I am five years old. A gentle rain is tatting upon the veranda tin outside my bedroom window. I am laying in bed, the blanket pulled up to my little dimpled chin. I take an arm out to reach for my grandmother. She is sitting on a wooden chair beside my bed, watching over me.
“Nan, will you hold my hand until I fall asleep?” I say.
“Of course, sweetheart.”
“But I have to be asleep, okay? Before you let go. Promise?”
She takes my hand. Her skin is loose and wrinkled and warm in my tiny grasp. I close my eyes as I listen to the tinrain’s caress – contented and comfy and utterly safe, cocooned by blanket and love.
My first kiss occurred at a weekend party during high school. A drum fire is raging. Noughties pop music was raging. The air is filled with chatter and ember and laughter and song.
I am seated in a ring around the drum fire.
Everyone but a handful of sober Christians and my best friend Colin are hammered. I am nuked on Bundy rum. It isn’t worth the hassle of pouring coke and Bundy into a glass and then refueling, so instead I funelled rum straight into a 2 litre bottle of coke. It is one third alcohol and potent; my perception wobbles as the party slides across me in a tippled haze.
High school parties are like no drinking expeditions which follow. They are carefree, horny & hormonal; anything we think we are burdened by at the time is typically a superficial drama. In high school, you celebrate weekend friendship by lubricating it with booze. Parties are rarely the escapes which can come from drinking into adulthood.
Tara and Jolene are making their way around the burning drum, sitting on the laps of guys and girls, kissing them in turn like a horny production line. I take a swig from my bottle ‘o grog, its weight a one-handed challenge. I stare through glazed eyes, wondering if they will complete the kissing circle with me in it.
And then they do.
Tara is the first to kiss me. She sits on my lap and leans in, taking my lips in hers. She is warm and soft and wet and… scotchy. I grin, giggle. Next Jolene sits on my lap and lifts my chin with her hand. She kisses me and it is warm and wet and sponsored by vodka.
The girls pass to the next guy beside me and I lift my colossal rum bottle and drink from it again. It occurs to me that these are my first kisses. It feels good and yet – somehow hollow. It is a moment of passion devoid of any love, of any romance. I had always imagined my first kiss to contain some kind of magic – Disney had promised me that.
That night around the fiery ring, my first kisses – weren’t born of love or magic. I was just another guy in the kissy conga line.
Like a shark, I circle
My next kiss comes nearly five years later.
It is unwelcome.
The floor outside my bedroom door creaks as she shifts her weight. The Fiend is stalking me again, listening for the sound of masturbation. She tells me she does this regularly, intent upon catching me in the act. It makes me paranoid and reluctant to do anything with myself beneath the sheets.
“I know you’re there.”
She opens my door and lets herself in. She laughs, disappointed and cheeky.
“I’ll catch you one of these days.”
“Because you’re a naughty boy!”
She climbs onto my bed and lays beside me. As so often around her, I am conflicted. I adore cuddles, I’m a cuddly person, and bed cuddles are a special kind of cuddle. There is something lovely about sharing warmth with someone in a bed. And yet – she is a great meandering wrong. She scares me. I don’t know where the line is with her, I feel next to no love for her beyond that of a close friendship. Cuddling her comes with risk.
She begins to play with my chest, and again – I am conflicted. She is the first person to acknowledge and accept my girly side, and it amazes me that it doesn’t repulse her the way I fear it would others. I have tiny gynocomastic man-shaped boobs and I dream of them being larger, of playing with them and having them played with. So as she plays with them, I don’t know what to think. I don’t feel comfortable and yet, maybe this is as close to affection as I will ever deserve. If I reject the only person who shows any interest in me, can I ever be loved by another?
She pulls the blanket down. I shift, unsure what to do. She kisses my chest and begins sucking on my left nipple, tracing my right with her finger. She leans back up, traces my left nipple.
“Round and round the nipple, like a shark I circle,” she says in song, “one step, two step, tickle him under there.”
And then she tickles my arm pit. I relax. She is just playing. This is okay. Is this okay?
Then she kisses me gently. I freeze, paralyzed. Her lips are warm but somehow coarse. I am shaking, the shock of the experience uncomfortable and numbing.
“You have baby soft lips,” she says.
I look away.
She traces my nipple again.
“Round and round the nipple, like a shark I circle…”
Fireworks on a Vivid eve
It is the week of Amanda’s birthday, and we are going on our second date. I have spoiled her rotten, spending everything I have on an assortment of gifts – a crystal bracelet, a small army of boutique shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers and oils I have discovered on my own journey to womanhood, enough to fill 3 massive gift bags. I have made a booking at Jimmy Blancos in Surry Hills, the home of among the best of Sydney’s boutique burgers. She orders a triple cheeseburger, I order a halloumi burger. They are towering and delicious.
After dinner, we head to Darling Harbour in an echo of our first date. It is the early weeks of the Vivid Festival and Sydney is drowning in gorgeous light and colour displays. The night is freezing by the water and we hold hands, sharing warmth. We head to The Fudge Shop and buy an assortment of fudges, then head back outside where I have booked a ride on the Darling Star Ferris Wheel.
We get our tickets and take place in the queue. She cuddles into me as we wait together, the turning illuminated wheel glowing above us. When we come to the onboarding attendant, he asks us how many we’d like in our gondola, and we answer in unison:
The ride takes off, the gondola gently rocking. Amanda sits opposite me and we grin at each other, unwrap some of the fudge and eat it as the ferris wheel takes us high into the Darling sky.
Then Amanda gets up and comes over to me, the gondola swings and tilts as the weight is redistributed inside it. She sits beside me and puts her head on my shoulder, I can feel her breath sweep across my neck. My heart shudders, and I wonder – should I kiss her? Could I kiss her?
In my imagination, both good and bad things play out – I imagine the two of us kissing passionately and of her rejecting me outright, our fledgling relationship grinding to a halt there in the gondola. Worse – she’s trapped in there with me, if I make a move and she’s not receptive, the poor girl won’t be able to escape my cretinous orbit.
Her head lifts off my shoulder and she stares into my eyes. Her eyes seem to change colour by the day – sometimes they appear blue with a golden ring, other days green with a brown ring. Tonight they are a pale blue with a Sonic golden ring. I am lost in them. It feels as if something is happening between us. We reach the apex of the Ferris wheel and it comes to a stop, our gondola gently rocking.
Do it… kiss her…
Suddenly, there is a loud crack and the night glows golden and red. A fireworks show has started on the shimmering water below. It is beautiful and we have the greatest view of it in the harbour. We move closer to the window and look out to watch the display. It is timed to music which sounds like the score to the film Gladiator – it is grand, bombastic and loud.
Our gondola swings again as the wheel takes off, slowly bringing us back down to ground as gorgeous colour explodes across our goose pimpled skin. Amanda looks back at me with an enthusiastic grin.
We disembark the ride and watch the remainder of the fireworks show from among a crowd of people on the pier. With every crack of light into the evening sky I wonder if this is the last explosion, that monster final bang which is a hallmark of all good firework shows. It comes, and the cool air is left calmer in its wake as a tailing smoke drifts gently across the sky.
The Harbour cruise
Next, we head to the wharves to board a cruise around Sydney Harbour. We are set to sail on the Royale – a vintage ferry whose crew offers us champagne as we board it. On board it is freezing, as people open windows and put their smartphones outside to get better shots of the myriad of artistic light displays upon the Barangaroo shore.
The night is gorgeous. The installations are stunning. There are giant illuminated forests, colour changing poles which stretch into the sky, an enormous glowing spider web, big colourful mushrooms and sculptures and Gumnut babies and strings of neon illuminating a slowly moving parade of people admiring the Vivid displays.
The Harbour Bridge itself is illuminated in colour changing lights like an enormous glowing coat hanger. People crane their necks and phones out the window as we pass under it, our boat rocking across broken, rippling neon waves; the ocean is alive and in Technicolor.
As our cruise rounds beyond the Opera House and we pass towards Milson’s Point, Luna Park comes into view with its giant shiny face. The iconic grinning teeth have been replaced by an array of screens which let visitors create avatars of themselves to display.
But there is only one face I am staring at now. She is craning her gaze up towards the Harbour Bridge. Then she looks back at me. Our gazes lock, and again I feel as if something is going to happen. The shiny world around me disappears and my focus narrows into the golden Sonic rings of her eyes.
I lean in – and promptly chicken out. I can’t do it. It’s too risky. She might not like it, she might not like me, this could ruin everything.
I put my forehead against hers and close my eyes.
And then it happens.
She kisses me.
At first, I do not open my eyes. She is soft, and warm. I try to capture every detail of her lips upon mine. For all the neon splay of Sydney Harbour that night, nothing comes close to the glow inside my chest in that moment.
I open my eyes and we grin like shitheads at one another, then get straight back to kissing.
This is the moment Disney promised me. This is that magic I had longed for my entire life. It took me 33 years to find it, but it comes with an unabashed joy I could only until that instant imagined. It is like nothing I have ever known, and yet it is familiar too, not through any echo of unspectacular kiss which preceded it, but from the spark of a thousand unfilled dreams of loving which have carried me into her soft embrace.
It is my first real first kiss.
The boat pulls back into Wharf 7 and we disembark. The night has grown colder and our teeth chatter a we wander back through the Harbour. We get hot chocolates at the Lindt Cafe to warm ourselves, then walk hand in hand upon a neon shore.
I am lying in Amanda’s bed. We are cuddling. Her arm is draped across my chest. My arm is wrapped around her as I stoke her shoulder with the thick of my thumb. She looks up at me and we kiss, then she nuzzles her head into my neck.
It is late in the evening. We are watching Rick and Morty on the small television at the end of her bed. Outside the wind has picked up, a storm is moving in. It circles dust and leaves and Sydney rubbish and I estimate based upon tracking from the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather station, I have a little over an hour before the rain hits.
I must leave soon anyway, to return to my capsule hotel. It is a tiny, innovative hotel on George Street, where instead of offering rooms, they offer tiny capsules which you crawl into. The place is run down, the lift doesn’t work so they offer free towels, the capsules are anything but sound proof, the climate control buttons simply turn a small, pointless fan on, the thin bedding is hard and the television built into the capsule wall doesn’t work. Later that night I will be laying there bathed in blue UV light, alone and lonely, munching on peanut butter fudge.
But not yet.
My friend Joey once told me after he met a girl in his twenties, who he has since married, that there’s no feeling quite like that of holding someone you love, afraid to fall asleep for you’d miss precious moments cradling them. At the time, I agreed with him, and pretended I understood what he was talking about. Like the lyrics to so many love songs, I mimicked the wisdom born of romantic love.
Yet it wasn’t until that night with Amanda, the night of our first kiss, that I finally appreciated what Joe and all those songs were talking about.
Cradling her there on her bed in her shoebox Burwood room, I felt a comfortable peace, a loving stillness I’d not felt since I was a child. I was afraid of falling into the void of sleep, afraid of turning back into a pumpkin at midnight as I returned to the capsule hotel.
In her warmth I was contented and comfy and utterly safe, cocooned by blanket and love.