Chapter Two

It was a good thing I’d disabled vibrate on my mobile, because when my alarm went off in the morning, there were a hundred and nine messages waiting for me on Deviant Art.  I lay there, half dead, staring at the little white numerals at the corner of my screen and wondering if I had double-vision or something. I’d never gotten that many messages for my stuff before. Maybe it had been featured?

I tabbed through them, expecting the usual series of ‘omg wow’s to the extremely occasional detailed critique from someone who knew what they were talking about, but that didn’t even begin to resemble what the messages actually were. They were mostly from women, and mostly telling me how hot the ‘me’ in the painting was.

I scrolled down and down and down through them, the surprise waking me up a lot faster than I normally did. Sure, I’d selected ‘self-portrait’ as the category, but didn’t they look up in the corner of my page and see that I was a… oh, right. A year or two ago I’d changed my profile so it hid that I was female because I was sick of creeps hitting on me with lines like, ‘looks like you’re pretty good with your hands’. Yeah, no.

I put my phone down on my chest and lay flat on my back, staring at the ceiling fan rotating slowly above me. All those women wanted that guy in my ‘self-portrait’. How ironic. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, so I just laughed bleakly. I would have been great as a guy, too. Women loved tall men. Conversely, men hated tall women. Well, most men.

I buried my head in my pillow and groaned loudly into it. Okay, well. I had a presentation today and I couldn’t spend all morning stressing about that stupid painting and those poor women who had no idea they were lusting after a fictional character. I changed my mind several times over whether or not to display my sex again, and in the end I decided to just do it.

I was in a weird mood the whole time I got dressed, especially as I watched myself hopping around in the mirror trying to get my stockings on. As nice as it was having people hot for what they thought I was, it was also kind of depressing. I couldn’t let those women keep assuming I was some sort of stud when this was the reality.

I stopped awkwardly stumbling around for a moment and just stood and stared at my reflection. I was wearing a bra and undies that didn’t match, and my stockings were cutting into my stomach. There was nothing in the world less sexy than this. It was a pretty far cry from that stylish guy reclined in an expensive suit on the balcony. Those poor women. It was just dishonest to let them keep complimenting me. Fuck, though, it felt good when they did.

While I was doing my makeup, I toyed with the idea of just taking down the painting. The trouble was, as much anxiety as it was causing me, I liked it. Repertoire-wise it also showed that I wasn’t just good for environments and nothing else. Not that I should really care that much about my repertoire at the moment;  there was no way I had time for private commissions and it wasn’t like I needed the money. I decided I actually just really liked the painting. I liked it, and I didn’t want to take it down.

After I was done with my face, I wasted a minute or so frowning at Deviant Art again before I slipped on my heels, collected my handbag and headed off to work. This was ridiculous, seriously. Sales was running my team’s pitch today and that was what I should be focusing on.

Once I’d arrived at work, I didn’t even get to sit down before one of my teammates came rushing over to me. “Hey, Mini!” he began, using the ironic nickname they all had for me which I hated. “Did Sales give you a copy of the info pack? Because they’re in some meeting somewhere and I don’t think we transferred all the files onto the USBs in them. I want to check before I just go barging in on them.”

I shook my head as I side-stepped around him and put my handbag into my drawer. I never worked on those, which he should know by now since we’d been in the same department for four years. Anyway, apparently this file transfer issue was some enormous drama that required the whole team to freak out. I knew marketing was all about teamwork and I was supposed to actually care about stuff like this, but I was seriously too tired. I’d been back here while they were all home with their families or relaxing in front of the TV, as far as I was concerned they could panic without me. Perhaps that was a bit harsh. Most of them were pretty nice, I guess. Given the option, though, I’d design whole projects by myself. Even after several years, teamwork was still up there with group assignments, rocket lettuce and sunburn; things I’d rather avoid if at all possible.

Well, whatever ‘teamwork’ they were doing on the other side of the partition was making Michelangelo’s head nod. I watched it for a few moments. This was way too much energy for eight on a Tuesday morning on the amount of sleep I’d had. I needed a Red Bull.

Another marketing rep I’d worked with some time ago was already at the machine, stuffing coins into it as I walked up to her. Sarah, her name was, except everyone tended to call her by her surname which was ‘Presti’ for inappropriate reasons. I didn’t.

“Hey, Min! Long time no see,” she said as I walked up to her. I smiled at her greeting. Her voice was husky; it was the kind of voice you ended up with after spending all night getting drunk at a bar and singing loudly along with the music. Even with makeup, she looked that part as well. The concealer was doing nothing for the bags under her eyes. She gave me about the same look I was giving her. “Guess you were here late, again?”

I sighed. “To about eleven,” I said, watching her select a low cal from the panel. “How are you, anyway? I haven’t seen you for ages.”

She collected her energy drink, held it at me in a toast and then took a huge mouthful. “How’s that for an answer?”

I laughed. I knew exactly how she felt. “I hear you. My team’s running that Queensland pitch today.”

“Oh, right,” she said, leaning a shoulder on the machine. Her hair fell perfectly around those slender shoulders even though she wasn’t paying any attention to it. How did other women just do that? “I heard about that. That’s a major project, isn’t it? You must be so excited.” She said the last part with such exaggeration it was practically dripping with sarcasm.

I grinned. “Like it’s my wedding day. I don’t know how I’m going to contain myself.” When she realised she was blocking my access to the machine, she shifted across a bit so I could get a drink for myself. I glanced up at her while I slotted coins in. “You look like you pulled a late one yourself. What’s your excuse?”

She laughed. “My man just got back from Broome. He’s doing FIFO this year. It’s, uh, great to have him back if you catch my drift.” She had a smug grin as she took a sip of her energy drink.

Well, that explained the husky voice: it wasn’t drunken singing, they’d just been keeping each other up. She seemed happy about it, too; I knew she was really into him. “How long has it been for you two, now?”

“Three whole years.” Her smile didn’t slip at all.

“Wow,” I said, opening my own can. I remembered when they’d met. “Three years? You do know I sell diamonds for a living, right? You’re practically my target market.”

She waggled her ring finger on the can. “You should study me,” she said. “And write a report about my shopping behaviour.”

“I’ll make some illustrative graphs to explain you,” I agreed. “Please specify your preferred colour scheme.”

She laughed openly and patted me sociably on the arm. I wasn’t actually a big fan of being touched, but I quite liked her so I let it slide. She’d always made working long hours far less torturous. “Min, you completely crack me up,” she said. “I hope we’re on another project together at some point. Anyway,” she checked her watch, which had fashionably slipped to the inside of her wrist, “I should let you get on with it, your pitch is in like forty-five minutes. Good luck!”

I smiled appreciatively, she was right about getting on with it. If I cared about career progression, I needed to at least feign helpfulness despite my role being complete. Standing chatting at a vending machine wasn’t likely to score me any points with the bosses.

“See you ‘round,” she said, and then with zero attention and effort, sashayed gorgeously back to where her team were gathered. I wished it were easier to hate her; some women just made everything look so easy.

The actual pitches were always completely anti-climactic as far as I was concerned. My job was mainly managing the design and layout of the materials and presentation, and then someone far more bubbly and outgoing would deliver it to clients. After that, we’d break for lunch and all the smooth-talking closers from Sales would casually mingle with the clients while they ate, engaging them in pleasant conversation until there were signatures on contracts. I found the whole process sleazy and was glad I didn’t have to be part of it. Just in case there was a terrible PowerPoint crisis, however, I needed to be on hand to divert catastrophic presentation failure. I was yet to figure out why IT couldn’t do that, but I guessed it was more of this ‘teamwork’ thing I kept hearing about.

During lunch, we all stood at an acceptable distance from the conference room, waiting for the word on whether or not we’d been immediately successful. Sometimes clients wanted to go away and have endless meetings before they’d make a decision, occasionally we’d find out directly afterwards. We all hung around just in case.

I had my mobile with me because I’d missed a couple of calls from my mum before, and being a hopeless masochist, I’d opened the painting again to agonize over. There were more comments on it, and the image was on the front page of the category it was in. I couldn’t stop reading and the better I felt about the compliments, the more I felt like I was staging this huge lie to the women of the internet.

While my finger was hovering indecisively over the ‘delete’ button, all the boys started whooping and, remembering how close they were to the conference room, almost immediately muted themselves. Instead, they smacked each other’s shoulders and made borderline offensive victory gestures. It was like being at the footy.

We must have signed the clients, but truthfully I wasn’t really that surprised. It was a pretty hard market at the moment so as long as we were actually able to deliver we’d get the contracts.

Whoops, what was I saying? Of course it was obviously my amazing presentation that won them over.

When the clients had left and Sales started trickling out of the room with their chests puffed out, I saw Diane Frost shake hands with Omar the Sales Manager and then walk sharply over to us. I watched the boys all turn from drunken yobbos into executive marketing reps on six figure salaries in the space of about two seconds.

She stopped in front of our team and just stood there for a moment. Fuck, she was scary. “Congratulations on the pitch,” she said cordially, but it was difficult to know if she meant that or if it was just her way of saying hello. Then, she held up one of the brochures from the info pack like it was evidence in a murder trial. “Who did this?”

I started to sweat; that was one of my brochures, and it stood out like a sore thumb in our greyscale office. I’d chosen a really bold colour scheme because the set of companies we were pitching to used really strong themes in their own advertising and I wanted them to feel like they were holding their own material. Now that I looked at it, though, the colours were really fucking loud. Obviously too loud for Frost International. Shit.

I hadn’t said anything, not that it was a huge surprise. One of my teammates spoke for me. “That’s Mini’s work,” he said, indicating me. “She does presentations and print.”

“’Minnie’?” she asked, looking at me for clarification of my name. Recognition crossed her face.

I swallowed. No one was going to field this one for me. “Min. Min Lee.”

She looked down at the loud brochure, and then thoughtfully back at me. “You again,” she said obliquely. “’Min Lee’.” Was she trying to commit my name to memory? When she spoke to us all again, her smile was the epitome of ‘professional’. “Good work, that contract is worth six million.” She nodded her head amiably towards the lifts. “Get out of here, go celebrate.”

She gave me one last look before heading back into her office.

We all just stood there. One of the boys exhaled. “I feel like I just watched a Kung-Fu movie,” he said. “You guys will deck it out now, right? What the hell was that about?”

I shook my head, my heart still going for it. She seemed to have congratulated us all for the pitch? I was part of ‘all’, right? Still, I felt uneasy about that whole exchange and more than anything I wanted closure on it. It didn’t look like I was going to get any, though, because Diane shut her office door behind her and had settled behind her computer again.

Our project manager had been working at Frost International for ten years and didn’t look too bothered by what had happened. “Nah, if Diane was pissed off at any of us, we’d know about it,” he said. “That was about as close as she gets to telling us we’re awesome.” He swung his arms around the shoulders over the two reps either side of him. “Come on, let’s go have lunch and then get wasted on the company card.”

We’d all gone back to our desks to collect our things when a familiar voice greeted me. “Min,” that was Henry. I straightened to greet him and noticed his tie actually matched his suit today which was a bit of a shock. He stopped short of kissing me on the cheek; it probably would have been okay, but just to be safe he didn’t. He just put a warm hand on my arm. “I just read the email. Congratulations. Also would you answer your phone? Your mum’s been trying to call you. She just rang me to tell you that.”

There goes any last remnants of a good mood, I thought and groaned out loud. “Are you serious? Sorry,” I said and took my phone out of my handbag again. Sure enough, I had another missed call as well as a whole series of new comments on that painting. I wasn’t sure what was worse, strangers stressing me out or my mother doing it. “Give me a sec,” I said to him and put the phone against my ear.

It hardly rang once. “Min, why have you been avoiding me?” Despite the fact she spoke perfect English and my Korean was crap, she still refused to speak in English to me. “I’ve been ringing you all morning.”

Even Henry heard that. He laughed as I said in English, “Because I’m at work.”

“Henry’s at work, too,” she fired back, very pointedly in Korean. I gave him a look that warned him never to answer the phone to her again and he threw his hands up in self-defence as she kept going. “I’ve been worrying about your presentation all morning.” I bet she’d even put it in her calendar. “How did it go? Did you all close that big contract?”

“About five minutes ago, actually.” I decided not to tell her about my weird exchange with the co-CEO, because it would only make her worry even more. “Now we’re all going out to have a big lunch to celebrate, so I have to go in a couple of seconds.”

“Don’t eat too much,” she said. “Henry will never marry you if you’re tall and fat.”

Henry snorted. “Don’t believe anything she says,” he whispered, making me feel really uneasy. He didn’t notice because he was leaning into the phone and saying in Korean that put mine to shame, “Don’t worry, she still looks like a supermodel.” I sighed at him. “For now,” he added, smirking at me. “She did just discover Krispy Kreme.”

Both of them, seriously. I couldn’t roll my eyes enough and Mum was still having a go at me. “Nonsense, supermodels don’t slouch like Min does.”

Okay, I’d had it, that was enough talking about me. I looked directly at Henry as I asked Mum clearly, “How’s grandma?”

That question stopped the torrent of judgments about me, but unfortunately it got Mum started on a long story about their last hospital visit and a long list of conditions and medications. With my limited Korean, it made absolutely no sense and I had to just make affirmative noises intermittently to pretend I understood. I propped my mobile between my cheek and my shoulder as I checked I’d taken my purse. All my co-workers were gathering in the annex to wait for a lift. Henry tapped his watch; I nodded. I wanted to get Mum off the phone, but she didn’t have anyone else to talk to about taking care of grandma and to be honest, I didn’t call her very often.

When everyone was gone, Henry whispered something about needing to get back to work, kissed my cheek, and then disappeared as well.

It was twenty minutes before I managed to finally get rid of Mum, and as we were saying goodbye she dropped the whole angry mother thing and said, “Thank you for putting up with your terrible mother, Min. I know you don’t like talking to me at all, but I want you to know I love you anyway.”

I nearly threw my mobile across the room and stomped on it. I hated it when she pulled that crap on me, fucking hell! Swallowed those words, I said as warmly as I could manage, “Don’t be silly, thanks Mum.”

I hung up and didn’t lob my mobile into the closest wall. I didn’t do anything, I just glared at it and observed the notifications from Deviant Art building in the top corner. I didn’t do anything about them, either. It was lunchtime.

My team had wandered down the road to a bar-slash-restaurant that was on the corner of George Street and fronted Circular Quay. There were nearly ten of them, and despite the fact they’d only been there for maybe twenty minutes they were as loud as if they were already completely wasted.

“Hey, look who’s joined us!” one of them called as I stepped in the doorway. “Mini!”

There was nowhere for me to sit, and while I was scouting around for a chair I could use, one of the boys patted his thighs and said, “I got a seat for you!”

“Frost International might not have a seat for you if the manager of HR finds out you’re propositioning his girlfriend.” They all laughed as I went and stole a chair from another table, dragging it over to slot between two of the others. I don’t know what they thought Henry would do about it; we’d already decided between ourselves he wouldn’t get involved in any personnel disputes I had. It would make things too complicated for both of us.

That pretty much set the tone for the rest of lunch, though. There was some discussion about who was on which project team for the next pitch, but none of us knew what we were doing next so there wasn’t much to speculate on. We tried anyway, but eventually that topic ran out of steam and as the boys got progressively more drunk everything became progressively more awkward for me.

Every time the men would start talking about something other than work – women, money, sport – someone would remind him that there were girls present. Out of those, the only topic I could really do without was ‘women’. I didn’t mind them bitching about their girlfriends and wives, but any sort of discussion about who was hot at work or who hooked up with who from operations was something I didn’t want to be involved in.

Once we’d moved onto the topic of promotions, it was depressing how little they involved me. They all sat around the table together placing actual monetary bets on which one of them would end up being a project lead next… and no one put a cent on me. Or Sarah, for that matter. The hot favourites were a cocky guy who’d only been working with us for eight months and the current project manager because he was mature – code for ‘old’ – and apparently brought that whole fatherly thing with him to work.

As lunch progressed and everyone was boastfully handing around their phones with pictures of their wives and girlfriends, I just kind of sat back and kept chipping away at my wine. I had been admiring the paint work on the far wall – someone had painted the stone like old wooden panels and had done a pretty good job, actually – when I saw out of the corner of my eye a mobile being held at an angle that alarmed me.

I looked towards it just as it flashed. The guy behind it was the cocky new rep and he looked pretty proud of himself. “Hah, it’s great!” he said, smirking and sending it to everyone.

Just to humour them I took my phone out and looked at it. I wished I hadn’t. In the photo I was surrounded by drunk men – half of them a lot shorter than me, even sitting down – and I was glaring at the guy holding the phone. It was a bit of an eye-opener because I had felt mostly invisible while they were ignoring me, and I’d had no idea I stood out so much until I saw that photo.

As each of my teammates got the message, they were all laughing like it was the funniest thing ever. Even though there was a level of sincere affection in them playing around with me, it kind of hurt.

“This is Mini’s happy face as she celebrates?” someone said. “Fuck, I’m sending this to Sales.”

Yeah, send it to fucking everyone, I thought darkly. I don’t think there’s enough people laughing at me right now, better make sure the whole company has it. The project manager who had been setting a great ‘fatherly’ example by being the drunkest one of all of them swung his arm out and whacked me on the shoulder like I was one of the boys. “You’re fucking great, Mini,” he slurred. “My wife would kill me if I did that. But no, you’re totally cool about it.”

Nope, right now you’re lucky I don’t kill you, I thought while I smiled stiffly at him. The reps quickly got over that photo of me and moved on to someone’s ‘smoking hot’ wife in a bikini.

I watched them, feeling more and more disconnected. No wonder those internet women liked my painting, if this was what their husbands and boyfriends were actually like. It wasn’t that these guys weren’t being cruel, either, at least not deliberately. They weren’t trying to make me feel unwelcome. They were just having a good time and were completely oblivious to how out of place I felt. Or that I was here at all. It just continued to be depressing. Why the fuck was I here?

“I think I’ll head off,” I said suddenly, interrupting whoever was speaking. “Bye, guys.” I didn’t turn around to find out what their assessment of me leaving so early, either. If they were going to be here all afternoon, I was just going to go home.

While I was waiting at the lights my phone buzzed. I took it out to look at it; it was from Omar. ‘Nice photo, Mini,” he’d texted. “Definitely a character portrait haha. They should put it on your ID tag.”

Reading that just made me reach this point where I didn’t even care what happened anymore. Whatever, I thought, closing the text. If that was what everyone thought of me, whatever. I had been about to put my phone away, but there were still pending notifications from my painting.

I couldn’t deal with it now. I wanted to read them and feel good about myself for a fraction of a second, but it was all crap anyway. It wasn’t real. Actually, fuck it, I couldn’t deal with any of it, full stop. Without really thinking it through, I uploaded the photo that had just been taken as my ID on Deviant Art. There, I thought, turning off my mobile completely and putting it back in my handbag. Now those women can see who I actually am, be rightfully horrified and then everyone can just leave me alone.

I felt strangely numb and detached the whole way home, and only started to feel like an actual human again after I’d had a shower and put my pyjamas back on. Then, I had the choice of facing my computer which probably still had Deviant Art open, or turning on my PlayStation. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which option I chose.

Black Ops was already in my machine, so I flopped back on the couch and waited for a game. It was strange being home in the middle of a work day. I felt guilty, even though I’d been in the office at ten-thirty last night and even though I’d definitely served a long enough sentence with my drunk co-workers.

I chewed through game after game until there was a knock at my door. It was like being woken in the middle of a trance or something. I just sat up for a minute, feeling dazed. I looked over at the windows. It was dark outside already, what time was it?

I turned my head back to the door, and then walked over to it and peered through the peephole.

It was Henry, and he had champagne and takeaway.

I looked down my front at the faded t-shirt and baggy pants. Fuck, and I looked like crap. I didn’t even have any makeup on. “Why didn’t you give me a ten minute warning!” I hissed through the door.

“I did,” he said, not at all bothered by my reaction. “But I guess you’re still avoiding your mother and you haven’t checked your phone.” I scrunched my face up. That’s right, I’d forgotten I’d turned my phone off. My mother was the least of the things I was avoiding, but I didn’t correct him. “It’s okay, Min, I’ll just wait out here for a few minutes. I don’t mind.”

I raced back into the bedroom and tore up my drawers searching for the pair of pyjamas I always wore when Henry was over. They had an appropriately pretty, delicate pattern and were made of soft cotton and lace. They were comfortable enough, I guess, but I didn’t really like them. I couldn’t wear this t-shirt and the trackies around Henry, though. I looked like such a dag in it, and I should really make the effort for him. Ugh, and I had to put all my makeup back on, too.

When I finally let him in, I looked presentable again.

He held the champagne at me as if I hadn’t just made him wait for fifteen minutes in a hallway. “Congratulations again,” he said, and then leant across it and kissed me on the temple as he walked past me into the kitchen. “How did you celebrate?”

“By killing hundreds of people,” I told him. “Mostly with frag grenades, but I did experiment with a variety of assault rifles.”

“How educational,” he said, putting the takeaway down on my glass dining table. “Since you’ve bathed in blood, want to consume some flesh? It’s pork.” I came up behind him to peek over his broad shoulders as he opened it for me. Delicious-smelling steam poured out of the container. “Also the champagne is a really good label.”

I snorted. “Champagne is for wusses,” I said. “I prefer the tears of my enemies.”

He laughed. “I love you,” he said, turned and leant against the table. “Now, are you going to tell me why you left work so early? Not that it’s an issue given the circumstances, but it’s pretty unlike you.” I had been grinning, but as soon as he said that, it fell away. I had no idea I was that transparent, normally people couldn’t read me at all. Not even Henry. He didn’t miss my reaction this time, though. “Are you okay? Did your mother say something to you?” He pulled me into him and circled his arms around my waist.

I had a whole internal debate about whether or not to tell him about the painting, so I didn’t. I shook my head at him. “I’m just being emo again,” I said as dismissively as I could manage. “Ignore me.”

He didn’t. He never did. Instead, he took my cheeks in his huge hands. “Min,” he said sternly. “I haven’t been with you for three years to not know when you’re hiding stuff from me. It’s okay, you can tell me whatever it is.”

In the end he did coax it out of me, including what had happened at lunch and the photo I’d uploaded. I reluctantly switched my phone on and handed it to him, pointing at the notifications in the top corner. He made a surprised noise and tapped them with a fingertip.

I couldn’t bear to look at what those disappointed women were probably saying about my terrible photo, so I turned away from the screen. “You can see my painting there, too,” I told him, flopping back onto the couch and putting my ankles on the armrest and my forearms over my face. Through the gap in them, I could see he was concentrating as he tabbed through whatever he’d found on my profile. It was painful waiting for his assessment of everything, really painful. “Don’t read too much into it,” I told him anxiously, “it was just something that I did while I was—”

“It’s good, Min,” he said, interrupting me. “Actually, It’s a bit difficult to look at because of how good it is and how much it looks like you. I might start to question my sexuality.” He glanced back over at me, grinning. “That photo is actually nothing like you said it was, and I don’t know why you’d think I’d have a problem with a painting.”

Well there wasn’t much I could say to that. I had no idea what my weird problem with it was. Or why I liked it so much.

He came over and motioned for me to move my legs so he could sit under them. I lifted them up and then put them back down across his lap once he’d sat. He was still scrolling. Through what, I didn’t want to know. “I think it’s only natural you’d paint something like that,” he said, obviously about to pull out his psychobabble on me again. “For some completely unwarranted reason, you hate how you look. Of course you wish you were someone else.”

I groaned. “You know what you can do with your psychology degree?” I asked him good-naturedly.

He smirked. “I’m looking at the comments on your actual photo from these girls right now,” he told me, as if I hadn’t been about to insult him. “You want to know what they say?”

“No.”

He turned his head towards me, eyebrows up again. “Really? Because then you might start believing me when I tell you that you’re the only one who thinks you’re ugly.” He held the mobile at me.

It made my heart race. “Henry, I really don’t.”

Noting my expression, he nodded and locked it, leaning over me to place it on the coffee table. “Okay,” he said. “But can I just say there’s a whole heap of women who’d step in for me if I bailed.” He winced, thinking about that. “And I know this is really problematic on a number of levels, but that’s actually a turn on.”

“Imagining me with other people is a turn on?”

He shrugged. “I told you it was problematic. You want some champagne? Maybe that will make you feel better.”

I made a face. “Nah, I haven’t eaten anything.” I was still thinking about what he’d said. “Did all those girls really say I looked good? Because on top of looking like the grumpiest person on the planet, that photo shows what an enormous giant I am.”

He had such a warm smile. “Min,” he said gently. “I like that about you. It’s great to be able to actually feel I have my arms around another whole person, and I can’t be the only one that feels that way.”

I breathed out, watching my chest fall. I was hopeless. “It sucks that no matter how many times you tell me that, I just can’t believe it.”

There was so much affection in his eyes as he nodded. “Okay,” he said simply. “Then let me show you.”

That should have been a really sweet, romantic thing to say and I should have been completely touched and jumped lovingly into his arms. Instead, my heart sank. Of course this is where it was heading.

Even before he’d leant his torso down over me and put his lips against mine, I knew what was going to happen next. He had his eyes closed when he kissed me, too, which meant that he didn’t notice when I jammed mine shut for a second. Fuck, and he was just so goddamn wonderful that I couldn’t say I didn’t really feel like it now, could I? Not when he’d been so nice. It had been a couple of weeks, too, so it was probably about time I let him do it again.

He slipped a hand under my pyjama top. I wasn’t wearing a bra because I really didn’t need to at home, and that meant he was able to take what was actually there into his hands. He made a sound in the back of his throat and slipped one crisply suited knee between my bare ones.

I just stared up at the light fixture above my head while he kissed down my neck. Come on, Min, it’s going to be like fifteen minutes, tops. Quicker than doing the ironing. Quicker than doing my makeup, even. I should really be counting my lucky stars that I’d landed an attractive, rich, wonderful boyfriend completely unlike the idiots I worked with. He even cooked. Having sex with him was the very least I could do. Really, it wasn’t his fault he’d picked a frigid girlfriend who had weird body image issues. I shouldn’t make those things his problem when they were obviously my own.

When he started unbuttoning my pyjamas, I realized I’d just kind of been stiffly lying there. And I only realized that because he leant away from me, looking genuinely concerned. “Min,” he asked me. “You’re not up for this, are you? Because it’s fine if you’re not, I’m happy to stop.”

Looking down between us, I could already see how hard he was through his suit pants. Man, this wasn’t fair on him. I really should put in some effort. I pulled him down into a firm kiss rather than answer his question.

He leant heavily into me and his erection dug into my thigh. I slipped a hand between us to find a more comfortable position for it, and he exhaled forcefully when I touched it over the fabric.

“See?” he murmured in my ear as we kept going. “You’re gorgeous.”

It would have been over much sooner than I’d estimated before, but because Henry insisted on making sure I came first I had to put on a really convincing act about being completely into it. The whole thing took more effort than I had expected.

We were done, he always insisted on kissing for a bit. We were both a bit sweaty and it was kind of gross, but I exhaled exaggeratedly for his benefit and pretended to enjoy it, anyway. “Thanks,” I lied, feeling guilty even before I’d said it, “I needed that.”

He’d put his head on my chest, and the beginnings of stubble scratched me as he smiled. “You’re welcome,” he said breathlessly. “Do you mind if I have the first shower?”

“Go for it. I had one before.”

He pushed up, grabbed his clothes and then swaggered off into the bathroom. Pulling my pyjamas back on, I just sat there for a minute. Well, at least that was done, now we’d go a couple of weeks without him asking for it again. I was due around then, too, so maybe even a bit longer.

My stomach grumbling drove me up to go explore what food Henry had bought us; it was boxes of noodles from that Hokkein place around the corner. I couldn’t be bothered washing dishes – although to be honest Henry would probably do them, but I didn’t want that either – so I just grabbed a fork out of the drawer and took the whole box out onto the balcony.

In these pyjamas and with all my makeup on, my reflection looked quite different than the one I’d painted. I watched it as I ate a few mouthfuls of food. I didn’t like how it looked, of course, but Henry obviously did. I just didn’t understand that at all, and I wondered if he’d been lying about all those girls saying nice things about me. I wouldn’t put it past him to be that nice, honestly.

Once that thought was stuck in my head, it was difficult to dislodge. Nothing was going to settle this except actually reading them, so I abandoned my dinner on the outdoor setting and went inside to get my mobile. I didn’t open the app straight away, though. I had to spend a few seconds psyching myself up in case he had been lying and they were saying awful things about how I looked.

When I finally opened it, it only took me one glance to determine that he’d actually been telling the truth.

I scrolled through the comments. They ranged from, ‘Oooh you look so fierce! I love it!’, to ‘I like this one too J’ to ‘omg you’re so tall!! I’m jealous!!’ to, ‘yup, I’d still hit that, although it looks like it might hit me back’. There wasn’t a single nasty one at all. Judging by their usernames, most of them were women. That felt a little strange because my experience with women was that they were quite judgmental of each other. It was also strange because several of them were clearly hitting on me, which must have been what Henry was referring to earlier. I took a second to try and imagine what being with a woman would be like. Women were usually a lot smaller than me, so being the tall one and being a woman didn’t sit right. Also, the only women I could think of right then were Diane and Sarah, and both of them were just… no.

Alongside the comments there were a couple of private notes as well, so I opened my inbox and selected one. It was from one of my regulars. ‘omg ur a girl??????’ I counted them, six question marks. ‘wow okay this is a bit of a surprise!! ur still gorgeous tho*^w^*’ That was the girl who’d been having friend trouble yesterday, I think. I checked – it was. Whoops, she messaged me quite regularly and had thought I was a guy the whole time? Even though she seemed pretty fine with it, I felt bad for her and typed a quick reply, ‘Now that you know my secret, I’m going to have to kill you’. I sent it before I realized that my sense of humour might actually not come across that well on the internet. Rather than risk having the police called on me, I quickly typed another one. ‘Kidding. And thanks’.

Taking my mobile with me, I returned to my food. While I sat down and excavated my noodles for all the baby prawns, I went through those messages again. It was pathetic how good it felt reading them, even if I kind of couldn’t figure out what they saw in me.

Henry came back outside while I still had my phone out. “Plucked up the courage to read them?” he asked, kissing the top of my head as he sat down next to me with his own noodle box.

I nodded, swallowing my mouthful. “I’ve decided I’m going to leave you for this one,” I said, and showed him my handset so he could read the comment.

He held my wrist steady as he read it aloud. “’If you’re married, leave him. I’m richer’.” He laughed. “It’s winking at me, though. I think that means he’s joking.” He paused for a second, reading the username. “Wait, ‘she’? Well, that changes everything,” he released my phone and opened his meal, “invite her for dinner. I’ll even cook.”

I flicked a prawn at his cheek. It didn’t hit him, but it did sail past his nose and fly off the balcony. He kept eating. “You’d better work on that aim if you want to beat my score in Free for All.”

I couldn’t scoff loudly enough. I always beat him. “You want to settle who beats who right now? I will camp your spawn points until you’re begging for mercy.”

“I like the sound of that,” he said, and shovelled some more food into his mouth. “Come on, let’s do it.”

After a really mediocre day, that was one ‘do it’ that could really get into with him.

8 thoughts on “Chapter Two

  1. Oh boy. I’ve known a few people who viewed sex as an unpleasant duty and treated it as such, because nobody told them that’s not the correct way to do it, their partners included (I think nobody would be surprised to learn they were all male). In one girl I used to be friends with (long story) this resulted in a weird combination of body image issues, sex aversion and crippling self-doubt with an athlete’s body (dancing and figure-skating helped that one) and a predisposition towards public performances (she was nurturing aspirations of being a professional musician, and was doing well with that). The perfect introverted extrovert. Her life is much better now, thankfully.

    • Well, we all know Min’s turns out much better as well! I think sex is always a great barometer about how the relationship is going in general, and also a barometer for how you feel about yourself. So Min should really be having a long think 😉

  2. When I first read about Henry in Chapt.1, I felt conflicted because he seemed like a rude and pushy guy. While it may be a realistic situation (incredible people fall for total jerk all the time in real life), it’d have been too easy to rely on a character everybody hate to legitimize Min’s development.
    For the purpose of your story, I think it’s a good thing to give him a “nice guy” behavior in chapt.2. However, due to the first person you use, it’s quite easy to picture him as a bit self-centered/blind guy even if it’s not really the case. I know Min is your main character but I can’t wait to read how you’ll handle her perception of Henry along the book.

    I love your description of the lunch with all these male co-workers and how they behave around Min: she is barely a person, just “the Manager of HR’s girlfriend”!
    To be honest, I thought Frost Company would be more open in terms of men vs women equality, since you focus a bit on Diane and Sarah, and didn’t talk much about their male counterpart before (I also have this idea that Marketing tends to be more “girl-only” department but that’s beside the point)

    Ah, the lame humor of these “all-men” team, and the way they acknowledge a girl’s presence, only to make everything they say sound smarter, while acting like morons…The worst is that Min thinks SHE has a problem and should be ok with this attitude !

    It’s strange seeing her like this, so insecure about herself and not daring to speak her mind, while everybody is just happy to do whatever they want with her and just assume she is fine with it. It looks like she has a lot to do in order to change all this…can’t wait to read it!

    • Marketing ‘girl only’? Noooooo! All the people I talked to about their Marketing depts were all boys and so was most of their staff! I’m sure women-centric marketing depts exist, but that’s certainly not what I’ve seen. Even at the corps I worked at, the marketing reps were all mostly men.

      Yeah, it’s odd going from writing Min as this strong, self-assured character back in time to this. Poor Min. *pats her* Don’t worry, we’ll sort you out.

      I’ll be interested to see how your perception of Henry evolves over this book. Let me know.

  3. Ah, in the space of two chapters Min is already breaking my heart left and right and all over the place. She just seems so lonely. Distant relationship with her family, not very close with any of her co-workers, a boyfriend who seems like a decent guy but totally doesn’t get her (although that doesn’t seem like entirely his fault…). I’m wondering if she has many (or any, really) close friends who offer her some respite from the crushing sense of isolation that permeates the bits of her life we’ve encountered thus far? Because damn could she use some support.

    Anyway, great chapter! As I’ve hopefully made obvious, you’ve done a great job of establishing the quiet malaise of Min’s life. In my head it’s sort of playing out like the Wizard of Oz, where Min’s pre-Bree life is all black & white and dreadfully dour and dull, and then Bree is going to show up and set her world on fire with technicolor brilliance. Or something like that 🙂

    If you can’t tell, I’m already completely absorbed in the story, and it’s only just begun. Can’t wait for the next chapter!

  4. Mins painting reminded me of how People have thought I was a girl multiple times I have long hair so that’s probably why. Also I think Henry is meh I’m not liking him at all . Maybe that’s cause I’ve always related a lot more to female characters in general so I’m tougher on male characters. Hey who knows maybe Min will be friends with a guy who I can relate to down the line or something. I just wanted to say I love your writing I’m really sorry if this makes it seem like I don’t, i didn’t mean to make it look that way at all. Also I’m not very good at writing comments like the great ones people wrote below. I get really scared to comment like people are going to hate me, but I’m getting over that your LaraxSam fan fiction has helped for whatever reason just make me feel more comfortable being myself so thank you. I’m rambling now so I’ll stop bye.

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