When I was a little girl with emotions that got too large for the house, one of my parents would send me out to stand on The Rocks.
The Rocks covered a flat square of land at the top of our driveway. cut out from our large slope of backyard for parking Dad’s two work vans and the family car. Under my bare feet they were cold stones, larger than pebbles. Sometimes they were sharp.
The reasons for my exile were many and varied. I was a willful child who expressed fear and frustration loudly. My father, a drunk. Either volatile or dissociative. My mother, a woman of high intellect and rampant anxious tension. The pair were overwhelmed by tragic luck. Even as a very young girl, I took to yelling at them in an attempt to garner some kind of control. It might well have been a comical picture without the unfortunate accompanying facts. Young parents with pre-existing mental health issues, bludgeoned by the misfortune of a severely disabled middle child and an unplanned youngest one. And I, the eldest, yapping like a border collie pup attempting to round up scattered adult sheep much larger than me.
When I got too loud and impossible, I would be slapped or yelled back at, and the force of the adult response would shock me into silence. Then I would be ordered out onto The Rocks.
After initially crying hard in my exile, I would come to find a deep calm in my isolation. The sharpness of quartz and other forms under my feet was a sensation that was physical and grounding. Eventually my lip would stop quivering.
Above me the night sky would envelop me in beauty and possibilities. There were so many more visible stars in inner city Brisbane back in the 80’s and 90’s. I conjured beautiful creatures darting among them, unseen by humankind. Our land was high up, if I spread my arms out wide, I could sometimes feel the winds embracing my little body and bestowing gifts of secret strength. The tears would shapeshift into salt on my cheeks instead.
By the time I was nudging adolescence, I began take myself out onto The Rocks in heated moments. I had a dog by then. A good tempered creature who would simply sit beside me in solidarity. In summer we would listen to the drone of a thousand cicadas. In winter we would watch our breath hanging in front of our mouths as well as the stars. One can lose their sorrow in nature. There comes courage in being with something ancient and infinitely bigger than yourself.
I grew into a woman and was challenged by love. It is the thing we all seek, yet for some of us, it is a difficult place to live. Family is not a refuge for all.
I have been very lucky in love and at the same time, so deeply uncomfortable with it.
The first time, I truly loved it was far too much for me. A year passed between us and I only allowed myself to tell him with my body. I only allowed myself to admit it secretly, in the spidery handwriting of my journal. By the time I could say it to his face, I was angry it had taken him so long to step up and claim me. Nothing soothed me like his arms. Nothing enraged me like his absence. I had dreamt of a life where I would never be alone. Yet deep inside I missed The Rocks. Love in real life never measures up to the portals of the mind. How could it? A person can never be as monumental as a fantasy. Alone, we can dream up whatever we wish.
One night I was playing wife, turning beans, tomato and tuna in a pan. I’d spent the good part of an afternoon arranging my hair to look casual but alluring. It was longer than I would have liked to wear it. Everything I did at the time was designed with him in mind.
He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around me in the way that I lived for. But this particular night I did not lean back to feel his strong heart beating against my back. Instead I froze as he spoke.
We’re going to grow old together.
In time we’ll be blessed with children.
It was a bold thing for such a young man to say. Although I had often dreamt of such a thing, hearing it now I was unspeakably horrified.
I pulled away from him and my voice become loud.
no, no, NO!
I started to cry. My hands shook. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bear the closeness and the imperfection of another person. The shock and hurt in his eyes. He did not know what to do with me.
I tested his affection time and again. My push to his pull until he stopped just short of superhero level forgiveness three years later and left me at last.
Surrendering to love makes you so helpless. For someone who began their life with no power and no safety, the idea of giving up any of your armour at all seems impossible. Because lovers often hurt each other terribly. Alone, we cannot be hurt. Alone we can lick old wounds until they scar up and the pain becomes dull and distant.
“In my youth, the greatest tide washed up my prize. You”
– Nara, Alt J.
Still young, I fell again. For someone even more vulnerable than me. You, wildly beautiful with your smile the size of the moon. You, with your churlish jokes and fearlessness of what others thought. You, with your bitten nails and fierce heart. I had never met anyone as brave as you.
I don’t imagine I ever will.
And this love, this made sense to me. Because we wounded each other endlessly right from the start. I needed the pain to balance the pleasantry. It was the language of my family. You spoke it too. Thank God. Lingering in tender embraces for hours watching the day escape. Then arguing savagely into the early hours of the morning. Waking with faces swollen from crying. Tit for tat. Guilt, shame and fear to balance tenderness, kindness and understanding. The greatest joys, the ugliest sadness. Commitment alongside cruelty.
We were the best and the worst of ourselves. Young women in love and at war.
Is there a happy ending?
Both of us remain divided people. Half of each of us loves the other unselfishly. The other half of both you and me is a different creature. One that yields to basic instincts only. Lashing out when poked. We live by currents, as if underwater. There is an ebb and flow between love and solitude. For all the joy that intimacy brings, for us it has been very ugly too. Solitude, however removed from exultation can keep you safe. Cocooned from fear in a neutral world. It is not the worst thing.
Not the best thing either.
This evening, it was one week since the worst night of all. Some things cannot be unsaid, unseen or undone.
I walked with my dog under the pink and orange sky. I stretched my arms out, palms face up in the evening breeze. Just like I had done as a child on The Rocks. And just like I had done as a child, I let the Queensland air soothe me. The drone of cicadas, the smell of the swamp bloodwood flowers with the weight of the gumnuts they would soon become bending the branches. The high set wooden houses, some with lush gardens and some with peeling paint. Everything the same as back then. The smell, taste and sounds of home telling me that everything would be alright, yet reminding me that I was still here, stuck. What nourishes me also destroys me.
In the blackest part of my dark heart, I wished you had of come at me with your fists like my father. If you would hurt me, could it kill my love? Could I be free? Would I flourish without you or would I die a little every day, missing your pillowy lips on mine? Missing the flat bridge of your nose or the epic tangle of your hair across the pillow beside me. The thousand other things of yours burnt into me forever in passion and terror. My greatest love. I know it my darling. No matter what or who comes next.
I brushed the thought away and listened to the sound of the approaching dark instead. Just me and the night, all alone.
— Photography by Emma Salmon – The Blacklight Sydney —