The Melbourne store was in an alleyway. There was nothing in the alleyway, only red bricks and the store. We had no signage though people persistently stood in front of the entrance and took photos of themselves. Sometimes they would do this inside. In these situations, my staff were often unsure how to act. I told them to do what we always did, stand and wait for customers.

We played no music. Clothes hung from metal scaffolding. In shifts, time dilated. When customers appeared, they moved or seemed to move faster within the store than they did outside of it. I trained my staff to act indifferently towards them and pour cucumber water, at their discretion, for potential high-end clientele. These were mainly rich men and women from Beijing and Shanghai, or Asian teenagers using Amex platinum cards.

When the store was empty, it was almost always empty, I would use a hand-held steamer to steam items before rehanging them or I would track sales on a tablet. In all things I would aim, by example, to be very still, almost meditative. More than anything, I explained to new employees, the store was meant to be like a static image, a photograph in a magazine, dynamic only through shifts of light, the bold cuts of hemlines, a shirt’s silhouette.

It was like this, the store vacant, me standing over the tablet, when the email came. It was brief and from our Asia-Pacific head of sales, a severe woman named Janelle who was based in Japan and whom I sometimes had video conferences with. She said that R, the founder of our label, would be coming. R would be in the country in two weeks’ time on personal matters, but would, potentially, visit the store. ‘You understand the gravity of this.’

I read the email three times. One after another, after another.

 

R was known for being reclusive. In the early eighties, she had arrived at Paris Fashion Week with a staff of four. What she did there shocked people. Models walked in black upon black distressed fabric, asymmetric cuts. Now she employed over 500 and had retrospectives at the Pompidou, the Met. A fellow Japanese woman, a fan, had once attempted to throw acid on her. Fashion bloggers at the time wrote that this was in fact an act of outsized love. I didn’t have the same feelings towards her but I understood how others might.

I was uneasy with most forms of devotion. When a Silicon Valley billionaire died, a man I was seeing went out, bought flowers and left them outside one of the billionaire’s stores. He described it to me. The store glowed in the night and people stood in front of it in heavy jackets and cried. In response, I said cruel things, well, really one remark that was too cutting, and then he said, We are no longer dating.

But I was a professional and I was good at my job. I managed the store to the precise specifications I had been taught or were sent through in emails from corporate. Often these emails weren’t directives exactly but quotes from R, something closer to proverbs, ways of being. ‘The fundamental human problem is that people are afraid of change.’ ‘Fashion is living, it is about every moment being alive.’ I didn’t often feel alive but I tailored my managerial style as best I could.

I was not afraid of change. I had worked in my position for many years, but I was in my thirties and wanted them to lead to something else. The label was young and I was approaching the point at which I wasn’t. The visit would be important to something I had stopped speaking about aloud. My career.

 

When I told my boyfriend, he didn’t respond directly but sent a message describing a glacier and a black sand beach. ‘It’s black. Really really black.’

He was in Iceland discovering himself. Those were his words. He had done so before on trips to Alaska and Taiwan, Morocco, a string of European cities. He only travelled alone. Because of the time difference, we mainly spoke at night.

I was lying in his bed. I slept in his apartment while he was away because it was more luxurious than mine – there was a doorman – and I felt anonymous in the Korean store below his building, where I bought items I would otherwise feel embarrassed to purchase together: diet tonic water, dry shampoo, a lone cucumber, Chinese slimming tea.

My boyfriend sent a photo but he sent the raw file, .CR2. I texted, ‘lo-res, send lo-res’, and he talked about a sauna in Reykjavik where they didn’t put chlorine in the water, and so you had to shower before you entered, but you had to shower in an open space where an attendant watched to make sure you used soap.

My boyfriend’s father was a Chinese artist and his mother an English translator and so he felt the pull to distinguish himself as something constant and painful. His godfather was Ai Weiwei. He brought it up whenever we met new people. I would hear, ‘Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei’. It was like a mantra until he reached a certain age and didn’t want people to make the comparison. Now, he just said he was a visual artist. There was never much art. Mainly, he stayed in his apartment taking near-nudes of himself and building his Instagram following. I wasn’t related to Ai Weiwei and I didn’t have rich parents. I weighed under sixty kilos, bought expensive clothes and wore them.

The photo still hadn’t loaded. I messaged, ‘I can’t see it.’ I switched my phone from Wi-Fi to mobile data.

He started describing it, the black pebbles, the grey sea.

I said, ‘I can see it now,’ even though I couldn’t.

Then he said, ‘It’s sad you’re not here. You had to stay for the designer.’

I texted, ‘I only just found out about the designer.’

‘I know. But you had to be there for it. It works out.’

I didn’t feel like replying to that. An hour later my phone vibrated.

‘I think you should masturbate in my bed.’

Then again.

‘Send a photo.’

 

In the morning I showered and carefully did my skin regime. A cleanser, followed by toner, then moisturizer. Sometimes, I also used serum.

As I massaged in the moisturizer, I felt something dense and tender on the left side of my jaw. It was small and felt like a trigger point, a knotted muscle. I was familiar with them. When I slept I ground my teeth. It was a problem, causing tension headaches and, what concerned me most, chipped enamel.

I fed a pod into my boyfriend’s espresso machine, relaxed my face, dressed, drank my coffee, then took the elevator down and walked to the store.

I unlocked the front door, then locked it once I was inside. I liked being there before we opened. At a specified angle, I sprayed the label’s signature scent, or rather a scent based on our signature scent – not for sale but produced for this alone – twice on the bottom floor and twice again on the loft level. This was always the time I felt my thoughts were clearest.

I was conflicted as to whether to inform my staff about R. There was the possibility that if R did come they would recognize her, and, without warning, act in a way that would embarrass me. Or, even worse, almost unthinkable, they could mistake her for a customer.

As I thought this, my phone rang.

A staff member said he was sick. ‘I have a breakout. It’s really bad.’

‘Have you tried concealer?’

‘I’ve tried. I can’t cover it. I can’t cover it.’

My staff often shared their personal problems with me – break ups, embarrassing health complications, UTIs – to explain why, at little notice, they could not come to work. I allowed them to do so, or, rather, I would just stand there, my eyes lowered, nodding, and be relieved once they stopped speaking into the phone.

I said, ‘Fine.’ Even understaffed I could manage.

The day would be Heidi, Sara and me. Heidi was twenty-six and had strong features which made her not conventionally beautiful but something more interesting and strange. She had the kind of face that seemed to dramatically shift when looked at from different angles or in different light. This was the first thing I noticed when I interviewed her.

I knew that Heidi wanted to be the manager because she often said, ‘I want to be the manager. It would suit my skill set.’ I wanted to explain to her that my position was poorly paid, salaried as opposed to commissions. Some weeks my staff could earn more than I did. At the same time, I did not want to tell her this because I told no one this.

The day wasn’t busy. At one point I watched Sara standing with a Japanese woman. Sara, like most of my staff, studied fashion and mistook working in retail for working in industry. This was understandable. I had once thought the same thing. She held the customer’s card in one hand and one of the tablets in the other. They stood there for a long time. She shook the tablet. I walked over. She turned to me.

‘It’s not working. The point-of-sale is down.’

The screen lit up with a green tick.

‘Oh, it’s working now.’

I felt a muted sense of panic and though I didn’t often take a lunch break, I took one and went to an office-supply store. I printed recent photographs of R at different events, and then a lone, recent paparazzi shot, taken on a street in Paris, of her drinking from a takeaway coffee cup. I came back and stuck them, with a torn-out page from Vogue, on one of the walls in the back room.

In the store’s group messaging channel I explained the situation. I ended it with: ‘For the next two weeks no one is calling in sick to shifts. No one is coming in late. No one is coming in hung-over. If you do, I will suspend your store discount. I will suspend everyone’s store discount.’

 

That night, my boyfriend sent me a video of a geyser. He had taken the footage using a high frame rate and then played it back at twenty-four frames per second, slow motion. The frame showed a small circular pool. Slowly, a large bubble expanded and expanded until it was a metre, two metres into the air. It shimmered for one drawn-out moment, and then the surface tension was too great and it shot into the air. I watched it, then watched it again.

Lying in my boyfriend’s bed, I couldn’t say that I liked my life or that it was not full of small disappointments.

I was pretty. I was tall and slim, had delicate features, long hands and feet. My body was the kind of body that things were designed for and other gay men tended to project onto it their own resentments or desires.

When I was younger I had the problem of men falling in love with me. People would wait outside the store to speak to me or they would wait inside until I served them. Occasionally there would be large gestures of affection and control – plane tickets, hotel rooms, reservations to restaurants I could not afford but never had to pay for.

Now, I still got attention, it hadn’t waned, but the value had depreciated. If a customer asked me out for a drink or to their apartment and I said I was seeing someone, they would narrow their eyes and reply that they could tell I was over thirty, probably close to thirty-five.

I often felt like I had made poor choices, that I had failed to capitalise in some generalized yet hyper-specific way. I had once learned Mandarin by slowly and persistently attending classes. I wanted to be transferred to the label’s new flagship store in Beijing. The transfer never happened, and, over time, I stopped speaking the language to my boyfriend and we stopped watching Chinese films. He didn’t mind.

We lived in separate apartments. We went to restaurants and exhibitions together, took photos of each other in soft light and uploaded those photos online. Often, as we lay in bed, my boyfriend would show me other men’s Instagram profiles and ask if I thought they were attractive. Sometimes this made me emotional in ways I found difficult to describe.

We had threesomes with these same boys and filmed them. We were good-looking and people wanted to see themselves flattened onto a laptop’s screen. Sometimes, during the act, my boyfriend would say desperate things aloud. What I mean is, he would describe his penis.

 

I watched a homeless man in front of the store. He wore an oversized coat and paced the alleyway, then looked through the glass and sort of leered at us or at his reflection. No one would go out to talk to him. At one stage he kept bending down and hopping back up, like he was doing squats or jumping jacks. This was over hours.

I let others take customers while I went to the loft level and pretended I was doing stocktake. Really, I browsed eBay listings on one of the tablets.

There was a married couple who ran an online store with rare stock from our label. They found pieces from old runway shows, acquired them, modelled them themselves in strange places – car parks, fast-food outlets – then put the photos online and took bids. They were based in Japan and were profiled in online magazines. The prices were what you’d imagine. Obscene.

I kept looking at a piece. It was a black padded shirt from the nineties. It was a shirt but had bulges that distended the silhouette. High fashion but not too high fashion. It felt now.

Because I spent a large amount of time convincing people to buy clothing they would never actually wear, it was easy to convince myself the same. I imagined how I would look in the shirt and I imagined R walking in and appraising my outfit, my style, my store. Internally, in Japanese, she’d think, Yes, that is someone who knows what’s going on.

This seemed worth $4,000. I made a bid.

Sara called out to me.

I came down the stairs. The store was empty and the homeless man was in front of the store window facing us. His dick was out. He was urinating onto the window and staring intently at Sara.

When he noticed me – I don’t know how to say it – with his penis, he did a kind of flourish with the stream. It seemed effeminate. We stood there until he finished and shuffled away.

I called our cleaning company. They arrived hours after they said they would and used a high-pressure hose on the glass. Heidi sent me a message. ‘Sara texted what happened. You should let her go home.’ I resented this.

I let Sara go, and spritzed the store with room spray. Then I walked around and spritzed it again. I put a finger onto the tender spot on my jaw and pushed it.

I returned to the tablet. I tracked the store’s sales figures, then I opened a new tab, looked at the shirt again, became nervous that someone might outbid me and so pre-emptively made a higher offer.

 

I had the package couriered express international. I had it delivered to the store, which was unprofessional but I knew someone would be able to sign for it. It arrived within three days. The package lay in the back room next to the rack that hung the Spring line we would only wheel out, after hours, for important customers.

I had a video conference with Janelle. She was in Singapore. She always took the calls in different cities with different backdrops and, in this way, seemed like a news correspondent. Every year we had at least one exchange which involved me asking her to rethink my position, while she stared off-webcam, before saying she was thinking and then stating implicitly, often explicitly, that many people wanted my role.

We spoke about numbers. We spoke about the numbers Janelle wanted to be seeing and I explained the numbers she was seeing. I told her the reactions we’d been having to the Spring line. Janelle nodded.

She asked about R’s visit. If the store was ready for it. I said, ‘Immaculate.’

She said, ‘Heidi said you had a photo wall up.’

I said, ‘How are you talking to Heidi?’

‘Take the photos down. It’s embarrassing. I need you to be across this. I need to know you can do it.’

‘I can do it.’

‘Good. That’s what I want to hear.’ She ended the call like in a movie. She never said goodbye.

I took the photos down, opened my jaw and closed it a few times, then stood on the shop floor. Heidi was with a customer. The woman kept pointing at a dress with a missing square of fabric in the front and Heidi was repeating that it wasn’t cut out but ‘deconstructed’. She repeated this monotone.

I wanted to kill myself but in a way that wouldn’t actually kill me.

A man walked in. He was maybe in his fifties, but put-together, silvered hair. He was wearing a suit and sneakers, but sneakers I recognized. They were made of white Italian leather and retailed for $900. I figured he was an architect.

He stood next to the concrete plinth we kept our fragrances on. He looked at the different bottles. Heidi slowly oriented herself towards him, but she had to stay with her customer even though she knew it wouldn’t be a sale.

I asked how could I help. The man had a British accent. He said he wanted something ‘fresh’. I nodded.

I spoke about the scents, listing their profiles, holding each bottle before I sprayed one spray on a white stick of paper and handed it to him. He asked difficult questions. When I said, ‘Notes of oxygen, pollution,’ he said, ‘But what does that mean?’ After he held seven samples, I asked if there was a specific one he wanted to try.

He pointed to a bottle. It wasn’t a signature scent but one in a series of concept lines. I sprayed his wrist and told him to let it settle, let it open on his skin.

The man smelled his wrist and nodded. He placed his arm back down by his side. We stood there quietly. Then he asked me to smell him. ‘I want a second opinion.’ He didn’t raise his arm though, he just sort of rotated it, so his wrist was exposed, crotch level. He waited.

I bent down to smell it. I said what I would’ve said about any fragrance on any customer.

‘It’s really deepened.’ I looked up at him. ‘That’s the one.’

I sold him two pairs of trousers, a sweater and a 100 ml bottle of perfume. It rang up at $3,784. The man left me the name of his hotel and his room number. Later, I sent a long message to my boyfriend describing the whole thing. Not because I was considering going there, but because I wanted attention. He replied instantly, ‘Weird.’ Then, ‘I wonder if he would have paid you.’ Then, a string of three cash emojis.

 

I laid the package on my boyfriend’s bed and carefully slit the shipping tape. There was cardboard and layers of black tissue paper and then the shirt. Standing there, I already knew it was a bad decision.

I put it on and looked at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. My first thought was that I had put it on wrong – this sometimes happened with customers in the store – but I hadn’t. It was bad. The padding made me think of Lisa Simpson in the episode where she dresses up as the state of Florida. It looked like I was wearing a futon. I took a photo, then googled ‘Lisa Simpson Florida’. The resemblance didn’t make me feel any better.

I sent an email saying I wanted to return it. The couple wrote back, immediately and politely, that they did not do refunds. They signed off together. I asked if I could do an exchange. Then I lay in the shirt and looked at my face using my phone’s camera. Where the sore spot on my jaw was was a slightly raised mound. I fell asleep with my phone in my hands.

At 3 a.m., it vibrated. They had replied with a long, complicated message in Japanese I was almost certain meant no. I squinted and used Google Translate. It meant no.

I did what I felt I had to do in the situation. I went back to their site and made a separate offer on a 1996 see-through PVC vest.

 

The vest arrived and it was beautiful. To make myself comfortable in it, I wore it naked around my boyfriend’s apartment. I planned to pair it with the Spring collection’s oversized striped poplin shirt. I was into it. I wore it and thought of an elegant hand, R’s hand, picking me up and placing me somewhere else.

The night she arrived in the country, I stayed back at the store. A shipment had come through but the stock hadn’t synced with our system. I had to code each piece through manually and then put them back into their boxes and stack them. I wanted this done before R visited. I wanted things to be efficient.

I asked people to stay back. Everyone said no. As I closed, Heidi and Sara stood in the back room fixing their make-up. I got the sense that they were meeting other staff. Well, I overheard their conversation. A different label was having a party. It was an American label specializing in American streetwear but how American streetwear is worn in Asia. There would be photographers. I said to no one in particular, ‘But it’s a Wednesday night.’

The two of them giggled. I realized they were drinking. We kept very expensive champagne in a mini-fridge in the back room for certain high-profile customers.

I didn’t want to make a thing of it. I used to be like this. Fun. But I didn’t want them to think Heidi had authority or that I wasn’t the boss. I told them to go to the party and leave the bottle. It was half full. I said I expected more from them. Then I got self-conscious and thought that was a stupid thing to say.

I stood on the empty shop floor and looked at the galvanized steel, the polished concrete, the clothes. It was dark outside and darker still in the store. I thought I should toast my future success, so I did. I drank champagne from the bottle and then went to the back room and continued counting.

At one point, I just sat in front of the back room’s mirror and picked at my face. I thought, She’s in the country, she’s in the country. I saw myself in an airport transit lounge, business class, making conference calls, video calls. Yes, I imagined myself looking off-camera then telling someone my valued opinion. I sipped French champagne. I was drunk. Tokyo Fashion Week, Paris. I imagined being given all the things I deserved.

I was smiling. I looked at my reflection and saw the mound on my jaw was bigger. It was a pimple, cystic and rising from deep beneath the surface. Red and inflamed, it protruded from my jaw. It was obvious when I stood in profile and even worse head-on. I inhaled and exhaled.

 

The Korean market beneath my boyfriend’s building was open late. It sold skin products that were both harsher and, in some instances, more effective than what I regularly used. They didn’t fuck around with natural ingredients. Yuzu, neroli blossoms. They were chemical, all about results.

I asked the attendant for the strongest product they had. She handed me a foil packet that didn’t really look any different from the others. It showed a smiling Korean woman. They all showed smiling Korean women.

‘This is the strongest?’

The woman nodded. I pointed at my face. She whispered, ‘Chemical peel.’

Back in my boyfriend’s apartment, I cut cucumber slices and opened the foil packaging. It wasn’t a cream but a black fold-out mask. I put it on. I lay down on the bed and placed one cucumber slice over one eye and then another on the other. I stayed like that for a while. My face slightly tingled. It was boring. I took the cucumber slices off, rolled onto my side and looked at my phone.

My boyfriend had uploaded a photo of himself, naked, his back to the camera, standing before a waterfall, his olive skin soft against jagged, volcanic rock. There were comments made by attractive people.

I knew he had a camera with a self-timer and a tripod, but the angle wasn’t right. I wanted to ask who took the photo but I didn’t. Instead I double-tapped it. I gave it a like.

Slowly, I felt a burning. At first, it was the kind you feel when you peroxide your hair. That sensation on the scalp. It intensified. I tore the mask off.

In the bathroom, I gagged. My face was slightly pink but the lump was larger and had a big yellow head. I told myself not to touch it. I touched it – it leaked.

I panicked. This was after midnight. I took the elevator to the foyer and ordered an Uber to the hospital. Drivers kept cancelling as they realized my destination. The doorman watched me. I went onto the street and hailed a taxi. The driver asked if I wanted emergency. I hesitated. There wasn’t anywhere else to go.

 

Outside the hospital were women in tracksuit pants smoking cigarettes. There was a man in a white gown leaning against his IV stand. They were lit by the red emergency sign.

Inside, a toddler rolled around on the linoleum floor and an Indian couple watched something on a phone, but without headphones. A studio laugh track played and played. Everyone’s clothes were synthetic and cheap.

I waited in line for triage. I picked up an old fashion magazine. It was sticky. I put the magazine down.

When I got to the front I spoke to a nurse through a little Perspex grille.

She said, ‘What’s your emergency?’

I pointed at my jaw.

‘Do you have a fever?’

‘No.’

‘Nausea?’

‘No.’

‘Okay.’ She leaned forward to look at me. ‘This is not an emergency. It’s not appropriate for you to be here. You have a boil. I’m going to ask you to leave and to see your general practitioner.’

I said, ‘I thought you had to see everyone.’

‘That is a common misconception.’ She closed the grille.

I walked eight blocks home.

 

I woke up late, close to ten. The store wouldn’t open till eleven. I texted Heidi to come in early, spray the room spray, prep the store. I’d be there when we opened.

Then I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and squeezed. It was like a certain kind of YouTube video. It was disgusting, full of many horrifying things.

When I was done, I had to wash the mirror and wash my face. I spent a long time deciding whether or not to put toner on or apply moisturizer. The internet seemed inconclusive. I was very calm.

I texted Heidi to not open the store until I arrived. I dressed. The wound was weeping so I pressed a make-up pad on it and applied pressure.

Then Heidi replied.

‘She’s here.’

 

I was on the street and the icon of my Uber was moving towards me, then making turns I could not understand, and turns after those turns I understood even less. And then I was just running, my coat flaring behind me, and I thought, I am being dramatic, I am being dramatic, but I kept going and going and going. It took me ten minutes to get there, only ten minutes, and when I reached the store Heidi was standing in the doorway.

‘She’s gone.’

Heidi was in black kimono-like pants and a white satin collared shirt from the Spring collection. Close to dawn, she had had her hair bleached and toned. She was brilliant in the store’s light.

I was still in my raincoat. I was sweating under it and the vest. I made the decision to take nothing off.

Heidi stepped out of the doorway and said, ‘What happened to your face?’

There were two customers inside the store, two Asian women with designer bags. I narrowed my eyes but neither of them was R.

I said, ‘What did she do?’

‘She came inside. She was in all black. She looked at the store, picked a few things up, put them down. She nodded, then went into the alley and her driver took her away.’

 

I didn’t know it at the time, but later that day I would send a series of messages to my boyfriend, each message longer than the last. I would describe my life. The circumstances as I saw them. That Heidi would replace me, that others would replace me, and I would be lucky to find a position in a large department store that would play Christmas carols from the start of every November to the beginning of every January. That my good credit rating would now be a bad credit rating but, like all the times before, would slowly equalize. And that for most of my life I desired things I thought were stupid to desire but desired all the same.

He would reply, deep in the night, with a sad-face emoji and then a photo of his penis with the caption ‘Can’t host’, which I would understand he meant to send to someone else. This would not shock me.

But there I was, standing on the threshold of the store but not in the store. I asked Heidi if she spoke to R and what R had said. Heidi thought for a while. She kept her lips together, then opened them.

‘Thank you. She said, “Thank you.” ’

 

 

 

Photograph © Richard Plumridge, _Narrative, 2011

Normal People
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