These days, she is furious about his smell; men’s deodorant, she says, and doesn’t want her clothes washed with his. He is offended. He once held her against his bare chest. She furrowed into his freckles, into his chest hairs, now spindly like worms out in the sun too long. They breathed into one another’s mouths. She was inquisitive yet speechless. He smelled warm on those nights, of lotions and double-decker hamburgers caught on the run. She of newborn eyes, depended on the olfactory and the tactile to find her way in the world, this girl-baby of ours. He had never held a girl-baby before her and was extra careful and extra solicitous of her raucous cries. If he has a sour smell these days, I do not reveal this to him. His body is shedding cells and hormones it shouldn’t, and we are trying to figure it out with blood tests and magnetic resonant imaging. This Sunday, however, as we conquer her mountain of candy-colored shorts and comic-book branded T-shirts, and shoo the cat away, this girl-baby storms in on our laundry-room reprieve. We have kept the details of his illness from her. She is only a freshman in high school I have argued with him. The truth is we don’t know what’s wrong. The doctors do not acknowledge what I sense: the reek of him these days is like curdled milk, festering. Patience is urged, not anger, but the latter is all I have to offer. Showering does not staunch the bleeding of odors. The stench is unforgiving on his cold skin. He must go to bed by the early afternoon, and I follow him this Sunday afternoon. I sniff at his neck, his shoulders, the crevices of his back, knowing this is the wrong smell of my husband and lover and daughter’s father. I cradle him fiercely against my chest. Outside our locked bedroom door, our girl-baby heaves up her basket of folded clothes, figuring out that we aren’t telling her the truth, but more concerned with wanting the aroma of a girl who reads comic books, who plays the clarinet, who has too many friends for her parents to follow, on her clothes, not the stink of a disintegrating man. She flings back her riotous hair, whiffs imperiously as only fourteen-years-old can, and announces to the cat: Going forward, I will do my own laundry.  

Caroline Bock’s debut short story collection, Carry Her Home, was the winner of the 2018 Fiction Award from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House. She is also the author of the critically acclaimed young adult novels: Lie and Before My Eyes from St. Martin’s Press She is the fiction editor of This is What America Looks Like, poetry and fiction from DC, Maryland and Virginia from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House, scheduled for publication in February, 2021. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two teenagers—and loves the scent of lavender. She can be reach on Twitter @cabockwrites

Art by Jill Khoury