It started with a whiff, as these things often do. Just an occasional waft of a scent, not distinct, but surely unsavory and ever elusive. Its vague origin seemed to be the kitchen, but my roommates and I could not triangulate it any further. A phantom, it haunted our apartment, coming and going without rhyme or reason.
I suspected the garbage. We took it out. I suspected something rotten in the fridge. We found no mold. Because we were in college (read: gross) and because The Smell was an intermittent phenomenon, we let it slide. Until it started to get warm out. The Smell grew steadily in potency, and through an inexplicable but inescapable combination of crosswinds, Feng Shui, and (I assume) quantum mechanics, it settled most strongly in a swirling vortex of Deathstink in the hallway outside my room. Each morning when I ventured forth to face the day, it would hit me like a ton of stinky bricks. This was around the time we started calling our apartment The Phantom Smellbooth.
One particularly muggy and therefore malodorous day, my roommate Kathryn came home and proclaimed that we needed to seek out The Smell once and for all. I told her my latest theory: that it was coming from the cabinet above the microwave where mealworms or some shit must have infested our baking paraphernalia. Her face contorted into a mask of distaste and she slunk into the kitchen.
She called to me a couple minutes later, her voice quiet and urgent, like someone who’s discovered a huge spider and doesn’t want it to scurry away before they can smack it with a flip-flop. “I think I found it,” she said.
When I joined her in the kitchen, she pointed to the innocuous corner of a plastic bag sticking out ever-so-slightly from under a pile of placemats on top of the microwave. I could just make out something brown inside the bag and there was a puddle of clear liquid underneath it. This was, indubitably, The Source. We retreated to devise a plan of attack while Kathryn wrapped a scarf around her head to keep out the stink. We had worked something out involving rubber gloves, dish towels, tongs and several trashbags when our other roommate Hannah overheard our frantic scheming. Without missing a beat, she bravely marched into the kitchen and began removing the placemats.
I have found, in my many re-tellings of this story, that it is impossible to capture the essence of The Smell in words. The closest I can come is that it smelled rancid and curdled and generally like something that, if a female maggot wore it as perfume, would get her SO MUCH male maggot tail. To offer a more tangible point of reference: my junior year of high school, the seniors put fillets of fish in the light sconces of the main hallway as their senior prank. Until the janitors found them, we had to hold our breath and run to get from one side of the building to the other. That was the most vile odor I had ever experienced, until the day Hannah flung away placemat after placemat and disturbed the slumber of The Smell.
Eyes watering, retching, I opened the back door for her and she ran it out of the house. Kathryn and I then literally fled from the aftershock, seeking shelter in her room where we flung ourselves to the floor, writhing and pressing our noses into the carpet in the vain hope of expunging it from our nostrils and our memories. Once we composed ourselves, we set about the unpleasant task of cleaning up the secretions it left behind and spraying the kitchen with every perfumed item in the house, from Febreze to lemon-scented Raid.
By the time the kitchen smelled less like distilled death and more like flowery poison, curiosity kicked in. What was that? Was it food? If so, which one of us was dumb enough to completely cover up a bag full of food with placemats for what had to be at least three months? In the end, though, no one could bear the thought of physically touching the bag to look inside, so the cause of The Smell remains a mystery to this day.
If I were reaching for profundity, this would be the part of the tale where I’d write something like “The Smell taught me that ignoring your problems doesn’t make them go away.” But that’s not true, because I still do that all the time. Maybe I’d say that the mystery of The Smell teaches us that in life, some questions have to remain unanswered. But the answer was right there, in the trashcan behind the garage. I was just too much of a coward to go find it. No, I think the only moral that can reasonably be extrapolated from the fable of The Smell is: don’t cover up mysterious plastic bags with placemats, and don’t underestimate the power of lemon-scented Raid in a sticky, smelly, stinky situation.