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Published April 2023Become a subscriber
Emily was in love with her boss and everyone knew it. Or she felt they would be stupid not to, her emotions so obvious they might as well be carved out on her face. In fact, the people at her office viewed their colleague as perhaps a little cold, at times avian- or even equine-like, and impeccably dressed. If they ever noticed her vermillion flushes, they assumed it was brought on not from embarrassment but from changes in the weather.
The Melbourne writers centre where Emily worked organised talks and podcasts, and ‘conversations’ with writers and writer-adjacent people from around the globe, and ran a high-profile mentorship program with local up-and-coming writers. On top of this, the centre frequently published pieces – excerpts from forthcoming novels, interviews, personal essays – on their website, all of which had to be edited. This was Emily’s job, although she had studied literature and languages to be a translator. Occasionally, when the opportunity presented itself, she would translate a contemporary short story from the French or Italian – something her boss made sure there were opportunities to do. Very occasionally, she would be asked to liaise with an international writer applying for a residency, usually in Spanish, which she could speak passably. Emily had not been overseas, not even once, although her paternal grandfather was Italian, and in her early twenties she’d held lofty ambitions to move to Rome. Although almost thirty, it’s impossible to underestimate how ridiculous Emily believed herself to be, her interest in romance languages being yet another thing she found deeply embarrassing.
Within the organisation, hers was a small job, and under another boss it would have been merged with her co-editor’s, but her boss had also come from a degree in literature and languages, and had once desired to be a translator himself. These plans had not so much been abandoned as taken from him; in his youth he had worked at a literary magazine, where his evident charisma and management style propelled him into the other side of publishing. In this way he did have a soft spot for Emily, and often would take pains to go through the work she was doing or offer a hand in it when she was overloaded – which, despite her job being relatively undemanding, was wont to happen, her co-editor being somewhat incompetent. Emily was not stupid, nor deluded, and knew her boss did not do this because he liked her but because he Loved Literature. Still she relished these moments – him setting up on the edge of her desk for an afternoon – and could not help but be charmed when he did work that was well below him, even if she thought herself juvenile for doing so.
The way he fixed his attention, so completely, was something he did for everyone, and Emily was well aware of this. But her boss’s fair treatment of any and all did nothing to help her affliction. Emily’s boss was not in love with Emily. Emily’s boss was in love with his wife, his family, and the life they all had together.
Emily actually liked her co-editor, Orchid, which was not the name they were born with, but a sweet one nonetheless. Although it was also true Emily found their enthusiasm a little amusing in a way that was patronising, and Orchid, sensitive to condescension, sometimes became prickly in response. Said prickliness did not come naturally to them and was inevitably forgotten at the prospect of an exciting meal or meeting, or when something strange would happen to them while getting coffee, at which point Orchid would start throwing their hands around and laughing and getting worked up and just generally being Orchid. The two of them, seated so their backs were to one another, with a window and a large fern in a pot to one side, created a makeshift cubicle of sorts for their department – if one can have a cubicle in an open-plan office.
While Emily was senior to Orchid only in age, she still insisted on proofing their edits to pick up things they had missed: a ‘loose’ which should be ‘lose’; a grammatically impossible semicolon, a character name spelt three different ways. For this Orchid sometimes put on a show about being micromanaged, or good-naturedly implied Emily was high-strung, but they were grateful for the frequency with which Emily picked up their you’re/your mistakes or asked questions of consistency w/r/t house style, and sometimes sent her gushy emails or left post-it notes scrawled with hearts evincing just that. Orchid was not typically qualified as an editor, but Emily, for all her superiority, was patient, and through the three years of their working at the organisation, Orchid had learnt to edit with the grain. Besides, Emily didn’t mind the additional workload, and Orchid was beloved in the office, something Emily could certainly not claim to be, and she admired this. At the other part of their job, Orchid excelled, and was often occupied with. This involved meeting authors, selecting which writer to profile, being the Q in Q and As, among other editor-adjacent things to which Orchid applied their abundance of energy and enthusiasm that never wavered in the face of sometimes admittedly modest events. Orchid often hijacked the organisation’s social media accounts, and was just very good at being a public-facing publishing person – being seen – while Emily, despite her sleek appearance, preferred to remain anonymous.
Emily’s love for her boss was necessarily unrequited. Emily would not love her boss if he loved her and not his wife, and especially not if he had attempted to sleep with her. If this happened she would not respect him, and she could not love someone she did not respect. As it were, there was no need for her to worry. He never took advantage of what she saw as her obvious infatuation. He was a man of class, and this, among other things, was why Emily was in love with him
Besides, he was not a man to indulge in clichés; he would certainly not have an affair with someone who was twenty to thirty years his junior.
They had met once, the wife and Emily. Saturday morning, a year or so into her employment, at a fresh food market. Her boss had been wearing a linen shirt unbuttoned further than he would ever let his cotton ones at the office be. Emily had loved his beautiful forearms, that he had introduced his wife not-quite ironically as ma chérie – although he did not speak French, but German, thank god; that might have thrown Emily over the edge. She had loved his wife, too, although she could not help but notice that, even accounting for the twenty years advantage she had, the wife was the more attractive. Emily had been repulsed and ashamed of this impulse for comparison, which she suspected the wife picked up on, but had still been kind to Emily despite her being young and almost beautiful and in love with her husband.
What was perhaps most embarrassing about the whole thing: Emily had worked at the organisation for almost five years and had been in love with her boss just as long. This was where much of her shame came from. Her initial assumption that her feelings would pass as tides do, not having come to fruition. Even worse: she still hoped that these feelings, a porousness that made her feel daily on the verge of crying, would simply, of their own accord, one day abandon her. A small part of her wished her boss would do something so despicable, so morally or aesthetically repulsive, she would at last push past this terrible period of her life.
In order to cope, she had, over the years, become more and more involved in her own appearance, another thing that filled her with nauseating humiliation. In her time working at the organisation, Emily, who had always been thin, had whittled herself down into the morbidly skinny, a feat helped along by her appetite being entirely swallowed by pining. Additionally, she attended monthly pedicures and facials, and did pilates three times a week, turning her once poor posture impeccable. With her newly upright, insect-like body, she had taken to wearing clothes she would have once felt she looked ridiculous in, and through this she had found a new and final obsession: online shopping. The sheer volume of clothes she owned was where the pit of her shame burned hottest. She was aware it was not cute; it was a real, potentially diagnosable condition, and her darkest secret. Frequently, she spent more money in any given month on clothes than rent. In her time at the writers centre – by no means lucrative – she had maxed out and paid off her credit card twice, and a certain Yves Saint Laurent bag had her tempted to commit the crime again. She was not under the impression that this bag would fix anything about her situation. She did not think this bag would make her boss throw off his wedding ring, or collapse into epileptic fits of love, nor did she want it to. But, when she slit open the degradable plastic, brushed off earth-coloured curls of cardboard or unfolded pastel sheets of tissue paper, and unveiled the bag; when she rubbed her hands over its leather, smelt the newness of its skin, she would feel it imbue her with an incredible power. As if it were she alone who held the organisation together. That her colleagues and friends and strangers on the street would think this as they saw her with this bag. That she was capable, hardworking, a successful young woman only at the start of her potential. She was – with the bag in tow – in charge of her body, her emotions. Armed with just the right purchase she no longer suffered fools or burnout or heartbreak or grief, she could not get sick or depressed and she certainly – importantly – could not be in love with someone who held over her various enigmatic bureaucratic powers. With this new bag or that scarf, or another silver ring, she would begin to believe that no one could suspect her of this schoolgirl vulnerability. And, as she rubbed her hands over leather or delicately unfolded cashmere, she wasn’t. The bag or shoe or wrap top would make her feel, for just a second, like she would without doubt achieve the far reaches of her potential, and, just as transiently, become an unspeakably expensive object that she might well find herself too mortified to use. Sometimes, on her very first outing with a new purchase, she would discover it devoid of all the meaning she had initially assigned to it, and find herself – overtired and starving on the tram to work, in too-tight shirts and uncomfortable shoes, impractically oversized or undersized bags slapping against her thigh – ridiculous. At work, Orchid would say I like your top, or Nice necklace, and she would say, Thank you, and sit down, and then look over into the curls of the maidenhair so unsuited for the weather, and project onto the delicate fern everything in herself.
But she was addicted to it, this feeling of power. Some items of clothing she owned were so impractical she had not even worn them, and they instead hung in her meticulously maintained closet, fabric expensively draping.
Emily was aware she had a problem, but it was a good, distracting problem from the more real, emotionally crippling problem of being in love with her boss. In the last few months, however, her shopping obsession had reached new problematic highs. This compulsion of hers had altered her brain. Emily found, when she was working, she was thinking not in sentences, as her work dictated she should, but in outfits. In the middle of an edit, she would begin to think how that Versace jacket would really suit her, especially if she bought the Miu Miu skirt – but then she would have to buy a shirt to go with it – perhaps a blouse from that independent Melbourne brand, what was its name again? And then she should really buy loafers to tie the whole look together. After yet again rereading the same sentence on her computer, Emily would realise she was doing this and shake her head to refocus her attention. Soon however, she would find her mind drifting to the sites she frequented on her phone and home computer, the little favoured stars marking where she could buy discount designer clothes, the silent buzz of a notification in her pocket from a private Facebook group that would induce excuses to the bathroom so she could fork over half a week’s pay.
In the last fortnight she had bought Dior sunglasses – although it was autumn and Melbourne was perpetually overcast and miserable – a prohibitively expensive plain black turtleneck, another pair of knee-high boots, and an asymmetrical pink and white skirt from a local designer which cost two hundred and fifty dollars but could not have been made with more than forty dollars’ worth of material. Importantly, she did not dress to impress her boss, or dress in a way that she thought he would find attractive. Privately this was one of her few inner sources of dignity – a well she sipped from frequently – although in truth her fashion choices perhaps had more to do with her age than her moral compass. She did not want to wear the tights and fitted skirts and nondescript blouses that women his age did. Instead Emily wore what was fashionable to her milieu, but not indiscriminately, with a clear idea of her own style, or so she liked to think, although recently she had started to wear low-waisted pants and bought a lilac top, when she had once sworn off midriffs and the colour purple.
In the office, Orchid was similarly occupied with their appearance, but in a more obvious and flamboyant way, sewing their own clothes and wearing layers and layers of bright neon one week, then beiges and brown the next, with yards of necklaces or a dozen hairclips – whatever was the trendiest thing of the moment. Once, Orchid had shown Emily a TikTok of their room, and Emily had been horrified to see not a hint of floor but toppling piles of trinkets and fast fashion in mountains of unspeakable breadth and depth. What was supposedly Orchid’s bed was a pile of trash, with a small section cleared away for them to sleep in, like a nest or den. Despite both co-workers’ proclivities for aesthetics, the differences between the two were exponential, for although Orchid was only three or four years younger than Emily, between them was a generation, and this made all the difference. Being a millennial was yet another thing that embarrassed Emily, feeling that she had been unfairly aged by belonging to the tail end of a generation that could no longer be considered young. All of the older millennials having aged daggily, with coloured tattoos, holed ears, unwavering allegiance to low-top Converse and an earnestness that necessitated a lack of self-awareness, all of which were now out of style. And although being a millennial mortified her, she could not deny she was one of them. This was evidenced by the gap felt between her and Orchid, for although they enjoyed a lot of the same writers and movies, Orchid did not remember 9/11, or the Teletubbies, and had once substantially creeped Emily out by asking her, innocently, Who’s Nikki Webster?
Emily was twenty-eight. Not so old that she had to grow up, not so young that she didn’t not have to, and therefore her usual weekends oscillated between tame-ish dinner parties and a night by herself on the couch, eating strange concoctions of whatever she had in the fridge – half a lettuce, a piece of ham, some jam on a corn thin. About once every month or season, she would have a night out in the club. These were some of the only opportunities she had to wear the more outrageous purchases, and it was then that she would don the orange skirt with the ostrich-feathered trim or the insane boots that laced up to her thigh or her leather pants and a bra made out of diamantes – the cost of which should rightfully have been put towards a down payment for a house, or at least fixed her teeth. She would drink tequila lime soda and dance and make out with strangers, and do ketamine these strangers sometimes gave her in the bathroom, which made her feel like she was shifting herself down, getting stuck between gears, the lights of the club becoming slow dots moving in a symphony that evaded her. These nights would end with her making her way home with the sunrise, Uber Eats-ing herself a bacon and cheese McMuffin with an orange juice and two hash browns, all of which she would inhale before sleeping until mid-afternoon. She did not recover from these nights as well as she used to, and if they happened on a Saturday night, she would still not be fully recovered come Monday morning. Orchid, the facilitator of these nights out, would be ridiculously perky, taking great pleasure in Emily’s supposed lack of stamina, not understanding that the passage of time would one day come for them. Despite being relatively free of her inhibitions in front of Orchid, she did not tell them about her feelings for her boss, she did not tell them much at all, except that she was Coming up, or Totally fucked or that they were Wearing a cute top. She had not even found it in herself to tell her closest friends, Simon or Tilly or Liv, about it, so she certainly wasn’t going to tell Orchid about it. Although more than once when Orchid was introducing her to a friend, they would jokingly complain that Emily was the boss’s favourite. Despite herself, Emily would fill with a warm sort of pride she hoped but doubted was not evident. When Orchid did introduce Emily to their friends, it was always with the clear caveat that they were work colleagues, a tactic used to distance themselves from whatever perceived un-coolness Emily’s age, unwillingness to tattoo her body within an inch of its life, bleach her eyebrows, or what have you, had imbued in her. But Emily did not mind this at all, sympathetic as she always was to the shortcomings of others, especially when she would otherwise not go out and have a chance to wear her ridiculous clothing.
Emily did not precisely find her boss sexually attractive and certainly did not masturbate to the idea of him, this being, she felt, degrading to the both of them. In fact she preferred not to masturbate at all, which is not to say she didn’t do it, but that she was left with an acute feeling of shame and loneliness afterwards, despite the years of sex-positivity that had been marketed to her in the bubble of left-leaning millennial culture she had lived through. Instead when she absolutely had to, she downloaded Tinder or Hinge, or if she was desperate, fucked a stranger from the club.
Still, she did not have to have questionably-protected sex often, because, in the last half-decade of her life, Emily had cultivated relationships with people she saw infrequently for sex and connection – she had, as they say, lovers. This was one small thing she did not find humiliating about herself, although she would have pretended to be if someone found out. In fact she was privately smug about this thing which made her feel sophisticated and worldly in the way she hoped the clothing she bought would. Two of her lovers did not even live in the state. There was John, a short and beautiful man who she’d met through Simon. John lived in Tasmania where he studied trees and rehabilitated the forests with rare pines. On long weekends she would often find herself on a hundred-dollar plane ride to Hobart. He would pick her up from the airport, tulips in hand, and take her to his cabin where he would diligently and vigorously fuck her for two days, before, on the third, with the dawning of her departure, begin to make love to her. John was a man rightfully called John, he wore Redback work boots and dirt beneath his nails and kept fit from his job – he had once fucked her upright against one of his beloved trees, without breaking a sweat, although he’d spent ten minutes after anxiously inspecting it. Emily did not love John, but she suspected he loved her. And although he was a beautiful man, she ultimately did not love him for all the traits that made him this way – she could not bring herself to care about nature, and the prospect of being with him on his isolated property made her feel oppressed. So she resisted the part of him that wanted – it was hard for her not to feel this way – to trap her into his idea of domestic bliss. Besides, she needed the city, this was where she felt most herself, and she needed something in a partner that John did not have. Did John’s mindfulness and care about the environment make her conscious of her own personal evil? It didn’t really matter. It was impossible not to be aware, considering the state of things, and whenever Emily ordered yet another pair of pants online or flew over the Bass Strait, she was entirely alive to the fact that these were easily avoidable transgressions. But for all her awareness, for all the things that did dismay her deeply, she could not bring herself to feel guilt, or even think about the climate crisis more than momentarily. And although she knew that the fires and floods wreaking havoc on the eastern coast of Australia were not normal in their frequency or ferocity, she managed to keep on top of these moments of terror with compartmentalisation. That being said, the underlying feeling that there was not really a future for which to save did not help her tendency to throw money down the drain.
This was opposed to her whiteness, another thing it was impossible for Emily not to be keenly aware of. The fact of her own privilege, too, caused her nothing but grief, aware as she was, of all the real, burning issues in the world, the layers of discrimination and hate and inequality, in contrast, made her silly. And it was this knowledge, of how little in the scheme of things she had to complain about, which prevented her from seeking therapy or at the least telling a friend, or them asking how she was, the truth. Emily did not feel she had a right to her own plight, felt, at the prospect of unburdening herself, it was an inexcusable show of unearned weakness. Instead she let the shame hang privately, multiplying with each hanger in her closet.
Aside from John, there was Alicia, who lived in Sydney, was married, and not always ethically non-monogamous. Alicia had expensive red hair and clothes even more so than Emily’s. She was a corporate lawyer. Emily had met her at a writers festival. Alicia’s best friend had written one of those corporate girl-boss memoirs that had reached peak popularity two years previous, and Alicia had wooed Emily by way of her honesty about how full of shit she thought her dearest friend in the world to be. Alicia would come to Emily’s tax-deductible hotel room and fuck her as if she had both never seen another human being and like she had an important meeting to get to in half an hour. Often this was literally the case – the meetings – and, not even fully undressed or showing signs of having reached any climax on her end, Alicia would rush out after telling Emily how precisely she would fuck her next time. Alicia had no interest in leaving her husband. They had a nice apartment that looked out onto the sparkling spectacle of the Harbour, and she wanted to get pregnant. And she did actually like him, at the end of the day. Seeing each other once or twice a year suited them both well, Alicia being busy, and Emily only occasionally bisexual.
Then there was Teddy. Teddy, whose parents had clearly had another man in mind when they called him Theodore, but he had become a fiction writer and was therefore so ludicrous he could not even command the respect of the name Ted. He was once one of the young writers that had come through the mentorship program at the centre. Truthfully, he would not have been considered young in any other industry, and could no longer even be considered such in theirs.
Emily had not slept with Teddy until six months after his residency had finished, after running into him at one event or another, and had at last gotten too drunk and thought what the hell, before letting him take her back to the house he shared with two other similarly misguided no-longer-young men. Teddy was always fun and a bit awkward, and they met like this, incidentally, at their mutual events, and had awkward and fun, if not always satisfying, sex.
She was aware that if Teddy was amusing and John considered and Alicia ambitious, her boss was all of these things. He also had that quality, something refined and simmered, that was so rare and potentially non-existent in younger, available companions – and so, because she could not preselect these characteristics in a person, as she did items in her wardrobe, her life had met a stalemate. She could not move forwards, or backwards, or sideways, she could not quit her job, she would love it even without her boss; and she was good, or had once been – when she did not spend hours mentally curating outfits. And no other similar job really existed. She did not want to work at a quarterly or a publisher, she liked that her workplace was broad and so filled with people who were different, and busy, although it was true she did not necessarily interact with them. Perhaps she liked that it was easier, lost in the sheer number of colleagues, for her to go unmolested by office gossip. She certainly did not want to work at a newspaper, and would leave the industry before she wrote copy again.
Sometimes Emily imagined that she could do it, reciprocate John’s romance, and throw everything away to become one of those eco-women who made their own cheese, or at the very least she could go to Sydney and insert herself into a sort of throuple situation with Alicia and her husband – perhaps she could become their live-in nanny/sex slave.
Instead, each day she put on upwards of two thousand dollars’ worth of clothing, caught the tram into work, sat down and spent her time editing words and outfits and trying not to – at least externally – long for her boss. Then she went home to her small but impeccably cultivated studio apartment, checked the annex (where the postie knew to leave her packages), and tried on her new clothes. In the evening she would put on a new LBD while eating a mug of dry cereal, peruse sheer blouses online while wearing nothing but a pair of green boots, or drink half a bottle of wine, swiping, with much the same attitude, between Hinge and the Balenciaga Instagram page.
Sometimes, despite herself, Emily would click though high-end men’s fashion websites, looking at embroidered socks and ties, or Italian-made shoes, imagining how precisely they would fit her boss, an endeavour she would click out of, ashamed, before said items would return, in the form of targeted ads, to mock her.
Although Emily did not want her boss to want to sleep with her, this was not precisely the same as not wanting to sleep with him, and she still spent hours trying to imagine what it might be like but discovered, incredibly, that she was imaginatively incapable. This, despite the fact that she had found, through her experience, that people had sex the way they were, ferociously like Alicia, or athletically like John, or nonsensically like Teddy, she had trouble imagining how this cultivated man would conduct himself. It was beyond her capacity. And still the attempts were consuming her life. Ruining it, in fact. She had once had hobbies. She swum laps and hit tennis balls. She was a diligent up-keeper of her languages, and had been known, in the years before she ended up in the organisation, to translate works on the weekend just for fun. She would translate classics to compare herself to the masters, or contemporary ones with the hopes of publication, and although she had not been successful, if she had persevered she knew she would have been eventually. One day, sitting at her desk, fixing Orchid’s used of double quotation marks for the second half of a story while thinking about a paprika-coloured bralette, she had realised out of nowhere she could no longer reliably think in Italian, and had to excuse herself to the bathroom and put her head on her hands while she tried and failed to remember the Italian word for hat.
Around this time, when she had begun to lose her languages and the sentences that had once dictated her way of thinking, she unwittingly began to spend more time with Teddy. She had run into him not in the way she usually did – drunk and in the company of writers and writer-adjacent people, where, on seeing her, he would smile like a kid knowing he was about to be taken out for ice cream, and in doing so almost ruin his chances – but as she waited for a tram home. He was walking towards her frowning at his phone when she saw him. She stopped in front of him and he looked up, dazed. They had said hello somewhat mechanically. Wind and leaves brushed against her exposed calves, almost commandeered his hat. They began to laugh and talk and then, when her tram came and she got on, he asked her out for dinner the next night. She had been too taken aback to answer as the tram doors closed, but texted him sure, and then the two of them had met up for delicious and inexpensive sushi, where she learnt, over glistening sashimi, about the sister she did not know he had and his home town of Brisbane, that his grandfather had been evacuated in the latest flood, but was managing alright now, and that – this surprised her the most and perhaps cruelly of all – he was in the process of editing his first novel, which was going to be published by a small but respected press in the spring. He leant his head back to sip from his Asahi. She bent her head forwards so as not to spill seaweed salad on her top. The rubber-like texture squeaked at her bite.
When they got back to her place they had more sober and satisfying-than-normal sex. Afterwards Teddy made her laugh and she him. Where she had no body fat and world-class tits, he had developed a beer belly when, in his mid-thirties, the gift of metabolism had finally left him. He never had the right amount of stubble. Still he was funny and interesting, and so she welcomed him as a distraction, and soon saw a lot of him. He would come over at the end of a long day and have a twenty-minute crisis to her about his edits while she lay naked on her oatmeal sheets, patiently eating grapes. The next time he came over she would ask how the edits had resolved and he would frown and look at her blankly before saying, Oh, yeah that was fine, that was nothing. He was similarly hysterical about his antagonistic relationship with his father, the state of his finances (fairly), and was much more caught up in the gossipy side of writing than she could ever care to be, going on rants about who was fucking who and gatekeeping what, or having a moan about the mediocrity of a certain multi-award-winning author. She would smile indulgently at his jealousy but did not console him too much.
If Teddy was fun, he was not initially observant, and Emily had found in the past that writers could sometimes miss the painfully obvious. He did not seem to notice that if they spent the day together she barely ate, or that she rarely wore the same piece of clothing twice. But after a few months, when they met for a movie and he kissed her and said she looked nice, he had frowned and said, as if it were just occurring to him, she always looked nice. And then later that night, lying next to her, uncharacteristically mute, Teddy had asked her, quietly, what was in her cupboard, and she had bit her lip and said, No. And he had asked her, What do you mean no? And she had said, Okay, fine, I’ll show you, and then she had got up, slid open the mirrored doors. And he did not run out the door or tell her she was disgusting, although what was in her cupboard could have financed his lifestyle for two years. Teddy only laughed and said, But you don’t seem crazy at all.
So in her stalemate she found it was Teddy who came and knocked over the board. Teddy, perhaps the opposite of her boss, or if not, then the opposite of a mystery, which her boss was. Teddy, who had potentially never kept a feeling to himself. For Emily knew exactly what he did each morning, what he ate and what he enjoyed and whether his housemates were pissing him off. She could imagine precisely the way his facial expression would be. She could even imagine how he bought his clothes, the pair of socks from Kmart that needed replacing, the four or so flannel shirts he wore and skinny jeans he had bought a decade earlier when it had been fashionable for them to be so. She knew about the story of the fleece-lined denim jacket he had found at a pub, and how he had barely parted with it since. Through these things she found a new sort of intimacy that she had been unable to achieve with her boss. She had never been able to imagine her boss doing these small things – she could not even envision her boss buying clothes – and it was that which began to preoccupy her. It seemed impossible her boss would online shop – even more absurd was to imagine him in a store. But he was always wearing modern but age-appropriate dress. His suits and shirts were fitted, his shoes always polished. His wife might buy them for him, this Emily could concede, but beyond this there was an imaginative blank.
But Emily was at last finding living with her obsession untenable, and she found herself, without meaning to, dating Teddy. Despite his somewhat desperate circumstances, Teddy was generally optimistic, or, in the way of an artist, transiently depressed for days, before a manic upswing that would find him a new attitude. They both enjoyed the stability she brought to his life, and the ludicrousness he brought to hers. He knew exactly what she found funny and which of his friends she would hate and why. She read an advance copy of his novel and was pleasantly, surprisedly, impressed – moved even – at his auto-fictional account of a young-ish narrator’s relationship with his Vietnam vet father who was dealing, much like Ted’s own father, with PTSD and anger issues while trying to come to terms with the effects climate change was having on his crops. She was nothing less than shocked to find her name in the acknowledgements. She met his friends and, eventually, let him meet hers.
She went to Teddy’s book launch and watched as he was introduced as Ted and it not seem so ridiculous to do so, and soon found this was what she called him. With his help she started selling her designer clothes on the same apps where she had bought them, and while she could not bring herself to get rid of some particularly impractical items, he talked her into offloading her more insane purchases. Slowly, Emily stopped buying so much. At work, she found herself looking forward to the buzz not of a potential purchase but of a text from Ted. She started to eat more regularly, and put on some weight, and sold more of her clothes that now no longer fit her. Emily’s posture became worse and she became happier. Deleting the bookmarks of the clothing brands on her home laptop, Emily realised that she had not purchased anything or thought about her boss in an unprofessional manner in weeks. Left to her own devices on a Sunday, she picked up a French-language book and began to annotate it. She looked outside her window and noticed birds.
One weekend at the market, the very market she had once run into her boss and his wife – forgetting that this was why she had avoided it – Emily was laughing. Ted had said, about a suggestively shaped sweet potato, something obscene. Doubled over in tears, Emily wondered if her relationship with Ted was less like shopping for something specific online, and more like impulsively buying a scarf from a vintage store she had entered on a whim, how she would learn to tie it in her hair or bag, or simply drape it over a lamp, and how these items were the ones she became more attached to, in the end.
It was like this, as she gasped for breath through laughter that her boss saw her and came over, his arms around his wife’s shoulders. The two pairs greeted each other, Emily still not entirely composed. My god Emily, her boss said, I didn’t know you were capable of laughing like that. She smiled at him and when she had calmed down enough said that no, she didn’t know either. He gave her a small, sad, genuine smile, and told her he’d see her at work on Monday.
Katerina Gibson is the author of Women I Know, a collection of stories, which won the 2022 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Glenda Adams Prize for New Writing. Her stories have appeared in Granta, Overland, The Lifted Brow and the Kill Your Darlings 2020 New Australian Fiction anthology. Her short story ‘Fertile […]Read more