I had one weekend in the town before coronavirus hit. After 21 years of longing, my forbidden lover – Sydney – was finally within regular touching distance. But then, I was ushered into social isolation with three degenerate Queenslanders, defeating the purpose of leaving the state in the first place.
Mercifully, I met a blonde-haired, blue-eyed photographer named Mieka via a dating app. We walked laps around Centennial Park as if our sanitation depended on it. Mieka invited me over for dinner. She lived in a yellow, art deco building in Bondi. We ate tomato pasta with a pistachio salad. Through the windows of her apartment, the lights of North Bondi sparkled above the dark sea.
“You’re officially a Bondi hipster,” she said.
“I was worried that might happen,” I replied.
Mieka’s linen sheets were covered with silhouettes of strelitzia leaves. I helped tuck in the mosquito net. Between stiff sips of gin and tonic, we kissed each other softly on the lips. Sydney was finally mine.
The relationship ended after restrictions lifted. I threw myself into the collective ecstasy of post-lockdown life. People had warned me the cliques in Sin City were impossible to pierce. Now, at heaving pubs, strangers shamelessly embraced each other, and stayed in touch. We were stunned by our loneliness.
I felt startlingly calm as I crossed the NSW border again, like I was going home.
Christmas 2020, I drove north with a carload of compatriots just before the state borders were shut again. “You seem like a new man,” said my brother John over a scholar of XXXX Gold. A sea change couldn’t save me, but it had put a spring in my step, and a gleam in my eye. My relief to see family was created with grief. I craved newness and anonymity. A place can be too familiar. I felt startlingly calm as I crossed the NSW border again, like I was going home.
Last year was the year of déjà vu. In 2021 I published two books either side of the second lockdown. The specific stress of deadlines and publicity trails was underpinned by a general sense of existential dread. This time, freedom elicited a sense of mercy, not euphoria or promiscuity. The friendships I’d made after the first lockdown helped me navigate a psychological minefield.
I made it to January 2022 – the month of my 30th birthday – without contracting coronavirus. “You gotta hire a boat for your birthday,” said John. “It’s what Mum and Dad would have wanted.” It was highly unlikely my working-class parents worked their arses off so that John and I could one day hit the piss on Sydney Harbour. But I decided we’d earnt a moment of chutzpah after a decade of heartbreak.
The boat was half-price, thanks to the pandemic. I recruited a motley crew of visiting Queenslanders and non-infected Sydneysiders. Blue skies, white sails. A beautiful union of the old and new. I couldn’t remember being that naturally happy since those prepubescent visits to Sydney with my father. At 1am on the Monday morning, John and I toasted ourselves with Bundaberg Rum and cokes.
“You did it, mate,” said John.
“Say what?” I asked.
“You kept the dream alive.”
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