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When we met, he told me how much he adored me for being so ambitious, so independent.
“You’re not like other girls. You’re so smart and strong. You’ve accomplished so much. I can actually have a conversation with you!”
I was young and I didn’t know that men who said things like this, were not men you should have around. I brushed it off because he was right. I was smart and strong, and his opinions about me didn’t matter to me. He was a witty law undergrad, and he made me laugh. I enjoyed his company. Pretty soon we were dating.
I continued being the girl he claimed to adore, only a more extreme version. I steamed ahead with my own successes, while emotionally supporting him as he quit his job to pursue his dreams. We talked about building a future together. I helped him start his dream business, a box gym, and having been a strategist at one of the biggest global gym chains, I was able to talk him through the process, step by step. Having spent much of my career coming up with names for businesses, I did the same for him. I built his brand, developed his strategy. I held him while he sobbed at night over the erratic nature of entrepreneur-life, comforted him through the fickle nature of customer retention, pulled out charts and graphs to show him that this was a predictable part of the startup phase.
“Nobody turns profits immediately,” I reassured him. “It’s going to be okay.”
I took control of the parts of the business he couldn’t, often without him knowing, because I didn’t want him to stress out further. Because I had experience that he didn’t. Because he was childlike and fragile, despite his muscle and brawn, and I wanted to protect him.
Because I wanted what was best for him.
But I wasn’t super woman. I was working a full-time job, writing books at night, maintaining my own part-time business, pursuing my own dreams. The macro- and micro-managing took its toll on me. At some point, I suggested he take over the parts of his business I was handling, or make me a partner in it. Like a strong, accomplished woman would do.
He got angry.
“I didn’t ask you to help with any of it,” he snapped.
This was the first time I felt reality tilt. I distinctly remembered him asking me to come up with a name for his gym, to find a designer to design his logo, to set up his website. Because he had never had a proper job or bank account, we ran all his digital ads through my credit card. My address was listed as the primary address on all his email servers, his Google alerts, his business and search ratings. To this day, six years post our break up, they still are. Why?
“Can you help me with this? I have no idea how to do it.”
We’d been in his car when he said it. It was a sweltering summer’s day, and we were turning into Strand Street near the Cathedral in Cape Town. I was busy putting the exchange servers for his email into his phone.
“Is it working now?” he asked.
“Yes. It’s working.”
“Thank you so much,” he replied. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, my lioness.”
That’s what he used to call me. Lioness.
On another occasion, he would interrupt me while I was at work with a phone call.
“How do I get a sign made in the shape of our logo?”
It would take me an hour to tell him which printers to go to. To ask for something called a ‘die-cut’. To choose a light wood, so that it could be mounted. I reminded him of his Pantone, so that his colors would all match up.
“Thank you, my lioness. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“I never asked for your help.”
After that day, when I’d asked him for some help, some acknowledgment, he started distancing himself from me. I would hear from his friends that he’d say, “She’s just not much of a homemaker. She’s a little bit… crazy.”
He was right. I was too busy running half his business, as well as my own. Winning awards, writing a book that would go on to get four and five star reviews. Managing his emotions.
It left little time to care too much about cushions and vases. And honestly? It was making me a bit mad. I would collapse on weekends, exhausted.
“Why do you sleep so much?” he’d ask. “Are you depressed?”
Sometimes I wondered if we occupied the same reality.
He came from a wealthy family. His father had bought him his first home, and hired an interior designer to decorate it. He’d never worked three jobs. He’d never really had a proper job, to be fair. I was sympathetic. He just didn’t understand, I told myself.
I cried. A lot. Mostly on my own, but sometimes I’d cry in front of him.
“Why are you so emotional?” he started saying.
“You really shouldn’t drink that much Coke Light.”
“You look ridiculous in those glasses.”
“Are you really wearing those pants?”
He’d look at my body in a bikini, push his lips to one side.
“Hmm. I think this is the smallest you’ll get.”
I was tiny. Shrinking. Inside and out.
So small, I’d stopped questioning what was going on.
So small, I’d started believing him.
He in turn, got bigger every day, pushing heavier weights, downing Creatine protein shakes, obsessively staring at himself in mirrors.
“Maybe if I stop eating avo I can cut some calories…?” I mumbled.
But he’d tuned out, absorbed in his phone, editing pictures of himself. Choosing a filter for Instagram that would make his abs look the most cut.
“You should really stop posting pictures of yourself on the internet,” he said to me at some point. “You’re starting to look a bit vain.”
One night, on a weekend trip to attend the wedding of close friends, we were eating dinner, and he finished his food before me. Suddenly he stormed out of the room, slamming plates, doors.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, concerned. “Are you okay?”
“I can’t listen to you chewing anymore.”
I didn’t finish my dinner. I got into bed and stared back of his head. I hated myself for chewing so loudly that I’d pushed away the man I loved.
I resolved to chew softer. To be quieter.
I started speaking less and running excessively.
Ten kilometers became twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen.
Twice a week became three, four, five.
“Running doesn’t make you thin,” he said. “Only strength training makes you thin.”
I’d been a runner long before I met him. Exercise had been a source of joy for me, a way for me to reconnect with my body.
“But I run because I love it.”
“Might as well not bother.”
At home, I would stare at myself in the mirror.
I’d spent much of my life dealing with body issues and eating disorders, something running had soothed and solved. Had it all been a waste of time? At lunches with his family, I’d stare at his sister’s shoulder blades, poking out of her skin like coat hangers; a tiny, delicate pterodactyl in Country Road dresses.
“Men actually find strong women sexy,” he’d say, directly contradicting himself.
His sister would peck at her food, pushing it around her plate.
“Are you really going to have another piece of cake?” he’d say to me.
I began dissociating, detaching from the endless emotional push and pull.
“I just want to help you. I just want what’s best for you,” he’d say.
I believed him. I needed help. Faced with the apparent disaster that was me, I’d cry.
I’d cry and cry and cry.
“I think you should see a psychologist,” he said. “It’s clear that you have problems. You have pain you need to deal with.”
At this point, I believed him. The pain was real.
I went to a psychologist, who told me that he was toxic, his behavior controlling. This wasn’t what I wanted to hear, though. I was the problem, I explained. So I stopped going to the psychologist. But my boyfriend did not like this.
“You really need to sort yourself out,” he said. “It’s those friends of yours, they’re a bad influence.”
I’d long lost the will to argue. I began seeing my best friend in secret.
“I’m glad you’re not hanging out with her anymore. Let’s face it, she’s a slut. You know I’m only saying this because I love you, right? Because I’m concerned for you.”
“I know,” I said, through tears. “I know.”
My gran died a month before her 99th birthday.
He didn’t come with me to the funeral. He went to gym, instead.
“I’m going for a new PB today,” he’d texted me that morning. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”
When I called him on my way home, I asked if he could help me carry a chair I’d retrieved from her room in the retirement village, a keepsake by which to remember her.
He was waiting outside my apartment when I returned.
“I smashed the workout!” he said. “Record time. How was the funeral?”
I can’t remember what I said. What do you say?
Great. Awesome. There was cake. Cool party. My gran’s dead.
When we got inside, I opened the balcony door so my cat could go outside. He stepped out and found an ashtray. I’d smoked a joint a few nights earlier, with my now secret bestie, trying to ease my grief. Trying to sleep better. Trying to get by. What happened next is a blur.
He erupted into a rage. He smashed the ashtray, pushed open the door, stormed out of the house.
He yelled something, I can’t remember what. I remember feeling fear; physical, emotional. There was swearing. I tugged at his arms, he shrugged me off. I stood in front of his car as he tried to drive away. He revved his engine, me sprawled across the bonnet.
“Just talk to me,” I pleaded.
We were that couple. Neighbours peered out of their windows. After he drove away, he refused to take my calls for two weeks. When he finally did, he was the one sitting crying in my lounge.
“I don’t think I can do this,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been chosen, by God. Like, this gym is my calling. I need to focus on it.”
And just like that, I realized I wasn’t the crazy person.
He still runs his gym. The other day I saw he put up a post, thanking everyone who’d helped him get to where he is. My name isn’t listed there. Like so many women who’ve built the careers of men, I’d been erased.
It’s okay. I doubt he did it maliciously.
He probably just wanted what was best for me.