Perth chills me to my bones the moment I step off the plane. It’s made much colder by Bee’s absence. At his house I trace his words on the love letter left behind on the desk. I think of how he was right here in this very chair only days ago writing it. By now he is many towns away, making his way across Australia. I water his plants and I curl up in the empty bed. I can’t get warm. This is what I get for dating a landscape photographer.
Dread finds me and it lays itself over me like a thick blanket. I get Alba back tomorrow. I miss Alba but I don’t have a home for us yet. I can’t stay here while Bee is gone. I feel so unsettled and lost. I’m longing to talk to Bee but when he adventures he rarely has reception. I call Alba’s Papa. As I explain how hopeless I feel I begin to cry. He calms me and says I can stay at his house while he stays with a friend. By the time I hang up things are okay.
His place is small but it’s a home and it’s right by the heart of Fremantle. Alba is so happy to have me back, she’s running around showing me and telling me all kinds of things with this big contagious smile on her face. It hasn’t been so long but I notice new freckles forming across her nose and her golden curls taking on a life of their own, just like mine used to.
This will be the hardest bit, I think. I just have to get through these weeks and then the next time I have her I’ll have a home and we’ll have Bee and we’ll feel settled.
Sometimes raising a toddler is wonderful. While I’m showering Alba kisses me through the glass door, time stands still as her little lips press against mine on the other side. She says “I love you,” and tells me I’m beautiful often and out of nowhere. She is a cat meowing and crawling through the grocery store. She is a princess collecting flowers for a party. She is a dragon hiding in her cave beneath the sheets.
Often, after bedtime stories are finished and we’re cuddling in bed she’ll apologise. “I’m sorry for being grumpy at you today,” she’ll say, or, “I’m sorry for breaking the glass.” And I’ll hug her extra tightly and tell her I understand that she feels a lot, because I feel a lot too. It must be hard to be three.
But sometimes it is challenging. One day we go the markets. She is being so sweet and mamahood feels just the way I’d imagined. I tell Alba she can choose anything she likes for lunch and she chooses a salad. But when she takes the first bite she realises it’s spicy. She reacts by pushing it away and it falls from the table across the ground. She is screaming and crying in my arms and the market is packed. I’m trying to get her to drink some water but she pushes that away too and it spills across me.
I’m trying to calm her and everyone is staring at us. Alba is so loud and it’s just me and if only someone would help but no one ever does and I feel their eyes on me. I imagine they are judging my youth and my mothering and my daughter and I’m trying not to cry but suddenly I can’t help it. So there I am in the middle of a busy market in tears with my toddler screaming at my feet. This isn’t how I imagined it.
On the bus ride home she lays over my lap. “I love you to the moon and back,” I tell her, as I often do. She says, “You too Mama.” The tough moments always highlight the quiet loving moments that follow.
On the walk home from the bus stop we pass some barking dogs. Alba tells me they are talking to her and she stops to bark back. My arms are full of groceries and all I want to do is get home. I’m about to move her along but then decide against it. I let her bark to her heart’s content and when she comes back to hold my hand and tells me what the dogs were saying I realise with regret how often I stop her from being her.
That night Bee drives through the night to find a town big enough to have reception. He’s been exploring Tasmania all alone and he’s not enjoying it as much as he usually does. He’s never had anyone to miss before.
“How would you feel about me flying you and Alba to Tasmania? I could rent us a little place for a few days until you have to leave for America?” I laugh at the insanity of flying all the way there and back for just a few days, but mostly I laugh because he’s the one who is supposed to have it all together and I’m supposed to be the dramatic one.
My baseline every day is joy. I wake up to the sun shining and Alba sleeping beside me. I think of the love in my life. I’m not as afraid as I was and Bee is never entirely gone. I carry him close in the love that fills me, the love that is his and is him. Every night that comes, my last thought is not of wanting him but of being glad to have him.
We stay with my friend Emily who is another young single mama. During the day our toddlers play together and at night we stay up late talking about mamahood and eating too much chocolate. It feels so right to be here. It makes me long for a home even more.
“How about this,” Bee says, “My Mother lives by herself in this big house and she wants to rent out a room. She’s travelling most of the time. It’d just be a little home for you and Alba until we find a home for us?” I think about it.
“It’s weird isn’t it?” he asks. “Yes,” I say, “But I like weird and I really like your Mum. Will you visit?”
“All the time, until you’re sick of me.” And just like that I feel better, I have a plan.
Emily takes me to a friend’s sons’ birthday party. There are parents and children everywhere. I am suddenly struck by the realisation that I don’t have a community and that I don’t feel like a parent. It’s like I’m only pretending and someone will find out any moment that I don’t actually belong here. I’m in the shadows writing in my journal or on my phone, hiding out of shyness, out of the feeling of not belonging.
The nights leading up to leaving Alba are hard. Once she’s fast asleep I find myself tracing her skin and memorising her features. I’m so conscious of her. The sound of her voice, the smell of her hair, the weight of her body and her stories; all of her stories.
I’m grateful Alba isn’t sad when it’s time to swap over. But… though it is hard to admit, there is a small selfish part of me that is hurt by that too. I miss her before she’s even left my sight. My tiny, beautiful girl. How can I ever explain how hard it is to not be there every time she falls over, or to laugh at her jokes, or to braid her hair, or to cook her healthy meals with everything she needs. My greatest job of all is taking care of her and I can’t always be there to do it. But luckily her Papa is, and he does it with just as much love.
Before I leave for the airport I go to Bee’s house and cover his bedroom wall with post-it notes, each with something I love about him. I sit on his bed and I read them one after the other.
I’m leaving for the airport and I am just Nirrimi again. I’m going on tour with my favourite band for nearly three weeks across America. I sling my backpack across my back, it’s all I need, and I’m gone. Off to chase another dream.
It used to be enough to just take beautiful photographs but I feel a need to create more than that now. I find my mind wandering away from the thing that once possessed me.
In a single day I might edit photos, work on a short film script, research for one of my novels, write a song, create a recipe and think of ideas for workshops. I’ve got piles of notebooks heavy with ink. There are so many passions that distract me now, so much I am aching to do and it brings frustration. That familiar weight of all that I am not doing.
I tell Bee my images are lacking depth. I tell him I’d rather go on adventures with people I love and capture beauty that is authentic. He tells me to call my friend Nicole because we’re going on an adventure.
He drives us out of town to the Lancelin dunes. We’re standing on golden peaks under a bright blue sky and I feel as though I’m on another planet. Bee disappears with his camera and I chase Nicole around with mine. The sand is so soft it floats in the wind. The sun kisses the horizon and Bee kisses me and up there on that glowing peak everything is wonderful.
On the way home Bee tells us this insane tale about the time he was hitchhiking with his best friend. They are picked up by an addict and after realising something is wrong they find a way to escape. They think they are safe until hours later they’re walking by the highway and the man reappears and swerves off the road to hit them. He gets out of his car and chases them through a maze of suburbia, screaming out that he will kill them. Eventually they lose him and follow the shore until morning.
All the while he tells this story Nicole and I are on the edge of our seats. He’s acting out each scene as he drives. I can’t stop watching his face. I’m falling more in love with him every single second. I can feel the fear and adrenaline and the ache of his feet and the manic screaming of the man.
He has a penchant for remembering the little details, like the stale beer smell of the car and the luminescence that trailed behind them as they walked by the edge of the ocean. He’s a storyteller.
I don’t know what to say when he’s done. Nicole says, “that is the best story I have heard in my life,” so I just agree. When we drop her home I walk her inside and she stops and she looks at me and she says, “he’s truly special Nirrimi.”
Earlier in the year I injured my ankle and the trip to the dunes messed it up again. One night we go out for mushroom burgers in Leederville. I’m growing sentimental about the giant murals and the fairylight trees there. But on our walk back to the car my ankle is hurting so badly I can’t take another step. Bee carries me in his arms and all the while I’m laughing because surely I look drunk and he’s saying it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks but he’s laughing about it too.
I’ve done this all before. I’ve believed I’d found the person I’d love forever. I knew I’d never love another again. And yet I do, and yet this is different. No less special than before.
Before Bee, I never knew love could be so good. I thought love had two faces, one kind and one wicked. I accepted the pain with the joy like it was the only way. But now I know. Now he’s taken my hands with his hands, swallowed me up like I’m just a cloud and he’s the great blue sky – and he’s shown me a love that is only good. Not perfect, nothing on earth is perfect, but so deeply and so inherently good.
He is an artist without the chaos. Instead of setting fire to my emotional fuel, he holds my hands and he puts everything into perspective until I don’t feel like shouting or crying any longer. Sometimes I don’t like that. There is a part of me that enjoys feeling more. I wouldn’t live the way I do otherwise.
One day we’re walking along the street and I am already mourning the time we’ll have to spend apart. “I know it’s hard,” he says, “but it’ll make our love stronger and you’ll be on tour with your favourite band, how exciting is that?”
“Stop being so realistic, be dramatic and romantic for once!” I play-shout at him and the strangers around us stare.
But actually, his stability is exactly what I need. What we need.
I’m in Bee’s room and his Mother is here. My hand is around the doorknob but I can’t turn it. I put myself into intimidating situations often but I never feel this paralysed. I pull myself away and whisper, “What are you doing Nirrimi?! It’s not a big deal, just go out there.” And so I hold my breath and I do. She’s beautiful and quiet, her English accent much stronger than Bee’s.
Later she tells him, ”That’s just the kind of girl I can imagine you being with.” I imagine she relates to me. She was a young single Mama and Bee was a toddler when she met Bee’s ‘Dad’.
Alba is back and my friend Erin has invited us to stay in Fremantle with her. She has this beautiful caravan in her garden that we can call home. It’s full of plants, with an oil burner burning and a jar of muesli on the table when we arrive. So much love.
We get dinner in the basement of a Mexican place in town and I watch Bee across the table. His face is lit by the candle burning from a Corona bottle. He looks painfully handsome in this light. His smile kills me.
Alba wanders over to ask one of the waitresses for a plate and me and Bee catch each other’s eyes and grin. In that proud grin I can see that he already loves Alba. He carries her through Fremantle and she nestles her head into his shoulder. We win enough tickets at the arcade for Alba to pick out a prize. Everything feels so good and so right. He drives home and it is just Alba & I, snuggled up in the caravan bed.
The transitions are yet to get easier, they are hard every time. Co-parenting is challenging. I’m thrown from being a 22 year old girl to a Mama overnight. I relearn great patience and selflessness. Alba adjusts to my boundaries. There are moments when I cry, when I am not sure I can do this. Parenting a toddler and working is truly testing. But then, a few days in, it’s natural for both of us again and I wish she never had to go.
We kiss as the plane takes off into the air. Since the day we met we’ve been so in and out of each other’s lives but now Bee and I have two weeks together in Bali. It’s a dream and yet there is this dark cloud above me. I hate it, I hate that I’m surrounded by so much good and I am being moody. I hate being that girl.
This is a side affect of travel for me. I crave change but then when I arrive in a foreign country I get swallowed up in sadness instead. I can think of countless trips overseas where I’ve announced on the first day that I just want to go home. But like everything it passes.
I’m riding through town on the back of Bee’s bike, with my arms wrapped tight around his body. I close my eyes so that the lights of the passing scooters become a throb of flashes through my eyelids. I think, this boy here truly loves and cares about me and that feels like safety.
Most of our trip passes by in a blur of delicious food, little adventures and easy days. We stay in a villa with Kelsey. I ride to a nearby market and buy fresh soursop. I eat it with my eyes closed and grinning, hands sticky and sweet. We sink into a soundscape of geckos, birds, chanting, frogs and roosters. When we ride past the rice fields the landscape is so deeply beautiful it is unreal. Bee pours over maps and plans trips. All is content.
One day Bee falls sick and it shakes me out of the lull of contentedness. He’s trying to tell me he’s okay but his body is burning beneath my hands. When I leave him to get medicine I feel as though I’ve left a piece of myself behind. I tell him stories from my childhood.
“When I was about seven we lived at the bottom of a steep road and when it rained so heavily it flooded rivers would run down our street. There were five of us and we’d make rafts and play games in the water. One day we ran out into the rain and as I ran I noticed a big pocket of air formed in the gutter beneath the rushing water. I told none of my siblings, as though it might destroy the magic. These were the days I deeply believed in mermaids. I watched it for a minute before holding my breath and dunking my head into the pocket. Then, total stillness. I opened my eyes and I found I could breathe. I could hear the dull roar of water but I was not a part of that world any longer. I’d found real magic. I don’t remember how it ended but I won’t ever forget how it felt.”
For three days I’m with him even when I’m not. Then he is better and all day I’m rejoicing before being struck down by this heaviness, as though it was waiting for me. A doom that our relationship won’t last, because of money and different lives. Then I am thinking of Alba and I am crying because I am not with her. Because I’m not the Mama I imagined I would be. I am crippled with guilt. I am crying. I cry so much.
Bee says, “Look at how happy, how bright and how resilient Alba is. Nothing is perfect but she always has your love.” I say, “Love isn’t enough.” And he tells me, “Love is enough for her and love is enough for us.” And I roll over in defiance, in an illogical desire to keep on being miserable but really I know he is right. Everything will be okay.
We take a boat to a little island called Gili Air. We rent bicycles to make our way around. We ride side by side so that we can keep on talking constantly. Sometimes I laugh so much I almost crash. One day I do crash and my knees bleed and Bee washes them and tells me I’m brave like I’m five years old. Sometimes I may as well be.
We eat hot crepes in a shack overlooking the sea, playing round after round of bananagrams. I swear to god up there on the second story of that bamboo crepery – that, there, that is my heaven. The ocean and the sky lays clear and still beyond, waiting for us.
Just children. Eyes wide, bellies full, hearts content. Moments so pure they seem like they don’t belong to reality. Like they shouldn’t exist at all.
Then, my favourite day of all. We wear snorkels and dive into the crystal waters, into another world. The seabed is dense with coral and sea life. We hold hands as we explore, pointing out things we see to one another. We try to kiss but the snorkels get in the way and we burst out of the water laughing. I see a huge colourful fish (burning bright against the blue) like none I’ve ever seen and if I could scream in delight underwater I would!
Beneath the sea I look at Bee’s hand in mine and this foreign, wonderful world and I commit the image to memory. Together we break through a school of fish and they form a moving, living circle around us.
On the sand I trace the water droplets on his skin, connecting them together like a dot-to-dot. We watch little girls playing in the water and talk about how much we miss Alba. We ride our bikes to get dinner and while we’re watching the sun go down I tell Bee I want to cry and when he asks why I say “I never want this day to end”. Fireworks mark our last night on the island.
On our last night together we all go out for gelato and sit together with Kelsey by the sidewalk. We play silly games like choosing a future husband for Kelsey from the men that ride by. I keep switching between bitter sadness and joy. “It’s our last night together Nirrimi Joy,” Bee says gently, “let’s not make it sad.” “Don’t remind me,” I say dramatically.
I keep telling myself over and over that I won’t see Bee for six weeks. That these last minutes are disappearing. I think of how lost and lonely and longing I’ll be without him. I’m holding him, I’m kissing him but I’m not crying. Then the car comes to take him to the airport. I hear it driving over the gravel and I know what that sound means. That sound is the thing that breaks me.
Suddenly I’m on the ground sobbing and Kelsey comes but I push her away. My inner dialogue is misery. I cry for a minute or two before stopping as suddenly as I began. I don’t have to be like this, I think. This isn’t me, I’m not the lost, dependent girl I was before. I’ve grown.
I get my journal and I write myself a letter. A reminder of all the things I love about being alone, a reminder of all the things I have to be grateful for and all of the good things to come. I read it back and I’m okay, I’m smiling.
I can still feel his last hug like he pressed himself into my bones, I can smell him in the bedsheets and his tee shirt lays on the bathroom floor left behind like shed skin. I miss him. I miss Alba. But I have Kelsey. When we’re in bed together at night she says, “How beautiful it is to have someone to miss so much.”