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All Natural and Safe

All Natural and Safe

Faith Gardner

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The Woman Cripplingly Sensitive to Smells met the Man Who Suspected His Skull was Softening on the Online Forum for People with Imaginary Diseases. Before they “met” (i.e., “pinged” each other on the forum, leading to the exchange of off-thread “private messages” and eventually a virtual consummation of real names and email addresses) and fell in love (via Gchat, on July 9, 2:36 a.m., when he typed his first “<3” and she responded with “ditto” and the kissy-faced emoticon “:-*”) both had resigned to lives of quiet, gadget-filled despair. It wasn’t just the imaginary diseases. Both had a real disease too, which was perhaps more dire than the woman’s smell problem and the man’s skull issue. They were agoraphobics, or as they renamed themselves, “domephiliacs.” It wasn’t so much the fear of unpredictability that began outside their doorsteps and ended nowhere. They were more so deeply, abnormally in love with their homes.

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The Man Who Suspected His Skull was Softening had a better reason for his domephilia than the woman did, as he lived in a bungalow near the sea. From his sliding glass window in the dining room, glass of pinot in hand (grigio or noir, depending on the weather), he could sit and watch the frustrated, spitting waves as they climbed the dunes each night. The black hills that flanked the cove burned with the beady yellow eyes of faraway streetlamps. He sent the woman pictures of his many orchids, which a man from town delivered every month, as the Man Who Suspected His Skull was Softening overwatered his orchids and killed them within weeks. Clockwork.

The Woman Cripplingly Sensitive to Smells lived above a fruit market and cigarette store and bus stop. She had to keep her windows closed and nose plugs in at all times. She despised the jaywalkers and street kids that strutted back and forth below her window so much that sometimes she lit matches one by one and held them up to the pane and pretended she was lighting them on fire. Afterward, her tabletop was littered with ash and matches and she would be forced to leave the room because of the smoke. It was a bitter circle. When her drapes were shut, though, the white noise machine shhing pleasantly, she loved her apartment, the salmon-colored walls and doily-like curtains, her daybed with pillows that reminded her of ice cream lumps.

When two domephiliacs fall in love, the difficulties are primarily physical. Love can easily span miles of telephone wires, it can be shot into space and bounced back through plastic machines, no problem. But bodily affections cannot. So the Woman Cripplingly Sensitive to Smells decided she would put all her belongings in bags and boxes and hire movers. She, having not left the apartment since she signed the lease seven years prior, was so anxious she took a double dose of sleeping pills. She paid the movers extra to put her in a human-size box labeled “THIS SIDE UP” and “DELICATE.”

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She awoke to the sound of tape ripping above her head. Her lipstick had dried her lips together like red glue. Various limbs and joints were sore. The flaps opened on the box top and she poked her head out and saw the Man Who Suspected his Skull was Softening, in a shirt with a tux silkscreened on it, his head hidden by a black scuffed motorcycle helmet. Behind the Plexiglas, he was smiling. He had a beard. He ripped the cardboard apart and helped her out. She noted the dust on the night tables, the numerous drooping orchids, the plug-in air fresheners in the room’s corners, and said something vaguely about changes needing to be made. Her boxes and bags were stacked in a corner and the moving men had already been paid to go home.

The Man Who Suspected his Skull was Softening ordered pizza and poured two glasses of wine, one in a mug because he’d never needed another wine glass until now. He gave her the mug. He parted the curtains and showed her the view of the sea, which she thought was alarmingly close, washing over the shoulders of several backyard lawn gnomes. There was no backyard, really. There was only an ocean. Sand.

“You’ll like the smell,” he told her, pointing to his helmet. “All natural and safe.” His voice was muffled, difficult to understand.

She took out a single nose plug, took one whiff, and put it back in.

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“I don’t know,” she said. She pretended to sip wine.

He guzzled his quickly, through a straw that snaked up inside the helmet. She watched him and though she knew the names of his childhood pets, the reasons he never loved each of his three girlfriends and his favorite shows, she felt like she was sitting in a foreign place with a stranger. As his hand enveloped hers, she was glad for his helmet, a barrier between lips.

It grew dark and her pizza sat uneaten. It looked like a giant diseased tongue and she could imagine how it would smell: putrid, animal. The man seemed content as he finished the bottle, talking with fat-fingered gesticulation about how little the suspected softness of his skull was currently bothering him. He said love could cure his fontanelle. She asked if he ever took his helmet off, even in the shower, and the man shook his head. The woman wondered if there was a smell in the world that could kill a person. She bit her tongue to make sure this mistake called life was a real thing.

Every night, Faith Gardner sleeps on a bed of nails. All of her unpublished novels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She is also a pathological liar. Maybe she has a website and maybe it is faithgardner.com.

All rights reserved to Faith Gardner.

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