An hour into the tattoo sitting my phone began to ring. Forever set to silent due to chronic anxiety surrounding notifications, I couldn’t ignore it now as my headphones were on – music turned up loud to drown out the pain. Who would possibly be calling me? Friends and family know I hate talking on the phone and text ahead so I can prepare myself for a social interaction without a face.
Supine and needing to keep my leg still under the needle I wiggled to reach it and stop the maddening ringing. Either something was really important, like my brother’s phone call earlier that day to announce I was going to be an auntie, or it was an electricity telemarketer.
Neither. It was a former male PT client I hadn’t seen in person for several years. Unfortunately, I had heard from him. Quite a few times. Let’s call him The Insidious.
Messages via Facebook, not constant but frequent enough to give an unpleasant feeling. Sometimes late at night, when his earlybird wife would have certainly been sleeping.
When messaging just to say hello or enquiring after my family didn’t illicit a response, the focus moved to complimenting my shaky student artwork. Now I would look like a total bitch if I didn’t write back, so every now and then I did. A one liner saying thank you, and I hoped he and his wife were well. Ironically, she was the one I had struck up a friendship with. He used our mutual admiration as a social hook to stay in touch. Innocent? Maybe. Aggressive enough to be uncomfortable? Absolutely.
8 years prior to the day of the tattoo and from the moment a gym membership consultant had passed me his details, I felt a familiar queasiness in my gut. Spidey senses that something was amiss.
He’d requested me for rehabilitation, a strong hook because I loved helping bodies work again. To take a mass of pain and teach transverses to fire, gluteals to engage. It was intensely gratifying work.
I don’t really like to train men. I’d said to her at the time. Is he dodgy?
Oh no, not at all. She assured me. He has a partner. Like that mattered.
In the uncertain, people-pleasing eagerness of my youth, I’d allowed him to compliment me without reproach, and to overshare in his sessions. Unfortunately, I’d heard all about the couple’s lack of a sex life, how his first marriage had failed due to his infidelity. How his closeness to a female friend and colleague had left both of them needing to affirm Wait? ARE we just friends? Never an abject asshole, always wanting to tell his side of the story. Always looking to justify the things that happened to him, because he was a good guy.
He almost never did the drills I set him for homework despite saying he was suffering chronic pain. Often, I’d suspect he was just staring at me instead of listening to what I had to say. Once, I was trying to explain something integral when he interrupted, holding his hands too close to my body. Gosh, you’re just so tiny around the waist, I bet I could fit my hands around you.
Bile rose in the back of my throat. I was incapacitated with fury.
For an entire year, I heard about his wife’s struggle with mental health and how difficult she could be. When I started training her too, I was stunned at how different she was to the picture he’d painted. Substantially younger than him, exactly the same age as me. Strong, kind and genuine. I loved her immediately. If she was ‘crazy’, I thought, it was probably only on account of dealing with him.
Unlike her husband, she never overshared on their marriage, simply telling me about the social things they’d done and their house renovations. If they were having a rough patch she would just say so, vaguely airing her frustrations between sets, sometimes with a slight quiver in her voice.
She relentlessly crusaded to help him improve his health. I’d silently wonder how the hell he’d managed to pull a woman like her.
I missed her when I left the fitness industry, but I didn’t hear from her and didn’t make contact. Sometimes in life, people just go their separate ways.
Yet messages from The Insidious would continue to appear at times. If I replied, he’d push for a catch up. Once, when travelling interstate, I returned a phone call from them to her number. She was pleased to hear from me but when I mentioned that her husband had reached out, she was obviously surprised. I could feel her looking sideways at him on the other end of the line as she confirmed: Hmm, I didn’t know he’d been in touch. It was the moment I finally listened to what my gut was telling me all along.
Shortly after that final ignored phone call in the tattoo shop, it all came to an unpleasant head. The #MeToo movement was trending on Instagram, and I found that I had plenty to say.
The Insidious had taken to commenting on my posts. A couple of weeks prior he’d exclaimed that he recognised one of my friends in a photo. Except he didn’t actually know her aside from perving on her at the gym and had also gotten her name wrong.
I felt shaky after making the #MeToo post. It was at a time when I had only just started to tap into the current of a lifetime of rage running within my heart. It both awful and awesome to let it flow out of me and after I had written it, I was stunned at how much it burnt. The fury just would not stop. Comments from my friends stood in solidarity with the sentiment.
#MeToo, Respect, #MeToo, etc….Then this.
OMG I didn’t even recognise you. Stunning. Referring to the professional photograph I’d selected to accompany the post. He’d commented without reading it, then had obviously decided to invest the 30 seconds to digest what I’d had to say.
Just read your post – fabulous sentiment – you are a beautiful strong woman. Bloody smart and extremely talented – please I pray you don’t feel this way about every lad??
Perhaps I should have taken more than just one deep breath. But I didn’t. Here I was talking about the immensely unfair burden I and the women I loved had shouldered our entire lives. A truth so uncomfortable we’d become accustomed to never mentioning it. I’d touched on ACTUAL sexual abuse suffered by my friends.
I pray you don’t feel this way about every lad??
I absolutely lost it. The fury under my skin spilled into my comments. I told him he wasn’t entitled to my attention. He replied with typical passive aggression and false surprise, calling me a very good friend who never returns calls anymore and I exploded further, stating quite clearly I was his wife’s friend, never his and that if a woman does not respond to you, simply let her be.
At the mention of his wife, he couldn’t back down fast enough. He rolled over, I blocked him and fought my internal conditioning for days. I felt like shit for the way I’d exploded but every time I sat down and really thought about it, I could see how far I’d been pushed and for how many years.
Angry women make people very uncomfortable. We are raised to submit to unwanted attention so that men like The Insidious get to be good guys. They wear us down to be compliant, smiling cogs that assist them in their challenging quests to be the masters of the universe.
Now when I see it, I call it out so I can just cop being called a bitch then get on with my life. My peaceful, simple, loving life.
— Photography by Leslie Liu–