Within a week of arriving in Fremantle we’ve found a sweet little school for Alba and a home within the catchment. It’s an old house that I’m not sure of at first but it grows on me. The wooden floorboards creak, the taps get stuck and there are cracks in the walls; but it feels like us. Imperfect, cosy, humble.
Alba has her own bedroom with a teepee in the corner that she disappears into when she needs space. We have a fireplace in the living room. We fill our home with colourful rugs and growing plants and glowing lamps.
I turn 25 here. I wake up and Bee has made a treasure hunt through the house with rhyming clues and hidden gifts. It’s a quiet birthday but it’s the best birthday I can imagine because here we are in our new home in one of my favourite places in the world.
Winter fades and spring blooms. There are flowers everywhere and we pick them to fill jars on our dining table and to tuck into our hair. I love doing the washing. The smell of the wet clean clothes and later taking them down still warm from the sun. The laundry has become a darkroom, chemicals sit on the window sill and film is strung up to dry.
I like the sound of the cars driving over wet road when it rains at night and the caw of the crows in the trees. Alba falls asleep in her bed at night and ends up in ours by morning. Her school is small in the nicest way. She settles in like she’s always been there. She complains to me that too many people want to be her best friend and gushes that she wants to marry a boy named Angus.
I’m not aways happy, anxiety waits like a beast for the smallest crack to crawl through into my head, but mostly I am very happy.
Before I am really ready for it, Bee is leaving to Java for a few weeks to hike volcanoes and climb mountains and take photos. I want to be excited for him. I naïvely imagine I can wave him goodbye and kiss his forehead and wish him luck. But I can’t. I can only disappear into bed with a childish stubbornness.
I harbour this fear of abandonment and when my bruises get pushed I disappear into myself. I build walls out of my hurt, but I am still there behind them. I can still see how unfair and how unhelpful I am being by shutting him out. I just can’t seem to help it. If I don’t hide away I’ll say hurtful things.
I’m curled up tight and he kisses and cuddles me and his ride is almost here and time is disappearing cruelly and quickly. Then he’s gone and everything goes very quiet.
The morning after Bee has left the house feels empty. Leaving bed seems like a terrible idea, but then there’s Alba pulling me into the everyday chores of parenthood. I cook the porridge, I pack the lunch, I braid the hair and find the socks. These little routines pull me out of the dark a little, just a little.
On the walk to school we pass a mulberry tree. The sun is shining and there are hundreds of big fat black mulberries hanging off the branches. We pick them until our fingers and lips are stained red with juice. Birds call out to each other and flowers grow out from gardens onto the sidewalk. We live in a beautiful place. When I’m home I crawl back into my bed until school ends.
The next morning I ride my pink bicycle, with Alba riding alongside me on her scooter. She squeals as she rides downhill and it is such a perfect joyful sound. I continue on from school, up hills and down hills and into town, to sit in a cafe full of old couches to write these words. Why do I have to learn again and again that I’m okay on my own? That it’s when I feel most like myself? Why am I so afraid of this?
Late one night I am in bed with Alba fast asleep beside me when someone knocks loudly on the door. I freeze, it’s past midnight, no one would visit this late. They knock louder. I can’t breathe. They try to open the door and it rattles in its frame. I fumble around for my phone and then I hear them leave in a car. I am shaking. I hug Alba tightly. I want Bee home so badly I cry.
I hear phantom footsteps in the house every night. This old house seems filled with ghosts. When I close my eyes to wash my face I am terrified something or someone will be there when I open them again. When I haven’t heard from Bee in days I imagine he has fallen from a mountain or crashed his scooter or been killed. Death seems so close at hand since my brother left. I wonder why I’ve ended up with a boy for whom adventuring in remote places is so vital. Maybe all the reasons it’s hard are reasons it’s important for me to be with him.
I’m frightened that even on a good day, when I have so much to be grateful for, I can still feel the dark filling in the empty spaces. I wonder if I have always been this way. If anxiety is a kind of default for me. I feel it has grown worse. Like my anxiety really is a beast inside me getting fatter on my fear and insecurity with each passing day.
I feel a sense of meaninglessness. As though I can’t figure out why I do any of this, why anyone does. Days feel repetitive. Routines a curse. Every day I clean and every day I cook and every day I do school runs and every day I do bedtime routines. I beat myself mercilessly for not doing enough work. For not being excited to create. For being alive with so many privileges and blessings, and not finding it to be enough.
When I’m deep in those dark places they feel endless and inescapable. But I do escape them and I think of my little brother who did not.
The first week he is gone goes forever. The second goes by quickly. Friends from overseas come to visit. I learn to fill my days with working dates at cafes and friends and phone calls at night. Alba and I have long conversations about kindness and vegetarianism and growing up. The house doesn’t feel so empty.
Bee coming home is like falling in love all over again. Alba and I make a board full of things we love about him and fill a basket with gifts and a cookbook I’ve written just for him. From the moment he walks through the door I can’t stop kissing his beautiful face and reaching out just to check he’s really real.
Before long I’m hugging my family goodbye at the airport gates. It’s easier being the one going than the one staying behind. With my backpack on and my passport clutched in my hand I am the me I remember. The one who talks to strangers and sits in parks in the sun writing and navigates foreign cities alone.
I wish I could tell you this story properly, without the fear of hurting others. I’ve written it so many times over in my head. I wish you could understand how hard my heart was broken this trip. How the pain of losing a best friend felt so similar to the grief I felt when I lost my little brother. Instead I will just share a small part.
I felt used in ways I never imagined I could from someone I loved. Somehow I found the courage to stand up for myself and I was yelled at in a room full of strangers. I was tiny, smaller than an ant. So ashamed. She met my crying with a coldness I didn’t recognise. I worked for free even as tears still ran down my neck, even as I knew most people would have left. I loved her, what was I supposed to do?
There are speeches and I can feel the tears coming again but I hold them back until I can’t anymore. I’m alone in the bathroom. The tiles are cold and I am warm from champagne. I sit on the floor and I sob. The laughter from the crowd echoes from the walls. Happy and broken sounds all tangled up in a confusing mess. I cry in the way you do when you’re alone and the sadness is so much bigger than you are.
A cruel little film plays in my mind. I see the first time we met, I feel our hands held as we fell asleep together so many nights, I hear our constant laughter and our tears over the phone. I remember the cities we explored and the terrible secrets we shared and the future we saw so clearly in our minds. All of it shattering and collapsing in on itself. All of it lost.
I see my face burning in the mirror. I let the tap run over my hands and throw cold water across my face and I breathe deeply. I stop thinking enough to stop crying. Out there she is beautiful and unfaltering. I am heartbroken and confused. I light a cigarette from a candle flame and smoke on the lawn alone. I drink more champagne. Everyone plays pretend and I’m a coward. I’m such a coward.
I look out at the moon on the drive home and I think of her and I can almost understand. I have this humiliating sense that she has been outgrowing me for a long time now and even though I wish I’d never come, it would have happened some other way. I tell myself that everything happens for a reason, and the moon silently agrees, as always.