Here’s week 3 of the Senseless Challenge: smell.
This piece is excerpted and reworked from a few episodes of my blog story, StorySkippers Anonymous, but with the story skipping stuff edited out, because that’s just too complicated for flash fiction and I’m not trying to blow anybody’s minds here, lol!
Bars didn’t smell like cigarettes anymore. Inside, the air smelled of manufactured fog and climate control, perfume and desperation. Outside, the air was saturated with lingering rain and the chill of autumn. The two worlds crashed at the opened door where she was leaving work, where he had come to find her wearing a strange-smelling lab coat, his neat close-cropped curls gone fluffy in the wind. “Oh, shit,” April said. She sucked in a breath of cold air, feeling torn between jumping forward to hug him, to hit him, to shout at him to go screw himself, or maybe even crying. But she didn’t do any of those things — she didn’t move at all. She had a jacket on, but her legs were bare. She was cold, always cold when she came home from work in those little outfits, drenched in fruity liquors and spilled vodka. She saw him wanting to reach out his arms and wrap her up. She always loved the way he could wrap her up.
“I didn’t mean shit. I meant, what are you doing here?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t want to fight anymore.”
A fight? In twelve years they hadn’t gone more than a few hours without speaking, so two months was more than a fight. She still couldn’t even believe he would suggest it, after everything she’d been through — April never wanted to screw up a kid like her own mother did. So if a kid was still what Beau wanted, then she didn’t know what to say to him.
It didn’t seem like it had been twelve years since they first met, at the park, scratching tic-tac-toe in the dirt, but it appeared to be true. April was never the type to mark time like that. But Beau was. Never grow up, she made him promise. And he had promised. But they did grow. They were grown-ups doing grown-up things, having grown-up feelings and needs, and one day they came to this road block — he wanted a family, and she didn’t. Where would they go from there?
“Did you want to say something, or just stalk me like a creeper?”
He laughed lightly. “I guess I just wondered what you’ve been doing. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“What I do?” She gave him a weird look. “I go to work. Here. This is what I do.” Was she okay? That was a different question. “You don’t look okay. Don’t you like your new job?”
“My supervisor is a total dick. An idiot too. So I’m in charge of the relay switchboard and all they have me do — for real — is push this button at the end of each treatment round. Mind you, I have two degrees, and all those student loans, just to push a button? The other day, when he wasn’t looking, I switched his bottle of Aluminum Sulphate with dishwasher detergent… It was his fault he didn’t look at the labels again before he filled the incoming tub.”
April pictured all the bubbles — there must have been so many, all iridescent and sparkling and going, pop, plink, pop. She couldn’t contain the grin spreading across her face.
“And it made me remember,” he went on. “The time we were both working together at my dad’s arcade — do you remember the arcade?”
“I remember,” she said.
“And what were we, seventeen then? When you put dish liquid in the fountain because my dad told you to clean it and you thought that was how. And then when it started to bubble, we snuck out the back so the new kid would get the blame. I remember we were smoking a joint while he fired that poor kid. And you still had the back of your head shaved, ’cause you were going through that punk phase, and I was teasing you about it, and do you remember you said if I ever stopped being your friend, you would shave my head?” He grinned. “Well, don’t you owe me a head-shaving?”
He meant it lightly, he meant it as a joke, but instead it only made a deep ball of hollowness form in her throat. “Only if that means you stopped being my friend. Did you?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I didn’t.”
“Then I actually like you with all that hair.”
“Come here,” he said, holding out his hands. “I know you want to.”
It was true. She was starting to bounce a little.
It had been too long, but between them, too long to start again was impossible. She touched his jacket first and let him pull her close. “Do you smell chlorine?”
“No,” Beau said. “I don’t smell anything.”
“Yeah,” April said. “I think you spilled some on your jacket or something.”
She opened up his jacket and let him wrap her up inside, tucking her face in the warm space where his collar met his skin, the safest place she ever knew, the smell of him, of clean laundry and Irish Spring soap and apparently, chlorine now too.
“I won’t say it again,” he whispered. His voice was soft beneath the rush of cars passing on the street, but with his lips so close to her ear, she heard him clearly. “I know why you don’t want to, and I respect that. If it means we can’t be friends, then it’s not worth it.”
All that struck her then was that this meant someday he would find someone else to have a family with. He deserved a family, and she did want that for him. One day, he would meet someone who could give him everything he wanted, who could be everything he needed and deserved, and she would lose him for good.
But for now, she still had him. She held him tighter, the warmth of his hands on her back, his breath on her shoulder. She held him tighter, even if he did promise her they would hang out again soon, and a lot, and every day, and forever. She felt herself losing him, little by little, with each disagreement, each difference, so many marks stacked against them, so many reasons why it couldn’t last.
He started to part them, but she stopped him. “No, not yet,” she said. “Don’t let go.”
She breathed in the smell of him, remembering all the smells of him, the boyishness of trees and dirt and wind, the spilled soda of their teen years, the pot smoke of college, and finally the smell of him all grown up. Chlorine and dish liquid. “Don’t let go,” she said again.