I spent twenty minutes writing up the muscle-building diet tips Henry had given me into a somewhat orderly email for Bree. Twenty seconds after I’d sent it, though, my phone rang. I didn’t even have time to say ‘Hello’ before Bree whispered excitedly, “Oh my god. I can’t believe I’m going to be dating, like, Hwang Chul Soon.”
I had no idea who that was. “Hwang Chul Soon?”
“Oh, he’s this enormous Korean bodybuilder. He’s like the Arnold Schwarzenegger of South Korea, and he’s absolutely shredded! You should see his Insta.”
How did Bree know a Korean body builder by name? There was a lot to unpack there. “Uh,” I said when I’d caught up, “I don’t think I’m going to look like a celebrity, I think I’m just going to be me, but slightly thicker. If I even manage to put on any weight at all.”
“You definitely will. This is so great. You’ll finally be able to properly carry me.”
“I can already carry you.”
“Yeah, but I always worry you’ll snap in half. God, I gained so much weight last year!” I heard our bed creak as she flipped over. “Okay, so. What exactly did Henry say? Tell me exactly.”
I had told her exactly, in that email I’d painstakingly typed out precisely for her benefit. Rather than argue with her, though, I relayed Henry’s tips to her directly. “He’s also sending me a bunch of articles about muscle gaining,” I told her. “Or at least, he was about to do it before someone texted him and he had to go deal with it.”
I didn’t even say who, but I didn’t need to. “Ugh, thanks Sean.” I could hear the eyeroll in her voice. “It doesn’t matter, that’s what Google’s for. Okay, so, when Henry says ‘more protein’, does he mean, like, some specific sort of protein? Like some safe kind?”
My eyes widened. “There’s an unsafe kind?”
I could hear her tapping away on her cheap wireless keyboard. “Yeah I’m sure I heard too much protein is bad for your kidneys.”
It was?! “You should probably ask Henry about that, because I think his kidneys are okay?”
She snorted. “Yeah, that’d go well. ‘Hey, Henry, now that we have shared custody of Min, I have a few questions about your kidneys’.”
I had to laugh at that. “Good point.”
“So, how’s he doing, anyway? Is he okay?”
I made a face. “I think so? It’s hard to tell.”
“You know, you could just ask him.” She sounded entertained.
“I could, but he would say he’s okay even if he’s not. He doesn’t want to ‘burden me with his problems’,” I said, imitating the way Henry spoke. It made Bree chuckle. “The plan is mainly to cheer him up and just kind of be around if he needs a distraction.”
“That would drive me nuts,” Bree said, scoffing. “I’d be like, dude, just tell me! Anyway, when are you coming back? Should I do a big shop tomorrow?”
That greatly depended on a combination of how happy he appeared to be and how guilty I felt for essentially mooching off him. “I don’t know. A couple of days?”
“Okay, but you got to text me with a few hours warning before you come home so I can go and do some shopping and buy whey powder and protein bars or whatever it is body builders eat.”
I agreed to give Bree notice of my impending return, and after the phone call ended, I found myself lying on my back Googling this Chul Soon guy she’d mentioned. I almost wished I hadn’t, because he was enormous, and I very much doubted that without starting testosterone and eating bulk-buy steroids for every meal that I’d ever get that big. Would Bree be disappointed about that?
I lay on my back staring wide-eyed at the ceiling for god knows how long. Was ‘guilt that I don’t have the muscle-building capacity of your garden variety cis man’ good enough reason to start testosterone? Guilt had been a driving factor in most of my important decisions in my life so far, so I seriously considered taking T for about ten seconds before I realised that I’d potentially end up hairy. I grimaced.
Still, I couldn’t get Bree’s excitement from knocking around inside my head. I reached over to my bedside table and grabbed my phone to get answers. “Are you disappointed I won’t end up anywhere near as muscly as Chul Soon?”
“uh no?? he’s a bit extreme. I don’t really expect you to end up like him I was just using him as an example.”
“Ah, okay. Thanks.” I replied, and was still putting my phone down when I realised I was bothered by the fact she was able to immediately pull a name out of thin air in 20 seconds, suggesting she was already following this huge muscly guy on Instagram. I had to ask. “How do you know who he is, though? Are you secretly into that and didn’t want to hurt my feelings?”
“asdfghjkjkasdhg noooo nonono!” was the reply. “when you sent me that message about the diet tips my first thought was ‘omg min’s going to look like arnold schwarzenegger!’ but then I thought it’s probably super insensitive and racist?? maybe?? to use some old white guy as an example so I googled ‘Korean body builders’ so I could use a more culturally appropriate example. I literally had no idea that guy existed until like 10 minutes ago, I’m not into it 😊 ”
Oh. I had to squeeze my eyes shut for a moment at that. “Sorry. I’m being a stressball again.”
“yup. unclench your jaw, I can hear your teeth grinding halfway across sydney haha”
My jaw was tight. Well, at least my mandible muscles would rival Chul Soon’s. I texted a good night to Bree and then lay awake and alternated between stressing out and telling myself off for stressing out until I finally nodded off.
In the time since I’d left Frost, I’d successfully repressed all memory of any hour before 6am existing. However, the following morning, Henry cruelly reminded me what I’d been missing.
“Rise and shine!” he said, knocking politely on my door instead of barging in and jumping on top of me like Bree would have. “It’s day one of your new fitness regime.”
I looked at the window; it was still dark outside. Unbelievable. “I don’t think it’s ‘day’-anything at this point.”
He opened the door a crack. “Nonsense. Let’s go warm up!” He disappeared off somewhere, leaving me still half-asleep and struggling out of bed like someone’s grandpa.
Getting dressed presented the usual trans dilemmas: my binder was a no-go because overnight the bruise on my ribs had turned a spectacular sunset purple and was sensitive to touch. Even more no-go was giving Henry any hint I still had breasts, so I decided to brave wearing a hoodie despite the fact it was easily 20 degrees already. Better to be drenched in sweat than traumatising both myself and my ex-boyfriend at 6am.
Henry raised his eyebrows at my hoodie as I staggered yawning into the home gym. “You know that’s not what we mean by ‘warming up’, right?”
“It’s dangerous to have cold muscles,” I told him obliquely, and then looked at all the equipment. “So, what’s first?”
“First is some gentle cardio to get the blood pumping,” he said, and then directed me towards his exercise bike. “Five minutes, let’s go!” He clapped his hands at me.
I looked from them to his face, incredulous. Is this what 6am Henry was like now?
Undeterred, he clapped them again, closer to my face. “Come on! On the bike! Go! Go!”
Suspicious, I watched him for a moment, and then slowly got on the bike. I wasn’t awake enough to put up any sort of fight.
It was a side of Henry I hadn’t seen much of before. He was a manager, so I suppose I must have suspected he had in him the ability to be authoritative and give direction, but in all the years I’d known him the only people he’d ordered around were his nieces and nephews. Well, he was making up for all that right now: he had me on all sorts of equipment, pulling things, pushing things, lifting things until I was red in the face and heaving each breath like it was my last. He had the energy of a golden retriever whose owner was finally playing fetch with him. So, despite the fact I was drenched in sweat, red-faced and over-heated, and despite the fact I was so weak after he’d finished with me that when I went to wipe the sweat from my face, my arm muscles shook with the strain of lifting the towel, it was actually sort of—fun? I couldn’t believe I was thinking that about exercise.
“See that shake?” Henry said as I basically fell off the last piece of equipment, pointing to my quivering forearms. “That means your workout will build that muscle.” If shaking muscles meant they were going to get bigger, Bree was right: I was going to end up looking like something out of a superhero comic.
While I was recovering from the brink of death, Henry made us both protein shakes (and then needed to supervise me drinking the whole thing because it had a grainy texture and I may have been eyeing the sink), and then we split off into our respective bathrooms to have showers.
It was much easier to face my naked and bruised female body in the bathroom mirror with the knowledge that I was working on making it look less recognisably female. Forgetting how sore I was for a second, I posed in the mirror with my biceps curled and then yelped at the strain and immediately stopped that. It was pointless posing in the mirror now anyway, because I still looked like a skinny twig of a person. For now, I promised myself as I went to soak away my woes in the shower.
Henry was gone by the time I got out, but he’d left coffee filtering for me on the sink. There was a note beside it: “You’re going to need this if you plan to finish your website today -H.” He’d even drawn a very Bree-esque lopsided smiley face, which he’d definitely picked up from her because he’d never been a much of a smiley-face-drawer until after she had started leaving notes for him on things when she stayed over. There was something horribly endearing about that, and I left the kitchen beaming. I hoped those good feelings would somehow motivate me to finish this fucking portfolio website.
The whole process was mind-numbing. Honestly, it was the type of thing I’d done a lot of at Frost: very typical branding and design work. I had a huge variety of design pieces I could have used in my portfolio, but as I was scrolling through them, my mouse drifted towards some of the epic fantasy-scapes that Bree loved so much. I preferred them, too: iridescent forests with mythical creatures, a piece on how I imagined underwater civilisation might look, and vast snowscapes and deserts, and even a character sheet of some invented monsters. Amongst them was even that picture of the Evil Flowers Bree had brought me when I’d first met her in there (although it looked rather amateur compared to the others, on reflection). These were pieces I’d lost whole days in. I’d spent so much time working on the tiny detail of each one that I felt like they were places that I’d physically been. Looking on each and every one, I could remember where I’d been in my life when I’d been working on them.
My cursor hovered over them, wanting to select them for my portfolio, but… Groaning audibly, I sat back and ran a hand through my hair. None of those were going to make me any sort of corporate business. They looked like posters that belonged in a teenager’s bedroom, not design work that inspired faith in my ability to handle corporate advertising.
Grumbling, I selected some sleek, clean pieces that showcased my skill and experience in corporate marketing. Unfortunately, that’s where the money was.
For now, I told myself, echoing my sentiments about my skinny arms from this morning. None of this was fun: it was working towards a goal. If I could bring myself to work out, I could also bring myself to slog it through corporate design work so I could support myself through uni. I could get through both. I’d gotten this far.
I had planned on taking a break at dinner time, but dinner time came and went, the sun went down, and Henry was still missing. That wasn’t too much of a surprise; Henry often did ridiculously long days at Frost and with all the trouble the offshoring rumours and Sean were giving him, it didn’t seem out of place. Maybe he was out decompressing over dinner with Natalie.
I ran with that theory for about another hour, but then realised it was approaching 9pm and Henry hadn’t texted to tell me not to get food for him. I sat up from my laptop and circled my stiff shoulders. If he wasn’t texting, he was in a long, drawn-out meeting, which meant he’d be tired as hell when he got home.
I should make dinner for him, I decided, thinking about all the times he’d cooked for me recently. Granted, his cooking was about ten times more palatable than mine, but I figured if he got home at 10pm and hadn’t eaten, he’d be content with literally anything that filled his stomach.
Leaving my website for now, I wandered into the kitchen to try and figure out what I could reliably make that I wouldn’t be likely to screw up. There were some beef strips in the fridge, and after I found some sliced onions we hadn’t eaten yesterday, I made a spontaneous decision to try bulgogi. I’d never cooked it, but Mum had made me help her with it a bunch of times so I figured I could hazard the attempt. Henry liked it when we ate Korean, so he’d probably appreciate it.
While I was talking myself out of feeling guilty for cooking Mum’s special bulgogi recipe despite having cut her out of my life, I went on a scavenger hunt around Henry’s kitchen for all the bits and pieces I needed. I’d found everything, up to and including a bottle of Sprite which Henry had probably bought to give his nieces and nephews next weekend for Korean New Year. I could just replace it before then.
I made the marinade and drank the rest of the Sprite because Henry definitely wouldn’t, and it would go flat before next weekend. I cranked the sink cupboard open with my foot to toss the empty bottle into the bin, but before I could, I remembered Bree’s impassioned monologues about the future of the planet and crumpled up my nose. I should probably recycle it.
The recycling bin was down the side of the house, neatly beside the normal bin. I opened the lid and tossed the squished Sprite bottle in, feeling pretty proud of myself for doing my bit to save the planet.
When it landed inside, though, there was an unmistakably glass bottle-sounding ‘clink’ from inside the recycling bin.
I froze. I knew that sound far too well.
It took me a second to come back to my senses. Come on, Min, I told myself, rolling my eyes at my ability to turn the most mundane things into a huge drama. There’s probably a bunch of glass things Henry recycles that aren’t in any way related to wine bottles.
…but what if it was wine bottles in there? After playing tug o’ war with myself for a few seconds and ultimately losing, I ended up opening the lid of the recycling bin and peeking in. It was dark inside.
This sort of snooping is exactly what you get angry with Bree for doing, I told myself as I pulled the bin a couple of metres into the porch light and squinted at the contents.
In the light, under a jumble of carboard and the odd crushed diet coke can was the glint of a dark glass bottle. I reached awkwardly inside and brushed aside the cardboard to reveal what was the unmistakable gold label of Henry’s favourite red.
Stomach dropping, I pushed that bottle aside and spied another one underneath it, and another one under that. Three bottles—at least three, because I couldn’t reach the bottom.
I stood back out of the recycling bin and let the lid fall closed, feeling oddly numb. Recycling collection was just last week, which meant at least three empty wine bottles in less than a week.
I swallowed, processing it. Henry had never had the same drinking problem I’d struggled with—at least, not that I was aware of. Then again, he had drunk a lot with me while I was living in Frost’s hotel apartment, but I’d been so completely immersed in my own issues back then that it had never occurred to me to even question Henry’s alcohol consumption.
It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to question it now either, except I’d never seen this much wine in his house, which meant if there was that much wine in his house, he was hiding it.
I was probably a bad friend for doing it, but I had to know if there was.
Henry’s kitchen was meticulously neat and clean, in part just because he was like that, and in part because Bree scrubbed everything every time she came over, which meant it probably wasn’t in the kitchen because Bree would definitely notice it. I don’t know why my next thought was of his study, but that’s where I ended up.
His filing cabinet was locked. That in itself wasn’t particularly odd, because I knew how private he was about work. However, I also knew that Frost was extremely meticulous about us not having work-related items at home unless they were on our ultra-secure laptops, so there was no way he had a bunch of Frost files at home in his filing cabinet.
I don’t know what possessed me to do it, but since the filing cabinet was thin and upright, I shook it with my sore arms. Part of me already knew what I was going to hear, but nevertheless when glass bottles clanked inside, I still felt my heart drop all the way to the floor.
I let the cabinet go and stepped slowly away from it, jaw tight.
As much as I wanted to chalk that up to ‘Henry just doesn’t want me to know he has alcohol around in case I’m tempted’, in my heart I knew that wasn’t it. Especially not with his bleak Antarctica comment the other day. All of this was painting a picture of how Henry was travelling, and the picture wasn’t pretty. I mean, fuck, it was nearly 10pm and he wasn’t home from work yet—that in itself should be all I needed to know.
Well, Min, now you know this, what are you going to do about it? I asked myself, staring at the locked filing cabinet and listening to the slow ticking of the wall clock behind it.