When I was choosing a career, I wish someone had explained to me the difference between marketing and sales. If they had, I could have been ‘networking’ right now – and by that I mean drunk under a table with prospective clients somewhere – and not sitting at a table on the thirty-sixth floor of an office building at ten on a Monday night. I clicked Send-Receive again, and surprise, surprise, nothing came through. I swear to god, all those idiots needed to do was manage to stagger over to a desktop and type the letters ‘o’ and ‘k’ so I could finally go home.
That’s too much to ask of our sales team, apparently. But, hey, would you like a mouse pad with the Frost International logo on it?
The rest of my own so-called team had trickled out already – “You don’t mind staying, do you, Min?” – and somehow I’d been conned into hanging around to get the final word from Sales on our presentation for tomorrow. It was a stupid formality, we’d been working on the pitch for three weeks and it was solid. But Sales was a bunch of bulging egos and it was just much easier in the long run to stroke them rather than piss them off. Which meant I was stuck here.
“It’s just you and me, Mike,” I said, leaning back into my office chair and staring at the ceiling.
Mike didn’t reply because he was a tacky souvenir turtle one of my old Melbourne friends had gotten me as a joke when she went to Bali. I’d never seen a worse paint-job on anything in my life – and that included some of the paintings I’d done myself when I was young and terrible – and he was only barely recognizable as an actual turtle. I’d called him Michelangelo, but given the splotches of colour all over him perhaps ‘Picasso’ would have been more appropriate.
I reached out with a finger and wobbled his head and he spent a few seconds nodding at me. That’s right, Mike, I thought. If I was going to be stuck here all night I needed to start main-lining the caffeine before I passed out.
I stood up stiffly from my desk. Over all of the partitions, I couldn’t see a single head which meant I was the only sucker who was still at work at this hour. Well, aside from our co-CEO Diane Frost, of course. The light was still on in her office on the far side of the floor and I could see the top of a very tight bun over the screen of her computer. I didn’t think I’d seen her leave for dinner, either, but I had seen her saunter into the kitchen and make what looked like the world’s strongest instant coffee maybe a couple of hours ago without saying hello to anyone. ‘Frost’ was about the right surname.
There was practically no chance of her leaving her office again, so I figured I’d risk ducking over to the vending machine in my stockings.
I grabbed my purse and walked over, the expensive new carpet soft under my feet. Every second I could get away with not having those godawful heels on was a relief, and there was something satisfying about giving a private ‘fuck you’ to the Corporate Dress Code while I was chained to my desk subsisting on Red Bulls.
In case new employees were under any sort of misapprehension about the amount of sleep they’d exchanged for their ridiculous salaries, on every single floor of head office was an energy drink vending machine. It was facing the lifts, too, just to remind you what you should be doing in case you even thought of leaving on time. Unfortunately, it only took coins and I was so deliriously bored that I’d forgotten that I only had a fifty. I sighed at it and then looked back towards the office. Well, I wasn’t going to ask Diane for change, that was for sure.
While I was trying to decide if I was desperate enough to resort to instant coffee, the lifts dinged. I remembered that I had no shoes on at the exact moment that the door slid open.
Fortunately, I recognized the black hair, brown eyes and ugly necktie on the man that walked out. I groaned. “Fuck, Henry! What are you doing up here?” I couldn’t help quickly looking around to make sure no one had heard me swear. Wouldn’t want them to think I actually had a personality.
“Being a good boyfriend and visiting you?” he said pleasantly, walking up to me with his hands full of his suit jacket and his briefcase. He gave me a quick kiss. He was over six feet and one of those guys that actually needed to have their suits tailor-made because of it. Without my heels on, we were the same height. “By the way, you do know you’re supposed to wear shoes in the office, right?” he used his I’m-an-Important-Manager voice for added drama as he looked critically down at my stockings.
“I’m probably not supposed to swear, either. Someone should tell HR,” I said neutrally.
He didn’t even flinch. “I can email you a link to the complaint forms.”
“Great. Will they get processed faster because I’m dating the HR manager?”
He glanced up towards Diane’s office and finally cracked a smile. “You,” he said with his eyes twinkling, “are going to get me fired. I hope you make it worth my while.”
He was giving me that look again. It made me uncomfortable. I was glad he clearly had his stuff and was going back to his own place without me, because it meant I was off the hook tonight. He was great and everything, but on top of all the other stuff I had on my plate at the moment I just couldn’t face having to put out. I wondered how many other women felt that way about sex with their boyfriends.
I laughed because it seemed like an appropriate reaction, and then changed the subject. “Since you’re here, do you have any coins?” I gestured at the vending machine.
“Probably.” He held up his full arms and looked down at his pockets.
Of course he wanted me to dig around in them. Of course. I was actually that desperate for a Red Bull that I did, but I made sure he knew exactly what I thought of his methods when I looked at him.
He was grinning broadly at me. “Can’t blame a guy for trying,” he said as I found a handful of coins and straightened, looking down at them in my palm. There was plenty, and I was going to take all of it. He noticed. “I’m not sure I should leave that much change with you, though. Not until you admit you have a problem.”
I rolled my eyes. “This is only my third,” I told him, turning to the machine and feeding coins into it. “Did you decide if you’re going back to Seoul at Easter?”
“Just booked my flights, actually. Are you coming this year?” I glanced over my shoulder at him and my expression very effectively delivered my answer. He laughed. “I’ll drop past your mother’s and say hello for you, then.”
Fabulous, I thought. In addition to nagging me to marry him, every time he visited without me, Mum called me and subjected me to a long lecture about what a bad child I was for never ‘coming home’. This was ignoring the fact I’d been ‘back’ to South Korea three times in my life, and one of them I was too young to remember. Well, it was her own damn fault I couldn’t visit, because she was the one who’d convinced me to go into marketing in the first place. Furthermore, the last thing she’d done before she went back there five years ago was to pressure me to apply for a top internship at international mining conglomerate Frost International. She was already gone by the time I landed it so she never saw the ridiculous hours I had to work. Even though I explained over and over that Henry was a manager and I was just a marketing slave, she didn’t seem to get that I couldn’t just take time off whenever I felt like it.
Secretly, though, I was pretty happy to have an excuse not to visit. They’re my family, but actually I’d rather jam a fork into my eyes than spend any length of time with them.
I opened the can I’d just fished out of the machine and drank deeply from it. I swear that stuff was the Elixir of Life. “Okay, that’s all I need you for,” I said in a deliberately flat voice. “You can go home now.”
He chuckled, not fazed at all by me. “I did actually just come up to say goodbye to you.” There was something about his smile which suggested that wasn’t the only reason. “And also to let you know I told Omar to stop hitting on the sales interns and sign off on that diamond pitch you’re working on.”
Now that was something he was getting a hug for. He didn’t abuse his position to help me very often. “Are you serious?” I asked him, and when it was clear he was serious I threw my arms around him and nearly spilt fluorescent yellow energy drink all over his white shirt. “Thank you, I might actually see my bed tonight!”
“Whoa!” he said, patting my back instead of whatever he’d rather have done to me. “If that’s your third I’m pretty sure you won’t be sleeping in it if you do.”
I looked at the can as I pulled away from him again, very skilfully ignoring another thinly veiled reference to what I knew he hoped we’d be doing tonight. “Nah, I’ll be fine in a couple of hours,” I said, and offered some to him.
He shook his head. “’Night, Min,” he said. “Don’t stay up too late.”
I saluted him as he stepped into the lift, and then practically ran back to my desk. On cue, my Inbox had an unread email waiting for me. A light practically shone down from the skies as I opened it and read the words, “…looks fine, see you tomorrow.” It didn’t even have any typos. I was impressed.
“Yes!” I aggressively shouted with my fists out in the air.
It echoed around the empty office and I winced, slowly lowering my arms. That had been much louder than I’d been intending it to be; normally there were enough people around that I remembered to keep my mouth firmly shut at all times.
Horrifyingly, in the office in the corner of the floor, Diane looked up from her computer screen towards me.
It was yet another one of those times I wished I was tiny and short and didn’t tower over the partitions like some sort of female giant.
She looked straight at me and for a second I wondered if I should just start packing up my desk now. Then, she glanced up at the clock. When she made eye contact with me again her face relaxed into a smile. She nodded to acknowledge me, and then went back to her computer.
I just stared at her. My mouth was probably wide open.
Diane fucking Frost just smiled at me. International mega billionaire co-CEO Diane Frost just noticed and approved of the fact I was in the office at fucking three a.m. or whatever the fuck time it was now. 22:41, my computer read as I shut it down.
“Sorry, Mike,” I said to my ugly turtle as I reluctantly stepped back into my heels and collected my handbag from the bottom drawer, “you’ll have to man the fort by yourself from here.” I flicked his head so he nodded. Diane Frost had nodded, too. Jesus.
I was grinning like an idiot all the way over to the lift, but as the lift returned from ground I remembered I still had to survive the journey back down to street level. My smile faded.
The lift wasn’t dangerous or anything like that. In fact, it was probably the most expensive lift in the southern hemisphere and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it had dual crash systems and airbags. The problem was that I worked on level thirty-six and it took a full minute to get down. That minute was worse than a long-haul flight because the only entertainment in the lift was wall-to-wall mirrors and I was forced to stare at a thousand repeated reflections of myself the whole way down. There wasn’t anywhere safe I could look.
My hair looked fucking terrible; no surprise, really, since it had been at least sixteen hours since I’d touched it with a curling iron. At least my makeup was still in-tact and I hadn’t inadvertently smeared it across my face when I’d had my head in my hands earlier in the evening. The rest of me, though. I sighed at my reflection. I thought I’d chosen a dress that made my shoulders look narrower and gave me some semblance of cleavage, but from this angle I just looked as square as I usually did. I didn’t really want to show cleavage at all, anyway—it just looked out of place to me and made me feel really weird—but at least if I had any I wouldn’t look so angular. ‘Swimmer’s shoulders’, Dad used to call them. How the hell did Henry get off on this, seriously? I looked down at the floor. I really didn’t want to wreck my good mood by thinking about any of that right now.
Not even facing my reflection was enough to put a dampener on how great I felt to have had the co-CEO of my work acknowledge me, though. On top of that, it was a really pleasant temperature outside and it made my short walk down George Street feel shorter than usual, even in my stupid heels.
The bars were already open opposite Circular Quay and filling with the usual crowd of stoned backpackers and drunk tourists. The beautiful weather had made them spill out onto the footpaths and people were laughing and joking as I walked quickly past and hoped no one would give me any trouble.
On the way up the very steep road that led to my building, the clear evening gave me a great view of both the Bridge and the Opera House. They were lit with multi-coloured lights and I stopped for a moment to try and capture that image in my head before I went inside. I liked the mix of colours, and it was about time I painted something to do with Sydney. Leaving Melbourne had made me nostalgic for all the places I used to hate while I was actually living there, and it was those cityscapes I tended to paint when I felt like going suburban. Mum would probably like it if I did some iconic Sydney sights instead; she might even print them out and put it up on the fridge for once. I think the last time I’d defeated the electricity bill was when I was about six.
Frost International owned several floors of one of the hotels bordering and overlooking The Rocks, and everyone who had been imported from other cities or countries usually ended up on one of them. Once people arrived one of two things usually happened; they realized what an awful mistake they’d made and quickly broke their contracts and fled back home, or they cashed in their souls for enormous pay packets, signed permanent contracts and bought embarrassingly extravagant homes actually in The Rocks.
I hadn’t done either. Well, apart from cash in my soul. Nearly four years later, I was still in number 2607 with uninterrupted views of the harbour and having my place cleaned and my washing done once a week. I could even order room service. It was just like living at my parents’ home but without the constant nagging, and if I leant out the side of my balcony I could actually see my office. Why would I move?
The apartment was still pretty generic. I’d replaced all the manchester with patterns and colours I liked, and I’d hung some of my own stuff on the wall, but it was still quite impersonal. In attempt to combat that I’d put photos everywhere and proudly created a shrine for my extensive video game collection, but it hadn’t worked. No matter what I did, the main room still looked like an experimental display suite from Better Homes & Gardens. Eventually I’d given up. What a huge life problem: ‘Hi, I’m Min Lee and my free luxury apartment full of designer furniture feels barren and soulless.’ Maybe I needed a support group.
As soon as my door was shut, the first thing I did was head straight to the bathroom, leaving a trail of uncomfortable work clothes between the hallway and the en suite. I didn’t know how the hell women didn’t just take their stockings and go on homicidal rampages, and I thought indulgently about that as I wrenched them off my ankles and tossed them in the laundry basket. I looked fucking terrible, and if I was twenty-five and expected to retire at sixty, that was another thirty-five years of this crap. Still, maybe if I worked for Frost for a decade or two I’d have enough money to retire early and go live in a cave somewhere where I didn’t ever have to somehow make myself look presentable to anyone.
Someone’s bright idea was to put a mirror facing the door in the bathroom so you could watch yourself use it. I accidentally caught sight of myself before I stepped into the shower.
“I’m a fucking cliché,” I said to my reflection as I turned on the water. A woman who hates how she looks, now there’s a plot twist. Cosmo was practically written for me.
I was getting pretty tired of listening to myself whinging about my body, so I didn’t spend too long with it in the shower before I got out and went to get dressed. My pyjamas were the oldest pair of tracky-dacks I owned and a big t-shirt I’d stolen off Henry. The beauty of them was that they were so baggy they completely hid my body and didn’t give me the opportunity to notice and hate it. As a further measure to shut my brain up, I poured myself a glass of wine and went and stood on the balcony to drink it.
I needed to get a fucking grip. I was twenty-five, not fourteen. This ‘I hate myself’ crap wasn’t cute anymore. I didn’t have anything to complain about either, really. I was already working for Fortune 500 company in a permanent position being paid way more than I should have been, I had a great boyfriend and a family who loved me. On top of that, my presentation slides tomorrow were a work of fucking art, and Diane fucking Frost had smiled at me. Everything was great. Seriously, what the hell was my problem? Whatever it was, I needed to get over it.
There was a gentle warm breeze outside. I was able to admire the lights some more from up here, and while I was waiting for the wine to take hold, I thought I might have a shot at painting them.
I went inside to grab my laptop and my tablet and then set up shop on the deck. It was distractingly quiet out there, so I put some cartoons up on the screen of my laptop while I scribbled away.
Nothing was working, though. I couldn’t get the angle right on the bridge my strokes were all over the place. After five or ten minutes there wasn’t a single thing I liked about what I’d drawn so I just erased the whole goddamn lot and sat back, seething.
I hadn’t really been paying attention to the cartoon and now that I was looking at the screen, I realized all the characters were inexplicably opposite-sex versions of themselves. They were also singing for some reason. I stared at it. This show had always been a bit weird, but I think this episode was incontestable proof that all the writers were boiling mushrooms. I sat there frowning at it for another few minutes, but the random genderbending was never explained. After some consideration I decided I actually preferred at least one of the characters that way, though.
I exhaled and looked down at my empty canvas. Well, I didn’t draw people that often anymore, perhaps it would be good practice to draw that princess as a prince? More fun than lights on a bridge that I couldn’t make work, that was for sure.
I’d been using my own face in balcony door to get her head right and I was only three strokes in when I got caught on my reflection. The way I was sitting was the perfect reference; I was hunched and I couldn’t see any sign of breasts at all. I’d also tied my hair back so it didn’t get in the way. The screen from my tablet and the lights from the streets below lit me from underneath and were a very soft blue. I liked how it fell on me.
Well, I had been complaining about all that woman stuff, right? Fuck it. I skulled the rest of my wine in one mouthful and set to work on the tablet.
Despite the fact I’d promised Henry again that I wouldn’t stay up late, it was well past midnight when I finished the painting. I sat back and looked at it. There were about ten things I didn’t like how I’d handled the pose and the lighting, but overall the atmosphere was captured really well. And then there was me. Because I knew I couldn’t look at a picture of myself with any sort of objectivity, I flipped the canvas horizontally and hoped that would help.
It did, and my first impression was that I’d done a great job. I’d given myself a really funky haircut and dressed myself in a suit with a wide-collared shirt and a waistcoat. The tie I’d left kind of loose around my neck, and I’d stolen one of Henry’s awful paisley ones. It was hideous; I loved it. The rest of how I was sitting was basically the same. I grinned at it. There was something ultra cool about wearing an expensive suit and then sitting with one leg scrunched underneath you and the other propped on a table. I’d put the tablet on my lap, too. I looked awesome, and all my angles looked really cool instead of really awkward. I sighed at it.
God, if only.
As soon as I’d thought that, I began to feel really uneasy about it. I looked down at it on my tablet, and my face stared back at me with a really intense expression, reclined exactly like I was. Seriously, what the hell was I doing? It was like a goldfish painting itself with wings. It was stupid. What a fucking stupid idea.
I closed Photoshop and went to turn off my computer, but I stopped as my mouse hovered over the Start button. Was it really as bad as all that? I opened the file again and had another look.
The execution was great, that much I had to admit. I had no idea what my weird problem with it was, but it was a good painting. I should probably just upload it to Deviant Art before I started losing watchers who thought I’d abandoned my account.
I logged in and took a quick peek at my messages. I didn’t get many these days – I was so busy with work I didn’t get the opportunity to paint much anymore – but there were a few regulars I recognized. One of them was from a girl who was having some dramas with her friend and for some reason thought that because I could draw that I would also be full of wisdom. I resisted the urge to tell her I hadn’t spoken to any of my friends outside Facebook for months and basically gave her the text version of a pat on the back.
While I was uploading the painting, I got a bit stuck on the title and eventually settled on ‘Lights out’ and clicked submit.
Leaning back in the chair, I stretched my arms over my head and yawned. It was probably about time I tried to get some sleep. I needed to be awake for that presentation tomorrow so I could soak in all the glorious adoration for my amazing, life-changing PowerPoint slides about why Frost was the best company in the world, and there was only so much Red Bull could achieve.
I put my phone on silent and went to bed, but before I went to sleep I had to log in again and take another look at that painting. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but it was still completely harmless. Normally there were things I liked and disliked about all my pieces, but why the hell did I love and hate this one so much?
I exhaled and put my phone back on my bedside table. Probably some weird body image thing, I decided, and then groaned and turned away from it and put my head under the doona.
Min, for fuck’s sake, it’s just a painting. It’s pixels on a screen. What sort of damage could it possibly cause?