Sticky floors and the vomit-tinged scent of stale beer. That was the setting when I realised the man I was dating was Someone Serious.
We were on our first weekend away on what the Bridget Jones generation (yes, I am a member) recognise as the relationship milestone of a “minibreak”. But being completely honest, for me it was less of a milestone and more of a test.
Brent was not my type. Mostly because he called me back, texted daily and didn’t seem to think I was a work-in-progress who needed an upgrade. I was in my mid-ish 30s and had been dating for two decades. But still, I was much too cool to be serious with someone like that. Someone available. Someone secure. Someone … happy.
But we liked each other. We got along. And he wasn’t going away.
We went to a holiday town on the south coast of New South Wales. It’s a safe distance to travel if you’re not sure what you’re getting into. Close enough to feign food poisoning and flee back to the city if needed; far enough to make you feel the freedom of a place visited for pleasure, not work.
We stayed in an ordinary red-brick motel, our ground-floor room opening on to a sizzling asphalt car park. We planned a beach day, a dinner at a Thai restaurant and a bushwalk. It was hot as hell. My low expectations dulled the usual insecurity about being seen in a swimsuit (even by someone who’s seen you in less). I brought a book to read on the sand, I called a friend for a chat. Let it be said, I was not trying hard.
The thing about underestimating people is that you are almost always wrong. There was something about being free of the city, a few days away from my job and my smart, cynical colleagues. Distance from my friendship group and our constant vigilance for flaws in any potential ‘person”. A bit of buffer from the entertaining chatter that dissected dates into hilarious anecdotes and mockable moments.
That weekend, I stopped listening to that. If you think I’m going to say I started listening to my own inner voice, nope. I started listening to Brent.
Brent had been around the world, alone. He’d worked in the Middle East. His family was complicated, scattered and loving. He’d been heartbroken by his last relationship. He’d written a book’s manuscript, by hand, while he backpacked around South America. Brent had lost his best friend, too young, to cancer. He’d once tried, and failed, to save a man from drowning in a tropical sea. He still loved swimming in the ocean, more than almost anything – almost as much as his mum, who had raised him and his siblings mostly alone, was a psychic, and, as I would find out later, the most fun. So was Brent. Funny, extroverted, generous, kind.
That weekend, dripping wet on the sand, lying in bed and over too-shiny noodles, I coloured in the person I’d sketched out back in Sydney.
We found ourselves in the pub. I love awful pubs. TV screens with racing dogs, scowling men who’ve been sitting at the bar too long. One bottle of everything. A swill trough. A jukebox. The sort of pub my Sydney friends wouldn’t be caught dead in. The sort of pub I wouldn’t let them catch me dead in.
It was all a blur, that night, drinking and laughing and kissing on barstools. Until Nutbush City Limits blasted from the jukebox. I didn’t know it was possible for a grown man who’d spent much of his life in Australia to miss learning the steps to the country’s de facto national dance. But no.
The Nutbush was a skill I’d acquired as a backpacker, trying to assimilate to the questionable customs of white Australia. Now I was teaching this man to kick and spin and jump; we were laughing and sweating and stumbling into each other. And I was very, very happy.
I don’t want to sound like the goldilocks of serial monogamy, but none of the people I had been seeing over the previous years would have been just right for that moment.
Too serious. Too cool. Too sober. Too stoned.
But the version of me that wasn’t trying hard felt a sense of freedom, comfort and joy. It was instantly addictive, but safe.
The next day I had a terrible headache. We still went bushwalking. And we’re still together now, 17 years later. We live on the south coast of NSW, not that far from that terrible pub, with our kids, our dog and our uncoolest selves.
Holly Wainwright is the author of The Couple Upstairs, out now via Macmillan Australia. She is head of content at women’s media company Mamamia.