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Anjali’s Red Scarf Ch. 08

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Interlude: Truth, Lies, and Fiction

Storytelling is a funny thing. When you read a story like this, you’re giving somebody like me permission to tell you certain kinds of lies. You probably agree that it’s okay and even sensible for me to lie to you about my name, and the company I work for, and a bunch of other things besides. I need those lies if I’m to tell this story at all. But I suspect there are other areas where you expect me to tell the truth.

There are a lot of unwritten rules about where authors do and don’t get to lie. But one important thing about autistic people is that we really, really suck at “unwritten rules”, so I’m going to use my words instead.

I aim to be truthful about human nature—as I see it—and in particular about autism—as I experience it. That last caveat is important. No two autistic people are autistic in exactly the same way.

One of the things I’ve been lying about is how we talk. Articulating stuff is hard for me. When I’m writing, I can take the time to work it over and over until it comes out right, but that takes time and work. Talking in person, ad-lib, is a mess of stammering and hand-waving and half-baked metaphors. What I mean is—no, not quite that—it’s sort of but not quite—well, you know what I mean, right?

So, in the interests of keeping this vaguely readable, I’ve cleaned that up and distilled these conversations into something a bit more coherent. I don’t feel entirely comfortable about that, since the way I talk has a lot to do with my autism, but sometimes we have to do these things.

And then there’s sex. You may have noticed that when I’m writing about that side of my relationship with Anjali, I focus on the lead-up, and the after-play, and quite often I’ll skip the bits in between those two where, how shall I say this, orgasms happen.

Let me put it this way.

I like routine. Left to my own devices, I eat the same breakfast every morning: three Weet-Bix with milk, no sugar. I used to buy the same sandwich at the same place every weekday, until the lady behind the counter commented on that, and I felt embarrassed, and never went there again. Now I have five different places: Monday is chicken-avocado sandwich, Tuesday is fish and chips, and so on, so none of them realise quite how predictable I am. It saves me having to make a decision every day about what I’m going to eat, and it guarantees that I’ll get something I like because I’ve tried it before.

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this?

When it comes to physically getting off… I’m kind of same-ish, and I don’t want to bore you all by describing the same pattern over and over, and I don’t want to feel self-conscious about the fact that I end up doing pretty much the same thing most of the time. It’s fun to be there over and over, but that doesn’t make it fun to write about, or (I think) to read. And if I make up a crazy new sex position for us every time, by the end of this story I’ll be getting into confusingly weird territory.

What really turns me on, what’s different and fascinating and new every time, is getting to that position. The dance we do on the way into bed, and the way we look at one another afterwards. So, most of the time, that’s where I focus.

* * * * *

Chapter 8: A Walk in the Black Forest, Part 1

(with apologies to the late and sorely missed Tim Brooke-Taylor)

This instalment took an unexpected turn into fetish territory, with BDSM food play and discussion of childhood bullying and body image issues. If you’d prefer not to read about those topics, I suggest skipping the date scene at the end of this chapter.

Our new corporate overlords had decided to welcome us in style. For the Christmas party, they’d forked out for a tower restaurant with three-sixty-degree views (or if you’re a proper mathematician, two-pi views) that would have made the Eye of Sauron glow green with envy.

They’d even stretched the budget to plus-ones, so it seemed only natural for me to invite Anjali. After all, it would be a shame to waste a free meal, and with a bunch of new people to meet I felt like I was going to want some moral support.

She said yes, and hesitated a moment before asking, “As Lily, or Anjali?”

I frowned. “Um, I hadn’t thought about it…”

“Let me put it this way. If your boss asks me what I do for a living, am I an astronomer or am I your mistress?”

“Oh! Uh, yeah, let’s go with Anjali.”

* * * * *

I never know when to arrive at parties. Arriving on time is uncool, but arriving too late might mean missing stuff. This time, though, I’d found a way to avoid the dilemma: running the icebreaker game gave me a reason to be there early without being That Weird Girl.

I was quite proud of the game. We’d asked all the invitees to send me an unusual fact about themselves: John raises St. Bernards, Marjorie had once been an extra on “Prisoner”, and so on. As each one arrived, I checked them off a list and handed them a personalised bingo grid. Each square had one of those güvenilir canlı bahis siteleri unusual facts, and their challenge was to talk to their colleagues and find people to match their squares.

I’d found the basic idea by googling “icebreaker games” but, being who I am, I’d made some improvements. (Or, as Ed might have said, “over-engineered the fuck out of it”.) Instead of just randomising the bingo grids, I’d keyed each invitee to their place in the organisation and customised their squares so that nobody could win without ticking off at least four people from outside their own work-group.

Nobody except me, that is, because for me the best way to win was not to play. I got to learn something about my colleagues and look like a Team Player without having to mingle and without having to reveal myself in return. I’d be happy to meet the new co-workers in time, just not all at once.

The rest of the Christmas Committee were from P-K, most of them shiny new grads almost ten years my junior who knew one another. The only ones my age were May from Payroll and Shane from Client Relations, and two names were about as many as I could easily absorb in one evening. I helped them set up the inevitable year-in-photos slideshow, and then retreated to my desk by the door as the other guests started to filter in.

“I’ll be late,” Anjali had told me, “I have a conference call with a couple of professors from Bern.” So I marked the time studying my list, trying to get some idea of who all these people were before I ticked them off and handed them their bingo cards.

Maia. Accounts. Once returned a lost handbag to Olivia Newton-John.

Jong-nam. IT. One of triplets.

Lucy. Legal. Used to play poker professionally.

Trevor. Client Relations. Plays the saw.

Zhao. IT. Lived next door to Jimmy Barnes for two years.

Sameer. Operations. Was captain and opening batsman for his high school cricket team…

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

My head jerked up. It was Lucy from Legal. She’d arrived with a couple of colleagues, I’d given her her bingo sheet, and then apparently she’d circled back to me without her friends.

“I… I’m sorry, I’m bad with faces.” Until that night, I’d only met a handful of the P-K crowd face to face, and I didn’t recall her being one of them. Nothing about her obviously stood out, except for the bold pinstripes she wore, and I definitely didn’t remember those. “Was it in the contracting meeting?”

“No… somewhere a lot darker and smokier.”

I blinked, confused, trying to remember previous work parties. Last year we’d done an escape room, but I didn’t think she’d been there.

“Sisters of Mercy.”

“Oh… oh! You’re Heather and Thomas’ friend.” Now I knew the context, it clicked. I’m not entirely face-blind but I tend to remember people according to the context where I know them, so I’d been trying to recall her as a colleague and drawing blanks. “I had no idea you worked here!”

“Same. I think I’ve seen your name on some paperwork but I didn’t realise you were that Sarah.”

“Well, nice to meet you… again.”

She smiled and tapped my arm. “I have to go mingle. Can I get you a drink?”

“No thanks, I’m good.” I remembered to smile back. “Catch you later. Good luck with the bingo!”

After that the crowds started to arrive, and for a while I was kept busy signing people in until one of the other organisers took over from me. I did the rounds and made appropriate amounts of chit-chat with the people I knew before getting a glass of water and retreating to the seats I’d staked out for myself and Anjali.

I was starting to feel overstimulated, so I took out my laptop and put on my best dealing-with-frightfully-important-emails face as a shield against random encounters. But I wasn’t alone for long before a pinstriped figure settled in next to me. “So, what do you think?”

“Hmm?” I had no idea what she was asking about.

“P-K. Must be a change, going from—is it twelve people at OwKeMa?— to this.” She waved a hand airily at the throng who were beginning to fill up the restaurant, the chatter slowly rising in volume. By my count, we had two hundred and seven people coming, and it looked like most had arrived.

“It is that. So many rules to learn. I’m still trying to get my head around the expense system.” There was a twenty-page manual on what I could and couldn’t put on my company credit card, and another on what to do with the receipts. At OwKeMa, the rule for me had simply been “whatever Martin’s okay with”, and I’d been there long enough to know without asking.

“More money, more rules.” She chuckled and sipped her martini. “Can’t complain, it keeps us lawyers in business. Look, feel free to ask if there’s anything you need to know.”

“I appreciate that.” I paused to run through my conversational checklist and realised we’d been talking entirely about me, and that might be rude. “So… poker? You play poker?”

“I used to. Made a bit of money on the circuit. güvenilir illegal bahis siteleri Not enough to give up my day job but nice to have.”

“You gave it up then?”

“I did. I was doing okay, on average, but… too many ups and downs, you know? I didn’t like what it was doing for my mood, and I wasn’t enjoying it any more, so now I only play for fun. Why, do you play?”

“I know the rules, but it’s not my kind of game.”

“Oh? And what is your kind of game, Miss Weber?”

“I used to play a lot of Euro games.” I looked to see if I needed to explain that, but she nodded, so I continued. “Catan, Power Grid… all sorts.”

“Used to?”

“My ex and I—you know Ed, right?”

“Ed from Sydney? Not well. I’ve met him a couple of times.”

“Yeah. When I was there, we had a group, we used to meet up once a week and play. But then I went overseas for a postdoc and we broke up while I was away, and I didn’t make the effort to get back into it when I came back.”

“I know how that goes.” She drained the last of her martini, then planted the glass back on the table emphatically. “Anyway. So, you know my secret. What’s yours?”

“Me? I don’t have a secret. I’m the bingo coordinator.”

“I don’t believe you. Everybody has a secret—oh, hello. Does she always dress like that?”

I followed her gaze. Evidently Anjali had been doing some more sewing while I wasn’t looking. This time she was clad for summer, in a short and sleeveless dress made from lozenges of blue, green, purple, gold silk. She reminded me of some iridescent tropical fish, the kind collectors pay fortunes for.

After some gawping I eventually remembered that Lucy had asked me a question. “Uh, only for special occasions.”

“Well, you’re a lucky girl.”

I was trying to find the right reply to that when I saw Anjali coming over to us, and I re-introduced the two.

I had trouble reconciling the Lucy at my table with the one I’d met at the Sisters gig. It wasn’t just the clothes, nor was it the venue. Last time she’d been quiet, almost silent as the rest of us chatted; this time she was garrulous and just a little bit brash. Eventually I mentioned it in my heavy-handed manner:

“You’re a lot more talkative than last time.”

“Me? Oh yeah, I guess I am. I was a bit out of sorts last time. Got in from London the day before and still jet-lagged.” She explained that she’d been working for a British company for several years before returning to Australia to start a new job with P-K. “…so I’m still finding my feet back here in Melbourne.”

After that the conversation lulled, and I was just starting to think that I ought to start it up again—running through my interests to figure out which of them could reasonably be discussed without boring Lucy to tears—when we were joined by a knot of older men. Corporate types.

“Sarah, have you met Lincoln?” I had not, but we’d emailed. Lincoln Wedderburn was the local head of the Technical Specialties Group, which meant I’d be reporting to him from January. From his tone I’d thought him an older man, somewhere in his fifties, but in person he looked close to my age.

“Good to meet you at last,” I said. We shook hands. “And this is Anjali.”

“Ah, you’re Sarah’s plus-one?” he asked, and Anjali nodded. “And Lucy, have you brought anybody?”

“I don’t know anybody respectable enough to bring,” she replied, and Lincoln guffawed. But it sounded suspiciously like a deflection to me—I wasn’t sure if she was out to these people—so I interjected.

“Actually, I’m surprised Owen and Kepler didn’t bring plus-ones.” I’d gone through the guest list earlier, as part of my fun-organising duties, and noticed the empty spaces next to each of them.

Lincoln looked at me as if I’d said something peculiar. “Well, would you expect them to?”

I had missed something, and I wasn’t sure what. “I guess not…?”

“I thought they were one another’s plus-ones?” said Lucy, and the penny dropped. In hindsight it was obvious—they often arrived and left together, they’d take their holidays at the same time—but it’s not the sort of thing I notice unless somebody prods me to think about it.

“Kepler’s a nice name,” said Anjali, unintentionally saving me from further embarrassment. “Is he named after Johannes?”

“Anjali’s an astrophysicist,” I explained, then to Anjali: “And probably yes. His brother is Pasteur.” The sort of names ambitious Chinese parents give their children when they’re looking to Westernise.

“So, what does an astrophysicist do?” asked Lincoln, and that gave Anjali her opportunity to sparkle. I was glad of the break; I’d heard her script before, so I could nod and smile along and for a few minutes not have to worry about over-analysing my conversation with the new boss.

There’s nobody like you, I thought. Watching you shine. And as she talked, I diverted myself with idle fantasy.

I wasn’t unhappy at the party, you understand. It was both nice and necessary to meet my new colleagues, güvenilir bahis şirketleri and the vibe was pleasant enough. It’s just one of those things like swimming underwater, where you know that sooner or later you’ll have to stop, and even in the middle of things I try to snatch a breath where I can.

So I nodded along with Anjali’s explanation as I entertained the idea of taking her home and easing her out of that peacock-lovely dress, of my lips on the places that would best excite her, as my fingers tightened on my chair, until it got rather too much and I found myself stealthily composing a text message:

Hi there, do you know if Lily’s free after this?

But I didn’t send it, not then, because Anjali was talking about neutron stars, and it would’ve been rude to interrupt.

“…so if it happens near enough to Earth, and it’s oriented in just the right direction, then we lose up to half our ozone layer, and that’s our protection against ultraviolet gone. Super-sunburn and mass extinctions, probably.”

“That sounds… pretty bad?”

“It is, if we’re really unlucky, but—hey, do you want to see a piece of a neutron star?”

“What? You have one on you?”

“I don’t, but you do. Hold up your hand.”

Darren from HR held up his hand, and Anjali pointed.

“When two neutron stars crash into one another, they make gold, and all the other heavy metals. It sprays out across the universe, and perhaps billions of years later it ends up in a dust cloud coalescing into a planet. And then billion years after that, we evolved and dug it up. That ring you’re wearing, once upon a time it was a neutron star. Probably several neutron stars.”

At that point dinner arrived. In between mouthfuls I made polite chit-chat with Lincoln, running every sentence through my How Do Normal People Talk filters before it left my lips, and explained what it is that I do—although, I was pleased to discover, he’d evidently read enough of the documentation to have the gist of it already.

We talked shop for much of the meal and I’d just gotten into my conversational comfort zone, discussing the things I knew best, when he leant in and derailed me with a few quiet words.

“By the way, I hope it’s not inappropriate for me to ask, but—is your friend single?”

“My, uh. Anjali?” Obviously, you idiot, did you bring any other friends tonight?

He nodded. I was flummoxed, several conflicting lines of thought careening off one another in my head, and there seemed no way I could reply without instantly regretting it. After rather too long a time opening and closing my mouth, I eventually managed:

“It’s complicated. Can I get back to you on that?”

“Sure.” I had to take his satisfaction at face value, and I was glad when the conversation at the table drifted on to the upcoming Ashes matches. I sat just a little closer to Anjali—the unexpected question had awoken some possessive feelings in me—and when I was sure nobody was looking, I hit send on my message.

I was close enough to hear her phone buzz, and she smiled a little when she read the message, but I couldn’t see what she was typing until I got the reply.

Sadly Lily has to be at a symposium early tomorrow morning, and she needs a quiet night before. Perhaps in a few days? I understand she’s free on Tuesday evening.

That was four days away. I didn’t want to wait, but… Tuesday it is.

I saw her read the message, and then she patted my knee unobtrusively as she put the phone away. Before I could make any response, Lincoln leaned over and signalled for my attention.

“While I’ve got you here, Sarah, I’d like to talk to you about how we’re going to integrate your team with our existing operations…”

I nodded politely as he spoke.

After dessert there were speeches—the P-K brass welcomed us into the fold, Owen said a farewell to Martin, I tuned out the rest—and the secret bingo prizes were awarded, and I was just beginning to think about how much longer I needed to stay before I could politely make my excuses, when May from Payroll took the mic.

“Now, those of you who’ve been with us for a while will know, we have a little Christmas tradition.”

This hadn’t been mentioned in the planning discussions. There were a couple of dozen empty chairs on the stage, and some sort of electronic-looking console. They must have been set up during dinner, while I was preoccupied. Again, not part of the plans.

“We like to keep it a surprise for our newcomers. Think of it as your grand initiation, getting to know you.”

I looked around at the other members of the planning committee. The new grads looked as surprised as I was. But Shane was up on stage now, placing a ring-bound booklet on each chair, and now I remembered that after a couple of our planning calls the two of them had stayed on the line “just to discuss one more thing”.

“We’d like each of the newbies to get up on stage, and then each of you gets to stand up and introduce yourselves, and then sing a song that means something to you.”

Fuck. Karaoke.

“We’re all among friends here, so don’t feel embarrassed, nobody’s going to judge you. And our selection has over thirty-five thousand songs”—Shane waved one of the booklets in the air—”so there’s bound to be something you like in there!”

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