Sour

by Yael van der Wouden

That girl don’t taste the same, is how her parents put it when she was small and ate a whole lemon to its skin, grinding her teeth to the white waxy bottom. Look how she likes the sour, they’d say, and so she thought the texture of soft and tough strings was called sour—called everything from tangerines to green beans sour ‘til her parents corrected her. They put their cutlery to the edge of their plates and said, quietly, Baby, that ain’t sour.

And I don’t smell much neither, is how she herself put it, years later, when a boyfriend held out a spoonful of sauce for her to try. In the privacy of her room she’d sometimes put a soft towel to her cheek and call it smell; run a velvety ribbon to her lips and whisper, mmm, that sure smell nice. Most of the time didn’t matter much either way. She liked the things she liked much like anyone else did: had particularities about the shape of a thing, the weight of it, the heat. Sometimes she brought something into the house unaware; a bad smell, stuck to the sole of her shoe. Her mother peee-eew’d and fussed, but it was all the same. It really didn’t matter much.

So when the first smell appeared, she was not pleased at all. It woke her up at dawn, a frail, misshapen thing rising from the mist. She hunched under the running tap, trying to rinse it out. She woke up her mother, red-eyed and teary, the front of her gown sodden. It won’t stop, she said, her own fingers hooked in her mouth, over her tongue.

It was the detergent she smelled. It tastes like death, she said, all drama, and took it back when the next one bloomed: cooked potato stew, set to cool. This one’s worse, she concluded, after being persuaded to take a bite. She refused everything but water and lemons for a week after. Sour, it seemed, still sat well with her.

Soon came a few she enjoyed. Wet grass. Hot milk. The smell her mother turned when someone paid her a compliment. What can I eat that tastes like that, she asked, and her parents laughed distractedly, a little joke. They didn’t laugh when—during a visit to the Johansons—she brought a marble paperweight to her lips and ran her tongue across it, mmming, a soft well that sure smell nice.

Her mother took the weight from her hands with a nervous giggle, a baby, marble don’t taste, clearing her throat and picking up a conversation like nothing happened. Her mother’s embarrassment smelled like a towel left to soak too long. Like perfume gone old.

Pee-eew, she whispered to herself, and went to stand by the open window. On the wind, she caught the growing of grass, the heat of sun on the sidewalk. And further still, the sweet of someone recalling where they’d put their keys. The stale of someone waking up from a sleep, tired still.

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