by Michelle Dotter
I tell him that all foreign cities smell the same. He tells me I need to travel more. He tells me this as the scents of the foreign city—the newest city, whose name I have replaced with my aggravation for pipe tobacco and the waft of meat undercooked, novel only because it has been undercooked this way for generations—take the place of his scent in my nostrils, and I forget, again, what he smells like.
He travels so much that his smell, his natural smell, gets lost and all I can smell on him is the essence of wherever he has been before he has come home to me, red-eyed like his flight and dusty with the memories of cultural strangeness that he does not want to wash away. Until the smell of the newest city takes over, and then he and the street around us become the same, indistinguishable, and I am walking alone in this strange place, my only company this shadow that wears its perfume. Wears it home like a dog that has rolled in the world to which he strayed and wishes to remain in the moment of his absence even as the leash clips back onto his collar.
What I know: I fell in love with his smell. I remember the way it felt in my nose, a spray of mouthwash or lye stunting the air in the party where we were bunched up next to each other for half an hour before I realized that his was the smell that had caught my attention. He was warm with the light and I was warm with someone else’s whiskey, but all the same I remember that it wasn’t his body, even when we left the party together and made love in the basement room of our host’s house, a room that had once held his washer and dryer but now held nothing but the empty space that reminded you they had been there—it wasn’t his body that attracted me. It was his smell, and I kept my face pressed into his neck for as long as I could, even after we stopped, trying to decipher the wisps of that scent so I could put a name to it, and own it, the way you own something forever if you name it.
“You smell like tangerines,” I said, when he started to get up. But he didn’t smell like tangerines. It was just the sharpness of a tangerine that I wanted, and more than that the memory of a tangerine, the memory of a world where everything is warm and the sun on the ocean sends the salt through your hair, a memory of paradise stripped.
He laughed. “That right?”
After that the tangerine became my favorite fruit for a while, until I started to hate it. I hated it because he began to travel and travel wore his scent away, eroded it like the tide eating at the shore, taking the grains of sand one by one into the water until the beach is empty and looks like the ocean, and you can’t remember what a beach looks like. The tangerine wasn’t close enough to take the place of his smell in my mind and at the same time it was too close, like getting Mozart’s name stuck in your head when you listen to Bach, like when you can’t think of a word and every word your brain suggests is wrong, and they irritate you in the back of your mind, grains of silt locked inside the oyster of your skull—but instead of a pearl all they develop is a sore. Now I can’t stand tangerines and as we walk down the streets of the foreign city, whatever city it is, I hold my breath when we walk by the street vendors whose hands are full of glowing orange fruit, who squeeze their gentle bodies until the smell leaks out of them and coats the marketplace, an old memory trying to make a new memory out of a life I am sick of reliving.
He stops by the fruit vendor and puts his hand out for a tangerine and I turn away, and suck in a great breath of waste and decay and cigarettes, of cobblestones meeting crooked cement and feet that are tired of walking here. I suck in a breath and then spit it out, because it occurs to me that maybe he always smelled like foreign cities, and it is the cities that have borrowed his smell, and I hate that because his smell was supposed to be mine. I walk away without waiting for him to buy his tangerine.