Lived experiences

You Owe Him Nothing

January 29, 2022

Aine Kelly-Costello
Aine Kelly-Costello
Drawing - woman with cane holds phone with messages popping up

It’s summer 2017. After a long day at work, you’ve spent 45 minutes in Aotea Square at an anti-racism protest. The speakers were good but a little hard to hear, and you didn’t bother to work out if any friends were around. As you head back towards Queen St, a guy, probably about your age, approaches you and asks if you want help. Your white cane makes you unmissable as usual. You double-check with him that you are indeed facing the direction you think and try to say that you’ll be fine.

But he’s persistent.

You eventually relent, you are getting tired, and you don’t know this route well. It would, in truth, be convenient to walk it with someone else. Walking together, he asks you what you study and whether you have siblings. You reciprocate, and the conversation is quite enjoyable, on the scale of small-talk with strangers. You discover this is the same guy that guided you perhaps 100 meters between Queen St and Aotea Square when you were on the way to the protest. Soon, you are almost sure that if he hung around at the protest at all, it wasn’t out of interest in the kaupapa. You shove that out of mind; there’s plenty to do on Queen St after all.

“Can I hold your hand?”

It comes out of nowhere, but then, people try to guide blind people in all kinds of non-useful ways on the regular. You’re used to setting that record straight, so you say no, explain how guiding is supposed to work, and carry on with the conversation. He works in hospitality, you learn. He is an international student. You empathise with him about having family overseas. You are at the bus stop, and your bus has arrived. You thank your travel companion and step towards it.

“Áine, there’s something I have to tell you,” he interjects now.

“Sorry I need to catch the bus.” You try to sound firm. “Nice talking to you.”

“Please? Can I have your number?”

You shrug inwardly. How could he be that desperate? You also remember a time when you asked for a team-mates number and how inadequate you felt when she intentionally ignored your request. Also, lying seems hard. You give it to him.

On the bus, you pull out your phone, hoping for a short final exchange. “Dear, I really like you,” he texts.”I really wanna lights up on your way forever.” In quick succession, he will ask when you are next in the city and if you can meet again. You struggle to square the actual person, who seemed harmless enough, with these persistent messages.

You are unequivocal. You want no relationship with him – though meeting briefly once seems more finite than inventing endless excuses. You will grab Subway on the way home. It will only be twenty minutes out of your evening anyway. You message agreeing to meet once.

“I will wait for a day to hear that you feel the same thing I am feeling right now,” reads one ensuing text.

“I was talking to my mum, she asked why I was so happy, and I told her meeting you was the reason,’ says another.

“When you gonna invite me! 😗” a third.

“Try to understand my love Áine,” a fourth.

Soon there are dozens.

Over the following days, the infatuation and nagging texts graduate to phone calls, which you stop answering. Now he also wants to take a photo when you meet which you agree to on condition it is not shared. You are scared of his anger, and you are aware he knows where your bus stop is. Would blocking him now lead to stalking in-person? You don’t meet up again. In fact, you wait for him as agreed, his phone goes flat, and the communication falls over—the irony.

At last, you opt for blocking him and a text to explain. The message is a short essay. “Relationships have to go two ways, and you must respect if the other person isn’t interested,” it concludes. You are as good as your word and take satisfaction in pressing “block”. You hope the effect is equally permanent on the ground. So far, so good, three years later. Reflecting now, you know it was all unfair. You didn’t especially want his help walking that route back to the bus in the first place, and you said so, politely even. You are sure, rereading his texts now, that his bizarre, inappropriate infatuation, was driven by his need to feel useful and needed by someone.

Would a Tamagotchi have done the trick?

You can reason all day, and the breach of trust still hurts. Back in primary school and in sports practices, you were bullied. In the aftermath, you worked consciously on remembering that those people who would find satisfaction in making you feel small were a minority. You tried so hard to consider your trust and openness default positions: innocent till proven guilty. Of course, that was naive. But it’s not like there’s a single litmus test for trust, either. Writing this, you choose not to so much as give him a pseudonym because you know he is part of a pattern.

You feel compelled to be on higher guard against situations like this one while wishing in equal measure that such guard wasn’t necessary. Not for you, not for anyone.

You have seen how a so-called husband, caught cheating, abused your friend by threatening to harm himself if she dared leave. You have read powerful accounts about the pain left from this kind of mind-game and subjugation. You know that at least one in three New Zealand women experience partner violence in their lifetime with higher figures when psychological abuse is included and that the picture is if anything bleaker for disabled women despite a lack of hard data. You know that it’s a similar story for sexual harassment and assault, in the home, from a colleague or on the street.

You have the perverse privilege of being able to document your experience with little fear of retribution. It may have taken three years, but you do so now, in solidarity with those experiencing and those condemning abuses of power, conscious or not. You want the other disabled girls, boys, women non-binary and trans folks who have been or will be taken as “easy targets” to feel seen, even in this small way. You also write about that fateful summer day to reckon with yourself.

You owed him nothing: not your number, not your time, not a meeting, not the spectacle of your body. You write as a cautionary tale. Finally, you write, hoping that he somewhere is reading this, is pausing to reflect, and is planning his contribution to a spot of allyship and rebalancing.