Scent of A(n Old) Woman

Potent and insufferable. That was how it could be described every time Jessica walked into her grandmother’s apartment. Grandma Eloise. Though she preferred everyone to call her “Louie,” Jessica was the only grandchild who could get away with saying “Grandma Eloise” to her face. It was, in part, because Jessica was the sole “heir” (though what the fuck would she be inheriting, some Hummels?) who ever bothered to come by her apartment for a visit. It was housed inside of a quintessential “community for the elderly.” In other words, a senior care facility. More to the point still, a rest home. She would show up faithfully at least once a week, usually on Friday evenings when Louie said Jessica ought to be out “neckin’ with boys in their cars.”

It was a phrase and image that disgusted Jessica, who, at sixteen, already knew men were a waste of time. She had seen that based on every other woman in her family, from Eloise herself to her mother to her two older sisters–all women who were divorced or abandoned by the ones they swore they would be in love with forever (if only the men in question were willing to stick around). But when they say love is a bitch, what they don’t tell you is that it’s really a bastard, walking around on two legs and usually with an unwashed, stubbly appearance. 

Jessica’s father, Rick, certainly fell into that category and still tried to communicate with her every so often out of a random burst of paternal obligation, but Jessica knew better than to ever be “excited” by it. He was just another spectral male presence. As was the case for most women, she learned that disappointment was par for the course when it came to any male figure–even the one that was theoretically supposed to be an “exemplar.” She never confessed these feelings to Louie, who still, for whatever reason, waxed on–all poetic–about Jessica’s grandfather (“God rest his soul”). A man that repeatedly beat Louie to the point where the reason she had a permanent limp wasn’t, like most people of her generation, because of polio, but because he gave her a smackdown so regularly.

Through it all, she cried “love, love, love.” It was all out of “love.” Then there was her favorite excuse about the thin line between love and hate. How you couldn’t have one without the other. Jessica would just nod along and then roll her eyes when Louie’s back was turned (not that her vision was sharp enough to detect Jessica rolling them in front of her even if she was willing to be so impolite).

It was also when Louie’s back was turned that Jessica would take the opportunity to plug her nose in order to gain a brief reprieve. For Louie reeked of something that cannot be described, because it was something close to a mixture of bug spray and musk gone horribly wrong, but not quite. Jessica reasoned that the smell of rot probably couldn’t be pinpointed, reduced to such attempts at specific descriptions. There can be no specificity for such a thing. It is simply “the scent of an old woman.” Which is entirely separate from anything like what old men smell like. In Jessica’s experience, yet another unfair advantage men had over women was that they didn’t seem to emit half as distinct or pungent of an odor as they grew into their elderly phase. 

Every time Jessica thought she had finally grown accustomed to the overpowering miasma, she would arrive at Louie’s apartment anew only to be bowled over yet again by how absurdly inundating it was. Naturally, she would never dream of saying anything about it, and she knew that Louie not only couldn’t hear that well, but also had the old person’s superpower of selective hearing. Had she mentioned it at all, Louie likely would have glazed over anyway. And after all, you can’t cover the scent of decay. Part of what makes it all the more pungent is the fact that old ladies do try to put so much goddamn perfume over it, which only adds to the foul chemical tincture ultimately leading to an assault on any young person’s olfactory senses. It’s almost as though the aged want to remind those who are bound to get to where they are of this inevitable fate–not only with their “look” but with their stench, to boot.

While Jessica enjoyed the conversation and even the stale baked goods that were offered with a quaint beverage like 7 Up, she didn’t want to keep smelling this smell. Couldn’t keep smelling this smell. It was dampening her entire relationship with Louie. Perhaps when she was a little girl and all the way up to now, she could ignore it. Or maybe it was because Louie was more youthful at that point too, so her fetor wasn’t as conquering (or Jessica’s nose was not as discerning). Whatever the reason, this was the present, and it fucking stank–literally. She could never have imagined that the person she once felt closest to was the one she would eventually want to be the farthest away from.

She started to recoil more and more blatantly as time wore on. Stopping by every week had turned into every other week and then once a month and, soon enough, not at all. Louie would call Jessica every day, but to no answer. Jessica would explain at Louie’s apartment (during the once in a blue moon moment when she actually showed up) that she had simply gotten “very busy” with her studies and various extracurriculars–her lack of availability couldn’t be helped. She was doing what she had to in order to ensure a bright future. Surely Grandma could understand that, n’est-ce pas? This, indeed, did help cushion the blow of Louie’s pain, as she had gotten quite used to having their weekly rendezvous–to having a sounding board that made her feel so much less alone and neglected. Louie had no idea just how much she valued Jessica until she vanished. File it under another case of Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone.

Although she took Jessica’s assurances that she had merely been “very busy” at face value, she also knew from her own experience that you always found a way to make time to be with the people you really wanted to be around. So she knew: Jessica did not want to be around her. And it was only upon this revelation that she actually paused to look down at her armpit and sniff it, raising her flabby, wrinkled limb in that hideous fuchsia house dress with, inexplicably, an allover white daisy print slapped on top of it. But she didn’t smell anything out of the ordinary. For just as we can never see ourselves as we really are (particularly as we age), so, too, can we never really detect the notes of putrefaction that pervade us. And when the time arrived, Jessica wouldn’t be able to detect them either.

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