I didn’t grow up in a big city. When I first moved to this city as a sixteen year old I sat still in the middle of the sidewalk staring up at the towering buildings and the bright lights in complete and utter awe. It was the kind of world that only existed in movies. Lately the big city hasn’t stirred anything inside me, but tonight is different. Tonight I am that thin-skinned, wide-eyed girl all over again.
“This is our street now,” I say as we walk down the road to the place we’re housesitting. I take in the graffiti, the lemon tree reaching a limb over the wooden fence, the cat as black as night, the house wrapped in vines and the cobblestone street, because it is my world for a while. “Have you been to the house before?” Laura asks me. “Never,” I say. “Interesting,” she says knowingly, having already been earlier. I try to ask her what it’s like and she won’t tell me a thing, she only says, “just you wait.”
We get to a big converted warehouse hidden behind some corrugated iron fencing. It doesn’t look like much but then we walk inside and the house swallows me up in magnificence and I fall to my knees. I run from room to room. I am a child on Christmas day who has discovered a hundred presents beneath the tree. Laura and I are yelling to one another across the house. Things like “Are we dreaming?” and “We are the luckiest!” until very suddenly we’re speechless, everything is still and we just stare around us, soaking it all in.
We wonder if we should go out and find a bar somewhere seeing as though it’s New Years, but we’re too content to leave and it’s already so late. We’re still talking in bed as the sun rises. None of this feels real.
It’s the first day of the year and I’m already leaving again. Zelda is in Sydney and I’ve booked flights to see her. I haven’t seen her since Robin Williams died and all I’d longed to do since was to hug her. I’m meeting her in the city and the moment I see her across the street I am so excited I almost run into oncoming traffic. She kisses my head and holds me in her arms like no time has passed.
I’m meeting a photographer named Noël Alvarenga, a Californian boy from El Salvador. We sit together under the shade of the trees overlooking Bondi Beach. He is shaking with nervousness. I laugh a little (no one would be nervous to meet me if they knew how silly I was) and put my hand on his shoulder to calm him. He is a fellow romantic and he gives a brief, tumultuous history of his heart.He hands me three gifts. A film canister filled with white sand from New Mexico, a quartz crystal and a photograph he has taken of his home place. He asks if he can take me to some secret cliffs tomorrow and I am taken by his sweetness, curious about this boy who loves so recklessly.
The next afternoon we’re clambering down rocks. There is only cliff and sea and sky, nothing else in the world exists. His skin is perfect; endless plains of soft olive skin. A necklace hangs low against his chest. We share red wine and it lights a fire in my chest. The purity and peace before me is overwhelming. It holds me.
Noël kisses me. His palm is pressed firmly against my heart. The waves crash and crash against the rocks below. The rock behind me is cool but he is deliciously warm. He tastes like strawberry gum and smells like sunscreen. I feel more than I thought I could feel and in the moment it surprises me.
I go to the sea with Zelda. I run into the water and swim out far enough that I can talk to the ocean without being overheard. I tell the ocean how wild this feels and how addicted I am to this. To human connection, to love. There is an undercurrent to this joy, a feeling that it will only be a short story but an excitement to let it unfold anyway.
On the bus ride home I am listening to music and I notice a boy also listening to music on the seat across from me. I slide in beside him and point to his headphones, asking to listen. We swap headphones and play each other music the whole bus ride. His music is in French. We lean against each other, looking for all the world like a couple. I get off at my stop having never exchanged a single word.
At the train station I’m feeling lucky so I buy a scratchy. I win $15. I tell Noël he is my lucky charm. We listen to the same song on the train and every word feels like us. A tear rolls down his cheek. Here’s someone even more sensitive and dramatic than I am, I think. This boy makes life feel cinematic.
It’s late at night and we’re walking through the streets of Bondi. I’m telling Noël he doesn’t always have to carry everything of mine, that I am perfectly capable. Noël grabs me by the shoulders and tells me, “I will keep carrying your bags, because I love you Nirrimi.”
A little battle rages in my head. On one hand, I feel that love, like success, is personal. It should be defined by whoever feels it, used in whatever way feels right. Love is also an act, and it was true that he’d spent our short time together loving me. But on the other hand I felt like saying, how could you say you love me after two days? You only know such a tiny part of me and maybe you do love that tiny part but how do you know you will love the rest? The great unknown, the ocean, the universe of me; full of light but also darkness and scars and ugliness you can’t even imagine yet…
At the airport we run to my gate hand-in-hand past everyone. He slips me a love letter to read on the plane and tells me he’ll fly to Melbourne and visit me soon. He kisses me goodbye.
When I am back home Laura spreads the dining table with breakfast she’s made me and fresh flowers she’s picked. There’s baked banana walnut bread, cashew ice cream, coconut yogurt, fruit and berries. I feel so goddamn lucky. I am only days into 2015 and it already feels like the best year of my life.
These weeks are devoted to beginning work on my plant-based recipe journal. It’s just a humble and basic little guide to healthy eating but it’s something I’m passionate about. I’m just an ordinary person and that’s the point. I’ve dreamt of it since I discovered how simple (but also life-changing) it can be to cook and eat this way.
I walk into town with a suitcase when I go shopping because I know that I will buy so much I won’t be able to carry it all home. The co-ops, markets and organic stores delight me like nothing else. I wander around loading my basket with local produce and brown paper bags of grains, nuts and seeds. I have long lists and big plans. I spend whole days just cooking.
The fridge is bursting with all I’ve been making so we host dinner parties. Those nights I feel like I’m playing grown up. Friends gather around the big table outside, we drink wine, we play games and we share the food I’ve made. I feel like I’m hiding a secret; that I’m not really this sophisticated or able, that I don’t really know how I’ve pulled off anything.
Then everyone leaves and it’s just me and Laura in our big warm bed sharing stories. I wonder if she knows how well she tells stories, how much I cherish the moments when I’m listening to her voice in the dark. The tales she has from working on the sets of big Hollywood films are thrilling, but the tales of her dysfunctional family are my favourite of all (like the time her father brought her Hungarian schoolteacher back to Australia to be her new mother).
Sometimes in life you meet people who truly move you. Laura, with her fearlessness to face all of life’s crazy adventures no matter the risk, is one of those people. She is strong and fierce and hilarious, yet in the middle of the night she finds my hand and tells me she loves me with all the softness in the world.
Back in Sydney Noël falls from the cliffs where we’d kissed, from one cliff onto the edge of another. He hurt his ankle but he is okay. I am so thankful he’s still here. He flies into Melbourne and I meet him in the city. He is in crutches but he throws them down to embrace me. His skin always feels a few degrees warmer than anyone else’s. I feel safe in that warmth.
Noël has an innocence I’ve rarely seen in grown ups. He’s had his heart trampled and yet he loves like he is loving for the very first time. One day we go to Luna Park. I sit in-between his legs on a ride that spins us in wide circles, his arms hold me safe while gravity pushes me back against his warm chest and I feel everything. Noël falls asleep on my shoulder on the tram ride home and I feel a great tenderness towards him, like I want to protect him from everything.
I very quickly realise that while I do have love for Noël, I won’t ever be in love with him. We sit in the garden one day and I tell him so and instead of being upset he takes me into his arms and tells me he understands and will always love me regardless. When I hug him goodbye I am really sorry.
I scrub my body with coconut oil and sugar until it is soft. I braid my hair on my head like a crown. I wear red on my lips. I feel like I am beautiful and powerful, hand-in-hand with Laura. Like the whole wide world is ours.
We order jugs of sangria at our favourite restaurant and invent our own inappropriate rules for bananagrams, shielding our tiles from passers-by so they can’t read the rude things we’ve spelled. We eat too much chocolate and frozen yogurt. “We’ll wish these times back when we’re old,” I say.
Some nights we tell people our names are Luna and Heidi and we are in a band that has just come back from touring Europe. Boys buy us gelato and drinks to try to woo us and we collect numbers we’ll never call. We walk home laughing, swapping ‘would you rather’s’. Days disappear faster and faster. I begin to worry I am taking this time for granted.
Towards the end of my Melbourne adventure, the boy I have fallen for many months ago is passing through town. Our story stopped mid-sentence and I’m consumed by the need for some kind of resolution. I long to love him, but even everything going up in flames would be better than not knowing how to feel.
I am afraid he won’t call but then he does. He invites me to a show tonight. I scream and dance around the house like I’ve won a million dollars. While I get ready my body is hollow and swarming with butterflies. By the time I am on my way to the show they are nearly bursting from my skin. I’m not just happy, I am euphoric. This is it.
But it isn’t it. By the end of the night (and oh, it was the most wonderful kind of night) he tells me he doesn’t know what he wants. I say, “love shouldn’t be a question”. His uncertainty is my answer.
It’s late at night and I break apart at the tram stop as the strangers around me avert their eyes. It doesn’t matter how strong and brave I know I am, in this moment I am weak. In this moment I am the girl sobbing into her hands in public. I think about how having a broken heart isn’t just a poetic metaphor, I can actually feel it. Under the tidal waves of pain I realise how deeply I’ve loved him. I feel so desperate, like I could run back inside the theatre and find him and… what? I board the tram, avoiding every stare.
I crawl into bed with Laura and she sleepily asks me how it was. I don’t know how to respond. I am beginning to feel relieved. I’d needed resolution. I think this is it. (I am wrong.)
Those Melbourne days were a dream and coming back to Sydney is like waking up again. I have my strawberry-haired girl back in my arms, completing me. We stay with Laura. Her housemates dress and speak like they’re from the 1930’s and they fall in love with Alba. Jules is a burlesque dancer, and wherever it is that Nic works, he always comes home in dirty overalls and a big grin. There are easy days and hard days.
Some days hold beauty that make all of the challenges of single parenting melt away. Like the day of Alba’s third birthday. Me and my friends spend the morning driving around the neighbourhood collecting flowers and by the afternoon they hang from trees and cover the yard. Rugs are strewn across the grass, bubbles float in the wind and there is so much good food. Alba glows like I’ve never seen. Her Papa hugs me and says, “we did good, Mama.”
Just like that, my daughter is three. Her hair is long now, curling into blonde ringlets at her shoulders. She is a storyteller, an artist, a dancer, an explorer, a nurturer, a fighter, a natural born leader. She is full of fire and yet so tender-hearted. There is something extraordinary about Alba Joy Firebrace that I cannot put my finger on.
She falls asleep beside me. After all of the faces and the chaos of the day, it is just Alba & I. I feel so many things. Mostly I feel a love that is bigger than me. I feel a love that is bigger than everything.