This woman I met—something about her smelled like oranges.
She came up to me outside a State Street bar. "Spare a smoke for a nice lady?" she asked. She wasn't quite steady on her feet. "I'm celebrating. First time my kid's ever stayed with his daddy." She was wearing tight black Levi's that displayed her ass, and a tight black V-neck leading down to the crack of her cleavage. Her eyeliner was smudged. The foundation on her cheeks was uneven; her real skin showed through in patches. She'd bitten off most of her lipstick.
I gave her a Camel and lit it. "Good to meet you," I said. "Daniel Moore." I put out my hand to shake but she was too busy keeping her balance. For the first time I smelled it, a hint of citrus. I thought it was the product she used to tame her frizzy blonde hair, or some kind of lotion she spread on her skin to keep it from flaking. Then she stumbled, and it was gone.
She was nothing like the girls I'd been sleeping with. Chicago was full of girls with their hair swept back just so, girls with hot, clutching grips, reeking of Lancôme perfume. These girls screwed up their eyes during sex, held their breath, barely rose their hips off the mattress. When I got up in the morning to go jogging, they seemed surprised. They lingered at my front door, asked if we'd see each other again, giggled. When I said, "Sure," they actually believed I meant it. They became mere names on this list I kept.
"Fuck this cold," this woman outside the bar was saying. It was hard to tell the difference between the smoke she exhaled and her breath in the frosty air. She told me she and her kid had been living with her parents in Indiana, but now they'd moved back. "Finally gave up fighting with his daddy about it," she said. "Guess it's nice enough he wants to be in the kid's life, but the rents around here are hard luck for a working woman like myself."
She asked me then what I did, and I told her. She asked, "How's an investment banker different from a regular banker?"
"We make more money," I said.
"Don't that depend on your definition of more?" She laughed as if some button on the back of her was stuck in the on position.
When we'd smoked through my pack of Camels and had another drink or two, I invited her home with me. At least it would be different from what I'd been getting.
"Gotta warn you, I'll be like a wildcat," she said. "My momma's got hawk-hearing, so it's been a year or more since I came good and loud." We'd see about that. She wouldn't have been the first girl who talked dirty outside the bar, then asked to be held in bed.
We walked the six blocks to my apartment and I got her upstairs. She only tripped a few times.
The sex was frantic. She squirmed under me like a cat trying to get out of a sack, clawing and nipping and panting. Her breath smelled like beer and Camels and the shot of Fernet she'd downed at last call. Even through the condom, her flesh felt like it was glowing, like any second now it would start to burn. She panted, "Lemme up," then struggled with me, pounded her hands on my chest, wrapped her legs around my legs and knocked me over. I couldn't find a rhythm. Every time I tried to thrust, her hips knocked into mine. She was squeezing so hard I started to go numb. Then there she was—oh oh oh above me at the height of her voice, her back arched away from my hips, her hands clamped over mine on her thighs—and the burst. I heard it in the silence after her scream, an explosion like all the air suddenly pushed out of a beach ball.
The smell was everywhere: in my eyes, on the condom, dripping down the wall. It was so thick I could barely breathe. Oranges hung on the water glass where her lips pressed, the sheets when she peeled them off, my socks, her hair in my face when she tried to nuzzle closer. Her sweat smelled like the Vitamin C drops that stuck to the bottom of my mother's candy dish. Somewhere under that smell I came, hard, even with her lying limp on top of me. Holy shit.
Oranges settled around us, like a grove in the hot afternoon, or the kitchen thick with baking cake. Like a hard candy melting into the tongue.
Then she ruined it by saying, "I'm so glad we found each other tonight."
In the morning that smell had turned stale. The sun had come through the eastern windows and glazed every surface it touched. Even my skin was stained.
She saw that I had an erection and tried to climb on top of me. It hurt to open my eyes. I had a sick feeling in my groin. When I shook her off, she said something about donkeys and laughed and got up to use the bathroom. I covered my head with a pillow.
"What's this?" she said. I heard her pick something up off the floor. "I know this book," she said.
I moved the pillow a little. She was holding The Story of O. I kept the book under the bed with the lube and condoms. This girl I knew from college had sent it to me for Christmas. Every now and then she sent emails, or called up drunk in the middle of the night, asking when I was coming to visit her in D.C. "The guys here don't fuck me like you fuck me," she'd slurred the last time. I still had the message on my machine. It made me hot—the little girl voice she used, her heavy breath as she spoke, her harsh emphasis on fuck, both times. The pause, just afterwards, as she thought what else to say without sounding desperate. I replayed that message and whacked off. Got me every time.
"I just saw this on a special," this woman in my bed was saying. "A cartoon I watched with my kid. The saddest part's when the wife sells her hair. After her husband's bought her that barrette she wanted. Isn't that the most depressing thing?"
She was talking about Gift of the Magi, a story by O. Henry.
"You're going to have to get dressed now," I said. "I always go jogging in the morning."
She said, "I gotta get my kid anyway." I made coffee in the kitchen while she put on her clothes. The clock was ticking down in my head: five minutes until she'd be gone, four minutes, three, two, one. At the front door, she stalled. "Think I could have your number?" she asked. "I'd give you mine, but I don't trust guys who say they'll call."
I scribbled a number on the back of a take-out menu. It was only off by two digits.
When she was gone, I wrote her down on my list. I couldn't remember her name, so I just wrote O. Then I went on with the morning-after ritual: carried the sheets down to the Laundromat, bought myself a Tribune and a bagel, struck up conversations with the girls in jogging pants and little hooded tops.
A weird thing happened. After I made the bed with those crisp, clean sheets, I couldn't get it up. I tried. I bought the new issue of Barely Legal and a bottle of baby oil and even ordered a skin flick on cable. I replayed that answering machine message so many times, the words stopped making sense. No dice. If I really worked, I could come, but nothing came with it. I might as well have been peeing.
I jerked off until my skin chafed. In the seconds after I gave up, I thought I wanted to see her again. Maybe this yearning was what was meant by love, a feeling fueled by something strong enough to cancel out the rest of her. I went back to the bar where we met, stood on the same corner. A few other women caught my eye, but I couldn't bring them home, not in light of recent events. I couldn't even get myself off sober. How could I perform when I was drunk, sheathed in latex, with some pig-faced woman slurring, "Gimme some dirty talk"?
I thought about that night, that woman. What had she done to me? Tried to replay the steps, to remember the sex—her sweaty body pumping against mine, her shudders and her shrieks, her clenching burst. That smell. The way I came so hard.
What else could I do? I stopped by the Krogers to buy some Tropicana. Drinking it didn't help. It wasn't a taste I was after. Setting out a glass of juice didn't work either. On the floor or the windowsill I couldn't smell it; too far away. When I tried to prop the glass beside me on pillows it toppled over and spilled. The juice soaked into my pillow, leaving a dark, sticky stain that looked like Brazil. The smell hovered like a low cloud. I buried my nose in that orange-soaked pillow.
Spilling the juice worked nicely, but I soon ran out of quarters for the laundry. I moved onto orange scented candles, incense, room sprays. I bought sashays of potpourri and crammed them into pillows, and in the crack between the mattress and the wall. I kept a bottle of orange blossom oil next to the bed. I gritted my teeth against rinds as I came. I sucked on hard candies, even after one lodged in my throat and nearly choked me. I bathed my face in sorbet.
During all this, I saw her: heavy breasts spilling over in my hands; lips and teeth closing on my nipples; thighs clamping around my hips. Her back arching, arching, arching like a rearing horse, you think it can't go any farther and then it does, and it's so spectacular you're nearly blinded.
I was in Krogers, pawing through the boxes of Popsicles for the orange flavor, when I noticed her at the end of the aisle. She was studying the back of a box. My stomach felt like it used to in school as I rounded my last lap on the 600-foot dash, gearing up for a close win. And that smell—so strong I could hardly walk over.
When she saw me, she turned quickly to look for her kid. She tried grabbing him by the hand but he was too quick, too squirmy. "Long time no see," she said, in that cracking voice I'd forgotten about. Quieter than she was that night together. Her kid was dancing by the cart, singing "This this this" and pointing—at the freezer, the cart, his mother, me, the ceiling. His lips were chalky white and his skin looked like it was sticky. His eyes were like two raisins squashed into his head, like the eyes of some gingerbread cookie.
"Maybe you can help," she said in a rush. "I have to make this fancy dinner, and one of the ladies coming is a vegetarian? But the kind of vegetarian who eats fish?"
That sweet, edgy smell. When she spoke, it sprang from her mouth in damp bursts. She tipped her head slightly and it slithered out from under her hair, beckoning.
"And the thing is, I couldn't get a sitter, and my kid doesn't like fish? Except for the fish that's in fish sticks?" She gestured with the box in her hand. "So I'm trying to figure out, you know, what kind of fish that is?"
Her kid sang "This this this" as if it were the refrain to the song pushing through the ceiling speakers. Grunting, he grabbed hold of the purse hanging from his mother's shoulder and yanked it. Her keys dropped to the floor with a splayed clank.
"No no," she said. She stooped to pick up her keys and the smell was stronger than ever, filling the space where she'd been, the space where she was, the space where she was going. It hung, almost hazy, in the freezer-humming air. So sweet it was practically sour.
The kid said, "This!" and yanked on the key ring until she let go. With a jingle jangle clank he beat the keys against his thigh, the cart leg, the freezer door. He drowned out the muzak altogether.
I had to get her attention, to get through that hard sugary smell to whatever was curled up inside. "Wait here," I said. "Don't move, don't go anywhere. I have to show you something."
I ran to Produce and found the sweetest-smelling orange on the rack. It was squishy, probably a day past its prime. But oh, the smell. I tracked her down again in the cereal aisle. Her kid was climbing the shelves, reaching above his head for Tony the Tiger. All she had in her cart were two blue boxes of fish sticks.
"This," I said, holding out the orange. "This is what you do to me."
She was like a dog with a biscuit; I moved the orange and she moved her whole head to follow it. She breathed from deep in her chest. Now it was happening to her, too. I knew how that scent reached far down into the body, clutching like a fist over the ribs and lungs and heart. I got as close as I could, and breathed.
Our faces were nose to nose. She stood with her eyelids lowered and lips parted like she was waiting for a cue. Pouting overbite, pores coated with foundation, blue eye shadow—all were exposed under fluorescent lights.
Her lips puckered slightly, then pursed. Like a girl practicing kissing in front of the mirror. She asked, "What are you going to do?" She sounded as if she were talking in her sleep.
Below us, her kid yelled, "This!" Then the crash and scream were so thunderous, I don't know which came first. The kid fell off the shelf and the cereal came with him. Some part of him collided with the cart on his way down. His head seemed to flatten as it made impact with the floor. She squealed and fluttered and sank to the ground, wailing his name, cramming his bleeding screaming face against her breasts. His blood smeared across her frothy pink sweater.
"Help us!" She was crying so hard she could barely form the words. She reached for me from the floor. "Please help my baby."
I almost did—I was bending down with my hand extended—when the air around her changed. The cloud of perfume that enveloped her and the kid didn't smell like oranges at all. It smelled like flowers, cheap flowers, dead flowers. The kind my grandmother used to crush up into little bags for the underwear drawer.
That sick feeling again. Not just in my groin, but in my stomach, my chest, my throat. What the hell was I doing?
By the time the first shoppers and employees ran over, I was already down the aisle. Bits of questions shot by: Are they all right? Did you see what happened? I was by the fancy cheeses when I heard Security to aisle seven over the intercom. The gliding glass doors were still open from the last customer who'd passed through. I sailed out without stopping, light as the wind, the orange squeezed to a battered lump in my hand.
Story of O © Emily Morganti. Do not reproduce without permission.