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A Scent Like Daphne


She calls him "Daddy" as he dresses, and this, for him, is the worst kind of truth she has ever uttered. The word is a stray bullet, piercing his starched white shirt and red silk tie, the armor he carries like a shell. His now mute body—a swimmer's build out of water—squirms under his other skin.

"Don't call me that," he tells her, the taste of sex and regret lolling around in his mouth, the aftertaste of her skin.

When he turns to look at her, he realizes he towers over everything, floating above what is real and what is manufactured. He can't look her in the eye for fear she will see the shape of his soul, but he suspects she has plied her own shapes in him, her own elastic strands of complacency and control.

He finds his jacket on a scarred Salvation Army Thrift Store chair and walks toward the bedroom door. With too much ease, he thinks to reach into the breast pocket of his jacket where his sunglasses are. He doesn't feel the absurdity of putting them on in the dusky room.

The whole apartment is cluttered with her clothes, a misleading trail of lacey bras and panties, Lakewood University jerseys and mismatched socks. They writhe and curl on the floor, on furniture, on doorknobs.

They hang out of a dresser that looks like it came from the children's section of a furniture store. A moth-eaten bedspread, thin enough to let some of the daylight in, cascades over the curtain rods. Jasmine tinges the air in wisps like whispered promises.

"Whatever," she says, sitting up in bed. "Just don't count it against me, professor."

She drops her chin and feigns a pout, letting her hair dangle over her breasts, vines sheltering a garden arch. When she grins, she shows all her teeth. She reaches for her cigarettes and lighter on the bedside table, and he catches a glimpse of the butterfly tattoo on her shoulder, as small and fleeting as a birthmark. The sheets covering her legs form ridges where shadows can hide, like swirls of vanilla ice cream.

"I'll let myself out," he says, not looking back.

In his car in the apartment complex parking lot, Professor Frank Harmon presses out the imagined creases in his clothes, in himself. He finds a comb in his back pocket and runs it through his hair in short strokes. His knuckles slide along the smoothness at the top edge of his forehead where his sandy blonde hair recedes, and he scowls at this detail, telling himself thirty-seven is not old enough for this.

The scent of jasmine chases him, and Frank thinks he can feel it on his lips, his tongue. He flings open the glove compartment and scavenges for the tin of breath mints he didn't intend for this, spilling six out onto his palm and popping them in his mouth all at once. By the time he pulls out of the parking lot, the jasmine is gone, replaced by a strong ghost scent he cannot identify.

He drives home, stopping only once at the Kroger four blocks from his house. When he returns to his car, the interior is still air-conditioner cool in the late August afternoon. He drops the brown paper bag in the passenger seat like a silent stranger. They didn't need the chicken breasts or the deli ham, and Sarah will turn her nose up at the frozen waffles, but Frank's only reason for stopping at the store was to use a cologne tester at the fragrance counter. Now he thinks he smells more like himself.

Frank sweats in his refrigerated car. He pulls into the driveway of his home, and the perfectness, the neatness of everything overwhelms him. Box hedges form lines up and down the block. Lawns are weedless, trimmed and verdant. Flowerbeds hold their soil in precise rectangles.

Even the trees grow straight. Nothing is allowed to stray. Holding the brown bag in front of him like a shield, Frank walks up the sidewalk to the front door. Sarah awaits him behind the storm door, but she won't step out onto the porch. At three months, her belly is beginning to show, and she has told him something is wrong in being blatant about her condition.

"Supper is almost ruined," she says. She starts to hug him but backs away as her eyes wander up and down his face. "You're sweaty. Get cleaned up for supper."

Frank knows the meal has been ready for exactly seventeen minutes. It is 6:17 p.m. He smiles a suffocating smile knowing she cannot touch the untidiness he has brought into the house. She is too neat, too clean.

Sarah takes the bag, peeking into it. Her hair slips forward like golden waves of silk ribbon, framing the roundness of her jaw line.

"We really don't need any of this. What took you so long? I called your office an hour ago, and you didn't answer."

Sarah saunters over to the kitchen. Frank doesn't miss the kiss he used to get when coming home; in fact he is happy she doesn't breathe him, just in case. The carpet under his feet feels as if it is falling away and holding him up at the same time.

"Long lines. I think the cash registers were down for a while, too."

His voice is as hollow as the house. The house is as hollow as his life. All are filled with things he thought, at one time, were supposed to be there.

In his office at the university, Frank stretches out in his chair, letting his head drop back and his eyes close. It is Friday at the end of his day, but he's not ready to go home. He is not ready to go anywhere else, either.

The door is locked, and every now and then he hears the muffled conversations of teachers or students passing by. The small room feels separate and neutral and his. Piles of student papers and folders cover his desk, bumping up against the computer and other knickknacks. Books crowd the shelves on two of the walls and sit in short stacks on the floor. Many of them are histories of local people, places and events of western North Carolina, written by colleagues. Plaques and awards hang on the walls, surrounding his diploma from Lakewood University, already more than ten years old.

He inhales with his entire body, trying to remember how he got where he is. He wants to figure out where his former self went. Memories flood him, drown him. He is drinking tequila with a border runner in a Tijuana dive. He is camping under the stars in the Arizona desert. He is on a midnight watch for the moonbow at Cumberland Falls, Kentucky.

Everything is spontaneous, unplanned, exciting. Yet somewhere in all of that, the whisper of stability touches his ears. Some vision of what should come next imprints itself in his mind's eye.

The September nights are cold in Frank's house. The bedroom is coldest. Ever since she found out she was six weeks pregnant—almost two months ago—Sarah has become a restless and solitary sleeper, and this means Frank cannot sleep in peace either. Some nights he walks the length of the house, counting the steps away from his wife. Nothing clutters his path, and because Sarah insists on night-lights in all the rooms and the hallway, the house is not dark enough to hold surprises.

Frank ambles into the kitchen and doesn't bother to turn on the light. Everything is crisp and clean. The dish drainer and sinks are empty. The counter displays only necessary things.

The light of the waxing full moon sears the café curtains covering the window over the kitchen sink. For a moment Frank pictures another backyard, one with a rusting tool shed, weeds beginning to poke up around its base. Or maybe the other backyard would have a half-court for playing basketball with a few friends. Maybe the grass would need a clipping, but it wouldn't be so urgent that he couldn't do it the day after he threw a cookout for some neighbors.

Frank stands before the sink facing the window. He leaves the curtains drawn. He knows what is on the other side, and he knows how close it is. It is, in fact, all around him. He can feel the rending pull of the polished oak furniture, the glistening porcelain bathtub and the gleaming silver cutlery. Every part of his life is like that around here. His backyard is no different.

Keeping the silence intact, Frank opens the sliding glass door, descends the steps and stands on the back patio. The lawn is the sleek surface of a calm, deep sea, spreading out beyond vision. Frank feels the presence of the winter daphne behind him, beneath the kitchen window. It looms like a shadow.

They've only seen the winter daphne blossom once, earlier that year in late February. They planted the shrub a year ago after Sarah read about how it kept a good shape, didn't require pruning and bloomed in February or March.

When the tiny rose-pink blossoms first appeared, Sarah was pleased. She made Frank walk out with her in the freezing sunshine to look at the flowers, each petal as tiny as a baby's fingernail, she said. Frank was amazed at the strong fragrance of the plant. The sweet scent was too perfect, too appropriate.

Frank stares at the moon. Everything is silent except for the heartbeat in his ears, like drowning alone in a swimming pool.

He prepares to meet with her in his office before midterms in October. He feels his pulse in his throat as he cinches the knot of his tie closer to his neck. He buttons his dress coat. Though he is meeting with all his students to discuss their progress in his sophomore sociology class, this is decidedly different.

She is his one chance or his one mistake. He doesn't know which; it doesn't matter anymore. When she showed up in the front row of his fall class, he remembered her from the summer semester, where she had hung careless flirtations and innuendo on him like new clothes. During the first week of the fall semester he had taken her invitation as if taking a dare. He feels the ghost of her on him, and he squirms in his suit.

As she arrives, he stands briefly before nodding at her to have a seat. He mumbles through her test grades, her quiz scores, her overall participation. She smirks at this last topic, and it is all he can do to keep his voice steady.

She is wearing an off-the-shoulder sweater that hangs in folds like the shelter of a baby's blanket. She leans back in her chair and twists her hair between her fingers. He finishes by telling her she has a solid B going into midterms. He avoids her eyes.

"If I made an A on midterms would that bring my overall average up? I'd really like an A in this course."

She leans forward. He hears the offer, but he looks for something safer in his student record book. His fingers stick to the pages as he flips them.

"It's all up to you," he says. "I've given you all the help I can."

He waits in the silence, not looking up. He wants to close his eyes and open them again to something else. He wants the understanding that evades him, the knowledge of reason. Or maybe he just wants everything to be easier.

"Don't sell yourself short, professor," she says, standing up.

The door creaks when she opens it to leave, and she doesn't shut it behind her. He looks up in time to see the butterfly float around the corner and disappear, chasing the trail of jasmine.

At Thanksgiving dinner at his parents' house, Frank gets drunk on the wine before the meal is served. He sits in the living room with his father, his younger brother, Thomas, and his brother-in-law, Wayne. Sarah and Frank's sister, Celia, whisper as they set the table.

Frank is not a loud, obnoxious drunk. He is the more dangerous introspective drunk. Every so often he slurs a cynical comment or wanders into another room. He constantly tugs at his shirtsleeves or tie, and none of his clothes seem to fit right. To Sarah's horror, Frank eventually rolls up the cuffs of his shirt.

Kate, his mother, has a hard time holding her smile in place when she sees him like this. She tries to smooth it over by telling everyone Frank has too much stress in his life. He has finals to think about, a new baby on the way, too much work. She speaks as if Frank is not in the room, and Frank's father, Mort, ignores the comments and talks over her to ask when the turkey will be done. For this interruption, Mort gets a reprimand from Kate, and the ensuing apology floats around the room like smoke from a warning signal, the translation of which Frank is all too aware.

The conversation becomes a continuous buzz in his ears, and Frank finds himself standing up and wandering down the hall to his old bedroom, now the den. The family photos lining the hallway walls hang with precision, forming straight lines along their edges. The house is uncluttered and bright, and images flash behind Frank's eyes. He feels sick.

Frank leans against the doorframe of the den and peers into the room. Sunlight streams into the chamber, illuminating everything inside: the comfortable, overstuffed couch, the shiny cherry wood desk, the warm mahogany veneer of the table.

He crosses the room to the far wall plastered with photos. Photos of him on a donkey in the mountains near Monterrey, Mexico; on a beach in front of a lighthouse on Cape Cod; in the California hills with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Photos taken by friends or bystanders during lazy summers or spring breaks. Photos when he had no boundaries.

When he looks at these photos, Frank can see the carelessness in his frozen laughter. He can see the unconcerned youthfulness of his face. He sees no hint of the deep lines that appear near his eyes without warning these days. He thinks of days before the expectations, before the supposed-tos, before the invitations by students looking for better grades, before the life he somehow sank into.

"Everyone's ready. Are you?"

It's Sarah. Her voice is dispassionate. She stands at the door as if she cannot step into that part of the house, and maybe, Frank thinks, she will always be unable to take those steps.

By the time they leave, Frank is sober. Sarah doesn't speak until they are well out of Asheville. The roads to and from Willow Dale are barren. The highway glistens with wetness.

"I'm afraid for us," Sarah says, staring out the passenger-side window.

Frank feels the need for reassurance in her words. But he also detects an accusation. He realizes much too quickly he cannot respond to either.

"I am, too," he finally says.

"I thought we knew what we wanted. I thought this was part of it." Her left hand moves away from him to rest on her stomach.

"It was, until the doctors told us it would never happen. Anyway, it's more than that. You know that."

"I don't know what you want, Frank. I don't think you even know."

He lets it go at that. He doesn't have the words he needs. And those he has would be poison for someone.

At 1:30 a.m., Frank is drinking again. This is unusual for him, as he rarely drinks these days, and the only alcohol they have in the house is half a bottle of rum Sarah uses to make rum cakes.

In the living room, Frank flips through channels with the sound muted. He gulps his drink and thinks about his wife in the other room. Sarah is unaware of what Frank is doing. She went to bed shortly after they got home, and the house allows isolation.

One, two, three drinks later, Frank can hear his thoughts better. They seep into his skin, his bones, his blood, even as the important things ooze out. He staggers into the kitchen, glass in hand, drink sloshing over the sides. He stands in the center of the room for a moment before walking over to the light switch and flipping it on.

He downs his drink and puts the glass on the counter. Condensation and spillage slide from the bottom of the glass. He grabs a cola from the refrigerator and mixes another drink, leaving the rum bottle on the counter. He picks up the empty glass of rum and puts it in the sink. In three gulps, Frank finishes the cola. He feels the tug. His thoughts are floating away. But he seizes one and holds it long enough to allow it to evolve into action.

Reaching over with an unsteady hand, Frank opens a kitchen drawer. The glittering silverware pulls him. His hand hovers over the forks, spoons, knives. Large knife. Carving knife. He holds it and wields it with something like familiarity.

The house is quiet and cold. Frank's thoughts are loud and hot.

Without regard for the silence, Frank steps onto the back patio. The tie is the first thing to go. With one hand, he snatches it off and tosses it onto the lawn. He peels off his shirt, slashing at it and rending it to shreds before discarding it. The heaviness in his chest rises up and emerges from him as laughter. In his undershirt, the November night is frigid and damp.

Frank walks to the winter daphne. He begins cutting at it with the knife, holding limbs with one hand and swiping at it with the other. He cuts his fingers more than once, but this is nothing to him. He is slicing leaves and shoots, perfectness and comfortableness.

"Take everything," he says, through ragged breath. "Take this. Take it all."

Sweat forms on Frank's brow, and his work becomes frenzied. He whittles away at the shrub until the evergreen is tattered and torn. Frank's laughter is interspersed with sobs.

"Frank? Frank, what are you doing?"

Sarah's voice comes at him from all directions. He can't find her at first. Then he sees her at the back door. When he looks at her, she covers her mouth with one hand and tries clutching together the front halves of her housecoat with the other. She drops the hand from her mouth to speak, and Frank can hear in her voice the tears threatening to escape.

"Frank, you're bleeding. What are you doing?"

"It's poison," Frank says, his voice bouncing off houses and shooting across lawns. "This is poison. It's dangerous."

"Frank, please come inside," Sarah says. Her voice is like a lesson recited to a child. "Put the knife down, and please come inside."

She hesitates, but then she moves past the doorframe, onto the top step. The shift confuses Frank, and now he wants to explain.

"It shouldn't be here."

"It's okay, Frank. We'll take care of it later. Just please come in."

Something in him isn't listening, and Frank can't stop the space from expanding in his throat. He walks toward Sarah, and something clinks on the patio.

"I didn't mean to wake you."

"It's okay, Frank," she says. "Come back to me."

"It's not okay, Sarah. I don't know why …"

Frank squints at the bright kitchen light. He doesn't remember stepping inside with her. She hugs him, and he is aware of her disregard for the things he's capable of, the mess he can make of everything with his blood, his plant-stained hands.

"I'm sorry," he says, backing away from her. And he finds he is shivering but not cold. "I want to make everything better. I want to try to make everything better."

He looks into her eyes. Sarah is crying. And he feels things drifting back into him, important things he didn't know he missed.

"Don't say anything else, Frank. We can fix things. We'll fix everything."

And this, for him, is the most hopeful thing she has ever uttered.

They do not speak of the incident the next day. They are both different from themselves when they awake, yet they have been brought together. They rise just after ten o'clock to a day full of yellow light.

Everything from the night before is cleaned up or discarded. The debris, the clothes, the blood all vanish. The winter daphne is pruned and salvaged. It still appears healthy, and Frank thinks it is because the roots are so strong and deep. They will replace the shrub in the summer, Sarah tells him.

During the coming days, Frank tries twice to confess his indiscretion. Both times Sarah stops him before he can get it out. She tells him their future is the only thing that counts, and he thinks this is his penance, to keep his failure, his weakness, inside. He thinks she doesn't want this scar across all of them. He accepts this.

Three weeks before Christmas he has finished giving his last round of finals to his students. The building is silent on his last day, and he feels grateful for so many things he never planned on.

Driving home, Frank thinks of the apartment complex, an invitation. Outside the car, the gray clouds of twilight spit out specks of snow. He thinks of the smell of winter as he drives past the apartment where careless dustings on the asphalt swirl off the ground and die without notice.

On an afternoon glowing with newness in mid-March, Sarah rests in her bedroom. She rocks in a chair next to the bed holding their sleeping new daughter, and Frank stands in the doorway watching his future.

Sometimes it takes his breath away so completely he can't feel his own body. He knows what almost happened. He saw his child cling so hard to life she almost took her mother with her. The hours had been like a black light then, illuminating the things he valued, the things he wanted, the things he could not claim to deserve. And in that time, Frank felt his smallness, his helplessness, so much more than an infant.

Frank walks over to his family. He kneels beside the rocking chair, resting one arm on Sarah's shoulders and the other under his daughter.

"Hi, Daddy," Sarah says, smiling.

The word sounds good to Frank. He kisses Sarah, a soft feather against her cheek. He leans down and kisses his daughter, the realness of her and the bitterness of possibility mingling on his lips and sliding into his body. He feels grateful and new and high, and he wants to hold this moment forever. He wants the fear of what might have been to dissolve away, but it looms like a ghost in a lonely place near his heart. Everything feels better than he could have ever dreamed, and he knows it is.

Frank stands up. He doesn't want Sarah to see him like this.

Before walking away, he leans down one more time. The baby smells soft and warm and healthy when he kisses her.

Careful of the silence, Frank finds his wool coat in the hall closet. He steps outside, the daylight a kaleidoscope in his eyes. Everything looks different and fresh and wonderful, and his legs barely support him as he drops down on the porch steps. He sits there, crying in the frozen sun, the taste of possibilities fading from his lips, the scent of daphne overpowering him.

Notes from the Author
Like other stories I have written, "A Scent Like Daphne" grew from a character's voice that sprung into my mind, unbidden. In this case, the entire first sentence came to me. With what seemed to be little effort on my part, the story spilled out onto the page over, for the most part, the period of two days. The title had come into my head very early as a partial title until I discovered just the right plant to symbolize the struggle Frank faced. The winter daphne, in the end, came to represent much more than Frank's struggle, and, on some level, symbolizes his past, present and future.