We met in that classic meeting place: a bar. Cherry Bar was my favourite in Melbourne; a dirty, grungy establishment tucked down an alleyway with graffiti all over the walls and more smokers outside the doors than punters dancing inside. At 26, I’d just spent six months solo travelling southeast Asia and was adjusting to life in the big Aussie city.
I went to Cherry with my British friend, Vic, for the legendary Thursday soul night. Our plan was a good old-fashioned girls’ night out to dance, drink and stare at boys. On arrival I scanned the dancefloor for the best-looking boy in the room so I could spend the rest of the night stealing looks his way and serendipitously ending up at the bar at the same time as him. That’s the first time I saw the Pirate. He stood out pretty well since he was wearing a black eye patch (hence the nickname). I was immediately intrigued by this mysterious, one-eyed, tall, dark and handsome stranger.
About an hour later, sweaty from dancing non-stop to soul classics, I returned from the bathroom to find Vic deep in conversation with the Pirate. Walking over from the bar with a round of beers, I introduced myself and saw that close up he was indeed painfully cute, even with one eye (he’s been rocking a glass eye since an accident as a teenager). A flirtatious back-and-forth ensued where he mocked my British accent and I suggested he was very possibly a one-eyed creep.
And then we had one of those moments which occasionally happens between total strangers – as if the stars have aligned – where you both think exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. There was a definite inevitability about the Pirate and I. I’d been magnetically drawn to him since the moment I spotted him across the smoke-filled dancefloor and, as it turned out, he felt exactly the same towards me. So as soon as the Aussie Pirate suggested heading back to his for a drink I was already there; it had already happened.
Thus began years of indefinability. To begin with he only wanted a physical connection. His job was highly stressful and he was working abroad a lot; to have a girlfriend was neither convenient or desirable – particularly a British girlfriend who was leaving the country in a few months. It made sense to keep things light, but it didn’t sit well with me. Like a Bridget Jones-esque cliché of a desperate single woman, I was at his beck and call every time he texted. If he cancelled our plans at the last minute I would be horribly upset, yet never said anything to him. I forgave him every time. I would, in fact, cancel my own plans to spend an evening with the Pirate at a moment’s notice.
He had all the control and I had none – until I went ahead and left the country. Like a high school student who leaves their homework to the last minute, the Pirate made a sudden mad dash to be with me the day before I departed for New Zealand. He came to my leaving party; he met all my friends. To them he was the stuff of legend, heard of but never seen in person. But here he was with all his beautiful, masculine charm telling me how important saying goodbye to me was and that he “wouldn’t miss it for anything”.
“But all this time, I’ve been so sure you didn’t really care about me. That you could take it or leave it…” I protested. He pulled me in close as if he had never been this enigmatic, mysterious character who had come in and out of my life like the hokey cokey for the past six months. After letting him have anything he wanted from me and asking for nothing in return, it all seemed too good to be true. Too little, too late. I left at 5am on my flight to Wellington the following morning as planned.
“I’ll see you somewhere in the world, kid.” he promised me (ironic, since I was one year older than he). I desperately tried to quash all the hopes he was building with one sentence. The connection was real and it was a relief that he had finally admitted it after so long; yet it angered me, too. We had never attempted to define our ambiguous relationship to one another and outwardly I maintained an easy-going, carefree attitude towards him. In reality, I had spent countless hours obsessing over what we may or may not mean to one another, every so often vowing never to see him again yet acquiescing immediately whenever a text arrived. I was weak in his presence and felt out of control in an exciting, life-affirming way. As soon as he disappeared again I agonised over when I would next see him (if ever); whether I was letting him use me; whether I was completely misguided in my belief that this wasn’t just sex.
I’d been back home in England for six months when the Pirate walked into the bar I worked at, motorcycle helmet in hand, with the same Aussie drawl I remembered well and the same knee-weakening handsomeness. I poured him a beer and tried to dispel the utter disbelief and awkwardness I felt that he was actually standing in front of me. Surely, this wasn’t meant to happen? We’d never been together together, so why on earth would the Pirate come halfway around the world to see an English girl he used to occasionally hang out with?
Of course, I was as weak around him as ever. We spent two weeks riding his motorcycle on a tour de England and never once talked about how odd this reunion was or what it might mean, except to acknowledge that the whole affair felt strangely normal and inevitable on some level. I tried many times to gather the courage to have a relationship-defining conversation and failed miserably. I knew that if I even suggested there was something real between us there was a high probability he would jump on his bike and be gone like a bat out of hell. The atmosphere between us was tense; he knew I wanted to clarify what was happening, and I knew he couldn’t. Once he left England to explore the continent he seemed to have left my life for good, with so many questions hanging in the air and I none the wiser of what had really gone on between us.
The next time I saw the Pirate was a year and a half later. I was back in Melbourne for only four days and we’d been texting for weeks. He knew I was in town and asked if he could see me. Predictably, I said yes to the man I seemed unable to say no to. Walking up the street to the bar we’d chosen as a meeting spot I saw him standing there by his motorcycle, helmet in hand. He was as handsome as ever with a huge, awkward smile on his face. I was a bag of nerves trying so hard to act nonchalant.
Drinks were ordered and we caught up on the 18-month hiatus we had taken from each other. He was warm, happy and more confident than I had ever seen him before. He told me I was “looking well”, a classic Australian understatement meant to let me know he was still attracted to me. Before I knew it we were leaving the bar and had had a really fun night. The connection was still there, yet something was different.
I no longer had the overwhelming urge to define our relationship for myself; finally, I was happy to just enjoy it for what it was. Social conditioning had led me to believe that I needed my relationships neatly labelled – society dislikes ambiguity. Yet I’d grown up over the previous couple of years to realise that not every encounter can be defined by the limited roles and language we have invented to choose from. This was the reality: we enjoyed being together and felt happy and incredibly comfortable in each other’s company. It wasn’t a straightforward love story – neither of us had much hope of it ever going anywhere – but during the short time we spent together that didn’t matter.
As if he could sense my newfound ambivalence, the Pirate 180-ed on me and spent three days pretty much behaving like my boyfriend. He bought me dinner and drove me around the city; he texted me all the time; he hugged me like he meant it and told me I was beautiful. He’d inadvertently taught me that a relationship doesn’t have to be serious and rule-laden to be important. We were making up our own rules together.
We said goodbye in that classic leaving place: the airport. He met up with me a few hours before my flight at our favourite sort of Melbourne hangout: a dingy bar. As we walked to his car after a final drink he casually slung his arm across my shoulders as if we had been together for years. Which, in a way, we had. Perhaps it was meaningful; maybe it was just a random moment of heightened affection – as always, his thoughts were as elusive as clouds blowing across the sky. All I knew was it felt good.
He insisted on walking me to the departure gate and stood there until I disappeared out of sight, our eyes locked on each other in the last moments. I texted him from the boarding lounge: “That didn’t feel like a forever goodbye.” He instantly replied: “No, it really didn’t.”