One account of a thing
Maybe three months before my divorce, I started wearing real deodorant. The kind with chemical antiperspirant and a refrigerator-fresh, fruity fragrance. Sterile and appetizing as factory cupcakes. It was a concession. The last and biggest.
Deodorant is out of the question. For both of us. We live in his vision, and deodorant is censorship. We have too much to offer in the smell department, way too much to shout to the world about Truth and Self and Body Hair and the Military Industrial Complex and Clothes-Pressing as Oppression. We live by the Pacific ocean. We are all the way out west. We are backed beautifully up against the wall of the western frontier. We’re very young. We’re the youngest, and our wisdom is unpolluted and undiluted by time or duty. No bras! No belts! No shaving, except heads, and then only for girls. If you can’t safely make love in the hallway of your apartment building then it’s not worth living in.
More than that, though. We’re compulsively in love, and have no choice. We huff each other’s scents like overwhelmed teenagers, gulp them like sacramental wine, these two amateur monks. My nose is a place I take him into me, fill up on intimacy. He smells like crayons, like pencil shavings, like popcorn. Like a child’s desk. To me, anyway. To other people he smells like body odor, and horribly so. He’s just Dan, and insistently himself, and not a bather. No one holds it against him. It’s part of his oeuvre.
He doesn’t tell me what I smell like, except in abstract similes, emailed after an absence. I receive press releases through Yahoo: your mouth smells like Holy Water. Which is presumably a compliment, even coming from an atheist. He walks in the door after two straight days of filming, walks over to wherever I’m standing, and unbuttons the front of my shirt to bury his nose in the space between my breasts. Inhales deeply, says “I needed that,” and then he can kiss me hello. It is customary, this smelling of a patch of warm closeted skin, as a greeting.
Wearing deodorant…it’d be like wearing oven mitts during sex. He just races about notorious as a skunk, and I measure out my scent: shower every two days or so, occasionally using all natural deodorants whose hippie frankincense don’t so much cover my smell as put reigns on it. Just for work, you know. Or meeting people’s parents. But I never feel so sure of the rightness of my life and ways as when I smell myself or him on a cotton T-shirt. Those smells have a through-line to my brain, quiet anxiety instantly, are safe from questioning.
We, both of us, earned this safety of self, this warm bed. We waited, we preserved. I had always suspected that I smelled wonderful. In bed, as a twelve year old girl, I had pulled my legs up against my chest and smelled the bare skin of my knees. Had thought of minerals, bread baking, earth, clay. This smell gives my mind permission to be quiet. I had, even, a crush on the smell of my cotton underwear: like copper and water and, unbelievably, cut flowers. But you never know whether what’s wonderful to you will be wonderful to anyone else. You have to wait, and hope, and try not to throw it away.
We lie in my bed, which has become our bed, and we can hear and smell the ocean. Our eyes are adjusted to the gray-blue light from outside: the city lights that get trapped in the night-time marine layer and enter through the window. We manage minutes of unbroken eye-contact. We spill over with laughter from the headiness of shared headspace, but even laughing we have to discipline ourselves to keep our heads still enough not to break eye contact. Our gazes swerve slightly to stay on the road as we pave it and drive it all at once.
There is the possibility, here, for all of it to come out. Every pheromone, every word, every orgasm, every buried thing. I believe he buries nothing. It’s all there, in the massive oeuvre. We all see it. I’m on a sharp learning curve, but if I’m brave I’ll bury less every day.
Still, I’m the one who doubts myself. I’m still usually the one who loses arguments, like the one about whether artistic expression can be a form of tyranny. But here and there, he’s been losing arguments. This either means I’m getting stronger or he’s getting weaker.
We drive to his best friend’s mother’s house in the mountains. The three of us drive there together, in my car, at night on the freeway. We argue about whether pot can ever be harmless. Dustin and I believe so, within reason. Dan doesn’t. Dan has a fierce mistrust of drugs. “Thinking on drugs isn’t thinking,” he says. With Dustin there, it’s easy for us both to say to Dan that he sounds phobic, that this is an overstatement, must be emotional. Which is the worst thing you can say to Dan. That he’s afraid, that his vision is clouded. He stops talking. I’m driving. Dustin and I try to talk over his silence for the rest of the ride.
We pull up into the lookout driveway, and all mechanically unload backpacks and the cookies I baked for Dustin’s mother. Her huge gentle dog greets us. Inside this glass house she’s hospitable and bubbly, commands the kitchen, makes argument ridiculous. Dan still doesn’t talk. It’s late, and she sends us to bed in the familiar guest room. I love it here. It’s big and white, the bed is immaculate and downy with a sturdy wooden frame. I’m sorry Dan won’t talk. I want to screw in this beautiful room. I want him to tell me he trusts me with my own thinking. That my vision is not something he sees as so easily winked out. I wonder what to do if he’s wrong about more than this. We’re lying there and I’m getting sleepy, resigning myself to an unresolved evening. I’m half asleep when he apologizes.
“I hate drugs,” he says. “It scares the shit out of me.”
I breathe funny. “Noone wants to be told they’re not thinking,” I say.
His face is against my shoulder. “I’m not good,” he says.
The sleepiness drains out of me. I’m so relieved and so scared, that he would say this. He sounds like he’s nine years old. His face is small. His voice is small and he says it to my shoulder in the dark.
I’m the grown-up. I’m the oeuvre. I put my hand on the side of his face to steady it for looking into: “’I’m not good?’” He doesn’t respond. “What is that? Cut it out. Fucking sad Pikachu.” He smiles a little and I kiss him.
Sometimes, in safe sterile places, alone in closed cars, I think maybe this had to happen. He was too big and I was too small. If this is going to work, I have to get bigger and he has to get smaller, and we both have to be able to stomach the change. I never say this to him. You don’t say to someone, “Get smaller, and like it.”
He tells me, naked in bed one morning, that I smell different lately. He says he’s noticed I smell like fear, like stress. Maybe, he thinks, that this is why he is depressed. He is playing detective, solving the mystery of his rattling mind, and I’m a suspect. He says it quietly, like writing down a list of parolees for questioning. I listen quietly. I am suspect to myself. I always suspected my smell was dangerous. My growth has been dangerous, cancerous. I’m overgrowing the oeuvre.
In the afternoon, after work, I go to the drugstore. No more kidding around.
Lady Secret Pom-Berry Invisible Solid
The tube is turquoise and pearlescent. My brain gets quiet when I smell it, but not like peace so much as that I smell exactly like Invisible Solid. I carry it in my purse. I keep a closer eye on myself.
The problem is, the oeuvre. It’s already cracked. Everybody sees it but there’s a Humpty Dumpty thing going on and so I just wait and hope this will pass and take responsibility for as much as I can, for more than I can. I soothe myself. I make new friends, and take on sophisticated baking challenges: chemistry in a muffin tin goes into the oven, and something whole and fragrant or strange and burnt comes out, done. I share them with friends; he’s not plugged in here.
Going out is like gulping air, coming home is like climbing into a car trunk. We’re going nowhere. We’re burning gas. We’re huffing fumes I’m spinning and I’ve made promises I can’t keep. I’m slowing, shuddering like something cheap, I’m keeping promises that don’t keep. It’s months after I’ve asked him, gently, to move out, before it occurs to me that I can stop using the turquoise tube. It was his, my gift to him, and I’m the only one here. I don’t see him, and I don’t smell him. I have a suspicion that if I caught his scent now, it would smell good, but good in an outdated way. Like a childhood home, not somewhere I can stay and stay.