The Sweet Smell of Failure
December 6, 2019

At first, I noticed people wince near me. I noticed people wince in my presence, always somewhere close to me, as if because of me, as if they were lifelike automatons being triggered by an invisible mechanism that I kept setting off accidentally. I caught them doing that — just wincing — either in the crowd on the street or on a subway train or on a bus or in a queue winding in front of a cinema or a theater. But those were the people unknown to me, complete strangers, nameless passers-by with whom I happened to be sharing the rows upon rows of sidewalk tiles of this fine city — so it didn’t bother me that much.

But then I glimpsed other people, more relevant people, my colleagues, and co-workers, flinch when in my immediate vicinity. I glimpsed them do that during morning water-cooler chitchats or everyday staff meetings, as if it were a new corporate mode of communication that I wasn’t privy to.

Out of the corner of my vigilant eyes, of my increasingly alert eyes, I saw an odd realization dawn on them and settle on their faces, little by little, bit by bit, like an ingenious idea that brightens the facial features of a brilliant inventor. I saw the initial look of amazement and puzzlement — followed by a moment of discreet sniffing and glancing around — slowly transform into that of shocked understanding, and, in the end, disgust, unmitigated disgust accompanied by a gaze bristling with a fierce reprimand for the party guilty of that distasteful disturbance. As I was terrified to admit, I seemed to have been that party — in every single case. And those were the troubling situations that worried me more, if not considerably more, than anything else, than anything before.

Whenever during an important company meeting I saw someone’s nose start twitching tellingly or their nostrils widen suspiciously, I wanted to disappear; I wanted to vanish without a trace, or, at the very least, to sink into the sleek and impervious surface of a corporate carpet, and stay there, embedded in there inconspicuously, like a pharaoh’s likeness on a hieroglyph-covered obelisk. I would hide my face behind my hand, on which my head was propped up, as if I tried very hard to decipher some doodle in my legal pad, hoping that I would thus become invisible to everyone around me — still smellable, still insufferable, but invisible. I would strive to hide behind that hand of mine and its outstretched fingers, as if I were a sniper taking pains to find cover behind too thin a tree and its feeble branches. I would study them secretly through the gaps between my fingers; I would study their focused faces, their squinted eyes, their studied poses, their pricked-up ears, absorbed in listening to this or that speaker; I would do that trying to guess which one of them would jerk themselves out of that professional stupor, only to sniff the air, like a gas inspector suspecting a leak, and, inevitably, turn the reproachful and unspeakably accusatory eyes in my direction.

Meantime, I would venture to ignore the speaker’s rather unedifying efforts in order to detect the source of that smell, of that disconcerting smell. I would try to sniff myself as discreetly and as cautiously as possible — hoping not to attract anyone’s attention to all that playing a hunting dog on a mission. I would slowly lower my head right behind the cover of that hand of mine, as if I were an electrician sliding down the lamppost; I would lower it in the direction of one of my armpits, then the other one, every time trying to inhale the fumes that must clearly have been wafting from there — but every time to no avail. Distressed, desperate, I would then press my arms forcibly to my sides, closing up the armpits, sealing them off, cutting them off from the outside world, and thus quarantining whatever might be accumulated in there. I would press them till breathless, till I felt a kind of negative pressure come to life in there, as if I attempted to make an imprint by means of a stamp carved from a potato.

On my way home — my arms still tightly pressed to my sides, as if I struggled to conceal enormous sweaty stains — I would burst into the nearest convenience store and buy as many various soaps and cleansers and shower gels as I was able to carry. Then — already in the bathroom — I would scrub and rub myself in all the necessary places, as well as in a few additional ones, like a flea tamer who has lost control over his menagerie. In the end, I would sprinkle myself with a hint of my rather strong-smelling cologne — maybe a dash more than usual.

If the situation repeated itself the next day or the day after that — and it used to do that trick infallibly — I would hurry back home, purchase even more toiletries, and scrub and rub myself away, and put on even more of that cologne.

One morning, our main boss, the very president of our company, somehow strayed to our floor, like a poorly aimed spitball — perhaps on his way to the men’s room he had lost his bearings and didn’t know how to return to his ivory and glass tower at the top floor — and, sauntering past my cubicle, he stopped, looked around, and asked with a mixture of disgust and disdain: “What’s that ungodly stench? Has some poor wretch died here?” It was I; I wanted to die there; I truly hoped to die there, right on the spot — without any interminable battle with the, ironically, terminal illness, without any long and tearful farewells to the friends and family, but instantly, in a snap of smelly fingers. I sat there, putting on hold my breathing process and all the other vital functions, pressing my back against the dwarfish cubicle partition, as if I tried to iron out all the creases on my shirt’s back; I did that, once again praying to all the gods, both modern and ancient, to render me invisible — at the very least invisible.

At home, I spent the whole evening in the scalding shower, as if I were an envelope that had to be opened secretly over a steaming kettle. I even began eating my meals there, my body all pruny and soaked — it seemed that I didn’t have to worry about the crumbs from then on. I would also — how else — apply even more of that cologne on my neck and chest than ever before.

Quite soon, I bought a few more flasks of it as well as of several other brands. I didn’t really care whether those fragrances were delicate or sensual, whether they turned one into a testosterone-dripping savage or a romantic pushover, whether they were suitable for work or perfect for nighttime exploits, or whether they were comprised of the notes like musk or bergamot or patchouli; I didn’t care about it at all. They had to be intense, and intense above all; they had to be much stronger than my current one, as it had evidently not been strong enough to mask my natural bouquet with hints of smelliness knew what, and they seemed to be like that, as overpowering as that — at least, according to the stunned clerk’s words.

I mixed them all together; I poured them all into a small bucket — I borrowed it from our super — and I mixed them up in there, as if it were an odorous kind of stew. I dipped my finger into it and then dabbed a little of it here and there, like a painter putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece.

Thus refreshed and perfumed, I went one evening to the local bar. I hoped to try this new mixture of mine in a hostile environment — hostile for saturated with a blend of other smells competing for everyone’s attention: the more or less repulsive breaths of the patrons; the more or less smelly clothes of the regulars; the usual stink of the crowd of drunk and sweaty people, involuntarily pressing and rubbing against one another, like cogwheels in a complex mechanism — not to mention the streamers of cigarette smoke, whirling and mingling and intertwining freely above everyone’s heads, like hands in a sensuous dance.

Before long, I noticed a young woman sitting alone, away from the herd, like an iron filing that defies the allure of the magnet. I saw her sip a drink through a straw, as slowly and meticulously as if she were performing an open-heart surgery in field conditions.

Without much deliberation, I decided to try it out on her.

As I walked over to her, as she caught sight of me, as she noticed me approaching her — her without a doubt, her and no one else, her of all people — I saw her smile. I saw that innocent smile flare up on her face, and that joy and pride of herself do the same thing in her eyes; I saw her straighten up instinctively and adopt this seemingly, but only seemingly, indifferent air, and then I knew, for that single fraction of a second I knew, that I did it, that I finally did it — I had vanquished that smell.

Then she flinched; she flinched as if someone, as if some repulsive person, had followed me and joined us, unasked, at the bar a second after my having sat there, like a waiter sneaking up on one to remind him to settle the bill.

“The scent…” she said grudgingly, trying to hold back any sign of revulsion. “It’s nice, I mean. It’s very nice, very nice indeed. But, perhaps, there’s too much of it, you know? There’s too much of the good thing. You should ease up on it. You really should.”

I was terrified; I was mortified to hear her pronounce that shattering verdict; I was genuinely panic stricken, but I stuck to my role and did everything I possibly could not to let her read it from my awkwardly smiling face, with the perspiration tellingly pearling on my forehead, right above my forced and spurious smile, like soapsuds oozing from the pores of a mistreated sponge.

When she soundlessly slid off the bar stool, like a pancake sliding off a frying pan, when she did that quickly, as if to get away from me as fast and as smoothly as possible, and when she disappeared in the loud crowd, I jumped off my seat and rushed to the men’s room. I dashed there; I barged in there; I produced a nearly full flask of cologne from my pocket, of that original mixture of mine, and I poured it, all of it, all over myself: over my neck, over my shirt, over my jacket, over my face, and all over my hair — I even rubbed it in my hair. But even then I could still smell it — I could smell it no matter what.


Photo by Akshar Dave from Pexels

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