A flu took my sense of smell. Not in the usual way - my nose wasn't stuffed up, I could breathe through it just fine - I just couldn't smell. Not anything. I pushed my nose right up to the pan as I sauteéd garlic. No dice.
Of course food didn't taste right. And I couldn't tell whether the litter box needed changing, or if that shirt was good for another wearing or should go in the laundry.
But, something else changed.
On the morning bus, I see a passenger I often share the evening ride with, the man with the tribal jewelry, black ear plugs an inch wide. We are nodding acquaintances. I smile; his eyebrows raise in surprise to see me in the morning. He flashes an almost-smile, looking quickly away. But his mouth hangs wrong on his face, and I wonder, as I step into the street, if some malicious thought had slipped out.
Perfecto, the security guard with the unchained smile, waves as I pass, his grin as big as any other morning. But he's wrong, too. Like another expression moves underneath that smile.
As I walk through the day, I am suspicious of everyone. My colleagues have occult motives, communicating in code. The placement of a cup, the roll of a pen along a desk, a laugh. I believe none of it. They're playacting, every one of them. The man at the cafeteria, the pharmacist, the FedEx guy. Once I look away, they relax into their true, hideous faces. When I look again, I see the trail of effort, that last furtive movement after replacing the mask.
I am sad, numb on the bus home. The boy with his stand-up bass is at the front. He's a favorite of mine, cradling the bass' neck on his shoulder, long arms wrapped around, a book propped open on the body of the instrument. But tonight he's an impostor, not the kid I feel tender toward, wanting to smooth the cowlick at the back of his head.
The kid wrestles the bass onto the street, and a girl with red lips climbs on and sits beside me. Slowly, a scent seeps in to my consciousness. Her perfume, cheap and sharp. I open my eyes and nostrils wide and breathe in.
The girl beside me is colored in as I roll the scent around my brain. She is plump as a peach, her lips opening deliciously over a smile - a real, beautiful smile - as she talks to her boyfriend on the phone.
Was that all it was?
A tall man climbs onto the bus, face like a bad road. He's holding his coat closed, glancing around nervously. A suspicious character, but he holds my attention. He looks softly into his coat. The oversized nose of a puppy blunders out from inside, bumping up against the man's face.
I'm falling in love again. With him, with the girl beside me. With the kid in the stocking hat, a studied nonchalance on his fourteen-year-old face, feeling big and brave in the city. With the woman holding herself like deposed royalty, like Anastasia incognito on the city bus.
I can smell them all. The sweat and the puppy breath and the Altoids in the pocket, the candy wrappers rolling lazy along the aisles.