It took me nearly 20 minutes to set the table.
The first ten minutes I spent convincing myself it was even necessary to bring up those empty wine bottles with him. Was it even any of my business if Henry wanted to drink too much? After all, he’d had a pretty shitty time at work for the last year and if drinking was keeping him in one piece for now, shouldn’t I be happy? He might not even be drinking alone: his sister Alice drank. Natalie probably did, too. Maybe I was just assuming he drank alone.
Or maybe—just maybe—I was totally making excuses so I could avoid having a hard conversation with him. I leant forward onto the table and groaned. Okay, how should I even do this?
I could fish one of the bottles out of the recycling and put it in the centre of the table as if it was part of dinner, I thought. If I just put the bottle on the table, I could let him know I knew what was going on and he could mention it and talk about it if he felt comfortable. It was only when I went outside and found myself staring down into the recycling bin that I realised that not only would it actually be pretty gross to put a filthy rubbish bottle on the table, but that it would also seem extremely manipulative. Like, ‘Hey Henry, I laid out this whole dinner to accuse you of being an alcoholic in a really passive-aggressive way’. I should be an adult and just have an adult conversation with him, I reluctantly decided, wandering back in.
I sat down at the table to wait for him, running potential conversations with him through my head. In all of them, he told me not to worry and that everything was fine. ‘I admit I overdid it this week a little, but the hangovers have made certain I’ll never do it again!’ I could almost hear him say, with a bright laugh and a pat on my back. I exhaled and ran my hands over my face. I was probably still just making excuses not to raise it.
Difficult conversations had never been a forte of mine (no matter how much Bree tried to force me to practice), but if Henry was drinking this much even one week, it worried me. This was Henry: Henry who’d taken care of me through all my panic attacks, all my breakdowns, and all my Mum-related dramas for nearly 6 years. If there was anyone who I should get my shit together for, it was him.
I stared down at my empty bowl and waited.
I was nearly 11 before I heard Henry’s Lexus in the driveway. To be honest, I was nearly at the point of wondering if he’d slept somewhere tonight (maybe his sister’s?), and the surprise of it made my heart pound. Here we go, I thought, and felt sick to the stomach.
I listened to his footsteps on the porch and the click of the lock. Instead of cheerfully calling, “It’s just me!” as he always did when he opened the door, there was a long silence. I frowned. His footsteps were quiet and slow as he approached the living room in his slippers.
“Oh, you are awake,” he observed as he entered, managing a tired smile. “Sorry I’m so…” he saw the table. His face journeyed through a series of emotions: disappointment, guilt, and finally settling on appreciation. “You made dinner.”
I attempted a bright smile with my nod, but I was no Bree. It felt fake. “Another meeting?”
“Mmm. The board meeting.”
Oh. Of course! “Oh, yeah!” I smacked my forehead. “Sorry, I know you told me about that.” I gestured at his seat. “I hope fighting with Sean has made you hungry for bulgogi! It’s probably stone cold now, though, so I’ll heat it up for you.” I pushed myself up on shaky legs—from both the workout and the conversation I was about to have—and headed around the island bench into the kitchen, pot in hand.
He stood in place. I paused by the stove as I placed the pot on it, my heart still thumping as I looked back at him. Now that he was standing still, I could see how exhausted he was. It made him seem so much older. After a moment of struggling with something, he forced an apologetic smile onto his face. “I don’t suppose I can get it to go, can I?”
To go? “To eat in your study, you mean?” I asked. The study: where the wine was.
Again, he nodded once. “I’m terribly sorry, I know you’ve gone to a lot of effort. I just—” He exhaled, his shoulders sagging. “I’m out of energy for people.”
Oh… “No, no, it’s fine,” I said, my own sore shoulders probably sagging a little, too. “You can definitely take it with you and relax.” Part of me was overjoyed I wouldn’t have to have The Conversation with him.
I let him smile with relief and begin to drag those heavy feet towards the study before I realised I was avoiding shit again, just like I always did; Bree would fucking murder me if I let this slide. I took a deep breath: at this point I’d murder myself. “Can we talk?”
He half-turned back towards me. “Now?”
I winced. “Yeah, if that’s okay.”
His eyes travelled from me to the set table, and realisation passed over his face. “That’s why you made me dinner.”
I scrunched up my nose. “Actually no, I’d made it already.”
He watched me for a moment, and I couldn’t read him. “Min…” he began eventually, switching to his counsellor voice. “I can tell you’ve put a lot of effort into this, so I gather whatever you have to discuss with me is important, but I just can’t hear it right now. Please,” he said gently, “would you mind if we took at a rain check on this? Just this once?”
I swallowed, looking into those puppy eyes. Every fibre of my being wanted to let him just get away with this one; and it made sense, didn’t it? He’d had a really awful day, perhaps it was incredibly selfish of me to spring this on him now.
While I was fighting internally with myself, he gave me a warm smile. “I’m sorry. Thanks for understanding. We’ll have that conversation the moment I have more headspace,” he said, like that would ever be the case while he was working with Sean. He turned away again.
He had his hand on the doorknob before I somehow fought through my paralysis and blurted out, “Seriously, Henry, please. You know what I’m like about this stuff, and I got this far.”
He didn’t turn around straight away; drawing a long breath and then releasing it. When he turned, he must have found some reserve of energy because he didn’t look irritated, or angry, or any of the things I was terrified he might be. “Alright,” he said evenly, “if it’s that important.”
I couldn’t overthink this, or I wouldn’t say it. “I know you’ve been drinking,” I blurted out. Then, realising how that sounded, I added, “Are you okay? Because I know the reason I drank was because I wasn’t coping. And if you’re feeling that bad, it matters to me.”
His eyes narrowed a little; not in anger like I was terrified they would, but in thought. He looked confused. “Min—why on earth do you think I’ve been drinking?”
I felt my face going as red as Gemma’s did. “I was making dinner and I went to put the lemonade bottle in the recycling—oh, by the way I’ll replace the lemonade, I promise—anyway, I found those gold label red bottles in the recycling. And—yeah. Several of them.”
He watched me. “The ones I emptied out of my study bin on Saturday? I’d been meaning to do that for a while. I do have an odd glass with my takeaway in there.”
Oh… “Why did you hide them? Not in the recycling bin, in the filing cabinet, I mean?”
“That’s for you, Min. I know how you are with alcohol, red wine especially. I didn’t want you to come across them when you were home alone.”
“Oh…” Oh, god.
He considered me. “That’s what this was about?” he said as if he thought I must surely have more to add because the wine bottles were such a non-event.
I jammed my eyes shut for a moment. “Yeah. I thought—Never mind. I was just worried.”
He smiled. “You can open your eyes, I promise,” he was probably deliberately sounding gentle. “I’m not drinking too much, and I’m not going to bite off your head for confronting me over something you’re worried about.” He locked eyes with me as I opened them. “I’m not your mother, Min.”
I grimaced. That one hit straight in the guts. “I’m still sorry.”
He approached me, looking—perhaps even a little amused? “Well, thanks for the intervention, I appreciate the sentiment.” He put a warm hand on my shoulder and rubbed it gently a couple of times, and then reached down and turned on the gas for my pan. “Here,” he said, eyes twinkling. “You’ll have better luck reheating it this way. May I go and decompress now?”
“Oh-oh, yeah.” I felt like a fucking idiot in every way. “Yeah, I—of course. Sorry. I just thought of you in there, like, drinking by yourself… And with Sean being such an asshole recently…”
“Sean’s always been difficult to work with. Nothing’s changed except how easily I get tired.” Despite that, he managed a laugh. “Could you bring it in once it’s hot?” He tilted his head to indicate the pan.
I nodded mutely, and he echoed it, and then shut himself in the study.
I stood beside the stove as it sizzled, the whole conversation replaying in my mind. Of course hiding the alcohol was for me, how could I have been so stupid? And I’d made this huge show of it, like I was doing a one-person intervention or something. If it had been anyone but Henry, I probably would have gotten blasted for my terrible fucking timing. I wondered if Henry secretly wanted to blast me.
It was only when a slightly acrid smell touched my nostrils I realised I was burning our dinner and yelped, then grabbed the handle without a mitt and yelped again, and finally managed to serve us both with one hand while the other was running under cold water. When I knocked on the study door and passed Henry’s bulgogi and rice to him, he was in the middle of something and managed nothing more than a quick, polite smile as he took it from me. Naturally, I panicked about that.
I couldn’t even eat. I should have, because my tired-shaky and anxious-shaky muscles definitely needed the protein. I took a plate of it into my room, because I couldn’t risk making eye-contact with Henry and re-experiencing my own stupidity in the twinkle of his eye if he emerged to go to the toilet. Not only that, but I’d have to face him being pleasant about me ignoring how tired he said he was and insisting on confronting him after a board meeting with Sean.
I wasn’t sure how much I could trust Bree with all this, but it was her number I dialled anyway.
She answered immediately. “Hi,” she said, sounding more confused than excited to hear me. “Is this Min Lee making a voice call to me?”
“Yes, because I’m an idiot.”
She laughed, but it was kind. “Oh god, what did you do? Did you break something?”
“Can you break a relationship if you’re not dating the person?” I asked darkly.
She snorted. “He’ll forgive you unless you murdered his sister or something.” She paused. “Okay, what did you do? Was it hilarious?”
I quickly poked my head out the door into the hallway to check he hadn’t followed me; as if he would even do something like that. “I found wine bottles in his recycling and then found where he was hiding them in—”
“Oh, wait a minute, wait a minute. You were snooping? I seem to recall someone telling me that snooping isn’t something that people like me to—”
“—yes alright, I’m a hypocrite, I get it,” I said, cutting her off as I closed the door and sat back down with my cold dinner. “But I was worried because, well,” I made a gesture that she couldn’t see, “you know what I’m like with alcohol. So, of course, like a fucking idiot, I assumed he was the same way.” I sat back down at the desk and stared into my bulgogi. “And so I did this huge thing where I made him dinner—I know, I know, I actually made dinner,” I said before she could interject with it, and then told her the rest of what had happened.
Bree listened, probably strumming her lip like she did when she was thinking. “I mean, it doesn’t sound like he’s very angry about it, though? You’re probably just overthinking that one.” She moved on. “So anyway, after you’d totally projected your alcoholism onto him, did you find out if something happened and he’s depressed over it, or…?”
I exhaled so hard a couple of grains of rice moved across my bowl. “I can’t tell,” I admitted. “He seems normal, but I can’t get that Antarctica comment out of my head.”
“Could you be projecting the whole miserable thing, too?”
“I think I have to actually feel the thing to project it.”
She scoffed. “You know what I mean. Maybe you want him to be sad—not on purpose!” she clarified quickly. “Like, some part of you wants him to miss you as his girlfriend who works at Frost?”
I squinted. That was a tough question, and I didn’t think I had the energy to process it. I didn’t really think it sounded like me, though. “Probably not. I hope not, anyway. I just want Henry to find his new The One, settle down and have the babies he always wanted and then I can be Uncle Min.”
“Eh,” Bree said with a note of finality. “He will eventually when he stops working 24/7. At least Sean is older than him, because then he’ll die first and Henry can retire in peace knowing Sean can’t terrorize anyone at Frost anymore.” She paused. “Although, Diane Frost will probably live for ages,” she decided. “Out of spite, so she can visit Sean’s grave every day, set up a deckchair and have a mojito on it.”
I snorted; I was no fan of Diane Frost but at least she wasn’t actively terrorizing Henry like Sean was. It was getting late. I chatted a little with Bree—well, I ate my dinner and she monologued about her idea for me to spend more time around Charlie and speak Korean to her because she’d read that bilingual children were more open-minded—and then took my sore, aching muscles to bed.
The following morning Henry dragged me out of bed and trained me at the crack of dawn as if nothing had happened the night before. It struck me as bizarre even though it probably shouldn’t have; Henry was never one for confrontations or grudges. Perhaps living with Bree, someone who couldn’t leave something unsaid for even five milliseconds, had changed my expectations of how miscommunications were managed. It made me uncomfortable.
I think Henry sensed it, because when he handed my protein shake to me afterwards, he said, “I feel awful about disappearing into my study and not sitting down with you last night. I have a lot on my plate at the moment, but I should have made room for some of your bulgogi too.” His eyes were twinkling.
I gave him a tired look. “Only you would manage a pun after a workout like that.”
He looked very pleased with himself as he chugged his own protein shake like it was another type of fitness challenge. “Don’t worry,” he said afterwards, putting the mug in the dishwasher. “In a few weeks we’ll have you joking about things other than death, too.”
It still felt odd he was completely glossing over the ill-fated one-person intervention like it had never happened. I’d been planning on going back to Sarah’s this morning after the awkwardness of last night, anyway. “Tempting, but I think Bree is starting to forget what I look like.”
He laughed. “Next time, then. Want a ride to Sarah’s?”
After another intense workout the very last thing I wanted to do was walk uphill to the train station in the quickly rising heat, so I accepted his offer and 20 minutes later swung into his airconditioned Lexus.
I watched him as he reversed out of the driveway, thinking now was probably a good opportunity to feel out whether he was genuinely okay (and also reassure myself that he definitely, definitely wasn’t even a tiny bit angry at me).
I opened my mouth to begin with something like, ‘About last night…’, but before I could say anything, Henry spoke first. “I hope you don’t mind, but before I went to bed I had a look at your website draft.”
My jaw hung for a moment. I had two simultaneous thoughts: firstly, Henry never showed anything beyond polite interest in my art, and secondly, “How—?”
He grimaced. “I knocked your laptop when I was wiping the bench down, and it turned on.”
I frowned; that made sense. I only ever put it on sleep unless I was taking it somewhere, and I didn’t use passwords anymore because Bree sometimes wanted to use it to stream because the screen was much bigger than her tablet’s.
“The sleek look is really impressive. Why did you use the Blue Earth project, though? I thought you hated working on that. Something about Jason’s choice of project team?”
I scoffed: ‘hated’ was an understatement: that project had been a nightmare from beginning to end. I’d worked for nearly 36 hours on trying to get the proofs ready only to find out that the team had been conspiring to find out how long I could work before I passed out from exhaustion. They even had bets on it. However, the result wasn’t all that bad. “The materials turned out okay,” I told him. “It’s not the art’s fault my team were all pricks.”
He pursed his lips, looking only partially convinced. “It must be difficult to look at the work objectively with all those memories attached to it.”
I considered that, and then shrugged. “Pretty much all the profitable art I’ve ever done was with those guys. There were the murals in Broome and Cairns, but they’re so different from my normal work I’d probably need to run them under a different company to get any work in that style.” I wondered how I’d do that. Separate website, or same design group? I had no idea. “Honestly, they were more fun, though. I hate graphic design.”
He glanced towards me and caught my eye. “Perhaps that’s the direction you should be moving in, then?”
I exhaled. “That’s not going to—” I nearly said ‘pay my rent while I’m studying’, but if I said that, Henry would probably find some sneaky way of paying it for me. “—work while I’m studying,” I managed. “I can’t just be flying all over the country.” He didn’t need to know I could bang out a mural in a weekend if I had planned it well beforehand. They just typically paid very low rates compared to corps.
To my relief, he seemed to have missed my near-gaff. “Understandable. What’s your next move with marketing yourself, then?”
I hadn’t given it much thought. “That’s a good question,” I told him, trying to determine where exactly in the market I should pitch myself, and to what industry. Mining wasn’t exactly a sector with a lot of players, and energy companies seemed to already have their own graphic teams.
Discussing the problem aloud with Henry was helpful. By the time we reached Sarah’s, I’d already decided that small-to-medium tier firms were a better option than corps, and steering away from publicly owned companies avoided board interference in contracts.
Getting out of Henry’s car with shaky arms was harder than expected, and I didn’t miss him looking highly amused about it. “Cardio day tomorrow,” he said, pointing at me. “Don’t skip it.”
“But I thought you said skipping was good cardio?” I asked innocently.
He rolled his eyes in good humour, ignoring that. “As much as I’d be happy to drive down and go for a run with you, I have breakfast with Natalie tomorrow.”
“Doing cardio with her, instead?” I asked with a wink.
His fell. “Don’t joke about that,” he said bleakly. He wasn’t really reprimanding me—it still felt like banter—but my heart immediately dropped into my stomach as I closed the car door. Two mistakes in one day! Not exactly a record for me, but not far off.
I stood there on the curb as he drove off, feeling every bit as if he’d dressed me down in public and accused me of something awful.
That’s not what happened, I told myself, putting on a stiff upper lip and marching around Sarah’s house to the back door, where I began the epic search through my rucksack for where I’d put the fucking keys.He was still being friendly; he was probably just referencing how Sean was spreading rumours about him being a womanizer.
But what if he wasn’t? I stood for a moment, looking at myself in the glass of Sarah’s sliding door. Of course he was fine, right? He’d been calm and relaxed while we’d been discussing my art… which we’d chatted about for the entire journey, 40 minutes.
I frowned at my reflection. In the past, Henry had said maybe one thing about most of the art I’d showed him—nice things, of course—but suddenly, the whole exchange seemed weird. I swallowed.
Inside, I could hear Bree singing horribly off key, presumably to the only person apart from me who would let her: Charlotte. The second I walked through that door, Bree was going to be like, ‘Oh, you’re back, so Henry is okay, then?’ I didn’t think I had an answer for her.
During our chat this morning he certainly seemed fine, but should he seem fine after last night? Was that normal? Even for someone who’d been dealing with Sean for years?
I exhaled, clouding my reflection. If only I could just fucking ask him and get a real reply. Or if not ask him, specifically, ask Alice or someone close to him. Alice wasn’t a candidate because she and I weren’t on great terms since I broke up with him, and Henry didn’t like to burden her with his own problems because she had four young kids. Other than Alice, there wasn’t really anyone else Henry was close to who would know if he—
Wait. I realised what I was saying. Of course there was someone close to Henry who might know more about how he was, and he was having breakfast with her tomorrow morning. She’d know because she’d refuse not to know, and she had a talent for saying the things Henry thought should stay unsaid. If he was fine, she’d just tell me and I could stop stressing about it.
Well then. I grimaced at the thought, my fingertips brushing the keys in the bottom of my rucksack. I guess I’m paying a visit to Natalie Heiser tomorrow.