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The Smell
Michael Massee

       It was very faint at first, hardly noticeable.  It started in the bedroom.  My cousin and her boyfriend had come to visit and meet the new baby and I had given them our bed, my husband Jack being away at his job on the oil rig, and I had gone and slept on the futon in the babyís room.  In the morning, after they left, I walked into the bedroom and noticed a slightly unpleasant smell.  I thought that it might just be body odor in the bedding and, as I was planning on stripping the bed, I was pretty sure the laundry would take care of the problem.  When I pulled the sheets out of the dryer they smelled fine, fresh and lilac scented from the fabric softener, just as advertised.
       After feeding Sara her bottle and changing her I put her down for a nap.  Sheís turned out to be a night owl which means she naps off and on during the day, as  I do if I want to get through a long night of walking her.  It seems that pacing back and forth the length of the apartment is the only thing that keeps her calm.  I remade our bed and thought no more about the smell until I went into the bathroom.  I was staring at my weary face in the mirror when I caught another whiff of the smell.  It seemed the same odor but stronger, a combination of sour milk, rotten eggs and overused kitty litter.  Okay, so now I had pinpointed the possible location, or at least I thought I had.  Two options: the diaper pail or the drain in the shower.  The pail for Saraís dirty disposable diapers contains a scented plastic trash bag for easy removal and the lid has a compartment that holds one of those deodorizing thingies.  That seemed to mask any bad odor.

       When I was growing up in the country we lived in a house that had a septic tank.  We were not connected to the townís sewer system so every so often the raw sewage from our tank would back up and ooze up and out the drains in the house.  I remember how gross it was and how it made me want to throw up when I helped my mother take care of the mess.  I didnít know if the same problem could happen in an apartment in the city but I leaned over the shower drain and took a tentative whiff. Nothing.  Same for the toilet bowl and the drain in the sink. 

       The rest of the day was spent doing what I do every day, feeding Sara, changing her diapers, bathing her, soothing her when she cries and longing to get back to work.  My maternity leave will be up eventually and I canít wait to get back to the office, to the daily grind.  Who knew that nine to five could be so appealing?! Maybe, sitting at my old desk editing advertising  copy will make me feel less tired.

       I love Sara, I love Jack, I really do, but there is just so much cooking, cleaning and baby tending that one person can do before they start coming apart at the seams. Iíve tried to work on a short story I started writing just before the baby arrived to keep my creative juices flowing but itís impossible.  There is no time and Iím too exhausted to write anyway.   

       As the day melted into night the smell appeared again but this time it seemed to be in the kitchen.  I had just begun cooking some dinner for myself when a stronger version of the original odor wafted up from around the stove.  The kitchen is a perfect location for smells, good aromas as well as some not-so-nice ones.  Was this scent emanating from the refrigerator---an over ripe cantaloupe, a forgotten container of tuna salad?  Was the garbage disposal in the sink harboring a glop of dying organic waste?  I checked every shelf in the fridge and then reluctantly put my nose close to the drain in the sink.  I detected a slightly sweet and sour scent but not the obnoxious smell that I had encountered earlier.  I took my little plate of chicken breast and rice into the living room to get away from the kitchen but the odor followed me like an evil cloud.  Iíve had no real appetite for weeks so being surrounded by this toxic smell only stopped me from taking even a little bite.

       For the next two days the smell came and went, sometimes quite strong and sometimes hardly detectable.  Sara had gotten colicky so, between trying to soothe her and stop her crying and worrying that she wasnít getting enough nourishment, I didnít have time to pay attention to the mystery smell.

       Sara is my first baby and I guess Iím extra nervous about doing a good job mothering her.  She didnít come with an instruction book and since my mother is no longer with us I havenít had a certified mom around to give me motherly advice.  Her sister, my Aunt Janice, stayed with me for a week after the birth and I am eternally grateful to her for all her help.  But sheís back in Seattle and I canít keep calling her about every little thing.  Jack is hundreds of miles out in the ocean off the Louisiana coast and not due back for another two weeks so Iím really on my own here.  He and I email and Skype (when it works) but itís not the same as having him here beside me.  He wants me to move down to New Orleans so he doesnít have to keep flying back and forth to New York but that means Iíd have to give up my job.  He keeps saying that heís making enough money so that I donít have to work but, for me, itís not just about the money. I love my job.  Clichť as it may sound it fulfills me, defines me.

       Last Monday I pulled myself together, which is getting harder to do these days, and headed off to the supermarket.  I was running out of Pampers and I needed more formula.  I had been breast feeding Sara but I was afraid she wasnít getting enough milk so Iíve been augmenting the breast milk with formula.  In all honesty itís just easier to give her a bottle and my nipples are feeling greatly  releaved.  I had placed Sara carefully in the sling carrier, making sure her face was exposed.  Aunt Janice  scared me half to death with stories of babies suffocating so Iím always extra careful with Sara.

       Gristedes was busy as usual, but I found everything I needed and we checked out fairly quickly.  Walking home, with Sara dozing on my chest and my little shopping cart bouncing along behind me, was a pleasure because we were away from that persistent smell.   Even the exhaust from the cars and trucks smelled better than whatever it was that was living in our apartment.
       A woman was at the entrance to the apartment house, as we arrived, and held the doors for us as I clumsily wheeled the cart into the lobby.  I realized that it was the lady who lived down the hall from us, an older woman who I had seen once or twice.  I thanked her and she introduced herself, very formally, as Mrs. OíBrien.  I introduced myself as well and she asked me what Saraís name was.  By the time we were all in the elevator the conversation had faded away into an awkward silence.  Reaching our floor, Mrs. OíBrien held the elevator doors open and we both started to head off to our apartments.  I thanked her once more for her kindness and turned to put my key in the door.

       You know how, once in a while, you can get a feeling somethingís not quite right---the hair on the back of your neck stands up or your heart beats faster?  All of a sudden I didnít want to enter the apartment.  It was if someone or something was standing behind the door.  I just knew it---I could feel it.  Only after I heard the sound of Mrs. OíBrienís door closing did I break out of my paralysis and force myself to unlock the door.  As I turned the knob I told myself I was just being foolish.

       The smell was so overpowering that my eyes watered.  I could almost see it, feel it, taste it.  It was thick and hot like a poisonous soup.  I stumbled my way, into the babyís room, covering my mouth and nose with my hand, and slammed the door shut.  Mercifully, Sara was still napping and oblivious to the ghastly fumes that surrounded us.  The smell had evolved into a noxious mix of feces, rotting fruit, vomit and carrion.  What the hell was going on?

       I didnít know what to do.  We couldnít stay in the apartment.  It wasnít safe. It was unhealthy. It was beyond unhealthy.  This was dangerous---deadly!  Where should I go with Sara? Where could I go?  I found myself turning around and around in a circle like some trapped animal.

       Finally, I grabbed one of the small bath towels I use to dry Sara and tied it around my lower face.  I picked her up and rushed out of the room and through our front door into the hall.  In a panic I found myself heading down the corridor towards Mrs. OíBrienís apartment.  When I reached her door I began beating on it.  The loud racket and the movement of my body as I pounded on the metal door woke up Sara and she began to cry.  I stopped knocking and pressed the buzzer instead.  After what seemed an eternity the door opened and I saw a narrow slice of Mrs. OíBrienís face staring at me from behind the safety chain.

       When I think back on it now, what a scene she must have faced looking out into the hall; a masked crazy lady holding a screaming baby and yelling about something or someone lurking in her apartment.  It was a miracle she didnít slam the door in my face and call the police.  But she undid the chain, opened her door and, putting her arm around my shoulder, gently walked me into her apartment.  It was probably just to get me out of the hall before some of our other neighbors opened their doors to see what was going on.  Whatever her reason I didnít care,  her apartment was a sanctuary away from that awful smell.

       After I calmed down and got Sara to stop crying I apologized to Mrs. OíBrien and began to try and explain my dilemma.  I asked her if she had been experiencing a strange smell in her apartment as well.  She said she hadnít and asked what kind of smell it was.  Was it a gas leak because if it was we needed to call the gas company and get people out of the building.  I assured her it wasnít that kind of an odor but more like rotting garbage.  She then said that she would go back with me to my apartment and help me find the source of the problem.  I didnít want to ever enter that place again but I reluctantly agreed as I really had no choice.  The babyís milk was there, her clothes, my phone, my purse---damn it---my keys!  I had left my keys on the kitchen counter.  I was locked out.

       Mrs. OíBrien received the news with a nod of her head and then calmly picked up her phone and called the manager, who lives in the basement of our apartment building.  Five minutes later he was putting his pass key in the door.  I now had two people who could witness what was going on in my apartment--- Mrs. OíBrien and Mr. Cruz, the manager.  He pushed the door open and Mrs. OíBrien stepped cautiously into my entry hall.  Mr. Cruz followed behind her.  I stayed in the corridor waiting.  I knew the two of them would come rushing out with their hands over their mouths.  After what seemed like hours I heard Mrs. OíBrien call out my name and, with my stomach threatening to embarrass me, I slowly entered my apartment.

       To my relief the smell was much less potent but it was still there.  I followed Mrs. OíBrienís voice into the kitchen and found her standing next to Mr. Cruz who was kneeling next to the sink.  I asked him what he found.  He glanced up at me and the conversation, as I remember it, went something like this:
       Mrs. OíBrien:  ďNothing, my dear.  In fact I canít really smell anything like what you described.Ē
       Mr. Cruz:  ďI canít smell nothing.  I just check your drain and the one in the bathroom.  Thereís nothing there.  Maybe it go away already.Ē
       Me:  ďBut it was so strong before.  Itís not as overwhelming now but itís still pretty awful.Ē
       Mrs. OíBrien:  ďWell, whatever it was, it seems to have dissipated.  I truly canít smell anything.  Neither can Mr. Cruz.Ē
       Me:  ďBut itís still here.  Surely you can notice how it seems to come in waves.Ē
       Both she and Mr. Cruz, who had gotten himself up from in front of the sink, exchanged a glance.  It was that look that people give each other when they know itís time to excuse themselves and get away from an unpleasant situation.  Mrs. OíBrien had soup boiling on the stove and Mr. Cruz had to replace a light bulb up on the sixth floor but he said I should call him if the smell comes back.  And so they left, assuring me everything would be alright.  But, of course, it wasnít alright, as was to be proven later on.

       A few days went by and, although the odor was still there, it was weak and not as disruptive as before.  I talked on the phone with Aunt Janice and told her about the smell.  She recommended I pour Clorox bleach down the drain and maybe get some air fresheners for each room.  She also talked about Postpartum Depression and how it can sometimes make you a little paranoid but I assured her it was not that.  It was real. She suggested I call my doctor but I knew that wasnít necessary. When I talked to Jack he told me to contact the management office and insist they send someone over to check it out. He reminded me that heíd be home soon and to just hold on.
       Hold on to what?  I really was feeling like I didnít have anything or anyone to hold on to.  It was just the baby and me and that fucking smell.

       It was when I bundled up Sara and set off for a trip to Walgreenís, to pick up the air fresheners Aunt Janice had recommended, that I noticed I was being stalked by the smell. Thatís what it felt like; some phantom figure ready to pounce. Iím walking down the street and instead of the odor fading, as we got further away from the apartment house, it seemed to get stronger.  By the time we were standing in the middle of the drug store it was almost as overpowering as it was two days ago.  I started to gag and a nice man, who I guess worked there, asked me if I was okay.  I shook my head and headed for the exit.  I thought that the air outside would chase the smell away but it didnít.

       Iím stumbling along, trying not to fall down and hurt the baby, batting at this invisible monster thatís spraying us with this ghastly perfume.  And then I got it.  I was the source of the smell!  That had to be it.  All this time it was me emitting this noxious odor.

       It finally made sense why no one else seemed to smell what I could.  That was because I was the smell.  I felt both horrified and relieved about what I had finally figured out.  I put Sara in her crib, turned on the mechanical mobile with the pretty butterflies to help her fall asleep and then hurried into the bathroom where I stripped out of all my clothing, checking each item for evidence of the hellish scent.  I would wash everything, my blouse, my jeans, my panties and bra, not only with laundry detergent but with bleach, maybe throw in some cologne as well.

       Stepping into the shower I turned the water on as hot as I could stand it and began scrubbing away with the brush I use to clean the tiles.  It hurt like hell but I knew it was the only way I could get rid of the odor.  I washed my hair three times and used my favorite conditioner with the citrus scent to hopefully dispel any remaining odor.  When I got out of the shower I felt faint from being under that hot water for so long so I put on my terry cloth robe and went straight into the bedroom.  I stretched out, on my back, on top of the bedcovers and closed my eyes.  And waited.  For the smell.  To return.  The minutes passed by and the only odor I could detect was the sweet acidic scent of my citrus conditioner.   After a while I looked at the digital clock on the bureau and saw that half an hour had passed.  I took a deep breath---no bad smell.  Tears of relief filled my eyes.  It was over.

       I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew it was dark and I could hear Sara crying.  I usually keep her in our room at night in a basinet and only in the crib during the day.  I got up quickly, knowing she needed a change of diaper and that she must be very hungry.   When I entered her room I could smell the usual baby smells, talcum, baby oil and wet diaper but no dead animals, sulphur fumes  or cow manure .  I changed her Pamper and even found her poop, and its usually pungent smell, not unpleasant.  After sitting for a while in the rocking chair and giving Sara her bottle, I got up and carried her sweet little body into our room and lay down with her on the bed.  It felt so wonderful to be free of that mysterious god-awful vapor.

       It is so important, Jack, that you understand what happened next.  Iíll try to explain it as simply and clearly as possible.  I only did what had to be done.

       Sara fell asleep and, being so exhausted from all that had happened, I did as well.  It must have been around midnight that I awoke with a start.  The smell was back!  It was worse than ever, rotting flesh, sewage, decaying fruit, vomit!  I struggled up from the bed, leaving Sara tangled in the covers, and ran into the bathroom to throw up in the toilet.  When I got up and went to the sink to rinse out my mouth I saw this image in the mirror; a woman with bloody scratch marks all over her face and neck.  Was that me?  And the smell?  Was that me?  Had my attempt at washing away this nightmare failed?  I began sniffing all over my body like some demonic bloodhound.  But the smell wasnít as strong in the bathroom as it was in the bedroom and it was almost undetectable on my body.  I stepped back into the bedroom and was immediately hit with a nauseating tsunami of that horrendous smell.  It seemed to swirl up from the bed like a living being.  It was radiating off of the covers where the baby was lying.

       I couldnít believe it.  I didnít want to believe it but somehow I knew, down deep, it was true.  It was Sara.  All along it had been my baby, our beautiful baby girl.  Something was terribly wrong with our little Sara.  I donít believe she was possessed or anything stupid like that.  This was not the work of the devil or a curse or a divine judgement.  This was an illness, a birth defect, some horrible incurable disease.  I remember thinking, right after she was born, something was wrong but I had blocked it out, until now.

       I knew what had to be done.  I couldnít let Sara suffer.  Imagine her life with this terrible affliction, the isolation, the humiliation, the madness that would surely follow.  I couldnít bare it.  You wouldnít be able to bare it either, Jack.

       It was over very quickly.  I filled the kitchen sink with nice warm water, removed Saraís diaper and lowered her in like when I bathe her.  The smell almost overcame me but once she was in the water it subsided a bit and I wiped her little body softly with her pink washcloth.  I hummed that song I always sing to her, ďGo To Sleep Little BabyĒ and then I let go of her.  She floated for a moment and then she sank down to the bottom of the sink.  That was the hardest part.  She jerked her arms and legs and thrashed about for a few seconds and then she went still.  Iím pretty sure she didnít suffer.  At least I hope she didnít.  After a little while I pulled her out of the water and wrapped her in a towel.  Sheíll be in her crib waiting to say goodbye to you, Jack, when you get home next  week.  And the smell is gone.

Postpartum Psychosis:  A rare, severe, but treatable, form of mental illness that can occur after the birth of a baby.

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