When Lemons Ferment

She is so close I can smell her breath. I’m trying to breathe in, more than out. She probably thinks I’m tilting my head because I’m a good listener, the way a churchgoer tilts their head during an especially poignant sermon. I just want to take her in completely. At this angle, I get my nose in just the perfect position. Hints of sweet milk and cinnamon toothpaste bring me into her house in the early morning. She stretches and yawns, coffee  wafts into our room, she shuffles on her slippers while I fold the sheets down. I pick curly strands of hair from her pillowcase and throw them onto the floor—Did she just give me a weird look? She can’t know my thoughts, that’s crazy.

“What? Yeah, that’s right.” I said. “Hey, Helen, maybe we can meet up this weekend and go over our notes before the test. I think we could do really well if we study together. Two heads are better than one, right?” I ask.

“That would be really nice, but my parents don’t let me have boys over,” she said.

I know she’s lying. Stupid bitch. I overheard her talking about Jake going over to her house for dinner last weekend. She probably thinks I’m not good enough for her. Mom thinks I’m not good enough for any girl. I walked a girl home from school once when I was in seventh grade. When I got home mom asked me why I was late. When I told her she said that girl was somebody’s daughter and that I was filthy for thinking about having sex with her.

“Oh really? I bet they think you’ll stay a virgin till marriage, too.” She looks freaked out, dammit, why did I say that. “Uh, Sorry. I wrote  my phone number in your notebook while you were in the bathroom, call me if you have any questions.”

“Great, thanks,” she said.

It’s lunchtime. The cafeteria is a frontal attack of unventilated hormones. The stoner kids are giant cocoa beans, musky and sweet. The cheerleaders, cherry lip balm and baby powder. The jocks run past me to get to the front of the line, nearly knocking me over with their smell of sweaty armpits and vinyl wrestling mats. I try not to make eye contact. I’m stuck at the end of the line, but Jake is right in front of me. Jake smells like outdoors, like grass warmed in the sun. I said hi, but he pretended not to hear me. Helen probably told him what I said.

I can’t stand sitting alone. Everyone can see me, even though no one is looking. Lunch smells ok, pizza on Fridays. That’s my consolation prize for making it through another week without friends, greasy cheese, and slightly burnt tator tots. I hate the smell of char. It overwhelms every other smell of my lunch. I eat them first. The milk smells burnt, the brownie, burnt. I can’t remember the aroma of her morning routine. Three more hours of solitude.

I’m sixteen, old enough to have my own car. Mom never uses hers. Every day she gives the bus driver the evil eye from the living room window. Not that the bus driver ever looks towards my house. It’s camouflaged by the heaps of dead grass in the front yard. I take in a long breath of autumn before going in. Apple pie, pumpkin, and decaying leaves.

“What took you so long?”

“The bus was late, had a flat tire or something. A friend from school, Jake, invited me out for pizza tomorrow. Can I go?” I know she’ll pretend to not hear me ask.  I don’t know why I even ask her. I guess I sometimes hope I’ll get lucky. It would be better for both of us if she just said yes. Then I could imagine her as alive instead of an entombed carcass. She used to pack my lunch when I was in middle school. I would always find yellow sticky notes with big and little hearts, but I was so embarrassed I asked her to stop. Then dad left us.

“I can’t believe you were late again! I got that phone for you for a reason!”

She’s always like this. I can’t wait till I’m eighteen so I can go to my first movie without her. I just want to sit in the center of a large theater, me and my friends awash in the giant flare of light. Children with dirty diapers, parents with greasy buttered fingers, a world of unmitigated nostril hazards. She must think that if I go out without her I’ll never come back. Maybe I won’t. It’s not my fault dad left. She’s the one who pushed him away when she stopped wanting to leave go anywhere or do anything.

“I’m sorry, I’ll call if I know I’ll be late again. Can I go?”


“I’m tired of sitting in this house.” I can’t stand being this close to her. She smells like a wound full of puss, putrid. Her smell is alarming. It’s like being in the hospital and knowing someone is going to die because there is no hint of sugar in the air. Babies always smell like sugar, old people always smell like vinegar. Only, mom’s smell is worse because she still has life left in her, but its rotting away, she’s infected. The stench hangs around her, comes out of her mouth, she sweats it. I imagine I’ll return home one day to see her suffocating in her own filth, sinking into the couch and grasping at the worn-out arm rests, her finger nails popping off.

I would think she really did live in a coffin, but no one visits on memorial day. I’m the one who has to get the food stamps out of the mail. I’m the one that has to go out for groceries. I reek of mildew and cigarettes. The cashier can smell the poverty on my clothes before I even take my wallet out. I want to scream at her. I want to punch her in the head and scream “I hate you” so loudly that her eardrums bleed.

Adrenaline flushes my cheeks. I turn around so she can’t see me. If I let her calm down about being late I can maybe ask her again, later tonight. If I can just get out of the house tomorrow I can try to go to Lolo’s. Helen and Jake and everyone will be there. I need to make up for what I said. Maybe I can steal some change from mom’s giant plastic coke bank and buy them a few slices. I won’t have enough to buy myself something to eat, but I’ll look weird if I just sit there watching them. Maybe I can get enough to buy a soda too. I love the smell of syrup and soda water, the bubbles jump from the glass to my nose, asking to be acknowledged.

It’s been a few hours since I asked and mom’s crime dramas are blaring through our cramped house. In fifteen minutes it’ll be over and she’ll want to tell me all about it. I’ll try to ask her then. How should I say it? Maybe I’ll tell her I need to use the computer at the library for school. She let me go a few weeks ago when the house smelled like beer. The freedom of that day was exhilarating, she had made cookies in the morning and even brushed her thinning hair. I saw her lay out her pair of jeans. She never bothers with jeans, always sweat-pants. She didn’t put them on, just sat there looking at them. I think dad bought them for her when he was trying to get her out of the house for her birthday. She never went. Dad always lost the fights. I refuse to lose.

I can hear her shuffling in the kitchen, there’s a three minute commercial break until the ten o’clock news. “Hey mom, how was your show?”

“This woman murdered her abusive husband. He wasn’t found until three weeks later when her children came to visit her. Took them sixteen years to track her down. Pretty good run if you ask me!”

This is a good time. Anytime a man does anything to a woman she gets freaked out. If a woman murders her husband, he deserves it. I can’t stand that about her. She always blames dad. Like he’s the one who refused to go out for dinner. I look like my dad a lot more now that I’m older. She’s always telling me how unfortunate it is that I got my dad’s hair color, how sad it is that I sound like him, how it’s such a pity I’m so sensitive.

She’s standing over the sink drinking water. I step onto the peeling linoleum and open the refrigerator. The cold air hangs in front of me, cooling the radiating heat from my flushing body.

“Grab the cheese while you’re over there.”

Cheese, her favorite moldy indulgence. I grab the brick and shove it down the front of my pants. I hope she isn’t facing me, but it’s not like she ever looks at me anyway.

“Oh man, we’re out of cheese.” I say.

“Really, I swear you got some just a few days ago, I must be eating it in my sleep!”

I force a laugh.

“You’ll have to run to the store tomorrow, I planned on putting some in the mashed potatoes.”

“Sure, no problem. Oh, by the way, I have a biology presentation I want to get a good grade on, but I need to use a computer to make some graphs. Would it be ok if I ran to the library first? It should only take two hours, I promise.” My teeth grind. I hate promising her anything, it always feels like such an admittance of guilt, as though I’m conceding to all the things she’s ever blamed me for. Promising makes me sound like a wimp.  I know I was late mommy, you’re right, you’re always right, I should have just called. But I have to concede something to her or she won’t let me go to the library. I can taste the acid bubbling up in the back of my throat. My mouth is so dry I can’t swallow. It just sits there, burning. The smell of the cheese is clawing it’s way over my chest up into my nose. She’s going to realize I’m lying. I know she can smell it, she’s going to find out and make me sleep in her room again so she can lock the door on me. I hate her room. Dingy pink and yellow wallpaper flowers peeling from the corners. Everything covered in the brownish film that tar leaves on the walls. The badge of our class—what is she looking at?

“What the hell is that in your pants?”

“What do you mean? There’s nothing in my pants.” I look down and pretend I don’t hear the solid rectangular block screaming “hang him high!”

“What the hell is that? Get over here!”

She points to the bulge.

“Are you trying to lie to me? Worthless lying dog, trying to hide something from me!”

She pulls me by the hair and grabs my belt. She’s spitting in my face.

“Get off of me!”

“Pull your pants down, now, or I will do it for you!”

“No! Get away from me!” She’s trying to unhook my belt buckle. My knuckles turn white, I shove her in the chest. She rips a chunk of my thick hair from the scalp before slamming her back against the counter.  The kitchen is stifling—or is it me? My shirt is covered in sweat. The stench of my rage is undeniable, an effusion of body odor and pungent cheese.

The glass butter dish is on the counter next to her. The startled cow takes the blow to the side of her head. The dish cuts through my hand. I drop it to the floor and instinctually rush my lips to the wound. The metallic taste is as refreshing as iced lemonade. It smells sweet. Her equilibrium is failing her as she tries to steady herself against the sink, she’s managed to turn her back to me. Ever since dad left, she’s turned her back to outside life. My nose is running, the tears are blurring her frame. I used to bring her flowers to cheer her up after dad left. They smelled so sweetly, I thought she would understand, I thought she could appreciate the wild English garden that a roses perfume transformed our house into. She only noticed when they started to rot, when they smelled of death. She can’t understand anything but suffering, it’s her language, her native tongue.

My nostrils flare. The stench of dirty dish water is infuriating. The dying bubbles lie in wait for their long journey down through the plumbing, through the clumps of hair and coffee grounds. Why can’t she ever clean up after herself. Even if I could bring people over, our house reeks of garbage. I want to go out with friends, not stay trapped in here like some Cinderella. Fairy tale mothers are always dead.

“I want to go out with my friends!” My sobs seem to anger her.

She gurgles “Fucker.”

I grab her by the hair, it’s slick with grease. When was the last time she even showered? How many times did I beg her to take me to the arcade? To teach me how to drive her old, musty car. It just sits in the driveway, hidden beneath a tarp. Sometimes, I sit in it and pretend it’s mine. The brown cloth on the ceiling is falling down and little bits of yellow foam work their way into my nose and make me sneeze. I wish I could roll the windows down and let in some fresh air. I don’t think the air has changed in that car since dad left. I can still smell his cologne that leaked in the glove box.

Her tears mingle with suds as I plunge her mouth and nose into the sink. I slam her face against the hard stainless steel, her hands thrash all around me as she chokes on food that didn’t make it down the disposal. Why is this taking so long? How long has it been? One minute? Two? She’s moving more right now than she has in the past month. “Stop fighting me!” She kicks back and up. Her heel lands hard on target. I can’t breathe. My stomach twists. I have to hold onto her, it’s not going to end, not now. I force my weight on top of her I can barely stand the waves of pain. My lower abdomen is going to burst. Fuck.  There’s puke all over my hand, all over the back of her head. I try to spit out the last of the bitter taste.

I suck in all the air from the kitchen, my chest swells. The acidic decomposition makes me lurch. I dry heave. I lean down closer to the sink so she can hear me. I’m right up against her ear. “I hate you!” I bash her head into the bottom of the sink repeatedly. I didn’t realize it takes so long for someone to drown. Maybe she did finally feel the urge to live. She seizures before falling limp. I let go. Her chin thumps the brim of the sink as her weight pulls her to the ground. Her face catches on the cupboard handle. Her body is contorted, her face rests against the cupboard and her neck is in an unnatural position. She looks all bent out of shape. I can’t help but giggle a little. That feels good. My tears dry. My laughter is roaring. I bite my lips. I take the cheddar cheese out of my pants and throw it at her. She doesn’t flinch. What to do, what to do?

I can never find anything in the junk drawer—there it is—a blue face mask. She shit her pants. I glance at the clock, alright, no one should be hanging around outside. I drag her by the ankles to the shed. Her head thuds against the back door stairs. She’s even filthier now than I had ever noticed before. I thought death was supposed to be a release to a higher state of being, but it’s more like a nasty mess left behind for someone else to clean up. This mask seems to be working better than I thought it would. Good thinking mom, always prepared for contagions.

Is that my phone ringing? Sorry mom, got to take this! I drop the filthy creature in front of the shed and run into the house. Where is it? Dammit, where the fuck! Aha!

“Hello! I’m so happy you decided to call!” I imagine her scent. She must have been thinking about me right before going to bed or something.

“This is Jake.”

I collapse into the armchair. Jake? What? Maybe he’s finally going to ask me to come hang out with them tomorrow at Lolo’s. It doesn’t need to be me and Helen alone, I don’t mind being a third wheel.

“Hi, Jake, how are you? Are you hanging out with Helen right now?” That was a dumb question, of course he’s with her, I never gave him my number.

“Listen fucktard, if you go anywhere near her I’ll beat the shit out of you.”

“I’m sorry, Jake. I really didn’t…”

“I don’t give a fuck, you heard me.”

The dial tone droned in my ear. I couldn’t even—no tears, no crying—I have work to do,  I can deal with them later. Stand the fuck up.

I walk into the backyard and put my mask back on. The stench is enough to kill the weeds. What the hell? Who is that?

“Get on the ground!”

Mrs. Northand always smelled like cookie dough, but all I could get that day was the smell of wood, hints of pine and cedar. I wasn’t sure how I was caught until she took the witness stand. The blinds were open. She saw the whole thing. She said it was me who was the aggressor. How could she think that? She knew my mom was a crazy bitch. How many times did she have the door slammed in her face when we first moved to the neighborhood? Nope, it was all my fault. All me, like I’m the one who isolated her and made her pay for dad’s mistake.

Trey is my new roommate. He’s a really good artist. I always ask him to draw pictures of flowers or food or girls. I can imagine what they smell like through the vivid colors in his paintings. I never associated smell with color before, I guess everything was too dingy in my old house. Here the lights are very bright and the concrete is painted white. A pure white, a clean, immaculate, empty white. White has no smell. Trey stands out, he transforms white into life. He doesn’t mind that  I ask him about what his dad smelled like. He’s refining his senses, too. Sometimes he asks me questions about how I think things smell. I tell him lemons are like dish soap, clean, sharp, and bitter to taste. He draws a lemonade stand.