All that afternoon the smell in the hallway bothered me. I was cleaning my apartment, making it as nice as I could, running the vacuum, taking out the recycling. But every time I went into the hall, I thought: what is that smell? I couldn’t place it. It wasn’t very strong, but it was bad, and weirdly tenacious. It didn’t seem to be stronger or weaker depending on where I was. It was everywhere.
I tried calling the building manager twice and both times was told she was busy. I even visited her office later, but saw her through the door talking to two male visitors in dress shirts and pants and decided to just email. The smell was annoying, but I classified it as one more byproduct of living in a building with a lot of other people – one of those phantom odors like pet accidents or boiling broccoli or pot smoke in the middle of the night. I thought maybe somebody had gone on vacation and left food to go bad in their fridge.
Less than a half hour later, back in my apartment, I finally registered some sounds that had been building in my hallway, and stuck my head out. The smell was much worse. In one look I took in two uniformed cops, the building manager, two people in matching dark blue t-shirts with logos on them, and a gurney. That’s when I knew what had happened. Maybe I knew just before I opened the door. The scene was impossible to misread, down to the matching t-shirts.
“Oh those are the Sunshine Cleaning people,” I thought. I’ve never seen that movie.
I said to the manager, a smile on my face, when I got her attention, “So you must have gotten my email?” The smile – and the comment – were the inanity of shock. Shock and some kind of involuntary attempt to hang on to who I was before I had to know this.
“No. What?” she said. “No, I haven’t gotten it yet.”
“Did something happen?” I had to know.
After a long pause filled with a slow tip of her head in the direction of my neighbor’s apartment she said, “Yes. Sarah is dead.”
Sarah lived across the hall. The door to her apartment was ten feet away, kitty-corner. I knew her well by sight, chatted with her occasionally, but didn’t really know her. I got her name mixed up with another neighbor’s sometimes. I guess I was going to know her name now.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. Most of what I saw during that conversation is blurred in my memory, as if I never focused my eyes.
I retreated uselessly to my apartment. Revulsion and shock and a horrible vulnerability roiled through me as the news took hold, but right behind, not leaving me alone, was a different panic. Joe was supposed to be at my apartment in half an hour.
I hadn’t seen Joe for many months, but he had been on the road all afternoon, on his way down to spend the night. Joe and I are not significant others. We are situationally affectionate, but casual. Sex — that’s the connection. Sex. That’s why I had been cleaning my apartment. I was making a civilized and pleasant space for us to be naked in. We had been looking forward to this visit all week.
What the hell was I supposed to do now? The police were blocking the way to my apartment. The stench of a decomposing body was everywhere, the waiting gurney clogging the hall outside my door. But it was far too late to call Joe and cancel. I didn’t have enough money for a hotel. How could we be in this apartment? What were we going to do?
And he was a… fuck-buddy. The lack of a deeper emotional connection had been demonstrated and proved long ago, and that was not shifting inside me in the face of life-changing emergency. He wasn’t someone I could be all of myself with about this. Which made me not want to tell him. But — I did. And I had to. How could I not? I couldn’t be with him otherwise. Normally he and I together created a good, private space to share a part of ourselves. It wasn’t messy. Or rather — we had a place to be messy. Set aside from the rest of our lives, around the back door. But this blew all the distinctions and pathways to bits.
I felt disgusting. My space felt contaminated. I couldn’t even think about sex. I had to, though. Joe had been on the road for five hours. Getting to my apartment isn’t easy. There was nothing else for him to do but show up. But there was no way I could let him in.
I couldn’t believe I had to worry about this. I was glad I had to worry about this. This was insane.
I called my mother to tell her about the dead body — about Sarah. In my panic I ended up spilling my worry about what to do with Joe’s visit, only I upgraded it a bit to a “date.” I’d never mentioned him at all to her, but the compartments of my life were falling apart. I was still on the phone when a surge of new bad smell hit.
It was ungodly. It was an assault, thicker than air, but able, horrifyingly, to travel through air. My door was closed, but the smell came in as if it there were no door. I can’t even imagine what it was like in the hallway. I knew from that smell — from only the smell — that they were taking the body out. I was on the opposite side of the room, looking in the other direction, but I would not turn around. I knew what it was. The decay was evil and putrid and not separate from me. God, Sarah.
My mother’s calm voice was in my ear while my eyes saw nothing and my body pulsed in a trapped beat, animal and terrified. There was no way to explain what I was experiencing. It got even stronger. How do you say smell?
It’s not just that I didn’t know what a decomposing body smelled like, you see. It’s that I thought I had some sense of the scale of sensory phenomena, period. I did not know smell could be that much anything. I was disoriented.
“These things happen in the city,” said my mother, or maybe I did. Either way I grabbed at this idea and repeated it. It felt full of solace. I could just barely believe it. Yes. Here are we human beings, all piled next to each other in the city. Death happens in our apartments. When I hung up my cat was in an unusual spot for her under my chair, looking at the door with an expression I’d never seen.
The smell finally subsided a little, so I opened my door to confirm the body was gone. The gurney had disappeared. I saw one of the cleaning guys taping off the edges of Sarah’s door with duct tape, a rubbly pile of coffee beans lining the gap underneath. A policeman waited silently to stick a “no entry” sign from the medical examiner’s office on the door. Everyone looked calm, but I was still frantic. I interrupted the building manager’s conversation to ask her if there was anything I could do about the smell. She said they had run out of the odor-absorbing gel they were putting in front of giant industrial fans in the hallway pointed toward my – Sarah’s – doors, two from each direction, stirring giant gusts of air. The idea of industrial cleaners honestly confused me. I wanted to her to tell me they were chipping off Sarah’s apartment into a giant dumpster and throwing it away.
I closed my door, but opened it again in a moment at a knock to find a cleaning guy there with a chunk of gel carved into a little plastic pot. A strange gift, a wise man with myrrh. He had to explain to me three times, over the roar of the fans, how the gel worked before I understood him in my dumb, jumpy panic. It seemed terribly important to get it right. I was seeing particles of rot in the air like oversized illustrations of atoms, floating clusters of little spheres fused together. I wanted to blast them away from me.
I put the pot down in my living room, with a fan blowing over it toward the front door. To let in air I opened my balcony door, which I’d kept closed for months against spiders. I worried about them, and about the holes in my screen, but thought: I refuse to care. I rolled a sheet and stuffed it against the gap under the front door. I texted Joe to meet me outside my building, grabbed my phone and an old shirt to throw over my dress, and left, opening the door as little as possible on the way out and reaching back around it with my foot to try to pat the sheet in place from the other side. I didn’t even think to put the sheet against the door on the hallway side. I didn’t want anything of mine out in that diseased gale.
The hallway was a tornado, the distinct odor of the gel (“effective against organic odors”) merging in a terrible way with the smell of dead body. It was all the same. I did not breathe through my nose. There was a thin alkaline layer of chemical on my tongue.
I had my phone to my ear as I ran out of my building, calling Joe’s number. I had no idea where he actually was at that point. He could be anywhere between the last time we had texted and now. I scanned the busy Friday rush hour crowds, trying to make sure I didn’t miss him on the opposite side of the street. I was calling his number a third time when I saw him emerging from the drugstore.
“I told you I was going to get the ginger ale,” he said. “Did you think I forgot?”
Joe looked good. As I hugged him I thought, not for the first time, that our smells didn’t match. Not that he smelled bad, but that even now his smell did not pull me in. My mom once told me that was the best way to figure out how you felt about a man: if you liked their smell. I didn’t want to think about whether he could smell decay on me.
But I was really glad to see him. He seemed happy to see me. Oh, this part of me, I thought. It was a little confusing that he didn’t look as traumatized as I felt.
“I need a drink,” I said. “I’m buying. I’ll explain when we get there.” What kind of adult shit is this, I thought, not blurting things out. I was, for good or for ill, hostessing this fucking biohazard. Protecting him and protecting me.
He had a bag with him and didn’t want to walk back in the direction he’d just come from, but I dragged him to a nearby bar anyhow. It was an unsympathetically loud, jolly sports bar and restaurant, and I cared not at all. “We’re here for alcohol,” I announced to the maitre’d. I can be charming when I’m freaked out. I still wanted something with ginger ale, but can never think of anything besides a Seven & Seven, so that’s what I ordered.
And I told him. Not gracefully. Not slowly, after one last meaningful look over melting ice cubes. But at least our drinks were in front of us.
“Hunh,” was what Joe said, in effect. “Hunh. Yeah, that happens.” He asked a few more questions, nodded as I babbled, but that was it. Coming from a guy who thinks professionally in actuarial tables, the platitude – I was so happy to hear it again – had some weight. (That’s right, it does happen.) He changed the topic, faster than I wanted, but it was probably good for me.
After we’d caught up for an hour or so and had another drink, I asked him, “How do you feel about being in the apartment? Will it bother you? We don’t have to go back there. We really don’t.”
I had to give him an out. But I had decided that I wanted him to come back with me. He looked delicious. He didn’t care about the dead neighbor across the hall. He looked at me with hunger. I’m not sure our date should have been enough for me that night, but now that I was with him I wanted it. Somehow, having fled the apartment, I had forgotten that I had to go back, right until the point I asked him to come with me.
“Hunh. Nah,” he said, completely unflustered. “These things happen.” So we went back to my apartment, holding our breath in the hallway, and I pushed the sheet in place again under the door once we were inside.
Later, after I banished Joe to the couch for snoring, everything bad I had pushed away for hours with sex rushed back at me. The smell. I sat up in bed with chills of adrenaline running up and down my arms. I was suddenly vulnerable being naked, vulnerable with a man in the next room, dependable a goofball as he was, whom I didn’t trust with my heart. I felt the rot and stink of evil right at my door, and I worried irrationally, like a nightmare, if I could trust him to side with me if the evil tried to come in again. I kept picturing Sarah rotting on her floor while I had walked by her apartment. I wondered how she decomposed. There had to have been liquid. Did her body explode? I hated her for turning from a person I knew into something that scared me to death. I couldn’t believe she was now a police sign on a door. I veered between pitying her terribly and pitying myself.
Had I known what was in that apartment? Sarah had no schedule that I knew of and lived in our building part-time, so it was hard to be sure, but I had the vague sense that I should maybe have seen more of her recently. Another ping of shock flooded me when I realized that I really had noticed on some tiny level she hadn’t been around. I thought about the notice peeking out from under her door that had been there undisturbed for weeks — how many? Not that unusual for her, but still, weeks. She had been rotting for weeks. Oh god — I had had a friend over two nights ago. Sarah had been lying there then. I’d never seen Sarah with a friend. Everything was diseased. Evil. I hate zombie movies, all that fake fucking gleeful movie decay. Do people even know what it means?
I got up to use the bathroom. The smell of used condoms in the trash, even wrapped up, was repellent. I thought again: Joe is not The Guy.
Back in bed I still couldn’t even lie down, until I suddenly realized, as if it were new information, that Sarah’s body was no longer in her apartment. The particles of her I saw in the air would go away. My brain slowed.
I didn’t sleep well, but I slept a lot. And what had felt like evil in the night in the morning felt more like sadness. My body was sore. The sun was out. I sat at my computer, and when Joe came up to me I pressed into him, bouncing my face against his springy swimmer’s belly while I hugged his legs and he stroked my arms. He offered me a bite of his breakfast. We smelled a bit like each other. He smelled warm. The Magic Flute was on the radio and I made Joe listen while we ate a delicious lunch he bought. We had sex again. Maybe I could still live here.
I hugged and kissed him goodbye when he left and I did not long for him too much later that day. There was no new us. Sex and death overlapped, forming a little seam, not weaving new fabric. It got me to the morning.
The week Sarah’s body was discovered I had read a newspaper story about a woman who fell out of love with her husband because she lost her sense of smell. She had been in a serious bike accident and otherwise had recovered fine, but could not smell him any more. Despite twenty years together, without her husband’s scent she could not access their intimacy. He wasn’t there to her. The article was sad, but I had been fascinated. Smell, it turned out, could write the story. Smell, this thing that comes and goes so fast, that we worry about so much in ourselves. The truth is we need the smells of the people we love like we need food.
Smell had sneered at all this and slammed me to the ground in a chokehold. Derided my fascination with its powers and with other people’s troubles; jeered at my twitchiness about the smells of community living. Dared me to love my rotting neighbor. My sense of smell knew what was happening that day before I did — it knew who the two plainclothes cops in the management office were. I am chastened, and worried about the next new thing I will be taught, my nostrils flared and mouth open as I sniff the air.
Feature photo © Remko Tanis, licensed under Creative Commons.