He broke things off when his ex moved in. It wasn’t that his feelings for me had changed or that the potential for an “us” in the near future had been lost. He didn’t love her—he hated her in fact—but he had his son to think about, a son she’d kept hostage for eighteen of his twenty-four months of life. And it didn’t matter my feelings or his, I couldn’t be around to confuse the boy, to make him question why Daddy was kissing this strange woman and not Mommy, who lived in the same apartment, slept in the same bed.
Everything about it sounded illogical, but I accepted it, reluctantly, and didn’t bother him, opting to cry in the comfort of my own lonely bed instead.
But tonight, his phone call sounded urgent as if he’d just witnessed something horrific. The news from my TV blared in my free ear coverage of a mass shooting at Zales two weeks before Valentine’s Day, the busiest engagement season of the year. Three people were dead, and I wondered if he had been there.
Without hesitation, I grabbed my keys and rushed out the door, forgetting that I looked just as disheveled as my house—the trash piling in the kitchen to the point that it attracted gnats, the permanent dent in my couch, where I spent many a sleepless night watching reruns of melodramatic reality TV shows while constantly checking my phone for a text that never came. My belt didn’t fit. My jeans pulled tightly around my waist. The top button imprinted a perfectly round circle just below my belly button—the nightly diet of buttery popcorn and flat Sprite pushing its way to the surface.
I’d promised myself I wouldn’t do this. I wouldn’t come running when he finally did call. I wouldn’t allow him to toy with my emotions like this. There was either an “us” or there wasn’t, but it wasn’t going to be at his convenience.
And yet, there I was, standing outside of his apartment, waiting for him to let me in, and the first thing I noticed was the smell. I sniffed the collar of my sweatshirt, thinking that it might have been me. Had I let myself go that much over a breakup? A relationship that was nowhere close to becoming serious before it ended? Was I that desperate? But this smell was something old. Something that had been sitting for weeks, rotting, breaking down, turning to liquid. I half expected to find something dead on the other side of the door.
Before her, he never heard my knocks. He didn’t consider me a guest and expected me to walk on in, but he rarely remembered to leave the door unlocked. For ten minutes, I’d stand outside shaking my legs to keep my feet from falling asleep and smile a nervous apology to neighbors who snatched open their doors to curse the source of the ruthless banging. I would call, knowing that he wouldn’t answer because his ringer was always set to silent and he was never near his phone. Just when I would turn to leave, I’d hear the scrape of the deadbolt, the click as it settled, the turn of the knob, and finally the door open. He never greeted me, only left the door cracked to allow me passage and returned to his bedroom—the only room furnished—apologizing over his shoulder, “Sorry, sweetheart, I thought it was open,” while I closed and locked the door behind me.
However, tonight was different.
I was taken aback when the door suddenly swung open after only my second knock. Losing my balance, I fell forward into his arms. I started coughing immediately at the smell, much stronger now that I was inside. It was stifling, impossible to breathe. I felt dizzy, even as he helped me back to my feet.
“Are you ok, sweetheart?”
The room was quiet, not even the echoes of an unattended-to TV bounced off the walls. “Are you here alone?” I asked, although, for him to call me over, the ex-girlfriend had to be gone.
His hesitation to answer made me notice just how eerily quiet the apartment was. Not even the white noise of appliances could be heard. Clearly, he was alone, but his voice strained as he started to speak, then stopped. Why was it so hard for him to just say yes or no? Finally, he said, “It’s just me,” but part of me didn’t believe him.
© 2016-2023 Nortina Simmons
Odor (link will work when post goes live March 10)