Fluid Ounces

I've worn the same cologne since the irreparable brilliance of age fourteen. My mother bought it for me at the mall in preparation for my junior high debut; Polo Sport, the crisp fragrance of budding manhood throughout the privileged world. It came with a gym bag which I used to carry my cleats to football practice. That's still in my mother's shed somewhere. The scent lasted. The jock dreams didn't. There's not a single cell inside me that's not at peace with that.

Then, the better part of a decade later, she chimed in with a second olfactory gift. This one didn't stick. It came at the time of my first apartment, a foray into debauchery that led to years of karmic justice. The smell of Curve changed overnight, somehow smoothed into a buttery musk that quickly gained a shameful association with hangovers and awkward Good Mornings. It didn't last long in the repertoire. The man who still has notes from high school in a closeted shoebox didn't keep that overpriced bottle of regret. I hope it's bringing someone else better luck.

That was a far cry from the innocence of young boyhood when my anxious father walked into the bathroom with a gift for his six-year-old son. The packaged set of Jovan products slipped from his hands and the bottle broke against the tile floor. I was left with a stick of deodorant which I didn't need yet. That episode managed to sum up much of my old man's aspirations: a heart in the right place, hampered by his own overzealous fumbling. One should be grateful to have experienced half of that equation. I don't deny that. He's a better man than me in most ways.

Last winter I briefly dated one of a slew of Italian single mothers who wound up being slightly more predictable than the rest. When Christmas came I already knew that I'd be receiving a bottle of men's aftershave. It felt more apropos than clairvoyant. I wasn't her ex-husband, nor had I spent seventeen years clinging to the shirttails of her life, but I knew she'd want to somehow change me when the opportunity arose through the ritualistic giving of gifts. Refusal meant upheaval. It came as a clandestine blessing and I haven't heard from her since. I wonder if she hocked that necklace. New rule: No more jewelry prior to six months.

But the last one is what matters. It seemed a normal compliment when Jackie said that she liked the way I smelled. Ralph Lauren has narrated the tale of many a half-hearted endeavor. I probably reciprocated similarly. Pheromones contribute to cases of mistaken identity before reason has its say. She fed me and skipped through the channels as we played the parts on her couch. When my bladder prodded to be drained I excused myself to the bathroom. Her medicine cabinet contained no prescription pill bottles--always a positive sign. I could say that I was searching for some Advil or a Q-Tip, but I was not. Hemingway warned, "You never understand anybody that loves you," while a dying protagonist, thinly veiled as someone other than himself, bled out on his ship. Even less can be said of those whom are only liked. You drink the cork with the wine. You endure some mild violation with the expectation that you too are being entered into search engines on the internet. Consider yourself flattered. There are people in the world whom no one cares to know, but they're not in this formula.

There was, however, a familiar blue bottle of Polo Sport on the middle shelf of the hidden realm behind Jackie's bathroom mirror. Why did a woman have men's cologne among her toiletries? I picked it up and rolled it in my hand. On the side opposite the printed logo was a primitive, hand-etched stencil of a name: Andrew. I didn't, and still don't, know her handwriting well enough to determine if it was her scrawl, but I assumed it to be so. An image of the pencil drawing of a young man's face on her night stand, rosary beads draped over its frame, rose to the forefront of my mind:  Andrew, her high school boyfriend who'd been killed by a drunk driver. The essence in common with this deceased kid was a token of the loss of innocence for our shared paramour. I placed the bottle where I'd found it, closed the cabinet, and saw a scoundrel staring back at me. There would be no prayers or grieving when I left. I was unworthy of art. I never even offered to do the dishes after dinner or help change the sheets.

"You smell nice," meant more than I'd earned. I haven't returned her calls. Somewhere, soaking raindrops, there's a spirit more deserving.

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