By Claire Dever
Rodrigo loved her scent: oranges and honeysuckle, jasmine and peppermint. She was an ensemble of everything that was good to him, everything that made him happy.
And now, she was gone.
He didn’t know where, of course. If he had, he would have gone there immediately. She had been gone for a long time. After the third day, he stopped scolding himself for being worried and started worrying freely. She had told him it was only a trip to the supermarket. They ran out of eggs and she wanted to bake a cake. He could smell the reek of excitement floating off of her in waves.
When did the grocery store close? Maybe she was just waiting for it to open.
No, that’s crazy. It’s been three days.
He didn’t know what to do. He could never go outside. The people outside would string him up like a lightbulb and dance around his decaying body like he was an offering, persecuting him for his deformity. That’s what his mother taught him.
But he had to, didn’t he?
Jenny was gone. Jenny, the light of his life, the one that smelled the sweetest, Pastor Joseph’s daughter. She never taunted him, never stuck out her finger at his face. He had a horribly large nose, something all the doctors called hideously unfixable. His eyes and mouth were unusually small, the vast majority of his face taken up by his schnoz. Other girls laughed, walked to the other side of the street just to avoid being close to him. Jenny was different. Jenny didn’t care.
He spent a long time waiting for her. He sat by the door, eyes wide, staring. His eyes got dry, but if he blinked, he’d miss her. He was horribly thirsty, horribly hungry, but to stop staring would be to postpone her arrival.
On the fifth day, he got a letter.
We have your wife, it read. Put $60,000 in an envelope and leave it under the Civil Memorial. Contact the police or try anything and your wife dies.
Rodrigo was used to fear. He had spent his whole life scared. His father would joke that he inherited his fear from his mother. Whenever he said this, his mother would look at him with the expression of a cornered rat. She was a religious woman, very strict. She feared everything: spiders, snakes, God, her son. She feared her son so much that he was forced to sleep under his bed, in case she ever got too drunk and walked into his room instead of her’s. Rodrigo still had a scar on his forehead from when that last happened.
Today, after he read this letter, Rodrigo felt, instead of fear, a new emotion. He had no words for it. It was like molten lava had been poured into his chest. His heartbeat was so loud in his ears and his breathing became heavy. He wanted to hurt someone, something. He wanted whoever had hurt his wife dead. Rodrigo got up and paced. He thought about what he could do.
Jenny had been invited over for dinner by Rodrigo’s mother. His mother invited the pastor of their parish. He brought his wife, who invited their daughter. When Jenny walked in, Rodrigo had been at the top of the stairs, staring longingly at the feast that his mother prepared for the family that he wasn’t allowed to touch. When Jenny walked in, everything stopped.
Rodrigo was always overwhelmed. There were so many scents from everything: the food, the candle, the dirt from outside, the paint. The stench of sweat and rust and sadness and anger. But when he saw Jenny, the flood of sensations froze. The only thing he could smell was her, her sweet feminine scent, her excitement of being invited to such a grown-up event as a dinner party.
“So,” said Pastor Joseph, after everyone except for Rodrigo was seated. “I’ve been told that you have a son about Jenny’s age.”
Rodrigo’s mother made a shrill noise, eyes wide. His father, whose fork was halfway to his mouth, froze. The silverware clattered onto the expensive porcelain plates. The pastor began to apologize hastily.
“I am so sorry,” he said, face beet red. “How terrible for your family. I had no idea. When did it happen, do you mind me asking?”
Father cleared his throat. “No, no. Nothing like that. He’s upstairs.”
Pastor Joseph smiled. “Jenny, would you like to meet him?”
When Rodrigo heard this, his stomach rose to his throat.
When he heard Jenny’s voice, Rodrigo almost fainted. His heart did a dance. Her clear voice echoed in his ears. For the first time, he could smell sounds. Her voice smelled of vanilla taffy, of pink sea shells.
“Rodrigo!” his mother shouted up the stairs, her voice hard as nail.
“Coming, Mother,” he said. He shook as he walked down the stairs. He had put on his best clothes early in the evening in hopes of his mother seeing and inviting him to join the dinner before the guests arrive. But, when she saw him, dressed in a blue button-up and black slacks, she narrowed her eyes as her mouth contorted into a look of disgust.
He entered the dining room, braced for the yells he was used to. But, when he looked into the faces of the family he didn’t know, there was no hate. Father Joseph and his wife looked a bit pitiful. Jenny’s face was alive with curiosity.
“Well, hello. I’m Father Joseph. I’m assuming that you’re Rodrigo?” The priest’s face was kind. There was no fear coming off of him, none at all. The foul stench of disgust that Rodrigo was so used to exuded from his mother, but there was none in the visiting family.
He struggled to find his words. In the absence of a response, Jenny spoke up. “You can sit next to me, if you’d like. There’s plenty of room.”
“That’s not necessary,” Mother said loudly, standing up. “Rodrigo, leave. Now.” Her voice was hard, angry. Rodrigo backed away, hands shaking, eyes wide. He stared at the belt cinching tightly at Mother’s waist. He waited for the hands to unbuckle, to lash at him. But nothing of the sort happened. Mother’s hands were fists that did not strike.
The door remained unopened, no matter how long he stared at it.
A loud noise rang through the empty house. Mrrow. Mrrrrrow.
Numbly, Rodrigo stood and fed the cat, Noseferatu. Rodrigo suggested that name as a joke, but when he said it, Jenny laughed the laugh that smelled of lavender and lemon so the name stuck even though Noseferatu was a girl. The cat was Jenny’s favorite. Noseferatu would curl up on the light fabric of Jenny’s sundresses and fall asleep, purring like a motor. Jenny would laugh when that happened and stroke the cat, then look at Rodrigo with the expression of a proud mother.
It was on a boardwalk at twilight when he proposed. The air smelled fresh and clean, like linen and unscented deodorant. Jenny had convinced him to come, saying that it had the best view and that there was barely anyone there. He agreed, saying that if it made her happy, he would be happy. He proposed to her in front of an old-fashioned ice cream shop. He could smell the rocky road ice cream still lingering on her breath as she beamed and squealed out a, “Yes, yes, yes!”
On their wedding day, the gift his father gave him was long and thin, hastily wrapped in brown paper bags. “You’re the man of the house now,” his father said with a grimace. “You have to protect yourself and your wife. She’s relying on you.”
Rodrigo wanted to tell him that Jenny wasn’t relying on him, that she could protect herself. That she was strong and smart and independent and didn’t need him, that actually, he needed her more. But all he did was open his mouth like a fish, words refusing to fall out, then close it and nod. He went to the bathroom after the ceremony and unwrapped it, ashamed of himself for feeling the need to hide whatever it was. It was a gun, a small, sleek handgun. He slunk into his closet and slid it into the too-small tuxedo at the very back of his closet.
Rodrigo rushed to the back of his closet, thanking his father. For the first time, he regretted his decision to skip his mother and father’s joint funeral. It was too late, he told himself hastily. That was years and years ago. Regretting did him nothing, nothing at all.
He pulled out the gun, dusted it off, loaded it. He put folded pieces of paper in an envelope and numbly walked to the library. When he reached his destination, he slid the envelope under the statue of a soldier. Once, it had been in the middle of town, but now it resided in a field untouched by civilization. He sat down a few feet away from the statue, the tall grasses making him invisible.
His mother was screaming. Screaming of a disappointment, of the devil. Her eyes were scornful and glistening with tears. The sound of skin on skin, of leather on skin, metal to skin filled the air. There were rushed prayers and standing up when Rodrigo entered the room, the look on her face shrieking hate.
Rodrigo was lying awake past his bedtime, not being able to sleep due to the yelling fights.
“We need to get rid of him,” his mother shrilled.
“He’s our son! For God’s sake, Nancy! Think about him, for one second,” his voice always went to a pleading tone at the end, begging her to stop. Father hated conflict.
“Do not use the Lord’s name in vain,” his mother would gasp. “That boy is the devil. Deformities come from the devil, you know that! A boy with a nose that size is nothing but evil.”
That was another thing about her: whenever she said the word ‘nose’, she would lower her voice and check behind her back. If possible, she would toss salt over her left shoulder, or at least cross herself.
For the first time, Rodrigo wanted to die.
When he was in third grade, he asked his father why he was shaving. “To remove the hair I don’t want,” his father replied, giving him a smile. “You’ll do this too, when you’re older. Almost all men do it.” Rodrigo took a razor blade from the bathroom cabinet that night and attempted to cut his nose off. He didn’t like it, so it could be removed. Oh, how his mother shrieked.
Rodrigo waited anxiously. His mouth became dry, his stomach loud and angry. He was all too aware of the time ticking by. Not for the first time, he felt helpless and alone.
Time passed, as it always does. He lost track of time in the grey skied world. Rodrigo knew only that he waited. And then he came.
The man was tall, stinking of fear and powdered drugs. A black coat was tightly drawn over Rodrigo watched him glance around nervously like a cornered animal, then quickly look under the statue. In one fluid motion, the man plucked the envelope and tucked it into his coat pocket. He walked swiftly to the car, glancing behind his back once, twice.
Rodrigo ran forward, gripping the gun that stunk of power. When the man was almost in the car, Rodrigo caught up to him and cocked the gun. The man froze and turned around.
“Take me to Jenny,” Rodrigo said, trying to control his shivering voice. The man’s eyes were wide as he nodded and slowly got into the car.
Rodrigo rode in the passenger seat, keeping the gun’s barrel pressed against the man’s temple. There was powder residue lingering in the car, forcing Rodrigo to breathe through his mouth.
The driver slowed down as they approached a series of dilapidated townhouses. He led Rodrigo in slowly, hands shaking and mouth pleading cries of freedom. Rodrigo paid no mind to the man. His only thoughts were of Jenny.
When he was a boy, his mother gave him peanut butter candies everyday, even though Rodrigo was allergic. She would tempt him, saying ‘just one bite is all. Go on.’ Rodrigo smelled the desperation on her, but no guilt. There was never any guilt.
There was sulfur guilt on the man, the one cloaked in black. He was shaking, apologizing as he led Rodrigo to his wife.
She was tied on a couch, covered with a thin knit blanket. While Rodrigo rushed to Jenny’s side, the high man reached into a cabinet and pulled out a gun. Rodrigo could smell his excitement, his adrenaline. Rodrigo cocked the handgun and turned it onto the man, then pulled the trigger. His head blew off like dandelions in the wind.
While the ambulance came, Jenny sobbed. She sobbed of how he was a coworker, how he had lost his job and how he had a sick fascination with Jenny. She would find him staring at her, at her breasts, her neck, her fingers.
He held her as she cried, apologized. He told here there was nothing to apologize for. She didn’t believe him until months afterward.
Jenny stopped crying after the sedation took over. She didn’t start crying until it wore off. She didn’t talk in the hospital, or in therapy. Sundresses turned to loose sweatpants, baggy t-shirts. Breezy mannerisms turned into those stinking of fear. She had a hard time going to sleep. Nightmares plagued her. Rodrigo stayed up with her, telling her that it was all okay, everything was okay.
Rodrigo hated essential oils. He hated perfumes and smelly shampoos. They clogged his nose, blocking out everything else. He couldn’t stand smelly hair creams, scented candles or flowers. After Jenny returned home, he bought her an essential oil diffuser. He would put in calming lavender, rejuvenating peppermint. He bought her the most expensive perfumes and the best shampoos and made sure to bring her peonies every day.
One day, he convinced her to go to the boardwalk with him. He wore her favorite colors, blue, purple and yellow. She wore jeans that he bought her and a loose hoodie. She stared at the passing birds as he bought her treats. When they got to a part of the boardwalk where there were no people and a view of the crystal sea, they sat next to each other, lightly touching, licking rocky road ice cream and inhaling the linen skies. She leaned into him and sighed, eyes fluttering shut.