doing this? Was this conscious? Tina needed a photo. She waited. Patience, patience, she’ll stop at some point. There! She looked at the picture. She zoomed in. Shit! They weren’t way, way bigger, but they were bigger.
And the shape of them was slightly different. The pout had been exaggerated. Though they seemed at least a tiny bit plumper the whole way around, the centre of the upper lip had born the brunt. The ends of that lip rose dramatically upwards, and forward too. The center, under the cupid’s bow, was definitely over a centimetre high. She looked at the old picture. Wait, it had probably already been a centimetre to begin with. I need more information! She opened both photos side by side. It’s true! Like a caricature of lips! Maybe she could take more photos back at the office, from different angles. She needed to study this.
She realised that she should attempt to start paying attention to the presentation again. After about 90 seconds she found herself looking at Nicole again. Nicole wasn’t facing her directly so it was hard to tell, but when she relaxed them, was their the smallest of gaps? Oh my God you freak! She had to tell someone. She realised the joke would stay alive, but people would find out anyway. It may as well be her who announced it. She took out her phone and sent Jay a quick message.
This bitch had her lips done! Again!
A minute later; No way
I swear, she looks like a cartoon! 😂
She sent him the picture, then sent her a zoomed in crop. After a few seconds she decided to send him the old picture too, suitably captioned, as comparison.
He responded. I told you what she was up to! 😂😂😂
After that Tina gave up on the presentation and just peered at Nicole for as long as she thought she could get away with. Her phone vibrated continuously in her hands as the news spread throughout the office and people contacted her for verification. No doubt the image was in all the group chats. She saw people in the room looking at their phone. She noticed Eric, sitting on her side of the table, two chairs down, leaning backwards and looking in her direction. They made eye contact and he smiled at her knowingly. From his position he couldn’t get a look. Nicole would have noticed if he was looking at her instead of the presentation in the other direction. Too obvious. So a quick smile for Tina would have to do. Across from Eric was Aisha. Tina could feel Aisha’s eyes on her, she’d have to acknowledge her. She made eye contact and Aisha mouthed an O.M.G. Tina smiled back.
Tina went back to looking at Nicole. She was the only one who could kind-of get away with it. Nicole was taking some notes. After a moment she asked a question to Peter, the non-entity making the presentation. Immediately everyone turned their attention on her at the far end of the table, delighted for the excuse. Even when Peter started answering they only turned back in his direction once they knew that they couldn’t get away with it any longer.
The presentation lasted all morning and went 10 minutes into her usual lunch time. Tina had left the building alone to meet her friends, who had demanded that she join them so that they could hear her story. They had secured a booth with a round couch. The first of her friends to spot her cheered and raised her hands above her head to applaud Tina’s arrival. The rest of the gang joined in when they saw her.
Her friends scooched in and she sat down. The girl beside her already had the image of Nicole up on her phone. She presented it to Tina without comment. Tina simply shook her head in disbelief.
‘So,’ said one of the guys, looking Tina in the eye. He leaned forward and lowered his voice so that no one outside the booth would here. ‘What do you think?’ A pause. ‘I mean, Jay’s story about the Ye account is true, right?’
‘Well, uh, yeah, probably,’ she answered, still not believing it, but knowing that it was easier this way. Everyone cheered.