The Scent of a Man

Several elementary schools fed into our junior high, and that is where the sifting and sorting began. For our main academic classes, I found myself grouped with the same students. These were the students who, two years later in high school, would be funneled into the college preparatory classes. Another new development for us was the introduction of choice into our eduction. We had “electives” and we were granted the grand choice of deciding between French or Spanish.

An oversized chess set built from found metal objects on a painted cement floor in an empty warehouse building at the American Visionary Arts Museum.There were pros and cons to each choice, all relating to my twelve-year-old self’s petty social life. My two closest friends were set on Spanish. However, my older sister had taken Spanish and I wanted to distinguish myself from her and cease the constant comparisons between us that always fell unfavorably on me. “Your sister has such a good disposition. Why are you so moody?” was a refrain I heard from every elementary school teacher. I wasn’t a particularly troublesome child, nor was I especially unpopular. I was a touch shy, but not pathologically so. Yet, adults who had met my energetic, popular, cheerful older sister first, could never control the urge to tell me what a disappointment I was. I adored my older sister who was, in fact, cheerful, easygoing, popular and all that, yet I felt like something of a misshapen dwarf living in her shadow. Even my mother, I felt, adopted me with the expectation of getting another happy, bouncy bundle. Instead, she got a quiet, pensive, brooding, inquisitive child who could not be trusted with a screwdriver because I was exceedingly curious about the insides of things. I wasn’t troublesome, just different.

So taking French class instead of Spanish was my first opportunity to differentiate myself from my sister and that weighed at least as heavily as any desire to keep company with my two closest friends. However there was a third factor about which I told no one at the time. For now, I will just call him J-.

People are always referring to “hormones” as a veiled reference to sexual desire. Yet my body was evidence that those “hormones” had been running through my body in adult proportions for several years. Yet when I think back on my thoughts in fifth and sixth grade, I can’t find much evidence that I had any interest in sex. It wasn’t until seventh grade, when boys were starting to express an interest in me and other girls were starting to giggle about boys that I had any relevant thoughts that I can recall.

So, I not only chose French, but I succeeded in spending the next year seated next to J-. French class had wide tables that seated two people at each and J- and I shared one in the first row near the window. He made me feel slightly agitated in a way I didn’t quite understand. I want to say that I was too nervous to look at his face, but nervous isn’t quite the right word. He had always been nice to me and he never made fun of other students, which was common behavior at that age. There was nothing I feared from looking at him. However, I can recall wanting to look at him yet not doing so because I didn’t want him to ask me why. It was a question I couldn’t have answered.

What I remember most clearly was the sight of his forearms resting on the desk. They were noticeably different from those of other boys. His arms were covered with a light layer of dark hairs and they had a shape formed by his developing muscles. He was an athletic boy, a competitive wrestler who, in later years, would place second in a state competition. The shape of his veins were visible under the skin, and when he grasped his pen or turned a page, I was hypnotized by the movement of the muscles under the surface. His hands looked strong in a way other boys’ didn’t.

We sat shoulder to shoulder, close enough that I could detect a faint scent. I’m not talking about the foul body odor that comes from being unclean. J- was, as far as I could tell, as tidy as any of the boys with his person. It was a distinct sent, one that in later years I would come to associate with men, and it hit me between the eyes. It was a heady experience, almost like being a little drunk or a little high, although I wasn’t yet familiar with either of those states.

I had no idea what I wanted from him, but I wanted something.

Wanting him to notice me and like me, with all the grace a twelve-year-old girl can muster, when the teacher would return a test to us, I’d punch him in the arm and say, “What did you get!” He’d show me his paper and, as often as not, I’d slap mine down on top and say, “Beat you!” I thought my good grades would cause him to admire me and he would regard me as highly as I regarded him. He was a good student, and it took quite an effort to beat him on tests.

I never did learn what he thought of me. Other boys would grab my attention soon enough, but I would never forget the feeling I got sitting close to him. Predatory.

  1. What an excellent post on a very unusual topic! I totally relate. I openly sniff people and animals I like, it’s strange the chemicals that different smells release. I wonder if I’m part dog ….

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