Level Three Humiliation; or; Ooooh, That Smell

Thursday, February 2nd, 2006, 1:48 pm

Know what’s fun? You go to work, you walk around the office all morning, you talk to people, including your boss, and your boss’s boss, you get coffee, go back to your desk, and only as you sit down do you realize that, oh joy, your fly has been unzipped the whole time. That’s just awesome.

A bit later I go to the restroom. I open the door, and am smacked in the face by the overpowering smell of women’s perfume. I guess there are worse smells that could confront you in a bathroom, but this was bad enough that nearly gakked on my shoes. It was so intense that I can only imagine that someone broke a bottle in there, but that begs the question, who would bring a bottle of perfume into the men’s room? And why? I’m not Sherlock Holmes, I’m not going to launch an investigation, so this will have to go into the files as an Unsolved Mystery. But unless I see a HazMat team go in there I’m using the restroom upstairs the next time I need to, you know.

It reminds me of a story from long, long ago. When I was in high school I worked for a sporting goods store, and one night I’m working in the hunting/camping/fishing section when this husband and wife walk in. We were having a big sale on tents, and we had 3 big ones set up as a display. That’s what this couple were looking at, and I walked over to ask if they needed help. They were in their late thirties and looked to be quite affluent. He looked like an engineer–shaggy side-parted hair, big square eyeglasses, and he wore a polo shirt under a blazer. His wife…how to explain. Let’s say that the proper amount of makeup a woman should wear to maximize her inherent beauty is a variable designated as “x”. This woman wore, I’d say, 23x of makeup. I mean, you could renovate a 3-bedroom townhouse in a distressed part of town in the same time it would take this woman to get ready in the morning. If you went at her with a power washer for five minutes she might’ve been quite lovely. As it was, you looked at her and said, “Whoa.”

I started to walk over and asked if I could help them with anything. I was still a good 10 feet away when I caught a whiff of her perfume. I made a mistake–I didn’t stop. I didn’t retreat. I kept moving toward them, like a chump, and thus began a ghastly experience I remember to this day.

It wasn’t that she wore a lot of perfume–although, truth be told, she wore A LOT OF PERFUME. The problem was that whatever she wore surrounded her in this dense, powdery cloud. It wasn’t alcohol-based or whatever it is that provides the base for perfume. It was like Chanel or Givenchy hired some rogue Soviet scientist and had him weaponize their fall line. I took a deep breath and in my mind’s eye I saw my lungs filling with billions of tiny particulates, clogging my alveoli and cutting of my air.

I coughed, hard, and then coughed again. The man ignored my problem and asked a question. I swallowed and answered in a croak. I stopped coughing, but I COULD NOT BREATHE. Every time I tried to pull in oxygen my lungs locked up and forced me to exhale. I’ve experienced some respiratory problems in my time–I got a bit of smoke inhalation after a wok-related mishap in college, and for a few winters (but not this one) I got a touch of asthma that made me think I might bark up one of my lungs.

But this was worse. Because I had to try and pretend that this woman wasn’t a walking WMD. My eyes teared, my nose ran, and I felt my face flushing as I struggled to breathe. Incredibly, neither took any notice of my agony. Perhaps they were used to it by now? I didn’t know or care. I wanted them gone so I could stick my face in the sink and suck down some water.

But they were really goddam interested in these tents. I thought she looked as likely to be interested in camping as Paris Hilton would be about joining a motherfucking convent. The man looked at the opening of the one tent and asked if it was OK to go inside.

“Sure,” I gasped.

He climbed in. AND THEN HIS WIFE CLIMBED IN WITH HIM. I thought he was a goner. I wondered if I would have the courage to reach in and grab him by the ankles so I could drag out his blue-lipped corpse.

“No, this is too small,” he said before, Lazarus-like, he climbed back out. I’d taken this moment’s pause to pull as much air into my body as possible, but as soon as she re-emerged my lungs locked down again. They climbed into the 2nd tent. Now, the first one was designed for 3 people, so they should’ve had enough room. This one was designed for 3-4, and after they both lay down and stretched out they decided this one was better, but maybe still not big enough.

“Do you have kids going with you?” I croaked.

“No, just us.” he said. I noticed something–they were always holding hands. They were holding hands when they showed up to ruin my day, and every time they got out of the tent he helped her up and continued holding her hand. And with perfect clarity I saw that they were looking for a tent big enough to conduct whatever fleshy congress they were into. So now my queasy stomach added its voice to the chorus of misery.

They got in the 3rd tent, which was big enough to house five people. And I remember this moment like it happened yesterday. My manager, a guy I really liked, came down from the office and walked down the aisle. About fifteen feet away he stopped, his nose twitched, and he mouthed the words, “What the HELL?”

I pointed at the tent, which was rustling. He stepped back, stepped back, and went back up the stairs to the office. The lovebirds came out and said that tent was too big, that the other one might be OK. “Thank Christ,” I moaned to myself. While they chatted, my manager came back with the store manager. They took a few steps, sniffed, the store manager’s face showed his astonishment and disgust, and then they disappeared again. Leaving me to deal with this alone.

They weren’t done. They wanted to look at backpacks. This woman looked as though she spent more time on her nails than Bill Belichek spends on film study, and she wanted to try on backpacks designed to carry 75 pounds of gear. They tried every fucking backpack on the wall. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t get a single deep, cool, cleansing breath. The man kept peppering with questions and I couldn’t muster enough breath to interrupt and excuse myself.

They didn’t buy anything. I was with them a good 45 minutes. It is entirely possible that I suffered slight (slight?) brain damage from oxygen debt. After they departed my manager came down and said, “Are you OK?”. My face was a tomato. I nodded. He walked over to the smallest of the tents and took a peek inside. He jerked his head out and said, “Keep the fly open, we need to air these out.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And don’t let anyone else in there.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Especially kids. Don’t let any little kids in there.”

“Uh-huh.”

About an hour later I got paged. I pick up the phone and it’s my manager, up in the shoe department, which is at the other end of the store. I can tell his hand is covering the receiver. “I can smell it UP HERE.”

I survived, went home, went to school, and that evening went back to work. The store manager sees me, marches right up, and says, “I opened the store this morning. It was like she was standing right there beside me.”

So that’s my story for today. The moral? Zip up, and remember that perfume is supposed to entice, not asphyxiate. Nothing life-altering, but at least I didn’t bring up the Super Bowl. For that, be grateful.

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