I have one week left in Sydney before Alba & I fly back to the west coast. My friend Stephanie is visiting from America and we catch a bus with Noel to Avalon, a suburb by the beach where I spent the first years of my life. We have a picnic overlooking the sea. Noel plays salsa music and Alba dances with him, eyes closed and lost to the music.
Stephanie asks me to be in a photograph at the edge of the ocean pool. A wave comes and soaks me fully dressed and so I strip down to my underwear and dive in. It feels so good. I’m a mermaid in the water.
As I walk through the little town hand-in-hand with Alba I imagine my Mother doing the same with me. Same long brown hair, wild blue eyes and the same small mouth with the same small smile. Both of us young single mothers and artists. How strange that that little girl now walks the same streets with her little girl.
I go to the exhibition of a fashion photographer I idolised as a teenager. I’m in a room filled with people in suits and cocktail dresses but I’m wearing a jacket that’s much too big and day old braids with my toddler on my hip. I’m sure people expect me to be more put together than this but I kind of enjoy not meeting expectations.
Derek recognises me and it surprises me that he knows who I am. It reminds me that I was in this world not so long ago. I was signed to a big agency, I was going to fashion parties, shooting for magazines and international brands, doing endless interviews and meeting advertising agencies in NYC. Everyone had all these expectations of me to keep walking that path. I kept on following my heart and it led me away.
By society’s definition of success I am less successful now. But by my own definition of success I am more successful than I could have ever dreamed.
Bee is still driving north. My days might be busy but my mind is consumed by him. I write him letters so that he can read them each time he comes by some reception, which is every few days. One day I am at the grocery store and First Aid Kit begin to play over the speakers. “That’s Mama’s friends singing,” I tell Alba, who is in a carrier on my back. Then, like some kind of film, a second later my phone begins to ring and I see Bee’s name with that little bee emoji beside it and time stands still.
The whole world falls away. I wander around putting odd things in my basket, savouring his tales of sleeping under the stars and exploring caves. His voice is music. I walk home grinning. It feels like I’ve been grinning since the moment he walked into my life.
I watch every sunset from the beach with Stephanie and Alba. Each time I count how many are left until I see Bee. Then I am at one. I spend my last night delirious with excitement. Dylan offers to take us to the airport so I take him out for waffles. They are the best waffles I’ve ever tasted. I tell Dylan I am so happy I want to cry. “Love is the best,” he says. I skip through the streets. How long has it been since I was this happy?
We fly through the night. Then we’re landing in Perth and I am full of butterflies. I am standing beside my luggage holding my breath. Alba is standing quietly beside me, her hair in braids and her tiny hand nestled in mine.
We see him before he sees us and I’m immediately struck by the realisation that he is real. Not a disembodied voice in the middle of the night. Not a series of texts. He’s flushed cheeks and warm skin and messy hair and he’s here. He’s embracing us and we’re all smiling.
I spend the afternoon with Alba and her Papa. We go to a park to play. Alba is so happy to be with him again she’s dancing and singing just like I do when I’m happy. I kiss her goodbye. The moment she’s out of sight that familiar pang of missing hits me, but from here-on in we won’t be apart for so long.
I get dinner with my friend Nicole who has moved to this city too. I have a friend here. I’m so goddamn happy it’s spilling over. She’s telling me crazy stories about working as a model in Shanghai and Tokyo. I eat too little and drink too much. I should know better but there’s something about falling in love that has made me reckless.
When Bee picks me up I’m drunk and happy. I am giggling on his bed one minute and the next I am laying sick on his shower floor. It’s been a long time since I’ve had alcohol. He rubs my back for hours in the middle of the night. There’s a secret joy to being looked after, even when I feel like hell.
In the morning I wake up and I am embarrassed. I have this vivid memory of him wrapping a towel around me and handing me water, my hair dripping wet. It’s not exactly the context I imagined him seeing me naked for the first time. “Don’t apologise,” he says genuinely. “I’m sorry you were sick but I do like looking after you.” That silly, drunken night quickly becomes a joke between us.
Things become familiar to me. The softness in his face before he kisses me, how he smells when he gets out the shower, the sound he makes when I bite his lip, his face when he’s making music, his favourite tea (it changes each week).
Every single night we talk until morning. We both have twenty-three years of existence before we came into each other’s lives. We’re studying one another’s histories like it’s the history of the world. Before we know it the sky is light and we’re whispering, “okay, now we have to sleep”.
It’s morning, I’m not sure when. When I am with Bee I never really know what the time is, the rest of the world just disappears and all there is is us. We’re tangled up in his bed. Those little blue galaxies are shining brighter than ever in his eyes.
“Do you think it’s too early to mention love?” he asks. “I don’t think there are any rules.” I say. And so he leans forward to kiss me and says, “I love you Nirrimi Joy.”
His words are like the sweetest honey on earth. I love him, dear god, I can already feel it in every cell of my being but I don’t say it yet. Instead I ask to be his and he says yes. There’s a part of me that is completely bewildered at what I’ve asked but there’s a bigger part of me that is delighted.
Bee tells me he’s struggled with those three words until me and I tell him that I’ve struggled to imagine myself in another relationship. Eventually we remember I have a flight to catch and we had plans today.
We walk to a little coffee shop down the street where we eat croissants and play bananagrams. We’re so content in this moment. It has been close to seven years since I’ve started a relationship with someone. I thought for certain when I’d finally be with someone again it would be very calculated and well-timed. But this had just happened, like there was no way it couldn’t happen, like all the heartache and lessons were leading up to this.
I am going to Bali soon and I tell Bee I’d love for him to come. His friend tells him about a medical trial he could sign up to so he can save in time to join me. I don’t like it. I know the trial is harmless but I don’t like the idea of him being in the hospital. I know I’m being judgemental. He just laughs about it all, of course, unusual experiences are his thing.
Kelsey arrives from China an hour before my flight to Adelaide. We sit outside of the airport coffee shop and I am euphoric. Here is my best friend and here is my boyfriend. My two favourite grown ups and me, together. I’m so caught up I am late for my flight. They call my name over the loudspeaker. I am running through the airport. It’s not the first time. It wouldn’t be the end of the world to miss this flight.
Emma collects me from the airport with a bouquet and a raw cake. Above my workspace in her studio is a poster that reads “Welcome back, N.” There I am, wrapped back up in the love that is Emma. The last time I was here was just after the car crash. I’ve put myself back together since then.
One afternoon I send Bee a photo from the location I’m shooting. There’s a lake before me, lined with pastel trees. Pinks and oranges and yellows. A painting of Autumn. He sends me a photo of a hospital bed in return.
His days in there are largely empty. He reads a lot. We talk a lot. We start bucket lists of things we want to do together. He writes things like, “Go to the airport and get on the next flight” and “Find Alba, yourself & I matching pyjamas” and “Make a short B-grade horror film for Halloween.”
My five days in Adelaide pass before my eyes. I came for a few photography jobs but there was so much more I needed to do. Talking to Bee has consumed my days. Emma lives vicariously through my love and I am glad, because anyone but her would have been driven mad. I decide not to beat myself up too much about the work. I’m not always falling in love with someone for the first time.
When I get home to Bee’s house he is still in the hospital. I push open the door to his room and I’m surrounded by balloons. Hundreds of them. On the bed is a care package for me filled with my favourite foods, a new journal and gifts for Alba. On his desk is a love letter.
I take it all in along with the sweet familiar smell of his room and I curl up into a ball on his bed and I cry. I cry because I miss him and I’m in his bed and he’s not here but mostly I cry because it feels so good to be loved like this.
Bee’s housemates both play piano and the house is always flooded with music. Every time I go to the store I buy them a carob bear and put it in their rooms. Sometimes we all play Grand Theft Auto together, only I play as a pacifist and they tease me.
Me, Alba & Kelsey are all staying at Bee’s house. I try to understand him through the things he keeps. The piles of books, the Japanese bomber jackets, the photographs on the wall. Kelsey tells me I sleep talk about him.
We visit Bee in the hospital. It’s always odd seeing him in there. He doesn’t smell like himself and hospitals unsettle me. But I settle into him and close my eyes. When we’re leaving Alba asks, “When are you coming home Bee?” in this unbelievably sweet way and everyone falls silent. “A few more sleeps, Alba Joy,” he tells her, beckoning for a hug goodbye. I think about the way she misses nothing. As bright as anything, she understands so much more than I’ll ever know.
Bee is coming out of the hospital. When he comes through the front door I leap into his arms and he spills the coffee he is holding. I’m apologising and he’s laughing and I’m laughing and he’s home.
I brush the knots out of his hair while he reads to me. Hours pass by like minutes. We go to a friend’s garage sale, we have lunch with Kelsey at the Mary St Bakery, we go to the grocery store to buy things for dinner. These simple things feel so incredible, so momentous, so marvellous beside him.
I am so nervous to cook for him that everything goes wrong. I almost throw it all away but I don’t and he says it’s perfect but I don’t believe him.
He traces the stretch-marks from my pregnancy and tells me they’re beautiful. He lays his palm over my belly in awe saying, “you grew Alba here.” I walk my fingers across the blank canvas of his stomach. I am an explorer, mapping every inch of him. He never calls me Nirrimi, it’s always Nirrimi Joy. No one has ever called me that. He says it in a way that seems to contain all his affection for me.
At times I am afraid of how quickly and intensely I am falling in love. Once Stephanie asked me if I was scared of falling in love again after the pain of my last relationship. With confidence I’d answered I wasn’t, that I embraced it all without doubts or fears. But I was wrong, because this is love and I am afraid.
The lows come out of nowhere and from nothing. They hit me in the middle of breakfast or while I’m walking to the store. It’s like a shadow falls across me. I can’t put my finger on the feeling but it grows and it grows until all the light is gone. I don’t understand how such an ugly feeling can be born out of all this love. Everything is perfect. What am I afraid of?
I keep going outside to stand with my bare feet on the cold wet grass and look up at the moon. I feel as though I’m rolling through my life like it’s a big hill and when I look at the moon up there in the sky, so bright and solid and steady, it stops me from rolling for a minute. It holds me still.
I’m afraid of how deeply I am loving after being torn apart by heartbreak. I’m afraid of losing the independence I’ve gone through so much to gain. I’m afraid I’m not good enough. I’m afraid that it will all go up in flames and it will be me lighting the fire. It feels like the moment I am standing on the edge of the cliff and I want to jump so that I don’t fall.
I am wracked with these doubts and yet Bee is calm. He looks at me, flooding over with love and at times I am flooding too but sometimes I’m not here. I am afraid to tell him I’m afraid because I don’t want him to take it personally but then I do, every time, for the sake of communication and somehow he understands. Somehow he takes away all of the dark and carries me back to a place of love.
His stability and goodness is something I’ve never known. Not from my father, my step-fathers, my uncles or my ex-boyfriends. I am so cautious this time, so determined to not make the same mistakes.
We decide that every night we’ll share three things we are grateful for in each other that day. Most nights we say five or six. “How you validate my emotions without trying to fix them,” I say. “How you embrace when things go wrong. Like when I locked us out of the house today and you thought it was an adventure.” He says.
On the fifth night I realise the lows are over. I am so happy I wake Bee up to tell him and he hugs me and tells me he’s glad. I’m surrendering to love.
We pick Alba up from the markets and I swear she grows bigger each week. We take her home and find joy in running her bath, cooking her dinner and hearing her stories. We draw faces on balloons and tie them to strings. Bee reads to us until we’re asleep.
With Alba he is so patient and gentle. Together they fight dragons, play princesses, press flowers and draw pictures of each other. They play for hours and when I tell Bee she can play on her own sometimes he laughs like I’ve said something ridiculous and says “When else will I get to play like this?” He’s just a big kid.
I feel like I am a part of a little family again. We’re walking through the grocery store and Alba is in Bee’s arms freezing imaginary tigers with her ice powers. My heart is full.
It is very late at night and I’m still up writing. Bee is fast asleep in the bed beside me and I want to join him. His blonde hair is tied back in a bun and he smiles when I kiss his forehead.
I watch him and I wonder about this boy. This boy who spent six months exploring New Zealand on his own by bicycle. This boy who dreams about the cabins he wants to build. This boy who sent out hundreds of free prints and letters to those who supported him. This boy who has spent a lifetime creating, even in still moments creating beats with his fingertips. This boy without a trace of self consciousness. This boy who loves and lives like he has nothing to lose.
I watch him and I think of how strange it all is. About the way sometimes life breaks into pieces so that it can be put together even better. I write the words you’re reading here and I climb into bed beside him and fall asleep smiling.