Fire Meet Gasoline

The author, photographed during his transformation.
The author, photographed during his transformation.

“Flame you came to me … Fire meet gasoline” – Sia, Fire Meet Gasoline

You know the drill. While in your tender, formative years at school, all opportunities to challenge and exceed yourself at sports must be pursued. After school practice, Saturday morning matches and the big one — the yearly Sports Day, where the student population would be carved up into color-coded ‘houses’ and set in opposition to each other. Lord of the Flies without the sharp, pointed sticks.

The teachers at the school I attended saw fit to name these houses after southern Australian rivers. My red t-shirt indicated I was in the House of Murray. I was a chubby child and the shirt was ill-fitted. I can still remember the humiliation of being forced to compete with the houses Sturt and Onkaparinga. All of the children seemed to be athletically inclined, whereas I just looked like an inflatable pool toy that had blown across the fence of someone’s backyard and onto the school oval.

I found childhood to be deeply traumatic. As adults, we paper over all our fears and misgivings with drugs, alcohol and that most insidious of narcotics, rationalism. We tend to talk our way out of bad experiences by offering ourselves comforting explanations as to why things aren’t right. As a child, you don’t have full access to reason. When something isn’t right, a child feels it, an inherent ability that is more or less deadened by the time they reach adulthood. I knew something was wrong with the world. I could feel it in my viscera and no amount of analysis or reason would have been able to placate me.

I was different. This difference was reflected in the sneering, dismissive looks most of my peers gave me. I could not join in with their conversations about who won Wimbledon or the Ashes. When the other boys played games during lunch, joining in was a total bust because I didn’t understand the rules of cricket or football.

While children may have access to states of mind that atrophy in later life, this does not prevent them from behaving like adults—pack animals in other words. My physical presence was a juicy, delicious proposition for their taunts and barbs. I was the fat kid. Not morbidly obese, just a pudgy belly and round face. This was convenient when I was called upon to play Father Christmas at the end of year school concert. I only required a white cotton beard, not a cushion under the shirt.

I loved food. I would spend hours in my room, reading books while munching on some snack. Despite never being shown how to by my maternal grandmother, Mum taught herself to be a great cook and each meal was always generous and rich. I would always go back for seconds, while my sister would do everything in her power to eat as little as possible. Couple this with my lack of interest in most physical pursuits and it was little wonder I leant towards the large side.

One of the few friends I had, William, would invite me over to his house from time to time. We both shared a love of Lego blocks and would spend hours in his room constructing and playing with science-fiction themed dioramas. William’s professorial father also had an Apple II computer in his dimly lit study which he would let us both use to play Temple Of Apshai, an early computer game that allowed the player to explore a dungeon filled with monsters and treasure. In other words, by the standards of our peers, we were nerds1 or misfits.

Although he was my fellow nerd, William could have been Usain Bolt when compared to my physical prowess. William’s parents may have had a son who was a nerd, but at least he was not a fat nerd. My chubby appearance was the catalyst for a robust example of adult insensitivity. One afternoon after a day of play with William, my mother arrived at the front door to take me home. William’s mother declared, “They play well together. Anytime Tubby wants to come over, he’s welcome.”

Tubby — a compliment and an insult in the same sentence. My mother did not correct her and say, “His name is Timothy, not Tubby,” no, she took me home and didn’t say anything about what went down. It must have weighed on her mind though because one day after school, instead of returning home she drove me straight to the doctor. “Why am I here Mum?” No answer, she was ignoring me. Why wouldn’t she tell me? If I could travel back in time to that waiting room, I would whisper in the young boy’s ear, “Don’t worry buddy, adults mask their fear and shame behind passive aggression.”

I soon found myself sitting before the doctor with my mother, no idea whatsoever what this visit was about. When he asked what the problem was, mum went bright red and muttered something about my weight. After a lengthy conversation, to which I was only an observer, not a contributor, it became clear that mother was trying to lay the blame on me. Surprisingly, the doctor was not down with this and tactfully suggested that my mother had a role to play in my expanding girth and perhaps she should feed me less.

My father, a man of the world, did not fare any better in dealing with me. For months on end, he would spend time away, either interstate or overseas, pursuing business opportunities. Upon his return he would insist the family spend hours remodelling the five acre property we lived on. I dreaded his return because it meant physical work. On some level I knew all this home improvement was pointless, after all, he was rarely home to enjoy the fruits of his business success. Why couldn’t he just take me to the movies for some father and son time?

I’d had enough. I did not want to be shovelling dirt during yet another of his endless working bees, so I chose to sit inside and read a fantasy novel. My obstinance was too much for Dad. While my mother and sister were bent over shovels, I could hear my father opine loudly, “If he wants to sit and do nothing while his fat ass spreads, I don’t care!”

When I was twelve, I entered high school. While increased height ameliorated some of my roundness, I was not a ‘normal’ body type and was soon reminded of this. A cute girl in my class, Emma, approached me in the schoolyard and asked, “Tim, do you know what you remind me of?” I shook my head slowly. “A hippopotamus!” I went a deep shade of red as she walked off with her friend Annabelle, tittering softly.

If you have not been blessed with genes that predispose you to a lithe physique, the possibility of change is on par with catching a glimpse of Bigfoot. Not beyond the realm of possibility, just unlikely. My weight stabilised for the remainder of my school years after I discovered bike riding, but would soon climb up again after entering adulthood.

In my twenties, I found myself in a share house in Hunters Hill, New South Wales. Any food I bought was usually stolen by my housemates, so I took to hiding it under my bed. The mice were grateful as all my packets of pasta were now in easy reach for them. The kitchen was always filthy, so I avoided cooking and hardly ate. As a result I began to shed weight and became thin.

I may have kept the new body shape if I managed to dodge the beautiful bullet that was hurtling towards me. After a short and intense courtship, Anita and I were married. Her family are all naturally sinewy, athletic and hyperactive, whereas my family are short, stocky and sedentary. I fooled her into thinking the man she married looked after himself. I only looked good in my wedding attire because I had starved my ornery body into submission.

Anita loves to cook; big, hearty, fatty Italian meals and she wanted to look after her man. I loved her food and would happily down the massive portions she would serve me. Anita would follow up the main with a large serving of dessert. I rounded out again, revealing my true identity. Every now and then I’d kindly ask her to stop serving me such delicious, high sugar, high fat food. She’d try to cut back, but she could tell my request was half-hearted. She loved to see how much I enjoyed her cooking, so she’d soon backslide into her old cooking ways.

Each trip to the men’s clothing store to replace a pair of jeans or suit pants would signal the enacting of an embarrassing ritual. I would stand in front of the full length mirror in the change room, remove my worn trousers and convince myself I had not gained any more weight while squinting at the white, flabby inner tube that was my belly. Sweet hope lasted only until the new trousers were pulled up and I tried to button (or zip) them up. I would have had more luck trying to put jelly into a straw. Damn. It looks like I’ll have to go for the next size up … again. Anita didn’t say anything to me, but I knew she didn’t like the weight on me.

It’s a strange facet of the human experience that personal change tends to only occur after a massive disruption, be that an accident or other traumatic experience. My weight issues were soon to be resolved. I had a job with a major newspaper that required a 1.5 hour train commute to and from my place of work. I endured the 3 hour tedium by reading books. While finishing one—For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence2 by Alice Miller—I began to feel physically ill. A howling void opened up in me. Tubby, my milquetoast identity that had been paying rent to occupy my body, had decided to break the lease agreement and gave notice that he would soon be leaving.

For a few days I wondered just who I really was. I distracted myself by catching a movie, Casino Royale. The new actor portraying James Bond, Daniel Craig was not like Pierce Brosnan. This incarnation of the character was no soft-bodied yuppie. He would rather rip your throat out in preference to making quips. My reaction to the scene where Bond was tied up, stark naked to a chair, and tortured by the film’s villain Le Chiffre captivated me. Daniel Craig’s rippling musculature, straining against the ropes, burned into my retinas. The bloke was an incredible physical specimen, yet he was only an actor. If he could make himself look like that for a film role, why couldn’t I undergo a similar transformation for something far more important—real life?

I returned home to the house my partner and I were renting, a crummy, red brick affair on Sydney’s north shore. I descended the cramped, single person spiral staircase down into the large, carpeted storage area that ran half the length of the house. I liked to think of it as the Batcave, which was appropriate, as amongst the unused clutter were boxes containing comic books from my youth. I pulled the lid off one of the archive boxes. Dozens and dozens of comic books, still in pristine condition. Each flimsy book was a chapter in the life of a young, sensitive boy, Bruce Wayne. He responds to his own childhood trauma by dedicating himself to shaping a new, fearsome persona—Batman. To say I loved these stories is selling them short. I remember what I felt with the opening of each new issue. From the first page I was attending a place of worship to receive a sacrament. I would savour each four colour panel and by the time I reached the end, the final caption felt like a benediction, even if the hero was left bruised, broken and bloody.

I did not want to part with these, but I had read them all and now they were gathering dust. The answer was obvious and elegant. Nothing will be achieved without a sacrifice. Bruce would understand. I photographed each comic book and sold them on eBay. All the money I received from the willing buyers was used to purchase a home gym. Not one of the ridiculous exercise machines with cables, padding and weight stacks. No, hundreds of pounds of heavy iron plates that I would affix to barbells, dumbbells and weight bars. So long Tubby, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. There will be no more moping and waiting around for your ass to further expand, it’s now time to kick ass.

I heaved my flabby body onto the weight bench, a whale beached on a strange shore. Each repetition was murder and progress at first was slow and painful. I started to devour books and articles on the iron game. I discovered that pumping iron was merely the spark that would fire the engine, but no engine will run without fuel to ignite. I changed my eating habits. Instead of eating three meals a day, I would eat six smaller ones. No more empty, white, refined carbohydrates like sugar and flour. Carbs had to be complex and rich, such as brown rice and sweet potatoes. My rapidly bulging muscles also needed protein and lots of it. Six meals a day was difficult, so I started buying supplements to replace the in between meals. Protein powders in endless variety. There was the slow, time release one that would result in me waking up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, my blood feeling like a carbonated soft drink. There were the delicious weight gaining ones—yes, I needed to start gaining mass—that never satiated me. Regular meal followed by protein shake followed by regular meal. Lift weights and repeat.

When I wasn’t pumping iron I would either jump rope or run, really, really hard. No long marathons, just ten to fifteen minutes of the hardest aerobic activity I could possibly muster. Each night I would collapse into bed tired and sore. After about ten weeks, I noticed that I looked different. The weight had fallen off me and I now had hard muscle in place of the flab. My face was sharp instead of round. My progress plateaued for a couple of weeks and I began to experiment with two additional supplements, creatine and l-arginine.

Creatine is a non-essential nutrient that is already produced naturally in the body and helps to provide energy to all cells in the body, primarily muscle. It did nothing for me. L-arginine on the other hand was ambrosia. I had read that Hugh Jackman’s personal trainer insisted he take this while getting in shape to play Wolverine in the X-Men movies. L-arginine produces Nitric Oxide which helps transport oxygen to muscle cells. You take it to increase the length of your workout sessions. I thought it helped immensely. My muscles felt and looked larger. It also made me very, very horny. One afternoon, one of my partner’s friends, a mother from our daughter’s school, dropped by. I was wearing a tight t-shirt and her social inhibition evaporated. “My God, look at your arms!” she squealed. I was coming into a sense of power I had never experienced before.

I was busy with logging my meals and supplements, but this was just a charade to keep my rational mind occupied. Each new container of protein powder was emblazoned with the manufacturer’s claim that it would ignite your workouts. That was just marketing bullshit; the real fuel was black, viscous and highly flammable. It was bubbling up from the deep dark places of my psyche. When I pumped iron, I would erect a derrick and tap into my explosive anger which would reward me by reshaping me. Anger at being bullied. Anger at being abandoned. Anger at being betrayed, by life, by circumstances and especially anger at my father.

Each week I would add more weight and each exercise set would be exquisitely difficult. The final repetitions would be impossible until I tapped into my secret cache of fuel and let out a long, nauseating howl. I was not merely working my muscles, I was a Spartan warrior at the battle of Thermopylae, stabbing and hacking at the oncoming Persian hordes—all those who I felt wronged by. Towards the end of each session, Anita would come down the stairs and ask if I was OK, as my moans made it sound like I was dying. “Never better, darling.”

My wife’s reaction to my transformation confused me. She was no longer married to the Michelin Man but she seemed troubled. Each day I became stronger, she became weaker. It seemed like there was only a finite amount of energy to go round, and if it was going to be allocated to me, it had to be taken from somewhere else, namely her.

“I’m worried you’re going to hurt yourself. Plus you’re becoming egotistical. You never used to be like that,” she weakly mewled.

I bristled. Why is she trying to hold me back? She used to be married to a spineless, timid man with no confidence. She must be confused. Surely a woman would rather be with Conan the Barbarian than Frank Spencer?

“I don’t like how angry you are. You’re aggressive.” Anita was dismayed over my attitude. This was going to be a problem, because I loved my new demeanour and had no intention to change.

“I love the feeling anger gives me darling. It’s intoxicating, it makes me strong.” We were on two different paths. She wanted to put her arms around the world while I wanted to stomp my boot on its face. Needless to say, we were divided and she was unhappy. I had no time for unhappiness as I was constantly working out.

When I would walk around the local shopping centre, I would size other men up. I used to avoid eye contact, but with my new appearance, I found myself making direct eye contact until they looked away. Huh, weak, I thought. I despised weakness. I didn’t care who you were. Each adult male that came into my field of vision was appraised as a potential combatant. I could take that pencil-neck, look at that dweeb, man, all the men in my neighbourhood are carved out of cookie dough!

My attitude was not safely restricted to an internal monologue. It had real world, practical applications. My six year old daughter would sometimes play with a couple of the neighbour’s young boys in the leafy cul-de-sac we lived on. She was from the worst house on the street while they were from the best. Their father, a well presented, quiet man worked for a large law firm in the city while his attractive blonde wife ran the palatial home. The centre of power in their household though, was the grandfather, a tall, imposing man who visited regularly with his wife to mind the boys after school.

I arrived home one afternoon to find my daughter bawling while Anita tried to comfort her. “What happened?” I asked. My firstborn had been playing with the boys in the front yard of their house when their grandfather flung the front door open and yelled at the top of his lungs, “Boys come inside! And you, little girl, go away and don’t come back!”

I knew that this asshole despised my family because we were lower on the economic ladder. His grandchildren went to one of Sydney’s most expensive private schools while public school was going to be the only option for my child. It positively ate him up that his daughter and son-in-law allowed his grandchildren to interact with my daughter. I also knew that his son-in-law, while being a high paid professional was in fear of the father-in-law. This was an opportunity to create some mayhem.

I crouched down, placed my hand on my daughter’s shoulder and sweetly asked, “Would you like Daddy to go and talk to that man?” A sob followed by a definite nod. I left the house and walked down the driveway. By the time I reached the letterbox, I could see the offender was shutting the door of his car and was beginning to drive away, two houses down the street.

My muscles tensed and I broke into a run that became a sprint. The car was accelerating yet so was I. He could see me in the rear view mirror, but he was not going to stop. I ran even harder and I pulled alongside his vehicle. I began to pound on the roof, yelling, “Oy, stop the car!”

He stopped. I pounded on the tinted window. He slowly lowered it, a scowl on his face. My own face, an angry, flaming fireball was suddenly level with his. “What’s your name?” I hissed.

“Steven,” came the surly reply. “Well Steven, my name’s Tim and I live here. I don’t want to hear you raise your voice to my daughter again.”

Steven was trembling with apoplexy. “You can’t talk to me like that,” he spat.

Steven’s wife could tell who had the power in this confrontation and she tried to intercede from the front passenger seat, before her husband descended any further into hell. “Oh, he didn’t mean it, that’s just the sound of his voice.”

I ignored her.

“I don’t like the sound of your voice Steven. If I hear it in my street again, I’ll deal with you.” I was pleased that my rage was communicated in calm, powerful sentences. Steven drove off and I never had any more trouble with him.

I headed back home but not before casting a baleful eye on the beautiful home that belonged to his daughter and son-in-law. It was not enough that I banished the previous alpha male; I was putting them on notice that I was not going to be fucked with. I imagined the meek and kind lawyer, eaten up with confusion that another male, this one unlettered and unrefined, had stood up to the scary monster that was his father-in-law. I pictured his wife, secretly thrilled to bear witness to the power animal that dressed down the most imposing figure in her life—her father.

I had broken a taboo. My sacrilegious behaviour just made me feel even more powerful. I could clearly see why society was structured the way it was. Young men are meant to expend their energy on physical activity at an early age because by the time they are adults, expectation, responsibility and debt would ensure they would no longer be a danger to the established order of things. They are contained and emasculated. If men in their thirties or forties ever took hold of their own power, chaos would ensue.

I was on a different path, that of the very late bloomer. I was moving through time backwards, Benjamin Button style. My endpoint though would not be a weak, helpless baby, but a dynamic troublemaker, carved from a block of granite.

I hit the weights again. This time I imagined confronting my father in my current form. I was lifting more and more. Anger gets a bad rap, I thought. It’s a miraculous, transformative compound. I blasted out another set, the sky opened up and I bathed in the glorious energy. I ignored the pain in my lower back. All weakness must be burned away. Fire meet gasoline.

Footnotes:

1This aversion to ‘nerds’ now seems like a 1950s attitude although it was not that long ago—the beginning of the 1980s in fact. Fantasy and science-fiction stories, while present, were far less prominent in the popular culture of my childhood. The recent success of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the seemingly endless superhero stories at the multiplexes suggests that ‘nerd’ interests have taken over popular entertainment.

2If you track this book down and read it from cover to cover, one of three things are likely to happen: 1) You will reject the book’s thesis and hurl it across the room, cursing the time you wasted on it. Once you calm down, you will pick it up and place it in the bin. 2) You will be reminded of experiences that you buried in order to function and protect your identity. The feeling will be so painful that you will stop reading and dispose of the book. 3) You will go the distance and complete the book, letting the text wash over and through you. You will not be the same person afterwards. Options 1 and 2 are far easier than option 3.

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