Bonus Chapter Ruined / The Good Daughter
At the gym, Natalie works hard and fast.
She hates exercising, but loves how she feels afterwards. So she tries to go a few times a week, even when she cannot think of a single thing she’d like to do less.
Today, though, she’s walking on the treadmill, willing herself to move into a run.
It’s not gonna happen, she realises, dismayed.
Usually, stress and confusion would compel her faster, a way of working through them, or working them out of her system. But her legs feel too heavy. She’s demanding action from them and they’re refusing.
Walking is going to be as active as she gets today.
She doesn’t even feel like music.
Basically, she’s strolling. She wishes she’d stayed in bed.
Her phone pings, a pleasant distraction, and she smiles when she sees Aaron’s name pop up on her screen. For some reason she feels a surge of warmth at the thought of him.
Melb Aaron: You around? Can I call?
Relieved at the excuse to end her pathetic attempt at exercise, she grabs her things and walks out of the gym into the sunshine. Slipping earphones in, she calls him herself.
“You saved me from the gym,” she tells him as soon as he picks up. “I was plodding on the treadmill just to get to half an hour, at the pace of a snail. As though doing the time is important when you’re not even breaking a sweat.”
“Oh, gym wear,” Aaron sighs into the phone. “Hot and bothered in gym wear. Send me a picture.”
Natalie laughs. “Stop trying to flirt with me. I have a boyfriend. One my own age.”
“You can’t blame me for trying,” he replies, and Natalie can hear him smiling into the phone. Then he hesitates. “I thought I should check in. Explain myself, maybe. It must have all seemed very strange, I can see that.”
“So I’m studying art at VCA. I actually hire escorts sometimes to paint them. I like the freedom of it being transactional. I can ask for whatever pose I want; they expect to get naked. Often, they don’t want their
faces painted, but that’s easy enough to work with.”
Natalie is interested. She’s never heard of her colleagues being hired in this manner.
“So it really was quite coincidental. I saw you in the gallery. And then I saw you when I was looking for a new subject. And actually, I used a lot of your photos online as reference for the painting I showed you. So it wasn’t as creepy as it might have seemed. I mean,” he rushes on, suddenly nervous, “I should have told you that’s what I was booking you for. I had some stupid idea about surprising you. I get stupid ideas, from time to time.”
“Don’t we all,” Natalie laughs, thinking about the previous few weeks.
“Anyway. Of course you can have the painting. It kind of feels like anyone looking at it is intruding too much, anyway. Like it was a private moment, and I should have asked you before painting you. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
“It’s really okay,” Natalie says. “It was just bad timing. I had some other things going on. There were too many coincidences and I freaked out. I’m sorry too…about the vomit and leaving you to deal with it.”
“My brother got amazing mileage out of it. That I saw you, and painted you, and invited you over, and you threw up. So there’s that. On the plus. For him. I suppose he deserves something for housing me. Amusement, maybe.”
Natalie can’t tell if he’s laughing or serious.
“It really is a remarkable likeness. You must be doing well at art school.”
“Ah, it’s okay.”
They fall into silence, and Natalie isn’t sure what else to say. It’s as random and strange an encounter as she’s ever had.
“Well, I just wanted to check that you were okay. You seemed frightened, actually.”
Natalie feels embarrassed. “I overreacted. I was worried about something else. It’s sweet of you to check in.”
“Of course. Can I paint you some other time? And pay you properly, too?”
For some reason, Natalie doesn’t hate the idea. She tells him she’ll let him know when she’s next going to be in Melbourne. “Just friends, though,” she adds, wanting to be clear that there was going to be nothing else between them.
“Yeah. I’m always the bloody friend,” Aaron grumbles, but he sounds happy. “See you then, Ivy.”
“See you then, Aaron.”
Natalie makes her way home, feeling strangely elated.
Sometimes, people are better than she expects.