A Different Sort of Aura
It was the smell that put me off them.
In the beginning, they smelled like trees or wind or the sea, and all I wanted to do was snuggle them. I knew one, once, that smelled like the woods after a hard rain. I nearly lost my pride over him. He had a motorcycle, and we rode, my thighs wrapped around his, my hands resting lightly on his hips or pressing into his ribs around the turns.
But that was years ago. I haven’t smelled him in a long, long time.
I married one who smelled like a baby’s head. I couldn’t believe how fresh he was. I thought he’d last forever. But he got the smell, too. Just like the others. A musty, mothbally smell, like sickness.
I can’t stand it. It sounds shallow, I know. And maybe it is. But it wouldn’t work if I stayed. I’ve tried before. I really liked some of them, especially a mushroomy guy from my college days. (I knew he wouldn’t last. He was halfway off by nature. But he had a nice way about him, so I tried.)
The first time it happened, I was in high school. I thought the guy was dying. My mom’s a nurse, so I invited him for dinner. I knew she would look him over like a gift horse. After he left she gave me the report: whites of the eyes clean white, tongue pink, fingernail beds normal—
“Mom, what about the smell?”
“I didn’t smell anything. Maybe a little nervous perspiration. Really, Jenny. You are so hard on people.”
“You didn’t smell it?”
“Sorry, honey. I think he’s delightful. Nice manners, too.”
Nice manners? The guy smells like a roast beef sandwich left in the trunk of a car for a week in August, but he’s a keeper ‘cause he says “thank you” and “ma’am.”
After him, it happened almost every time. I’d meet someone. We’d see each other for a while. Everything would be great. Then I’d get that first whiff. And it’d be over.
In the beginning, I thought it was bad oral hygiene or sinus trouble. It smelled kind of like that. So I made his and hers dental appointments. I sneaked decongestants into meatloaf. I offered Altoids. None of it helped.
Some went off more quickly than others. Sometimes I had time to find a fresh one before my current one went completely bad. That’s how I ended up with my husband who, as I think I mentioned, I thought would last forever because he had such a young smell. Otherwise, I never would have married.
Marriage makes things more complicated. I mean, when you’re married, you can’t just slip away after growing more distant. And you can’t say, “Hey, I love you, but you smell like a deli whose refrigeration has gone out.”
I considered having my nose done. I don’t mean cosmetically, though I wouldn’t mind a little smoothing out of a slight bump in the bridge. I mean disconnected, if such a thing is possible, so I can’t smell at all.
But what if there were a fire? And do I really want to give up all the good scents?
Instead of making an appointment with a plastic surgeon, I made one with a neurologist. He smelled like a chlorinated pool, a smell that some people might find off-putting, but which I think is rather nice. It’s a clean, summer smell. Like cucumbers and fresh mowed grass.
He told me I might have a seizure disorder. I told him he smelled like the lap pool at the Y. He looked hurt.
“You know of others like me, then?” I said to change the subject.
(Later, I checked them out. They’re not like me at all. They smell bananas or peaches and then have a seizure. The scents are a warning sign. The researchers called it an aura.)
“Do you smell yourself?” the doc asked with a totally straight face. Too straight. So I smiled and said, “You mean, what do I smell like to me?”
“Well, yes,” he actually blushed. So I let him off.
“Just a normal person.”
“And other women, have any of them smelled . . . uh, how do you put it? Like rancid meat?”
“I’ve never noticed it with a woman.”
“It’s a sexual thing, then,” he said with a small note of triumph, as if he’d just completed the acrostics.
“If you say so.”
“No. I don’t. I’m asking.”
“Now that you put it that way, I guess maybe it is.”
“Interesting,” he muttered. “Very unusual.”
“Can you fix it?” I asked because I really did like my husband.
“Fix it? I don’t even know what it is. Anyway, it might be a good thing.”
“It’s hell on relationships.”
“Yes. I can see how it would be. Do you think you could get your current friend in for an appointment?”
“He’s my husband.”
“Ah. Your husband, then.”
“I’d like to look him over, see if there’s anything going on with him. If not, we can focus on you.”
I had to think about that, that there might be something wrong with me. The guys are the ones who stink. I should know, I’ve been dealing with this since puberty, almost. But then, how could it not be me? I’m the one who’s been dealing with this since puberty.
I thought about all this for a while, and eventually, I knew what I had to do. It came to me like a funny comeback, late that night, when I was alone in bed while my husband polluted the dining room as he prepared for a big case.
I had to find the others.
Boyfriend #4 was easy to find. He’s a thoracic surgeon down on the coast. I hung out at the hospital two days before I could manage an accidental meeting. He still looked like a young buck, and I instantly felt connected.
“Wow, you look great,” he said and gave me an ‘is it still there for you’ smile. “What’re you doing here?”
“My aunt’s having her veins done.”
“Ah. Phlebitis,” he said in his old cocksure way and checked his beeper. “Listen, I gotta go, but are you free for lunch? I’d love to catch up.”
We met at a Greek place. Not long after I learned he was engaged to a med surg nurse, he reached under the table and put his hand on my thigh. Just like old times. By the time the food came, I’d gotten a whiff. Even over the feta, I could smell it, low and just beginning.
Boyfriend #6 was harder to run into. He worked at one of those towering accounting firms in Atlanta and was married with a toddler son. Finally, I just called him up out of the blue and invited him to lunch.
He was a little nervy on the phone, but we met at a nice French place and drank a carafe of the house red with our coq au vin. He showed me pictures of his kid and told me about his wife’s volunteer work with obvious pride.
Hard as I tried, I never smelled a thing except his nerves and the chicken.
Boyfriend #7 was the mushroom. I couldn’t find him.
Boyfriend #2 is a substance abuse counselor in Indiana. I pretended I had a habit. He didn’t remember me. He’s married, but “she doesn’t understand me.” He reeked like canned cat food.
Boyfriend #5 was a lifeguard when I knew him. His scent was tempered with salt and zinc, but it was there, then. Now he’s a computer engineer. He’s living with an international banker. A male international banker. He smells like Halston. No malodorous undertone at all.
I won’t bore you with any more details. It’s a pretty small sample, but it wasn’t long before I began to see the pattern. The flirty guys who were married or otherwise committed reeked. The available ones didn’t. The guys who showed absolutely no interest, whether available or not, smelled just fine.
So. There it was. It was infidelity that was rotting in them. Or the thought of it. And I was sensing it all along and just didn’t realize their odor was an aura.
When I think back over all those years, how gently I let those gamy guys down so as not to hurt them because they stunk, well.
I cancelled my appointment with the nice chlorinated neurologist. I sent him a thank you note, though, for helping me figure things out. He called and said he wanted to write a paper about me for The New England Journal of Medicine. I agreed to do it. It’ll be good for my new business. You see, I believe we can all smell infidelity. You just have to know how. So I’m offering a class, at the newly established NasoPrognostic Institute. For a small fee, of course.