Close to You, Part I
Updated: Mar 31
Going to Australia while suffering the trauma of a decimated career (read that saga here) was not the condition I wanted to be in, to be reunited with my concert pianist. He and I had been planning this visit since January, after I'd been hired as a production vocalist on the world's most elite cruise line. I'd purchased my flight back in March, while in the thick of a contract gone wrong and getting worse. The trip gave me something to look forward to, since we hadn't seen each other in 16 months; and it helped keep the petty drama of the contract in perspective. Despite the struggle, I was on the brink of having it all, success by anyone's standards, but on my terms -- and I had worked. So. Hard. Then out of the midst of a shady cover-up attempt, I'd been notified of my termination via email, a week before I was to fly to the land down under.
I told my pianist over Facetime minutes after the email arrived in my inbox, panicked and trembling from having collapsed on the floor of my parents' kitchen. I was embarrassed and devastated as I shared the fateful correspondence. He listened sympathetically, yet seemed agitated and distracted. He was not quite his usual empathetic self, instead he attempted to cheer me by making a series of goofy faces. I indulged him with a laugh, but wondered why he was unwilling to share his usual emotional energy in that moment. Maybe this news put too much pressure on our delicate relationship. It's never good when the only joy in a person's life is their romance -- that can't lead to anything healthy. Maybe he was nervous about being closely affiliated with someone who had such a black mark on her record in the same industry?
I had maybe a week to pack. I was determined to make the most of this visit with my concert pianist. I figured: my life didn't technically change until July, when I wouldn't be boarding the plane to rejoin my ship in Reykjavik with the ticket the cruise line had purchased for me. Up until then, my schedule remained unaltered. And who knows -- miracles could happen, maybe I'd be needed after all. I resolved to carry on until July as if my life weren't in upheaval, as if nothing had happened. I needed to put it out of my mind, because I needed to focus on enjoying that man.
I texted him as soon as I arrived at the airport -- it was about 3am Sydney time so I didn't expect to hear a response until my layover.
Thirty hours of traveling over the Equator to the next hemisphere whizzed by. I would've done it a thousand times over if it meant I got to be with him. I watched Darling Harbour grow from a spec as we approached and circled down to the runway. I remember the vibe upon arrival in Oz, of "your personality jives well with us, mate", that made me feel more at home than I ever did in the states. My cab driver spoke to me out of genuine curiosity and egregiousness, not out of manufactured hospitality to earn a nice tip.
He dropped me off at the Hilton of downtown Sydney. It was around 8am.
My pianist was also flying back to Sydney that day, from visiting his mum in the Northern Territory. It was just luck of the draw that I should arrive several hours before him, and I'd been fortunate to get a nice hotel room with a family discount. I didn't want him to see me before I'd gotten a shower anyway, so it worked out well.
My iPhone dinged with a message, which was quickly followed by a Facetime call.
"Hello darling, you're here?!"
"Yes baby! ...Are you still in bed?"
"Yeah, at Mum's. How was your flight?"
As we caught up on the excitement of the last few hours, his demeanor changed. He went from energetic and happy, to tense and anxious, almost guilty. Was I imagining it from jet lag?
"Baby, are you alright?"
"Yeah, I didn't sleep well. Haven't for a while."
"Stress from your concert?"
"Nah, not really," he paused pensively. "My shrink took me off my antidepressants last week and it's been messing with me. It's been really rough, to be honest."
"I'm sorry! But congratulations, that's good news, right?"
"I suppose. I haven't needed the drug for a while, but going off it comes with some withdrawal side effects. So I made him wait until I had a few weeks between big concerts in case I become a wreck."
He grinned ironically with a nervous giggle.
Why'd you agree to do it during my visit? I wondered silently. I wished he'd at least told me before I landed in Australia. It wasn't like us to not disclose details about our lives like that to each other -- or so I thought.
Even still, that news made my heart happy. I knew he'd struggled with mental health for most of his life, and much of it had to do with his overbearing mother who took advantage of being a doctor to prescribe medication to her son, to correct what she perceived to be his flaws. But I'd assessed, in my inexpert opinion, that nothing was fundamentally wrong with him. From his stories it sounded like she projected her issues onto him, so I was thankful he was gradually taking his own life back, to be his unencumbered, brilliant self.
"Well good for you, I support this 100%," I comforted him. "Oh hey -- I wasn't able to find a SIM card kiosk at the airport, do you know where to buy one?"
"I know where to get them in the domestic flight terminal. Would you like me to get you one?" he offered.
"Yes, that would help a lot."
"Alright then darling, I still need to pack, and my flight leaves just past noon. Let me hang up, and I'll see you around 6:30!"
"I can't wait!" my heart raced.
I put the phone down and crawled into bed. This hotel was not the cheapest, yet this mattress was way too firm. I tossed and turned for several hours. But imagine -- 16 months apart was suddenly over in eight hours. I doubt I could've slept on a cloud, jet lag or not.
Eventually I decided to wake up and make myself presentable. A walk would probably do me good and return color to my cheeks. So I dressed, and out to the street I went. It was brisk and damp on that May afternoon, as the southern hemisphere was entering fall. I'd clearly not packed a thick enough coat.
Just like a homing pigeon, my feet walked me straight to the block where there was a --
"Cotton On!" I exclaimed.
I'd discovered this clothing retailer in Darwin, on my first day ever in Australia, and it was immediately one of my favorites. Soon after, the chain started appearing in the US, but their suppliers were better in Oz. I bought myself a jacket and some other goodies, and headed back. My man was maybe an hour away, and without the SIM card, I needed WiFi to receive any updates from him.
My phone dinged as I freshened my makeup -- he landed! He'd be here in half an hour!
It was the longest 30 minutes of my life. I headed to the lobby, wrapped in my fancy new coat, ten minutes early, just in case. I brought some reading material, just in case. But I could do nothing more than stare out the window at people getting out of taxis as my knees bounced.
Butterflies. Palm sweat. Sixteen long, sexually frustrating months.
My phone dinged: "Here :)".
Be calm, I demanded of myself, as I rose to my feet, and walked in an overly controlled fashion towards the taxi queue.
A man got out of the back seat. Nope, too tall, my eyes kept scanning. Taxis sped past, blinding me with headlights.
Then! There he was, fussing over luggage as he paid the driver. He was right -- he'd told me he'd revamped his wardrobe to take more pride in his appearance, and it looked sexy, and dignified. He'd also lost a lot of weight, but gained much of it back in muscle mass. That also flattered him. But he didn't need to go through all that effort -- not for me. He'd been perfect as I'd known him.
My walk quickened. I could see in his posture he was tense. His gait wasn't loose with his usual impish confidence, instead it was short and tight.
Our eyes met. He cracked a smile, and I ran into his arms. He backed away before I could squeeze him tightly, which struck me as...different. Too eager? Should I have just stayed seated in the lobby and waited?
I stepped back and put my hands on his shoulders. "Hi," I smiled sheepishly.
He gave me a light peck and answered, "Hi."
Maybe he didn't want to make a scene in public.
We walked gently up to our room, made awkward jokes at the unfortunate people in the elevator with us, and as soon as our door latched, it was on. At last. Finally. Hallelujah. Amen. My face was buried under his shoulder as we rested. I inhaled his scent and held back tears of bliss.
We used to linger there until the cows came home, but he lifted himself up after just a moment. He looked down at me, observed the expression on my face, then hid his reaction of discomfort with an insincere smile. He stood up and fidgeted around the room.
"I brought your birthday present," I offered.
"Darling, you didn't have to do that," he responded distractedly.
"Oh yes I did," I grinned, and pulled it from my luggage.
"What fantastic wrapping paper, I've never seen anything like it," he commented.
He did that occasionally when he was anxious about something: grapple for anything, to be able to say something positive, even if he didn't actually give a rat's ass, or didn't believe what he said. Something was wrong.
"It's the comic section from my parents' newspaper..."
I observed him, wondering what could possibly be upsetting him. Was it me? Was I not supposed to fall for him? Why else would I fly to the opposite corner of the world after more than a year apart? Was this relationship supposed to be of the casual variety?
"This is newspaper?" he tried to be shocked, and present in the conversation at hand, but his mind was clearly elsewhere, and it was bothered.
I wish I knew then what I know now about withdrawal and addiction.
"Yes, a newspaper."
"What a brilliant idea, I've never seen that done before."
"Well, it saves money," I watched him intently.
He gently unwrapped the comics to reveal a shrink wrapped box, labeled in gold letters to contain authentic Vietnamese civet coffee.
"Oh my God," he chuckled as he pulled off the plastic and opened the lid.
I'd intentionally selected this brand because of the presentation within the box. The coffee grinds were in their own bag on the left, and on the right, underneath a clear plastic window, was a civet turd, chock full of digested, bleach-blonde coffee beans. Only in Vietnam would they think it a good idea to display a small poo to demonstrate the authenticity of their product, in the same box of something you were meant to consume orally. That gift tied together his three favorite things: good coffee, adorable cats (or cat-like animals), and poop jokes. It was perfect in every way. I'd bought it in Ho Chi Minh during my contract, brought it home to the US, then toted it all the way back to Australia.
"Thank you, darling," he sighed. "I can't wait to share it with you."
"You don't have to share! They didn't give you much coffee. I've had plenty, you enjoy it."
"No, I love the ritual of having coffee together."
"Alright. It's your birthday, I'll do as you wish."
"Let's get your SIM card set up," he said, happy to change the subject.
I let him do all the grunge work. Once I got my Australian number, he suggested I download Uber, in case I needed to go somewhere when he had to work. I let him set that up too.
"We'll use your Aussie number -- and give me a fake email address so they don't send you spam," he requested.
To this day, I can't use Uber because drivers try to contact me via my Australian number; and I can't log in with a fake email address to change it. Oh well, at least Lyft is cheaper.
"You getting hungry, darling?" he asked.
"Yes, I would love some dinner."
"I think I know somewhere we could walk -- that's my high school just out your window--" he gestured, "--so I know this area pretty well."
We coated up and walked arm in arm to an Italian place. His boyish gait returned, and a lightheartedness grew between us with the fresh air. Food seemed to cheer him, and I watched, contentedly amused, as he shoveled it into his mouth and splattered sauce all over his jacket. Some things never change.
The next morning, after remarkably little sex by our standards, we decided to test my Uber to get back to his apartment. This was the moment I'd fantasized about -- take me to your kingdom and engulf me in everything that is you, baby.
Lightheartedness had returned to us again, and we gaily hauled our luggage up the steps and unlocked the door.
A must from his apartment slammed into my face, immediately constricting my throat. In the 16 months since I'd been there, he'd replaced all his furniture with antiques, thus bringing things into his apartment that harbored decades worth of fungal spores. Sydney has a notoriously humid climate, and once confined to the home of a self-declared hermit who keeps the windows shut to block the sun, the mold exploded into a cloud.
My pianist likely didn't notice because he'd resided in it while his apartment slowly transitioned into a petri dish. I noticed immediately because I'm hypersensitive to mold -- I had a tonsillectomy scheduled for two weeks after my return from Oz, to treat a chronic infection caused by black mold exposure (read about that here). The timing of this mold bloom, with my pre-surgery visit, was a perfect recipe for disaster.
I resolved to power through. I would endure anything to be here with him.
We set my suitcases in the living room, and as I walked to the bathroom, I observed the extent of the bloom. Spots on the ceiling, the blinds, the trim, the bathroom tile, the shower stall, the toilet -- every room, everywhere.
My man was neurotically clean about some things, but if never brought to his attention, he wouldn't notice a load of festering elephant crap dumped on his dresser. He did laundry and washed dishes often enough, but what he really focused on obsessively, and almost exclusively, were his floors. He was anal about maintaining the cleanliness of his walking surfaces. But evidently he never looked up and noticed that anything else ever collected filth.
Honestly, I believed that to be one of our many points of compatibility. I hate vacuuming, sweeping, and mopping; and don't mind the other chores one bit. So together, we'd keep a tidy house. But somehow I'd have to survive my allergic reaction until then.
That night I couldn't breathe. I lay awake in bed wheezing for air as my chest slowly constricted. My pianist tossed and turned in his usual fitful sleep, as I gasped for oxygen.
Finally I could endure no more, and staggered to the porch where he hung his laundry to dry. A damp chilly night opened my lungs immediately, and my sinuses began to drain. I should've grabbed shoes and a coat, but I was too relieved to be able to breathe to care that I was cold.
What sort of sick twist of fate is this? I mused at the sky. I finally get to be back in my favorite country, with the man I want to marry; someone I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that will fascinate me and challenge me and inspire me for the rest of my life, no matter what; someone who knows perfectly how to love me, and effortlessly to get me to reciprocate. We finally are together again, but my life is in ruins, he isn't well, and I'm allergic to his apartment. If we aren't meant to live our lives together, why can't we at least enjoy this short time that we both fought to have? Why don't we deserve to share at least that?
Click for Part II.
Click for Part III.
Click for Part IV.
Click for Part V.
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