My name is Jacob, but that wasn’t my first name. After I was born, my parents called me Shitbreath.
I imagine all babies stink when they come out, covered as they are in blood and amniotic fluid, but there was something unusual about my aroma. When they cleaned me up and swaddled me, the smell stuck. It was worse even, undisguised and inexcusable. All the baths and baby shampoo in the world wouldn’t change it, even after they scraped my skin raw. When they’d tried everything else they gave up, and started calling me Shitbreath. Just a joke of course, nothing to get upset about, even after I learned what it meant. I never forgot my first name.
It never forgot me. It followed me around, intruding at unwanted moments, taking no notice of my evasive actions. My name wasn’t the problem, but I didn’t learn that until after twelve years of spurned invitations, unreturned phone calls and long afternoons standing on the edge of the playground. Everyone just thought I stank. I knew I had shit for breath.
Of course I didn’t, not really. I had Trimethylaminuria. That’s the first eight-syllable word I ever learned. I remember the diagnosis. I remember the doctor’s blank expression as he spoke the word. I remember the hope in my father’s eyes when they put a name to my problem, and his bitterness when we learned there wasn’t a cure. I braced myself for more years of spurned invitations, unreturned phone calls and long afternoons standing on the edge of the playground.
I met Laura on the tube. I love the tube. Everyone smells on the tube. When I ride the tube, the other passengers treat me with disdain, disregard and disgust, just like they treat each other. It’s the worst side of humanity, and it’s the only time I feel human. Laura was standing opposite me, her thick red jacket was slung over her arm. Pools of sweat were forming around her armpits, turning her crumpled blouse a damp grey. She was avoiding eye contact with me, and everyone else.
There’s never the option of giving people space on the tube, but because of my condition I usually get more than most. You wouldn’t notice, but I’m always aware of that fraction of an inch people give me. People gave it to Laura too, and when she turned around I saw why. From the outside edge of her right eye to the tip of her chin was a deep purple crescent, sharp at either end and a couple of inches thick in the centre. I recognised it as a Port-Wine Stain – Nevus Flammeus. I nearly said it out loud, but caught myself. I have an interest in unusual quirks and blemishes.
When the train chuntered to a halt near her stop, she turned to the door, and a cigarette lighter slipped out of her bag. It was a Zippo, smooth and metallic, none of that knockoff shit. I lunged for it, ignoring the grunts and grumbles of the people I brushed past. By the time I caught it, she was stepping onto the platform. Without thinking I thrust my hand out of the closing doors, and shouted, “Hey!”
Commuters turned, scowling, then turned back and hurried on. But Laura smiled and reached for her lighter. Our fingers brushed together the moment the doors closed on my wrist. I dropped the Zippo, yanked my hand back, but it wouldn’t budge. I started sweating, imagining some protruding sign, or signal post, or wall mounted circular saw that would take my hand clean off. Eventually, the doors just opened again, and I stumbled back into the sweaty throng of passengers. By the time I’d regained balance, the door had closed. I fucked up the interview I was travelling to that day. They didn’t outright mention the smell, but they made some pretty pointed comments about their standards of appearance and presentability. They didn’t shake my hand when I offered it. I didn’t tell them that Trimethylaminuria isn’t contagious; I didn’t mention my condition at all. If pity is the price of admission, then I won’t pay it. Let them think of me as an urban outcast, a renegade who doesn’t care about their sensibilities. I’ll take that over a skinny, anxiety ridden twenty something, with twenty different kinds of deodorant in his bathroom.
I didn’t care. I’d been thinking about Laura this whole time. The tube back was quieter. I’d caught the last of the rush hour traffic on the way in, and the interview hadn’t lasted long. There was a spare seat, and a battered copy of the free daily newspaper, The Underground.
The noxious odours of the morning commute were starting to clear, so I was out in the open. The passengers next to me recoiled as I sat down, and I buried my face in the paper, pretending not to notice. I flicked straight to the middle, skipping past the attempts at journalism and straight to the middle section, “Crush Hour”. Here, commuters could text in amorous messages to strangers they wouldn’t approach in person. They ranged from depressing, to straight up scary. A couple were so vague they couldn’t have been written with a specific person in mind, and must have been the work of lonely opportunists casting a wide net. Some looked like they’d been ripped from the memoirs of a serial killer. Still, I hadn’t got Laura’s number, and I’ve never been a proud man.
I spent the whole afternoon crafting the message. I had nothing better to do, and I wanted to get it right.
To the well-insulated brunette on the 8:15 from Tottenham yesterday morning. I saved you from a smoke free day. How about we meet on the train tomorrow, and share a cigarette after?
Bespectacled gent with a bruised wrist.
That was good, I thought. I wanted to identify her physically, without objectifying her. I’d done that. I wanted to be humorous, and I had been, creating a private joke between the two of us, while gently reminding her of my chivalrous gesture. It wasn’t overly romantic, but the medium itself was pretty suggestive. Before I could think better of it, I typed it into my phone and pressed send.
I have no idea how many of these little vignettes make it into print, or what the editorial criteria are. Given the journalistic standards of the rest of the paper, I figured anybody who wrote in had a pretty good chance of publication. The competitor in me would like to have seen some of the messages that didn’t make it in. I’ve been told I’m a very petty person.
Either way, the next day I boarded the same train, and made sure to snatch a copy of the paper on the way. Sure enough, it was in there, right above a charming piece by “Tall, ripped bloke” offering to show “Black and Yellow Stripy Top” some honey. I stopped reading after that, and had a long think about the kind of company I was keeping.
My piece was there, but she wasn’t. Well, maybe she was, but I didn’t see her. The train was even more packed than usual. I couldn’t see more than three feet for sweaty, exasperated bodies, clad in increasingly crumpled office wear. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the suppressed grumbles, and sighs of disapproval. I noticed every scowl and grimace, every little tic that showed them distancing themselves from the people they were nearly, but never quite touching.
When we reached her stop, I pressed my face against the glass, scanning the platform. The usual mass of passengers disgorged themselves. I didn’t see her. I did catch somebody’s eye, though. A young man in a sharp blue suit caught me peering out. He made a point of returning my gaze, challenging me and, it seemed to me, tacitly calling me a pervert. He held eye contact just long enough to make his point, and then melted back into the crowd. I felt like I was back on the playground, hiding behind bushes and around corners, staring at the pretty girls.
I didn’t have an interview that day. I didn’t have anywhere to be, no reason to be in the city, or on that train, at all. I didn’t have much experience with courting, but I was fairly certain that nobody else was doing it like this. I remembered stories my sister told me, about being followed home from school, then university, then the office. I started to feel sick. At the next stop I got off, and caught the bus home.
Traffic was bad on the way home, but one by one the other passengers vacated the top level of the bus, and before long I had it all to myself. When we reached my stop I passed all my erstwhile top deck companions on the way out.
I got home around midday, and slumped down on the couch. Pulling my laptop open, I began to prepare for my one-handed salute to loneliness. I grasped around for the necessary apparatus, but I was out of tissues and my little bottle of lubricant only disgorged a couple of drops. The little shop on the corner stocked both, and I had plenty of time on my hands. I wiped them dry on the sofa, and headed back out the door.
In the shop I squeezed through the narrow aisles, picking out a box of tissues, and a tiny bottle of lube. When I got to the counter I picked up a Kit-Kat as well; not to mitigate the shame of the other purchases, but because I was peckish. It took some time to get the cashier’s attention. Eventually I coughed, and he slammed down the paper he’d been hiding behind.
“Just these,” I said, shoving the assorted items in his direction.
Rather than make eye contact, I peeked at what he had been reading. It was The Underground, and I stifled a laugh. A whole shop of newspapers, and he’s reading a crumpled copy of a free paper he found on the tube. Then I saw my message. I blushed, and wondered for the first time how many others had read it. I started to hope she hadn’t seen it. I wanted to forget all about it. It was stupid. This time I kept reading though, trying to camouflage my embarrassment in that of others. When I read the last one, I held my breath.
Nerdy and excitable on the 8:15. Thanks for grabbing my lighter, I owe you one. I get back to Tottenham Court Road at half 5. Drink?
Sweaty and Overdressed
I ran out of the shop, leaving everything behind. For the next four hours, I scrubbed everything. I took three separate showers. I rubbed my face until it squeaked. I applied aftershave, deodorant and anti-perspirant. I changed my clothes, and then changed them again. By that time, it was nearly five o’clock, and I was late. I ran out of the door, and then ran back again, back into the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth, three times.
I’m not much of a day person, or an exercise person. But there I was, sprinting through the afternoon sunshine, and sweating in places I’m sure aren’t meant to sweat. By the time I reached the tube station people were giving me a wide berth. My unique musk worked like a repulsor beam on the Enterprise, scattering Klingon fighters in my wake. It carved me enough space to cut through the commuting crowds, and hop on the train just as the doors closed. Before we set out, the doors opened again, and several people around me got off. That was fine by me.
We arrived at Tottenham Court Road and I hopped out, sprinting up the stairs and out into the sunshine. I was out of breath. She was waiting for me, resplendent in loose black trousers and a blouse with a huge coffee stain on the front. Her face was flushed crimson, complimenting the purple birthmark on her cheek. I noticed she was smoking cheap cigarettes, emitting a noxious smog. I could almost feel the smoke destroying the white blood cells on the way down. She exhaled a thick grey cloud, breathing some straight back up her nose, forming pools of smoke around her nostrils. I approached, and people left us well alone. For the first time in a long time I couldn’t even smell myself. All I could smell was tobacco, sweat and stale coffee. Laura rattled her cigarette packet under my nose.
© James Ross
[This piece was selected by Dan Malakin]