“The Smell of Other People’s Houses,” by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

In 9th grade my boyfriend was Jason Johanson. His father was a dentist and a hunting guide in the Bush. They built a new house on Campbell Lake where they could park their float plane and we could snow machine all the way down Campbell creek in the winter. The whole house was made of fresh cut cedar. All of Jason’s clothes smelled like cedar, and it made me sneeze when I got close to him, but I got close anyway. To this day, when I smell cedar, I think of swim team parties at their house and the big 8×10 Ronald Reagan photograph that hung in the living room. Cedar is the smell of Republicans. It’s the smell of sneaking from Alsion’s room, his older sister, who I befriended out of necessity, and into Jason’s room where I crawled into his queen sized bed which faced the sliding glass doors that looked out onto the lake. How many 9th graders have a queen sized bed? I’m guessing one, and it had sheets that smelled like cedar and Tide and they held a boy with curly blonde hair that reeked of chlorine. He was the best diver in the state and I was only on a stupid JV relay team. But we could have drowned in the smell of chlorine and naivete. He knew how to french kiss, which tasted like a forest of promises, once I got used to it. He said the lights on the lake were “our lights.” And because I was Catholic, and smelled stiff instead of wild, he promised not to do anything but touch me lightly and only in certain places, where the smell wouldn’t give me away when I went back to my own house that held nothing but the acrid stink of cigarette smoke in second hand furniture—also known as guilt and sin.

At the Johanson’s, everything was fresh like it had just been flown in on a Bush plane, and you could do anything. Their shag carpet was so thick, in the morning I followed my own deep orange footprints back to Alison’s bed and pretended I’d been there all night. “You smell like my brother,” she’d say as we curled up together. “You smell like your brother,” I’d tell her.

“Yeah, well don’t try anything,” she’d say.

The Johanson’s were friends with John Denver and when he came to stay with them he slept in Alsion’s bed. (She had to sleep on the pull-out couch) After he left she told me she was never going to wash the sheets again. We laid on our faces and tried to breathe in John Denver but I only smelled something foreign, something from Outside, somewhere in the Lower ’48. “I smell the Wrangell Mountains,” she said. Later I would learn that he wrote that song at their house, and I doubt that she smelled them. The mountains are thick and ripe with snow and smell like glaciers and homesickness. Her sheets were stale, like old socks. I went and sat in Jason’s closet so I could get John Denver out of my nose. Cedar. I sneezed. I stole a white t-shirt and took it home to sleep with it under my pillow. Jason would call me late at night on the kid’s phone with the long red cord that stretched from the hall into my room and I would put his shirt over my head and listen to his voice, telling me about the lights on the lake and how much he liked listening to Olivia Newton John so much better than John Denver, but not to tell anyone. We talked about swim practice and I licked chlorine off my arm pretending it was his. I asked him why his family liked Ronald Reagan so much and he said he didn’t know, but that he wore cowboy boots and that was enough for him.

Printed with permission from Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, copyrighted by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock @ 2012. This piece originally appeared in Issue No. 12 of the Los Angeles Review.

Author: A Room of Her Own

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