I think it was Rebecca who first noticed the odor. It was faint, but once she had mentioned it, the smell was unmistakable: it was the same musky aroma that a woman exudes during sex. And yet it was clearly not her own scent. My wife's musk was somehow different, more emphatic perhaps. Less subtle.
At first we joked about it. We had dated for years but were newlyweds and our household was a collection of used furniture. It included a well-worn mattress that she'd inherited from her brother. We replaced the mattress, but from time to time the odd odor continued to make itself apparent.
There was a heating vent in the wall near our bed, so I hired an air conditioning technician to clean our system. It didn't stop the odor. I crawled underneath the house with a flashlight, but could find no trace of anything that might cause an odor. Supposing it might be some kind of insect or rodent, we fumigated the entire house.
As time went on we noticed that the odor seemed to appear only at bed time, and only in a very limited area around the bed. When we invited late evening visitors into our bedroom to sniff around, most confirmed our observation.
One night David smelled it. He was in his late fifties; since my wife, as a teen, had fled her own brutal and abusive parents, he had become her unofficial father. "This is interesting," said David. "In a strange way, it almost reminds me of Sophie."
His eyes filled and he looked away. Sophie had died the year before, cut down by cancer in her early forties. She had been a lovely woman, both inside and out, and David remained devoted to her memory. So did Rebecca, who though only 14 years her junior, had regarded Sophie as a second mother.
As time went on, the odor seemed to intensify. Then David said that he wasn't sure, but it seemed to him sometimes that the odor had mysteriously appeared in his own bedroom. We began calling back and forth, and as far as we could determine, the odd smell never appeared simultaneously in both our houses. After a while, David said that he suspected that the odor might be a type of paranormal phenomenon.
"You mean a ghost?" said Rebecca, who professed to believe in life after death.
"A spirit, perhaps," offered David, a wry smile on his lips. “A death shadow, as a poet might write.”
David's sense of humor sometimes borders on the outrageous, so at first I thought he was kidding. "I don't believe this," I said. "Ghosts? Spirits? Come on."
"At least open yourself to the possibility," said Rebecca.
David had a distant kinsman who taught parapsychology at a nearby university. He offered to invite the professor over for a consultation. I said it was silly.
After David left, Rebecca and I argued over my reaction. She had a notion that Sophie, or her spirit, might be the source of the smell. I said that bringing in some crackpot psychic investigator was a waste of time. "There are no such things as spirits of the dead," I insisted. Rebecca took my vehemence as an insult to her beliefs. As usual when we began at polar opposites on a subject, we quarrelled late into the night. We both awoke grumpy and unrested.
To make peace, I surrendered. I told her, "We'll just talk to this guy and see what happens." So David called his cousin, who turned out to be a skeptical man of considerable learning and great charm. He came to dinner, chatted with us for a couple of hours about the smell, about our relationships with Sophie, about all sorts of things that had no apparent linkage with ghosts or spirits.
"Is there any unfinished business between you and Sophie?" asked the professor.
"I don't think so," said Rebecca.
Sophie had known her cancer was incurable for nearly a year and had systematically gone about preparing for her death. She and Rebecca had spent many hours together talking; my wife had been in the room when Sophie expired, a peaceful exit eased by massive doses of morphine.
"There couldn't be," I said.
This was a lie. When Sophie had learned that she might have only months to live, she had re-examined her life and decided to make some changes. She took up skydiving and broke silk eight or ten times before she became too weak to handle the shrouds. She learned to snorkel and to ski. She read books that she'd put aside years earlier. She sampled new and wildly different cuisine, even taught herself a little French. And Sophie, who in all her life had been sexually intimate only with David, discreetly seduced a few carefully selected men and boys.
She had wanted to find out if there was more to sex than what her husband offered. And so one day she came on to me. I am ashamed to say that I let things go a bit too far. We never had sex, but we did nearly everything else. When I realized that what I was doing might hurt David or Rebecca, I backed off. Sophie nevertheless continued to pursue me, persisting in her advances until a few weeks before her death.
I was not about to share any of this with a stranger, much less with my wife. But now I began to wonder if there was indeed some possibility that the strange odor was Sophie's shade, intent in death on reminding me of what I had refused her in life.
So I allowed the academic to bring his apparatus into our home. I watched carefully as he set up strange instruments and took measurements from the gauges. I began to read all sorts of meanings into his mumbled musings. After two weeks of this, the professor came to the conclusion that it was possible that a ghost or spirit was responsible for our bedroom odor.
"We cannot be sure there's a spirit involved, of course," he said. "But if I had time and budget, I'd be inclined to investigate this phenomenon at greater length."
The odor persisted at bedtime and the more I thought about it, the more I thought about Sophie and what he had shared and how she had lived the last year of her life, the more I became convinced that there was a ghost, that it was the ghost of Sophie and that she was reminding me with her scent of that ultimate intimacy I had denied her.
Finally, I had to tell Rebecca.
She took it poorly, raging at me, cursing my name, questioning my sanity. Even though I repeatedly assured her that I had not had sex with Sophie, that what had happened between us grew out of my sense of wanting to comfort a doomed woman, my wife could not forgive me. For several nights she slept on the sofa in the den. Then she moved to a friend's apartment and finally into her own place.
We went to counseling. After a few sessions, we attempted a reconciliation. We spent an intimate and hopeful weekend in her flat, but the following week, when she returned to the little house that had been mine for years before our marriage, she was unable to sleep. She said that the spectral odor which still hovered about my bed kept her awake remembering my infidelity.
She filed for divorce. Not wanting to prolong the pain, I didn't contest it.
Nevertheless, I was devastated at the notion of never again being intimate with Rebecca. Eventually, of course, I came to accept the way things had turned out. I was still in my thirties, made a good living and was and in good shape; I was sure that I would find someone else. And Rebecca, so beautiful, poised and industrious, would have no difficulty attracting suitors. Unable to put Sophie aside and remain lovers, we resolved to become friends; on the evening of the day our interlocutory decree was finalized, we went to dinner to celebrate the dissolution of our marriage and the beginning of our new relationship.
It was a little after nine when I returned home. In the bedroom a shaded lamp hung as always from the ceiling directly over the bed, but as I walked in and flipped the wall switch, there was a flash of blue-green: The bulb had burned out.
I found a new one in a kitchen cabinet and returned with a stepladder and a flashlight. After removing the old bulb, I saw a narrow arc of darkened paint at the apex of the shade. There was also a little printed warning that I'd never noticed:
CAUTION: To reduce the risk of fire, use 60 watt type T or smaller lamp.
I turned the fragile glass over in my hand and shined the flashlight on it. It was rated at 100 watts. Suddenly seized by a thought, I climbed the last step on the ladder and put my nose on the shade next to the vacant socket. Inhaling deeply, I detected what until then I had taken as the scent of a woman's musk.
After screwing in a 60 watt bulb, I was never again troubled by the faint odor of scorching paint. Sometime later, when I told David, he confessed that he suspected that he had only imagined that the odor was present in his own bedroom.
Copyright © 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.