There were three men opposite her, all hard at it. One had been going for ages and had worked up a real sweat. Every stroke was accompanied by a noisy “ooof.” The other two seemed more blasé. Chloë struck up her own rhythm, feeling self-conscious.
There’s something sexual about rowing machines, she thought, with their rhythmic propulsion backward and forward. Particularly the machines at this gym, which are set up facing each other, toe to toe.
As she realized this, it seemed the men did too. They appeared to be looking at her, and trying not to. For the briefest moment, she knew what it might be like to have sex with them all. Simultaneously.
The “ooof” man was the fittest—a muscular, ruddy-cheeked, rugby type, determined to go faster than anyone else. He’d be crap in bed, she decided, governed by his own ego. To his right, a nice guy. He smiled at Chloë when she caught his eye and looked skyward, as if to say in camaraderie, Why are we putting ourselves through this? Yet it was the man on the far left who looked the most appealing: a slender, long-distance-runner’s body, a poetic face. And inevitably—once he’d given her a cursory glance—no interest in Chloë whatsoever.
However hard she worked out, Chloë would never have the kind of physique that was attractive to all men, which, of course, was what she wanted. Instead she was lumbered with a voluptuous appeal that a few found irresistible but many far too much. She had a bosom, hips, a tummy. And whereas some women seemed to gain a certain something when they “glowed” in the aftermath of exercise, Chloë simply looked dishevelled and hot. Momentarily she worried that this was how she looked during sex—a nightmare thought, best not contemplated.
I’m at that point in life, thought Chloë as she left the gym, where men don’t wolf whistle as much as they used to. And although publicly she liked to dismiss whistling as animal behavior at its vilest, privately she found it galling to be no longer readily appreciated.
A short walk up Battersea Rise and she was home. Experience had taught her that unless a gym was on her doorstep she’d find any excuse not to go.
“Hiya,” she called. As the front door banged, the whole place seemed to shake.
“Hi there,” came a familiar voice. “Do you want a glass of wine?”
A delicious smell was wafting toward her. Chloë dumped her bag on the chair kept in the hall because one of its legs was broken and there was no room for it elsewhere, and went into the kitchen.
“Love one,” she said, picking at the spaghetti.
“Oh, Rob.” She leaned her head on his shoulder and messed his blond hair. “What would I do without you?”
He passed her a glass of red. “Starve.”
* * *
Chloë Appleton was hurtling toward thirty years of age with a speed that made her feel compelled to get a move on with her life. Thanks to an impatient and demanding nature, in those decades she’d already experienced a great deal to distress and irk her. Born to an affluent intellectual couple in comfortable West London, vexation had started at three with the arrival of a younger sibling, a round-faced, fat-limbed baby whom everyone—especially her parents—adored. She didn’t like sharing them, yet she was also wooed by her new brother, and photos of the time showed her veering between anxiety and sisterly affection; one of her father cuddling her while she squinted worriedly at the camera, another of her leaning over Sam and stroking his apple cheeks.
Over the years they’d grown closer, united by the adversity of their parents’ divorce. Now he lived in California with an affable Australian who, Chloë acknowledged, was probably his soul mate. The patterns of old reemerged: on one hand she envied their relationship, on the other she enjoyed their company. Above all she missed Sam. So after supper she sat down at the desk in her bedroom, shoveled her way through a mountain of papers, and turned on her laptop to type him an e-mail.
To: Sam Appleton
How goes it? Has our dreadful cousin gone yet? Did you do that Couples’ Weekend Michele had her heart set on? (I have a bizarre vision of you both sitting naked banging drums in the desert as you bond with your Native American souls—correct me if I’m wrong…) Or did your English cynicism win through and see you pull out at the eleventh hour?
At this end all is much the same—still got the bargain apartment, the job at Babe’s going well, and I’m hardly Chloë No Mates—yet occasionally I wonder if something’s missing. Rob and I are getting on fine, but I’m beginning to think there’s a limit to how long we can carry on sharing the same space. Sometimes my head feels like a plate of spaghetti (and that’s not because he’s just cooked me some—he’s great in that way) that could do with unraveling.
I suppose this mood will pass. Anyway, I haven’t time to worry—I’m presenting that proposal I told you about tomorrow. And if that takes off, I’ll have heaps to keep me amused. On that note, I must finish it before I go to bed, so best stop procrastinating and crack on.
By the time Chloë had finished, Rob was already brushing his teeth in the bathroom.
“All done then?” he said, mouth full of toothpaste.
“Yup.” She struggled to squeeze the last remnant from the tube. He gargled while she brushed, sharing the basin. Although she occasionally griped about Rob, she loved these moments of intimacy. There was no one she felt more able to relax with, even after so many years.
In many ways I’m lucky, she thought. We rarely argue, we give each other unconditional support, and our friends get on like a house on fire. Some married couples do a lot worse.
Ablutions completed, it was time to hit the sack.
“Night, then,” said Rob, disappearing into his room and closing the door.
“Night,” said Chloë. She stripped off her clothes, throwing them onto the floor where they added to the growing pile. Exhausted, she climbed into bed and turned out the light.
* * *
The alarm went off at seven forty-five. Chloë checked she was okay after her workout. “Good, don’t seem too achy,” she muttered. (First sign of madness, talking to yourself.) She listened to Thought for the Day, gleaned a sound bite of spirituality, and threw back the duvet.
Kettle on, swift rinse of a dirty mug to make it fit for coffee, feed the cat.
That’s the last of the Whiskas, she thought, I must remember to buy more—and toothpaste. Why do I never have time to go to the supermarket? I always seem to end up paying over the odds at the corner store.
Rob, dead to the world, wouldn’t be up for another hour. Chloë envied his ability to sleep that soundly.
So, what to wear? She had a meeting with the new publisher at ten thirty. Her Whistles suit. Shit! She’d splodged Bolognese down the skirt last night. A riffle through her closet revealed nothing appropriate was clean.
I’ll never make it to editor at this rate, she thought. What I need is a wardrobe of natty little numbers, all interchangeable, carefully ironed and perfect for impressing one’s superiors.
Over the years Chloë had commissioned numerous articles about the merits of coordinating colors and capsule wardrobes, yet she was still more inclined to buy clothes when she fell in love with them rather than because they fulfilled a useful purpose. This left her no choice other than to wear a dress that Rob had brought back for her from New York bearing the label Spunky. According to Rob, its bright floral print and vampishly low cleavage made her look cute yet cool, but it wasn’t ideal for a meeting with someone she had to impress. Still, it was the only thing that was vaguely presentable, and if she pinned the neckline it wasn’t too revealing.
What the hell? she thought. It’s flattering, and it’s more my style than the suit any day.
“Loving the oufit,” said her assistant, Patsy, when Chloë arrived at work.
“Thanks,” said Chloë, flattered. With her sparrowlike physique, savvy fashion sense, and incredible eye for detail, Patsy was the style barometer of the office. Given that the competition in the world of magazines was intense, this position carried some kudos.
“Is it for James Slater’s benefit?”
“The new publisher. You’re meeting him this morning, aren’t you?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Chloë, trying to sound as if it wasn’t that important to her. “Make sure to walk him past my desk,” said Patsy. “He’s gorgeous.”
“Really?” Gorgeous men in women’s monthlies were a rarity.
“And married,” Jean, the editor, interrupted, “to one of my best friends. Chloë, did you finish proofing that article? The copy editors are waiting.”
“Of course, of course,” said Chloë, fishing in her handbag for the hard copy she’d taken home. Where was it? She emptied the contents onto the desk. There was her purse, her makeup bag (held together with an elastic band as the zipper was broken), a packet of chewing gum, numerous receipts she planned to claim as expenses, and a couple of rather squashed and dusty Tampax. No article. She’d been so busy putting together her presentation that she must have left it by the computer. First nothing to wear, now this. It was going to be one of those days.
“Just get it in for copyediting before your meeting,” said Jean, striding off with an efficient click of her court shoes.
Chloë looked helplessly at Patsy.
“You’ve not done it?”
“I was up till midnight finishing it off—that’s what makes it worse. I’ve left it at home. Shit and double shit. She’ll be furious! I’ll have to do it again. Ah Rob,” she remembered. “If I phone now I’ll catch him. He can read me the corrections.” Hurriedly she dialed the number. Four rings, then the answering machine clicked on. “Rob! Are you there? Answer me, please!”
She was halfway through rewriting the whole thing when he called back. “Sorry. I was in the shower. What’s the problem?”
By the time she’d explained and Rob had read the changes with the slowness of one who not only couldn’t decipher her writing but also didn’t understand what he was doing, it would have been quicker to do it from scratch. However he meant well so she could hardly be cross. She got the article to the chief copy editor with moments to spare. Still pumping with adrenaline, she ran back to her desk to collect her makeup bag and charged through reception to the ladies’ room.
Whack! Straight into the arms of a rather attractive man.
“Whoa! Slow up.”
“Sorry,” gasped Chloë. “Desperate for a pee.”
Oh, no, she cringed, seconds later, sitting on the loo. I just told a complete stranger I was desperate for a pee! Chloë, Chloë, Chloë, what are you like?
By now she was so flustered she couldn’t pee anyway, so she abandoned the attempt and opted for a rapid repair to her lipstick, a quick spray of perfume, and a halfhearted washing of her hands, followed by an ineffective blast under the ancient dryer. No matter how much profit UK Magazines made, it seemed they were not prepared to shell out on new infrastructure.
“Ah, Chloë,” said the receptionist when she emerged. “This is James Slater.”
Triple shit, thought Chloë, as she put out her palm.
“Hello,” he said, taking her hand and shaking it firmly.
“Nice to meet you. Sorry, I think my hands are still wet.”
“Good to know you always wash them after peeing anyway.” He grinned.
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Rayner