A few years back, I had a student job working for Pallas publishers, who had a deal with an art gallery. One evening, an exhibition opened with a variety of wax objects representing parts of the human body in various stages of decay.
While I was clearing away the glasses from the cocktail tables shortly after midnight, I caught sight of someone I hadn’t noticed earlier. He was largely hidden behind the colossal torso of the gallery owner. Just occasionally I caught a glimpse of a trouser leg or sleeve of his lavender-blue suit. He seemed inseparable from the gallery owner. He had to be very small and thin. I reckoned he was in his late forties, based on the hair on his left hand.
“Any nibbles left?” the publisher asked me.
In the pantry I fished a few left-over titbits from the waste bin, rinsed them off and stuck them in the little oven. Seven minutes later, they were ready to serve.
The man was no longer among the group. The publisher gorged on the nibbles as if she hadn’t eaten in years.
“All that speechifying always makes me famished,” she said with her mouth full.
There were still two morsels left when a right hand with a missing middle finger crept over the edge of the tray and searched for a nibble with the thumb and index finger. It gave me a shock and I lowered the tray at once, to the height of the man with the lavender-blue suit. He gazed at me with a cool look.
“I haven’t met you yet,” said the man. He had a goatee on his chin with a black bead in it.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said.
I smiled and he smiled too, but without warmth. I saw his nostrils vibrating. He could smell me. I smelt bad. That’s what my boyfriend said to me when he broke up with me, that he literally couldn’t bear the smell of me anymore. He always had to hold his breath or turn away from me when we made love. He’d really liked me. I asked him what it was I smelt of. He shrugged; he didn’t want to hurt me. Tell me, I commanded, or I’ll suffocate you. It was too painful for me not to raise a laugh as I said it. He shrugged again. Since then I have scrubbed from tip to toe every morning and evening and sprayed myself with perfume every hour for fear that people might smell me.
The man and I stood smiling at one another for a moment, apparently without anything happening, but I was dying a little inside. As a defence, I flared my nostrils. Through the strong alcoholic breath of the gallery owner, I smelt the man’s inordinate eau de cologne. I smelt something rotten at the end of his scent, like the nasty aftertaste you get when you eat a grape with a mouldy bit.
“We were just talking about our favourites,” said the publisher’s partner. “Mine’s that nose from Uruguay — so lifelike. What’s yours?”
“The only object that’s not made of wax,” grinned the man.
“Of course. Your middle finger,” guffawed the gallery owner and publisher in unison.
We followed the man to a display cabinet where a desiccated middle finger lay at his eye level. You could easily see it was fake. The others listened to his explanation, their eyes wide in amazement.
In the cabinet next to it was a dark-brown ear. My boyfriend had been gone twenty-eight months. Since then I hadn’t let anyone touch me. Looking at art helped, but all of a sudden this object brought it all back.
In the pantry, I downed two glasses of wine and got my things ready: hi-vis jacket, bike helmet, bike lights.
While I was pouring myself one last glass, I heard a timid knock on the door. The man was standing in the doorway.
“Can I come in?” he asked in a nasal voice.
“Preferably not,” I said as I rummaged in my handbag.
He stared at me for a moment, then turned away again. I sprayed perfume on my wrists and neck.
“Wait,” I said.
That cool look again.
“What did you want?” I said.
“We need a potato peeler.”
While I pulled open drawers, he came and stood next to me.
“This kitchen only has the basics,” I said and I opened the cupboard under the sink. “There is a paring knife here.”
He put a hand on my hand. The time was right.
I pressed his head against my stomach so that he could smell me and have second thoughts before we went any further. I felt my stomach turn wet. He was licking me through my blouse, pulling the fabric out of my skirt with his teeth.
“What can you smell?” I asked.
He pulled down my skirt as he sucked. Something hard pressed against my private parts while he licked me there. The black bead. He was breathing fitfully, as if unable to get enough air.
I grabbed his head with both my hands and pulled it up.
“What can you smell?” I asked.
“Mussels,” he said and dived down again into my lap.
Mussels. My ex-boyfriend’s parents had a restaurant on the coast, where he had spent years helping out in the kitchen in high season.
“I have to go,” I said and pushed him away from me.
Dumbfounded, he looked at me. I pulled on my hi-vis jacket, buckled on my bike helmet and grabbed the bike lights off the sink.
“I don’t understand. What?” he said angrily.
“I hate mussels,” I said.
“I love mussels,” he cried so helplessly that I burst out laughing.
I took hold of his chin and tried to kiss him, but he turned his jaw away. To show I meant it, I pulled down my skirt and stuck his fingers in my mouth. He looked at me morosely without undertaking any action.
Then I took one of the bicycle lights and inserted it in me. As the red light flickered I kissed him again. This time he didn’t offer me his cheek.
“Brilliant,” he whispered. “Brilliant intervention.”
That was when I noticed the wax balls in his nostrils.