last year, a friend invited me into a writing group that was going to work through ursula k. le guin's "steering the craft." this piece came from one of the exercises, inspired by a rental car my husband had for a week while his car was in the shop:
The date might have been going well, but she was only aware of the overwhelming, suffocating bubble of his cologne. It was everywhere, all around her, moved with them through their evening.
When she opened her door to him, his cologne greeted her first. He started his car, and her olfactory system was assaulted by a choking fog of cedar citrus spice blasting from the vents. As she inhaled with the tiniest, most shallow breaths she could muster, she wondered if he wore more than one cologne, for the brutal, craggy layers of scent that kept crawling their way into her nose. When he talked, she only heard the symphony of notes wafting across the table toward her: first, a bright top note of bergamot; then a crescendo of geranium that resonated in her lungs; lastly, a lingering musk meant to leave a warm finish, but instead left her wanting to claw at the scarf around her neck and gasp for fresh air, when no fresh air could exist around him. What she ordered for dinner was inconsequential, for she could only taste the dissonant chord of melon pine.
After, he asked if she wanted to see a movie or go for a walk, and she answered—too eagerly—in favor of the walk, praying for a stiff breeze to clear the haze around him long enough for her to decide if he was worth the sensory overload. As fresh air moved in, brushing aside the haze of flora, she could see him more clearly … kind eyes, a smile that showed he was nervous and trying too hard. She made a small joke and he laughed enthusiastically, the geraniums shedding red petals in all directions. She thought maybe he was an okay guy after all, maybe after a few dates she would feel comfortable enough to mention the cologne ... see if he could go more lightly.
On the ride home, the thick sweetspicy air seemed less oppressive than it had earlier. She had scaled the wall of botanicals and found a genuinely nice guy on the other side. When he walked her to her door, she smiled at him, said she was glad they’d gone out, suggested they do it again sometime.
His cheeks turned pink. He looked down. He looked back at her. “I’m really not attracted to women who wear so much make-up. It’s like you’re trying to hide something. But it was nice to meet you.”
And he walked away, leaving a trail of blood orange that snaked around her heart, melted into her incredulity.