Friday, April 22, 2011

The Smell

I remember the day I came from from school and noticed, for the first time, the smell of the house we lived in. It wasn't the cigarette smoke that caught my attention, nor the smell of last night's dinner, or too many bodies in a space where no one was allowed to open windows: it was another smell, something that made me feel sick. I finally found it by the baseboards near the kitchen trash. Rotting food lined the floor, a gooey pile of ick that stretched over a foot along the wall and onto the floor. I wrestled my rising gorge back down and cleaned it up: and that small spot suddenly glowed bright against the other old, gray filth ground into the cracked linoleum. Thus I began to learn how to clean. And on the strength of my effort a small dent was slowly made in the indifferent filth we lived in: but it was never enough. I could not fix the screen door, or encourage my father to put his teeth in or his pants on: he sat in his ripped t-shirt and boxers, scratching himself and smoking into the night. I did not invite my friends over.

But life found me anyway, and life is not always a gentle teacher. It was the other children who noticed this smell, my smell, and laughed at me behind my back: I had no idea. How could I? Who the hell was going to teach me that I needed to bathe more than once every week or two? I must have been 11 or 12, just before puberty, and I finally heard what the girl said to her friend: her hair is so oily it looks like it's wet. I realized with sudden hot shame that they were talking about me.

I went to the library and checked out books about personal hygiene. They were books for young children: no one wrote books for girls my age explaining how to bathe: it was assumed that someone would have taught me that. I read them and told my mother I wanted to take a shower every day. She laughed tersely and told me it would cost too much money for me to use all that extra hot water. I finally offered to pay her with my babysitting money, and we struck a deal. I was allowed to get clean, within limitations. And those girls at school stopped laughing at me, although I would clearly never be one of them. They couldn't see that I wasn't a freak, or disgusting, or societally retarded. They came from homes with clean sheets and bedtime snacks and a sure knowledge that someone would kiss their booboos. Just as their world was beyond my comprehension, so mine was beyond theirs: but theirs was a world I could see, whereas mine, mine was hidden. I kept the secrets. Who would have believed me, anyway?

My son complained about the requirement of daily showers when he was younger: he called me "anal". When his socks had holes, I threw them away and bought new.He never dressed out for gym class in old grayed hand-me-down underwear, and I didn't make him pay cash for the privilege of washing his sheets. I hope that he will never know what it is like, to be treated with such casual cruelty, such coldness. And I wonder if the pain of being so unloved will ever really go away.


  1. i keep hoping that the pain you speak about will go away. each day i get older i am more convinced that it doesn't. it's more than a scar. it's not quite a wound, but not a scar either. it's puzzling to me.

  2. We were not wealthy when I was a child, but I always had clean sheets and a mom that kissed my boos. You don't know you need to be grateful for anything when you are 5 (nor should you) but I have my own shame. There was a little girl when I was 7 that smelled like pee. She was crying once, and said the kids told her she smelled like pee, and she said But I wear perfume!! And she did. And she asked me did she smell like pee, and I said yes.

    At the best I was honest, which I think counts for something,but at the least I failed to help. I was seven, then, but that still resonates within me as a failure. I was 7, yes, but I could have told her to bring her clothes to school and brought her to my house and washed them.

    You talk about how you were scarred by this experience, but I was also scarred because I failed to act.