“What are you wearing?”
She’d taken a seat to my immediate right. Now six of us overwhelmed the four-top, a fart’s waft away from the restroom, in a corridor that serviced the bulk of the sports bar’s foot traffic.
“Excuse me?” she all but shouted over the six televisions screening six different ball games. The place smelled like hot wings and winter break. Fog inside the windows reflected the changing colors of icicle lights strung around the sills, plus this fresh scent of watermelon seated next to me.
“What are you wearing?” I repeated. A server swooped in and I inhaled cheap foam, raised an index to order uno mas. “As in like your scent?”
“Oh!” She plucked an olive off the toothpick in her martini and laughed. “Betsey Johnson,” she said.
It seemed she’d always worn it. True, I’d seen enough bottles in her bedroom to stock a counter at Saks: translucent chartreuse and cherry red, nightshade and wildflower, rows of designer fragrance arranged in no discernible order. Pages of manuscripts papered her walls, Post-it Notes impaled with pushpins. She’d devised some system of color-coding. I had no idea what it meant.
She’d said I smelled of almonds. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, because I wore Givenchy, which she pronounced like the French. I adopted this.
My mother’s teeth have fallen out, she said one night. And I think I have breast cancer.
I never knew what to think of her. One day she’d relay a message through an intermediary telling me, kindly, to fuck off. The next, we’d be naked on the floor of her condo on a blanket with candles and wine. We read stories from her workshop.
One of her students, a name I didn’t recognize, had written one about her. This did not surprise me. She was easy to admire, to craft into fiction. No doubt it longed to be erotic, this story. Her character possessed “nipples the color of salmon.” Soft shields of pink flesh, hard dark cones between teeth. I could see it.
Though I’d not have said salmon. Rhubarb, I thought, petunia, or watermelon.
Surely it must have been melon, like the kind she’d employ in the early stages of her own work, to get from scene to scene, a symbol to prod the heart of her reader. Her mother, she said, enjoyed sharing the secret to selecting good melons. She’d say, you must listen to it.
More than once, I’d been with her in the produce aisle when we’d approach the wooden bins with flesh-colored globes arranged in rows. She’d tilt her head, and raise them, one by one, to her ear. Alone once, I tried it. I brought the melon’s vascular skin to my face, a surface threaded with branches, the glancing sweet silence of pale flesh in fluorescence. This, finally, was her scent. This, I captured and bottled.
A bit about me: I grew up in Bloomington, Illinois, and graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University – Newark. An inaugural fellow at CantoMundo in 2010, his poems, fiction, and reviews have appeared most recently at Ostrich, The Acentos Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the City Colleges.