As the ocean stretches out past Darling Harbour, I am calm. More often than I’d like, a slow walker or late bus can ignite me with uncontrollable rage. But, here, by the water, there’s something that lets me slow down, stop; and simply be. I look out and slip into my mind’s version of an acid trip: my eyes dance with rippling lights, an enigmatic mass of a refracted, soaking city. The water draws me in, entangling me in certain memories.
In my mind, my ex-boyfriend is tied inextricably to water. For a start, you could say water drew us together—or more accurately, water turned into tea, over which we bonded at a UNSW society meetup. In those early days, his charm, the bullshit gallantry he used to impress me, gave me the same feeling as watching the flickering lights on the water at Circular Quay.
And then there’s his home suburb—basically aquatic. My ex grew up in Balmain, a waterfront suburb about a 30 minute bus ride from Town Hall. It’s a kind of village: bourgeois, white-washed and notorious for its narrow roads and lack of parking. The main boulevard, Darling St, is a patchwork of heritage antique and modern architecture, of eateries and fashion outlets. The very first Zumbo patisserie was established here: my ex told me that, his hand in mine, the very first time I visited.
My ex lives with his parents, and their house is situated just at the water’s edge. Their backyard ends with a slippery, sandy boundary between land and sea. And from inside, three large windows capture a harbour scene: in the foreground, a small square pool frames the pier, buttressed on either side by yachts, before the Harbour Bridge greets you, sitting comfortably on the skyline. Light glints from the water at all times of day.
Part of why the water fascinates me is my own aversion to it. In school, I was plagued by nightmares of drowning before every swimming carnival. This past summer, my ex took me swimming on a day so hot it seared our skin. While his younger brother and friend dived off the pier into the ocean, I managed to sit in their pool. My ex helped me swim again that day, my first time in three years. I was empowered, accomplished and most of all, safe.
We broke up after realising our life trajectories were different, the future too big a burden for us to bear. Each not wanting the other to be unhappy, we broke up.
Hot water used to be a source of comfort. During the first week following our breakup, I cried several times every day, but most often in the shower. Showers were no longer a safe space, where I could purge the remnants of a long and awful day. I hurt on the inside, and water hurt me on the outside—salty tears that inflamed my tired, puffy eyes.
Almost a week after the break up, my sister, her boyfriend, my ex and I hung out in Balmain again. We still talked, laughed, and looked at the water. The memories of the relationship are those that I carry like a secret talisman; those happy days a snippet of something bigger, brighter and better in my future.
My favourite memory of Balmain isn’t of my ex’s house, but of a spot on the suburb’s eastern side. I don’t remember too much of the surroundings, only that my ex and I had left his sister’s house party for ice-cream. We somehow reached the water again. I’m not sure if it was a sandstone block or wooden seat, only that we held each other—talking, sharing our ice-cream, thinking of the future. We looked out towards the harbour lights and they seemed to metamorphose into something bigger, before flickering out of existence as a ferry steamed by.
And just like that, as we sat close to each other, a small fireworks display started.
Every time I tell this story, I feel like I cheapen it. Language just can’t contain the sheer spontaneity of being in the right place at the right time, feeling invincible, like I’d beaten all the odds. The clarity of that memory, being transported back inside the mind of the person I was at that very moment is the definition of magical. I like to think that those lights danced just for us.