Here’s another excerpt from my series of scent-inspired vignettes, “Yesteryear Apothecary.” To find out more about how I came to write them, read the previous excerpt, RECITAL.
The worst part of sixth grade is you have to change for PE. At the end of third period you scurry down to the locker room with Edda and Holly, fighting your way in amidst the outgoing rush of girls. The seventh- and eighth- graders look so mature, all breasts and makeup, though there are plenty of your classmates too who spend ostentatious minutes peering into square green compacts, dabbing foundation, refreshing lipstick.
After you dial in the combination and shove your backpack into the long compartment, you remove the grey and navy bundle from the small shelf and prepare for your daily run to the restroom stall. It astonishes you, the way these girls just take off their pants and skirts and sweaters as if they were used to changing in front of other people. Many of them chat and laugh, standing there in their bras as if proud, though most of the others duck their heads and do some kind of complicated maneuver with their arms underneath their t-shirts, emerging fully suited-up without ever exposing their skins. You have no idea how this works and anyway the restroom stalls are just a few yards away, always empty while everyone else is changing. Chantal teases you about it a couple of times, but she’s no bully (unlike Beau who thank god has a locker at the other end of the row where she can’t see you), and after a few weeks everyone leaves you alone.
Over the months you get up the nerve to look more at the other girls and you start to notice what sets them apart: that they shave their legs, that their bras have lace and little bows on them, that before she put her clothes back on Chantal removes a green and white container from her locker, uncaps it and quickly swipes her armpits, then puts it back. After a while you see the other girls doing this too, though their containers are all different colors and Pamela’s is more cylindrical than the others. At home you ask Mommy about it and she says deodorant is for white people and so is shaving your legs. “You don’t need it,” she says, and that’s it, end of story, though every few weeks you repeat the query hoping she will change her mind and take you to the drugstore so you can join their ranks.
One day after PE the teachers come down from their office and put a box down on the table next to the lost-and-found. “Free samples,” Mrs Russ announces, and the room surges forth with curiosity. You see a pile of slender green-and-white containers… the box is full of hands and arms but before they get them all your own hand darts in and snatches a container and stuffs it into your backpack.
Back home, you lock yourself into the bathroom and take out the container. It says deodorant and anti-perspirant and when you open it the smell is strong as perfume, a sickly powdery floral, and when you rub it on your skin it leaves a white track. If you use this at school everyone will recognize it and know you’re using the one you got for free. Is that better than not using it at all? You sniff the tube again and again, trying to decide.
Nearly overwhelming Caribbean Cool Teen Spirit layered over perspiration, musty air, wet concrete, and shame.