Culture  Rose-T(a)inted

From our Literary Column "Isthmus"

You loved the rose-scented soap in my bathroom. You would rub it all over your body in the shower, and I would flinch, and think is that even hygienic? Don’t scoop the dirt under your pits with the soap and spread it up your neck; lather your hands and use them to wash. But I wouldn’t say anything to you, nor would I stop you; not before the aroma of the rose-scented bar had settled in and the essence of the flower emanated from your skin.

All that inner conflict about bar soap etiquette usually followed at the end of the night. Once, on one of our first evenings together, we came home drenched in sweat. We had spent hours on the floor, raising brows watching each other’s convulsive dancing, the excitement of learning how our bodies moved together carrying us through the night. We headed straight to the shower. I made it cool the way I like it, but the cold of the first stream of water shocked your muscles into spasm, and I quickly turned the hot tap to the end. Then, I pressed you in the corner of the tub – the water pricking our scalps with its warmth, – and kissed you for what felt like hours under the steam, mind dazed with alcohol and infatuation. The vapour seeped into the ceiling, and on the next day I noticed a crack in the plaster. The heat and moisture had peeled it off, leaving a hole above the corner we had nestled in. That carving marked the first territory we lay claim to together.

The next night you spent in my home, you barged in and hurried to kiss me, shoes still on, every step leaving a shadow of dirt on the kitchen floor. I froze in horror watching your unruly advancement defy my shoes-at-the-door rule, but as your features fell into a crooked smile, I softened into indifference.

With time, my apartment felt smaller, as you inserted yourself into every corner and crevice. The space morphed to accommodate you – the furniture became ours. I relinquished the domestic status quo too, condoning your disregard for my hygiene obsessions. In an attempt to resist your occupation, I started suggesting we leave the house more; maybe I anticipated losing ownership. But whenever you came around, it was too hard to leave.

When you finally made your way to my bedroom, you didn’t take your clothes off, which made me afraid that you’d soil the fresh sheets. Still, if I had known we’d break up on Sunday, I wouldn’t have washed them that morning.

I remember you with all my senses. I see your face and read your text messages in my head, but that’s not what consumes me. Your smell is more obsessive.

After you left, the rose-scented soap remained untouched for a while. In my anger, I didn’t want anything that had touched you on me, but a part of me was also saving it for you, certain you’d come back. Eventually, I started the hot water, took the soap, and grazed my body with it like it was your hands and eyes and hair. I looked up at the ceiling: the crack suddenly seemed more like a scar than a map of our story. It was the perfect trace, cut out on our most boisterous night together. Now, it stared back at me, echoing your permanent silence.

At night, I started hearing scratching on carton and metal in the kitchen. The walls began to speak to me too, as if something was moving inside and gnashing through the plaster to get closer to me. I would scare myself seeing shadows run across the hallway. One was brown, another was black – like the traces of the soles of your shoes. The paranoia of living in a haunted house became an entertaining distraction to loneliness. Yet it couldn’t last, you had invaded my brain like rodents had my home. I could hear the strident ringing of claws on tin wires over and over in my head, as your last texts scurried through my brain, nibbling at the grey matter. Home is where the heart is; you left mine scarred.

I remember you with all my senses. I see your face and read your text messages in my head, but that’s not what consumes me. Your smell is more obsessive. A textureless illusion, it blurs reality and fantasy by unsolicitedly conjuring up your image. The pillow always soaked in your scent; it smelt like warm milk. When you’d get up early to leave, I would press my face in it and inhale deeply to preserve your essence throughout the day. Every morning, I would inhale you.

In such cases as when a foreign smell is more persistent, I make sure to scrub it off me during my morning shower. That way, the memory of warm milk brews up again.

Even after you were gone, I would still taste your scent in my mouth when I’d breathe in. It had the texture of linen; it was mossy but rough, and I would picture it wrapping around my body. Every time it hit me that you weren’t here and that you weren’t coming back, I’d feel the fabric tightening, pricking me lightly.

Now, my head lies on sweat stains, and the smells on the pillow beside me are always different. The novelty of the unknown is exciting, and yet it is your milk-scented skin that remains imprinted in my brain. Mixing it with the pungency of other encounters like last night’s beer stench spoils the whole thing rotten.

Still, I can enjoy these other aromas for their aggressive immediacy – the way they wrench you out and replace you – but they are all passing. The wind blows some away without me even noticing.

Sometimes, an odor lingers on. One night, at a dinner date, the chef generously topped my date’s salad with purple rings of raw onions. I think he liked me very much and wanted to leave a strong impression, so he later covered my whole body in onion kisses. The acidity stung in some places more than others, but his obliviousness was most potent in the intense and unsuspecting leer he gave me while leaning down to whisper in my face. I could feel the fabric of his breath weaving like gossamer around my head, smothering me. Pickled groin, that was the texture of his smell.

In such cases as when a foreign smell is more persistent, I make sure to scrub it off me during my morning shower. That way, the memory of warm milk brews up again.

I arrived here three years ago from a small Eastern-European country where the scent of roses and yogurt is all-over. Since I moved into this apartment, many smells have come and gone, taking me to new places, but none have brought me home. Lying next to you, I could envelop myself in your petaled gust, and see the roses and the morning dew in the park beside my house in my hometown. I could wander its streets again, and I could inhale the quiet wind as it crawled under my sleeves. Now, I long for you the way I do for home: knowing it’s not the city I want but its fragments.

Looking at you then, I didn’t recognize the boy grinning at me in the bathtub. He was perfect, hiding behind roses.

I exhale, and feeling the stream of air leave my mouth, I imagine you leaving, too. But here comes another breath, and you pour yourself back into my throat, and stick to my lungs. Like a broken bone, you stick out and press against my heart. You scratch it lightly but incessantly. The only way to get rid of you would be to exhale you all and shut you off from my system.

Exhaling onto a page, and in the brief intervals between taking breaths, when my lungs are empty of milk and my vision clear, I see that maybe that night in the shower I wasn’t in love. Maybe I was too drunk to situate the feeling – was it a flutter in my stomach or lower, a pang of arousal? Did I, in my desire, mistake my infatuation for a long-term commitment?

Your secrecy left many gaps. Sometimes, it seemed like you wanted to say things, but you’d stop yourself mid-breath; other times, unforeseen dejection would force you into complete avoidance. You retreated from my house as quickly and as quietly as you had gained control of it. All these decisions you made yourself, and I had become a visitor in my own home. There was no way I could invite you back into a place I no longer owned.

I paced around the abandoned space, chasing after mice instead of blocking the holes they had made. The walls were riddled with questions of what I could have done to keep you, or how I could have helped you feel better. Yet, these were only nuisances, distracting me from the bigger crevice that should have been blocked the moment you left. The void in the bathroom ceiling where roses grew and milk dripped; the container of our short-lived idyll.

The smell of rose valleys has tainted my memory, and although the reminder in my bathroom is comforting, it’s not you, and it keeps me from moving on.

I still think about the finality of your last words: “we are clearly not on the same page and I am done.” Your message left no room for interpretation, and yet I wonder again what you meant by that callous “I am done.” You are done with what? Certainly, you are done interacting with me. But are you done thinking about me? Missing me? Did you erase everything once the words had left you and had appeared on my screen?

When I ran into you, you put up a convincing act for the above argument. You’re a man of your word – I respect that. As you passed by me like I am any other stranger, I really believed I had been erased. There’s a crushing clarity to realizing there is no going back to what had been.

Seeing you outside, on neutral territory, with the scent of your skin drifting away in the breeze, I was blind to your smell. The impression of warm milk had cooled down in your complexion, leaving it cold and vacant, eyes blackened by the low brim of your hat. It seemed as though for a moment you struggled to lift your head to meet my gaze then gave up, or perhaps you didn’t want to. Looking at you then, I didn’t recognize the boy grinning at me in the bathtub. He was perfect, hiding behind roses. Finally, I got a glimpse of the real you: aching, though resolute in continuing alone.

When we broke up, you claimed that we weren’t on the same page. I now see that you had written yours out, while I hadn’t. I was stuck cramming all the world’s love poetry on a single line, eager to save space for more words; for the poems I’d write for you. You stopped me mid-sentence, of course, I was hurt. No one likes to be interrupted. I became obsessed with the parts I had completed, rewinding them in my head, and rewriting them over and over. Roses and milk, shower steam, your eyes and smile. Nothing real. I’d put hopes into a rose-tinted future which but mirrored the fantasy of the past. But I moved away from my native country to seek a different life, not to relive fragments from my old one. The smell of rose valleys has tainted my memory, and although the reminder in my bathroom is comforting, it’s not you, and it keeps me from moving on.

Now, I paint over the ceiling and, room by room, I begin to reclaim my home. Nostalgia fading, your body becomes a blurry silhouette in a predictable bathroom scene, your voice a murmuring echo in the kitchen pipes, and your smell is almost indistinguishable amid the fall breeze.