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.


Normal People
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