Two of Us: Angelo and Cheri Portelli

Cheri, a flight attendant, and Angelo Portelli, a meteorologist, both 38, began dating in 1985. Since then they’ve lived separately and together in Japan, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, despite some people saying their relationship couldn’t last. They have two children: Sofia, 3 ½, and Noah, who was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes last year, at just 11 months of age.
Cheri says:

We were both 15 and living in Perth when we met. I went to a girls’ Catholic school, he went to a boys’ Catholic school and we caught the same bus every morning. I remember being with a friend of mine and seeing a new boy on the bus – Angelo – and I said to her I thought he was a bit of all right. Apparently he thought I was a bit of all right too.

One day, after we’d been catching the bus together for about a month, I got sick on the bus. I vomited all over my brother’s friends’ school bags so one of them took my hat and put it under my mouth and I vomited in that too. When we got to school my brother raced off to tell everyone, but Angelo stayed behind and gave me twenty cents to make sure I could call my parents. When I got home I said to my mother, ‘That boy I like just saw me vomit. I’ve blown it. That’s the end of that.’ My mother still quotes me!

One bus trip after that he seemed nervous, licking his lips and not talking much, and he asked me if I’d go out with him. We’ve been together 23 years now.

When my very Anglo family met Angelo they liked him; they could tell he was a sensible boy and that he loved me. My dad used to call him Guiseppe as a joke. That wore thin after a while. Angelo’s dad was really nice to me; his mum was in hospital for about a year so we didn’t meet straight away. When she got sick she had all four children living at home, but when she came out only Angelo was still there and he now had a girlfriend. We’d see each other every morning, every afternoon; we spent pretty much every minute together. My mother made sure when we were at home the door was open – she’d open it, I’d close it, she’d open it again. It was an adjustment for all of our parents because we were so young, and we were full on from the word go. It shocked them that we were so serious, but we knew there was something special between us.

We went to different high schools, different universities, then we went to Japan but Angelo could only stay for two months; I stayed for six. While I was away my parents split up and that upset me a lot. I got pretty negative about relationships and said to Ang I didn’t know if I wanted us to be a couple when I came back. That was hard for him. He’d just moved to Melbourne and didn’t really know anybody. But when I got back and saw him at the airport I knew it was the right thing to be together. Then he got a bit funny with me because for the first time he’d been living by himself and totally independent. Things were a bit rocky and we broke up for a grand total of 24 hours.

Then we moved back to Perth. I struggled to find work, though I’d been told my Economics-Japanese degree would make me very employable. Ang got transferred to Melbourne, then Perth again, when I saw a job ad for Japanese-speaking flight attendants. I got the job but it was based in Sydney. I was given four weeks’ notice to move. I cried every day of that four weeks but he was fine until the night before I had to leave then he absolutely lost it. He was working as a meteorologist and got a transfer after seven months to the company’s Melbourne office (they didn’t have an office in Sydney). We knew that after one year of flying I’d be able to start commuting to work from Melbourne to Sydney and then we could be together again.

Angelo found it tough for us to be in different cities. Life was going on normally for him but I wasn’t there. Whereas I was starting a whole new life in Sydney: new job, new city, new people – and people you fly with are pretty gregarious. I was having a great time, though I missed him. We saw each other about every six weeks. We were on the phone a lot and that was before mobiles and text messaging. I remember when I was in Japan we’d write letters to one another because to phone was so expensive whereas now when I go away we text each other every couple of hours. I think it worked because we really love each other.

I commuted from Melbourne to Sydney for seven years. It was always on standby so it was nerve-wracking not knowing if I’d get to work on time. I’d try to do that as little as possible by bidding for long-haul flights instead, but that meant I’d often be away for 14 days in Europe or Africa, then I’d be back for seven days and then do it again. It was hard for Angelo because I’d be home one minute then gone.

Angelo proposed about 2 weeks before I moved to Sydney to be a flight attendant. One afternoon in October, he said we should go watch the sun set on our favourite beach, Cottesloe. He had a backpack ready and wouldn’t let me anywhere near it. He seemed nervous. When we got to the part of the beach where we’d normally go he said ‘no, not here’ so we walked a little further and he said ‘no, not here’ then when we finally sat down he popped the question. He’d brought the ring, champagne and Fredo frogs.

When I hit 30 a few of my friends started having kids and I realised I wanted to do that too. I gave Angelo a deadline because I wasn’t getting any younger and flight attendants often have trouble having babies because our systems are so out of whack. When the date came he said he couldn’t decide. Then one day we were in the car and I said, ‘Are we going to have babies or what?’ and he said ‘Yes, I think we will.’ And that was that!

We have two beautiful children: Sofia is three and a half and Noah is 18 months. I was due to return from maternity leave in August 2007 but three weeks before that Noah was diagnosed with diabetes. That was a dreadful time. Angelo had gone overseas the night before to weather forecast on an oil rig for two weeks. I knew something was wrong with Noah. He’d always refused to take a bottle then all of a sudden he took to it with gusto and was drinking heaps and weeing through nappies, pyjamas, the sheet. On the day Ang flew out Noah started vomiting and the next morning wouldn’t eat, and couldn’t stay awake. The doctor sent us straight to hospital. They did a blood test and confirmed Noah had Type 1 Diabetes. The registrar said it was the youngest case he’d ever seen. They all seemed nervous in emergency. Noah was only 11 months and one week old.

Angelo landed in Bangkok while we were in the hospital. He was supposed to have one day there then go to the south of Thailand and out to the rig by helicopter. Instead, he caught the first flight out and was back home the next morning. It’s been seven months since Noah’s diagnosis. Angelo’s always been good with it. I’m learning to relax a bit more. I used to cry every day.

I am now part-time and get a roster every eight weeks and because Angelo is a part owner of the company he works for he can build his roster around me. So when I’m away working, he’s home. I feel lucky that Angelo is so capable and willing to share the parenting.

Angelo’s so patient, and has a great sense of humour – quite a wacky sense of humour. He’s very tolerant. He’s the calm one in the relationship. I’m more volatile and up and down. He doesn’t know what mood I’m going to wake up in. I can get agitated with him because there’s not a huge show of emotion. I sometimes joke that the only time he gets worked up is when the Dockers play. But he’s good in a crisis, he’s reasonable, and he grounds me.

One of my favourite memories is being with Ang in Italy for 2 months, before we had kids. We had five nights in Paris then drove to Tuscany, and stayed in a villa in the country, about half an hour out of Sienna. We had so much fun. It was a beautiful time for the two of us. We had no television, no nothing, it was just us.

Angelo says:

My Dad was welcoming to Cheri, but when Mum got home from hospital she didn’t want a bar of her. She wasn’t pleased about her youngest boy getting interested in girls. I don’t know if Cheri picked up on it but I certainly did. After a year or so they warmed to each other and by the time we were at uni Cheri was coming around once a week for dinner. I think Mum was just a bit shocked – she was away for a long time and when she came out there I was with a girlfriend, and a serious one at that.

Cheri went to the University of Western Australia, and I went to Curtin to study physics. I was intent on becoming a meteorologist; it was something I’d wanted to do since I was about twelve. Uni created a lot of time for us to socialise. The first year was easy – we both got through that well, but it got harder second year. We failed a lot of subjects. We weren’t spending much time studying.

I’d been offered a job by the time Cheri went to Japan. The company I was about to start with let me have a few months off to travel but I promised I’d come back and I stuck to that, as hard as it was leaving Cheri. They asked me to move to Melbourne. That was a tricky time in our relationship. She was in another country, I was in a new city, and she was nervous about things because her parents announced they were splitting up. They told me first and asked me not to tell Cheri, I had to hold it in for a few days. That was rough.

She said she wasn’t sure about this whole long-term relationship thing since her parents broke up. I understood, but when she got back to Melbourne I reacted in the opposite direction, as an unconscious response to her slap in the face for not being able to see the strength in our relationship. I pulled back and told her I wanted out. For about two days we split up, but we were living together in the apartment I was renting. I couldn’t exactly throw her out; we just avoided each other. After a while I came to my senses and realised I was being an ass. It was a mess for a few months but we got through it.

We moved back to Perth, then back to Melbourne for a second time, then Perth, all due to my work. Then Cheri got a job with an airline and I remember saying to her ‘how’s this going to work?’ and she said ‘we’ll see how it goes’. She was a shoe-in for the job; she’s perfect for it. I knew I couldn’t move with her so we ended up in separate cities again. The first few months were especially difficult. When Cheri left, some friends came to stay in our unit before they got married which was a godsend – I think I would’ve died in that place if I was on my own. I didn’t know what to do at that point. I asked for a transfer to Melbourne, to be closer to her. Then Cheri could commute between Melbourne and Sydney – that was the plan.

She enjoyed her job – going to London and Frankfurt and all these great places. We were seeing each other once a month or so. I had some leave and went to Sydney for four days, which was terrible. I was sick in the stomach the whole time. All I could think about was the day I’d be leaving her again.

I met up with her in Tahiti once. I saw a side of her work that made me a bit worried. One night after a barbeque all the flight crew and me got into the hotel pool, after hours when it was shut. We had the place to ourselves and everyone was very drunk. In the end we were all naked. I wondered if this was going on every time she took a trip. Cheri was at pains to tell me it wasn’t. If we’d just met a year before and had past histories I’d have been much more concerned.

People said to our faces that we wouldn’t last. We’d been in different cities, with different jobs, we were young, that these things don’t last. Cheri and I got a bee in our bonnets when we kept hearing that. We thought, ‘we’ll make sure it works now’. But we heard it enough times to wonder if we were doing something extra special. I guess the people who said that had never been in solid long-term relationships.

It always came as a shock to us when we’d hear about friends who were splitting up, people who’d been married just a year or two, or more. We were always devastated by it. It was so alien to us to get to that point in a relationship where you definitely were off. Even though we briefly broke up in Melbourne when I look back on it now it was a lame attempt. We hadn’t really thought it through, at least I hadn’t.

We argue. But neither of us has a massive ego, so after the heat’s gone we can come back and sort it out. We’ve always been sensible in that respect. We never run off for days to think about it. We stay close and discuss things.

I suppose early on I didn’t have much opportunity to meet other people because we were ensconced from such a young age. But I’ve met a lot of people now and I still haven’t met anyone who comes close to Cheri. There are things about her that drive me mad, but nothing that would ever affect our relationship.

Sofia was a dream baby, and we’d always said we wanted two or none, so we conceived again. Noah didn’t sleep well. It got a bit ugly; we fought over who was going to sleep in and that sort of thing. I dropped everything that wasn’t ultra-important at work and said, guys you have to cope with this because things aren’t that flash at home. I tried to concentrate on being home and helping out there. We got through it and Noah was starting to settle down when the bombshell hit.

I’d been at work in Bangkok about an hour, tired as hell, when I got a call from the Melbourne office saying Cheri had been trying to contact me and that Noah was in hospital. When I spoke to Cheri she was in Emergency and Noah had just been diagnosed. I had to wait six or seven hours to get on a flight, so I spent hours at the client’s office looking up as much as I could about diabetes.

When I look back on it now, up until that very day, apart from my father passing away, there had never been an issue that affected us nearly as much as this. You never expect you’ll have to deal with your child having a lifelong illness. We just weren’t prepared for it.

Cheri wears her heart on her sleeve. I think that’s great; she doesn’t bottle things up. She had a bit of an issue with me because of the way I dealt with Noah in those first months. I’d work through issues in a calm and collected manner and she thought I had no emotion about the whole thing. We had some fairly full-on arguments. But if I started thinking about all the effects this might have on his life, it’d drive me mad. It would’ve consumed me. That irritated her a bit.

I like the way Cheri can walk into a room where we know nobody and within five minutes she’s talking to a group of people. Eventually I work my way in but she’s collected phone numbers and she’s meeting up with them next week. I tell her to stop making friends because we’ve got no time to see them all! I’ve probably got three lifelong friends; she’s got about forty. I admire that so much. I go to work functions and after an hour I’m still in the corner on my own.  She’s always been very social.

She’s really good about organising things for our family. She makes things interesting for the weekend; she’s good at making sure we’re happy. Cheri’s always looking out for us.

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