Alone in a Crowd


I’m on my own at a festival that I’ve been so excited for and yet now I’ve arrived I don’t feel I belong. Everyone seems to know everyone, or at least someone, and then there’s just me. I sit cross legged on the wet grass reading and a few people accidentally step on me, like I’m invisible. The new kid at a school camp.

I know I shouldn’t feel this way. That I should be open and brave. I should comment on that boy’s rainbow teeshirt and ask that girl if she needs help with her tent. I can be good at that. But instead I’m shutting down, curling into my shell like a snail.

I walk through the festival. It is so much smaller and more grassroots than the festivals I toured in the states. Strangers smile at me, revelling in the excitement of everything to come and I harbour a guilty wish to be elsewhere. I sit by the lake and make myself match each negative thought with a positive one. It helps.

I drink rosé from a camping mug covered in pictures of dandelions. It is cold out and it warms my bones and begins to pull me from my shell. I follow the sound of the music. I see a good friend in the crowd, Zal, a glimmer of light. He introduces me to a new friend, a tall freckly boy named Al. Weeks later we will sit on his living room floor crying for the brothers we both recently lost to suicide. For now I just know from the kindness of his eyes that he is a good human.

Then Bee’s best friend Honzik comes out from nowhere, lifts me off my feet and swings me in circles. The dark feelings seem ridiculous now. It grows colder as night washes over. There are bonfires dotted across the festival and hands stretched out over the flames. It rains and I huddle under a shelter with Zal and Al, hugging them both to keep warm. A little tipsy, very happy.

I walk alone to the bathrooms and a girl asks me for a hug so I open my arms. She nuzzles her head into my shoulder and I kiss the top of her head like she’s a close friend. There is an air of easy intimacy here, like we are all already friends.

We weave through crowds with her boyfriend, her fingers threaded through mine. We stop at bonfires to connect to more strangers, all of us linked by the simple fact that we’re alive. We find Honzik and when he hears her apologising to me for being so affectionate he laughs and tells her she couldn’t have found a more loving person here. That makes me happy.

It gets late. We lose each other. Rain falls harder. I feel my chest growing tight and I try to push away my anxiety but it pushes back harder. As I walk to my tent I pass Zal alone by a fire. He knows my anxiety, has answered so many of my anxious phone calls late at night. He listens as I tell him how terrified I am of it getting worse. How out of control I feel. He doesn’t offer advice, he just listens and loves and it makes it a little easier to breathe.

I bury myself in my sleeping bag but even with my warmest clothes on it is too cold. My shivers start out small, little things I can consciously stop by imagining I am warm, but they get stronger until I am shaking. I curl up tightly and long to call Bee but there is no reception out here. For hours the festival is loud and beckoning and I am alone and shivering.

Eventually Honzik whispers my name outside the tent. “Please come in here and keep me warm”, I beg. He emanates warmth like he’s made of fire and I defrost beside him. We talk until he falls asleep in the middle of a sentence and a moment later I am fast asleep too.

The next day begins just fine. One of Bee’s friends cooks me porridge and I eat it from my mug. I walk into the festival and sit beside Zal as a panel of women tell stories of times they were taken advantage of by men. The parallels open old scars. Things I like to forget.

I sit in a circle of strangers and I am telling my own story. The way I hoped the hits would leave bruises so he would be sorry and love me. The way I thought I deserved it. The way I protected not only him, but the story I told myself that everything was fine.

I thought that it was okay to share this but it doesn’t feel okay. It’s not like writing. It’s stark and ineloquent and uncomfortable. Eyes burn into me, my nails cut into my palms and people I don’t know ask me impossible questions. The circle moves on and there is a deafening ringing in my ears. I can’t stay and so I leave abruptly and run through the mud all the way back to my tent.

I curl up in my sleeping bag and I cry. I feel raw. I feel ashamed for the story I told. Did it seem like I was trying to be impressive? To shock? To elicit sympathy? Was I? Honesty and vulnerability is supposed to be my thing. I did it because I thought it was me. Then why does it feel so painful?

The festival rolls on happily outside, oblivious to my tears. My period decides it is a good time to come and my belly is tight with cramps. I am desperate to contact Bee, my mum, my friends but I can’t. I do the only thing I can do, I take my journal and write Bee a letter. My right hand is injured and wrapped tightly in a bandage but I write through the pain of that too, it’s my only outlet.

I resolve that I won’t leave this tent; not today, not tonight. Like a stubborn child. Resolute to my sadness. Feeding the hurt with more and more hopeless thoughts. Longing to be home and safe in my bed with a hot water bottle on my belly and my family beside me. Desperate to not be the girl crying alone in her tent at a festival, ashamed that I am.

Honzik climbs into the tent and sits in front of me with that kind, perpetual grin on his face. I don’t pretend to be okay. I tell him about the circle, about feeling alone, about my worsening anxiety. I don’t remember what he says but I remember how it feels when he hugs me. Like he loves me.

He asks if I want to draw a mandala with him. So we draw and we draw, beautiful patterns spiralling out of control, until the anxiety passes. “Should we go see who’s playing?” He asks me gently, and I know that even if I say no, he will still stay. Still choose to keep me company in this cramped tent instead of joining his friends at the festival.

I lace up my doc martins and he wraps his warmest jacket around me. It’s about five sizes too big but it keeps away the rain and the cold. We eat vegan nachos and listen to bands play. The night stretches on like some great adventure.

The rain comes and goes. We dance. We watch an outdoor film about the invasion and I feel ashamed for my white ancestors and furious for my indigenous ancestors. A girl paints my cheeks with glitter. We find friends and warm ourselves by the fire. I feel like I’m floating in a warm sea, totally at peace.

It’s easy to forget that I am a mother and imagine I’m just like the others here in their early twenties. I enjoy telling people about Alba, I pull out my phone and show them the photo of her I’ve set as my background. It’s the one where she’s bursting into laughter while she’s pretending to meditate.

It’s late when we climb into our tent. Honzik is still grinning in the torch light. I feel grateful that Bee chooses friends with such good hearts. Maybe I would have gone home if it hadn’t been for Honzik. We say we’ll stay awake cuddling and talking but we don’t, sleep pulls us so quickly. When the sun warms the tent and wakes us, the music is still going and people are still dancing.

The drive home is glorious. We pass fields of wildflowers, herds of sheep and small towns. I curate a playlist where every song feels longer and fuller than usual. I wind the window down and feel the gentle heat of the sun on my arm. I keep thinking of all the people who cared that I was hurting and how wrong I was that I was all alone. I keep thinking of Alba and Bee waiting for me back home.

Alba wraps her arms around my waist at the front door and professes her love in the incredibly sweet way she does. Like she’s a little doll that’s been programmed to say the sweetest sentences possible. “I missed you so much mama, I hope you had a good time, I was so good, you look so beautiful, I love you mama!”

Bee is in the kitchen and Honzik and I burst in with our stories, interrupting each other to fill in the blanks. I explain that I had struggled at times and Bee says, lovingly, “I was waiting to hear what went wrong, you couldn’t go away for a few days and come home telling me you just had a nice, uncomplicated time.” Now I’m home it’s easy to laugh about.

The stories continue when it’s just us. The tiny, insignificant details only interesting to the person who loves me most. The exact lines of banter from Boat Show, the state of the toilets, what every food truck was serving, the number of hours I slept. He soaks it all in. Eager for new stories after years of hearing them all.

I like that Bee doesn’t fret over me. I like that he doesn’t wish he’d known I was hurting so he could drive hours to get me and that he doesn’t promise to never let me go anywhere alone again. There is a sense that while he knows that things go wrong for me often, I am always okay in the end. He’s not fighting the dragon and rescuing me from the tower, he’s handing me the sword and telling me, “I’m here for you, but you’ve got this.”

This used to bother me more. I like being rescued. I like the sympathy and the cosiness of being wrapped in cotton wool. Others I’ve dated wanted to be needed, and I thought it was normal, even romantic, to need my partner. But Bee doesn’t want to be needed and it’s showing me, slowly, what it’s like to be okay on my own.

Here & There

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.

Coast to Coast

I sit on the grass, knees pulled up against my chest. Behind me is the little shack I’ve been calling home. Before me is my dear friend’s house. I can see our children playing together through the open doors. I feel a lot of emotions, I don’t have words for all of them.

We walk down to the beach one final time. It’s almost unbearable because I know it’s a goodbye and I’d rather do nothing than have some beautiful last adventure together.

The kids jump from rock to rock. Alba calls them her siblings and right now they are. The children follow Bee like puppies. He makes sandcastles with them, gives them rides on his shoulders and teaches them how to build cairns out of rocks. Whenever Georgia talks to me I want to run away, the weight in these last conversations is too heavy, even when the words are light.

The sun sets pinks and blues and purples as we walk home. A truck comes to pick up the rest of our things. The shack is empty and the car is packed for a great adventure.

It’s difficult to leave, but this is the next step forward. I feel it in that quiet place inside that shows me the way. Perhaps we needed to move all the way across the country just to recognise it wasn’t home, at least not now. Maybe if we hadn’t, I’d have spent years longing and wondering.

In Brisbane we stay with a friend in a house full of rescue cats. I’m working this trip. I shoot portraits of strangers in forests, on beaches, in botanical gardens. It’s a humbling job to capture other’s love because love is all that really matters.

On the road my anxiety loosens its grip. Life becomes about simple things. Boiling water for tea. Choosing albums to play on the long drives. Finding bathrooms and petrol stations. Stumbling on places to pitch our tent and grocery stores that sell rice milk. Watching the landscape slowly change.

In Sydney we stay with Laura, my red-haired fiercely passionate filmmaking friend whose heart was recently shattered. She tells me she’s seeing Lorde play and I want to go badly, we’ve been listening to her album so often this trip. But there’s no way to buy tickets. I know Lorde follows my instagram so I message her there.

She gets us tickets for the show and tells me she’s been reading my blog since Alba was born. What a bewildering feeling. Such a simple act, writing and sharing my life here, that has opened all these doors with all kinds of wonderful people waiting behind them.

We wait on the Opera house steps, Alba singing Lorde songs under her breath. This a big moment for her. She’s never been to a concert before. The sun is setting in this glorious way and it’s enough to catch my breath. It is hard to believe the world around us is real, that we haven’t just stepped into a novel. I like those moments in life.

We catch a speedboat with people from the record label over to Cockatoo Island. The world outside is dark now, the lights burn like fire from the city we leave behind. I talk to Alba about dreams.

This island was once a prison. We walk through the old tunnels with hundreds of strangers, Alba swinging between us, the only child around. In the audience she sits on Bee’s shoulders so she can see. Her eyes are wide and she looks so serious that I ask her if she’s having fun. She looks down at me and she grins.

I dance with Laura to these songs that encapsulate heartbreak and we feel it because we’ve felt it. When Lorde leaves the stage, I realise she never sung Alba’s favourite song and I hold Alba’s hand and I tell her I’m sorry she didn’t hear it this time. The crowd is loud. Screaming and whistling for an encore. And on she comes, beautiful Ella in a sparkling dress all alone, to sing Alba’s favourite.

I hold Alba high in my arms this time and as we both sing along I cry a little at her joy, which is always mine too.

I take Alba to the Blue Mountains, the place where I brought her into the world. We visit the rock at the end of our old street that overlooks the mountains, painted blue by the oil in the air from the eucalyptus trees. It’s still so peaceful.

We visit our old home for the first time since we left. I stand on those steps for a long time lost in memories. I didn’t really think about coming here, didn’t think about the old bruises this place would press. When Alba tries to talk to me I can’t find words to respond so Bee distracts her with a game.

I remember walking up these stairs so many times; the day I discovered I was pregnant and later with a heavy belly and then with a tiny newborn. I hurt for that girl. I hurt for that time. If you’d asked me then if I was happy I’d have told you yes. I thought that time was so pure and perfect. I imagined I’d spend a lifetime longing for it. But I don’t. All I was blind to then has become painfully clear since. Standing here now I see everything I didn’t see.

I feel a thousand miles away from that girl now. As though she is a friend I used to know. I feel sad but I also feel proud. I alone walked those thousand miles and it wasn’t always easy.

It feels strange to peel myself away from that place, that other world I once knew. Alba is happy to have seen the place she was born, and I am happy for her so I leave those strange feelings behind in the mountains.

Alba is content while we travel. We all are. Our little family was made for adventures. The absence of my anxiety becomes so ordinary I forget I ever have it. We stay in all kinds of places. On cliffs that violently fall away to the ocean. In fields where sheep and kangaroo graze. By the sides of busy highways.

It’s the middle of winter and the world is numbingly cold. Bee often fights icy wind and rain to pitch our tent, telling us to stay warm in the car. It’s one of my favourite traits of his, the way he always puts us first.

When the tent is up and the bed made, Bee carries Alba inside and I crawl in with them both. We weren’t prepared enough for this winter but we keep each other warm beneath the blankets. It feels like a safe space. The wind can howl and the birds can cry and the rain can beat in patterns on the roof, but we are safe in here, together.

Camping is often grimy. Sometimes we brush our teeth in petrol station bathrooms and wear dirty clothes and wash our faces with baby wipes and pee behind bushes. But there is something nice in not caring about these things.

Alba falls sick with a flu. She’s weak and fevery. When I lift her she feels like a doll in my arms. We drive on to my niece’s home in the hills, where there is a room all set up for us. Candles lit, warm cosy blankets, home cooked food. I love this about my family, they always have space for us.

I tuck her in, rub peppermint balm on her tiny chest and place a cool wet cloth on her forehead. She is still my baby.

I hardly sleep that night. She seems so fragile. There’s a saying that a child is your heart outside of your body and I feel that very literally. Like she is a vital organ that has been removed from me and somehow I am still functioning, so long as she is.

When morning comes she feels better. The great weight is lifted. She plays with the dogs in the sunshine and collects chicken eggs with my niece. Then the flu hits Bee and I, and it is ugly.

I feel so sick I want to cry out of the pain and the frustration and the inability to move or speak or eat. It’s so easy to forget how terrible it feels to be really sick when you’re healthy. Bee and I lay beside each other burning hot and cold. In the moments I can think I am grateful for the hand in mine, belonging to the kind boy suffering alongside me.

The sickness lingers on but we have to move, I have to shoot in Melbourne. We stop by a pharmacy, walking the aisles like zombies. We buy flu tablets, those little magic pills that make us forget how sick we really are so we can keep on going.

At the beginning of that first shoot I hold the camera in my hands and feel confused. It is as though my ability to take photographs is a switch that has been switched off by my sickness.

I look through the viewfinder unsure of what I’m supposed to do, unsure of the directions I’m supposed to give. I panic. I point to a spot on the far side of the beach and say we should begin there. As I walk it all rushes back. Little switch back on.

The flu passes. I meet my friend Beau Taplin at a cafe where he tells me he’s just signed a book contract with Harper Collins. He’s always inspired me, this boy who writes poetry from his bedroom. He mentions the books I’ll one day write as though they’re already here, waiting patiently for me to write them.

We stay with a family. Their little girl is getting better after being sick. I worry a little, but it seems okay. A few days later Alba falls asleep in my arms at dinner. It’s strange. We wonder if she’s sick, but decide surely not, what terrible luck it would be to get sick again.

She is sick again. As we make our way to the bottom of Australia I hold a bag beneath her as she vomits in the car. It’s gastro. It’s messy and heartbreaking and we just want to get to Adelaide quickly so we can get her into a clean bed and clean clothes.

We drive along the Great Ocean Road. To our left is wild blue seas and to our right is jagged rock. We pass tiny towns and great expanses of nothingness. Tumbleweeds roll over the long empty roads like we’re caught in some cheesy western film.

In Adelaide I shoot while Bee stays home taking care of Alba. We make her a bed on the couch so she can watch television and suck on electrolyte icy poles. Just like my mum did when I was a kid. I wash everything. Twice. Other than to work I never leave that house and Alba’s side. Not even to go to the vegan bakery with the amazing donuts.

It’s time to leave. It’s still a long way to Perth. This new sickness catches up to me first. There are never enough roadside bathrooms. When we stop I come and go from the tent into the freezing cold all night long. There are no toilets around, just cold bare dirt. I lay in the tent in the dark wishing for a real bed and Bee asks how I am going and I just cry that I want to sleep.

I curl up in the car the next day, my stomach furiously rumbling and nausea waiting impatiently below the surface. We watch the dirt turn from brown to red. We see all kinds of roadkill, mostly kangaroos but once a wild camel.

I’m always staring out of the car window. One moment it’s blue skies and desert trees and the next an enormous rock comes into view, like a small red mountain. It reminds me of Uluru and it’s so magnificent my heart stops. Bee tells us we are staying here tonight.

I am shaky when I stand but I walk slowly over and press my palms up against the rock. I think of my indigenous ancestors, what did they make of this? I think it holds powerful magic.

I watch from the window of the tent as my family climb over it and disappear from sight. I read Harry Potter for the seventh time. They return to light a bonfire and cook pasta. I listen to the way their laughter bounces off the rock walls.

The next morning I gather all of my energy to climb it. There are clear pools of water on the top. I sit and slide my hands and feet into the water. It’s shockingly cold. Alba asks, “What are you doing Mama?” And I tell her that I think this rock has healing powers. So she names it Healing Rock.

There’s still a way to go but now Bee is sick and all we can think of is arriving. We want to drive through the night and make it by morning but Bee can’t keep going. We pull into a motel.

It’s just a middle of nowhere motel with a broken heater, mismatched artwork and an old television. But my goodness it is glorious. To have a clean bed. To have a hot shower. To have a real toilet. We could be staying in a 5 star resort in the Bahamas. We scrub the grime from our nails, wash our hair until it’s silky and crawl naked into clean sheets. It is heaven.

The next day we just drive. We drive until the bare dirt turns into fields and the fields into houses and the houses into a city, our city. How strange it is to see our baby blue honda on the west coast, all the way across this giant island.

Bee’s mother is waiting with open arms. When we broke up she told me she had a dream that felt like a premonition. She dreamt she’d visited us in Fremantle, I had a baby on my hip and we were happy. Now here we are, just like that, looking for a home in Fremantle. Feeling like we’ve been on the road for a lifetime. Ready to be home.

Come Together

There are moments in life that I know will be extraordinary before they happen. When I was a child I thought adult life was full of these firework moments but it turns out they are rare and fleeting, so I hold on tightly and breathe them in deep when they do come.

I know seeing Bee again will be one of those moments. I know this week to come will be an escape from ordinary life. Back in the city where we first fell in love, falling in love all over again. I don’t have the answers yet, but I can feel which way my heart is pulling me and I’ve lived my whole life by that pull.

It’s only been a few months since we said goodbye, but it feels like years have passed between us. When I catch sight of Bee through the glass wall at the Perth airport I am thrown by how beautiful he looks, like I am seeing him through new eyes.

His long blonde hair is tucked behind his ears, his jeans hug his long skinny legs and his curious eyes light up when he catches sight of us. We hug him hard. He kisses us. He smells just like I remember. Like home.

In the car he rests his hand on my thigh and kisses me at red lights. It’s past midnight and the streets are quiet. Alba is falling asleep. It is as though two moments exist in this one moment. Like the goodbyes are waiting just behind the hellos. I’m painfully aware that as sure as this trip is beginning, it must end too.

The bedroom is full of hanging streamers and balloons up to my knees. On the bed is a big silver box filled with gifts. There’s a 70’s film camera I wanted with a promise from Bee to develop all my film himself. There’s a replacement for my favourite (broken) mug and an Alain de Botton novel. There’s a film camera for Alba and a picture book, the next in the series he bought her when we first met. Best of all is a photo album heavy with photographs Bee has taken on our adventures, with handwritten captions.

This is the Bee I remember. Generous, fiercely optimistic, playful. I know the lost part of him was real, as much as the anxious part of me is real; but seeing him like this again is like waking up to why I fell in love in the first place.

Things instantly feel normal. Normal to have him cook us breakfast in the mornings, to hear Alba’s giggles when they play, to have his hand in mine as we walk, to make love late at night, to tangle our legs when we’re reading in bed. It’s a gentle and full kind of joy.

We walk across to our favourite gelato shop in all the world, the very same place we came to after our first kiss. We get salted caramel and dark chocolate, like always, and there is a firework moment. It just lasts a minute but it’s there. Everything is glorious.

We walk the streets of Leederville reliving memories. There’s the grocery store where we bought chocolate when my midnight cravings could not be ignored. There’s the playground where we hid with Alba on a fortress safe from dragons. There’s the bottle shop where I bought a bottle of red wine because I was falling in love and drank it in my friend’s bathtub and Bee had to look after me all night. It’s really nice to be back.

It’s easy to romanticise these kinds of trips in hindsight. So for the sake of reality, I will say it wasn’t always beautiful. I was nagged by stomach pains most days, I felt a unrelenting guilt for abandoning my work and even still I didn’t have a decision. But these things fall into the shadows of my memories.

At times I find myself feeling grateful we broke up. Grateful that it spurred me on to learn to drive and to find my feet. Grateful it showed us how seriously we love each other. For the conversations born out of catastrophe that will help us weather all the storms to come.

A few people shared this quote with me and I wrote it in my journal. “Sometimes we let people go so that they can return again.” I didn’t expect it, but I’m grateful he returned.

I could be angry at him. The petty, antagonising part of me might forever bring up him leaving me. But I don’t obsess about him leaving. Instead I remember the way he stayed by us for six months after we broke up so that he could continue driving Alba to school and make sure I was okay. How he kept on parenting and loving and helping me through my anxiety. He could have left the place he felt isolated, back to his hometown with his friends and his family, but he stayed with us instead. That means something to me.

There’s a story I haven’t shared because I was ashamed and afraid of hurting people. Over a year has passed and while the shame won’t ever go away, I want to share a terrible mistake I once made.

Bee and I have always been pretty open with our love, at least in a platonic way. Sometimes people get it. Sometimes people don’t. To be a loving person you carry a lot of responsibility; a glowing key that can unlock both good and bad. You have to be radically transparent. I made a friend, I was my ordinarily loving self and he fell for me. I should have stepped back but I didn’t.

Bee knew it was happening but when he brought up his concern I put up a wall. I was defensive and elusive. I loved this boy, in a different way to Bee but I felt protective over him and anxious to lose him.

The self serving part of my mind conjured up a thousand reasons why what I was doing was okay. My mind made it seem reasonable, even natural. Isn’t love always good? Is this really a big deal? Sometimes I felt like I was on a train that’d left the tracks and I was just pretending everything was fine.

A kiss was the chaos that ended it all. But it wasn’t just a kiss. It wasn’t just the act of a pair of lips on another. It was the weeks of telling Bee it was all okay when I knew it wasn’t. It was the things I shouldn’t have said and the things I shouldn’t have done. It was the communication I shut down and the ways I shut off to my lover who was hurting. It was the unnecessary pain that was coming for everyone because of me.

After the kiss happened I remember feeling profoundly empty. I remember walking upstairs and curling into the foetal position in bed and sobbing. I remember longing to call Bee as I did every time I was falling apart but not being able to. I remember thinking of myself as a bad person who deserved no love and no one. I remember knowing I was going to break the heart of the very best human I knew, the one who had loved me beyond anything I’d ever known.

When I told Bee he cried. His beautiful face cracked into many broken pieces. I’d shattered his trust. I broke my friend’s heart too. I can imagine the pain he felt, for himself and for Bee. Wondering too if he was a bad person. How much pain I caused and how little it was worth it.

It tore down our idea our open love and we built it back up again, piece by piece.

When I tell Bee that chapter was the worst mistake of my life, not for the first time, he holds my hand and says, “Well I left you, which was the biggest mistake of my life. So let’s call it even shall we?”

On this trip Bee says we should see my friend, this friend. It’s his way of saying, I trust you fully. It makes me want to never, ever hurt him again. So we all hang out, and it’s not weird, it’s kind of nice. We’re all genuinely happy everything worked out in the end.

I rent a warehouse apartment in the heart of Fremantle, my favourite part of the West Coast. I imagine San Francisco and Berlin had a little baby city together. Historical buildings and eclectic street art; sailboats pulling up to ports and cool vegan cafes. It’s the place where I first met Bee.

We walk the streets with Alba between us, she squeals when we swing her into the air. We get sushi for dinner and buy movie snacks at the grocery store. Bee films us on his bulky VHS camera. We read Alba bedtime stories and tuck her into bed with kisses. It feels like life is back to the way it’s supposed to be. Like the break up was just a bad dream.

We’re on the couch watching some silly documentary on Netflix about a man who is a serial dater. He talks about the freedom and excitement of never settling down but, predictably, in a vulnerable moment his voice breaks as he admits to wishing he had more purpose.

I feel grateful then, for the daughter I have fast asleep in my bed and for the boyfriend holding my hand beside me. Only, he’s not my boyfriend. I leave so soon and my decision still hangs in the air. I decide to cut the strings.

I’m aware it’s not the most poetic moment to tell Bee I want to be with him, but I pause the show anyway. “So I want to tell you something big. Um. I would really like to be with you again.” He beams and hugs me for so long I have to pry him off of me, laughing.

“So, are you going to leave me again?” I ask, teasingly. “Never, I’ve tried that and it was rubbish. I want to marry you, have a baby with you and grow old with you Nirrimi Joy.” He has this proper English way of talking and it makes me laugh. Where I grew up no one spoke like him.

We tell Alba together. She throws her arms around us dramatically and says, “this is the best day of my life!” Which, to be fair, is an expression she uses often when she’s very happy. We buy her a giant cookie from the bakery next to the warehouse and she sits in the sunshine eating it happily. She packs her little backpack we bought in Stockholm and spends the night with her grandparents and her papa.

I invite my Perth friends to meet us for dinner at Little Creatures. I sit across from Bee sipping apple cider and thinking about the night we first met. He walked right through that front door and made me laugh at the time my heart was heaviest. That night I lay in bed grinning, like the sun had finally started shining again after an endless night.

On the walk home I ask a few buskers for a lighter. A tall boy with a bowl cut and a foreign accent I can’t catch asks me if I’ll swap a cigarette for a song he’s written. I say yes. He hands me the lyrics, scrawled on the back of a picture of a girl on a moon. I smile and tell him my name means ‘moonlight shining on water.’ As if on cue, the man beside him recites a haiku:

“Though it may be broken
and broken again
still it shines
the moon on the water.”

As I hear the words I know they are for me. I repeat them. I ask him to please write them down. He tells me the poem was written by an ancient samurai. Maybe I’m just a little tipsy, but I feel like I could cry at the beauty of that little haiku. At the kindness of these strangers I could have easily passed by without a thought. I want to stay with them for hours swapping stories, but my friends are beside me wanting to go.

We talk in the warehouse until late. It’s nice to be surrounded by friends. I don’t have many in the Sunshine Coast. Slowly everyone leaves but Bee’s friend Jasper. I’d mostly forgotten about Jasper when we moved away. Forgotten about the way our family seems to expand when he’s around. Forgotten how protective I feel of him because he reminds me of my little brother with his burning questions and the battles inside his head.

We spend my last night at a music gig. It begins way past our bedtime but once the music and the drinks kick in we lose track of time. We dance in a mass of happy sweaty people. I feel the music in my bones. The lights flash and the smoke rolls over our heads.

I feel Bee’s hand in mine, warm and solid. I kiss him and it’s wonderful. I’ve never felt kisses like his. I imagine them as complete circles, tidy and full. I think, thank goodness my boyfriend is a good kisser. I say I love you too many times and I don’t stop smiling.

We leave the venue out into the crisp midnight air and head to a rooftop where we look over the city. I am reminded of a time when I was sixteen years old, standing on the roof of an apartment where I was living with my boyfriend in the big city. I wish I could teach that girl all the lessons she had to learn the hard way.

We catch an uber home at 4am. Bee, Jasper and I. We cuddle on the couch sipping hot tea until we can’t keep our eyes open. We sleep deeply.

I pack my suitcase with the efficiency of having done so hundreds of times. I try not to think about leaving Bee, about the fact that we never did sit down and work out a plan. Soon these hugs and kisses will be simplified to text messages and phone calls again. For weeks? For months?

We’re late for the flight, so late we might not make it. I don’t run. In fact I hold close a guilty wish to miss our flight. To stay on with the boy who feels like home in the city that feels like home.

We make it by seconds. I check in my luggage. We get hot drinks and I am crippled by a wave of pain. “Please, I don’t want to go,” I tell Bee. “You don’t have to,” he says. I bring up the costs of flights and he waves me away. “None of that matters, just do whatever is right.”

I decide to flip a coin. If it lands on tails I’ll stay. As I hold it in my hand I think of our luggage in the belly of the plane, I think of school on Monday and the perfection of a week we couldn’t possibly match. Heads, I think. And it lands on heads.

Our goodbyes are brief. Alba leaps onto Bee and I wrap my arms around him too. We’re rushed onto the plane. “When will we see Bee again?” Alba asks, as soon as he is out of sight. “Very soon.” I promise. Bee has snuck a love letter into my backpack and once Alba is fast asleep, I savour every last word.

Portraits by my sweet, wild spirited friend Alex Cohen.

A dorky little VHS home movie Bee made on our trip. He didn’t quite finish it, but I wanted to share it anyway.

Fighting Shadows

I make a little home in a shack in my best friend’s yard. It’s a cosy space with a big bed, leafy plants, my workspace and my comfy yellow armchair. We are home here with the incense burning and Alba playing on the rug. The beach is just down the road. Alba catches the school bus with the kids in the mornings and I spend the days working.

It’s hard to focus on my work. There is an underlying feeling that things aren’t right. That someone is missing. I suppose that happens when you lose someone who was always there. I call Bee too much. We talk for hours every day and I try to act like I’m feeling a lot more settled than I am. That I never really needed him. That life is better now.

There are moments where it is better. I go grocery shopping and dance in the aisles without caring. I find myself talking to strangers. I take Alba out on dates. I smile as I walk to my favourite cafe to work, backpack on and listening to podcasts.

But nights are never better. Nights are horrible. My anxiety swings quickly from nothing to everything. Breathing is hard and sometimes I have to scream into pillows and shake my body because otherwise I might explode.

I’m grateful my anxiety waits for Alba to fall asleep before setting in. I’m grateful she has the kids to distract her and that Bee calls her every day. We miss him. I always forget how painful it is to miss someone until I do. I miss the littlest things. The way he always brought me tea and the illustrations in his journals and the drum patterns he’d absentmindedly tap on my leg.

For the anniversary of my brother’s death I throw a Deathday Party. I decorate the house with balloons and bunting and invite my family who drive three hours to make it. I naïvely hope that if I make it a celebration it won’t hurt. But night rolls around, as it does, like a black heavy blanket to suffocate me. And the hurt comes.

I leave the party to curl into a ball in my bed. My cousins cuddle me, these girls I used to mother when I was a teenager are bigger than me now. From in-between them both I call Bee in tears. He always helped me carry this grief. From the very moment Zake died. He was lousy sometimes at knowing the right things to say, but he always loved me hard through the worst waves. It all makes it even harder. Like I’ve lost the two men I love most.

I’m afraid I’ll forget Zake. I am afraid this guilt will never lift. I’m afraid it’s true that he’s gone. Maybe that sounds crazy but there is a part of me that even still refuses to believe I will never hug him again.

I don’t really sleep, instead I relive memories. Even the most beautiful are darkened by the night. I remember all the times I let him down. How cruel I was to him when we were kids. The calls I ignored because I didn’t have the patience for his philosophical rambles.

Dear god what I’d give to answer one of those calls now. He knew I loved him and I know he loved me but I wish more than anything that he never left. I am crying writing these words, remembering too vividly his gorgeously crooked smile and the way his eyes lit up when he saw me. It was me and him. Now it’s just me.

Mornings are a treasure buried in the night. I know that if I can just hold out until the sun rises it will all be okay. There’s Alba with her singsong voice, waking me up. There’s uniforms to be dressed in, breakfast to be made, lunch to be packed. The chatter of the kids in the backseat, the conversations and laughter with Georgia. The potential of blank hours waiting to be filled with meaningful work and daily errands.

One night I download a dating app. I don’t want to date anyone seriously. Not for a long time. But I want to be distracted and romance has always served as an easy distraction for me.

There’s something exciting about peeling back people’s layers and knowing their hearts. It’s hard to admit but it’s good to feel wanted too, especially after being left. You’re not supposed to need love, you’re supposed to be enough on your own. I’ve gotten better at being alone, but I’ve always needed a lot of love. It’s just another flaw that is difficult to admit.

I meet just one boy. We climb a tree together and sit high in the branches with birds all around us. We talk about our childhood and when he kisses me it’s both strange and sweet.

Later I feel terribly guilty and I call Bee about it. He pretends to not be jealous and says it’s really great that I’m moving on. I’m secretly and selfishly happy that he is jealous even though it was never my intention. The truth is I still want him to love me, of course I do.

I’m at a festival, Alba is fast asleep beside me in the tent and I’m whispering to Bee on the phone. I can tell he is nervous. That there’s something important he’s trying to say. It makes me nervous too.

Bee tells me he made a big mistake in leaving us, that he’s tried to fill every day since getting home because of his regret. He explains his headspace when we broke up, his depression and being so far from everyone he knew, feeling like it was the only choice. The way he stubbornly clung to his decision every time he doubted it. The way he romanticised going back to his friends and his freedom but how empty it feels without us.

I want to say duh, because I’d seen it all unfolding in my head before he even left but he said it all so earnestly. He says that he doesn’t expect me to forgive him but he wants to be a better lover and parent. To commit totally and weather all the storms together.

I want to scream yes, to dance around the tent, to tell everyone in the world. How many times did I stop myself from begging him if we could be together again? But I don’t scream yes. I quietly thank him for being so brave. I tell him we miss and love him as much as he does us. I say I don’t know. To give me time. And he says of course.

The tree climbing boy is here at the festival too and I like him, he’s calm and sweet. I feel like I can let my guard down with him. I know he wants to cuddle me and kiss me but I just can’t. I don’t want to hurt him but I also want to be honest. We lay on the grass and I tell him about Bee and my heart and the whole conversation is painful. He asks, “So do you think you’ll get back together?” And I just shake my head and say, “I’m just not sure.” It’s like I’m forever hurting people. But he understands.

I put Alba to bed early so she gets enough sleep. It means that once the music begins I am already in bed beside her. On the last night I lay awake for hours aching to dance, longing to be out there. I could ask Georgia to listen for her but she already has her kids to worry about. I don’t have anyone else I feel safe asking. I cry in my tent. When you are a parent you are constantly making sacrifices and sometimes they all just add up.

One night my anxiety is so terrible I call Bee and admit I’m not coping. The next morning he books tickets for Alba and I to Perth. He doesn’t tell me because they are expensive and he knows I wouldn’t have let him. I’m upset with him at first. He tells me he’s wants to help me and there isn’t much he can do from the other side of the country. I have a lot of friends in Perth and maybe I need a break.

It works. My nightly anxiety turns into anticipation. My days have this sense of waiting, that I’m just going through the motions of life until I board that plane. His texts give me butterflies. It’s like the time I was touring across America and he was road tripping across the country and we’d obsessively text and text and text. I write pros and cons lists. I ask everyone what they think, my mother could have cried of joy. And yet I’m not sure. Not yet.

I always knew I’d be happy spending my life with Bee; this goofy man who never once raised his voice toward me, who has all the time in the world for the people he loves, who lives to create. I just don’t want to get back together because it’s easy or because we miss each other.

I spent all this time convincing myself breaking up was the right thing. I created this story to move on. I focused on all the ways we didn’t work and the better man who would cross my path and all the reasons I needed to be alone right now. Now I’m unravelling all the threads, trying to uncover the right answer. But the truth is there is no right answer, there is only my answer.

I see a doctor about my anxiety. She asks if I’ve had traumatic experiences and I don’t know where to begin. I talk about my stepfather, my uncles and an ex boyfriend. The sexual, emotional and physical abuse that started in my childhood and continued into adulthood. I talk about my brother’s suicide, the call I never made and how alone I feel without him. I notice I’m clenching my fists so tightly my nails are leaving marks on my palms.

She said she was surprised I was coping with parenting and working. Surprised that I’d never seeked help. I guess I always thought it wasn’t a big deal, that I could manage it. Just having a stranger acknowledge that it is a lot is reassuring. It makes me feel less crazy for being overwhelmed by life.

She asks me what anxiety feels like and I say it’s like I’m being crushed from every direction. I can’t breathe properly and my mind is dark and loud and scary. I have compulsive thoughts about horrible things like losing Alba and even when I’m not thinking my body is tight with fear. She takes my blood and books me counselling.

‘Last night I stood beneath the sky as it stretched its arms wide above me. The moon was growing full. Stars were hand poked between moonlit clouds patterned like a cheetah’s spots on dark velvet. It caught my breath. It was magnificent and it was just there above me. Painted across everything so perfectly and so unassuming. There was no man in a suit charging me to gaze up at this giant masterpiece, no lines to wait in to see it, no crowds staring up in awe alongside me. Just me in the backyard on the wet grass with my neck craned for so long it began to hurt, willing myself to believe in the immensity of the universe. Not just believe in it but feel it, in my bones.

Today I sat in a cafe writing in my journal. My writing scrawled across the page in a secret hope my fears and flaws might hide behind the messy marks, illegible to anyone but me. But I stopped the pen and I paused the mess of my thoughts, letting them still. I wrote carefully, the ink dancing as I wrote the paragraph above about the sky. I forgot how beautiful my handwriting could be and how much loveliness there was in that very simple act. I felt the sun pierce through my jeans and the weight of my body here on the earth. I knew that the magic of everything wasn’t waiting for me somewhere in the future, it was here and it was simple. ’

My head is clear. I feel a quiet sort of happiness. I exfoliate my skin until it feels like silk and I dye my hair purple. I do yoga every day. I meet deadlines and miss deadlines and post prints all around the world. I watch the sea and I listen to the rain on the roof of the shack at night. I cuddle Alba close to my body on the coldest nights. I write and write. I count down days.