Boyfriend’s mother has a farm. Well, rents a room in a house on a farm. This is the reason that we can sit here by their pond which takes up a quarter of one of their many acres. This is how we can listen to their bullfrogs and eat spoonfuls of their clouds, which are fluffier than the ones you can get in town, made dense by pickup truck exhaust and the scent of fresh purple paint on the new shutters of old buildings. The man who owns the farm has kids, a great many of them, Boyfriend says, so that he has a decade and a half of free labor. But we’ve been to the pond and to the creek and to the fields that feed the goats and I have still seen more of the wandering cats and visiting deer than I have of those little redheaded fieldhands. The younger ones spent most of their time running over hills and into the creek and past the fences that closed in the animals. I once found myself being a little jealous of them. I had never seen them together all at once but I did pass by a gathering of theirs on my way into the depths of the property. I counted; one was missing. Their heads like matchsticks, swaying in rhythm, they stood out amongst their friends. My tires crunched on the uneven gravel road, clunking out of time with the song they were singing. I did once see the very youngest, a toddler wearing an adult’s t-shirt, napping in the grass under the shade of the front porch. Long day, I was sure. Farm-raised children know when a storm is on its way–that sunny day, as I waited for Boyfriend in the driver’s seat, the little boy raised his head to the breeze, opened his eyes to the sun, and teetered into the house through the open screen door. Within minutes, the place he had been sleeping was a puddle.
“You know the smell that rain leaves?” I ask Boyfriend through the haze of gnats and pollen that is only this thick in the dryness of August. Just his head remains under the patchy shadow cast by the elm.
“Sure.” I almost can’t hear him behind the yellow screen.
I love that smell. Earthy and full and green.
“Did you know that tornados also have a scent?”
Some say it smells like freshly cut grass. If you’re really in the middle of it, right in the eye, you might be able to smell natural gas–or whatever it is they add to it to make it stink–right before you steal a glimpse through the floors of your neighbor’s unfinished basement.
“I didn’t know that.” His eyes are closed. His long fingers are relaxed and his feet splay outwards, pushing invisible lines to either end of the clearing. His socks are bundled up, one in each shoe, baking in the heat. The smells of the field are nothing to remark upon.
Farms here in the north are nothing like the farms in the middle of the country. I take this farm as the blueprint for what all other farms up here must look like: hilly and sensual and old. It can’t be more than a stone’s throw southwest that drought and storms and locusts see the flatness of the land and mistake it for hospitality. All we ever get up here is warnings and watches, grey clouds and heavy winds, but nothing to tear open the sky.
If you know the middle of the country, you know that both rain and tornadoes, when taking shortcuts through open fields, sound like waterfalls. There are times when you can’t see a tornado coming, like when it hides behind the skirted mother legs of a heavy rain. These things tend to hit you hardest when you don’t know to look out for them, when everything sounds like waterfalls anyways.
They say that some people can smell disease. Illnesses that swallow birthdays and marriages and whole previous lives have a smell like rotten eggs, according to wise, old nurses and experts on the subject. People who have had a stroke often describe a smell like burnt toast, as if something in their brain had gotten jammed, worked the tiny cogs and motors too hard, leaving a plume of thick, white smoke behind it. I was going to say all this too but he opens his eyes and looks right at me. I know that he doesn’t do this to interrupt me, but it always seems that when he stares at me like this, he is craving silence. I let him have it.
We had spent that whole, tired summer spitting holes into the bubbling pond scum and scratching red stripes into our legs because the grass was tall and itchy. It was too hot and too sick outside to do much of anything else. From spring through the middle of the summer, things were good. Nothing about us had that feeling of being exciting and new. When I had met him at the bar where he worked, it felt the way it was supposed to, but that was almost a year ago now. I had been listening to my friends’ conversation while watching beautiful women make witty remarks and sip their drinks over the rim of my own glass. The way the women moved their arms and their heads was rhythmic and synchronized. They were lovely but so terrifying, like specters or tsunamis. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to be them or… Then he crossed into my vision.
That night, I had given him my phone number and he sent me a text, identifying himself as the love of my life. I responded with an “lol” or a non sequitur. It’s all too complicated and tedious to get into now, a saga whose complications are entirely on me, but he and I were a long time coming, and so when it got down to it, it felt like we had already been at it for years. I think we were both a little tired, even at the start. But things were fine and very, very comfortable. It was a year for cicadas and they were up to crinkling the air like cellophane after so many years underground. Silence was hard to come by.
By June, though, because my mind took big gliding strides and walked faster than I could run, I slept late into the mornings. Boyfriend, an early riser, said that I twitched as I dozed, that tight tremors shook my legs and shoulders like a dreaming puppy dog.
“What in the world do you dream about?” he asked me one morning. I could seldom recall. My teeth always hurt when I tried to remember.
When I was awake, I breathed much of the time by yawning and my worrying went to work. This worrying had nothing to do with the heat or the lengthening days or Boyfriend’s sudden uninterrupted presence in them, except that maybe it did. I wasn’t sure. And this worried me too.
Perhaps it was because of this worrying or because of the yellowness of the air that I began to encounter the Smell, but once I did, it never went away. It was the rottenest of stinks, something like the odor coming from vegetables that have turned to goo in your garden folded into the kind of bad breath that comes from way deep down inside your stomach. It was not this uncomplicated, though. The Smell was layered and foul.
It came only weeks after first meeting Boyfriend, when things were beginning to feel real, in itself a scary feeling. At first, I was certain that the Smell had to be coming from me. One weeknight, I set out to gather supplies.
“Come over,” Boyfriend texted. “I haven’t seen you in days, I miss you.”
“Can’t tonight,” I replied.
“Sorry :///” I nestled my phone into the pile of crumbs accumulating in my cup holder. Our town was a certifiable island, connected to civilization only by highways made accessible by two-lane roads without streetlights. It was on these roads that I drove all night, from drugstore to drugstore, looking for a cure.
In the third “Personal Care” aisle I tore through, my eyes sailed across the same deodorants and shampoos and soaps that I had already bought at the last two places. Here I picked up laundry detergent–the kind that smells like funeral flowers–mint waxed dental floss, a tongue-scraper (as seen on TV) and a three-wick candle that smelled like tobacco and vanilla. I had assumed that as I drove farther away and as my inbox remained clear of text messages from Boyfriend, that the pressure of the Smell would lift. I had envisioned levity as I weaved alone through the aisles of the identical stores, wondering when the clack of my feet would yield to silence as I levitated above the shelves and gently through the ceiling tiles before bursting through the roof and into the chilled night air. The Smell still followed me, however, and only grew stronger as the hours passed, making my steps heavier in each store I entered. Maybe Boyfriend hated me now, decided that I wasn’t worth the trouble. He had probably already forgotten all about me, deleted my number and moved his attention to a girl in a bar. The lights were suddenly very bright where I was standing, in the aisle with the gum. I crouched, pretending to look at the bargain candies on the lowest shelf. I certainly couldn’t text him now that he hated me. My ears felt as though they had been filled with cotton.
I was familiar with this feeling. Identifying it made it smaller. I looked at what was around me.
“Excuse me, do you need help?” The pimply teenage clerk from the front counter stood over me.
“I’m ready to check out,” I said. I meant this.
He looked at me with an intense disinterest. “I can take care of that at the front.”
I drove home too fast and with my hands petrified around the steering wheel.
I spent the night at home proving to myself that the Smell was not on my skin, not braided into my hair, not clinging to my clothes, not sitting behind my molars. I decided that it was more like a shadow, separate from, but very much belonging to, me. This did not satisfy me.
There were times that I forgot about the Smell for hours or even days at a time. These days were the ones that I engaged in simple tasks that demanded single-mindedness, like vacuuming particularly stubborn areas of my floors or shopping online for therapists. After finding only older men, all with the same look in their eyes, I compiled a list of lists, things that doctors and anxious people instructed forums to do when the Smell became as thick as fog and distorted all my senses. Recite a poem, hold ice, visualize putting your feelings in a box. None of these things had to do with the Smell. A popular technique involved identifying the real around you. Five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, one you can taste.
I remembered colorized films that I watched as a child in which women with precarious temperaments stretched across fainting sofas, only to be revived by small vials of smelling salts opened right beneath their noses. In the scenes like these portrayed in cartoons, curling pink lines wafted without urgency from the opening of the jar. When the woman awoke from her stupor, it was always with a jolt. Does this remedy work for those who are already fully conscious, I wondered.
“Do you smell that?” I asked Boyfriend one airless night as he lay his head on my stomach. I hoped he didn’t, though I was becoming desperate, needing confirmation that it wasn’t just me. My first knuckles were looped into his tight curls like Chinese finger traps.
“You don’t smell anything?” It was mild at this point. Musky, perhaps, but not foul. Barely noticeable, maybe. But still there.
“No. Smell what?”
“Never mind,” I said, as I stroked his cheek with my thumb. There was one wiry hair that he missed while he was shaving. He hadn’t gone to the barber for a while, so the sides of his head, where the hair was usually cropped short, were starting to get thick and coiled again. Because everything grew straight outwards, his face looked impossibly wide.
“Should we go in?”
“Look, it’s not that late,” he said, pointing his long arm toward the dishwater sky. “There are still birds out.” I lay back in the grass, which was growing cold as the sun sank below the fence.
We had stayed out in his backyard to watch the sunset and he didn’t want to go inside where there was nothing to do. I was still afraid of him, the way that I feared all men at first; it’s true that being alone with him was electrifying, like I was sitting cross-legged at a precipice.
“Those are bats,” I said as I stood, shimmying out from under his head while avoiding the precarious tower of empty beer cans that we had built as the evening trickled away. My shape stayed smushed in the tall grass like some pastoral crime scene.
“Are you sure?” He gave me his hand to hold but I gave it a yank. He stayed where he was.
“Positive. The birds are all home in their trees by now.” I said this as I tugged at his wrist. “Besides, look at the way they fly.” The things jerked their wings in jagged curves, nothing about them graceful or hollow.
He looked skyward again, waiting for the next flight. When he saw it, he smiled, showing me the space between his two front teeth. He hardly ever smiled this way but I loved when he did. He asked if we could stay and watch a while longer. “I think I like them better than birds,” he realized. The Smell snuggled up in the hollow above my upper lip but he still was smiling. My instinct was to tighten my grip on whatever had me standing but I lay back down where the grass was starting to forget me and wiped my mouth.
I was familiar with this feeling. Identifying it made it smaller. I looked around me. The firepit was made of brown bricks. The grass was getting too long. The laces of Boyfriend’s shoe were turning brown and coming apart at the tip. The clouds were more purple than gray. The leaves on the trees quivered as if they were suddenly cold too, in the way they only do in the early spring.
I ran my fingers across whatever I could reach. Boyfriend’s skin was soft. The ends of my hair were dry. The dirt was crumbly. The corners of my fingernails were sharp.
I listened closely to the things around me. The drummer in the house down the street was practicing. The neighbors shut their car doors as they came home for the evening. Someone laughed loudly, but it sounded very far away.
I sniffed the air. The Smell, the Smell, all I could smell was the Smell.
“They look like they’re struggling to stay up there,” Boyfriend said.
“They sure do.” The Smell stuck around.
I wasn’t sure whether my mind, at that point rubbed raw, was inventing the Smell or if the Smell was pushing me down a hill in a shopping cart. I suspected that if I could name it, whatever it was, it would go away. I was usually good at naming things, having named childhood pets and invented diseases brought on by specific magic spells in my youth. But those things had hints, they already knew what they wanted to be called. Crouton was a particularly square, golden cat with coarse hair. Trollfootitis, a punishment for misdeeds, was exactly as terrible as it sounds. But the Smell contained all bad smells and came from nowhere. It looked like plain air and shifted with the breeze. There was no naming it.
By July, my worrying had grown legs. The Smell still followed me, stepping into my footprints like a benign ghost. It was getting ranker by the week. The days that it returned after periods of absence were by far the worst. On its breaks, it would get stronger and more impatient, returning to tap me on the shoulder with long pointy fingers every time I gave the impression that I might again forget its presence.
It has to mean something, I told myself. But the chance that it meant nothing was entirely present and wholly paralyzing.
My friend, paired off long ago, warned me not to let my relationship make me fat. She said this not to be cruel, but because it was her own worst fear. I had never thought this was the worst thing a person could be. But then, what did I know about relationships? I added it to the list of things, including what my breath smelled like in the morning, whether or not I should get out from under his heavy arm to wash my face before bed, taking my perfectly drawn eyebrows down the drain, and how I could possibly keep up with the little gifts that Boyfriend would buy me when he was thinking of me at the supermarket. Tiny house plants, perfectly ripe fruit, greeting cards with dirty illustrations. I didn’t think of him at the supermarket.
One Thursday night, I took Boyfriend to a drive-in movie double-feature because the air conditioning in the theaters made us too cold. It rained heavily on our way there and we hoped more than anything that those weaker than us would bail, that we would get the place to ourselves. We didn’t mind the mosquitoes so much, once they surged forth from puddles and thick air, because we were allowed to dangle our feet out of the open trunk and lean back onto our elbows and smell each other’s shampoo as we pretended to pay attention to the bicycle flying across the moon. We kissed and I stroked the back of his head with my thumb and admired the gentle slope of his profile. He really was beautiful. We asked each other open-ended questions, like, “What movies did you like but would never watch again?” and “Where would you never want to get stuck?” Whatever was mixed in with the soap that he used reminded me that the world was real, though I would forget as soon as my nose got used to the scent.
My mind was wrapped up in an itchy sweater and sat at my feet, watching me pull at the folds of skin stretched around my knuckles. I realized that I couldn’t feel my toes if I just let them hang there. In fact, I couldn’t feel much of anything so long as I just stared right through the film. The scent of Boyfriend’s hair and neck and t-shirt faded the way that they do when you’re with them for long enough. But instead of moving into fresh rain, or even into nothing, the wet ground yielded bugs and bent to the Smell.
The movie on the giant screen was not quite enough to hold my attention and I was beginning to forget what Boyfriend’s hair even smelled like at all. I tried to busy my mind with other things: lists, countable things, words to songs I thought I had forgotten. I even tried to think about that one spot on my floor that never got clean, of the repetitive and futile motions of my robot arm controlling the vacuum. These useless distractions did not stay at their posts for long. Instead, I considered what I might do in the case of some kind of apocalypse. It was easy to imagine such a thing when I closed my eyes, letting the flashing lights take me into a nightmare. Robots, zombies, natural disaster, aliens, nuclear war, it didn’t entirely matter what the scenario was, I tricked myself into feeling the gravity. I certainly couldn’t imagine myself being the heroine of doomsday, of fighting whoever or whatever was responsible and retiring in the scorched countryside, tasked with repopulation or the creation of a new government. No, I was sure that I would kill myself with a certain degree of immediacy. I opened my eyes, mostly because my mind–still sitting and staring at me from the wet ground–was unable to grasp that kind of permanence. I looked at Boyfriend and he looked at me too with eyes that said he liked permanence. I told him my plan and asked him what he would do.
“I would never let anything happen to you,” he said.
Never, I thought. Never sounded permanent too.
I was familiar with this feeling. Identifying it made it smaller. I looked at what was around me. I saw first. Five. Then I felt four, heard three, and then smelled. I smelled the Smell, of course. I was worried that was all I was going to smell. But Boyfriend retrieved the nearly empty box of popcorn from between his knees where he had been holding it. His digging fingers released the oil and the salt and whatever warmth was left. Then, as I chewed on my nails, I tasted leftover salt. One.
In my head, I recited the alphabet backwards. I got stuck after “t.”
The popcorn smell went away. I started over. Boyfriend silently kissed my cheek.
This was the beginning of the time that I began to venture out on my own, looking for tiny pockets of space for me to stretch my limbs out as far as I could and feel nothing but lint and halves of old receipts. Boyfriend was by no means a suffocating presence but the quality of the air changed when I was away from him. It was true that I missed him, his long arms, his deep voice, the way his laugh sounded like that of a high society man in a cartoon. But my solitary trips to the library and the park were things I had been missing too. It was in these quiet places that I watched people as they walked, through aisles or down paths. I noticed gaits and taste in shoes and the way that the wind caught people’s hair. Mostly, I noticed couples who strolled with hands in hands and arms over shoulders and waists pulled close. There was a couple in the park one day who looked so much like Boyfriend and me that I couldn’t help but stare. I wanted to go up to them, ask them questions–especially her. Do you ever find yourself going insane over the fact that you don’t know what’s going to happen next? What about all the things you could be missing out on? What if you’re meant to be someplace else? Are you truly happy? About what percent of the time would you say you’re happy? How do you know? I mean how can you be sure? Nuzzled up on a bench under a tree, they tried to give me some clues. They left before I could construct the perfect icebreaker. These were all things that I had already tried to ask the internet. Articles in teen magazines and multiple-choice quizzes that tested for schizophrenia, OCD, and personality disorders were of no help. I wish I could have asked that girl. Maybe she had once been like me, at once in love and terribly confused by conflicting wants. Had she ever considered breaking up with her boyfriend for a girl she hadn’t met yet? Had anyone?
Boyfriend still was unaware of the Smell and I wondered how he could pay so little attention. He was quite keen when it came to sniffing out things in his fridge that were even a day overdue and this was evidence to me that it couldn’t have been a matter of mindfulness. Perhaps it was more that I was paying too much attention, that instead of being cuddled by all the things that I know I was meant to find small and human and tender, I was flattened by them. I was entirely too aware of his hand holding mine or the shirts that he wore that I thought were ugly or the smell of his breath when he hadn’t eaten all day. Whenever he sneezed, it would be many times in a row. I thought often of the girls from the bar all those months ago, as well as the ones I saw on the street, in traffic, on TV. Their images haunted me, as if they had been captured by my eyes, trapped in my brain, and killed by my smothering. Was their decay the source of the Smell?
I was possessed. It seldom rained but it was always humid and no matter how thick the air or the clouds or the film covering my skin became, the sky never broke and the air kept humming. Everything outside fell out of tune. The tremors that shook me in sleep began visiting in the waking hours. My teeth chattered. My fingers grew calluses, little dusty white patches. The pads of my thumbs grew rough so I stopped touching Boyfriend’s face. The Smell invaded the last untouched corners of my home and then Boyfriend’s home, then the market, the gym, the secret places I would go to be alone. The Smell was so pungent that I stopped kissing him, for it invaded my mouth too.
My worrying made him worry, especially because I wouldn’t tell him what it was all about. He only admitted to wanting silence when he asked for it and so when I would pay such close attention to the middle distance, he would say, “What’s wrong?” and I didn’t know, and he couldn’t smell the Smell, so I would say, “Nothing.” I could feel myself ruining things. The fact that I didn’t care worried me too. “Nothing.”
The more I worried, the faster the sweetness between Boyfriend and me began to fade, backing away into a fetid mist, though I could still make out its outline. I clung to what little I could. To distract us both from myself, we picked up sex like a hobby. It always ended, though, with silence, with me hiding in the bathroom right afterwards, looking myself in the face as I leaned over the sink. Letting the water run cold down the backs of my hands, I knew very well that the fading was my fault. What I didn’t know was why I sometimes wanted him gone and why I couldn’t be sure that I really did. At some point, the Smell began to tote around a hint of sulfur, like rotten eggs.
As the shade from the tree stretches down Boyfriend’s face, across his chest and down to where his hands fold across his stomach, the bugs all go away and the pollen sticks to the grass. Over the hill, I see a flash of red hair wave like fire spreading. The children–one in particular, it seems–are very curious. The flame keeps a watchful eye before suddenly disappearing into the shallow valley. There are no deer at the tree line. The cows have gone home. Birds that had been chirping away in the branches of the elm are silent now. The sudden quiet of the air makes me nervous.
With the farmhouse so full, I had always expected the fields to be filled with more noise than just bleating and the sound of distant motors. When Boyfriend had first told me about the children, I had imagined enough for two teams to play soccer or softball with plenty left over for fresh-legged substitutions and a lemonade-sipping audience. It turned out that there were only eight. Still a lot of them, but not enough for two teams. Even without it all, the hills alone are too loud. Or perhaps it is the sun that is overwhelming now. It might be that last week, Boyfriend made an offhand comment about the family he would like to have one day. I had waved animatedly at one of the younger children on our way down the rocky driveway. Boyfriend looked at me like he could already picture it. The heavy air and the cow pies are masked by the Smell. I don’t expect to be able to go on like this for much longer.
“Tell me what falling in love felt like for you,” I say. I need a clue.
He shifts his gaze from the branches above him that are now humming like the cicadas that just knew to live in them. The few dead leaves on the ground are doing cartwheels on the bank of the pond. The wind picks up. It swirls the Smell around like I did with my first glass of expensive wine, unfolding every rotten note.
“My stomach hurt all the time. But in a good way”
So does mine. I didn’t know that was love. I need more. “Is that all? What else?”
He sighs. “I don’t know, I just think about you all of the time. I like sitting next to you. You make me laugh.” These things are all true for me too. I begin to relax. But I’m still unsure of what it all means. I think about that couple in the park again, how much they looked like us, how I could tell even from far away how in love they were. Were they a mirror or a taunt?
“But what does it feel like?”
“Warmth,” he says.
My toes are cold.
“What does it feel like for you?” I never considered that he might have questions too.
I’m quiet for a moment too long. He looks right at me.
Suddenly, it’s pouring and the sky sounds like ripping so many yards of satin. We jump to our feet, leaving the places we had smushed to be filled like swimming pools in May. I can hardly see him through the deluge, just a grey silhouette shuffling between the sheets of rain.
I want to tell him that it feels like tingling. Like I have a comfortable home with no rent and a fireplace that is always lit.
We are surprised by the downpour, but we let it soak us to the skin. I wonder if the pond will overflow now with so many perfect holes in the scum.
I want to tell him too that it feels like an unease which has nothing to do with him. I want to tell him that it feels like insanity. I want to tell him about the guilt, about the Smell.
Just as quickly as it came, the storm stops, and we are met with a dead calm.
“What?” I ask. I think he’s been looking at me this whole time.
The field is empty and grey even after the clouds begin their slow march south. My clothes are sticking to me and my hair is weighed down over my eyes. He’s saying something, but I can’t hear him, as though the ghost of the already-fallen rain is still catching his words, jagged and ungraceful, in midair. My ears are stuffed, whether with water or with the cotton the Smell creates I don’t know, but I can hear the warble of his voice and the squish of the flood under my bare feet. I’m almost grateful that my head is spinning so that whatever he’s saying is falling into the mud. My attention is elsewhere as I search for whatever scent the rain may have left behind. Everything else has been counted.
Amy O’Neill studied creative writing at the University of Maryland. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories. Her interests also include rug making, backpacking, and rock climbing. Her work has been a finalist for the Stony Brook Short Fiction Prize and is forthcoming in the Susquehanna Review.
© 2021, Amy O’Neill