by Leslie What
Portland is a walking city, so Cheri walks, along the street edge of the sidewalk, giving wide berth to any shoppers who might unexpectedly dart from a storefront. She passes tourists struggling to find their bearings downtown. Excuse me, Miss, says a wrinkled gentleman. She prefers not engage in conversation, and marches on. Move along, move along--like the hapless characters in a Dickens’ novel. She will walk until dark, when she’ll return to her apartment in Goose Hollow to watch TV until she cannot hold back sleep any longer.
Her pace slows as the light rail cruises into its station and the doors hiss open to facilitate the frenzied exchange of arriving and departing riders. The newly freed passengers mill about the stop before dispersing to the four corners of the intersection. The doors shush closed, the MAX rolls away from Pioneer Courthouse Square. There’s a fragile lull before the space fills with the sounds and smells of the next round of commuters, and the noisy cycle begins again. Cheri walks away, keeping count of her steps.
Lawyers on their lunch breaks defend themselves from an afternoon downpour with colorful umbrellas. Shapes and colors bloom like a time-lapse nature documentary about flowers. Distracted, she steps into a puddle, a seemingly insignificant accident that changes the direction of her day. She needs new socks. Hers are wet. She is only a block from the fancy Nordstrom department store.
It hasn’t been an easy transition back from the military. She suffers from maladies tied directly to her service. Her psychiatrist says her symptoms all fall under the rubric of PTSD. She is anxious. Sometimes she has a short fuse. Her dreams are all nightmares. She is afraid of sudden noises. She refuses to ride in a car or on a bus or on a train, something her psychiatrist terms vehicular claustrophobia, which effectively means she will only travel as far as she can walk. Zoloft helps with the flashbacks and deaden her mood to a manageable state where she’s neither too happy nor too sad to function.
Fallen leaves bear the crosshatched imprint of shoe and boot soles. The streets smell the way streets smell when it first starts raining. The storm passes and shapes and colors fade as umbrellas are collapsed, shaken out, repocketed.
Her socks are wet coffee filters that let cold steep through her shoes and into her toes. The sun peeks through the clouds and the streets warm, the smells transform to something bitter and burnt.
She worked for fifteen months in the Kandahar combat hospital, three months over what the army had promised. Three months doesn’t sound like much time, unless you’re there. In three months the odor became intolerable. The hot-glass sand, the wintergreen sanitizer, the acrid char of things on fire--these are smells she cannot purge from memory.
When he heard she would be going home to Portland, one of her patients, a nineteen-year-old who still lived at home, had begged her to deliver a small Afghani prayer rug to his parents in Gresham. The soldier’s name was Sammy Geet. Sure, she’d said. Be glad to. But another medic mistakenly tossed soiled dressings and used iodine swabs into the plastic bag with the rug after Geet died of his wounds.
Once Cheri was back in Portland, the plastic bag sat in her hallway closet for two months until she forced herself to unpack the rug and let it air overnight in her bathroom. The next day she walked five hours to, and five hours back from Geet’s house. That sticky sweet iodine, the musty goat hair and dirt, the patchouli oil and blood. She’s smelled it every day since.
The smell of wet, wool socks is dizzying. She grasps a street sign for balance, pulls off her socks, and leaves them on the sidewalk.
Now she’s half a block away from Nordstrom.
Now she’s quarter block away.
Now she’s there.
A uniformed doorman holds open the glass door. She takes the escalator upstairs and walks toward the rainbow of primary and pastel colored socks. Textured acrylics. Paisleys and florals. Soft and synthetic, not utilitarian wool. She picks blue and yellow socks that look and feel like marshmallow peeps. They smell like new things. On sale, two pairs for twenty dollars. More than she usually pays for socks. She buys seven pairs and waves off the clerk when she tries to get her to buy an eighth pair and get the discount.
Back downstairs and a quick walk through the cosmetics section on her way to the exit. An elegantly coiffed woman holding an atomizer sprays the air as Cheri passes. It’s a pleasant surprise to confront the fragrant blend of cinnamon and cherry and jasmine. She stops in the center of the aisle and inhales. She’s never worn perfume, Oregon being the land of allergies and fragrance sensitivities. The soldier Geet had tried to treat his wound with patchouli oil, but that made him smell like he was covering up the infection.
The sales clerk squeezes a mesh atomizer ball, releasing a burst of bergamot, citrus, ylang-ylang and vanilla. This perfume captures a transient, beautiful moment instead of masking it.
“I want that one,” Cheri says, straining to memorize a fragrance as it scatters into droplets too small to see. She sniffs lavender and oatmeal and licorice.
I want that one, she says, grabbing the tester bottle on the counter. She squirts fragrance into the air.
Ginger and orange blossom and honeysuckle.
I want that, she says.
The counter girl looks worried, scoops up a couple of bottles and sets them inside the glass case.
Cheri reaches for a third bottle, a fourth, a fifth.
I want that one, she says. That one, too.
A sixth bottle. Cornflower and apricots and golden raisins.
I want that one.
Give me that one.
She pulls off caps, depresses nozzles, releases fragrances. She takes then all in.
Burnt sugar and rosewater.
She can’t smell the bitter past, just sweet fragrance.
She hugs them all to her chest but one bottle slips from her grip, topples to the floor. The glass breaks, the concentrated aromas transform from sweet to choking. Her eyes burn. It doesn’t matter. The clerk steps back from the counter. A dark man in a dark suit approaches.
I want that one, Cheri says.
Chocolate and nasturtiums and clover.
Blueberries and mangos and pinecones.
That one, she says.
It’s crazy, but she wants them all. The man in the dark suit stands beside her. He asks if she needs help while speed-dialing a number on his iPhone.
You can wound a soldier without firing a shot. She doesn’t want a stranger to know her secrets. She sets the bottles on the counter. “It’s okay,” she says. “I’m leaving.”
By next week they’ll have forgotten this.
She’ll dress up so they won’t recognize her. She’ll come back to buy a bottle of perfume.
She tells herself she can hold on another week.
Maybe the fragrances have bled into her clothing. Maybe the new scents will cover up the odors she’s accumulated. Maybe when she hangs up her coat in the hallway closet, she will notice the scent of perfume and remember only this day and no other.
About the Author
Leslie What lives and writes in Portland Oregon. Her stories, poems, and essays can be found in such anthologies and journals as Calyx, Asimov’s, The Los Angeles Review, Amazing Stories, Midstream, The Third Alternative, Lillith, Parabola, SciFiction, Utne Reader, and Best New Horror. She’s won a Nebula Award for short story and her collection, “Crazy Love” was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Leslie is the fiction editor for Phantom Drift: New Fabulism and the nonfiction co-editor (with R.A. Rycraft) for Winter Tales: Women on The Art of Aging, from Serving House Books.
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