Cinnamon warm, menthol cool, sweats and alcohol and the sun in his hair as he came home. Smells get you, don’t they? Whereas sights flash and sounds easily deniable, a smell takes its time clutching onto the folds of your brain, gives it a shake or two or a hundred depending on the time of the day and the number of pills you’ve already taken. You remember them now, don’t you?
And so it was her name that first arrived: Chanel, her perfume and the one she answered to. Must have been a couple of years into her hormone therapy when I met her, easily stealing any spotlight any room must have had. I was there in the same room not for her, but for her friend who I talked with online looking for my first best sex ever. I forgot his name but let’s call him Mark, the way all the guys I forgot the names of are called Mark. This Mark looked like my brother and I was eighteen, at the precipice between when brothers still meant something to me, and had I a younger brother, he’d have found me pretty old. I knew it when he had come walking towards me at Tropical Hut along Shaw. It must have been his eyes — my brother’s eyes. Fuck, our eyes. Spent all the money I had in a computer rental shop and commuting to this goddamned place and what I get is someone at the age borderline dividing my answers whenever I played the game To Do or Not To Do in my head when I people-watch.
“Hello,” I must have said, and he nodded to say let’s go.
He whisked me away across the highway into smaller streets that must have turned as fast as my mind that time. But I was that scrawny kid who took what he was given and at eighteen, everything felt like shining goddamned candy. He nodded left, we turned left, right and we went right, finally to a gate to a house which was really just a big room. You remember the rooms they take you, don’t you?
Anyway, I’ve always been a fan of small talking — the weather, exciting; your favorite band just might be mine, too. But Mark was not having that and he seemed to be a fan that day of nothing but getting some and I got that. But my brother’s eyes were not doing it for me — thank the heavens, a sign of normalcy. So I distracted by saying I was sleepy which was a half-truth, anyway, when who must have been his roommate came in.
Sees me, “Hi.”
“Hello,” I say.
Mark nods. “My friend,” he says.
The friend uh-huhs.
Ten minutes after and another friend comes in. Five more and another. Then another. One more and then finally, Chanel. Amazing Mark had brought me and tried to get laid in his fucking bedspace. Annoyed and frankly a little scared, I wanted to go home. But how could I? Chanel had the spotlight. She who was walking slowly towards me as I sat on a bed. All eyes were on her as she puts her index finger on my chin, raising my head so she could see my face clearly. I could smell her — sweet but about to fade as though she had worn her perfume since 6AM and have been out all day.
“Who?” she asks.
A roll of whispers in the room: “Mark’s.”
She taps my cheek with the same finger twice, smiles, turns, walks away and plops herself on one of the other beds I only noticed were also in the room. I watched them all like they were a new sitcom. I didn’t get most of what they were saying but I laughed at politely appropriate parts.
At one point, she took her top off. A pair of glorious breasts — fake, yes, but good lord glorious. If there were a cis-female in the room, she’d have taken one look at them and down at her own, feeling lacking. Chanel danced for a bit, egged on by the singing of what to me felt like five hundred people in the room; they were all singing, good god always singing.
She turns and turns until one pirouette took her in front of me. She looks down at me sweetly, her voice softer as though I were delicate.
“Hello Mark’s,” she says.
I wanted to struggle and stand and face her — the type of demeanor that said I was not anybody’s. When I would speak, I wanted my voice to be lower and more serious as though my being was questioned. But when it was actually time for me to do anything, good lord her sweet, sweet smell shut me up.
“Yes?” I say.
She took both my hands and raised them just in front of her chest.
“Do you mind?” she asks.
“Mind what?” I reply.
She moves a little closer.
“See, I just got these, and the doctor told me I needed to massage them every once in a while,” she says as she sits beside me, playacting like she was annoyed in a way only girls could be annoyed.
“And I’d do it myself, but tonight I’m tired and I need someone else to do it for me,” she goes on.
Confused, I looked around for help. Amongst grinning faces, finally, a voice spoke. It was Mark.
“It’s okay, Ron,” he says.
And it’s probably hearing my name — and I was young enough to enjoy the feeling that somebody actually knew me — that got me going with a little bit of unwarranted courage.
“You’re good at this,” Chanel says as I massaged her scarily firm breasts.
“Can’t say I’ve done this before,” I think I said.
At the risk of being existential, there I was, massaging fake breasts of a woman more woman than most I know, where only a man who wanted to get some who looked like my brother who I did not know the name of knew me, in a house that was really just a room, kind of wanting to go home, but might as well just stay. It was like a synecdoche of things to come.
Later that night, I find myself with everybody in a big grocery store. I remember buying myself some ice cream which I ate outside by the door while I waited for Mark so I could say goodbye.
“Well, I had fun,” he lies.
“I did, too,” I answer — truth.
I gave him a hug — one that said we’ll never see each other again, we will never bump into each other, we won’t haunt the same places, in ten years I’d have changed so much you wouldn’t recognize me, but not too much that you’d hit on me again.
I bought a book. I have quit smoking. I felt an uncanny fondness for my job. I even got my hair cut.
It was new year’s eve — the most unimportant day of the year. You can either use it for self-examination, or say fuck it and get wasted one last time I swear to god to jesus and to everywhere his face is burnt upon, this is the last time. As unimportant, but I don’t even remember the last time I got properly wasted. I mean the logistics of getting wasted are a nightmare. How do I get home? Can I wear my favorite shoes and would I get puke on them? How annoying is too annoying and will I get there? What proper mix of drinks do I do to get me to the happy sort of wasted instead of the I’ll get in a dashboard confessional state of awareness and think I can sing type of wasted?
Besides, I was in the office. People would think it was slavery — having to work on new year’s eve. I thought it was cool. Or maybe not cool, but at least it gave me an excuse not to revel. I mean look at the fireworks go at minutes to midnight. They’re metaphorical hope of better things to come, replete with the sparks and colors. There’s no way I could look at them and honestly tell myself next year was going to be any different than this one. See, I was afraid of switches and sometimes even doors. Switches get you from one state to the other without any real reason other than you flipped. And don’t get me started with doors and how you’re in then out.
These were the thoughts in my head as I checked grocery items, together with delinquent house people who lacked a jar of mayonnaise or whatever for their media noche. And as I checked the price of a box of chocolates I’ve already had too much in this lifetime, a whiff and a swirl of a smell: sweet, familiar, unknown.
And there Chanel goes, coming to me as ethereal as ever. She looks a little weathered as though thirteen years passed her by in one, but as strong a presence as ever. She smiles at me, not because she recognized me but whatever I had in my grocery basket she wanted to know where to find it. It was that — ten seconds max — and she was gone.
I look at her back as she walks away, wondering if I should explain. But what? How she might not remember me, but I played with her breasts once?