I got to work early the following morning so that when Sarah arrived, it was to a desk covered in analytics printouts. She stopped in front of them, looked from them to me, and then walked over to my desk and placed a can of Red Bull between my keyboard and my monitor. “Still glad I did it,” she said as she went and sat at her own desk. She sounded like she was grinning.
“You say that now,” I said neutrally as I pretended to be very busy, “until I tell you that I ‘accidentally’ deleted the spreadsheet for those and I need you to re-enter all the data.”
Even after all those years she’d been working with me, she still hadn’t learnt. “Oh my god, Min, are you serious?” She turned back to all of the printouts on her desk with this look of total horror on her face. “I can’t believe you’d seriously do that to me because I asked you to eat food with me and…” She never finished that sentence because apparently I was doing far too good a job at looking completely innocent. “You’re messing with me!” she accused. “And after I bought you a Red Bull, too!”
I shot her a half-smile before I looked back at my screen. “Of course I’m not. I’d never do such a thing. Now get to work,” I said, nodding my head sideways at her printouts. A crumpled-up ball of one of them flew past my face and I gave her an unimpressed look. “Good thing it’s only contracts you pitch.”
I saw one of our teammates who was sitting beside Sarah roll his eyes. I left it, though, because Sarah had started laughing and that made me chuckle.
Since my cover was blown, there was nothing standing between me and the Red Bull. I plucked it from between my keyboard and monitor and I toasted it in the air towards Sarah. “Cheers,” I said, opening it to a very satisfying hiss. “A-plus job at sucking up to the boss. Now I need you to tell me what rich twenty-five to thirty-four year olds on Facebook are saying about diamonds.”
“Yeah, okay, okay,” Sarah said, pushing aside all of the paper to get to her keyboard, still smiling ear to ear. “Hah, Rob is going to love you. Is it Friday yet?”
I wasn’t looking forward to Friday as much as Sarah was, and so when Friday did roll around, I was too worried we hadn’t completed the framework documents to think about much else. Actually, we’d barely even started them. It was only a week into the project and already we were way behind the timelines. I was so worried about it I sought out Jason to have a quick word with him. It was never a pleasant experience; I had to be pretty desperate to bother.
He listened to my concerns while he tried to pick something out of his perfectly white teeth with a fingernail. “Well, ordinarily I’d give it a few weeks,” he said, giving up on his teeth. “But because you’ve only got a few weeks for the full project I’d suggest getting your arse into gear. There’s probably still enough time.” He pointed his finger at me. “But what’s this I hear about you doing Canada’s design?”
I made a face. “I promised them I’d do it before I got committed to Pink. I’ve finished it now, though.”
He didn’t look impressed, and that made my heart sink. “I know hard work is kind of an Asian MO, but maybe you’d have finished the docs by now if you focused on the project we actually assigned you to.”
After I’d been told that, I felt like the most appropriate course of action was to book a ticket back to Melbourne and apply for a job at McDonalds; something I might actually be capable of doing properly. I didn’t, though, and I didn’t even go hide out on the balcony, either. I went back to my desk at Oslo and tried to focus very hard on reviewing the data I’d been given and not think bad thoughts about my lack of skill in project management.
I had been so preoccupied I nearly had a heart attack when Sarah tapped me on the shoulder with a smile on her face. “Your phone,” she said, and pointed towards my drawer. “It’s been going crazy in there for, like, the last fifteen minutes.”
I stared blankly at her for a second, and then looked at my drawer. Just as she’d said, it buzzed. I’d better turn vibrate off. “Sorry, I hope it hasn’t been distracting you.”
She snorted. “Please distract me,” she said, going back to her desk. “I’m watching a terrible Russian TV show that has so much product placement I feel like it’s one big infomercial.” She imitated a Hollywood-style Russian accent, and actually didn’t do too bad a job at it. “’Please, let me present you with enormous pink diamond. Let me to show you where you are buying such this diamond. Let us reflect on this most wonderful store full of diamonds. Look here at store’.”
That made me laugh for once, and when one of our teammates cleared his throat I realised we were probably bothering him. I felt a bit guilty about that, because I’d asked him to finish something today that realistically should have taken two or three days, and here I was, dicking around and annoying everyone. I scrunched up my face; a job at McDonalds was looking pretty appropriate at this point.
I’d gone to open my drawer and take my mobile out to turn the vibrate off when I noticed it was a series of notifications from Deviant Art. I paused for a moment. It had been a couple of days since I’d replied to Bree. I still wasn’t happy about her lying to me, but the more I thought about it, the more I recognised Henry kind of had a point. It wasn’t malicious, and seriously, I wouldn’t have let her in if she hadn’t. I sighed. I shouldn’t defer replying to some fictional point in the future where I wasn’t overworked.
I had literally only just opened up my notes and was tapping out a quick reply when Jason powered through the door with a big fat book in his hand. He stopped when he saw me on my phone, looking directly at it and then laughing.
“I just came in here because I thought you might be more comfortable using some of the timeline templates in this,” he said, holding up the thick book. The title was ‘Essentials of Effective Time Management in Marketing‘. “But maybe you should just read the whole thing.” He dropped it on my desk in front of me, gave me a pointed look, and then left.
Sarah and I glanced at each other, and she rolled her eyes and shook her head about him. It felt like something the naughty students sitting up the back of the room would do to each other if the teacher had told them off.
My other teammates had been surreptitiously watching and of course they didn’t say anything, but they didn’t need to. I knew what they were thinking and I just felt stupid. And it wasn’t as if I could run after Jason and tell him that he just had bad timing and I’d been working really, really solidly.
God, was I kidding myself, though? Was I really working as effectively as I could?
I had spent nearly half an hour earlier in the week printing out all that analytics stuff to arrange artfully on Sarah’s desk. That was definitely time that could have been better spent. And Jason was right about accepting Canada’s design project. Goddamnit, why hadn’t I put my foot down with the arsehole lead from that team? Did I really need his approval? And what the fuck was that ‘good girl’ crap he’d said to me, anyway? I had a brief fantasy where I was a guy and instead of accepting his stupid fucking design project, I just punched him as soon as he opened his mouth and kept walking.
I chuckled to myself about that and then realised what I was laughing at and immediately stopped. Why the hell would I imagine being a guy? I tried to correct myself by imagining it again just with how I looked right now, and the fantasy didn’t have any of the same oomph or satisfaction about it.
I felt really uncomfortable about that, and I didn’t want to think about what it meant. Fuck, I really didn’t have time for this crap. We were so behind, and my team had all probably given up on me and decided I was terrible at my job. I didn’t need to have any more time-consuming personal crises.
I didn’t take a lunch break. I did, however, exceed the recommended maximum number of cans of Red Bull and eat a decrepit muesli bar I found at the very bottom of my handbag.
In the evening, Sarah had to go pick up Rob because he lived somewhere out in suburbia, so she said goodbye a little bit after seven, and reminded me the booking was for eight. My other three teammates all disconnected their laptops from everything and went home with them shortly after that, presumably to continue working there.
I hoped that I’d regained at least some credibility by being the last one to leave. I actually had most of the data by now, and we’d all had a round-table to discuss the strongest leads, and it was really looking like it was going to be Russia. I hadn’t done any sort of business with Russia before, and neither had the rest of the team. It would probably be wise to spend some of the budget on getting a consultant to train us and the sales team on cultural appropriateness. There was also the off-chance that we’d need to go and deliver the pitch in Russia given the tight timeframes for getting people out here. That was kind of cool, at least. Moscow was supposed to be beautiful.
I caught myself. Wait a second, Min. That was if we had stuff done on time and if I didn’t fuck the hell up. And, fuck, I really needed to write the marketing statement tonight. I’d told the team I’d email it to them tomorrow and I hadn’t even started it. I opened a blank file. Shit, shit. I was running out of time.
“Min,” that was Henry’s voice, “there’s this thing called a mobile phone. I think you might even have one.”
I looked up, kind of startled. Henry had his head poked in through the doorway. I briefly wondered what he was doing here instead of just texting me, but then I remembered I’d turned off vibrate on my phone because of Bree’s messages. And now Henry was here, and shit Henry was here. I hissed and hurriedly shut the screen of the laptop. “Henry, you’re not supposed to be in Oslo!” I gestured out behind him. “Diane’s office is just around the corner!” The last fucking thing I needed was to have one of the CEOs unhappy with me, too.
He had his briefcase with him, I could see the corner of it halfway down the door. “I wouldn’t be except you haven’t answered three texts and the phones aren’t connected to this office. We really need to leave now or we’ll be late. It’s seven-fifty.”
I looked back at my screen. I really, really, needed to write that statement. It wouldn’t take more than about half an hour. An hour, at the most. “In a second,” I said. “Sarah knows the pressure we’re under, she’ll understand if I’m late. You just go on without me.”
“…and yet she’s probably already at the restaurant, waiting for us. Come on.” He pushed the door all the way open and stood in the doorway. “You can do the rest over the weekend.”
“Henry,” I said. I could hear the note of desperation in my voice and I hated it. “I will literally be done in about half an hour. You just order me something and I’ll be there on time to eat it.” He didn’t budge. Since there was no one else within earshot, I added, “My team’s already basically given up on me and Jason thinks I’m hopeless. I have to get this done!”
He walked into the room towards me. “Min, by all reports you’re great at your job, so I’m sure you’re just overreacting.” He stopped behind my chair. “Are you actually going to make me drag you there? Because I will try.” Despite saying that, though, he didn’t. He just stood behind me and looked down at me. He always looked quite imposing in a full suit with his jacket on. “Min. Let’s go.”
My heart was racing. “Henry, you don’t understand, I really just need to get this finished, so if you could just give me–”
“Can we help you, Henry?” said a cool voice from the doorway.
We both turned looked over towards it and to my abject horror, Diane Frost was standing there. She wasn’t looking at me, she was looking at Henry, but it didn’t matter. I knew who was going to cop it. “I hope Min explained to you this is a closed office.” When she looked down at me, I felt sick.
“She did, and very clearly, but I’m just trying to drag her out of here for food,” Henry explained, trying to soften her. Fuck, he was good with people; he sounded so lovely. “Taking appropriate breaks is an OH&S issue, after all.”
She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “I’m sure she appreciates the gesture,” Diane said. “But you still shouldn’t be in here. Political pitches are strictly confidential.”
“You’re right, and I shouldn’t need to have that explained to me, I apologise,” he said easily. He seemed so relaxed, but I could hardly move. I was frozen in place as Henry bent down beside me and opened my drawer. I didn’t actually know what he was doing until I saw him walk out of the room, nodding respectfully at Diane as he passed her. Once he was out in the corridor he held up what was in his hand.
My jaw dropped. I’d told him about what Bree had done, but never in a million years would I have thought he’d take tips from her. He went off towards the lifts with it while I sat there feeling ill.
Diane directed me a very hard stare. “Don’t let him in here,” she said once he was gone. “I don’t care what his excuses are. Did I not make that clear enough for you?”
Apparently not. I felt so stupid. “Of course you did, it won’t happen again.”
She kept glaring through me. “Jason tells me there are some holdups with the documents?”
I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. God, could it get any worse? Of course Jason had told her. I bet he’d told her how I’d been wasting time on my phone, too. “It’s nothing that hard work can’t fix,” I said, probably sounding much more confident than I felt.
She nodded once. “Good,” she said. “Don’t make me regret choosing you to lead this project, will you?”
From the way she said that, I think she already was. And she should regret it, too. If I needed Diane Frost to come in here to tell me how to do my job, I was majorly underperforming.
I watched her leave, feeling sick, so fucking sick. I’d been so excited about this opportunity. I had been looking so forward to impressing her and exceeding her expectations and now… Well, now everything was turning to shit and I still hadn’t finished the fucking framework docs we needed. She should have chosen a more experienced project lead even if they were all loud, egotistical fucks. I wasn’t up to this, but I couldn’t pull out of it now without wrecking my career. I just had to do it and not fuck up any more than I had. Somehow. Fuck, I needed sleep, but I had this stupid dinner.
I really needed to touch up my makeup before I met Sarah’s boyfriend, and, shit, all my makeup was in my handbag and Henry had taken off with it. I didn’t know how far he’d go with it, but if he was making a point he might actually take it all the way to the restaurant.
I hurriedly shut down my laptop and pulled out the USB. I gave my desk a cursory glance to make sure I had definitely shredded everything that showed anything about the project, and then left the room. I could come back tomorrow and grab the computer if I needed it.
After I’d shut Oslo, I jogged all the way to the lifts, but Henry hadn’t even pressed the button. He was just waiting there. “I actually am very sorry about that,” he said as he passed me my handbag. “I hope I didn’t get you into too much trouble.”
I couldn’t think straight, the adrenaline was making everything feel a bit surreal. The bottom line was that I was fucking up, though. Henry couldn’t be blamed for that. “No more trouble than I already got myself in,” I said dismissively. “Fuck, I need alcohol. Lots of alcohol. And then I need to pass out and wake up at three am and keep working.”
Henry nodded once. “Sounds balanced,” he said mildly, and then offered me his hand. “It’ll all be alright, Min.” I looked and it. I felt kind of sweaty and restless, so I shook my head. He nodded again and put it back in his pocket.
When we entered the lift, I stood facing the mirrors to fix my lipstick and my eyeliner and try to do something about my hair. I looked fucking terrible, as usual. Definitely not in form to punch Canada’s project lead.
“How do I look?” I asked Henry, anyway.
He had been watching me with concern and it was a little claustrophobic. “Gorgeous, of course,” he said. “But like someone who could use a holiday. How many annual leave days do you have? I was thinking we could go across to New Zealand for a week or two. There are some great landscapes there…”
I know he was just being nice but especially right now I actually felt a little patronised, like he was suggesting I wasn’t able to cope with my job and that I needed him to help me find ways to relax. “It doesn’t matter, I can’t use them until after this pitch anyway,” I said, and then winced as I remembered Diane’s expression. “Fuck, how the fuck am I screwing this up so badly?”
He put a hand gently on my back. “Min,” he said. “You are fantastic at your job and the CEO would not have hand-picked you for a key project if you weren’t. You’ll work things out, and that mix-up back there was clearly all my fault, anyway. Let’s leave work at work and relax for once? Sarah seems very nice.”
He was right, she was nice, but that didn’t really serve to make me feel better about how I was doing at my job. Once we were out in the fresh air and walking towards the restaurant, though, I did feel a little better. Henry was right, and I had the whole weekend to work solidly on that stupid document. Additionally, Sarah had been really looking forward to this dinner so the least I could do was try and forget work and enjoy it. She was fun, I decided. It would be okay.
The restaurant was just off Darling Harbour and the outdoor dining area had palm trees lit underneath by real torches. All the furniture was heavy, rustic wood, too. It was very atmospheric.
“Hey, guys!” I recognised Sarah’s voice and looked over the sea of tables for her. She was already up and walking briskly over to us. A big, burly man was following her.
He couldn’t have looked any more like a tradie if he tried; he had the shaggy hair, the only-just-barely-dressed-enough-for-dinner look, and a walk that said, ‘I do manual labour for a living and check out my real muscles, eh?’. He had a bit of a pot-belly, too, but because he was already so stocky it didn’t look out of place. His broad smile I recognised from the photos on Sarah’s desk.
Sarah had changed for dinner and she was wearing jeans, boots and a big loose t-shirt that fell perfectly everywhere. Beside him she looked incredibly slender and stylish. “Min!” she said, touching my arm like she usually did and standing aside for her boyfriend as he caught up to her. “This is Rob, Rob, Min Lee, my boss, now!” I flinched as she said that, but took Rob’s hand when he offered it to me to shake. He was taller than me and his hands were as big as dinner plates. I managed a smile at him, regardless of how shit I was feeling.
Henry leaned forward as well and shook Rob’s hand with an incredibly practised, smooth movement. “Henry Lee,” he said.
Rob’s eyebrows went up. “Oh, ‘Lee’ as well? Are you two married already? How long?”
“Since birth,” I said, and was about to explain that it was just a really common name, but Rob clearly took what I’d said literally.
He just kind of squinted at me. “One of those arranged marriages?” Sarah was already trying really hard to smother her amusement beside him. I watched her, thinking that if I’d been in a better mood, I might have played along and see how far I could have taken that ‘arranged marriage’ thing.
Henry ruined it, though. “No, no. ‘Lee’ is just like the South Korean version of ‘Smith’, there’s a lot of us.”
“Oh, right,” Rob said, and then laughed openly. “Sorry, I’m a bit of a dick when it comes to all this cultural stuff. I grew up in far north Queensland. But don’t worry, I didn’t vote for One Nation,” he added as we started to move back to the table. “So what do you do, Henry? You remind me of the guy who hires and fires at the mines.”
That made Henry laugh. “That’s my job in a nutshell,” he said. “I’m guessing you don’t work in an office?”
Rob held the chair out for Sarah; it was actually very, very cute. She looked delighted, accepting it as he sat down beside her. “Is it that obvious?” He grinned at Henry. “I’m a fitter and turner. I work at Frost Energy up in Broome, FIFO at the moment but we’ll see.” He put his arm around Sarah.
Henry deliberately copied Rob’s chivalrous chair-move with me, giving me a little smirk. I accepted it and sat down, but I felt a bit weird. Henry and I didn’t have the sort of relationship where that happened very often and to be honest, I kind of didn’t like it. I wondered how much of that was to do with me being stressed and irritable, though.
Sarah caught my discomfort and I shrugged at her. She didn’t say anything about it, though, she just leaned into Rob’s arm. “Rob has got this amazing place up in Broome,” she gushed to us. “It’s just out of town and it’s practically on the beach. I just spent all my three and a half months of annual leave up there. It’s like a different world, I love it.”
My smile fell. Broome? Sarah’s long-term boyfriend actually owned a house in Broome and wasn’t just up there for work? I panicked for a split second before I remembered that there were no offices out there. I doubted Sarah would be at home in a mine, so Frost International probably wasn’t going to lose her just yet.
While I was stressing about that, Henry was already looking at the wine list and had flipped over to the reds. He didn’t drink red. “I hear Broome has some beautiful natural scenery,” he said, leading the conversation. I knew what he was alluding to and really wished he would stop trying to look after me, even if he was just trying to be a good boyfriend.
However, in doing so he’d apparently asked the right question because he set Rob off. “It’s fucking beautiful, you should see it.” His very broad accent was quite entertaining to listen to. “Like, I grew up in a real leafy area, you know? And out west is completely different. You’re there and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m definitely in Australia’. The colours, man.” He laughed. “Not that I get to see them during the day much, because I’m down the mines underneath monster trucks.”
Hah, that I could relate to. “I hear you,” I said. “I basically haven’t seen daylight since 2007.”
Sarah had the wine list out, too. “Min works a bit too hard,” she explained to Rob, who had been looking confused and like he was about to ask me if I worked in mines, too. Not the sharpest tool in the shed, apparently, but his big open smile made up for it. I decided I quite liked him, despite the fact I wasn’t really in the mood to like anyone.
Henry nodded, smiling briefly at me, “Yes, Min’s work ethic is a little intimidating. Though it’s why she got flown up to Sydney so I can’t complain too much about it! How did you two meet, anyway? At work as well?” He was looking back at the lovebirds.
They both laughed and looked a little sheepish. “You go first,” Sarah suggested, making an ‘after you’ gesture with her perfectly manicured hand.
I could feel Henry looking at me as he opened his mouth to speak, and I couldn’t resist the urge to mess with him. I spoke instead. “I was an impressionable young intern fresh out of university,” I said to them, knowing Henry hated the way I told this story. “I didn’t know anyone in Sydney when they flew me up here, but, boy, did the guy in HR really take care of me.”
Henry laughed nervously. “It didn’t happen quite like that, I’d never use my position to take advantage of anyone,” he said. “Plus, I wasn’t a manager then, and we were friends well before anything happened, anyway.”
It was just too much fun working him up. “But I was up here all by myself… I mean, what would have happened if he’d decided for some reason not to help me? I couldn’t risk it. I had to do whatever he said.”
Henry gave me a measured stare, and I waggled my eyebrows at him. “Excuse me,” he said neutrally to our dinner guests as he turned bright red, and then pretended to strangle me.
They both laughed, and that made me feel a little better. Sarah flagged a waiter from across the patio. “Just as I suspected, it beats our story. I saw Rob at my local and we only made it as far as his car.”
“Yeah, now she’s stuck with me,” he said, sounding chuffed. He hugged her up against his side so he could kiss the crown of her head. He was so strong that her thick chair actually tipped sideways as he did it, it was like watching a Rottweiler trying to cuddle a kitten. He left his arm around her as we all kept chatting.
After we’d ordered our wine and our food and gotten stuck into the complimentary bread, we got into our respective hobbies. Rob was a bit of a sports nut – no surprises there – but since neither Henry nor I were at all interested in sport we had to look for something else to discuss.
Sarah sat up in her chair. “Oh! That’s right!” She fished around in her pockets for her phone. “Min’s like this mad artist. What’s that website where you put your stuff again?”
I had finally managed to start relaxing, but as soon as she said the words ‘Deviant Art’ that all faded. The painting of me as a guy was still the first thing in my gallery. I suddenly had awful visions about what they would both say if they saw it.
Before I could stop him, Henry told her, “’Deviant Art’ dot com.” He smiled at me, obviously not understanding I wasn’t just panicking because I was shy about my art. “It’s ‘Min Lee’ with an extra ‘e’ at the end. She has some amazing landscapes in there.”
Rob was leaning over to look at Sarah’s phone. “You sound pretty proud of her,” he commented to Henry.
Henry beamed at me. “You bet.”
Just you wait until you hear what they have to say about that painting, Henry, I thought, wondering about the possibility of just running off with Sarah’s phone before my profile loaded. I obviously couldn’t do anything so melodramatic, so I just sat there bracing myself for their reactions.
“Oh, wow,” Sarah remarked as she watched something load on her screen. “I haven’t seen this one before, it’s great. When did you have short hair? It really suits you.” My heart almost stopped; she was looking at the painting. I kept waiting for her to say something about the fact my chest was flat in it, but instead of commenting on anything to do with that, she just looked up at me. Her eyes went straight to my hair, I think trying to judge whether or not it could have grown that much in the months that I hadn’t been working with her.
I didn’t know how to answer her question, though. How do you say, ‘I haven’t had short hair since I was fourteen, but I just felt like painting myself as a guy’? I couldn’t speak at all; I felt strangely disconnected from everything. I didn’t know what came next.
For all that Henry had been subtly annoying me with his over-attentiveness, he did actually rescue me there. “It’s been a few years since her hair was that short,” he said vaguely, and then shot me a bit of a quizzical glance about why I hadn’t answered that one myself.
Sarah looked between us, and then back at the phone. Rob took it from her so he could get a better look. “Fuck, you painted that?” I nodded mechanically. “Jesus. I can’t even draw a map of how to get from the airport to my house and it’s three roads. That’s fucking impressive. What else is there in here?” He started tapping at the screen, presumably flicking through my gallery.
And that was it. There was no shock, no disgust. No anything, really. Rob didn’t seem like the sort of person who could diplomatically gloss over a bad reaction to something. So, they thought that painting was a genuine self-portrait, and the fact I was clearly cross-dressing in it didn’t even warrant a mention. The only thing they’d been judging was the quality of my art. I should have been relieved, but I wasn’t. Deep in my gut I felt like there wasn’t a more dangerous reaction they could have had than being fine with me in that painting.
It meant I could do it. I could actually do it, I could be that cool. I remembered those clothes I’d bought yesterday and how I looked in them. I could do it, I thought, all I’d need to do is cut my hair and deal with my breasts somehow and then holy mother of fucking god, Min, what the fuck are you thinking?
Had I forgotten I had a boyfriend? A job? Parents? How did I really think that would actually go? And it wasn’t like I just wanted to cross-dress, either: how the hell did I think I was going to ‘deal with’ my breasts? Magically make them disappear? God this was so fucked up. And where did it stop? If I somehow ‘dealt with’ my breasts, then what? I remembered fantasising about being a guy punching Canada’s lead, and I felt so, so sick. No, please no. Please don’t let this be it.
“Oh, hah!” Rob said really loudly, mercifully distracting me. He looked around us as he startled people on nearby tables. “Sorry,” he said more quietly. “I’m used to yelling at people in mine shafts. Anyway, you play World of Warcraft? I haven’t played that for ages.”
I guessed he’d found a painting I’d done of one of the locations in the game. “I used to,” I said, trying very, very hard to focus on that instead of how shaky I was suddenly feeling. “I don’t have the time now. Mainly I just play first person shooters.”
“Xbox or PS?” he immediately asked, leaning forward and giving the phone back to Sarah. Conversely, Sarah rolled her eyes and leaned back, a long-suffering smile on her face. She kept tabbing through my paintings while Rob waited for my answer. “I hope you say Xbox, because Halo is unreal.”
I kind of wanted to hear what Sarah had to say about my art, but I didn’t want to be rude. “Playstation, actually,” I said a little apologetically. “Although I do have an Xbox that I never use. And I think I actually have one of the Halos, too.”
“Is it Reach?” he asked. “Fuck, that was good. I never stop replaying that. I tried to get Sarah into it, but no dice.” He hugged her.
“Not a game person,” she said, looking up from her phone. “Sorry, guys! Although it’s pretty hilarious watching him flip out when he gets killed.”
Rob looked indignant. “Which is hardly ever,” he said, puffing out his thick chest. “I’m a pro.”
Henry had been watching me with a smug grin. “That sounds like a certain someone I know.”
I scoffed, feigning being absolutely fine. “You’re just jealous he can’t beat me.”
For all Rob looked like a bit of a simple creature, he had some choice things to say about various game series. It was particularly amusing to sit and listen to him rant about what he didn’t like about Grand Theft Auto and why the franchise was ‘losing its way’. I wasn’t a big fan of the series myself – I hadn’t even finished the last one – but what he was saying made me want to play it again to see if he was right. That, and listening to him meant I didn’t have to think about myself.
He didn’t stop when our food arrived, either. In fact, he quickly forgot about his dinner. Henry had asked him some questions about the Arkham Series and he needed to passionately list all the ways in which it had ruined one of the the characters.
I wasn’t really that big a fan of that universe, so I’d been picking the bits of food I liked out of my pasta and half-listening as I tried not to let my mind wander. Sarah had been eyeing off Rob’s food, but every time she’d tried to ask him for some, he hadn’t noticed because of how loudly he was speaking. The last time she tried, I made eye-contact with her and we both laughed silently.
I lifted my fork and made a very subtle gesture with it towards Rob’s plate, mouthing, ‘Go on’. I looked up at him deep in conversation with Henry.
She smirked, and reached carefully under his arm to steal a prawn. He didn’t notice, and I pretended to applaud her. While the boys were talking, Sarah slowly escalated her food stealing until she just took his plate and said casually, “Mind if I take this for a sec?”
He sat back automatically to let her, still talking to Henry, but halfway through her putting it in front of herself, he double-took. “Hey!” he yelled, again startling the other patrons around us. “I’ve got a figure to maintain.” He patted his pot-belly with a grin. The two of them proceeded to play tug-o’-war with the plate for a few seconds. He let her win, but she gave it back to him, anyway. I laughed right the way along with them until they leaned in and started kissing. Then I stopped.
Henry and I just kind of sat there awkwardly, not looking at each other. Under normal circumstances I might jokingly have given Henry a really exaggerated kiss, but I just couldn’t face doing that right now. I kept thinking about the whole cross-dressing thing, and worrying about what would happen if Henry found out. I sighed, took my wine, and poured it down my throat.
Rob caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and stopped kissing Sarah. “Whoa, did you just drink all of that in one go?” I looked from him to the empty glass, and swallowed. He was clearly impressed. “Respect,” he said with conviction. “I dated a girl up on the mines who was the same. She could do a pint in under four seconds and she drank us all under the table, she was basically a bloke in a skirt. I always thought I’d end up with a tomboy like you guys, you know, with the video games and stuff.” While the colour was draining from my face, he looked affectionately at Sarah, and ruffled her beautiful hair. “Somehow I fell for Miss Girly, here, instead. What are the odds?” She gazed up at him adoringly.
They kissed briefly again, while I just sat there with my mouth open. ‘Basically a bloke in a skirt’? He hadn’t meant it as an insult; in fact, it sounded like he meant it as a compliment. It didn’t feel like one, though. I looked down at my own skirt, feeling all that adrenaline that I’d managed to quell before starting to surge back.
The worst part was that he was right. Everything just fit into place in my head like a completed jigsaw puzzle. I got it, and it made me feel sick.
At what point was I going to actually address how looking like this made me feel?
My heart started going again, and I panicked. No. No. Not at this point, I thought, not with work. Fuck! Not at this point. I took a few deep breaths while I stared down at my half-eaten dinner and tried to conceal my anxiety. Not now, I couldn’t have a personal crisis right now. I had too much going on, I could worry about whatever issues I was having in a few weeks time when the project was complete. I just didn’t like my chances of being able to cope with this and the shit that was going on at Frost. I tried to calmly tell myself that I was probably jumping to conclusions and maybe when work wasn’t so crazy it would all make sense. I could deal with all of this much later after I’d had time to think and reflect and god fucking damnit why wouldn’t my heart just chill the fuck out?
I needed to not be around everyone. “Excuse me for a second,” I said as evenly as I could, standing up.
They stopped kissing, and Sarah wiped her mouth. “Sorry, that was pretty inappropriate, wasn’t it? I think I’ve had too much wine.” She laughed.
I smiled tensely, stepping away from my chair and heading straight for the restroom.
It was empty, thank god. I went and shut myself in the far cubicle and leant on the door. My heart was pounding in full force, so much so that I could even feel it in my neck.
I can’t do this, I thought over and over. I can’t. I can’t do this. Every possible scenario started to crystallise in my head: Henry and I breaking up over it and me having to go to work every day and see him, me having to leave Frost because of it… or even me just needing to leave Frost anyway because if they didn’t respect me now, would they respect me if they found out what I wanted to do to myself? I’d be the laughing stock of the work place, just like high school. They were probably all either laughing or grumbling to each other about me already. What would they say if I just rocked up in a suit? What was I fucking thinking about dressing up like a guy anyway? How the fuck was that going to solve anything? It didn’t change reality. It didn’t change the fact I was in this body. It didn’t change anything, it just fucked everything up a hundred times worse than it already was. Why did I want to do that?
And why couldn’t I just forget all this, accept that it wasn’t possible and just be happy with myself? Why?
I leant against the wall and closed my eyes, trying to slow my breathing. Now was really the worst possible time in the world for me to be having a personal crisis, just when I needed to be able to focus on working really hard. Could it all just fucking go away? Could everything?
The restroom door opened and I stepped against the back wall so no one would guess what I was doing in here.
“This is actually the women’s toilets,” I pointed out.
He ignored me. “Min, are you okay? You’ve been in here for a while.” I could see his work shoes underneath the door of my cubicle.
I sighed at length; my breath wavered. “I just want to be alone for a few minutes.”
The door rattled as he leant on the other side of it. “You’ve had a few minutes. What’s up? Work?” God, he was being so lovely and all I could do was being irritated by it and wish he’d go away.
You want to know what’s up? I thought, I’ll tell you what’s up. I closed my eyes and imagined actually being able to say it to him: there’s something wrong with me. Henry, there’s something wrong with me. Please, please, make it stop. Fuck, now I was crying. Could I get any more pathetic?
“Min,” he gently prompted me.
Even with those words on my lips, “I just want to go home,” was what I actually said. The depth of resignation in my voice surprised even me.
Henry didn’t say anything for a few seconds. In the end, he didn’t argue with me. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll tell them you’re not feeling well.”
I didn’t want to sound like I was crying, but I think I did, anyway. “And… Is there a back way out of this place?”
When he spoke there was so much compassion in his voice, that god it hurt to hear him speak. “Oh, Min,” he said through the door. “I’ll sort it out.”
There was a back way out of the restaurant, and it was through the kitchen. It meant I needed to be herded past a series of chefs, sous-chefs and kitchenhands who all stared at me like I had three heads.
Henry didn’t tell me what Sarah and Rob had said about me leaving early, but it didn’t matter. I was convinced they both thought I was crazy. This was the second dinner I’d walked out of halfway through because of my stupid issues. I couldn’t even get a fucking dinner right.
Henry offered to hail us a taxi, but I shook my head. We walked.
Despite having failed to comfort me so far, he still insisted on trying. “Everything just seems worse at the moment because of how much pressure you’re under at work,” he told me as soon as we were walking alone. “I know you’ve got a big project running, but I really think for your own sanity you need a week off. Everything will be okay, Min. You just really, really need a holiday.”
From myself, I thought. “I can’t,” I said. “If I blow this it’s over for my career.”
We’d walked nearly the whole way home before he spoke again. “I know work is one of the main issues here, but are we going to talk about why you left dinner? The timing was pretty specific.”
I swallowed. That was the last thing that I wanted to do. Not with Henry. “No.” When he went to speak anyway, I stopped walking for a moment to accentuate my point. “Please,” I said, interrupting him. “I don’t want to discuss it.”
This time, he pushed me to talk. “Because I know you have some serious self esteem issues which are linked to how you look, and I know that Rob said you were a–”
“–Henry!” I said, throwing my hands up to stop him from speaking. There was a really raw edge to my voice, and I was too tired to disguise it. “Can you stop being so fucking understanding for like two seconds? You have to be fucking sick of my bullshit by now, you really want to hear more detail about it?”
He watched me, not reacting to what I was saying.
I didn’t want to cry again. “Yes, I have some fucking ‘serious self-esteem issues that are linked to how I look’, and if you knew the half of them you’d run a fucking mile. Do you really want me to go into all of that? Really?”
His eyes swept my body and then ended up locked on mine. He took a step towards me. “I want to do whatever makes you feel better, and you’re obviously desperate to tell someone,” he said, and went to reach towards my face. I shook my head, and he let his hand drop. “And not that I’ve ever particularly cared what my girlfriends looked like, but I’ll say it as many times as you need to hear it: Min, I’ve always genuinely loved how you look.”
I could barely speak, and I lost my fight against tears. “Henry, I just hate it.”
He held his arms out to present himself, looking down at his shoes for a second and then back at me with a gentle smile. “And look, I’m still here with you, regardless of how much you hate yourself. Or why.”
Just that image of him standing there on the side of the road with a gentle, accepting smile. Loving me despite everything. God, it hurt.
“I don’t understand,” I said, and meant it, about everything. About Henry loving this, about the fact I was doing so badly at work suddenly, and most of all, how wrong I felt about how I looked now. “I just don’t understand anything, and I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Do you want to try?” he asked me very carefully. I shook my head. “Don’t forget I’m a psychologist.”
I shook my head again. He respected that, and we just walked home together. He did pause in the door of my apartment as he gave me my handbag, though. “I know you want to be alone right now,” he said, “but I’m not sure I should leave you alone. You’re not in a good place.”
I rolled my eyes. “Henry, I’m not going to kill myself.”
He looked a little alarmed. “Well, that’s good,” he said, I think satisfied that I wasn’t, “but I meant in general. No one should have to feel like you’re feeling and also be alone.”
And yet that was exactly how I wanted to be. “I’ll be okay,” I said. “I’m just going to go to sleep, anyway. I’m exhausted.” It didn’t look like I’d managed to persuade him, so I added, “Literally, I’ve had a really long week at work and I’m going to have a shower and then go to bed. I’ll feel much better after I’ve slept. There’s no point in you staying.”
“There would be a point,” he said, but he stepped out of the doorway anyway. “I’m not going to force you, though. I know you like your space. I hope you won’t be too upset if I decide to check on you over the weekend, though.”
I shook my head. “Goodnight, Henry.”
He put a warm hand behind my neck and kissed my forehead. “I’m here for you,” he said simply. “Whatever’s going on.”
I didn’t actually end up having a proper shower. I was too exhausted, I just kind of ran the water over myself and then at some point realised I should probably get out.
I had to face myself naked in the bathroom mirror when I was done, and it was still so weird. My hair was plastered against my neck and shoulders. I had a vision of myself just going ‘fuck everything’ and taking scissors to it. They were right there on my bathroom vanity, beside some makeup that I’d left out. I looked down at them for a second. They were new, they’d be really sharp. It would be so easy, I thought, but, fuck, who was I kidding? I couldn’t do that, I had my job to worry about. In one movement I just swept everything off the vanity and listened to it clatter across the tiles. Whatever, I thought, I went to put on my pyjamas.
The track-pants hadn’t come back from the wash, yet, so I just put on the jeans with Henry’s big old t-shirt and shut the wardrobe to a reflection of myself in the door. I looked like an eighteen-year old guy.
“Are you happy now?” I asked the mirror. “Is this what you want?”
I watched myself for a few moments, completely not understanding why this was how I felt comfortable. In the end I was the same person, so why was how I looked so critically important to me? I exhaled and shook my head. I had no idea how I was going to sleep. Wine might help.
I was so busy glaring down my front when I went into the kitchen that I’d forgotten about the flowers Bree had gotten me. I looked up just as I passed the kitchen bench and found myself staring straight into the gaping maw of one of the bigger ones.
There was already so much adrenaline in me that it gave me the fucking fright of my life. For about a second I literally thought there was an alien creature jumping at me from my bench.
I’d backed against the oven with my heart going again when I realised that it was actually just a flower. The rest of them were sinisterly lit by the glow coming from the city outside, and because they’d started to die, all their colour had faded and they looked slightly skeletal. Who the fuck buys these?
“Fucking Bree!” I said aloud, putting a hand on my chest. Those fucking flowers. Even as I said it I could hear her saying soulfully, ‘But it’s not their fault!’.
God, it was so ridiculous. I ended up drinking a few mouthfuls of red wine out of a bottle while I stared at them and tried to calm myself down. They were hideous, and I kept discovering new hideous things about them as they withered. I remembered Bree had said they’d reminded her of me, and I was feeling pretty fucking hideous right now, so it seemed apt. Shit, and I hadn’t replied to her before, either. I should do that quickly unless I wanted to add another person to the list ‘casualties of Min’s issues’.
I put the wine back in the cupboard and then grabbed my phone from my handbag and went and lay on the bed.
Sarah had texted me, ‘Hey Min, hope you’re feeling okay. Rob’s a bit sick, too! Must have been something in the food. Had a great time anyway, great to finally get you out of the office! See you on Monday!’.
I exhaled at length; at least she didn’t think I was crazy. On one hand I was glad I could keep her quarantined from my personal crap, on the other hand I hated lying to her. I closed text messaging and opened Deviant Art, going straight to my notes.
Bree’s latest message just read, “im sorry if i said something wrong again i didnt mean it 😦 😦 😦 pls dont ignore me 😦 😦 :(“
I took another deep breath. Fuck, I couldn’t do anything right, now Bree thought I was angry with her. I reconsidered that one; to be fair, I had been, but it all seemed extremely hypocritical now. I sighed and ran my hand over my face. I wasn’t sure I had energy to comfort her, to be honest. I was too fucking tired to deal with my own crap, let alone anyone else’s. But, in all honesty, I couldn’t leave her feeling like that, could I?
I hit reply and thought for a second. “Sorry, Bree, I’m not deliberately ignoring you! Things are just crazy for me at work at the moment. We’ll talk soon.” I read it a couple of times to make sure it seemed chirpy enough, and then sent it.
It took her literally two seconds to reply, “before we met u used to reply really quickly 😦 😦 😦 so like u can say its about work all u want but yeah………:(“
I had really only been planning to tick the ‘replied to Bree’ box so I didn’t feel like shit about it. I didn’t want to start a conversation with her, but the thought of her being heartbroken and thinking I didn’t like her was awful. God, she needed not to just open herself up like that to people, she was going to get hurt.
Since I didn’t want to be the one to actually hurt her, what should I say to make her stop feeling like everything was her fault, though? I could make something up, but I’d been grumpy at her for lying to me so that wasn’t a great option. On the other hand, I really didn’t want to confide in her. I’d have to be vague.
“I’ve been having a hard time recently over some personal stuff I don’t want to discuss. It’s not you at all.” As soon as I sent it, I regretted it. Why would I share that with a seventeen year old?
She took a bit longer to reply this time, saying, “hang on a sec im gonna make something for u,” and leaving me in limbo.
I didn’t know how long she wanted me to wait, all I really wanted was to go to sleep and just pretend today had never happened. Unfortunately, she was quite unpredictable and the thin slither of me that didn’t just want to go to bed forever was curious about what she was up to.
It took her about five or ten minutes to get back to me, and when she replied, it was with a link and several winkie faces.
I tapped it, and my media player opened. That made me raise my eyebrows, but not half as far as they went up when I heard her voice blaring out of the speakers of my phone.
“Hey, Min!” she said. “I’m sorry you’re feeling like crap, but I bet I know something that will cheer you up!” She giggled. “I don’t know how good your Korean is because you sound like a total Aussie, but on the off-chance that you actually speak it, I spent all evening learning something for you. I hope I don’t screw it up too much!”
Then, she began to sing.
She was terrible. All her high notes were just a little bit flat, and her timing was way off. Despite her abysmal musicianship I could still understand her: she was singing Kpop. A Girls’ Generation song, I think, but Kpop always sounded completely generic to me so I couldn’t be sure. I had no idea if she knew how bad she was, but she was so darn enthusiastic about it that it was hard to criticise her.
Towards the end of the song, the second-hand embarrassment factor was just so high I ended up with my pillow over my head, laughing from the pain.
She finished off by saying, “Hope I didn’t do too badly and I hope you liked it!”
When my phone fell silent, I took the pillow off my head. She hoped she hadn’t done too badly? She could not have done worse. That was almost a YouTube infamy level of terrible.
I didn’t really know how tell her she was potentially one of the world’s worst singers, so I decided not to comment on the song at all. I just typed, “You’re silly ;)”.
“i know 😉 😉 😉” was her reply.
I decided to leave the conversation there and get some sleep, and when I leaned up to put my phone on the bedside table, I caught sight of myself in the mirror and everything that had happened just hit me again. I flopped back against my mattress and pulled the doona up under my chin. Whatever, I thought, the wine would kick in soon.