by Jacob Mercer
More than anything, he was hooked on Leslie McGarrigle because she smelled like a can of tennis balls freshly opened. Sharp. Chemical. And stunningly, thrillingly new—not pristine necessarily, but novel, new in the sense that this scent hadn’t existed long: a matter of decades, he calculated, in one of his more fanatical moments, with the dawn of factories and felt and rubber-compounds.
For the longest time, she hadn’t smelled like much of anything, not from what he could recall. She’d smelled like any other young woman he knew—skin lotion, laundry detergent, botanicals from the shampoo her stylist recommended—and when she walked past at Bank of the West, he’d swivel his chair at the drive-thru window and watch her, as he did every other young woman he worked with. He noted her resemblance, from behind, at least, to the woman he’d dated in college: the long, rigid bones and black hair and razor-straight posture. But from the front, she looked different. Benign. Her eyes were green, soft, and self-conscious and, when she glanced at him, lingered only long enough to tell him she was interested. He’d smile. Then he’d turn and launch another canister of cash through the vacuum pipe.
He asked her out for drinks one day after work. They went to a bar called The Javelina, a dim, woody place with peanut shells on the floor, and pounded happy-hour beers until they shared the same bench in their booth, their legs pressed together. “You look like a Judas Priest man,” she said, pointing her finger like a pistol at the jukebox. “Do you have a quarter?” He smelled nothing but her shampoo: French lavender and mango. And peanuts.
The tennis balls didn’t come until later.
It was early on a dry, windy Saturday morning, one of the first cold days of October, and her apartment was cold, too, dark and cavern-like, with the blinds pulled over open widows. He woke up shivering. His arm was around Leslie, cupping her body in his, and she was shivering, too. The comforter had been kicked to the floor. He wondered vaguely where his socks were—and it hit him. He opened his eyes, and the smell hit him, as though an aluminum seal had cracked open in front of his face, filling his nostrils instantly. The smell was hers, he had no doubt. He stuck his nose in her neck and breathed deep. “Are you using new soap?” he whispered.
“Hnn,” she sighed. She was half-awake. In the windows, the blinds swung forward in the wind, then back with a plastic thwap.
“You smell like a gym.” He took another breath. “A clean one, with waxed floors.”
Leslie smelled like gasoline. But only faintly, he thought four months later, as they drove to Idaho to meet her parents. Like when you pump gas and get a little on your hands and it sticks with you for the rest of the ride. Like when the gas fumes mingle with the new-car smell and the air freshener hanging from your mirror, the sun beating through the windshield. It tasted sweet. It made him light-headed, headachy sometimes, so he took acetaminophen. An hour without her sent his muscles spasming and lungs laboring for air, and he’d tried fighting it: spent a weekend locked in his apartment with the phone off, training his edginess on household chores—dusting, mopping, scrubbing grout with steel wool—until he lay on his spotless kitchen floor, wheezing and biting his knuckles. He paced. He cooked food and didn’t eat it. He called his college girlfriend and hung up before she answered. He international-called his mom and hung up before she answered, too. His mom had moved to Dublin with her boyfriend two months after his high-school graduation. Before she left, she’d said, “Don’t be a bad man, like your father.”
But he couldn’t help it. He gave in—told Leslie he loved her, doubting he actually did. He moved in with her, breaking his lease, never truly telling her why. Leslie didn’t notice the smell and, if he brought it up, grew quiet. No one else noticed, either. When he’d said to his coworkers at the bank, “Okay, here she comes—now take a whiff and tell me what you think,” they’d wrinkled their brows at him.
Halfway to Idaho. A semi truck thundered past, hauling an enormous steel tank of milk. “This is the first time I’ve taken a man home to meet my family,” she said.
He wondered how her parents smelled.
“Are you nervous?”
He wondered if their home smelled, too, if walking through it would be like walking through a nail salon. An oil spill. A pile of permanent markers set on fire in a sealed room. He’d never dated a woman whose parents hadn’t liked him instantly. In fact, he still got birthday cards from his college girlfriend’s mom. Stop by and see us sometime the last card read—and for a moment right then, though the idea was ludicrous, he wanted to. For a moment, he tried turning the car around, just to see if he could: looked down at his hands on the wheel and foot on the gas as though he were flying miles above, calling to tiny strangers from the passenger deck of a runaway blimp—and breathed deep. And sped on.