Houseboat.Sunset.Liz Claiborne perfume.My room with the antique pink ladder.Salem Cigarettes.Bottles of deep red wine.First movies with graphic sex.The way she would cuddle me on the couch. The way she would pass out stoned and I would put her to bed. The echoing sigh of the third step from the top. Brunch Martha Stewart-style before anyone other than the yuppies knew who Martha was. Mimosas on Sundays.Night on the tour bus stopping at each small town for shots of schnapps. She introduced me as her daughter. The letters she never sent. The letters she did. Chain-link-patterned drapes. Promises.Secrets.Scars. She taught me to want intimate gatherings, occasions to make appearances, fine fabrics and designers, pristine settings, pretentious gestures, head-tossed smiles, fucking on the floor in front of the fire, martinis, cocaine, Cadillacs. What craves in me, I absorbed—the incredible clench of her laughter.
She said, as she backed me up against the wall, eyes pinning me like an insect into a science project, “I haven’t slept because of this. We need to talk. I thought we were friends.” I was 17. She was 42. The first woman I ever loved. That night in her kitchen—always her ground, her advantage—I sat across from her, praying not to have to speak, to vaporize and become part of the steam rising from the mug in front of me.My hands in hers, the light bounding gaily over her inch-wide wedding band, trembling.
Cut crystal cabin photos husband son the wire-haired terrier at her feet Georgio rising from the warmth of her neck. I never sobbed there.
Another. And long garden walks in her old Victorian neighborhood, naming each flower, each plant. She was always observing everything closely except people. People would, of course, disappoint under examination, would burn like grasshoppers under the lens, would be messy. Neat.Thin and small-boned, but firm. Like earth, rooted. If you wanted her you came to her. Our letters to and from Ithaca. I encouraged her sabbatical studies, clamored for her summer return, when we would garden, golf, fold into a chaise at the sun’s almost end. I remember a complete calm—her gritty soft chuckle like a combed silk throw
peach pale blue whispers of sleep in the backyard of confessions. Chanel. Never knowing why she chose me.
Volatile.A week alone in her house.A mosaic table.Dream journals. Drunk, I tear through them. In one she makes love to the undergraduate assistant before me. I almost want to call her in Santa Fe to tell her how cruel it is, leaving me here with the cats and some rot-gut rum hidden in the sideboard with all her secrets. Another old lover kills himself in half an inch of creek water—the obit folded and tucked to remember not to remember it is there. I pace on the sun porch. It is late spring—still a thin chill wraps my shoulders, as I blow smoke rings around the stars and scream at David, the drowned man, for being such a pathetic fuck
for leaving this woman too old for comfort my heart too hot with youth to touch.
Sometimes I still look for your car in the drive when I pass by
because, if for a moment, I can feel the top-down wind of early fall in every pore then, I think, perhaps, you are not really gone from me.
We are still laughing through the decadent movie version of Persuasion, and you
are still groaning about the heavy doors of my Camaro. And when I reach out you reach back and with that Mormon gift from god
you thought you could instill in me pouring through your fingers
the ache leaves my body I am still certain I see light.
Jen Rouse’s poems have appeared in Poetry, Poet Lore, Pretty Owl, The Tishman Review, The Inflectionist Review, Midwestern Gothic, Sinister Wisdom, the Plath Poetry Project, Occulum, Lavender Review, and elsewhere. She has work forthcoming in Up the Staircase‘s 10th anniversary issue and Sliver of Stone. She’s the 2017 winner of Gulf Stream’s summer poetry contest. Rouse’s chapbook, Acid and Tender, was published in 2016 by Headmistress Press. Find her at jen-rouse.com and on Twitter @jrouse.