“Anosmia” * Fiction * Tara Ison

It’s early days yet (a casual omelet bar meet-up, then a nice though not too-pricey bistro dinner), but she thinks it’s going well, so far. Her friend Jean thought they’d hit it off, that Rose would like this public defender guy Jean met at some wedding and interrogated over the tarragon chicken, on Rose’s behalf, about his relationship status; Jean said he checked all the boxes Rose thinks are important, and so felt fine passing along her number. She and Jean were strolling the farmer’s market, their every-Sunday morning get-together, Rose bringing the blossom ends of cantaloupes to her nose (a sweet smell is good, cloying means over-ripe) and Jean, observing, said “all those boxes of yours” with an eyeroll tone; she always thinks Rose is too picky about everything, too quick to scent a disqualifier amid promise, which is the kind of thing the more you protest, the more you prove their point, so Rose simply abandoned the cantaloupes (suspiciously sweet, anyway), paid for her escarole, and let it slide, because, well, that’s Jean, a good friend but often so critical.

She doesn’t feel her dating criteria are especially demanding, though. It’s pretty much: gainfully employed (white or blue collar, doesn’t matter, there’s virtue in all honest work), and compatibly liberal values (I just don’t want dates to become debates, Jean, you know?) She doesn’t care about superficial things like income bracket or hair color or height (although tall people tend to be more sexily confident, she finds, but that’s correlation, not causation.) Everyone says they want someone with “a sense of humor,” but that’s meaningless as a standard, too subjective, although she has a clear idea of what is funny, and what is not. Race/ethnicity, whatever. Gender doesn’t matter, either, she’s dated men, women, non-binary – it’s always the person, for her, their singular essence, although some people (Jean) think that’s a cliche or a cop-out. No, she keeps an open mind about what she’s looking for – no point in not casting a wide net. Dogs over cats is good, though (mild allergies, plus, well, you know, cats.) Being a sports fan is fine (she’s not), but not obsessively, please, no rabid fist-pumps and chest-thumping and idiotic screaming at goalies or refs or whatever onscreen.

Although there are some deal-breakers, sure: non-smoker, a must, none of that vile ashtray reek (no ridiculous vaping, either.) Good dental hygiene is critical, she can smell unflossed teeth from a yard away (bonus points if they own a tongue scraper – metal, not plastic.) A full rejection of organized religion, any kind (and atheist is better than agnostic, which always seems commitment-phobic to her.) Pro-reproductive rights, strictly – she once stopped a guy about to go down on her to inquire, her legs splayed and dangling over his shoulders, “Wait, wait, are you pro-choice?” Yes, he was, thankfully, no way would she have let him continue otherwise. Rose tells that story with pride.

And no past-romance horror stories, thank you, a history of whacked-out behavior from either party, either pre- or post-breakup, is a red flag – you can judge someone, in part, by who they choose, how finely tuned their selectivity is, right? Also, Rose thinks being on good terms with at least a few exes shows maturity and well-adjustment. She stays in touch with many of hers, or tries to, sends birthday greetings and Congratulations! social media messages on their happy happy life events, even if they rarely reciprocate.

Check, check, check, Jean had said, stuffing avocadoes in a sack (they’ll bruise.) I know you, Rose, you think I wouldn’t make sure of all that before even mentioning you to this guy?

Also, Rose believes, it’s important for a partner to have a few close friends outside the relationship – who wants to be some needy person’s entire social world or sole emotional support system? How exhausting. He does, yes, Jean assured her, buddies galore, and he’s got some good female friends, too. That’s another thing Rose thinks is a marker of emotional health; of course a man and woman, or two lesbian/bi women, or two gay/bi guys, can be just friends, it’s childish to think otherwise, or to feel threatened by that. She’s not the jealous type, not one to place absurd expectations on someone she’s involved with: if they like porn, that’s fine, sure (just no kids/animals/rape); noticing other attractive people on the street, of course, they’re human (but no leering, please, that’s just rude.) No, finding someone romantically and sexually compelling is entirely different from being drawn to a human being as merely a friend, or someone who’s just hot to look at. The pull is far deeper, more compelling. An almost spiritual experience. And yet, paradoxically, reliant on a particular kind of physical chemistry, that molecular, ineffable thing. It has to be there. The simmering pheromones, the hunger heat, the desire to inhale, consume – that chemical, corporeal reaction can overcome a lot, mismatched personalities, middling sexual techniques or incompatible kinks. At least in the beginning, for a while. We need the connection of body as well as soul. We’re still just animals, after all, sniffing each other out.

It’s why a quick jump to meeting in person is so important, Rose feels – whether it’s a set-up through friends (Jean) or dating online, there’s no point in “trying to get to know each other” first. You can’t possibly know each other, or get to know each other, until you’re face to face, in the flesh – she could never buy those “Oh, I fell in love with their letters/emails/texts” rhapsodies or “I knew when I saw their photo/heard their voice for the first time” love stories. That’s pure self-delusion. You can’t fall in love with just audio, just video – no, get face to face as soon as possible, once the early criteria are met. Observe their micro-expressions, close up. Note the texture of their skin. Taste the air you share. Breathe them in, above all, smell their very cells, that most important, visceral test. It is the only true path to intimacy.

Well, thanks, she told Jean, as she weighted, a wheat boule in her hand. If he calls, I’ll give it a go.

Always looking out for you, hon, Jean said, heading off to the essential oils booth.

I know you are. Thanks, she repeated.

He did call, and after a decent chat (nice voice, good timbre), and then a quick FaceTime (Jean was right, perfectly attractive in a stock-handsome kind of way, but workable), she wrapped up with So, you up for the coffee thing? and he immediately said Sure, let’s do it, no hemming or hawing (indicates both self-confidence and attraction), and they planned their first in-the-flesh meet.

An inoffensive breakfast date, always better to avoid cocktails on a first meeting – although it’s revealing if they order a Mimosa or Bloody Mary, start sucking away the booze at 10 am. (He didn’t, good, check.) The Central Casting good looks, just as acceptable in person, if a bit generic. Laundered jeans, a not-too-worn T-shirt (plain, no pathetic 1990s concert memorabilia graphic.) Fresh-shaven for the occasion (a sign of interest), clean fingernails, fresh-brushed teeth, she could tell. And she’d cleaned up, too, of course, hair-washing and facial exfoliating, a citrussy mango body scrub used on her bare arms, legs deliberately left unshaven under the long skirt as an inhibiting tactic to prevent things going too far. Perfectly appropriate first-date conversation: witty banter about current pop culture, sincere discussion about his legal work dedicated to underserved populations (some virtue-signaling, maybe, but ok), seemingly genuine questions about her job as a data analyst. When she commented on the enticing aroma of his mushroom and ham frittata, he immediately offered her a bite, I didn’t add any salt, he said, It might be a little bland, although she found it tasty. He was pleasant to the waiter, but not so overly chummy as to be condescending. When the bill came she made the token innocent-faced reach for it, but he got there first (another test passed), smiled his thanks (lovely teeth, really), assured her it was his pleasure, she could get it next time (!), perhaps, if she wanted. And he leaned forward to pull out his wallet, leaning closer to her with the perfect degree of casual, non-creepy familiarity, and she got a whiff of him, at last, layered beneath the frittata and black coffee, the scent of alpine mint toothpaste and a woodsy shampoo (no sickly after-shave, thank god), a breath of laundry detergent from the T (familiar, the brand of an old flame of hers, she was sure), and then the real him, an alluring potpourri of skin and hair, the faintest hint of sweat, the clean sweet of Vidalia onion tinged with faintly bitter notes of nervousness, a good sign, that confident veneer over a deeply sensitive guy. Very promising. Check, check, check.

So far, so good, she texted Jean.

Told u. 😊

We’ll see.

Then his call a well-calibrated seven hours later, Great to meet you, Rose, How about dinner on Saturday? Followed up by a few playful but fully-punctuated texts. They met up at a little French bistro, her wearing a shorter skirt (gleaming legs) and lower blouse (a discrete dab of perfume beneath each breast), a gratifying Oh, wow from him when he saw her. They shared the escargot (thank god, all that garlic), shared the coq au vin and the bottle of Sancerre, related appropriately-accelerated personal histories (all white flags, Jean did a thorough vetting job.) A terrific sense of humor, yes, making her laugh at cleverly observed ironies, his ability to snark without being mean-spirited, inspiring her to present her most charming, easy-going self. He insisted on paying, again, prompting her offer to make him dinner at her place next time, her offer happily accepted (third date third date third date!) And the critical moment, at her car: the perfect butter-and-garlic-and-velvet wine infused kiss, several of them, amazing how sexy those acrid smells can be when shared, heady, delicious, although she suggested the dinner at her place for three days later, as by then the garlic would have fully finished seeping from her pores.

Early days yet, she texted Jean.

Yeah, but 3rd date, woo hoo!

We’ll see….

You. Sigh….

She’d read online some scientific study ranking men’s favorite scents; cinnamon had placed at number one or two, so she sets crushed cinnamon sticks to boil in a pot of water on the stove, suffusing the house with tang while she dusts (sneeze, sneeze, not a cold coming on, please), vacuums, scours. She tosses a clean set of bed linens and towels into the dryer with a few drops of lavender oil for freshening, makes up the bed. She seasons chicken breasts with lemon and saffron, snaps the dead ends from asparagus stalks, rinses and drains the organic basmati rice (she’d inquired, no silly food allergies or aversions). She blows her nose (damn), swallows a zinc tablet (Google: How to stop a cold coming on?) Dessert: fresh strawberries with home-whipped cream touched with crème de cacao. Then she scours herself, her usual pre-3rd-date routine, a long scalding bath, followed by a cold bubble-rinsing shower to make her skin glow – she is careful to scent-layer her products to avoid a fragrance crash, a subtle shampoo and glycerin soap and unscented deodorant, so as not to compete with her favorite perfume, a bespoke, crazy-expensive scent she’d discovered at a Right Bank parfumerie, and now orders online once a year. Nape, wrists, underbreasts, navel. Lower back, just at the start of her buttocks’ cleft.

He shows with a bottle of Zinfandel and flowers – gladioli, good, not roses (too obvious) or lilies (she loathes their funereal breath) – compliments her apartment, her dress, how pretty she looks, how nicely the table is set, the candles (also unscented, terrible when faux-vanilla or woodland pine or, god forbid, pumpkin spice clash with the food), the presentation of chicken and rice, the al dente asparagus, ruby-red strawberries. He is flirtatious without line-crossing – although feeding her a strawberry daubed with whipped cream was a bit trope-y – and she is glad to observe his dilated pupils, a sign of sexual attraction. Or maybe it’s just the dim candlelight, she worries, until he moves the bowl aside and leans to kiss her, his breath both berry-fragrant and tannic, at least what she can detect through her increasingly stuffed-up nose.

After sex (typical first sex, clumsy and impassioned, regrettably scentless), they lie tangled together for twenty minutes or so, some awkward jigsawing of limbs to find the right cuddle-fit, until she realizes he is waiting, considerately, respectfully, for her to determine if he will spend the night. She decides the pacing of it all will be better if he leaves so she mentions that cold coming on, but Maybe next time? she whispers, and after another minute of playful neck kisses and innuendo, he thanks her for a great evening, gets dressed, kisses her good night, and takes his leave.

She goes to pee, is startled by the sharp odor rising from the bowl and cutting through her congestion, something sour and vegetal mingling with the latex, and remembers, Oh that’s right: asparagus. She berates herself for not drinking more water during the meal, for not peeing earlier to flush her system. She hopes it didn’t offputtingly affect her smell and taste, reassures herself of his enthusiastic tongue and nuzzling face, that his smeary, post-going-down-on-her mouth smelled perfectly fine, as far as she could tell. Still, she is relieved by his smiley/winky emoji text when he arrives home, when he calls the next morning to thank her again for dinner, invite her for a hike, a picnic, How do you feel about Scorsese? He can’t wait to see her again.

*

He’s great, really, she tells Jean a few weeks later. It’s going really well. They get their drinks from the barrista ($5.50 for an iced latte, Jean had sniffed, Ouch) and, spotting and pushing through the crowd, grab the only two seats available. Thanks, again.

I’m glad, Jean says. He seemed like a good one. Hey, why don’t you two come over for dinner one night?

Sure, yeah. She drinks her chai. It’s just….

Just…? Jean asks, an eyebrow raised.

She hesitates, debating what to reveal. He is great, she thinks, by any standard, well beyond her usual checklist. He is straightforward, empathetic, attentive without being overbearing. Thoughtful, asking if she’s over her cold and bringing her Breathe Right tea. Considerate, asking about her day, and Is Darlene in Accounting still being passive-aggressive, Did the meeting with the demanding over-perfumed client go well, showing more interest in her boring job than she does herself. He asks after her family, remembering inconsequential details she herself barely remembers mentioning (How’d your mom’s mammogram go?), How is her car running, and Here’s a review of that Netflix documentary he thinks she’ll enjoy. He is unafraid of showing vulnerability, a loather of toxic masculinity. He’s fun, the hikes and picnics, Hey, any interest in a ballroom dancing lesson, Do you like to ski, and Let’s go see the BodyWorks exhibit when it comes, yes? They are politically compatible, but he adds nuance and compelling context to their discussions as well. He has introduced her to several of his friends – they seem like lovely, welcoming people, unsnarky and engaged in the world – has said a few times how he’d like to meet some more of hers, to which she demurs. His apartment is always impeccably clean, smelling of Windex and orange oil furniture polish, no encrusted dishes molding in the sink, bathroom porcelain Soft Scrub shiny, towels unmildewed, sheets crisp. He takes her out (he doesn’t cook, she discovers) for Korean bibimbap and Ethiopian injera, fancy seafood eateries and tiny mom-and-pop pierogi stands, and she reciprocates by making him elaborate meals, remembering he loves the cornmeal crunch of fried green tomatoes, tenderness of a well-cooked rib-eye, creamy mouth-feel of almond custard, and the chewy texture of sprouted, steel-cut oatmeal, which she always makes him for breakfast, at his place or hers, with just a touch of clover honey, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and tiny pinch of kosher salt (thank you, Google: How to make perfect oatmeal?)

And the sex – they are compatible in that too, an overlapping gamut of preferences, a shared appreciation of surprise. He is the definition of GGG, inventive and unabashed, attuned to her body language – the shift in her hips, her directional tugging of his hair – and actively responds to her verbal requests. He can be tender and romantic (butterfly kissing the backs of her knees, caressing her feet, running his lips along her legs like a flute, God, your skin, he murmurs, You are so soft, everywhere, the feel of you kills me….), can be rough and brusque (a grab-and-fuck on the entry hall floor, pretzeling her on the couch, sitting astride her and pinning her arms with his knees to access her mouth.) And there is his body, beautifully Vitruvian, both muscular (but not in the vain gym-rat way) and lean (proportional armature, not bony), his torso an elegant-fonted V.

But it is his smell above all else, she has discovered, a singular essence unmasked by products, an innate redolence to his flesh and semen and breath that dizzies her, triggers crave. She cannot inhale him deeply enough, wedges her nose into his navel, his mouth when he yawns, his ears, between his fingers and toes. She grows wet from the salty oil at the roots of his hair, she can come from the mossy fumes of his armpits and crotch, feels anointed by his sweat. She wants to strip away layers of skin to burrow inside, wants to breathe in his marrow, taste the tissues of his kidneys and liver, wants to alchemize his cells into her blood and bones, the bronchiole of her lungs. She is embarrassed to find herself reenacting the most cliched of rom-com rituals, smelling the sheets after he leaves, then, when that fades, stealing a pair of boxer shorts from his hamper and using them as a ripe, ersatz pillowcase on the increasingly rare nights they are not together.

And yet. Despite his sexual assertiveness, his eager responsiveness to hers, his avid, whole-heartedness when they fuck, make love, have sex, there’s something missing, she feels, an elusive thing, some thing that’s just not—

Rose? Jean prompts.

It’s just…. She pauses again.

Just what? Jean says. I can barely hear you. It’s so loud, she complains. Why do you always pick this place?

They roast their own beans, Rose says. It’s delicious in here.

You hate coffee.

Just the taste. Anyway, yes, he’s great. She drinks her chai (too much cardamom.) Almost too great, you know?

Oh, no. Jean shakes her head.

What?

Don’t do this, Rose. Jean swallows her iced latte, winces. She pulls a pillbox from the pocket of her scrubs, plucks out a clove (uh oh, Rose thinks, it’s clove time), pops it in her mouth, chews.

Do what?

Your bloodhound routine.

Excuse me?

You’re on the hunt. Jean sucks her clove. You’re searching for the off-ramp.

I’m not. I just said he’s great. He’s perfect, actually.

Okay, okay. I won’t say another word. Jean stands up. You want another chai, hon? I should get back to work soon, but….

What she wants is to say Fuck you, Jean, wants to turn her back and stalk out of there. Who needs a friend like this? But, well, that’s just Jean’s way of showing she cares, she tells herself. She’s such a true friend all these years, always there for her, she’s just in a cranky mood, she’s in pain. Be the bigger person. Let it go.

Sure, she tells Jean, getting to her feet. But sit down, I’ll get this round. It’s on me.

*

What’s this? she asks him one night. They are in bed, twisted together in wet-spotted sheets and musky air, their skins adhesived by sweat. She has her hands thrust deep into his thick hair (the scent of it, like fresh-turned loam), feels an odd indentation behind his right ear.

What’s what?

Here. Like a dent. She presses it delicately with a thumb.

Oh. Yeah, it’s nothing. He shifts, slides lower down her body, presses his face into her belly. You feel like no one else in the world, he tells her. I could spend hours just touching you.

No no, come on, she says. And, when he doesn’t respond: It’s something, she insists, softly. Talk to me.

He sighs, resigned. Just a stupid accident, he tells her. They were both just kids. He’d rounded third, heading home, and his buddy Ron was to one side swinging the bat, buddies since first grade, Cub Scouts and bicycling the neighborhood and now Little League, anyway, Ron was swinging away to loosen up, cheering him home, Slide, they were all yelling, Slide, and just as he dove the bat flew from Ron’s hands and Man, I don’t even remember it, he tells her, They say it knocked me out cold.

So, yeah, anyway, he finishes. Since then.

You can’t smell a thing?

He shrugs. I barely remember what smells smell like. Food, too, smell and taste are pretty much the same thing. So, I don’t taste much, either.

That is so awful, she says, compassionately.

No, it’s ok. It’s why I shower a lot, though. Try to keep the place clean. Just don’t bother asking me to sniff the milk. A sheepish laugh. And do me a favor, let me know if you ever smell smoke or gas.

Why didn’t you tell me before? she asks, as gently as she can.

Yeah, I’m sorry. I was going to. It’s hard to bring up, out of nowhere. I mean, I’m ok with it, but it’s weird to some people. I had a girlfriend once said it was creepy.

Come here, she says, comfortingly, pulling him back up to face her, but he ducks his head into her neck, noses an ear, rests his mouth against her collarbone.

And I’ve never smelled sex, he mumbles. I’ve never smelled a woman. That, I think about. A lot. What I’m missing. I think a lot about how good you must smell. Fuck, I wish I could smell you….

She strokes his back the way he likes as he drifts away into sleep, his mouth still open against her throat.

Liar, she thinks. She feels tremors of acidic rage, tries to still her body so as not to disturb him. He’s been lying to her, this whole time. No lying liars, shouldn’t that be the number one disqualifier? First on the deal-breaker list? She pictures him eagerly eating all those exquisitely seasoned and spiced meals she has prepared for him, all his compliments. Lies. She remembers pouring him an XO cognac one night, how they’d spent half an hour savoring the flavors and fumes, discussing the aromatics of caramelized, oaky grapes. She remembers the hours she’s spent showering, bathing, scenting herself. She recalls, distinctly, the time he came over early and she was running late, her bottle of parfumerie perfume still in hand, how she dabbed her wrists flirtatiously, held one out for him to sniff, Do you like this scent, she’d asked, I can always change for you if not, and he’d taken a deep theatrical whiff and Mmm, he’d said, nodding, biting the meat of her thumb, reaching for her. Liar. Con artist. What an idiot she’s been.

She draws her arm out from under him, peels herself away. Maybe she’s overreacting. Jean would say so, always says so. Maybe it isn’t such a big thing, this betrayal. Such a little thing, a little white lie, or a lie by omission, maybe not even a lie, just a slight disability, and he can’t help being differently-abled, it would be wrong of her to judge him for that, or for keeping it secret, such an inconsequential secret, and don’t we all keep puny little secrets from lovers in the early days of a relationship, before it all turns sour?

Betrayer. Deceiver.

She remembers her recent cold, how she’s always hated feeling congested, how it scrims the world for days, leaving everything diminished, without dimension. Smell is the most primordial of senses, she’s read, something about the amygdala or the area of the brain that links to memory, triggers emotion, floods the psyche with feeling. It was not the taste of that Proustian madeleine, she is sure, it was the crumbly cookie scent of it, the synaptic pathway to remembrance. Smell is how we all make sense of the world, of experience, of people, isn’t it? Coming home from school as a child she could instantly detect her mother’s mood from the dinner-in-the-oven smell: savory meat, acidic tomato paste, and the foggy starch of pasta meant a lasagna guilt trip, her mother’s labor-intensive self-sacrifice on show to an ungrateful daughter or demanding husband, her See how I slaved over a hot stove for you all day? display; an indifferent casserole thickening the air with cream of mushroom soup indicated fray, resentment, her mother throwing together whatever was in the house because she just couldn’t be bothered; the gamy, mustardy waft of pork chops, her father’s favorite, meant her mother was seeking to placate or forestall or please. Her father, in turn, before he’d vanished from their lives: a bitter stink trapped in the armpits of his polyester shirt when he came home meant a rough day, and so a rough evening ahead. Or the hoppy smell of an after-work beer with buddies: sweet hoppy breath meant one or two pints, the promise of a jovial dinner; sour hoppyness exuding from his skin equaled pitchers, and so a fine-edged night of lurking volatility to come. Her grandmother had smelled of benevolence, of old pennies and Bisquick and Nivea night cream, until her end-of-life cancer spiral added an offal-like note of predictive rot, and Rose could no longer bear to be around her.

Anyone, in fact – put her in a dark room with any friend or co-worker, even those she hasn’t seen or heard from in years, and she could identify them by olfactory portrait: the freshman roommate who exuded original formula Dove soap, sticky Bee Venom lip gloss, and, faintly, bologna; the eggy and Coca-Cola aura of the guy she’d partnered with at her college computer lab; that difficult client who so clearly tries to intimidate by the overwhelming use of Joy by Jean Patou (at least the client said it was Joy, when Rose politely inquired, although she suspects, from its chemical undertones, it is a cheap knock-off.) Jean, her closest friend since middle school, smells of isopropyl alcohol, vanilla pudding cups, Pedialyte, and Chapstick; she’s a hospice nurse, and Rose could never understand how she loves such demanding work for so little pay. And, of course, of cloves – she has achy teeth, and once explained to Rose their proven pain-numbing properties. It’s a smell Rose dislikes, too sharply sweet and intrusive (memories of scoffy high school girls dragoning cigarette smoke from their nostrils, the ubiquitous spiced reek and forced cheer of holidays), and she can usually tell from Jean’s pungency if she’s in a mellow mood or will be her highly judgmental self.

But it’s the scents of lovers that linger, the redolent remembrances she savors long after they’ve disappeared from her life. The high school jock boyfriend who used his dad’s Jovan Musk cologne to mask the clinging stench of locker room – years after she’d seen him last at graduation she’d smelled it in an ATM vestibule and was immediately aroused. The college guy who enthralled her with his understanding of Kierkegaard but whose Old Spice deodorant stick called up gross Uncle Max, always wanting the child her to sit squirmingly on his lap, how that soon derailed the physical attraction. The hippie chick girlfriend who, predictably, wafted a piquant patchouli from her wispy underarms; the female cantor met at a cousin’s bar mitzvah, whose genitals were addictively oceanic. The smell of a lover’s true breath, lurking beneath toothpaste and tongue scraping and minty floss, revealed better than a hidden tracking device what they’d been up to that day, what they’d eaten for breakfast or lunch (and often where, if she was familiar with the menu), the mid-day Kind bar they’d snacked on or the brand of electrolyte-replenishing beverage after the gym. It always amused her to recount a lover’s itinerary to their face over dinner, even if they sometimes seemed a little taken aback by her “weird sleuthing,” as one of them put it.

No, this is not a little thing, she thinks. Who would lie about something so profound? So absolutely critical?

Fucking liar.

In the morning, while he’s in the shower, she prepares the coffee (for him), chai (for her), his bowl of sprouted, steel-cut oatmeal. He enters the kitchen toweling his hair, kisses her cheek, thanks her for making breakfast. She smiles, is about to sprinkle his oatmeal with cinnamon, stops herself. She dusts it liberally with smoky paprika instead. She adds a fistful of salt, stirs, sets the bowl before him. She keeps smiling, sipping her chai, watching him eat his breakfast. He chews appreciatively, nodding.

*

She stops washing her clothing, her sheets and towels, because what difference does it make? He doesn’t even notice. She stops cleaning herself, shampooing her hair, lets the funk bloom. She arranges with her office to telecommute for a while, stays a distance from people at the grocery store, and lets her armpits become rancid shallots, her genitals seaweed-foul, her feet fetid with jam. She stops brushing her teeth and scraping her tongue, lets her mouth go furry and rank. She makes a miasma of herself, an odiferous cloud. It makes no difference, none at all; he is attentive and enthusiastic as ever, adoring her every orifice, sucking her toes, licking at her every secretion like a dog. She is keenly aware of her putrid waft when they are close, embracing, during sex, but he is oblivious, clueless as to her smell. He always has been, she thinks. We have never been truly intimate with each other. We never can be.

I’m falling in love with you, he says to her one night in bed. He is vulnerable, but determined, stroking her cheek, a deep gaze. She turns away so he cannot read her face (liar), hopes her body language conveys a tender, unspeakable emotion. He says it with no sense of expectation or entitlement, no implicit pressure on her to return the comment. It is simply offered as a gift, this pure delusion of his, as one more thing he has to give her.

Just one more lie.

*

Why don’t you just see a dentist, she asks Jean at their next Sunday farmer’s market date. They are at the essential oils booth, Rose careful to stand downwind of her. She spritzes herself with a sample bottle of lavender water, just in case.

No dental, Jean says. She holds up a 1oz. bottle of clove oil, asks the booth guy: Is there a discount if I buy more than one?

Sorry, he says. It’s pricey, I know, but it’s the pure stuff, all organic. The eugenol in there’s the real thing.

Jean sighs, counts out crumpled singles, a handful of change. Anyway, she says to Rose, Why don’t we all have that dinner at my place? She unscrews the bottle of clove oil (cringe), takes a swig, swishes her mouth.

Well, yeah, I wanted to talk to you first—

Whoa, the booth guy says to Jean. You have to dilute that. I mean, it’s a natural compound, but—

So is arsenic, Rose says.

Yeah, exactly, he says. All essential oils are edible, but in high doses they’re—

Okay, okay, everyone, thanks. Jean rubs her gums with a finger, spits the clove oil out into her water bottle.

Or you could sneak pain meds from work, Rose suggests.

Jean gives her an “I could never do such a thing” eyeroll, tucks the bottle of clove oil in her tote. So, next Saturday maybe? she asks Rose. What does he like to eat, any favorite dishes?

Yeah, about that… She feigns interest in a bag of rose petal potpourri. He has never truly known me, Jean, she will tell her. He never will, never can. So he can never really love me.

Rose?

Okay, she says. She takes a deep breath. Look. He’s got this weird thing—

Here we go, Jean sighs. Right on schedule.

What?

Every time. You’re like a pig with a truffle.

Jesus, Jean. She glances at the booth guy, who makes a sudden show of busying himself with a pyramid of peppermint soaps. Seriously?

I can’t. Jean shakes her head. I’m sorry, hon, I just can’t do this again.

Do what?

You’ve found something wrong with this one, right?

But—

This great guy, he clearly adores you (he doesn’t, he can’t), and you’ve dug up something so petty (it isn’t) you’ll blow totally out of proportion (I’m not, you aren’t giving me a chance), you’ll use it as an excuse to dump him or you’ll get so obnoxious about it (what?) he’ll dump you, either way you’ll come running to me day and night, all lonely and flipped out (I don’t do that!), and I’m supposed to hold your hand and say you did the right thing (that’s what a best friend is for!) and then you’ll meet someone new and sabotage that all over again. I was hoping it would be different with this guy. That you’d be different this time. You need someone, hon, I know that. But I can’t go through it again, this endless cycle. I’m exhausted. And I can’t be your whole world anymore. You need to find another friend to lay all this on—

Jean—

But I’m done. Jean slings her tote to her shoulder, turns and walks off. You need to take a serious look at your shit, Rose, she calls back over her shoulder. I’m sorry.

Whoa, the booth guy says.

Rose blinks, stunned and agape. Then, Jean, she calls after her, You are so wrong! I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to break up with him! Jean!

Jean disappears behind the food trucks. The booth guy looks at her, nonplussed; he is either sympathetic or suspicious, she can’t tell. She is breathless, fuming. Jean would never abandon her this way, just vanish from her life. Not after all these years, how close they’ve always been. She grips the edge of the booth. She picks up a bottle of the clove oil.

I’ll take ten of these, she tells the booth guy.

Yeah, okay.

A present for her, Rose explains. She’s just in a lot of pain.

Yeah. Sure. He begins wrapping them up, bagging them.

She’s such a great friend, really. Always there, looking out for me. She’s my rock.

Right, he says. How do you want to pay?

*

She puts on his favorite dress, arranges flowers, carefully prepares a meal – a big tureen of prettily garnished springtime mint and sorrel soup, a dab of crème fraiche – brings it to the table. She lights candles. He thanks her, as always, Looks beautiful, he says, as always. He takes, kisses her hand, her palm, the inside of her wrist. You’re beautiful, he says.

She disengages to bring in large glasses of gleaming merlot, hands him one, sits opposite him.

He lifts his glass to drink, and –

Wait, she says. She leans, kisses him first, inhales deep. Intoxicating, savory, delicious. Soon, she expects, regretfully, that will change. His breath and flesh will turn pungent, his body will exude the sharp cloying odor, it will seep from his very pores as he struggles to breathe, or suffers severe liver injury or hepatic failure, or, in higher doses, even death. (Thank you, Google: How much clove oil is toxic?)

I love you, too, she says. Eat up.

She watches him take deep spoonfuls, grateful the hidden boxer shorts still emit his ambrosial, singular essence. She will have that to cling to for a while longer at least, Although she knows in time that, too, will fade.

 

It’s early days yet, but Jean will come back, she is sure. She will apologize to Rose for the cruel, mistaken things she said, for lashing out, being so judgmental and unfair. She will hold Rose’s hand through the rituals of mourning, the grief, the slow healing, offer endless comfort and support through this difficult time. Jean will be there for her again, as always. A friend like that, you don’t really need any others.

 

–About Tara Ison—

I’m the author of 4 novels (my recent was a NYT “Editors’ Choice”), a story collection, and an essay collection, and my short fiction has appeared in BOMB, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. I recently received my second NEA, in support of a new story collection – “Anosmia” will be part of that collection.

*Editor’s note: We’re delighted to publish Tara’s story as we are long-time fans. Check out this review of Tin House: Candy that features her story “The Meat Bee.”