-Lean closer. Don’t you smell it?
He did as his wife instructed. He bent his torso into the crib and held his face just above the baby’s puckery mouth and breathed in. Butterscotch, powder, the tang of urine, and the piney scent of worry he always noted when he came that close.
-No. He always smells like that.
She sighed with an impatience he was supposed to note and understand as her commentary on the discrepancy between her level of skill as a parent and his. She had so much to teach him.
-Leave the room and come back in again. That’s how I first noticed it, when I first came in the room. And his diaper’s fine, he’s clean.
-Look, honey, it’s late. I really think we should go to bed and let him sleep.
-You think we should ignore the smell of shit on our baby’s breath?
He did as she asked. He left the room and stood in the hall and tried to compare the difference of air. The hall smelled of house, of three people living in a house. Perhaps he noticed a tiny wisp of alien perfume, or lotion, the same scent he had enjoyed in the car, driving the baby-sitter home. Some women wore man-made smells quite well; on his wife, a chemical reaction took place and produced a swampy, fleshy, clammy staleness. She mostly stuck to unscented, hypoallergenic creams and moisturizers, and the baby-sitter’s aura had been a short tropical vacation. He returned to the baby’s room.
-No. I still don’t see the problem. Listen, it’s normal to be anxious about leaving him with a baby-sitter for the first time, but nothing happened. He’s fine. She even cleaned the kitchen. It’s late. We had a nice time.
He rested a hand over the hand clutching the side of the crib. She felt cold to the touch. The light in the room was inadequate, infantile in the face of this grownup conversation, sourcing from a ceramic bunny night light over the changing table.
-His breath smells like she fed him poop. This is crazy. Why would his breath smell of poop?
He wanted to remove himself from this tight wad of panic, wanted to brush his teeth and undress and read a few pages of the mystery novel he’d been working through for a month now and fall accidentally to sleep on the living room couch, leaving his wife the king-sized bed and the bihourly waking of the baby. Sometimes she caved and brought the baby back to the bed and slept with her shirt up around her armpit to allow him to nurse himself back to sleep, barely waking her.
-Maybe she fed him something different for dinner. He’s sleeping fine right now, he can’t be too bothered by it. Maybe she brushed his tooth and it just smells different to you than normal.
-He’s only six months old, he can’t eat anything but milk and baby food. I know what his breath smells like after eating every type of baby food in the house. And he doesn’t just smell different, he smells like feces. What if she forced a dirty diaper down his throat. Oh god. What if she forced her own…
The baby-sitter had answered his questions politely, somewhat absently, on the ride to her house. Studying for the equivalency test. Live with my brother and his wife. Veterinary technician, or dog groomer. Went to bed fine, only woke once, right back to sleep. When a plane passed low above them she remarked on the constant low-grade drone you could hear, feel even, in their house. “It made me sick,” she said, with no inflection of blame.
“Me, too.” He usually avoided thinking about this drawback to his home. They had said yes to the place during a hurricane, all planes grounded, didn’t heed warnings from friends and relations about gothic foreshadowing or owner’s tricks. Now he drove away from his house in the morning with a sense of blue dawning light and returned home after work feeling reverberations in his belly, continuous echoes of plane disturbance before the fact.
-He’s fine, now. Whatever happened, if anything, has left him fine and I don’t think we should wake him.
He took his wife’s hand, barely, and loosely led her from the crib, to the door, out into the hall. She followed him to the bedroom as quiet as she’d ever been and stood next to the bed while he unzipped her skirt and slid buttons backwards through buttonholes and eased straps from her shoulders and cotton from between her legs. He touched her as if a film of impervious air separated the skin of his hands from her skin, like they were poison to each other and simple rubbing could render a loss of reason, consciousness. Her face cried tears but her shoulders were noiseless. Naked, he lay beside her on the bed. He wanted to find himself on the couch in the living room with his mystery novel propped in his hands, but the smooth sticky sheet beneath him and his wife’s smell of sweat and salt kept him present. In the milky dark they listened to an infinite plane fly overhead.
The neighbors began to fight. Enthusiastic yells erupted from the next house over. Something about a radio, a dog, a lack of affection.
-I don’t think you’re crazy, he lied.
She snored. She had fallen asleep. She had left him alone to listen, or leave. From the baby’s room the sound of crying started and rained down the hallway and he waited for his wife to hear it and wake and rise and comfort the baby and return and sleep again; the whole time he would wait for the sign to leave.
Andi Diehn has an M.F.A. from Vermont College. She lives in rural New Hampshire and shares a blog at www.letusgothen.net
Image courtesy of NostalgiaPhotos.