A Farewell to My First Love
Perhaps you thought I loved you for your face,
believed it more than mortals could bestow,
mistook your smiles for signs of endless grace,
forgot your porcelain gaze was paint and show.
Perhaps you thought I loved you for your words—
those smooth syllabic sounds found rare did chance
to lure me lost with swift, sweet-sounding chords,
in whirling rings of fire had dared me dance.
Perhaps you thought I fell into your eyes
and drowned inside those dark, unfathomed pools—
a bird who, blind, in blackened chasms flies
and dies with all the other sightless fools.
But it was I who married matches to my doubt
and set my heart on fire, then snuffed it out.
Dear husband, I know you think I’m funny because I treat books like alcohol and music like drugs. And by that I mean I hide them away. And by that I mean I have secret stashes. And by that I mean I’m addicted to the things that have always helped me deal with pain. And by deal with pain I mean escape from it. And by escape from it I mean traveling to Narnia, or someplace like it. A secret wardrobe to anywhere is fine by me. But how should I explain that I can stay sane only by being a little insane? That being insane around another insane person is some type of sanity. When I was growing up, my mother enacted a household Prohibition, and by Prohibition, I mean that no books besides the Bible were fit to be read, and by read I mean that I packed my suitcase for visits with my mother in a very specific way—clothes on top, books and cd player on the bottom, wrapped in pajamas and underwear—and I made my bed at my grandmother’s house in a very specific way—cd's under my pillow, books under the bed, shoved behind a box full of miscellaneous items. I showered in a specific way too, with my cd player and headphones hidden between the folds of my towel. While I waited for the water to get hot, I’d listen to one song I’d chosen beforehand, my back against the locked bathroom door. Later, I’d emerge with the cd player cloaked in my dirty clothes. I was a double agent, with my hymnal on top of my dresser and my rock music carefully obscured by my t-shirts. But before I learned to obscure, I learned to flinch, learned my heart could leap into my throat every time my mother approached when I was reading a library book, learned the frown that would slowly envelope her lips when she saw the secular material I would have devoured day by day if not for her stare. And by stare I mean you-rebellious-child, you-sinner, you-hypocrite, you-whore spoken from eyes so disappointed they looked like they were in mourning. And by mourning, I mean my mother often mourned my innocence, mourned the little girl she could so easily influence, mourned the arm she could twist until I relented. And by relented, I mean I put the books away, I mean I turned off the music, I mean I shut off the TV, I mean I stopped talking about the world outside the house, I mean I wrote in newspaper margins, ripped off the pages and squirreled my stories away in the folds of my forbidden paperbacks. And by relented, I mean that the moment I heard my mother’s footsteps on the stairs, I tucked my books and notebooks into cabinets, beneath beds, behind sofas. I mean that I breathed a sigh of relief when she took a shower. I mean that I knew exactly how much time she spent taking a shower. I mean that while she took a shower, I sped-read the next chapter like I was in a race. I mean that I learned to speak quietly, as if my words were tiptoeing around a sacred space, as if my personality was profane. I mean that even my clothes couldn’t be too colorful or too flattering or too me. And so, today, I have a habit of hiding my favorite things—my hobbies—the way a squirrel buries nuts. I have a habit of jumping at footsteps on the stairs, in the hall, whether I’m writing or watching a show I enjoy. My automatic response to someone approaching me is to minimize the tabs on my laptop and put my book title-down. My automatic response to someone asking me what I’m working on is panic. My interests feel safer as contraband, nothing to be scolded, nothing to be judged, nothing there at all, nothing, nothing. I’m a blank slate; write what you want on me. Make it what you want to see. But you don’t know deep down I’m halfway through a wardrobe already, and all the way gone. And by gone, I mean gone. I mean queen-of-a-distant-land, sword-in-hand, snow-in-the-wind gone. I mean I am an alchemist, fashioning my mother’s sharp words into hunting spears, into arrows, into knives. I mean I am draping them in floral wreaths and happily-ever-afters. I mean I am casting them into a grave and performing a sacred ritual so they won’t rise out of the ground to haunt me. I mean I am banishing them and locking the wardrobe behind me. So, dear husband, when I showed you a short story I had written and shared with you a playlist I loved, make no mistake, I was giving you the blueprints to a hidden cellar, a speakeasy, a secret passageway. I was revealing to you a lost city, an upside-down that was more right-side-up than reality. I was leading you to my treehouse hidden deep in an enchanted forest, hidden so deep that even my mother, though she walked in circles for days, though she sent out hounds and falcons, though she cast spells, though she hacked off tree limbs and set fire to brush...she could never find me.
Rosalind Rousseau is the author of one poetic memoir, Memos to My Mother's Illness, and one chapbook, Memos: B-sides. She has previously been published in Susurrus and is currently at work on a poetry chapbook centered on resilience in the face of depression, anxiety, and the curves that life throws at us. You can find her on Instagram @rousseaupoetry.