The Madison Review Extended Cut: no. 9
Welcome back to The Madison Review's web series, The Extended Cut, where we showcase exceptional work that was not selected for the fall or spring editions of our journal. This week, we are pleased to share 'The Habit' a short story by Dustin Stoddart which delicately balances the anxiety and particularities of Mr. Saisonne's "cultivated habit" with a healthy dose of humor that can only be found in a kindergarten classroom. 'The Habit' was a huge hit with many of our fiction staff members -- we hope you enjoy!
Dustin Stoddart lives in Seattle, Washington. His most recent short stories have appeared in The Free Library of the Internet Void and Archipelago: The Allegory Ridge Fiction Anthology.
Two months ago as I was driving home from work, dog-tired, I saw a woman sitting out on her porch. She was smoking a cigarette. It wasn’t even a porch, actually—it was just a space on the sidewalk in front of her door, and she sat on a cheap lawn chair, the kind you can buy at a grocery store. Her tank-top had fallen down off of her shoulder, but she didn’t seem to care. Two fingers held onto that cigarette with careful, intentional poise, and her face was lost in thought. I just stared at her from inside my car—it’s not often that you are able to stare at someone without having to worry they’ll notice, but I could tell that this woman was in another world. Her, and her lawn chair, and her cigarette. Clearly she was not well-off, but for some reason I envied her more than I’d envied anyone in a long, long time. See, my day had been a whirlwind. A cluster-fuck. A desperate, chaotic miasma of command and submission, and now the drive home—that long, shameful procession back toward bed. This woman, somehow, had escaped it.
Where I work, we are always talking about Mindfulness. It’s supposed to be this very straightforward thing, but I’ve never understood it. “Just take repose in your breath,” said our school’s mental health consultant, when I expressed my frustration. “Breathe. Pay attention to the way your existence is connected to everything.” It was nonsense. But the children I work with are all expected to have a Mindful Moment two times every day, and I’m the one who’s supposed to facilitate it. So each morning I tell them to “inhale the present,” and later in the afternoon I tell them to “exhale the past.” They all seem to earnestly participate, but they’re also only five years old—I suspect they’re just as confused about the whole thing as I am. At one point I was so desperate to figure the whole thing out, I even bought a book about Buddhism. I hadn’t bought a book in ages. It explained, in so many ancient and cryptic words, that in order to remove suffering you first need to remove its causes and conditions. This Mindfulness routine didn’t eliminate anyone’s busy schedules, though. It didn’t help pay the bills. It didn’t stop the ice caps from melting. Honestly, the whole thing made so little sense and had been adopted by so many people so suddenly, I thought it must be a fad. An Atkins diet for the mind. Yet here we were, festooning it upon our children.
Now it was clear to me. After seeing that woman on her porch, I immediately veered out of traffic and into a department store parking lot. I grabbed the cheapest lawn chair I could find, and asked for a pack of cigarettes at the register. As if animated by the prismatic rays of the Buddha’s smile, I mouthed the words, “Pall Mall,” in the faintest whisper as the attendant grabbed them from the case, and I admired how good those words felt just rolling off of my tongue. I was already becoming aware of such small, vibrant pleasures. Then I drove home, only to realize I’d forgotten to buy a lighter. But it was fine! I got back in the car, and drove to the store again, chuckling the whole way. And after that, I ate a small meal and took a shower and dressed in casual attire. When everything was just right, I sat outside on my brand new lawn chair, ready to smoke my very first cigarette.
Everything about it was good: The force required to click the lighter to life. Drawing breath through the little paper cylinder. Even the burning sensation in my lungs was pleasant, in a martyrly sort of way. With a heavy, satisfying sound, I felt my thumb produce the flame, and for the first time in my life I tasted the air, more thick and substantial than any air I’d ever breathed before. I didn’t think of anything in that moment except the rhythm of breath required to keep it lit.
The next morning, I found myself struggling with a sudden onset of paranoia.
To kindergarteners, smoking is the devil. They’ve been taught that it is something people only do if they are stupid, or evil, or both. Knowing this, I’d taken a second shower after enjoying my cigarette, and then another in the morning before stepping out the door (I washed my hair very thoroughly, since that’s where the smell was most likely to stick). I even made sure to wear a different jacket to work. Still, I worried. And sure enough, we’d only just begun our Mindful Moment when a student named Ellie blurted out, “You smell different, Mr. Saisonne.”
All of them were quiet. I wanted to believe it was because they were meditating, but a terrible thought slithered out my amygdala: They all smelled it. The one person they’d been taught to trust unconditionally, the person charged with guiding them through a new and unfamiliar universe was, in fact, stupid and evil, and now they all knew it. They would probably tell their parents later that evening.
I whispered to Ellie, as calmly as possible: “It must be my new shampoo.”
She shook her head. “Your shampoo smells the same.” She said it in the same matter-of-fact manner that a five-year-old says anything. To them, all things are either completely certain, or completely false. “It’s something else,” she concluded.
“Is it bad?”
“No, I like it,” she whispered back. Then she smiled a little, and closed her eyes, and went back to breathing with the rest of them. None of them actually knew what cigarettes smelled like, I realized.
Twenty or-so parents move in and out of our room each day, however—rushing in to help hang up the backpacks, reminding the children to eat their lunches, ordering them to have wonderful, incredible days, then rushing out for work. I spend most of my time trying to reclaim the calm and clarity that’s lost in this frantic morning din, and then around three in the afternoon, when the day has ended and everything seems settled, they burst in again, saying, “Remember, we have to leave right away or you’ll miss your swimming lesson…”
“…your soccer practice.”
“…your piano lesson.”
“…your friendship group.”
“…your mini-entrepreneur’s club.”
They were the ones that I really needed to worry about.
Just the other day, Connor’s father entered the room barking out orders (it wasn’t clear whether he was closing a business deal on his phone, or yelling at his son to leave), and when Connor didn’t react quickly enough (he was politely putting his crayons away), the man began shoving all of Connor’s schoolwork into his tiny orange backpack. The backpack was full—it already contained a lunch pail and a stuffed animal, and yet this crazed progenitor was also pressing in Connor’s math sheets, the day’s writing assignments, an art project Connor had slaved over that week, and the crayon drawing he had just been working on (a lovely proto-Cubist representation of the very man who was destroying it). Connor saw his whole day being creased and crumpled, and tears began forming in his eyes. We could all see it—everyone in the room—how the seams of that little orange backpack were stretching. But the man persisted, yanking on the tiny plastic zipper to get it shut, and that’s when the whole thing burst. Everything inside went flying. The math papers, the writing, the art project, and the drawing all exploded into the air like confetti. The stuffed animal hit another student in the head, and the lunchbox clattered against the ground, scattering half-eaten bits of food across the floor with a few muted, sickening thuds. Connor and the child who’d been maimed by the stuffed animal were now silently weeping, and the man simply threw his hands up in exasperation. He dropped the backpack, lips still jettisoning words into the void, and pulled his son out the door by the wrist. The room was quiet again after that. I knelt down on the the ground to clean everything up, and the remaining children waited wordlessly for their own fathers, mothers, and nannies to whisk them away, too.
Before that incident, I hadn’t known how I would respond if, by some chance, a parent mentioned the smell of cigarettes. I didn’t think any of them really had the attention span that their children did—that they’d be able to smell through soap and shampoo, or the coppery body odor I emit every time I become nervous. So the first time it came up, I was surprised. I just smiled and said, “You never know what smells you’re going to find in a kindergarten classroom.” But the same mother complained again only a few days later, claiming that she had an allergy to cigarette smoke, that it made her sick every time she came into the room, and that the smell could not be coming from the children. By then, I’d thought it about it enough that I knew exactly what to say. “It’s a sensitive subject…,” I told her solemnly, “…but I’ve spoken to Connor’s dad. He’s doing his best to quit.”
Her lips tightened when she heard this. She gave me a tiny, secretive nod. And after that I didn’t hear a peep.
I finished that first pack in only a week, and in this short time I'd already been admonished by my landlord, a neighbor, and my mother about it. This didn’t worry me, though. My relationships with these people weren’t at stake—I only ever smoked outside, on my own time, on a public sidewalk. Nothing in my lease made the smell in my hair or on my clothes impermissible. My mother would be upset, but she wouldn’t disown me. It was fine, I thought. But when she commented on the smell, and I casually explained how often I’d been smoking, she immediately burst into tears. She said that I was going to die. And then the word “addiction” flew out of her mouth. It shook me, not because I’d made my mother cry, but because she’d used that word. It hung over me for at least two nights as I tried to sleep, flapping around above my bed like a bird stuck in the rafters of a home-improvement store.
My smoking is a habit, I told myself. I had cultivated it. It had taken discipline to maintain two entirely different wardrobes, to keep a regimented showering schedule, to scrub beneath my nails in the cold each night before coming back inside just to avoid carrying the smell on my fingertips. My smoking had a purpose. It showed me that the present could feel good. Addiction doesn’t work like that. Addiction kidnaps you from the present—locks you in a room labeled either “past” or “future”, then forces you to swallow the key. She should’ve known this as well as anyone, but the truth is that most people treat the word like a joke. They think that it can be used to describe anything—the show they watch each day after work, the coffee they brew each morning, even their preferred brand of chapstick.
Since my early twenties, I had seen my body responding to adulthood like the intimation of a coming ice age—slowly and diligently packing emergency supplies at base of my stomach. Over the last week that I’d been smoking, that process had reversed completely. A small cup of tea, a handful of mixed nuts—these were all I needed to eat on the days that I had a cigarette. I was returning to a smaller, healthier state. Now, please don’t mistake me: I don’t have a fear of eating. What I mean to say is that for the first time in my life, I truly felt as though something knotted up inside of me had finally let go. For the first time, something had made me feel like the ice age might not be coming.
The Mindfulness routines continued to be a challenge. One day, as I was directing all of them to breathe in through their noses and out with their mouths, I noticed Ellie sitting at the front of the carpet again, and I started to worry that maybe, just maybe, I had forgotten to brush my teeth, that if I exhaled through my mouth, she or one of the others might smell it on my breath. I groped around my short-term memory as they meditated, hoping to find a distinct recollection of spitting into the sink and looking into the mirror and wiping the froth from my lips, but whenever I started to feel assured that all of this had taken place I began doubting whether the memory was real, or just some generic image etched into place by a thousand identical mornings. I went around and around like this until the Mindful Moment was over, and then finally I was able to calm down again.
After that, we talked about the letters “r” and “s”, and the sounds they made, and why. It was a relief—“r” growled and interrupted all of the vowels, while “s” allowed the letter “c” to borrow its sound from time to time. After that, we practiced writing the number five. “It’s not hard, see?” I said, as I drew it on the board. “Just a line… with a belly… and a hat on top.” We did it together. We did it alone. We did it on paper. We carved imaginary lines into the air with our fingers.
“I’m tired,” I heard Ellie say to her desk partner, when the activity came to a close.
“Did you go to bed late?” Josephine asked.
“I just can’t sleep.”
“One time, I stayed awake for twenty days,” Josephine claimed. It wasn’t true, but that didn’t matter; it made Ellie feel less alone.
“I haven’t slept for…” She seemed to count in her head, then give up. “I don’t know how many days.”
It worried me, because I knew she could at least count to five. We had a song we’d been practicing, and Ellie often sang it to herself during arts times, when the class fell silent and everyone was coloring:
Here is the beehive
Where are the bees?
Hiding inside where nobody sees.
Watch them come creeping out of the hive…
one, two, three, four, five
Other students would occasionally notice her singing and join in, our room erupting into one unified chant, then filling with the cacophony of twenty tiny, buzzing voices. When the song was over, their eyes always returned automatically to their artwork, their hands back to the crayons, and the room became quiet again. Silence, then singing, then silence; none of it planned, none of it coordinated. Through some spontaneous, effervescent compulsion, they take these banal moments and make them sublime.
After recess that same day, I noticed other children acting slower and quieter, too. Usually there’s a sound like none other when they re-enter the room, but on that day there was nothing—no crying, no shouting, no bickering about the games they’d been playing. Maybe they’d just been playing hard, I thought. Or maybe they were all tired. Moods in a classroom tend to synchronize—one student gets a bad night of sleep, and suddenly all of them are acting tired.
“Some of them were playing with the woodchips,” the recess supervisor reported. “Some were running around the garden. I think Tristan might have been trying to kiss Archer again... none of it was out of the ordinary.”
“How did they get so tired if most of them were sitting around, playing with woodchips?” I asked. We watched them continue to file into the room like tiny zombies.
She shrugged. “Maybe the meditation stuff is working.”
I noticed it more and more in the following days: They seemed quieter, calmer. Some were even choosing not to eat their snacks. It’s normal for five-year-olds to be picky, but these students were passing on coveted treasures like apple sauce and Oreos, sitting at their desks like ascetics, simply looking contented and waiting for the day’s next task. They should have been whining about the food that had been packed for them, spreading sticky residue on their desks, or mashing apple rinds and cracker crumbs into the carpet for me to clean up. Instead, our room was like a temple, what with how peaceful they were, and the breathing routines, and the Gregorian harmonies of the bee song wafting through the air. Another teacher stopped me in the hall that week to ask how I’d establish such a “mindful classroom culture”. There was admiration in her eyes, and all I could think to say was that we were, in fact, being very consistent with our Mindful Moments.
The uneaten food was a point of concern for parents, however. I received seven emails about it that week. “Maybe Connor was still full from breakfast yesterday,” I wrote to his mother. It wasn’t lying or deception—I truly had no idea. Or maybe all of the meditation really had transformed them in a way—tempered their appetites, made them less reliant on cookies and sugar syrup.
There was a much more obvious explanation, though, one which, for whatever reason, I hadn’t considered. I wanted to believe it had something to do with their recess time. But later that evening, after showering, changing, sliding out a new cigarette, and hearing the lighter click to life, I had a horrifying epiphany: The same thing suppressing my appetite could very well explain their odd behavior. The amount of secondhand smoke they’d been in contact with would’ve been infinitesimal, but their bodies were also much smaller, less resilient. I squashed the cigarette immediately, without taking a single drag, and went straight to bed.
I didn’t sleep. I spent half the night thumbing through statistics about secondhand smoke and stewing on the ramifications it might have for their long-term health. The other half I spent staring into the black, wondering what would happen if somehow someone discovered that it had been my fault.
Our recess supervisor called in sick the next morning. Her symptoms were sinus-related, she said, as well as a cough. It was wintertime, the middle of cold season, but I couldn’t help thinking this, too, was my fault.
In her absence, I needed to supervise the students at recess. A few of them kicked a basketball around, and a few went to play hide and seek. A handful ran to a clearing of woodchips near the playground, and Tristan chased Archer some more. I observed it all as closely as possible through moist puffs of breath, my arms wrapped around my body tight, hoping to see something that absolved me of blame for their uneaten snacks and their lethargy. It was all as the recess supervisor had said, though—nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, watching them play in the woodchips reminded me of the calm, imaginative games I used to play in the sandbox my father built for me. He’d hand me a plastic bucket and a small shovel, and tell me to build the biggest, strongest sand castle that I could. Even on days that it rained, I didn’t think anything of it—maybe he knew the sand was clumpier, more pliable on those days. He always insisted on towers, and parapets, and drawbridges, and he would tell me not to come back inside until the entire thing was finished. I enjoyed it. I remembered the misty, clean smell that always seeped up through the ground, and how good it felt holding that abrasive, earthen substance in my fists—letting it sneak into the crooks of my knuckles, and permitting it to burrow into the tiny spaces under my fingernails even though I knew that when I knocked on the door to be let back inside he would scrub them so hard it felt like they were going to bleed.
On my next trip to the grocery store, I didn’t buy any cigarettes. I noticed a tiny shovel and a couple of small plastic buckets hanging at the end of the canned foods aisle, and I bought those instead. I thought they could be an unspoken apology of sorts—a way to make amends to the children without really admitting to anything. I snuck out behind them as they left for recess the next day, the brightly colored play-tools in my arms, hoping to make it a surprise. Their focus on the wood chips was so marvelous, not one of them saw me approaching. In fact, I wondered if they even needed the gifts—they might just end up bickering over who got to use them. And that’s when I saw it, in that moment of uncertainty, standing only a little closer than I’d been the day before:
There was a woodchip in Connor’s mouth.
At first I thought he must only be sucking on it—appeasing an oral fixation. Looking from one student to the next, however, I could see that all of them were either chewing something, or hunting along the ground, sifting through the woodchips like a giant bowl of pistachios. Some sat upright, slowly grinding away with their underdeveloped molars, others were bringing fresh, tiny fistfuls of wood to their lips.
I should have been bothered by it, but I wasn’t. I felt relieved. None of it had been my fault, I realized—the subdued behavior, the strange shift in their appetites… this explained everything. I stood there, basking in the dreamlike strangeness of it. Some of them noticed me watching, even, but they weren’t afraid of being caught; they didn’t have any reason to think that it was wrong. My eyes met with Ellie’s, and it was a moment of pure, effortless understanding—the kind of look you share with a partner or a close friend when you’ve been driving together a long time in silence, only to both glance over at the same moment because you wonder if the other is getting sleepy. She was sloppily masticating on a big, barky morsel that barely fit inside her mouth, and neither of us blinked until she had swallowed it completely.
I thought about it over a cigarette that evening.
“Babies put strange things in their mouths all the time,” I reminded myself. “Everyone knows it. Even toddlers—young humans capable of talking, thinking, and reasoning—even they occasionally choose to eat pinecones, or the odd, unlucky snail.” Sometimes they’ll stop along the sidewalk when a parent is distracted, only to slip discarded grocery receipts into their mouths, or cigarette butts, or little clumps of dirt. People don’t often talk about it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
I remembered the taste of the sand in my father’s back yard.
“Pregnant women do it, too,” I whispered reassuringly, the words interlacing a lungful of arsenic and ammonia.
Years ago, I’d overheard a coworker in the staff lounge confessing to another teacher that she had a powerful urge to eat chalk. “One of the kids asked me why I had powdered sugar on my lips,” she said with a nervous smile. “He thought I’d been eating donuts while they were away at P.E.”
The other teacher asked why she’d done it, what it tasted like.
“It didn’t taste like anything. I just wanted to feel the texture in my mouth… to feel it coating my throat.” According to her doctor, it was normal—a coping mechanism for some vitamin deficiency, or anxiety about the birth.
Heat swaddled me from inside before trailing languidly out my lips and rising into the air in one long, painful sigh. Even if it wasn’t very odd for a child to swallow some dirt, or for pregnant women with a calcium-deficiencies to sneak bites of chalk, what did it mean for a whole group of kids to be satiating themselves on wood? Not to mention, they’d been doing it for at least a week—it was practically routine for them now, as normal as hanging up backpacks in the morning, or Mindful Moments, or chanting the bee song. Worst of all, it wasn’t clear to me that it was wrong, either. It had been a blessing, in a way.
I then reached the moment where the cherry encroaches on the filter, where you have to decide if one final drag is worth burning you fingers, or inhaling a charred puff of cotton, so I placed the cigarette in the old Christmas mug that I used as an ashtray, scrubbed my fingernails, took my second shower, and crawled into bed.
That night, I fell into the deepest, blackest, most rejuvenating slumber.
Ellie’s father approached me during pickup time the next day. He held out his hand and told me his name. “Hey,” he said. “I’m hoping you have a minute?” It was warm, and dry, and calloused. He smelled like peppermint.
“Of course, I’m glad to finally meet,” I said. I might have been annoyed by an impromptu meeting, but I was feeling relaxed—strangely confident in myself, and in the world.
He glanced around the room. His smile was friendly, and neat, and impossibly white. “I’ll get right to it,” he said. “We’ve noticed that for a while Ellie hasn’t been eating her snack. And more recently, she hasn’t even been touching her lunch. We’re starting to get worried.”
I scrunched my brow into the shape of concern. “I knew about the snacks going uneaten…but her entire lunch? Our recess supervisor is usually with them during that time, so she must not have noticed. Otherwise, she would have told me.”
Ellie stood down at knee-level. She was wearing her backpack, but didn’t look antsy or eager to leave. While her father began hypothesizing about the reasons for her strange behavior, I tried to gauge her reaction.
She seemed relaxed. It was new to her, I realized—the freedom of the empty classroom, no task in front of her, the desks and play areas empty, all the artwork and the posters and secretive markings on desks waiting to be discovered. She wandered to a puzzle that sat in the back of the room and started to rearrange the pieces.
“I don’t think this is just a passing thing,” he continued. “She hasn’t eaten anything I’ve packed for the last three days.” He held up her lunch pail and shook it gently. It did sound full.
He was a web developer or a graphic designer, if I remembered correctly, and as he went on, this continued to distract me. How does a graphic designer get calloused hands, I wondered. He must spend time lifting the uncomfortable metal weights at the gym instead of the rubber ones, just so that others notice when they shake his hand.
When he was finished, I said, “It’s definitely important to me that Ellie eats while she’s at school. I’ll talk to the recess supervisor about it, and we’ll begin keeping a closer eye on things during lunchtime.” I tried to sound as calm and reassuring as possible, thinking I could end the conversation then and there.
He smiled a little, but didn’t get up to leave. “That’s great, but I was hoping you’d have a little more insight into what’s going on, or that you could help us come up with a plan to turn this around.”
The confidence was beginning to trickle out of me, as if little pinholes had been poked in the soles of my shoes.
“Well, Ellie was eating both her snacks and her lunch at the beginning of the year,” I said, “…and we’re very good about keeping consistent routines, so I’m not sure that what’s happening has anything to do with school.”
“Things at home have been incredibly stable,” he said. “Besides, this is only happening at school, so it must be related in some way.”
“Well, Ellie did mention to a friend the other day that she’s been having trouble sleeping. That’s the only reason I wonder about things at home.” His eyes dilated slightly as I said this.
“As I mentioned earlier, that’s been a problem since preschool. I don’t see how it could be related to this lunch issue…”
“Well, have you had a chance to talk to a doctor or a counselor about it? For kids experiencing anxiety, low appetite and a hard time sleeping are things we see quite a lot...”
(You should know that while I stood there lying to this man, I did, at the same time, admit to myself that the wood chip meals needed to end. Clearly it had all gone too far. I would gently reprimand the students. I’d catch them in the act again and tell them with some remorse that it was unhealthy. They would accept this unquestioningly and go back to eating their lunches.)
“Well, we’ve talked to a couple of doctors, but decided to try a more natural route. ‘Meditation before medication’, you could say.”
“Oh, good. We practice meditation in class every day. I’ve heard that it can do wonders for sleep problems.”
It was quiet for a moment, except for the sound of Ellie shuffling the puzzle pieces around. We both watched her, tepid little smiles on our faces as if we, too, were amiably working together to solve this mystery. He was sitting on one of the students’ desks, leaning forward, his fingers curling around his perfectly stubbled chin. His blue eyes beamed in my direction, and I could feel the sweat percolating on my brow, my body beginning to telegraph a nervous warning that I didn’t yet have the wits to interpret.
“We’ve been doing the meditation thing for a long time, but this past week it seems like it’s finally paying off,” he said. “She’s been sleeping like a baby.” He rapped his knuckles proudly against the cedar veneer of the desk.
“Well, Ellie sure is a complex kiddo,” I said exuberantly. “I’m glad you were able to find something that works for her sleep issue. I’m sure there’s a solution to this eating problem as well.” I smiled and straightened my back and shifted my weight from one foot to the other. He remained hunched atop the desk like a gargoyle, trying to draw out the conversation as if something had yet to be said.
“You know, I’ve asked her why she hasn’t been eating, and she just tells me she hasn’t been hungry. It’s like there’s something she’s not telling me. Is that normal for a five-year old? To hide things?”
“Well, at her stage developmentally, it’s more normal than not wanting to eat at all.” I tried to chuckle as casually as possible.
The puzzle Ellie worked on was a geometric oddity composed of five or six shapes, each needing to be placed inside of a small square template. It looked easy at first, but no one had ever solved it. Parents were often intrigued by it, but always gave up when they realized it wasn’t one designed for children. The students, on the other hand, enjoyed it immensely—Ellie would have kept experimenting for a long time if I hadn’t interrupted her.
“I notice you’ve been pretty quiet, Ellie, but I hope you know that we’re not upset with you. We’re just worried. Your Dad and I only want to understand why you haven’t been eating.”
She stopped for a moment and shifted her attention. She knew that I already had the answer to this question. She knew, too, that the truth would make her father upset—that he’d been carefully packing her lunch box with sushi, and organic fruit rolls, and pesto gnocchi, and that she was supposed to prefer these things over dirty chunks of wood. Her father wouldn’t understand their nourishing, anesthetic quality—we both knew that. So the three of us ended up sitting there in silence, my innocuous, unanswerable question having swollen into something outside of my control, and without warning Ellie leaned back, tilted her head towards the ceiling, and expanded her chest. When her nostrils began to flare, there was no mistaking it; it was greedy and unapologetic: She was smelling me. I hoped, now more aware of the sweat on my brow, that her father would interpret this as something meditative. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was deep, so it was possible.
“You know, it’s funny,” he said. “Ellie always talks about how nice you smell. She says it’s relaxing. We have a very good sense of smell in our family. It’s sort of a blessing and a curse.”
A knot inside my stomach began to swell and pulse in tandem with my heartbeat, like a new organ inside of me metastasizing. I’d been so preoccupied with skirting around the woodchip debacle, I hadn’t even been thinking about how close I’d been standing to him, or how much I’d been breathing through my mouth. I could see his pupils expanding to near-complete orbs of black, like a cat ready to pounce, moving from me, to her, and back again. As Ellie continued to take in my scent more completely than seemed humanly possible, he began to sniff the air as well. I wished she would draw in every particle on and within me, that her inhalation could take me and rearrange me into something cleaner, and sweeter, and more harmonious, but when she finally stopped, I was still kneeling there. He had taken her in his arms, but her eyes remained closed, and her fingers were clasped over the thin blonde hairs at the back of his neck.
He said, “Actually, I’m noticing it smells a little bit like—”
Seeing my reflection in his eyes reminded me of watching the woman from my car window. The only difference was that the person I saw now didn’t seem at peace; or if they did, it was like her porch had been—not a porch at all, but a sidewalk—a cheap, imagined knock-off. That woman and I were merely strange and alone. I’d always known this, and yet I had tricked myself into believing she showed me a kind of salvation. I shrank back into this understanding, the thought crossing my mind that I would likely never teach again, never hear the bee song again, and that these were both a fair punishment. Before her father could finish the first syllable of the final word that was slithering off the roof of his mouth, though, Ellie whispered something in his ear.
The words oozed down her lips slow, like honey.
“It’s Connor’s dad,” she said. “Connor’s dad brings the smell in.”