It wasn’t the first time a girl had been repulsed by me. It was third grade at McKinley Elementary school. Mother used to walk me to school every morning. I carried my satchel and a Batman lunchbox. It was a cool autumn morning, and the buzz of a circular saw rang clearly, more clearly than in summer, a subtle signal of fall. Mr. Donnelly, a man in his seventies who smoked a briarwood pipe, was burning leaves on his curbside as people used to do.
We waited at the crosswalk until the P.E. teacher, Mr. Cleveland, held out a stop sign to the oncoming traffic and motioned us across. Under the overhang in front of the school where it was a few degrees cooler, we walked across a map of the United States painted on the smooth, concrete slab. Mother kissed me on the forehead. Her kisses always smelled of Maybelline lipstick, stale coffee, cigarettes, Chanel #5, and spearmint gum.
“Good morning, Jim. Let me show you to your new desk,” said Mrs. Johnson, perhaps with a hint of exasperation in her voice. This was the second time she’d moved me.
The school was filled with a plethora of odors, both foul and brilliant. My classroom smelled of crayons, Playdough, pencil shavings, paste, Elmer’s Glue, aging carpet, wood and aluminum, and industrial surface cleaner…and of course, children…their fingers covered with the residue of mucus, the smell of playground sweat, and methane. But there was one child who didn’t smell like that at all. She smelled of strawberries, sunshine, Twinkies, and cedar. Her name was Letisha, but we all called her Tish, and Mrs. Johnson had seated me right behind her.
I had taken every chance that year to stay near her. During story time, I was always sure to sit behind her and quietly sniff her pleasing fragrance. At lunch, I sat across from her. I could never look at her, but I could smell her fragrance intermingled with grape jelly and peanut butter and fruit punch flavored Caprisun. Although she could never replace profile #1, she did make being at school bearable. And now she was sitting right in front of me. From there, I could smell her all day long.
To my knowledge, she was entirely unaware of my smell collecting, for which I took copious notes in my Batman Trapper Keeper. Batman was the only superhero I could ever respect because I imagined he was the only one with enhanced olfactory powers due to his bat-like characteristics. Nor did anyone else appear to suspect my studies, until that fall day.
None of the other boys would play with me during recess, but I didn’t care. I was not like them, and they knew it. I was different and they despised me for it. I followed Tish to the line at the tornado slide. She wore a pastel orange jump suit, ruffly socks, and pink Keds. I’d always been fond of ruffly socks. I managed to get right behind her in the line, which was full of dirty smelly boys hitting each other on the arms and using curse words.
I began to breathe her in despite the fouler odors around me. At first, at a distance, but then closer, until I was close enough to take a whiff of her hair – scented with honeysuckle shampoo. I thought if I could just get a little closer and smell her neck, I could complete my profile of her. I leaned in as close as I dared and drew a deep breath. At that moment, she flinched and swatted me on the nose. She turned around and yelled at me.
“Ewwww! Get away from me!” And she pushed me down to the ground. I can still smell the dirt and grass from where my elbows sunk into the ground. The commotion attracted the group of boys in line in front of her.
“Jim was sniffing me! He’s being creepy!”
As if on cue the boys jumped on me. It was a blur of kicking and hitting and dragging…and cursing. The cursing was worse than anything else. They called me all manner of foul words; words that would haunt my dreams for weeks. Then the metallic smell of blood gushed forth from my nose, and then one of the boys, Connor Davis, shouted, “Jim’s a sniffer! He’s the Sniffer.” And the chanting began. The circle of children grew as they shouted, “Sniffer! Sniffer! Sniffer! Sniffer!”
This is the day it all began. There wasn’t a day after that that someone didn’t call me that. A kid would bump into in the hall and sneer at me, “Sniffer”. No one would stand in line with me at the drinking fountain, “Sniffer”. No one would eat lunch at the same table, “Sniffer”.
As the years wore on, the name calling and bullying continued. Even the janitor, who once cleaned up a pile of vomit and asked me if I wanted to take a good like sniff. I did everything I could to avoid any interaction with anybody.
And then, in my senior year, a week before prom, I found a note in my locker. It read:
I hope you’re still not mad at me for pushing you down in 3rd grade. It was really mean. The boys were all so mean to you. I think it’s just awful. No hard feelings? Anyways, I know we haven’t been friends much over the years, but I don’t have anyone to take me to the prom, and I think you’re pretty cool. Would you be my date to the prom?
p.s. – just drop a note in my locker #366 if your answer is yes.
I was stunned. I read the note several times over the course of the day. And when I actually saw Tish across the school courtyard I waved at her to catch her attention. She smiled awkwardly and walked inside the school. I was too shy to speak to her, but she’d smiled at me. She’d never smiled at me before. I wondered if this could really be happening.
I’d never been on a date before, and I’d certainly never been welcomed by the popular crowd before. I wondered if she still smelled the same. Old feelings were rekindled and I resolved to say yes.
In sixth period trig class, I wrote a note:
I received your note, and I’ve given it a lot of thought. No hard feelings about what happened. I’d forgotten all about it. I’ll pick you up at 7.
After class, I shoved my way through the overcrowded halls to the lockers by the science lab to find locker #366, wondering if she would be there. She was not, so I slid the carefully folded note through one of the slits in her locker door and headed for American history, last period.
The next morning, I found another note.
I’m totally glad that you said yes. I was worried after all that happened. I think you’re really sweet. Can we just meet at the prom? Under the kissing tree next to the gym parking lot?
Your friend (and maybe more)
Throughout the week I would see her in the halls, but I was still too shy to speak to her, so I would just nod at her, knowing that we shared mutual feelings of affection and she would give me that same awkward smile, almost as if she were confused, but she smiled nonetheless.
“Oh, Jimmy,” said mother smiling broadly, a tear in her eye, “You look so handsome!” she said as I walked down the stairs in my rented black tuxedo with the teal green bow tie and cummerbund.
My hands were clammy and I felt like I was going to vomit. What if this was all just one big joke? What if someone else had sent those notes? My doubts had been growing all afternoon, but I had resolved to go through with it.
“Thanks, Mother. Is my bowtie on right?” I said, the shiny black shoes pinching my toes.
“Oh sweety! You look perfect. Now remember, a gentleman always opens the door for a lady.”
I’d never opened a door for anyone but Mother. I wondered what other rules there were that I wasn’t aware of.
“I have a surprise for you, Jimmy. I was going to wait for graduation, but I just thought this night would be so much more special.” She reached in her purse and pulled out a set of keys and handed them to me. I’d used these keys many times before, so I didn’t see what the big deal was.
Not wanting to seem ungrateful, I said, “Thank you Mother, this is most gracious.”
“It’s yours, Jimmy.”
“What do you mean? This is Father’s car.”
“And he would want you to have it, Jimmy,” she said, a smile growing on her face and tears once more appearing in her eyes.
I looked at the keys in my hands with wonder. Mine. The keys were mine. The car was mine. I could barely believe it. I came to her and gave her a big hug. She wasn’t the feather-light woman she was now. She was thick around the waist and her arms were meaty. She squeezed me and rocked me. She smelled of Chanel, Virginia Slims, talcum powder, and moth balls.
“My sweet baby boy. Your father would be so proud if he could see you now, all grown up, and going to the prom with a pretty girl! When you meet her parents, I want you to use your best manners,” she said as she let me go.
“I won’t be meeting them. I’m meeting her at the gym.”
“You’re not picking her up?”
“No, Mother. She wanted to meet me there.”
“Well, I guess they do things differently than when your father and I were in school.”
She gave me a kiss and I walked out to admire my ruby red 1978 Volvo 242, which looked just as it did when Father drove it home, brand new from the dealership.
I listened to the radio on the way to the high school, hoping to get a sample of what kind of music they would be playing. I did not care for the music of the day; rather, I preferred classical music and the crooner hits from the forties and fifties.
After parking, I walked over to the tree that was known as the kissing tree. It was an expansive maple tree where boys and girls met after school to exchange kisses. I watched as girls in poofy chiffon and sequin were escorted by boys in tuxedos, some plain black with black bow ties, while others wore flashy waist coat jackets with sequin red bow ties. A limousine pulled up and four couples climbed out laughing raucously.
I waited patiently for Tish to arrive. I imagined what she would look like. Perhaps her blond hair would be pulled up or perhaps it would be teased and poofy. I tried to imagine what I would say, or if I would say anything at all. I took a moment to breathe the air both to calm my nerves and to smell it. As girls past by I could smell their perfume, a got a whiff of cigarette smoke from some of the stoners hanging around the parking lot. A large blue Chevy pickup blew exhaust fumes as its engine revved. I smelled my own gum, spearmint. This was the smell of new possibilities, perhaps even the smell of a first kiss.
I checked my watch. She was late. I waited. I checked it again. I began to wonder if should would show up, but then I saw her. She was stepping out of a red Chrysler Lebaron. She was beautiful; stunning. She wore a powder blue princess dress and her hair was in loosely hanging curls. I waved at her to catch her attention, but she didn’t see me. And then from the driver’s side opened and out came Connor Davis.
At first I thought maybe, he’d just given her a ride, but then she took his arm and they began to walk together. My heart sank like a boat anchor at sea, slowly descending until it reached the rocky bottom. As they walked by the kissing tree, Connor called out to me.
“Sniffer! You stupid fuck!” And he laughed. The same laugh he made when I lay on the ground on the playground in third grade. Tish gave me the same awkward, confused smile. I wondered if she knew.
And now every detail of these memories sear through my mind as I stand alone in my basement listening to Marie’s car speed away from my house, the stench of humiliation permeating my lab.