In 2004, while parliament was busy amending the Marriage Act to ensure that I could never marry, I was busy falling in love with a woman and a house and the possibility of a lawn.
I had fallen in love with Heather a few months earlier, but things grew more serious when we rented a house together in Brisbane’s inner west. I can’t say for sure what it was about the house that so thrilled us on first sight. Maybe it was the polished floors, or the purple and yellow vintage glass in the windows, or the enormous weeping fig tree in the back yard. Maybe it was the way the light seemed not to shine but to tumble into the house, or the way the windows opened onto the verandah, which opened in turn onto the back yard. Something about the place suggested possibility.
For me, the house also marked a shift that was not just physical. It was the first time I’d lived with a partner full-time. And, although I didn’t know it yet, this shift would lead to my coming out to my family—and to an even bigger commitment than I could have imagined.
When we moved in, Heather and I discovered that we had a problem back yard. Apart from the few trees, nothing seemed to grow, not even grass. The trees, including the enormous weeping fig that we had at first so admired, cast shade across most of the yard and wove a violent net of roots beneath it. Anything we planted would be starved from above or choked from beneath. We were stuck with a yard of dirt, roots and rotting leaves. Even worse, whenever one of Brisbane’s massive storms hit, rainwater swept through our sloping back yard, dragging away even more topsoil. Our suburb seemed to be built on rocks and 150 years of urban waste: concrete, tiny shards of porcelain, marbles, rusty nails, the ring-pulls from ancient cans. We learned to wear thongs to the clothesline.
From the back verandah I looked with envy at our neighbours’ yards: landscaped, tidy, green. One had a pool, the other had water features.
‘Yuppies,’ I said to Heather.
We inflated a rainbow-coloured wading pool, put it on the verandah, and invited our friends over to drink beer. We expected to simply tolerate and mainly ignore the neighbours. But that’s not quite what happened. Slowly, we came to know them. To one side lived the Swains: mother, father, two young boys, three expensive cars. To the other side was Elsa, a recent widow in her early sixties. She lived alone with two Maltese terriers and spent a lot of time in her garden, which was lush with ferns and fountains. Sometimes I watched as she watered her plants. She always looked tired, and grief seemed to hang about her shoulders like a yoke. Elsa kept to herself, except to peer over the fence sometimes to comment on the weather.
A few months after we moved in, I decided to attempt a lawn, against all odds. Heather and I were both postgraduate students, so we couldn’t afford to do a major garden refurbishment. Instead, I bought a packet of grass seeds. Some of the other, more expensive grasses had beautiful names. But the one I bought didn’t have a beautiful name. It was some kind of hybrid—a mongrel—called Sun ‘n’ Shade. The box said that this grass was tough, drought-resistant and could grow in shady or sunny conditions.
I made only the barest of efforts to prepare the earth—that way, I safeguarded against disappointment if the grass didn’t take. With a plastic rake, I scraped at the ground that I could get at between the criss-crossing roots. I sprinkled the seeds down, covered them over with a little soil, and watered them. And then I allowed myself the smallest surge of hope.
Within a few days, the seeds sprouted. Within a few weeks, they were two-inch spears of electric green, soft and brilliant. Elsa poked her head over the fence and nodded at the grass.
‘The grass is looking good,’ she said. Her flat, Dutch vowels matched her pragmatism. ‘But I’m not sure you’ll have much luck. It’s just too shady under the trees.’
Elsa was right. Within a few months, much of the grass had died. Still, a persistent patch of a few square metres was holding on in the middle of the yard, to the side of the Hills Hoist. I watered it when I could, but tried not to hope too much. If it was going to last, it had to adapt to the conditions: scarce water, abundant heat, and a bed of roots and debris.
Over time, we came to know and like Elsa. But she could be breathtakingly blunt. ‘Oh, you got your hair cut,’ she would say. ‘I liked it better before.’
At first, we thought it was because she was old. ‘No,’ said Heather’s Dutch–Australian friend. ‘It’s because she’s Dutch.’
Whether or not this was the case, we put up with Elsa being Dutch, and she put up with our being queer, and things continued along smoothly. We passed slices of cake over the fence to her at Christmas. We went with her to the vet clinic at the end of the street when one of her terriers was injured. And we gratefully accepted her offer of bromeliads, which were one of the few plants that seemed impervious to the drought, and transplanted them into the garden beds out the front.
About a year after we moved in, Elsa started seeing a new man. Heather and I were intrigued, and impressed by her boldness. We spied on Bob from our back verandah as he came and went. He had a florid complexion, a bald head and a small pot belly. He always wore beige or navy walk shorts teamed with the kind of chunky leather sandals that only old men wear. Elsa said Bob had been in the navy but was now retired. Improbably, she also told us that he practised reiki and knew things about energies—of a room, say, or a person. Elsa loved to dance, so she and Bob went ballroom dancing once a week. The reiki and the dancing didn’t seem quite to match the Bob we’d seen. But for the first time since we’d moved in, we heard Elsa laugh—a hearty, bold laugh—and we knew she was happy. She even bought a bicycle and set off, unsteadily, with Bob for her first bike ride in decades.
One day Bob poked his head over the fence and told us that he was about to lop some tree branches. A couple of Elsa’s trees extended across our yard, adding to our shade problem.
‘While I’m at it, do you want me to trim some of those trees of yours?’ he asked. ‘It wouldn’t be too hard, and it’ll make a real difference to your grass.’ That afternoon, Heather and I spent hours with Bob and his complicated array of ropes and chainsaws. Our job was to hold things steady, keep clear of falling branches, and clear away the mess. Bob was doing us a favour, so we put up with his old-man jocularity and his habit of looking down our shirts when we bent to pick up branches. And he was right; in the end, our back yard was no longer shady, but dappled with light.
After that, the grass began to settle in. It crept, slowly and erratically, across the yard. For a few months, I thought we might have a great lawn after all. Now I could stand on grass in the back yard, instead of rubble and the woody seams of tree roots. But then the drought worsened, and the water restrictions tightened. Ever since I had started the lawn, council restrictions meant I could water only three times a week. Soon we had a total watering ban.
The small patch of grass turned to straw.
‘Your grass is going to die, babe,’ Heather said to me.
‘No it’s not,’ I told her. ‘Not necessarily.’
Around this time, Heather and I were planning a trip to the United States, Heather’s homeland, to visit her family. We decided to make the trip memorable by stopping off in Canada and marrying in Toronto. It was the most important decision of our lives, and we buzzed with excitement in the lead-up to the trip. We even told Elsa about it.
And so, one freezing day that December, at Toronto City Hall, Heather and I stood before a celebrant and a dozen guests. We stood there with our eyes shining and promised from this day forth, and for richer or poorer, and for better or worse, I do. Afterwards, we stood outside and laughed into the freezing wind as ice-skaters carved their way across a rink behind us. And even though the Australian Parliament had amended the Marriage Act to make our Canadian marriage illegitimate, even though our marriage would mean nothing in legal terms back in Brisbane, Heather and I were thrilled. We were married.
We returned to a blistering summer and brown grass. And Elsa. As soon as she saw us, she told us we were looking fat, and asked us all about the wedding.
‘I’ll have to come over and see the photographs,’ she said. Elsa’s reactions were always tricky to predict. But it was clear that, even though we were queer, she was pleased about the marriage.
A few days later, I was looking out at the lawn when I saw Bob on Elsa’s back verandah.
‘How was your trip?’ he asked.
‘It was great,’ I told him. ‘We went to Florida and Massachusetts and up into Canada. I saw snow for the first time.’
As it turned out, Bob had spent time in Canada many years earlier.
‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ I said.
‘Beautiful,’ he agreed. ‘If you don’t mind me asking, did you go there for any special reason?’
I didn’t know if Bob knew that Heather was my lover. I thought Elsa had probably told him at some point, but I couldn’t be sure. I thought about all that Elsa had said about Bob’s kindness. How he’d spent hours fixing her car. And how he practised reiki. The only other reiki practitioners I’d known were extremely open-minded people, people who came from places such as Byron Bay and Lismore and had names like Squid and Cosmos. I decided to take a chance on Bob.
‘Actually, Heather and I went to Canada to get married.’
Bob’s eyes popped and his mouth dropped open. He took a step towards the back door, away from me. It was clear that he was horrified by me, by us, by our marriage. It was a visceral reaction.
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Oh. Ah, well …’ It was as though his body expressed the emotions that his voice could not. He stammered for what seemed a long time. I didn’t know what to do, except prepare for the worst. I couldn’t react until he reacted. And I knew his reaction wasn’t going to be good.
Finally, he seemed to fold in on himself. He turned his face to neutral. In a cold, proper voice, he said, turning away from me, ‘Well, if that’s the way you want to be … good luck to you.’
And it was clear that he wished Heather and me very bad luck indeed, or any sort of luck, so long as he never had to speak to us again.
I didn’t know what to say. A tide of shame washed over me, followed by anger.
All I managed was a weak ‘We’re very happy.’
His response was a curt and final ‘Good afternoon.’
He stalked off into the house. The screen door slammed behind him. I stood on the verandah for a while longer, cursing myself for telling Bob. I’d been too relaxed, too comfortable. I cursed Bob, too. I blamed his age, his generation, the same generation as Philip Ruddock and the rest who’d gone out of their way to alter the Marriage Act, to state that marriage occurred between a man and a woman ‘to the exclusion of all others’, and that certain unions, such as my marriage to Heather, were not real marriages.
Bob never talked to us again. I saw his head shining beyond the fence a couple more times, and then never again. By mid autumn, Elsa decided her house was too large for her now that she was in her sixties and her children had long since moved out. She sold her house to a young couple with toddlers and moved to another suburb.
Six months after Elsa moved out, she dropped in to say hello. She told me, proudly, that her new house was going well. Standing on our front verandah, she frowned down on the yard that used to be hers, used to be green and alive.
‘Doesn’t the garden look terrible?’ she said.
‘It’s the water restrictions,’ I told her. ‘It’s impossible to water.’
‘Yes.’ Her tone suggested that she didn’t fully believe me. She had always kept the place nice, even during the restrictions.
‘How’s Bob?’ I asked.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘No, I got rid of him.’
‘You dumped him?’
‘Yes,’ she said, wrinkling up her nose like a little girl. ‘He was acting so old. Wanting to stay home all the time when I wanted to go out dancing. But I’ve met a new fellow, and we’ve gone out a few times.’
‘Yeah. This one’s a bit younger. He’s sixty-five.’
That night Heather and I sat on the back verandah drinking beer and talking about the day. I told her about Elsa’s visit, and we cheered at the idea of her dancing with her new man. As we drank, we looked out on the lawn. It had never fully recovered after the scorcher of a summer when we were away. Now it was patchy, brown, balding.
‘Your grass is dead, honey,’ Heather said softly.
‘No it’s not. Not dead,’ I said. ‘It’s not even mortally wounded.’
I didn’t tell her what I was thinking then. Sometimes you have to wish things into existence, operate on faith more than logic. I wanted to walk on soft grass as I hung out the washing. I wanted to sit on grass in the winter sun, when the sunlight angled across the back yard. Grass is resilient and prone to dramatic reversals. It only needed time and a few good rains.
All I said was, ‘It’ll happen. Just you wait.’
‘We’ll have a lawn. Maybe next year.’