You and your ill-advised relationships, or ill-advised things you do: do you care what people think?
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Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 1, Episode 9 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, That… is ill-advised.
“That’s… ill-advised.” It’s my favourite quote ever from Jeff Goldblum, and it behoves me to point out, as the senior person in the room, that my love for Jeff Goldblum predates yours.
In the movie, it’s such a literal understatement for the enormous thing that Jason Bateman’s character has just revealed to him. It’s what makes it funny. It’s also what gives shape to the theme of this episode, which isn’t about bad or questionable ideas, but about the things we do that others would consider a bad or questionable idea.
It’s fitting that I’m creating this episode in a place that others might have considered a bad idea, one of my favourite places on the planet, the Grampians in Victoria. It’s a place of imposing monuments of layered Devonian sandstone against endless skies that tilt under the weight of an entire galaxy at night. Of whispering, sometimes groaning gumtrees, amazing birdlife; there’s every kind of parrot, including swarms of deafening cockatoos that Shane says are what pterodactyls must have sounded like, laughing kookaburras and my favourite warbling magpies. The emus, and kangaroos and wallabies that are just… there, eating their breakfast while you eat yours. There’s a real sense of place here. It’s traditional owners, the Jardwadjali and Djab Wurrung peoples, have been here for at least 30,000 years, and even if you’re not aware of this amazing fact, it makes you tread carefully. It’s not the kind of place you bring your off-road bike to. The friends I stay with have been here rather less than that –16 years or so.
16 years ago, my friend’s parents decided to leave a very stable and decades-established life in Sydney for an extreme tree change. At a time in their lives when many of their peers might have thought it was time to maybe relax a bit, they bought a school camp nestled in the Grampians national park, and this was to be their new livelihood. Ill advised or no, they were here to stay. And my friend decided to follow them. Because he knew that he was more than the IT guy – he was a musician and an artist, and in order to be the musician and artist he knew he was, he understood he had to leave IT guy behind – and the people who would only ever think of him as the IT guy. The people who might, given the chance, have told him it was ill-advised to come here.
Here the three of them took root, joined a community, and created brand-new lives.
I first came here to heal after the end of my 21-year marriage and thereafter a couple of times a year for healing from things I didn’t even realise you need healing from: from busy-ness, from being plugged in all the time (because the reception is almost non-existent here), from the lack of actual darkness at night, from not knowing what to do with your life. Here I played games of hide-and-seek in the dark with my kids, crocheted endlessly on the verandah of the little cabin we liked to call our own, walked, fed the roos bananas, read, discovered a way of stuffing a roast potato with gravy, and just… was. The boys had Nerf gun fights in the pine plantation nearby, and we found constructions in there that were just a little too Blair Witchy for comfort. Our extended family started celebrating our Easters here, and we’ve had more of them here than in Melbourne. I had a big zero-at-the-end birthday party here, a weekend where a bunch of people who didn’t all know each other magically got along. And I had the privilege of watching my friend become a full-fledged musician here and release a beautiful album; one of my deathbed memories is of him and his violinist friend outside, on a perfect cool blue day, playing Nick Drake’s Northern Sky.
Not so ill-advised, perhaps.
Until 2014 when the bushfires came, and razed this camp, along with 52,000 hectares of the Grampians, to the ground.
It’s times like this when you realise that an idea, good or bad, someone else’s or your own, comes down to one thing: your appetite for risk. But risk for what?
The expression in Spanish is: “hay que jugarse”, which literally means “you have to play yourself”, or gamble yourself.
This is what you ultimately put forward: yourself. It’s guessing at this kind of risk that makes people think something might be ill-advised.
In the case of relationships, it’s the deepest parts of yourself that you’re putting on the table. The person who’s ill-advised, or the ill-advised things you’re doing in a relationship, don’t have to be the kind of people or things your mama warned you about. You have your ill-advised person or persons, and things – you know you do, maybe in your past, maybe in your present, maybe as a threat in the future, because there’s something about you that you suspect about yourself but haven’t had the opportunity to prove it yet.
My husband is actually one of mine.
There are the people who told me Shane was ill-advised, and there are the people who think it and didn’t tell me, and don’t think I can feel the disapproving vibes. Because they don’t get how the combination of us works, and it behoves me, as the nerd in the room, to point out that he’s the Wash and I’m the Zoe in this relationship. Or because they don’t know him; or they know him and don’t like him anyway; or because should things not work out they can say they knew it all along, which is better than being sideswiped by someone you trusted and never would have suspected in a million years, let alone 21 of them.
Or whatever. So many whatevers for us all.
You with your ill-advised relationships or ill-advised things you do in your relationships, and me with mine: whether people are right or not is beside the point, isn’t it? Because unless there are innocents involved it is, after all, ourselves we are playing. Onto that green felt go our hearts, our hopes and dreams, and sometimes our lives. Lives like those of my friend and his family, who literally walked back onto the scorched earth and rebuilt this camp. The sight of the foundations of our old cottage still give my chest a little painful nudge a few years later, but not for long because of course it’s still incredibly beautiful; and better, from the spanking new cabins to the huge array of gleaming solar panels. And in that gloriously weird way of Australian flora, it’s surrounded by these blackened trees that revived and burst forth with foliage where there was once flame.
It’s the promise of the life on the other side of the risk that makes it worth taking. It’s what spurred on the people in these three stories as they played themselves and did the ill-advised; sometimes proving their friends and family wrong, sometimes proving them right. These conversations all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom. Sssh. Let’s listen.
It’s funny how our relationship started because of the pillow talk that went on and on into the next day, and it ended when the pillow talk, and almost all other talk, ended. And how the start of the story belongs to him, but the end belongs to me.
I knew from the beginning that he was going through something, having known his mum for only the last year of her life. But I have never been afraid of baggage – don’t we all have something? And I couldn’t see why I couldn’t be an emotional support for him even if we’d been together for a little while: being an emotional support for someone only if you’re “serious” had never made sense to me either. So I guess I have a pattern of refusing to nope the hell out of situations.
My family and friends like this about me, or at least indulge me, but they didn’t when after we’d only been together a few months he suggested I go to Greece with him.
This was part of it, you see. His mother was from Cyprus and she’d told him that she – and therefore he – had a whole family there. His brother didn’t want to go, not yet. And he didn’t think he could do it on his own. He was afraid of feeling alone, isolated. Language wasn’t a problem: his father, who was also Greek, had ensured he went to “Saturday wog school” as he called it, and he was fluent. What it was is he was searching for something, but he didn’t know what he would find. He needed a link to home.
He suggested it in one of our late Sunday mornings in bed. His bed, that is. I’d made friends with the picture on his bedside table and looking at it, over his shoulder as he asked, his mother’s smile was like she was giving me her blessing. I agreed straight away, but when I told my friends and my parents, holy shit, it was like I was telling them I was joining the Scientologists.
“You barely know him!”
“Overseas? What if something happens?”
“What if he leaves you?”
“What if he’s a sex trafficker?”
Almost everyone said it’s a bad idea, but honestly, I couldn’t see the difference: he could hurt me in Australia as much as he could anywhere else in the world.
I have never seen anyone so nervous in my life. He was a mixture of excited and terrified. It was a long trip, and he didn’t eat a thing. He had the nervous leg thing going in the plane all the way and barely slept.
When he arrived, it was unbelievable. We thought we’d slip in quietly but there was a MOB of cousins there, one of his mother’s sisters and her two brothers, and spouses and they just descended on him. I have never, ever seen anyone be so instantly and completely loved and accepted. The memory of it, and the lesson of it, is something I’ll never forget.
And so it all began for him. And the end began for us.
At first, it was just fun. I would accompany him everywhere and he would translate for me; keep in mind that “everywhere” was the various homes of his family. It was welcome after welcome, feast after feast, as they forged the bonds that they’d never been allowed to have. At the end of each day, we’d collapse in bed, happy but exhausted, and debrief, talking about everything we’d done, seen, heard and eaten that day. We would talk into the early hours of the morning, just examining it from all angles, often laughing because it was so charming.
But then something happened. Whether it got too difficult for him or he got lazy, he started translating less and less. And I put a smiling face on it because this trip was all about him, and of course it would be rude to show him up in front of his family. So I’d do things like play with the little kids, and teach them English words and little songs. It was still nice, if a little lonely. But then the debriefs in bed at the end of the day stopped. At first I tried to draw him out, but he just wouldn’t engage. So I stopped. He was still being lovely to me, but things had changed dramatically. A big part of our relationship was the constant dialogue, and without it, what we were left with was very little.
I was puzzled, and hurt. But one day, I saw everything with crystal clarity, and the hurt and puzzlement I was feeling were replaced with wonder and happiness for him.
I’d posted pictures of our trip to social media, of course, and my ex Noah had commented on them – we were still friends. And then I remembered something about my relationship with Noah, who until then had been my first and only serious relationship. When we first started going out, I’d tell my girlfriends everything about our sex lives, blow by blow. But as we got more and more serious, more and more involved, invested, and eventually in love, I told them less and less, until I finally stopped. The idea of telling them about our lovemaking suddenly felt like an intrusion into something private and precious. Suddenly it occurred to me: this was exactly what was happening with my boyfriend and his family. As the connections got stronger and stronger, deeper and deeper, he couldn’t just have these offhand conversations about them. They weren’t some charming curios to him. He was falling in love with his family! I totally got it. Even though I wasn’t in love with him, I loved him for it.
That night he said to me, “Hey, aunty Haro says it’s silly for us to spend money on a hotel when they have plenty of room. Plus she’d like to spend more time with us.”
I said, “That is so lovely! But why don’t you go on your own?”
“You don’t want to? It’s fine if you want to stay here, it’s just an idea” he said, but I could tell he was disappointed and trying to hide it.
“I LOVE your family,” I told him. “They’ve been wonderful to me. And they love you. I just think it would be great if you could spend more time together.”
He argued a bit, the kind of half-hearted protesting you do when you think you should, and I indulged him, and let him know over and over again that I’d be fine. Finally he let himself agree, and he was gone the next day. From the hotel, and although there’d still be one or two things to make it official, from the relationship.
And then it was my turn to fall in love.
T was a beautiful half-Maori girl I was going out with, not for long. We liked each other a lot, and things were going well. One morning when she’d stayed over I woke up before she did and noticed something disturbing. Fading bruises on her lower back and hip. She was waking up, so I scooched down the bed and kissed them.
“Are you sore there?” I asked.
“No?” she answered.
That was the end of that conversation. But weeks later T stays over again and I notice the bruises aren’t gone yet. Were they the same bruises that weren’t healing, or bruises that she’d had since that were now fading?
“Did you fall down or something? You’re bruised back there.” I told her.
“Am I? I don’t feel anything,” she says. She couldn’t twist around far enough to see, and I didn’t have a proper mirror for her to look (this was before mobile phones) but she shrugged and just kept getting dressed.
A few weeks later the bruises are still there and I couldn’t work out how someone could get bruised there and not know about it. Or tell me about it. A story formed in my head, stronger and stronger. She was screwing around on me. And not just that – he was either rough on her or beating her up.
And I knew I had to talk to her about it. I was pretty upset that she was screwing around, but I knew I had to put my feelings aside for her sake. Whatever this guy had over her, it was way worse for her.
Next time T stayed over, I decided to confront her – but in a good way. We were in the bedroom and things were warm and cozy and I was holding her and caressing her, so she would know I cared.
I asked, “Is there anything you want to tell me?”
She said no. But I hadn’t planned it well enough. I just blurted it out:
“Who’s hurt you?”
And she laughed and said, “Wait, is this going be a D&M?”
I said, “No, literally hurt you. The bruises on your back.”
And she said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
By then I was too far in and just went for it.
“If it’s someone else, it’s OK. I’m not angry. But if he’s hurting you, I want to help.”
Things turned really quick then. She sat up and got loud.
“YOU THINK I’M CHEATING ON YOU?”
I tried explaining, tried and tried, but she couldn’t believe what I was saying and I couldn’t believe what she was saying.
She stormed out and that was pretty much it. Almost.
I was at my mum’s not long after and she was sorry I wasn’t seeing T anymore. She and I are pretty close so I told her what had happened, but before I get to the part where I worked out that she was being beaten up by a guy she was cheating on me with she goes, “Oh, she had Mongolian blue spot?”
I go, “What?”
And my mum, who’s a maternity nurse, tells me about these spots that look a lot like bruises, and are pretty common in babies with darker skin. Most babies grow out of them but for some they never fade. She asked me whether the spots were always in the same place, and always looked the same. They were. She showed me pictures. That’s what they were all right.
Holy shit I felt bad. And stupid. I told mum the rest of the story and she laughed, which made me feel worse. But then when she stopped laughing she got serious and told me that although I shouldn’t jump to conclusions, she was proud of me for trying to help T. That made me feel a bit better but even after all this time when I remember it it’s like I’m watching a movie and at the final scene I can see myself die a little inside.
People look at a woman my age and think, no wonder. But they don’t realise that social media isn’t new anymore; and the Internet has been around for decades now. For a professional woman like me, I know my way around a computer – it’s not like I’m on Facebook because my kids signed me up so that I could see pictures of the grandkiddies. And I’m an intelligent woman who’s been around the block once or twice, and thought I could take care of myself. But the whole thing started so slowly, and I know this sounds strange, so reasonably.
I was a member of a women’s travel group on Facebook. Travel is my passion, and I do it in style – the kids always joke I’m spending their inheritance but they’re happy for me to be enjoying life, particularly after their stepfather, my loved and much-missed husband, died. And that’s where I met Asha. She always replied to my posts and she and I shared the same sense of humour, a love for the same places and cultures, and we both loved to eat our way around the world and recreate those flavours in our kitches. When she asked to be my friend, I didn’t think twice about it. She was an engaged online friend and I liked her.
One day I got a friend request from someone called Gregory. I don’t accept friend requests from strangers but I saw that he was a friend of Asha’s so I sent her a message.
“Gregory’s wonderful. A gem of a man,” her reply said. “Going through a bit of a rough time and looking for new friends. He probably fell in love with your wit on one of my posts – and of course your gorgeous face. He’s only human! LOL”
Gregory was an engaged friend on Facebook too. When I posted a heartfelt tribute to Mary Tyler-Moore on my page after she died, as the poster girl for us professional women of a certain age, he sent me a private message.
“My sister is mourning Mary too. If she was as influential as for you as she was for her, I’m thinking of you and sending you a big virtual bear hug.”
And so began our messaging. My friends told me to be careful. You don’t know him, and there are so many scammers nowadays. But I didn’t listen. If he’d messaged me every hour, or started sweet-talking me straight away, my alarm bells would have gone off. But he didn’t – he wasn’t doing anything that my friends said a scammer does. Still, he messaged often – three or four times a day. One night at about 7.00pm I get a message written all in upper case:
“HELP! A FRIEND OF MINE WENT FISHING AND BROUGHT ME A LIVE LOBSTER TO COOK! NOW IT’S SITTING IN THE SINK LOOKING ACCUSINGLY AT ME AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO!”
I typed out an answer but the situation sounded desperate.
“Can I give you a ring? Or you ring me?” he asked.
I agreed. And so began our relationship on the phone.
He seemed like a wonderful man. Interesting. And interested. He really wanted to know all about me, and was such a good listener. He told me about himself, cautiously. Bits at a time, but always more. It took him a while to open up but eventually he revealed the reason why he had such few friends on Facebook: he’d spent the last 20 years working as a senior in the Sydney offices of a well-known, multinational accounting firm, and that’s where most of his friends were. He’d lived for his work, he said – it had cost him his marriage and a proper relationship with his children, and now he knew what was important and wouldn’t make the same mistake again. Now he didn’t work there anymore and those friends had gone by the wayside, so he also now knew what real friendship meant. He said this with profound sadness and bitterness. It was intriguing. But he wouldn’t tell me more.
We started talking a few times a day. I’d get a phone call from him at the market in the afternoon, “I’ve bought myself three juicy lamb chops. What are you having for dinner?” “Have you gone for a walk today? You know the chiropractor said it’s good for you.” And eventually at night, “I’ve been thinking of you.”
It got intense. I would go to bed when he did, and he’d ring me and deep and soft would say, “Want a bedtime story?” It was erotic and very, very emotional. I told him all kinds of things about myself – things I’d never imagined myself sharing with anyone else ever again. I trusted him.
And he trusted me, he said, which is why one night he told me his story: he had uncovered something very, very dodgy at work and had blown the whistle. But instead of being grateful to him and protecting him, the executives closed ranks. They found some excuse to let him go. And spread enough rumours about him to make him persona non grata among all his colleagues – his so-called work friends. And he was certain that he’d been blacklisted, because he hadn’t even been able to get a callback, let alone an interview for the jobs he’d applied for.
And this was the clincher:
“But I don’t care,” he told me. “I’m going to go back where I came from and start working for a small firm, or just strike out on my own. Even if I lose the house, I’d rather have my integrity.”
I know it’s crazy. I know we’d never met in real life. But I fell in love with him. His hard-won wisdom of the important things in life, his principles, and of course the friendship and the late-night conversations that set me on fire. And you know what else is crazy? He never asked for money. I offered it to him.
He refused. Absolutely not, he said. I was wonderful, and he’d be fine. Besides, he said, he cared about me, and it was crazy, but he thought he was falling for me, and he couldn’t jeopardise the only good thing in his life.
I couldn’t believe it. My heart was pounding. I told him I thought I was falling in love too. And that I would never hold this over him.
“Let me help you. Just enough to tide you over for a couple of months, until you get a job.”
He sighed and sniffed. Was he crying? Thank you, he said, thank you. How much would it take to keep the wolf at bay for two months? $10,000. It wasn’t nothing, but I knew it was a fraction of what he’d been earning, and I was happy to give it to him. No – lend it to him. He insisted it was a loan.
From that point on, I was all in. We were in love! We started making plans for me to come up to Sydney to visit. He said he was getting the spare room ready: there was plenty of room in his house and he didn’t want me to feel pressured in any way. But I knew what would happen – what I wanted to happen. I couldn’t wait.
Here’s where God or Providence or sheer dumb luck stepped in. I was contacted by a woman called Denise, who wanted to ask me questions about Asha. I was a bit wary, but I didn’t have anything to hide, so I told her we were friends who’d met online. She asked me if involved with a friend of hers called Michael, or Jonathan. And here’s where the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I told her no, but there was a Gregory. She said, “We need to talk”.
You can probably guess what happened next. Our stories were different, but they bore the same hallmarks: he was thoughtful, a good listener, understanding, a good friend, and also told very sensuous “bedtime stories”. It was emotional on every single level. He never asked for money – in each of the three cases, we had offered it to him. Each scenario for him needing money was different, though, and that made me question what Denise was saying.
But Denise was firm.
“Have a think about what you told him about yourself. And have a think about what Asha knows about you,” she said.
Gregory knew I was passionate about staff advocacy, I’d had roles in this in my career before and there are few things that make me angrier than staff not getting a fair go. He knew that what I missed about my husband was the talking and companionship. And Asha, well, she knew enough about me to feed to Gregory – or whatever his name was – the key information. She knew about my lifestyle, and could have easily guessed that I’m very comfortable in life; she knew my interests, my sense of humour and the things I responded to.
Denise’s “Michael” had a story that perfectly matched what she was about perfectly, as did the other woman’s “Jonathan”.
I couldn’t believe it. I mean I did, I just didn’t want to. I couldn’t believe the sophistication of it. Getting to know us so profoundly so that we would fall so hard, and know which buttons to push. And the patience of it. Even though it was still relatively early days, it had been a couple of months, not the fast-and-furious whirlwind that romance scammers are known for. This was slow, steady, and deliberate.
Denise had a hunch: that they were many of us, all at once, providing a steady stream of money, so they were able to take their time. Which is why she was contacting Asha’s most recent friends from the last few months privately and discreetly, one at a time. I was the third victim she’d found.
Denise asked me to continue with Gregory as I had been – she didn’t want them to catch on. I had no idea how I could. I felt sick. Absolutely devastated. I needed to talk to my closest friend about it, the one who would understand and make it all better… but that person was Gregory. How pathetic is that? I told him I had a sudden work trip – it was an emergency and I’d be very busy fixing it, but I’d get in touch when I got back.
I actually went and stayed in a hotel. I didn’t know any more that Gregory was actually in Sydney, but he knew where I lived (he’d sent me flowers), and I imagined him checking and discovering that I was home. I was an absolute mess. Obsessively checking Facebook, checking my phone for messages from Denise. And suddenly, a couple of days later, Asha’s Facebook account was gone – just like that.
I rang Denise. Someone must have told them, she said. But she’d found three more women involved with this man.
We had a group chat. The six of us varied in age, cultural background, and socioeconomic status; one of us was actually married; one was on a pension, one was quite wealthy. The smallest amount one of us had given him was $5,000; the largest, $60,000 (and no – it wasn’t the wealthy woman who had given him this amount). He’d gone missing on four of us at that stage.
We couldn’t work out what we had in common. Not at first. But we started talking often – it was like group therapy. Eventually we worked it out: we were all strong, intelligent, independent women.
So why had none of us had said anything to Asha about this? Why had most of us not told our families? Why it taken Denise to shake us out of this trance? All of us, posting comments on Asha’s Facebook wall and living our lives, never mentioning even a brass razoo of what we’d given this man, even after he’d disappeared from the lives of four of us, in a great conspiracy of silence.
Well, here’s a bedtime story for you – a scary one, this time, because I bet it flies in the face of what you believe, possibly about yourself. That when a strong, intelligent, independent woman is cheated she doesn’t turn her fury and disappointment on the cheater; he’s a liar and a cheat but it’s not his character she’s judging. Oh, no. She turns all that inward. The fury and disappointment are all aimed at herself. She should have known better: how could she be so stupid, so blind? She can’t speak, because the shame clutches her throat and takes away her voice. And when the cheater gets away with it scot-free, he is getting away with a lot more than what you think.
Pillow Talking is produced, narrated and edited by me, Violeta Balhas, from stories by you, the listeners and pillow talkers. Music is by Radovan Jekic. This episode’s stories were:
Part 2 by Mezza Arancia
Blue Spot by Bez
Bedtime Stories by Mercedes
Mezza Arancia’s story concludes next week.
Thank you, as always, for listening. An extra special thank you this time to all those of you who took the time to send me messages of condolences – sometimes sympathetically foul-mouthed messages that pretty much summed up everything I was saying and feeling – when my computer went kaput. Over the past couple of weeks we have spent a small fortune, and Shane has spent many, many hours, restoring the whole thing – 7 terabytes of it. Yes, 7 terabytes. It was actually cranking away and restoring for the 10 days we were at the Grampians! Right now it’s all a big jumble and nothing has the original file names, so I have to go through each file one by one, assess it and rename it, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve found my Pillow Talking stuff, and I’ve found my writing, it’s all backed up, so now my blood pressure is back to normal. Thank you Shane, and thank you Scott for getting us on the road to recovery – data recovery, that is.
If you haven’t subscribed to Pillow Talking yet, please do: there’s a new episode every two weeks. And if you haven’t reviewed or shared, please do that too! I appreciate it, not just because it gets these stories out there, but because it also brings the stories in, so that somehow we all end up, in a kind of weird-n-wonderful pillow talking community.
Speaking of which: you know what’s coming, don’t you? Well, hopefully your story, but not before I invite you, once again, to send it in. Whether big or small, light or dark, sweet or bitter, or any combination of these, I’d love to receive your story, and then love the sweet little agony of seeing where it will best sit, with which others, for which theme… it’s brilliant. So go on. Just go to pillowtalkingproject.com and click on the “tell your story” tab, and then… play yourself.
On the next episode of Pillow Talking, Far away, so close! Stories about pillow talking across the distance.
Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.