Erin Riley – Periwinkle Blue

The wedding’s off, but something else is on …

When you google image search ‘shades of blue’ tables filled with all the blues appear across the screen. There is navy blue, cobalt, steel, spruce, electric, Persian, oxford, ultramarine. There is berry blue, indigo and Egyptian blue. Sky blue. Azure, Airforce and bleu de France.

I was googling all the blues because there was a blue that sat, deftly, on the tip of my tongue. A blue I had forgotten. It was the colour of blue that covered the outside of the tiniest most delightful terrace house my partner Merryn and I had just bought together. I was trying to write the letter we had long avoided writing. A note to tell our friends that we would not be getting married as we’d planned in November. The pandemic had halted that situation, for now. We knew it was impossible to have the kind of party we had dreamed about with our friends who were locked inside—their only holiday to a shop within five kilometres. The pandemic had shifted how we thought about how or what our wedding might look like and indeed even its centrality to us and our friends in a world that had turned ghastly overnight. Each weekend we’d promise to send out our note and each Sunday would roll by without us having written anything. It was as if every weekend we pushed back against reality, staving off sadness, hoping our denial might fuel an alternate reality.

What is the colour of our new house? I asked Merryn after work. I did all the googling and it was not an easy find, but Merryn knew.

Periwinkle blue. Though it is often disguised as lavender.

That’s it. I put it in our note. Told our favourite people that we’d not be getting married in Summer but that we had poured our love and commitment to each other into a tiny periwinkle blue terrace in Erskineville.

There is a lot of privilege in both of these things—the getting married and buying a home. Many, myself included, appreciate that in a world that remains so unequal and unjust, these are not often at the top of queer people’s lists of life-dreams. Many have hesitations and complicated feelings about participating in the theatrics of homo-normativity—particularly the desire to enter into an institution that long slammed the door in the faces of queer people.

As queers—despite the privilege we have, as white people from families who have been supportive of our queer lives, educated and with stable work—both of these things for a long time felt out of reach. So far out of reach they weren’t even aspirations. For years, I perceived queers wanting to get married as blind to the dangers of capitalism. I was ok for the institution to be entered into and used to support continent-scattered lovers gain citizenry, yet I still opposed it—out of dogged principle.

Marriage is mostly culturally appreciated as monogamous and an institution that promotes traditional-types of relationships. For radical queers, queers entering into these dusty old dynamics were seen as diluting their own radical histories and solidifying a technology of social control. Getting gay married is seen by its critics as way of queers assimilating, of shoring up a rubbish institution—of buying into media hype that somehow marriage is the gateway to a meaningful life.

And here I am, still thinking it’s rubbish and needs dismantling. With my complicated feelings about my own complicity. I don’t believe my getting married neglects the violence of the institution, nor do I think my not getting married undercuts or dismisses wholly the struggles of queer and trans justice more generally. There is an argument that says queer marriage just puts a shine on a system that has always been harmful and that queers entering harmful systems won’t change social or cultural outcomes for people who live on the margins—that marriage’s deeper sexist, colonial, racist structures remain. .

We live in a deeply imperfect world. I held onto radical queer ideas because this was what I thought I needed to do. I hold them still, but with a less vice-like grip. I hold them with a sense of hope that things can sit together and that I am imperfect. A living and messy contradiction.

It is an individual desire, in a world that remains still so virulently homophobic and transphobic, to want to have something that culture and society has long denied to you—even if it’s mythology. Even though I thought I didn’t want it, I think, for many queer people, we internalise some of this—and deny ourselves the things (or even the idea of things—for maybe that’s all it is?) that might give us joy. Things we can re-make, re-story and re-purpose.

Sure, marriage doesn’t do much for unpicking the structural inequalities that infect queer and trans lives, but still I want to stand up in my finest outfit, with my budding moustache and tell my favourite people how much my partner means to me, how they have made my life profoundly joyful and commit to this life together—as a team. So much of my existence has been about other people’s comfort. It has been about blending in and not making too much noise.

It is just simpler to me now.

I am making a home and this is what it looks like.

After the auction we farewelled Merryn’s dad Stewart. Stewart, a paediatric oncologist, was on call for the afternoon. Merryn, their mum, Jill, and I walked in a sort of hazy elated daze up the street to have a coffee. I called my parents. I put them on loudspeaker—we bought a house! They were thrilled for us—yelping and congratulating burst though crackly reception. I called my aunt who had helped us out with a very generous loan and left a message on her answering machine.

We drove Jill back home over the harbour bridge—our nervous systems flooded with adrenaline. What the actual fuck said our eyes. We continued to look at each other in disbelief. Someone had died in a tragic head on collision on the harbour bridge just two days earlier. It felt almost unfair to be so happy—to think of the losses of others. That someone’s dreams and hopes had been dashed, lives instantly thrown into grief while our future simultaneously felt profoundly bright.

Driving home again, over the bridge to our rented unit.

What do we do now? We just bought a house!

What do you even do? No appetite yet—out hearts were in our mouths. Until Merryn took mine out and suggested we go home and fuck.

*

There’s something nice about fucking when you know that it’s been put on the list of plans for the day. You just know the fucking is going to happen. I appreciate these conversations when they happen, like on auction day—at least half an hour from home and in a very matter of fact way. Like talking about what’s needed at the shops, or going to the gym. Later, soon enough, the plan is we are going to fuck each other. It’s really hot. No fucking about, so to speak. I think this is a good thing for me sometimes, because it avoids the anxious moments you might have with a partner where you’re not sure if they want to have sex or just keep making out for a while. Those are spontaneous moments which are hot in a different way, in their unpredictability—but there is something wild to me about the nod of the head that happens when we plan like that.

I nod at Merryn in the car in Harriet Street Cremorne Point and quietly imagined the fucking that would happen later. The fun part about making fucking a task of the afternoon and there being many conversations in between, mostly about whether to reseal the wall after settlement or if we should get Terry the electrician, who over-shares but is sweet and kind, to fix the dodgy wiring, is that the reminder to get on with the task is also one that can be done in a similarly pragmatic fashion.

Are you ready to go into the bedroom?

We were drinking tea on the couch while continually repeating to each other we bought a house because it still felt as if body snatchers had acted on our behalf at the auction and this was not our actual life.

I’ll just wash up these cups.

And so, I went into our bedroom overlooking the pool and stripped down to my undies and my singlet while Merryn took a piss.

I like for layers to come off when we fuck—but I wanted to make it easier for Merryn. I enjoy these rituals, they feel strangely adult, disconnected and transactional but also intentional and in no way less hot. This is important—let’s make time. This is important—let me piss first. And so Merryn finds me, their faggot prince in white ribbed cotton, lazy and waiting. We fuck as the sun shines through our cream curtains. Just as we planned.

*

Once a week, we walk a small dog that belongs to some busy psychiatrists. It is a job that brings both of us a lot of joy. The small dog’s name is Fizzy and she is mostly ignored at home—her family working, schooling, forgetting her milling around their feet. And so, she comes with us in the car—and we take her to all the parks we know. Sometimes we’ll take her to the beach—though she is not a fan of water. She is a beautiful sight, our Fizzy, who is part sausage dog, part kelpie. Many passers-by look at her quizzically, some getting it right, others merely stating the obvious—oh a big sausage dog!

Fizzy is not one for balls, she just wants friends to run around with. She walks off the lead and doesn’t run away and she turns back for reassurance when she runs a little too far—as if to get permission to keep playing. Fizzy’s favourite person is Merryn—a thing we both share. When we pick her up and unlock the back fence, she writhes around in unadulterated ecstasy, jumping up and down, racing around in circles, trying to kiss our faces which are too far away for her. Barks of happiness come from deep inside her lumpy body and she is almost unable to contain her own joy. I haven’t had my heart broken by a dog until I witnessed Fizzy catching a glimpse of her favourite human.

It was a Saturday when we bought the tiny periwinkle blue terrace. We had saved Fizzy for the afternoon—knowing she would be the salve our souls needed if we did not have the winning bid at the auction—which we thought might be our reality. She would be the perfect bookend to our day—no matter what happened.

Because we had spent so long celebratory fucking we had finally developed an appetite, and so, on the way to collect our weekly dog, we stopped off and got felafel rolls from our favourite Lebanese pizza joint. I put on my green raincoat with the warm fleecy insides and the enormous pockets. Winter was almost at its end—though the air was still crisp at 4pm. Merryn drove the car and I spent half the ride texting our favourite people our house news. Our faces flushed, oxytocin overloaded, we continued to look at each other, smiling at our good fortune. Still shocked by this new reality. We bought a house. We balanced felafel rolls, a crunchy oily mess full of garlic sauce, pickles, tomato and kalamata olives and fresh deep-fried green crispy felafel, on our knees, oil seeping through the wrapping between desperate mouthfuls.

We pulled into the driveway of Fizzy’s house to the sounds of her familiar yelps. We drove her to Sydney Park—the dog wonderland which once upon a time was an enormous city rubbish tip but is now one of the most beautiful city parks around. Our new periwinkle blue terrace is only a few streets walk from Sydney Park. We have decided that we would like to see our new home, outside the madness of an auction and so once Fizzy has chased a few uninterested dogs around, we take ourselves to just stand outside our home and just look at it. We find some friends on the way—who we convince to come with us. We bought a house today! we say. There is it with its SOLD sticker and its wonky front door, with the triangular gap at the top big enough for a piece of pizza to slide right through. They are impressed and we stand across the road in the small park opposite and imagine the life we will have inside there soon.

*

We stroll back through the streets of our new suburb back to the old tip. We let Fizzy off the lead and she runs and plays and comes back for reassurance and encouragement. Merryn gives this to Fizzy and she scuttles off again. We sit quietly on the edge of the park overlooking the city. Taking in one of the biggest days we have lived—a day where our commitment to doing life together has taken on new meaning—we hold each other gratefully as the sun sets and the air gets icy. We will be able to walk here soon—maybe with a dog

of our own. Our future dog’s name is Egg and we speak often about how much Egg will love it here in Sydney Park. Merryn says that it would be a crime against the dog community if we rescued a dog that did not like parks or other dogs. I agree. The sun begins to sets and we take a selfie with the green grassy hill behind us as we watch the light fade over the city—beaming into the camera.

After we had dropped Fizzy back home to the psychiatrists, we stopped by my mum and dad. They had spent the day with my sister and her family—dad was wiped out from endless block-building with Lilah, my two-year-old niece. Dad had bought a bottle of prosecco on the way home. Dad’s love language is gift giving and he’s really thoughtful that way. Holding onto small bits of information—what you like, what you need—he shows his care in the only way he really knows how. Once, when I worked at Civic Video Newtown, in my first stint living out of home and struggling to pay rent, I looked up at the next customer and it was dad, hands full of groceries.

*

So, we popped the champas, to celebrate the periwinkle blue terrace on the one-way street opposite the park that we still cannot comprehend is ours. We toasted this big life achievement and re-told our auction story. The audacity of my undercutting the vendor bid, Stewart and Jill with their duck bill face masks on either side of us whispering words of wisdom—reminding us to keep our cool. How before the auction we’d asked the agent whether the owners might be willing to add the fire pit into the contract and they did and now we have a house and a firepit.

I’m an easy drunk now. Though I still drink at the same pace I did when I wasn’t as easy. We downed two glasses of bubbles and got to that sweet spot where the anxiety of family relating is dulled and things are just a little easier. I don’t know how we got onto the topic of hands, but we did. Mum’s sister, my aunt Dianne, who died a few years ago, had the most beautiful hands, mum reckons. She’d have them manicured and painted every week and on her deathbed in the palliative care unit in Greenwich Hospital—they were still painted bright red and beautiful. Mum recounted a story about a hand model from the 50s who did nothing in life but constantly wear gloves. She did nothing else in case she ruined them. No swimming, no washing dishes, no rock-climbing. What a wasted life.

I was instantly reminded of Nicole Kidman’s strange clapping at the 2017 Oscars. Except she is not clapping really. She is slapping her palms together with her fingers outstretched, curving outwards as if her fingers were trying to escape their life attached to Nicole’s hands. She is clapping as if she has flippers instead of hands. Clapping like a seal—her hands inverted parentheses protecting her 119 carats of diamonds, apparently. Like any good meme, when plucked from the crevices of memory, it provides the most gratifying laugh. My parents had not seen this video and I had completely forgotten it existed. We pulled it up on YouTube and watched it many times over and fell about laughing.

*

We drove home. I didn’t post a photo on the internet about how we had just bought a home. It felt too showy for the current moment. We will tell people in time, we thought, but not on Instagram. Though I do post the photo of the two of us on the hill.

In the photograph, if you are looking at it, Merryn is on the left and I am on the right. We smile into the camera. Merryn’s hair is wispy and tied back, though strands of it curl upwards and catch the last sunlight. Merryn’s hair is mostly silver now, grey strands interrupted by snowy rivers and I never tell them this enough, but I am so into it, that salt and pepper. Dimples pierce both of Merryn’s cheeks and pull at the edges of a toothy smile. I am smiling too—my face crinkled at the mouth and at the eyes. My wrinkles are ripples in a pool, retreating into my cheeks. My mullet, untrimmed since March, falls in barrel curls at my shoulders and the top sits flat and neat, as if a side part has asked the rest to walk in the other direction.

There is a lot of performativity in a selfie, though this photo lacks the orchestration usually reserved for the main page—which needs multiple takes for the perfect imperfect shot of a moment. In polyvagal theory, a bodily understanding of the role the nervous system plays in shaping understandings of safety, there is a concept called ‘neuroception’. It is the ways in which we, unconsciously, respond to cues of safety from within our bodies. It is a seeking out for who is safe, approachable. It is our eyes that do this work—and it is in the wrinkles of the eyes where this seeking out begins. It communicates not only that we feel safe, but that we are safe for other people. In diving into polyvagal theory, I have learnt more about the face. And it is with this new obsession that I look at this photograph of us on the hill in Sydney Park.

There is a genuine smile and there is a social smile. I know that the genuine smile is also known as the Duchenne smile, after the 19th Century French physician Guillaume Duchenne who spent years studying facial expressions. In his smile—the eyes close, the cheeks move and the eyes crinkle at their edges. The muscles that move the cheeks are called the zygomatic major and those that wrinkle the eyes, the orbicularis oculi. Ours are well alive in this photo, they are dancing. We are sending cues far and wide that we are safe and we are home.

BIO

Erin Riley is a 36 y/o non-binary social worker who lives in Sydney. They have worked in aged care for most of the last decade but now work as a palliative care social worker in the (in)justice system at Long Bay Prison. Erin enjoys reading, making breakfast, routines that rarely change, riding their spin bike in the garage and endless cups of tea. Erin read 30 books in 2020 and has appreciated the time away from full time work to continue working on becoming a better writer.

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