After a full weekend of dressing exactly how I felt comfortable, I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it actually was to face my work clothes on Monday morning. I hadn’t even thought about it because I’d been putting them on for five years, but now here I was, standing with my wardrobe open, taking ten minutes to talk myself into putting on a proper bra. I’d never liked bras, but I guess I’d always just figured they were an unavoidable part of being female. Now, it was like a switch had been flipped. I was looking at this lacy black bra in my hands asking myself, ‘why the hell would I wear this?’.
When I’d finally managed to get it on and get a blouse over it, looking at the shape of my breasts in the mirror was a really strange, uncomfortable feeling. I felt exposed. I felt like people could see something I didn’t want them to and I really had to spend a good minute or two not taking everything off so I could just put the crop-top on underneath. All my summer work blouses were floaty and thin anyway so even with the tight crop-top you’d be able to see I had breasts.
The skirts were a different matter. I did actually own a pair of work pants, but they were tailored to give me the illusion of curvy hips. Mum had had them made for me and I’d only kept them because I was terrified one day she’d demand to see me in them. I’d never liked them, but I put them on anyway and then inspected myself. Not surprisingly, they gave me curvy hips. I made a face at my reflection; I preferred the way my hoodie narrowed me out. Still, I couldn’t manage stockings today, so pants it was.
Then I did my makeup, slipped on a pair of heels and rushed out the door.
I made slower progress than usual to work because I’d run out of band-aids and without stockings I kept reopening my blisters. Furthermore, all the reflective surfaces I normally needed to brave on the way to work seemed to have multiplied over the weekend. Looking at myself from every angle like this was depressing, I hated it. Whatever I ended up privately deciding I was, it definitely wouldn’t be this.
It was early when I got to work and none of my team were in yet, but I could see the light on in Jason’s office so I thought I’d stick my head in there.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said, knocking on his open door as I entered. “Did you get a chance to have a look at the Pink docs?”
Jason turned his attention from the screen to me, and gave me a very obvious once-over. If I thought I was going to be able to forget about my body today, boy, was I wrong.
“Mini in pants,” he said, ignoring my question. “I didn’t even know you owned pants, I don’t think I’ve seen you in anything except a skirt in five years. Must be hard to find pants long enough with those legs, hey?” He laughed at himself.
There probably wasn’t anything else this man could possibly do that could make me dislike him more than I already did. “I felt like a change,” I said pleasantly, instead of telling him he was a fucking prick and suggesting alternate places he could shove his observations. “So, did you get a chance to read the framework and what we’ve done with the requirements so far?”
His laugh tapered off and he nodded. “I did, it’s not too bad,” he leaned back in his chair, considering me. “I like your reasoning, Russia looks like a good direction and there’s definitely a market for ridiculously expensive jewellery over there. The upper class is just drenched in oil and mineral money. Did you know Minerals have trade partners in Vladivostok and Moscow?” I shook my head. “Speak to Frost Energy about getting some leads for buy-ins there. I’ll forward you an email from the guy you need to meet with. He’ll probably know people who know people. Be discreet when you set up meetings, though, don’t put any details in writing.” At my nod, he remembered something and added, “And for fuck’s sake do something about that kid in your team.” He sounded annoyed. “What’s his name? Ali?Mohammad?”
He had to be fucking kidding me. “It’s ‘John’,” I said, discovering there were actually things Jason could do to make me dislike him more.
“Yeah, whatever,” he said dismissively. “Anyway, he sent that last component unencrypted and that’s just not good enough.”
I winced. I hadn’t noticed, but it didn’t surprise me. It was frustrating that Jason had been the one to pick up on that, though, because I’d rather have been on top of that issue myself. “Will do.”
As I was leaving, he stopped me. “Oh, and Mini?” I turned back toward him. I couldn’t tell if he was going to say something serious or not. “You did a great job of turning the project around on the weekend. But let’s make sure we stay on track, yeah?”
I kept expecting him to finish off with a snide jab at me, but he didn’t. He just went back to whatever he’d been doing before I’d called in on him. That actually just made me angrier, because the fact that he’d complimented me made me felt really proud. I shouldn’t enjoy getting the approval of pricks like Jason, but apparently I did. Bastard.
I’d gone back into Oslo and sat at my desk, conflicted as to whether I wanted to be angry at Jason or relieved that the project was on track again. In the end, my relief won out.
My meltdown last week apparently hadn’t ruined everything for us after all. We were making good time if Jason thought we were up to the point of scoping contacts; contacts were just one step away from setting up pitches, and that meant we might actually have signatures right after Easter. There was a good chance I could avoid fucking this up if I could just keep my head together and make good use of my time.
There were no clocks in this office – on purpose, I think, so we couldn’t gaze at them and lament all the hours of our lives we were losing – so I took my phone out of my handbag to check what time it was. If it was before eight-thirty I could probably go downstairs and buy Henry some sort of pastry to thank him for being wonderful. As I glanced at the time I noticed I’d gotten a text message.
Bree, I thought, feeling even better. I opened it. “so ive picked like the top 3 places id go if i had to run away….have u been to new zealand canada or sweden???”
I grinned. I had actually been to Canada a number of times on business, but I’d never been able to see any of it because I’d spent the whole time working. I didn’t think that was her point, though. “I take it your birthday went well, then?”
“i saved u some cake. can i bring it over before it goes gross??? 🙂 🙂 🙂 ”
I sat back in my chair. I really needed to focus on my work, but since it had been her eighteenth and she was hinting at it not having been so great… well, I supposed I could make an exception, maybe just an hour or so. She’d been over on the weekend and I’d still managed to get everything done, after all. “Okay, but I won’t be home until after six, and an hour at the max because I’ll still have a lot of work.”
“did u buy me that present yet??? 🙂 🙂 🙂 ”
I groaned. Did she think I just sat around looking for stuff to do? “I haven’t had time to, and if you want to come over tonight I won’t have had time to, either.”
“Must be a pretty interesting conversation,” a woman’s voice said from behind me. She sounded like she was smiling. “’Morning, Min.”
The suddenness of it got my adrenaline pumping; I hadn’t noticed anyone come in. It was just Sarah. “Jesus, you scared the hell out of me!” For a moment I was relieved, and then I remembered I’d run out on her and Rob on Friday.
She slung her handbag off her shoulder into her drawer, looking kind of smug. “Why, what were you afraid I’d see you doing?” she said, grinning at me. “Something naughty? You look guilty enough.”
I blushed, which was stupid, because I wasn’t doing anything naughty. “Yeah, nothing naughtier than making birthday plans with friends,” I said. “God, and you interrupted us just as she was about to describe her cake to me!”
Sarah had a big smile on her face as she rummaged around in her bag for her purse. “Hah! I’m guessing you’re feeling better, then? You didn’t look great when you got up from the table on Friday.”
That. The memory of it didn’t make me feel that great, either. I hoped I looked as apologetic as I felt. “Yeah, I’m sorry I disappeared on everyone like that,” I said. “I was feeling pretty crap.”
She shrugged. “Rob wasn’t great either, actually. If anyone’s sorry it should be me for choosing a place that made everyone sick!” I felt bad about letting her believe that, but there weren’t many other options. “You can choose somewhere next time,” she said, finding her purse and then standing up. “And by the way, Rob loves you. He was bothering me all weekend before he flew out to invite you over for games and I had to explain to him that some of us have work to do.”
I laughed at that. “We can do that next time he’s down, I guess. He’s great.”
She immediately dissolved into a mushy smile. “Isn’t he just? I don’t think I’ve ever met a nicer man. I get that he’s not Einstein, but it doesn’t matter. He’s everything else.” She remembered something and cringed. “Also, by the way, sorry for basically making out in front of you. I keep forgetting how bad I am on alcohol.”
I was still snickering at the Einstein comment. “It’s okay. I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure it was just the food that made me sick.”
“I did wonder,” she said, grinning again. “But I didn’t think we were that disgusting! He wasn’t groping me or anything.”
At the mention of groping my eyes darted downward on her. I wished they hadn’t, because her curves were all deliberately on display and looking at them made me self-conscious. She was clearly so comfortable with who she was and that was in stark fucking contrast to how I felt. Fuck, she was so lucky. She probably didn’t even know how lucky she was. I liked her, though, so I couldn’t really resent her for it.
Unfortunately, she caught me looking and craned her neck downward. “Don’t tell me I’ve put this top on inside out again.”
I think I might have gone a bit red. “No, I was just looking at what you’re wearing.”
Her eyes went straight to my body, and she seemed to think she understood. “Oh, because you’re wearing pants for once? Yeah,” she looked down at her own pants. “I can’t be bothered with stockings most of the time. I like how sexy they make me feel but I always seem to catch them on stuff and rip them.”
Sexy was something I’d never felt in stockings, not a single day in the five years I’d been wearing them. I’d never felt even slightly sexy in these clothes. The thought of needing to wear them every day until I retired was exhausting. Thirty-five more years of feeling unsexy and weird. The foreverness of that number was so depressing.
She had her hands on her hips and was watching me a little too closely. When I realised, it made me nervous. “Min, is something up? I didn’t really want to say anything, but you’ve been kind of off-colour since I came in.”
I had no intention of telling her; she was the only person I actually liked at Frost aside from Henry. Oh, and speaking of him, I’d actually been on my way downstairs before I’d gotten Bree’s message and Sarah had rocked up.
“Just stressed out, I think,” I said dismissively, and reached into my bottom drawer to grab my purse. “I’m going to go downstairs and buy something sweet for Henry. You want a coffee?”
She didn’t press me for an answer, which I appreciated. “Okay,” she said, still giving me a bit of a sceptical look. “I was just going to get an energy drink, but I’ll come for the walk.”
I ended up buying Henry a custard danish, and when I went to visit him in HR, Sean Frost was sitting on the edge of Henry’s desk playing with a gun-shaped stressball I’d bought Henry a couple of years ago. Henry was trying his best to look calm and professional, but I didn’t miss the pinch at the corners of his mouth. When he spotted me in the office, he looked markedly relieved. “Min!”
Sean looked up at me, too, and flashed me a friendly smile. I nodded politely at him. “I hope I haven’t interrupted anything. The door was open.”
Sean shook his head. “No, you’re fine. I’m about to head off anyway.”
Henry seemed just about ready to push Sean out of the door himself. “Pants,” he commented as I walked around the table to him, leaning back in his chair for a moment to inspect them. “You look lovely, they really suit you. Change is as good as a holiday, right?”
Those compliments made me uneasy. I didn’t feel like they suited me, I didn’t want to look ‘lovely’, and if he only knew the type of changes I wanted to make… He was just being nice, though. Like he always was. Sarah wasn’t the only one with a great boyfriend. On that note, I handed him the paper bag with the danish in it. “I bought you some breakfast,” I said. “I know it’s not low-fat muesli, but it’s better than nothing, right?”
He chuckled. “Thank you,” he said, accepting it and peeking inside. “Ooh! Now that’s definitely more interesting than muesli. Thanks for thinking of me, Min.” He smiled up at me and patted my hand. That smile… fuck, he was wonderful. He was so wonderful. I could never tell him about me, never, because watching that smile be replaced by something else entirely would just kill me.
I let my hand linger on his, wanting to tell him just how great he was, but Sean was still sitting across from us and it would probably be inappropriate. I just smiled back at Henry for a moment instead, and then nodded politely at Sean again when I went to leave.
Just as I was going, Sean said, “Actually, I need to duck upstairs for a couple of minutes,” and hopped off the desk. He threw the stressball at Henry, who caught it automatically and then set it carefully back down where it belonged on his desk. Sean was already walking towards me. “Want some company?”
I didn’t mind – he was the co-CEO of Frost International for Chrissake – but over behind Sean I could see Henry looking like he was going to leap across the room and throttle him. I smiled tightly at Sean anyway and let him lead me out, throwing an apologetic glance over my shoulder at Henry.
Sean moved briskly as we went towards the lifts, but because my legs were longer it wasn’t a problem for me to match his pace. “So how’s that project coming along?” he asked me, just to make conversation. “I hope my sister isn’t riding you too hard.”
“We’re on track,” I said, feeling relieved about being able to say that. “So the hard work is worth it.”
He looked sideways at me as he pressed the button. The doors from the lift I’d used a couple of minutes ago opened. “I suddenly understand why she put you on the team,” he said, I think commenting on my work ethic. “When do you pitch?”
I shook my head as we stepped inside. “No dates yet.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Even with the state election coming up in a couple of weeks? That’s strange.”
I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to say, he knew the project was confidential. “Well, you know what it’s like setting up meetings with people in cabinet.”
He tilted his head. “You’re probably right. I mainly get other people to set this sort of thing up, so I’m not likely to know what I’m talking about.” I must have been looking a little too hard at my reflection, because the next thing he said was, “New pants?”
That surprised me. Had I been that obvious? “Not new, exactly. I just haven’t worn them before.”
He nodded. “And you don’t like them?” I pressed my lips together and he laughed. “I hear you. Try being a CEO and having to spend twenty-four seven in a suit,” he said. “And my wife gets so upset when I crease them, too. I can’t have any fun. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it must be to have to do all of that but also in heels.”
Jesus, he was so right, so right that I just had to laugh. When I stopped, he was smiling at me in the mirrors. It wasn’t flirtatious, I don’t think. My best guess was that he could see how nervous I was in his presence and he was trying to make me relax. It was working. Why the fuck did Henry hate him so much? And Diane, too? He was nice.
As the doors slid open on thirty-six, they opened to two people, Jason and Sarah.
They had been discussing something in front of the vending machine, but stopped when they saw us. Sarah looked pleased to see me, but Jason’s eyes couldn’t have been narrower. He abandoned whatever conversation he’d been having with Sarah to walk over to us as we got out of the lift. “What are you doing with this tool, Min?” he asked, grinning at Sean. “Didn’t Diane tell you he’s bad news?”
Sean didn’t look offended in the slightest. “Not doing a great job of selling me to your employees, Jace,” he fired right back. “What is it you do again?”
“Shitloads of paperwork, mate,” Jason said, freely swearing in front of a CEO. “Paperwork forever. Want a smoke before the meeting?”
Sean patted his chest and hip pockets. They were empty. “I hope you’ve got some.”
As they left, Sean turned around and nodded a goodbye to me. It felt really good to be acknowledged, especially by someone who wasn’t a total prick like Jason.
They swaggered off together like old high school buddies. I might actually have thought that’s what explained their familiarity with each other except I was pretty sure Jason was quite a lot younger than Sean.
I walked up to Sarah, and she handed me one of the Red Bull’s she’d been holding. “What was that about?” she asked me, and I shook my head as we followed them away from the lifts.
Out across the floor on the way back to Oslo, we could see them walk out onto the alcove balcony. They were deep in conversation, laughing and joking around with each other as they lit their cigarettes. At one point Sean flexed – he actually was kind of built – and Jason made some comment we couldn’t hear through the glass. With their muscular, broad shoulders and flat abs, they were both in pretty great shape and the very epitome of ‘man’.
That’s what I wanted to be? That? I frowned at them. I did recall reading on the forums that a lot of the trans men wanted to bulk up, and I personally had absolutely zero desire to have muscles. Did that mean I really wasn’t one? Because I didn’t want to be hairy or have muscles? Then again, Henry wasn’t muscular or particularly hairy, there was nothing unmanly about him. I briefly asked myself if maybe I just wanted to wear men’s clothes and that was all, but as much as I really wished with all my heart for that to be the case, I knew it wasn’t. Women didn’t normally want to make their breasts disappear. Just wearing a suit wouldn’t be enough for me.
“What do you think’s going on with those two?” Sarah asked me thoughtfully, distracting me from my identity crisis. We’d stopped to lean on the wall outside Oslo, which was still empty. It was nearly nine, so I didn’t know where the hell my team was. I’d need to speak to them about that.
I didn’t really understand Sarah’s question, though. Was she asking about how they knew each other? “What do you mean?”
She snorted. “Well, if you believe the rumours about what they do together…” she said, making a circular motion towards them with her drink and grinning.
I made a face and shook my head. “Nah, Sean’s married,” I said, thinking of that smile he’d had on his face when he’d talked about his ‘beautiful’ wife.
Sarah just turned her head to stare at me, and then laughed like she did when I’d said something really funny. “Okay,” she said as she recovered. “Wow, you’re serious. Okay. You want to know something?” I narrowed my eyes at her as she kept going. “I actually kind of thought when I caught you texting this morning that you might be cheating on Henry, and that the danish was maybe a guilt-apology thing even though he didn’t know.”
It took me a second to really process what she’d said to even gape at her. “What? No!”
She laughed tensely. “I know, I know. It’s just kind of obvious something is up with you so I thought maybe that’s what it was. But your whole, ‘no, Sean couldn’t possibly be sleeping with Jason, he’s married‘ blew that theory out of the water.” She paused, looking mildly disgusted with herself. “I did not just use ‘blew’ in the same sentence as that other stuff.”
I was still so spun out by her suggestion I’d cheat on Henry, I couldn’t even think about Sean and Jason. “Henry and I are fine,” I said, and it was true as long as he never found out about the wanting-to-be-a-man thing. And cheating on Henry with Bree? What a suggestion. “The friend I was texting is a girl,” I told her, as if that would obviously put Sarah’s insane theory to rest.
I wasn’t sure it did, though. She just laughed at me, clapped me on the back and clinked her Red Bull against mine. “Okay, Min,” she said, and then started to walk into Oslo, saying over her shoulder. “But I’d be willing to put a grand on those two guys sleeping together. More, even.”
I looked back at them on the balcony. Jason leaned forward to give Sean a light, and perhaps it might have been a little close. Then again, all I knew for sure was that Jason was gay and Sean was married. And even if Jason was into Sean, it didn’t necessarily mean they were sleeping together. I had been getting comfortable with my own assessment, and then I saw Sean make a couple of smoke rings. Jason blew a big puff of smoke through one of them and they both smirked at each other. That was… kind of sexual.
Fuck, I think Sarah’s right, I thought. I worried about that as I followed her into Oslo.
“See?” she asked me knowingly when I closed the door behind me.
I nodded at her, scrunching up my face. “I’m not cheating on Henry, though,” I said. “You’re wrong about that. I’d never do that to him. The person I was texting is actually just a friend.”
She nodded. “I got that far by myself.” She then spent a couple of seconds watching me, obviously wanting to say something else.
I didn’t let her. I was uncomfortable enough about the conversation as it was. “So, speaking of Jason, I had a word with him about the framework this morning,” I said, sitting down at my desk and feeling around in my handbag for the USB. “He thinks Russia was a good choice and is forwarding me some potential leads…”
I watched her roll her eyes at me, but she let me change the subject.
My team trickled in between nine and nine-thirty, and while I was aware they’d been working all weekend, I couldn’t have them think that was a good reason to slack off during the week. Ian, the older guy, actually showed up a full half an hour late and he really should have known better. I called a brief meeting under the pretence of going over the framework, and then said at the end, “And, guys, I understand that you’ve been working all weekend, but this project is only running for a few more weeks. I’m sure I can negotiate some time off for you after contracts are signed, but I really need your full commitment until then so we can make this project successful.” I wasn’t sure they’d really got my point, so I added, “That means showing at up on time at nine o’clock. Or earlier, if possible.”
I could see them collectively nodding, but their eyes were a little glazed and that made me feel like a school teacher. It was awful telling grown men what to do and I wished they wouldn’t make me. And, while they were all clearly taking me seriously, I really felt my femaleness right then in comparison to them and that made me self-conscious. I wondered what they really thought of a chick telling them off, and whether Jason or Sean got different responses from people than I did. And then I wondered if I was being paranoid.
“I took my wife to the doctor this morning.” Ian was more explaining himself than giving me attitude, but I was annoyed anyway because he hadn’t even bothered to call in about it. “She wasn’t feeling well and I was busy with the requirements framework all weekend.”
“Yeah, my partner’s really sick at the moment, too, there’s something going around,” Sarah said easily, knowing full well everyone had seen that she was here on time.
I exhaled, shooting Sarah an appreciative look. She gave me a little smile.
“Also,” I said, remembering Jason’s comment to me and not wanting to single anyone out, “please make sure you always send any info to do with the pitch using the encryption software. That’s very important.”
“I just wish we knew why,” Ian commented as I closed the meeting. “Frost International sells diamonds. This is a diamond pitch. I don’t get it.” I tended to agree with him, but I didn’t think it would be appropriate for me to say anything to that.
After they were sitting at computers working again, Sarah came up to me and put a hand on my arm. “Good job,” she whispered. “That went okay.”
I sighed audibly. “You want to be lead? I’m done.”
She laughed and rubbed my arm. “No, thanks,” she said quickly, and then got straight to business. “Can I borrow your USB for a second? I just want to grab that spreadsheet.”
I was so glad she was on my team, she was a great support. The whole project would have been hell without her, and she kept doing little things like bringing me lunch and offering to run stuff past Jason for me. I hardly needed to get up out of my desk for the entire day, which allowed me to really get some serious work done.
I still had a lot more to do in the evening, but at about quarter to six I figured I’d better leave so I wouldn’t be late for Bree. Deciding I could just work from home later, I packed up and went to grab some band-aids out of the first-aid kit near the lift for my poor feet.
I pulled the box down off the wall and flipped it open on the floor, searching around in it. I’d found them and was grabbing a handful when I caught sight of some packaging with diagrams on it in one of the bigger compartments. I never would normally have paid any attention to it, but the diagram was of how to treat a chest wound and it had a picture of a guy’s chest and elastic bandages all around it.
I stopped what I was doing and picked up the package. It had three elastic bandages and some other stuff in it and I just kept looking at those diagrams on the front. ‘Wrap tightly and press down for adequate compression‘, it read. I could use adequate chest compression, I thought, and there’s no way anyone working at Frost is ever going to end up with a gaping chest wound.
I looked up. No one was watching so I took it out, closed the kit, and mounted it back on the wall. I tucked the package in my bag, not really understanding why I was feeling so goddamn guilty about it. We were allowed to take items out of the first aid kit, OH&S had been very clear about that during orientation. We were just supposed to fill out a whole lot of paperwork when we did. The thing was, there was no way I was ever going to leave any evidence that I’d taken chest compression bandages. How did you explain that? ‘Oh, I just had a small chest wound on the way home and needed to use these?’
While I was waiting for the lift, I opened my bag a little and examined the bandages, squeezing them through the packaging. They felt really firm. I wondered if I’d be able to breathe with them wrapped around me.
“You’re off, too?” Sarah’s voice startled me again. I hurriedly closed my handbag, drawing a sharp breath. From her expression I didn’t think she’d seen what I was looking at, but her timing was a bit suspect. It seemed like she was following me out but, then again, spending too much time with Bree was probably just making me overly suspicious. She came and stood beside me at the lifts. “This is early for you.”
I nodded. “Seeing that friend,” I said as we caught one downstairs together.
She didn’t say anything for half the lift ride, and when she spoke, it was after visibly gathering the courage to. “Look, Min, I didn’t mean to be too nosy this morning,” she said as I touched up my lipstick in the mirrors. “I shouldn’t feel entitled to knowing anything about your private life. I’m sorry about that.”
I put my lipstick away, thinking carefully about how to answer her. Sarah had never shown any sign of being judgemental, and aside from Henry and Bree she was the closest thing I had to a good friend in Sydney. It was just that I couldn’t bring this thing I had about myself to work. I didn’t want to lose her support on the team because it would be hell without her. It was bad enough that she’d nearly seen me with those fucking bandages.
“It’s okay,” I said, anyway. I think I wanted to tell her, but then when I imagined the words actually coming out of my mouth I knew I’d choke on them. I couldn’t pretend it was nothing, though. I wanted to stay friends with her. “You were right about what you said,” I told her. “There is something ‘up with me’. It’s just personal and I just really can’t talk about it. I’m sorry.”
She nodded slowly, and I could see her brain ticking over. “Okay,” she said as we stepped out of the lift and walked through the lobby. “You don’t have to tell me. Maybe we can both go and get drunk together instead.”
Unexpectedly, that made me laugh. “That actually sounds fantastic,” I told her, meaning it. “I’ve always found there’s nothing more therapeutic than drinking myself into a coma.”
She grinned. “You’ll love it: I’m a cheap drunk, too,” she said. “Rob always tells me how much money he’s saving by dating me instead of his last girlfriend.”
“Oh, I’m taking you out, am I?” I asked her as we walked through the revolving door. “Doesn’t the inviter normally pay?”
She grinned. “Yes, but you’re my boss now,” she pointed out. “That’s generally how it goes.”
I was about to joke about that, but as we walked out onto the street, I heard a familiar voice shout, “Min!”
Despite having promised me she wouldn’t, she was waiting for me outside work again. She came rushing toward me in her school uniform. Unfortunately, she got halfway to us and realised she’d left her schoolbag on the corner. She stopped, made a face, and then ran back to get it.
I was torn between being pleased to see her and angry at her for breaking her promise again. And, fuck, Sarah was with me!
Rather than disapproving of Bree, Sarah could not have looked more amused. “That’s who you were texting, isn’t it?” I nodded. The look she gave me…
I cringed. “She’s actually very nice.”
Sarah looked back at Bree dragging her full schoolbag toward us and snorted. “Yeah, I bet she’s a lot of things.”
Bree made it up to me and looked like she wanted to hug me around the middle. She didn’t, though. “I’m not sure if I can hug you in those clothes,” she explained, gesturing distastefully at them. “I’ll probably ruin them. Although that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. You look weird.”
I took a sharp breath. Sarah was standing right next to me, and that was far more than I ever wanted her to hear. I looked at Sarah, a little panicked, but I don’t think it was until she’d seen my expression that she thought twice about what Bree was saying. After she’d seen it she was definitely listening very closely.
I wanted to yell at Bree for being so indiscreet, but that would have been even more obvious. So rather than replying to her, I indicated Sarah with a wave of my hand. “Bree, this is Sarah, a friend from work. Sarah, this is Bree.”…a friend from hell, I thought, and winced as I remembered her ‘you look weird’ line and Sarah’s expression.
Bree looked up at Sarah. “Hi,” she said, offering her hand to shake. “You’re Min’s friend, too? You’re really pretty. I like your hair.”
Sarah looked from Bree to me and then burst out laughing. “Thank you!” she said, shaking Bree’s hand. “Cloverfield Ladies’ College, right? I hear that’s a great school, I have a couple of friends who went there.” She paused, looking sideways at me with that same amusement. “A really, really long time ago.” I half-glared at her. “Anyway, I’d better head off. I’ll leave you two to it. See you tomorrow, Min.” She shot me another puzzled glance, and then turned and walked towards the train station, still chuckling to herself.
We watched her go. Shit, I thought, I hope she didn’t figure anything out. God fucking damnit. “Jesus, Bree,” I said to her when Sarah was out of earshot, watching who was walking past us to make sure no one else was listening, either. “I swear to god if you say anything about what you know about me in front of anyone again, I will fucking kill you. This stuff is really private. And you showed up here after saying you wouldn’t, again.”
She pouted. “I didn’t say anything about you wanting to be a guy,” she said, at least making the effort to speak quietly. “And you do look weird.”
“Don’t you think I fucking know that?” I said to her. “But just don’t, okay?”
Bree did at least finally start to look a bit remorseful. “Okay, I get it. I’m sorry I showed up here again,” she said. “I just thought we could go shopping together so you didn’t feel, like, pressured to do it later when you had work to do. And then I just wanted to hug you, and then I realised I couldn’t. It just all came out.” She was giving me those big soulful eyes again.
I sighed at her. “You’re unbelievable.”
“I know,” she said. “But I don’t think your friend knows. She just thinks I’m weird, and I don’t mind what she thinks about me.” She paused. “Also she has really nice hair kind of like Courtney’s. I always wanted hair like that.”
“I like your hair the way it is,” I told her, pulling one of her curls and releasing it. “But if you show up here again and ever fucking talk about what I told you in front of anyone, I swear to god, Bree…”
“Okay, okay,” she said, looking chastised. “I’m hopeless, I get it. Can we just go and eat the cake now? It’s really heavy.”
The cake actually turned out to be almost the whole cake, with only a couple of slices cut out already. She’d been carrying the whole cake inside a Tupperware cake container in her schoolbag. It was clearly home-made, and someone had actually put a lot of effort into delicately icing and decorating it. There were even little marzipan flowers all over the top of it.
“Are you sure your mum is okay with you taking this?” I asked, gently touching one of the pretty little flowers.
“It’s my birthday cake. I’ll eat it with whoever I want,” she said with surprising conviction, but didn’t elaborate. We dropped it off at my place so I could put it in the fridge, sitting down at the table and sharing a slice before we went out again. It was actually a really great cake, but I wasn’t sure how much I could really say about it because Bree was shovelling at it like she hated it.
She’d perked up again by the time we left the house, though. “You’re not going to put on your other clothes?” she asked as I slipped my heels back on. I gave her a look and she scrunched up her nose. “Now that I know what you really look like, I’m never going to get used to you wearing all of this other stuff.”
I ruffled her hair as I passed her. Just very occasionally, she did actually say the right thing. “You and me both,” I said as I grabbed my handbag.
We went to a shopping centre off George Street. Bree was one of those people who always wanted to walk arm-in-arm, and that, coupled with the fact my blisters were killing me and I hadn’t put the band-aids on them yet, made the walk there rather uncomfortable.
“You shouldn’t have worn heels,” Bree told me when I mentioned it. “I never wear heels.”
“Maybe when you’re a big girl mummy will buy you some,” I said, and she shoved me. I laughed. “It’s not the heels that are the problem, I’m used to them. In the last few weeks I’ve just been walking a lot further than I usually do.”
As we passed skate store, Bree stopped suddenly by the window. She had my arm, too, so I nearly fell over. “Look,” she said as I glanced around to see if anyone had noticed me being so ungraceful. “Those look more comfortable than heels.”
She was pointing at a pair of men’s hightop sneakers. The tongue hanging out of them was so puffy it looked like it might need a shot of antibiotics to get the swelling down. “Yes, I’m sure they’d go particularly well with these tailored suit pants,” I said dryly, but Bree had already released my arm and rushed inside.
To my horror, I heard her call out, “Hi!” to the clerk as he looked up at her. “Do you have those men’s ones,” she pointed at the hightops, “in her size?” she pointed at me like what she was asking was perfectly normal. I couldn’t believe it. Way to fucking out me, Bree, I thought, feeling all the colour drain from my face. If I wasn’t so fucking embarrassed I may actually have killed her on the spot.
Fortunately, the clerk clearly wasn’t making assumptions about me at all. In fact, the expression he gave me was much the same one Sarah had. He was assuming Bree was the headcase. “Do you know what her size is?” he asked Bree as I walked up to them. “I’ll have a look.”
“Eleven in women’s,” I told him, and he nodded and went out the back of the store. I looked down at Bree, who was trying her best to give me a really sweet smile. “Bree. Are you actually trying to get me to brutally murder you? Because it’s working.”
She bounced up and down in front of me and grabbed a handful of the fabric at the front of my blouse. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry! They’re just really cool and they’d look great on you! Anyway, no one’s going to know everything just because you’re buying men’s sneakers. They’ll just think you have really big feet and can’t find your size in women’s.”
I ended up walking out of that store with a pair of men’s sneakers and a very sheepish little schoolgirl who was about ten times more excited about them than I was. When she pulled me into another men’s clothes shop, I stopped her. “Aren’t we supposed to be buying you a birthday present?”
She shrugged. “I’m having fun?” she said, and then loaded me up with more button-up shirts than I’d ever seen in my life and pushed me into a change room. I would have been embarrassed about that, too, except the clerks were all giving me secret smiles like they thought I was just patiently putting up with a crazy teenager. Bree saw and didn’t seem to care. “Tell me when I can come in!” she called over the change room door as she pushed it closed.
I stared at myself in the mirror of the door. Well, well, well, I thought at my reflection, we meet again. I tried to ignore it while I tried on the clothes.
I did actually quite like the style of the shirts. That was, until I’d put them on. Bree had insisted I try an ‘M’ instead of the XLs I usually preferred, and they buttoned up perfectly all the way to my chest where they pulled tight across my breasts. Despite the fact my breasts were quite small, they still managed to very effectively ruin the way the shirt looked. I looked ridiculous, and I just had this wave of self-hatred like who the fuck was I kidding trying to look like a guy? I was a fucking girl.
“Can I see?” Bree called when she heard me stop making changing noises.
“No,” I said, and went to take the top off.
“Why not?” she asked through the door. “Is ‘M” too small?”
She ended up convincing me to let her in, and I showed her, expecting her to immediately see my dilemma. She shrugged. “If you, like, hunch they’ll probably just look like pecs?”
The top was short-sleeved and I held out my arms. “With these scrawny things?” I asked, and then groaned. They didn’t look at all like Jason or Sean’s arms at all. “I’m too skinny for people to think I have pecs.”
“You know you can get surgery to remove your boobs, right?” Bree asked, looking at my breasts in the reflection. I wondered how she knew about that. “Maybe you could get that, and then use those chicken-fillet-like things you can put in your bra to pretend you have them at work.”
I laughed once. “Yeah, Henry wouldn’t notice at all.” I reached for the door to let her out. “Okay, I’m taking the shirt off.”
She didn’t go anywhere. “You’ve seen me in a bra,” she reminded me.
I took her by the shoulders, turned her around, and pushed her out the door. “You actually like how yours look, though.”
She giggled. “Well, they’re DDs,” she said as I closed the door and locked it. “What’s not to like? They’re great.”
I could only see her feet under the change room door, and right then she jumped experimentally up and down. I laughed to myself while I took the shirt off, knowing what she was looking at. I hoped her bra was more supportive than the one she was wearing on the weekend, because I could just imagine how she’d have looked if she’d jumped up and down in that and wow I really shouldn’t have been imagining that. Bree did have a great body and she clearly enjoyed showing most of it to people, but there was just this sweet sort of naivety about her which stopped her looking like she was inviting people to touch it. I wondered if anyone had touched it, and then mentally hand-smacked myself. That was none of my business.
I’d gone to put that shirt neatly on the floor to try a bigger one, when I noticed my handbag in the corner and I had a thought. Those compression bandages. I wondered if they’d make the shirt fit? I took the package out of my bag and looked at it again. Well, there was no harm in trying, right?
I slipped of my bra and undid the wrapping.
“What’s that noise?” Bree asked through the door.
“I’m hungry,” I said flatly. “I felt like a packet of chips.” She giggled.
The bandages were actually really good; they were made out of some strange fabric that stuck to itself so I only needed to press it down and it was secure. I had to try a couple of times, though, because the first time I did it I wrapped my chest too tightly and it hurt.
When I was done, I looked at myself in the mirror. I wasn’t sure how I felt about myself from the front because of my hips, but from the side, I was completely flat. Completely. There was no sign at all I had breasts. Just to check I wasn’t imagining things, I put on the shirt that hadn’t quite fit before.
It worked, they were completely gone. That made me smile, so I opened the door to Bree and let her squeeze in. “What do you think?” I said, and presented myself.
Her eyebrows went up. “Wow,” she said, and reached out to touch my newly flat chest, curious about it. Fortunately, she realised at the last minute that it probably wasn’t appropriate and didn’t actually put her hand there. “How did you do that?”
I bent down and handed her the empty bandage wrapper. She took it from me, but didn’t really understand until she saw the diagram. “Oh, that’s a good idea,” she said. “And probably a whole lot easier than just getting a surgeon to hack them off.”
I winced at her choice of wording. “What do you think of the shirt?” I asked. “Should I get it?”
She looked back up at me. Even though I had my breasts taped flat, it was actually really uncomfortable having Bree so openly staring at my chest. I’d have to get over that if I was going to pass as a guy, though, because guys didn’t care about their chests. I caught myself thinking that and made a face. Pass as a guy to who, Min? Who else are you planning on showing this to?
“Yeah, get the shirt,” Bree said as an afterthought. She was looking down at her own breasts and tried to push them against her ribcage with her hands. The result was just a hell of a lot more cleavage around her collarbones. “I could never get mine that flat,” she said, releasing them again, which I was grateful for. Watching her so freely holding them in front of me was a bit awkward. “You’re lucky you don’t want to be a guy and have huge boobs. That would suck. You’d have to get them cut off.”
“Small mercies, I guess,” I said, and then kicked her out so I could change back again.
When I’d put my work clothes back on and opened the door, Bree was all the way up against the mirror at the far end of the fitting room, pulling at her hair. “How do you think I’d look with straight hair like Courtney and Sarah?” she asked me.
“Just as terrifying as you look now,” I said. “But straighter.”
She snorted. “Straighter?” She started to giggle.
That hadn’t come out the way I’d intended it to. I pushed gently as I passed her. “You know what I mean.”
She did, but she found it hilarious anyway, and spent the whole time I was putting the clothes back trailing after me and giggling incessantly. She continued into another clothes shop, and came rushing over to me with a women’s t-shirt which she held up across her front. It read, ‘Looking 4 Prince Charming’. She was laughing too much to say whatever she’d wanted to say about it.
I rolled my eyes at her. “Yeah, yeah, I get it, very funny.”
The last set of shops in the centre were several jewellery stores and a supermarket. We passed by the window of one of them and there were a whole lot of engagement rings.
“Hey,” Bree said, on her tiptoes peering at the rings. “Doesn’t your company sell diamonds? Are there any Frost diamonds here?”
I leaned back to read the shop signage. “Nope.”
She rolled her eyes at me. “You didn’t even look at them,” she accused.
I came up to the display window beside her. “I don’t need to. Frost does prestige diamonds, and this isn’t a prestige store.”
She groaned. “Well, Sor-ry,” she said, clearly still playing with me, but there was an element of something else in her voice. “Not all of us live in super awesome expensive apartments and can just buy awesome prestige diamonds whenever we feel like it.” She walked into the store. “Some of us regular people like regular things.”
I walked in after her while she looked around at all the stuff on display. “Actually, Frost diamonds are probably a bit out of my price range, too,” I corrected her. “The cheapest ones retail for about $20,000, but our most popular selection is in the $100-to-$150,000 price range.”
Not only did Bree gape at me, but the clerk behind the counter who’d overheard us did, too.
“That’s enough for a house,” Bree said, sounding actually kind of distressed about it. “Like, a small house, but a house. You can’t live in a diamond.”
The clerk’s expression was quite funny as well. “Well,” she told us in her professional voice. “We have a lovely selection of jewellery in the 100-to-150 dollar range.” Both Bree and I laughed.
Bree turned her nose up at me. “Okay, you can show me that stuff,” she said to the clerk, and then they chatted about some of the items on display while I stood back and watched, holding my shopping bags.
It was odd talking about the price of Frost merchandise like it was worth actual money, I thought, reflecting on how we normally talked about contracts and units and profit. Discussing it with Bree reminded me that, actually, Frost was raking in enormous amounts of money just from the comparatively small diamond division. Money ‘regular’ people didn’t usually have, and money Bree definitely didn’t have.
I watched her talk animatedly with the clerk as she leaned over the counter. The clerk was even older than me and she was enjoying chatting with Bree, too. Henry was right, the age difference wasn’t actually a problem, but Bree did have a point about money. She wasn’t old enough to have a job that paid anything like mine did. And I didn’t just have a ‘regular’ job, I worked for Frost International. And what was the fucking point of working for someone like Frost and having all this money if all I did was alternate between padding my savings account and sending stuff back to Mum?
I looked at Bree cooing over a gold bracelet with the clerk. Well, it was her eighteenth yesterday, wasn’t it?
I made a gesture to get the clerks attention, and then indicated the bracelet. The clerk smiled ear to ear like she was absolutely delighted and nodded at me.
When the clerk started to take the bracelet away from Bree, Bree stood up straight and looked really confused. “Why are you–?” The clerk glanced at me and Bree turned back towards me. I was just smiling, and Bree’s jaw dropped. “Are you…?” I nodded. She just stared at me for a second. “But it’s real gold,” she said. I pretended to be very impressed and she pointed her finger at me. “Stop that,” she ordered. “This is serious. You’re buying real gold for me?”
“Would you prefer fake gold?”
The clerk snickered as she finished polishing the bracelet. “Would you like it gift-wrapped?” she asked us.
I looked at Bree. She just looked stunned. “I don’t know,” she said.
The clerk seemed to be finding Bree’s whole surprise very sweet. “Would you like to wear it now, instead?”
Bree looked back at her and just stared for a second. “Okay,” she said, and presented her wrist.
The clerk helped her put it on, and then I handed my card over while Bree just stared mutely at her new bracelet.
When we were done and had made it out of the store, Bree kind of just stopped in place beside the wall. “Did that just happen?” she asked me with no trace of humour in her voice.
I smiled and ruffled her curls. “Happy Birthday.”
She was still looking at her wrist. “When I told you to buy me something, I just thought you’d just get me something cheap and silly,” she said, and there was something about her voice. “I never thought you’d actually buy something really awesome for me.”
When she looked up at me, I realised why she sounded so strange. Her eyes were swimming in tears.
Fuck, had I done something wrong? “Bree…?”
Without waiting another second, she threw her arms around my middle. There were people everywhere and I felt a bit uncomfortable about it, but given the circumstances I couldn’t push her away. I put a hand on the back of her head, not really sure what to do. That certainly hadn’t been the reaction I was expecting, and I worried about it.
“Are you okay?” I asked her quietly after a minute or two. She was still hugging me just as tightly. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
She took a deep breath and exhaled, warming my stomach. “I’m sorry about crying, it’s really dumb,” she began. “It’s just, like… I thought you might really like a coffee before work so I got up really early so I could get into the city on time to get you one. And then I thought you might like some flowers because I upset you that night and I wanted to say sorry, and flowers are a nice way to say that, right? And I thought maybe you’d like to have some of my birthday cake because it’s really pretty, so I had to wait until Mum went to take the rubbish out so I could sneak it into my bag and show you.” She took a short breath. “It’s just that, you know, I always try to do all these nice things for people…” She looked up at me with those big eyes of hers. “I always try and do nice things for people. But you did something nice back.”
I stroked her hair. So that’s what it was about. “Happy Birthday,” I said again, quietly.
After a minute or so she released me, standing back and gently touching the bracelet. “I’m going to help you,” she announced eventually, after spending some time deep in thought. When it was clear I didn’t know what she meant, she looked around us to make sure no one could hear, and then elaborated. “Like, you want to be a guy? Well, I’ll help.”
I winced. I still wasn’t comfortable hearing her say that, and especially not suddenly with no warning. “I’m not actually sure what I want, and you help already,” I said. “You don’t need to do anything. Just be your crazy self.”
She didn’t look convinced. “But I’m sure I can do more than that,” she said. “There must be something else.”
I laughed bleakly as we started walking again. “If you could spontaneously develop some magical powers, that would be great.”
It was getting to that time of night: the lights around us in some of the stores were beginning to switch off, and here and there roller-doors were being shut.
“I guess you have to go do work,” Bree said in that desolate tone of hers she reserved for when she needed to leave. “And I have to go home.”
“You’re not going to Courtney’s tonight?”
She shook her head as we walked out of the entrance. “My brother’s there. It’s too weird.” She didn’t say anything else. It was dark outside already, and there was a bit of a chill in the air as we headed back home.
When we got upstairs, Bree looked hesitantly at her schoolbag by the door, and then up at me. “Can I just stay for a bit longer? I’ll be really quiet. I have homework to do, anyway.”
I had been ready to refuse, but there was a note of something in her voice. It made me wonder. “Bree, do your parents know where you are?”
She shrugged. “I’ll seriously be really quiet.”
I watched her for a second. There was obviously a reason she didn’t want to answer, and I didn’t want to push her, so I left it. She was eighteen now anyway, and all the evidence pointed to her having had a crap birthday. She enjoyed herself when she was here. “Okay,” I said. “But literally, you will need to be dead quiet. I’ll need to be able to concentrate.”
She brightened. “Really? I can stay?”
I took the bags into my bedroom and went in there to change. “Really. I’m using the table, though. Or I will after I have a quick shower.”
I had my shower and threw on the hoodie and the jeans, and by the time I came out of the bathroom, the doona was missing from my bed. I followed the trail of discarded bedding and found it draped over the spine of my couch and hanging over the front of it. I lifted the end of the make-shift doona-tent near the arm. Bree was lying on her stomach inside it reading something on her phone.
She looked up at me when I peeked in.
“Okay…” I said slowly.
“If I can’t see you I’ll be less tempted to talk to you,” she said very matter of factly, and then went back to reading whatever she had been. “Also, it’s really warm in here.”
I had to laugh. “If you suffocate, I’m feeding you to the flowers,” I told her, and then set myself up at the table to do some research on some of the leads Jason had sent me.
Most of them were literally just contacts in large mining or construction companies in Russia. I couldn’t find any connections to any more consumer-oriented products at all. Leads were leads, though, so I wrote somewhat cryptic emails to a few of them and then stopped short of actually sending them. If I was going to send communication that had anything to do with Pink externally, I’d probably have to clear it with Jason, first, and fuck that young guy John had sent me a link to a webpage about Argyle Diamonds unencrypted again. I put my face in my hands; I wasn’t sure how much clearer I could have made the message about the importance of information security. Well, I couldn’t do anything now, but I’d need to jump right on it tomorrow. Fuck. Why couldn’t people follow simple instructions? I saved the emails onto the USB, shut my laptop and then leaned back in my chair and stretched. That was probably enough for today: bedtime.
That reminded me that Bree was still here. I flopped my arms back down and looked over at the couch; she’d been dead quiet. I decided I should probably thank her for that because it was a bit of a feat of self-discipline for her, so I wandered over and lifted the edged of the doona.
I had opened my mouth to say something, but I stopped when I saw that she’d faceplanted on her phone. It was half-buried between her cheek and the cushion and she was fast asleep. I laughed soundlessly; that explained why she’d been so quiet. I should have known ‘self-discipline’ and ‘Bree’ weren’t two words that belonged in the same sentence.
Carefully excavating her phone, I rolled the doona back to her shoulders so she actually didn’t suffocate, and then I stood back up.
Well, I couldn’t kick her out now, could I? I looked at the clock; half-past eleven. It was probably better if she did stay over rather than going home at this hour. I wondered about her family, though. How the fuck did they not worry about where she was all the time? Unless she was lying to them, that is. Still, my mum would never have let me out so much in my last year of school, regardless of what I’d told her. I knew Aussie parents were a little less hardcore, but I didn’t think they were this lax about where their teenage daughters were.
Kind of hating myself for it, I unlocked her phone to just check she hadn’t received a hundred phone calls from scared family wondering where there daughter was. She hadn’t, there wasn’t a single one. And in fact, the last thing she’d been reading wasn’t actually even homework, it was a blog that called itself The Queer (A)Gender. I sighed at that, and then put the phone down on the coffee table and just looked down at her.
What’s the deal with you, Bree? I thought, bending down so I could tuck her in a little better. That delicate little bracelet was still on her tiny wrist, and it reminded me how small she was which made me worry even more. I hadn’t seen bruises or anything on her torso when she’d had her top off, and I didn’t think it would be something like that, but I still worried. I worried about what was going on for her. Fuck, it was just so easy to worry about this girl.
Still, I had several more pressing issues also competing for brain-space, like not being sure if I definitely wanted to be a guy or not and the fact that when I gave my team instructions it all seemed to go in one ear and out the other. I sighed, turning off the living room light and heading into my bedroom. All of this could wait until tomorrow.