Julia heard the slow knock at the door she had been waiting for and rushed to open it. Peter stood there, his fist still in the air, ready to knock again. It was the first time she saw him since his near-fatal bike crash. He looked like Frankenstein, but worse. A dozen bolts came out of his head, holding it together. One of arms resembled a used wad of toilet paper. Both his legs were missing, but he stood on prosthetic ones. Somehow, he was missing a nostril. His hands, like his arms and face, were covered with scars from stiches, staples, and broken glass.
‘Peter!’ exclaimed Julia.
‘Julia. Hello’ said Peter.
Julia, ever the optimist, was able to see right past Peter’s disfigurement. She was shocked by his appearance, of course, but was able to accept it immediately. She leapt into the hallway and gave him a big hug. Peter labored to lift his good arm to hug her back. Julia, with her face close to Peter’s neck, got a whiff of him. Then, everything changed.
He smelled… what did he smell like!?… Julia wondered. She kept hugging, inhaling deeply, trying to determine the exact smell.
‘It’s so good to see you’, she said, buying herself some time.
‘You too’, said Peter, struggling to maintain the hug.
He was covered in sweat. It must have been hard for him to walk the two flights up to my apartment, she thought, I’m surprised he doesn’t smell like BO. Wait. !!! I got it. I know what Peter smells like. Nothing. He doesn’t smell at all. Like the internet or outer-space, Peter didn’t smell at all. For the first time, Julia became nervous around Peter, wondering who he really was.
‘Come in’ she said ‘sit down’
She led him to the sofa, sat him down, and for the first time that she could see his skull through a patch of missing skin on the back of his head. Even that didn’t gross her out. Not like his utter lack of smell. It tantalized her. She tried to distract herself by being friendly.
‘How are you, Peter?
‘Good. Better than ever in my entire life.’
‘Are you sure?’ she asked ‘Are you sure I can’t get you anything to drink?’
Peter shrugged. She rushed to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. Then she took her time, waiting for the water to boil, reflecting on how Peter had changed. His physical appearance was an obvious difference, but she was thinking of the more subtle differences. His energy had changed. He used to be lithe and vivacious. He was warm, sweet, and sometimes unpredictable. He was very cordial but also edgy. In short, he was a mammal. Warm-blooded, passionate, hairy. Smelly. In all the time it took Julia to make tea Peter tried to lean back into the sofa, winced from pain, and then returned to his original, upright position. He looked like an abstract sculpture, a tortured human unable to relax. Julia returned with the tea and sat down.
‘I meant what I said, Julia’
‘What do you mean?’
‘That I’m better now than ever in my entire life.’
‘This body’ he said, not moving a finger, ‘is just that. A body. It’s not me, not the true me.’
‘I know what you’re thinking. That I’m broken. That I’m not Peter. But let me tell you, Jules, I am.’
Julia was unable to say a word. She still kept thinking of what Peter used to be and what he had become. He was calmer now, more sedate and sober. But he was missing his animal energy. And she missed, of course, his smell. Though she never gave it much thought before, she knew quite certainly it was gone.
‘In fact’ continued Peter, ‘I’m more me than I ever have been.’
‘But how?’ asked Julia.
Peter mistook her distance for the typical response to his condition: terror and pity. He took it in stride, as he had done throughout his entire recovery, explaining how his physical downfall had led to a spiritual awakening.
‘I’ll tell you. The real Peter isn’t a body at all, but a soul’
‘I know you don’t believe me but believe me. I am a soul inside of a body. This body is like a suit; it’s not the real me. The real me is an entirely different being that can’t be damaged by anything material, not even riding my bike through a four-way intersection and getting hit by a bus and flying through the air into another lane where an oncoming semi hits me catching me in its windshield before it brakes catapulting me into the air back into the intersection where I’m promptly run over by another two cars. Not even that can damage my soul.’
Julia started to cry. What happened to Peter was too much for her to think about. That was one of the reasons she never visited him in the hospital.
‘It’s OK Julia. Really’
‘Tell me what you are thinking’
‘Please, Julia. You can be honest, I-‘
‘No, I’m saying: No. You are different.’
‘Of course I am. But the damage is only physical I-‘
‘Peter. Please. Stop. You are different. I know what you went through was terrible, and I want to give you hope, but look at you. You’re in agony just sitting here. You’re like a statue. Rigid, dogmatic, certain. You used to be more… fluid. You loved riding your bike. You were fidgety- a good fidgety- like you were uncertain and curious about the world. But I’ll tell you the worst of it, and I know this will sound strange, but so what. You don’t smell.’
‘Smell? Well Julia, I only have one nostril and the other-‘
‘-No, Peter, YOU don’t smell. As in I can’t smell you. It’s weird. I never noticed that people have a smell. But you’re like, completely de-oderized, and not like Old Spice, but dead. And not like a corpse, but a skeleton.’
Peter thought about it for a minute. Julia’s tears dried up but she had a big lump in her throat.
‘You know what’ said Peter ‘that makes sense. Because my soul WOULDN’T smell’ ‘Goddamnt Peter you’re not better! You’re not! You’re not! You used to be alive but now you’re dead- you’re dead!’
Julia punched Peter where his heart would be and broke through his rib cage with her fist. She ripped her fist out and broke even more of his chest on the way out. A cloud of dust billowed from his chest. Peter looked down as the dust rose to his face.
‘Ah-ah-a-choo!’ sneezed Peter, ‘Ah-choo! Ah-choo! Ah-choo!’
‘God bless you!’ ‘Don’t say that!’
‘God bless you!’
Peter started to writhe in pain. Julia grabbed his shoulder but it dissolved in her hands, hurling another plume of dust into the air, causing Peter to sneeze even more.
At that Peter, or whatever he was, shattered into a cloud of dust.