Sarah’s house felt like it had no air. It was stuffy as hell, and there were heaps of people including a baby who were also having trouble sleeping. Even with the bedroom window jammed wide open it was still hotter inside than outside, and Bree was a tiny little furnace who inched closer to me in her sleep, radiating like Chernobyl. To make matters worse, our pedestal fan made this intermittent click-click-click noise that kept sounding just as I was dozing off.
I must have been restless, because Bree shifted beside me. “Min,” she mumbled in her hot, hot breath next to my shoulder. “Sarah is asleep.”
Being uncomfortable and awake gave me so much extra time to remember the cool ambience of Sarah’s fridge and worry about Henry’s living alone in Antarctica comment.
That was too cryptic, even for an overthinker like me. “Well, she’s always been a high achiever.”
“No, I mean like, you’re lying there stressing about her career or whatever and she’s not stressing about it, she’s fast asleep.”
Oh. “I’m actually not stressing about that,” I told her. “For now.”
That made her open her eyes. “Then why are you grinding your teeth?” she asked, propping herself up on an elbow and yawning. “Money again?”
I shook my head. “I mean yeah, obviously, but not right at this second.” I exhaled at length. “I think I probably should have gone home with Henry. He seemed a bit…” I didn’t really know how to describe it. “I don’t know, I don’t think things are great for him right now.”
“Oh.” She considered that. “Then why didn’t you go back with him?”
“Because I haven’t been here all week.”
She spent a few moments frowning at me before it clicked. “Oh! For me, you mean?” She made a face and lay back down, groaning. “Min. Didn’t we already get past you doing things for me without, like, consulting me about what I want?” She stretched, affording me a spectacular view of her naked breasts.
Because they were right there, I put my hand on one. It would have been a crime not to. “I just don’t want to be a terrible boyfriend who never spends time with you.”
She yawned again, settling. “If I start to feel like you’re a terrible boyfriend, I’ll definitely tell you,” she said, closing her eyes and patting the hand that was on her breast. “Unless you plan on getting up and going to Henry’s, like, right now, you should stop stressing and sleep.”
I retracted my hand and lay down, too. “I’ll probably go tomorrow.”
“Good,” she said firmly. “More fan for me.”
I scoffed and poked her in the rib that made her shriek. I got a good one out of her, and she responded by smacking me across the shoulder with her plush manatee. “I take it back, you’re a terrible boyfriend,” she said, lying back down and lacing her sweaty fingers with mine as we tried to get some sleep.
The following day wasn’t as horribly hot as the past week had been, but it was hot enough that Rob took pity on me needing to catch the train in the heat and dropped me around at Henry’s late morning.
Even when I’d been dating Henry it felt weird letting myself into his house (he’d pretty much always slept at my place because it was closer to work, anyway), so letting myself into his house while not dating him felt even weirder. He’d left the aircon on auto, though, so the comfortable temperature of the house made up for all the other discomfort. I dumped my duffel in the spare bedroom I always used and took my laptop and tablet out to the living room.
I sat there for a minute or so listening to the clock tick. The past few weeks I’d only come to Henry’s so I could concentrate on the design work, so without it, I felt out of place.
He expressly invited you, I reminded myself, opening up my laptop and resolving to distract myself.
Since I was officially unemployed again, I hit Seek.com and a couple of other corporate websites for graphics freelancing, and then realised I didn’t really have a website to direct potential clients to anyway. I figured I should probably do something about that.
I’d chosen a basic layout on WordPress and was tabbing through my portfolio to look for some pieces that showed my range when my phone buzzed. I glanced at it.
“My centrelink came through and I paid your credit card repayment so don’t double pay it,” Bree had messaged me. “Also can you text sarah and tell her why you’re not here today because she thinks you’re upset about the natalie frost suing thing”
Sarah and I had had a pretty ordinary conversation over breakfast, so that seemed odd. I did as Bree said though, and messaged her. “Hey Sarah, not coming back tonight because—” I made a face. ‘Because I felt like Henry might not be doing so well’? It was true, but Henry was private about his feelings even with me. I didn’t think he’d be happy about me blabbing to Sarah. “I want to get some work done on my webpage and portfolio.” Perfect! It also made me think of something else I needed to ask her. “By the way, is it okay if I use some of the old Frost stuff from last year as examples of my work?”
I had to wait until after lunch for her to reply. “Sure, you can use whatever we’ve already released, just not the V-Day stuff, and make sure you don’t put your real name anywhere.” I’d hardly had time to lock my phone before it buzzed again. “Are you angry with me? I’d be angry with me. That’s why you’re back at Henry’s after only a night, isn’t it?”
I blinked. “Sarah. What on earth.”
“About the whole no more contracting thing. I was busy worrying about my own career that it didn’t even occur to me that there’d be a major impact on you.” I raised my eyebrows. She replied again before I could. “So if you want to sue Frost, that’s totally fine with me. I support it.”
I was suspicious. I mean, I’m sure she did support me in a ‘I support my friends’-sort of way, but we both knew deep down inside that while it might protect her from getting fired in the short term, it would definitely jeopardize her career. I was stepping away from a job I honestly didn’t care about.
Anyway, in five years’ time—hopefully!— I wouldn’t give a fuck about Frost. I’d be the proud owner of a Masters of Fine Arts from Sydney College of the Arts and doing something I really enjoyed: sprawling, epic fantasy scenes with high colours and high detail. Environmental concepts. Even just normal environments! Just seeing my work echoed on screens around the world would be incredible.
I spent a moment imagining what it would feel like to recognise my work in the media and then landed with a thud back in reality: staring at my oh-so-groundbreaking graphics for Frost’s Valentine’s Day campaign. And the campaign before that. And the campaign before that. Yeah, this was not what I wanted to be doing with my life.
I closed all those pictures and pulled my Cintiq onto my lap. It had been ages since I’d just drawn something because I felt like it, and it felt truly odd to be tapping my stylus on my lips and deciding what I’d like to do. At least I was comfortable for once: God Bless Henry’s aircon.
Actually, that gave me an idea.
I was busy painting when I heard a car pull into the driveway and the front door unlock. I had the moment of awkwardness where I was worried that Henry would be irritated I’d dropped by without asking or being invited, but that all evaporated when Henry spotted me.
“Min!” he said, his face lighting up. “What a nice surprise! What brings you back so soon?”
I turned my tablet around so he could see what I was working on: Sarah’s living room as a burning inferno.
He laughed. Then, he disappeared for a moment down the hallway and returned sans briefcase, jacket or tie and went to get some ice water from the fridge. “You’re painting again,” he observed, and then left that thought hanging.
I looked back at my tablet. I mean I was a bit rusty, but I didn’t think anyone but me would be able to tell.
“Doesn’t your masters start soon?” he asked innocently, taking a big mouthful of water.
I made a face. “If I don’t defer it again.”
“Will you defer it again?”
I turned back to my tablet. Bree would be pretty sorry that she hadn’t been around to watch me paint—she loved it. The masters was all her doing in the first place; not that I was anything except grateful. It was a good read on me, even at the very beginning of our relationship. “Bree would kill me if I deferred again,” I said aloud.
“I can hear a ‘but’ in there.” He was using that gentle but probing psychologist voice on me again.
I shot a tired glance at him. “What an interesting observation, Dr Lee.”
He chuckled. “Sorry. Habit. Are you going to, though?”
I considered his question. “I don’t want to, really, but what else can I do? I have a credit card with $10k still on it, I’m squatting in Sarah’s house, and—”
“You’re living in her house because she invited you and she enjoys your company,” he casually corrected me.
“—and I can’t keep living off my friends forever.”
He ignored me, finishing his glass of water. “And you’d be welcome to live here, too, if you need to.” I opened my mouth to tell him that was not going to happen, but he pre-emptively put his hands up. “The offer’s there. It’s nice to have company.”
He had not thought this through. “You realise I come as a package deal, right? With the girl I cheated on you with?”
He winced at that description. “I like Bree,” he said. He clearly meant it, but Henry was also highly skilled at overriding his healthy instinct to hate people who were bad for him. He’d even liked my mother, for fuck’s sake.
The conversation hung a bit awkwardly there; it made me uncomfortable. “So, you want to play some Modern Warfare? I’ll get the PlayStation out.”
He exhaled at length. “Want to? Yes,” he said, “but I’ve got a board meeting tomorrow night that I need to put a series of reports together for.” He visibly deflated as he said that.
I snapped to attention, reminded of why I’d come to stay with Henry in the first place. Perhaps this was why he’d be off-colour last night? “Why are you going to a board meeting?”
“Well obviously I can’t give specifics,” he told me, “but my best guess is that the real reason I’m wanted there is to put the off-shoring rumours back to bed. I imagine Sean wants me to smile and make nice and tell them all that everything is fine.”
Ugh, Sean. “I suppose going in and telling them the truth is out of the question?”
He laughed. “Well, off-shoring-wise, we genuinely aren’t doing anything,” he said. “We never have been. Thanks mostly to the fact Natalie expertly agitated the media to make sure the board overruled the idea and nothing ever went ahead.”
I made a face. “Then why is Sean making you go to the meeting?”
“That,” Henry said, enunciating every word clearly, “Is a very good question.” He looked somewhat stressed by it, sculling the rest of his water, putting his glass in the dishwasher and then checking his watch. “I should really get going on those reports.” Sighing, he disappeared into the other half of the house. I heard the study door creak shut.
I’d zoomed in on the brickwork on Sarah’s wall to try and decide how to add a hot coal look to the bricks, when Henry immediately appeared again. He was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, looking flustered. “Actually, fuck Sean. I’m going to go for a run first,” he decided aloud, and then headed down the hallway.
A moment later, he reappeared back in the living room for a second time. “Would you like to come?”
I narrowed my eyes at him. It was probably still mid-twenties outside, and I honestly felt like I’d already sweated enough in the last few weeks for an entire lifetime. On the other hand, Henry hadn’t asked me to come running with him before (I was actually under the impression he preferred to do it alone?) and it was an odd enough occurrence for me to realise I probably should say yes to it. Besides, I figured as I put my tablet aside, it might give us an opportunity to talk about what was up with him. At least, that was the plan.
I had exactly one pair of shorts and they were denim, so fleecy trackies it was. Furthermore, I always bought expensive brand t-shirts because the fabric was thicker and I felt like that hid my binder better, so I was already feeling kind of hot when we stepped out onto the porch.
Henry broke into a slow jog as we reached the footpath, slow enough for me to tell he was pandering to how unfit I was. I matched it for about two blocks before I realised I’d massively miscalculated. Neither the heat or my tragic level of fitness were going to be my main problem: I’d forgotten to factor how damn tight my binder was, especially in summer.
It wasn’t an issue at all when I was walking or on the odd occasion I’d needed to briefly run for the train. But now that I was trying to actually jog, I was taking these huge breaths—or trying to—and I felt like my lungs were getting smaller and smaller with each breath.
I didn’t want to explain what was going on to Henry, so I suffered it for another couple of blocks until I actually began to see stars in my peripheral vision. I had to stop or I was literally going to pass out.
Leaning heavily on someone’s fence, I managed, “Go, go,” between heaving breaths to Henry.
He jogged on the spot. “Just a bit further!” he said with a big smile on his face. He nodded at some trees that were basically on the other side of Australia. “Let’s keep going to that park!”
I would be literally unconscious by the next block, let alone before I reached that park. I had intended to say something to that effect, but I couldn’t catch my breath enough to speak. Automatically, I reached up to tug my binder, but stopped myself before I was able to.
The movement was quick, but Henry noticed it. His wide smile faded into something more generic, and he stopped jogging. “Well, I suppose we’ll have to build up to running,” he said. “Anyway, it’s probably not a good idea to overdo it in this heat.” We continued to the park at a walk.
The plan was to do a loop of the park and then head back to Henry’s, but we stopped briefly near some play equipment. Henry gestured at it. “You don’t mind if I—?”
I grinned. “Nah, it’s fine. Since you’ve been so good, you can have a play on the slippery dip before we go home.”
He deadpanned. “I was hoping you’d push me on the swings.”
“I need to sit down,” I told him honestly, sitting on one of them myself. “You can push me.”
He laughed. “Maybe in a minute,” he said, and then wandered casually over to the monkey bars, jumped up to grab them, and then started doing chin-ups like it was nothing.
I might have gaped. Honestly, it was impressive. It had been obvious for months that Henry was bulking up, but it was one thing to notice his suits were getting tighter and another to see those veiny biceps in action. His shoulders looked huge; he hadn’t looked anything like that when we’d been sleeping together, he’d just been your typical garden variety nerd. Now he looked like he was almost ready to compete on Gladiator.
“Actually, on second thoughts I’ll skip the swings,” I decided, standing up. “If you push me, I’ll end up in the stratosphere.”
He laughed, which made him miss a lift and drop down. He shook his hands out, wandering over to me. He seemed pretty proud of himself. “I can nearly lift as much as Sean,” he told me, sounding smug.
It was a weird comment, so I gave him a weird look for it. “Great,” I said flatly. “I’ve been hoping you’d become more like Sean.” He laughed, but didn’t explain it.
When we got back home and I went to shower in the guest bathroom, seeing my own shoulders in the mirror was far more jarring than usual. I turned away from the mirror to undress. I had to literally wrestle out of my binder, and when I finally got the evil bastard over my head, it was like my lungs magically reinflated and I was able to breathe again. I tossed it in the corner and spent a few seconds leaning against the handbasin and just taking slow, deep, luxurious breaths with my eyes closed. It was such a wonderful relief.
What wasn’t a relief was turning back towards the mirror. Not only was I faced with my own skinny nerd shoulders, but my binder had left several deep red lines along its hem and there was a nasty bruise forming along one of my ribs. I prodded it experimentally and winced. I probably shouldn’t wear a binder tomorrow so I could give it a chance to heal, but I didn’t want to remind Henry I was female and also someone he used to be attracted to, and it was too hot to wear a hoodie.
The culprits, my ever-present breasts, stared at me in the mirror. I sighed at them. They weren’t even that big; if the rest of me wasn’t so small no one would even notice them.
While I was thinking about that and coveting Henry’s new shoulders, I remembered a conversation I’d had with Bree in a change room not long after I’d met her. I couldn’t remember the specifics, but I think I’d come to the conclusion that no one would even notice my breasts if my arms were bigger.
I wondered about that. It hadn’t taken Henry that long to bulk up, had it?
After my shower, I expertly draped a towel around my shoulders to hide my lack of binder. Since my hair was wet, I figured Henry wouldn’t notice.
He didn’t. He didn’t even really look at me, because instead of doing whatever reports he was urgently supposed to be doing, he had a bunch of food out on the kitchen bench and had rolled up his sleeves. “Have you eaten?” I shook my head. “You want what I’m having? I’m just going to throw some things together.”
I helped him chop veggies while he did the eggs, spending some time considering our respective arms and wondering how long it would take me to get as jacked as he was.
“Henry,” I began slowly as I finished with the zucchini, “was it difficult to get that built? Like, did you have to work really hard?”
He looked across at me with interest. “Not too hard, but I did need to have an exercise routine.” He considered me, reading between the lines. “You want to build muscle?”
“Either that or I’m going to need to buy my own suits.”
He chuckled, scooping up the contents of my chopping board and dumping it in the pan. “You’ll need to eat more protein than you do—more in general, really,” he told me. “And you’ll need to lift most days.”
Since Bree tried her best to stuff me full of food at every opportunity, I didn’t think eating more would be an issue. Henry also had free weights in his rumpus room that he lifted every morning himself, so whenever I was here I could probably use them, too. “Can you show me what you did?”
He looked absolutely delighted at the prospect. “Of course! We can start tomorrow, if you like.”
That’s what I was hoping for. While we finished cooking dinner and ate it, I quizzed Henry on the sort of things I should be eating and jotted them down to give to Bree for when she did the shopping. Henry also told me he’d email me a bunch of articles on muscle-building and training to read, but when he took out his phone to send me the links, his bright smile fell as soon as he saw his notifications.
He didn’t say exactly what it was about, but the fact he apologised and shut himself in the study afterwards to work gave me all the evidence I needed about why he was so stressed out.