My Sydney Story – love, heartbreak, and reclaiming spaces

Sep 15

In 2009, I fell in love. With a man, and a city – Sydney. From the very start, the two were inextricably intertwined.

I’m 25, in my final year of university, and visiting Sydney from a little suburb north of Byron Bay. I’m a hopeless romantic, raised on Jane Austen and the poets, and terribly, frighteningly naïve. I’ve kissed one boy in my whole life.

The man I fall in love with in 2009 is older – much older. If you ask me now about my thoughts about young women dating older men, I’d say It’s probably not a wise idea. The power dynamics are frequently off, but back then, my heart didn’t know anything about that, of course.

I’ve loved only three times in my life, and when I fall, I fall deep. But this was something else.

I joke that I fell in love with his bookshelf first. He tells me later that he fell in love when I opened one of those books and read him a Derrida quote. I can’t remember what the quote was, but he sent me the book to keep. A decade on, I don’t know what happened to it.

Back then….

He loves all the things that I love. Books, art, history, beautiful architecture, poetry and myth. He’s an intellectual – brilliant, accomplished, and well-travelled – cultured – everything I desperately want to be. I’m in awe of him.

And he is the one to show me Sydney. He plays tour guide down by the harbour, walking me past the sandstone buildings on Macquarie St, telling me the stories of times past. He’s a theatre reviewer (purely for fun) and I watch dress rehearsals of Pagliacci from the second row of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, inside the Sydney Opera House. The music soars inside my chest, and there’s a lump in my throat the whole time. We take in the NYE fireworks from his apartment, above the waters of Kirribilli. We stand side by side, and he quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” Later that night, as I watch the lights of hundreds of vessels making their way across the harbour, he tells me how he feels. He reads me Judith Wright’s ‘The Company of Lovers’ –

‘We meet and part now over all the world;
we, the lost company,
take hands together in the night, forget
the night in our brief happiness, silently.
We, who sought many things, throw all away
for this one thing, one only,
remembering that in the narrow grave
we shall be lonely.

Death marshalls up his armies round us now.
Their footsteps crowd too near.
Lock your warm hand above the chilling heart
and for a time I live without my fear.
Grope in the night to find me and embrace,
for the dark preludes of the drums begin,
and round us round the company of lovers,
death draws his cordons in.

I’m exhilarated and terrified at the same time, at the thought of death, of lost chances, of not living with my heart wide open, loving like that but also because I don’t feel like I have control over how fast my feelings are flying ahead of me. A few days later, I let him kiss me for the first time, the blue and white lights of the harbour all around me. I’m disorientated as it happens – which is apt – because that will be theme of the next two and a half years we are together.

There is a choral performance at dawn, and photos taken down by the red cliffs near Kirribilli theatre. Shakespeare performed at Balmoral Beach as we picnic, the blanket dotted with cheeses and antipasti carefully selected from an Italian provedore in Mosman.

Theatre premieres at Walsh Bay, Cate Blanchett at the table next to us. A black-tie dinner where Opera Australia stars perform at our table. I’m sitting across from a real-life Count and Countess. I’m nervous about everything – what I’m wearing, how I hold my fork and knife, the conversations we have with others who are part of ‘the scene’ during the many afterparties.

I pretend I’m not, of course. He tells me I’m magnificent, for my age. Says to me: Imagine the woman you’ll be at 35. My heart, full of dreams of the person I want to be in a decade, soaks it up. I’m a few months in to recovering from a three-year stint of anorexia – and with him, I feel like I’m waking up after a long dream. The world is so beautiful, and Sydney is the most beautiful of all.

I’m in love with this city.

I’m in love with him.

He is all in, back then. Carrying me over thresholds, and reading me passages from Emily Dickenson, Shakespeare, and The Love Letters of Great Men. He’s nervous around me at the start. Driving me to dinner, he stalls the car – twice! – while looking over at me. He stumbles over words sometimes, smashes a glass out on the deck of his apartment as he tries to lean over to take my hand.

He sits at his piano at midnight, playing Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No 1 in my honour. When we’re apart, he sings my favourite song from The Sound of Music down the phone.

Sometimes I feel like I’m in control.

The dynamic changes, of course. Not long after I relocate.

Our culture romances the notion of ‘I’ll do anything for love.’ But the reality of it – living it – is different. To know you will do anything for someone, give up anything, endure anything – it’s terrifying, because you lose yourself bit by bit, the further down that road you go.

At 25, having experienced most of my childhood without a mother – having had a mother who chose to leave her children, chose to leave me – I am desperate for love. I am desperate to be told I’m loved. To know I won’t lose that love, know that kind of terrible loss again.

After the heady rush of the first few months, where ‘I love you’ falls from his mouth with abandon, at unpredictable moments, when I’m not sure if I should reply, say I love you too, because what if he didn’t mean to blurt it out loud? he won’t say the words anymore. Tells me he doesn’t believe in having to verbalise, or ‘prove’ how he feels. He runs to the bookshelf, and pulls out an illustrated version of King Lear, the example of how love shouldn’t have to be quantified.

All I know is that my heart hurts, wanting to hear those words. But I’m young and too far in, and I think this is what love is. Fighting for something. The idea of losing him is unimaginable. I believe he’s my soulmate – and there’s so much there – so much hope, scattered all through our time together, the talk of ‘when we’re older’ of ‘what are you doing in 2020?’ the moments of laughter, and wonderful books, reading in bed on rainy days, the way he looks at me, our connection….that I hang on. He loves me, he just can’t say it. That’s a small thing. I can cope with it.

And I love him, more than anything.

Of course this is forever.

He says the three words once. When things are ending.

Along with ‘But I want to be alone.’

It’s 2011, and I’m in the midst of signing my first book deal. My biggest dream is coming true, at the same time my biggest fear is too.

It’s over. I’m on the floor of my apartment, crying, too many times across the next few months. Ironically, my life in Sydney is now locked in – I’m in my dream job. I have a two-book publishing deal. A rented studio apartment that costs most of my weekly pay but feels safe and mine. I’m finding new friends. I’m trying – really trying – to find joy in all the positive, amazing things that this city has brought into my life.

I’m still praying he’ll change his mind.

Sydney is imprinted with his presence, of course. Everywhere I go, there is a memory to go with it, hovering over the space. I try and cover them over, with the new friends, or by spending time there, on my own. ‘Make new memories,’ I tell myself. ‘This isn’t just his city.’

Six months on, he tells me he wants to take me out for a birthday brunch. I don’t know what that means. My heart has healed a little, but this tears the scar back anew. He brings white roses, and the waiter presents me with a cake. I don’t know what this means.

He’s the same, but different.

He tells me he made the right decision leaving me.

I bite the inside of my cheek fiercely, as I look at him. Don’t let him see you cry.

‘I can’t give you what you deserve,’ he says.

It’s a gift. I can’t see that until later on.

He asks me about the six months we’ve been apart. What I’ve been doing, where and who I’ve seen.

I tell him about a high tea at the Intercontinental, a show at Walsh Bay with friends.

‘You’re taking them to all my places,’ he says, looking bemused.

I can feel my cheeks burning. This city belongs to him. He knows it.

We say goodbye. He tells me he wants to be friends. That it’s less painful for him to see me now, and we should try to catch up now and then.

But this is the last time we’ll see each other.

I cry the whole Bondi to Bronte walk, and back again. And then I decide I’m not crying anymore. My sister and I go dancing at Hugo’s – I drink Margaritas and a gym junkie lifts my still-too-skinny body up in air by the bar, dancing around with me as Show Me Love throbs through the venue.

My sister and I eat tapas at The Winery and jump in the Ivy Pool Bar pool at 4am in the morning, and take a taxi back home, our dresses dripping. Over the next month, I dance and dance, at different spots, with different friends. I don’t think about love.

I meet the man who will one day become my husband, eight weeks later. I’m cautious and take it slow, but I can feel this is different. Everything is at my pace. The I Love You is I Love You, and it’s uttered at the right time, in honesty, together.

I realise, as love, engagement and marriage fills my life, that I can’t give you what you deserve has, ironically, given me everything.

But I struggle with Sydney, for many years. The city and I are out of the infatuation phase and into the reality of a long-term relationship. The real estate prices are eye-watering. The commute – now I’m out in the North West, instead of Cremorne – drives me crazy. In some ways, I feel like I don’t belong. I didn’t grow up on the North Shore or go to private school. The corporate world feels like a bit of a mystery to me. There’s money everywhere, and I have none of it, or at least it feels that way, for many years. Sydney’s not my home, I said, for a long time. I’m from Byron Bay.

And then I leave for awhile. My husband and I spend some time living in the mountains of Queenstown, NZ, and although the scenery takes my breath away, my heart longs for home. We come back to Sydney for Christmas, and I fall in love all over again. All I want is to be back here, where my heart belongs.

And so this year, we came back. A decade on from age 25, I wander through the botanic gardens, and down to the Opera House. It’s my first sighting in over two years. Even though it’s shut up under COVID-19 restrictions, my heart squeezes like mad as I stand in its shadow. I walk around the harbour, past the plaque for Judith Wright. I think of the poem, of NYE. Of 25-year-old Tara. Of how far she’s come, and how this city holds so many memories – not just the ones of him – but layer after layer, the life I’ve built here, the spaces I’ve reclaimed, and fallen in love with, over and over.

This city is my city. My own love story.