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He always wore English Leather. Sundays would come around and he’d tap lightly on the front door. His car would be idling outside, but before I’d hear the engine or see his blonde curls dangling above his Cheshire smile, I’d smell the English Leather. Like all good fragrances, it strikes you differently depending on which scent resonates in your memory. For some reason, I took the lemon first. It reminded me of a glass pitcher sitting on the counter. My mother on the porch, talking to a man I never knew the name of. That man had a softer engine. You could barely hear it as it pulled away from our house.
He drove a light Cutlass with a nectarine air freshener hanging down almost to the radio. I couldn’t figure out where he’d find something like that, but he had a tendency to collect items that were slightly off-center. When I got in his car, he’d always ask to buckle my seat belt for me, and when he’d lean over, I’d smell the lemon first. Then, the lavender. I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. I just knew it smelled like flowers burning. It didn’t matter that I’d never seen a flower burn. So much of my childhood was spent behind doors that only opened from the outside. When my mother left with the man on the porch, my father told me that our house didn’t need any women. It would be just us. Two men who could leave their clothes on the floor and clog up the drain and get all the toppings on our pizza whenever we ordered it. When girls would come around asking if I could come out and play, he’d tell them that I was sickly. That I couldn’t handle the pollen and dander. He told one girl from the neighborhood that I was allergic to ragweed, and when she asked what that was, he told her to mind her own business. The door slammed in her face, and I never saw her again.
My father never wore cologne. He worked as a foreman at the manufacturing plant in Scoville. When he’d come home, I could smell the sweat on his wrists and the tobacco on his breath. He’d sit down in a recliner stained with Michelob and cigarette ash. Our house always had more absence than oxygen. You would take a deep breath and there’d be nothing there. You’d take another, and a little part of you would disappear as well. My father would fall asleep watching the news with a paper plate on his lap featuring a crumpled up napkin and half a pizza crust. If I tried to clean, he’d accuse me of being a fairy. Real men didn’t clean their houses. Real men let the dirt get in. If things were too clean, somebody came looking to find out who was doing the cleaning. The glass pitcher sat in a cupboard above the oven behind another door we never opened. You could drink beer or water in my house. Never lemonade. Never anything too sweet.
Two days before my high school graduation, I smelled lemon on the porch. He didn’t knock. He could see me through the living room window. My father was putting in overtime at work so he could afford to buy me a car for finishing school. I’d be going to Tulane in the Fall, and I’d drive whatever he bought me to campus along with anything I could fit into a cardboard box and my record player. I’d been listening to nothing but Rumours since it came out that February, and the man with the blonde curls walked up on the porch just as Stevie was talking all about how she didn’t want to know why love kept walking on down the line.
When I answered the door, he told me that he was going door-to-door looking for a room to rent for the summer. He had just finished his freshman year at the local community college, and he wanted to stay in the area instead of going home. He never said where home was, and I didn’t ask. The older I get, the more I question how much of young love was all about not asking questions. I could fill in those men with any details I liked. As soon as somebody taught me to inquire about people, I stopped loving as deeply. After that, it was all long, drawn-out sips of wine at nice restaurants listening to men talk about how their wives didn’t understand them. I never had a wife, and my father praised me for it. He thought I was smart. It never occurred to him that maybe my disinterest was born out of something other than personal history. He would proudly tell people about his son in New Orleans, who happily stayed a confirmed bachelor. I’m sure the neighbors would laugh at him behind his back, but I can’t say for sure, because I never went back to visit.
I didn’t go for a ride in the Cutlass the first time the man with blonde curls showed up on our porch. That first time, he just asked after a room and when I told him we weren’t renting, he asked for a glass of water. I provided him with one, and he left. The day after my graduation, after my father had presented me with a beaten-up Javelin, the man showed up again and asked if I’d like to go for a ride. There was no discussion of why I’d be intrigued by such an offer. Some believe that like attracts like, and back before it was proper to declare your attractions, there did seem to be a preternatural way of finding the love you were looking for even when none of your doors would open. On that first ride, we went to the supermarket and he told me to pick out something we could snack on while we parked down by the football field. I grabbed grapes, because I liked the way they popped in my mouth, and some Italian bread wrapped tight in white paper. We sat by the field and listened to “Shadow Dancing” until the real shadows showed up and the grapes ran out. To this day, when I bite down on Italian bread, I feel the pop of a grape between my back teeth. When I eat a grape, I smell lavender. Smoke and herb, resin and rosemary.
He would pick me up everyday after that. I worried at first that my father would disapprove of my disappearances, but he never commented on them, or he didn’t care. I’d come home and find him on his recliner, and I’d take a second to pull a blanket over him or dispose of an ashtray before he could burn down the house. Who managed to keep him alive after I left was always a mystery to me, but not as much of a mystery as what happened to the man with the blonde curls. He knew I was leaving eventually, but we never discussed an actual date. Our relationship was never physical except for the last night I saw him. He pulled up in front of my house, leaned over, and unbuckled my seatbelt. As he did, I took in every molecule of his cologne. The levity of the bergamot, the cheerfulness of the orange. While I took him in, he let his lips graze the side of my neck. I heard the click of the seat belt coming undone, and when he pulled away, our eyes set out an agreement. The next time we saw each other, we’d have to make a run for it. At least as far as a tank full of gas could get us. The deal was silent, but understood. I thanked him for another lovely day, and got out of the car. I imagined my neck smelling holding onto his middle notes--honey and iris.
I knew the next morning that he was gone for good. I woke up, and the morning was a funeral. No time for poetry, I packed my bags. Stevie was riding my record player; she was singing lovers and players. She was telling me all about the rain. It was time to leave. It didn’t matter how early it was.
Kevin Broccoli is a writer and poet from New England. His work has been featured in Esoterica, Molecule, Apricity, Ponder Review, Havik, and New Plains Review. He is the winner of the George Lila Award for Short Fiction, and the author of "Combustion."
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