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I met Katie the same year I started working, when I was still with Oliver. She had started dating Oliver’s older brother, Matthew, even though she was barely out of school and Matthew was nearing thirty. I kept my thoughts to myself.
The brothers lived together in a disorganised two-bedroom apartment with thin walls. I was still living at home then, saving up to try and buy my own place, but I spent most nights in Oliver’s bed. Katie’s belongings gradually accumulated in the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room, and then she lived there too. I don’t know where she was before that.
Oliver was a creative type, working freelance in graphic design and trying to make enough money. Matthew was his opposite, a high-level banker of some kind who worked in one of the grey high rises in the city. Katie was ostensibly on a gap year, unsure yet what she wanted to study, and she took occasional shifts in a café down the road. She seemed so much younger than she was, small and childlike. She left intimate notes to Matthew on the communal message board on the fridge, and signed her name with a love heart over the i. But I liked her, liked her easy smile and the way she asked me for advice.
Matthew got a promotion, and his celebrations with work friends lasted from Friday afternoon until late on Sunday. We didn’t see him, and I was glad of it – the drunk and drugged up version of him grated on me in a way his everyday personality did not. But Katie fretted all weekend, leaving him voicemails, asking Oliver if he’d heard from his brother.
The promotion meant international travel, to Hong Kong, Singapore, London, New York. He bought new expensive business shirts and packed them carefully into a slim black suitcase. I passed their room and saw Katie, kneeling on the end of the bed, watching him. She didn’t want him to go away, not even just for a week.
“You’ll call me every night, won’t you?”
“Our nights won’t line up baby.”
“But you’ll call me?”
He leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead.
“Don’t worry about me.”
His flight was early in the morning and still they stayed up late, talking on the couch. I made myself tea at the kitchen bench, watching them.
“I have to go, it’s my job now,” Matthew said.
I couldn’t hear Katie’s whispered reply, but I watched him wrap his arm around her thin shoulders.
“I love you,” he said, and he placed his hand on her chest.
In the morning he was gone. I went down to the kitchen to make breakfast and found Katie still on the couch, eyes squeezed shut. She was wearing an ill-fitting singlet that she wore to bed, but as she lay back I saw how strangely it fell across her.
She opened her eyes, made small with the puffiness of the skin around them.
“Are you okay?”
She could see I was staring at her chest, at the hollowness of it. She tugged her top down at the front to show me. There was a hole in her, about ten centimetres across, square and clean cut at the edges; a glass-less window straight through.
“It’s fine,” she said. “It’s only temporary.”
Sure enough, when Matthew returned the following week, the hole disappeared as though it had never been there. Katie spent a whole day in the kitchen preparing a welcome home meal. At night, I heard them giggling in bed together. When I came home from work the next evening, I found the words you are my one and only on the message board, in Katie’s usual rounded handwriting.
Matthew left for work in the dark of the morning and didn’t get home until the rest of us had finished dinner. Some nights he didn’t get home at all, sleeping on the couch in his new large office. And then he was told he’d be going to a conference in Madrid and he’d be away for two weeks.
Katie’s soft face became crinkled with anxiety.
“You’re worried about the hole?” I asked her, out of Oliver’s earshot.
“No,” she said. “It’s fine.”
While Matthew was away, Katie tried to do things. She played jumpy pop music in the house and bopped around as she cleaned it from top to bottom, the vacuum running over the same bit of carpet until it was flat and worn. She baked elaborate cakes that no one ended up eating. She alphabetised the DVDs. As she knelt on the carpet, stacking the cases – Dead Poets’ Society, The Descendants, Die Another Day – her t-shirt bunched around the hole that went straight through her, and I saw its harsh lines.
She hung a calendar up in the kitchen and marked off the days until Matthew’s return – thirteen sleeps, twelve sleeps, eleven sleeps. She stayed up late hoping for international phone calls that never came.
When he finally stepped through the door, joy and relief came off her in sparks.
But this time, the hole was not so easily filled. I found Katie in the bathroom, poking at her chest. The part that had returned was misshapen somehow, rounded at the edges, so it left gaps where the harsh light of the bathroom shone through.
“It needs some time to settle into place,” she said.
But it didn’t settle, and when Katie stood in front of a window, I could see the slivers of light even through her shirt.
Even so, her happiness was infectious, hardly dimmed by Matthew’s comparable quietness. In the evenings she waited impatiently for Oliver to stop watching the news so she could put on a silly movie or a TV show. She and Matthew watched a lot of TV together, sitting in silence with their bodies touching. They didn’t talk much, and I didn’t hear them at night anymore. But when she sat on the couch entwined in Matthew’s arms, and with his body pressed against hers, the hole seemed to have truly closed up.
On the message board were the words you are everything to me above Katie’s name, signed with the heart.
It was a while before Matthew went away again. He seemed to be on top of his workload more, coming home by dinnertime once or twice a week. But there was another big deal to negotiate, and he had to go, for even longer this time.
“This is the reality of the situation,” I heard him say through the walls. “If you can’t handle it, you don’t have to be here.”
This time, Katie did not try to keep herself busy. She was pale; her skin flaked and drifted off her body like snowflakes. She stopped taking shifts at the café. Some days I came home to find her still in bed, the room dark. When she fell asleep at random times of the day, restlessly tossing on the couch in front of the muted TV, her hands clutched her chest protectively.
Matthew never called when he said he would. Katie sat in the middle of their bed, staring at her silent phone with the wide-eyed intensity of an addict, underweight and unsteady. The edges of the hole became frayed and rough from being exposed too long. It seemed bigger.
When Matthew finally returned, all the soft edges had been sawn off his face. Katie, throwing her arms around him, was greeted only with a grimace. The deal hadn’t gone through; he was irritable and jet-lagged. He didn’t want the food she’d made, didn’t want to watch anything. He went to his room to sleep. Katie went to the bathroom to check the hole and I followed her. The missing section of her chest was there, but it was wrong; a strange, deformed thing that no longer fit into her chest. It was difficult to see how it had ever belonged there. She turned it over, desperately trying to make it fill the space. But the piece was too changed, and the hole too big, and it sat uncomfortably crooked within her.
Despite the hole, Katie was ecstatic with Matthew’s return. On the weekend when he slept half the day trying to adjust to the time zone, she shushed Oliver and me as we moved around the house. In the afternoon he sat on the couch and she brought him beers, one after another. He was very tired that week, so she slept in the lounge room to avoid disturbing him. One night I heard him walk to the lounge, then muffled, pained moans. His footsteps were heavy returning to his bed. Hers were light creeping to the bathroom.
It was around this time that a friend of mine bought an apartment and asked me to rent her spare room. I liked the place, and it was close to my work, so I began to spend less time at the boys’ house. Oliver was depressed about his own career, even talking about moving interstate where there might be more work opportunities. I wasn’t worried. I knew I wasn’t the type to have a hole in my chest.
When I did go to the apartment, it was as much to check on Katie as to see Oliver. She was always there. Her skin was so pale I wondered if she went outside at all. I made us tea, and we sat at the table. As she leant forward, clutching her mug with a desperation subdued by fatigue, her buttoned shirt gaped open and I saw the torn edges of the hole. After that I avoided going around as much as I could.
A few months later, Oliver and I broke up. I went back to the apartment one more time to collect the few things I had left there. I walked through the kitchen on my way out. On the message board were the words my heart belongs to you.