It was late December. I was in the changing room of a Bikram yoga studio in my hometown, about a 10-minute drive from my mother’s house. My sister had already gone to put her yoga mat down in the studio and I was finishing changing. There were about five other women in the room with me chatting casually while they got ready for class.
One woman in her 30’s with shoulder length brown hair giggled and said in a low voice – “Is it just me…or does it kind of…smell…like marij_na in here?” Another woman in her 40’s, tall, slim and blond nodded and said, “You know I thought the same thing when I walked in.” A short woman with wavy hair, looked skeptical and said, “Hmm maybe it’s one of the cleaning supplies or someone’s shampoo or something?” The first woman shook her head and said, “I was in here earlier today and it didn’t smell like this.”
Listening I thought, Oh no….oh no no no no no no, you cannot be serious. The tall blond laughed, “Can you IMAGINE going to a hot yoga class stoned?”
I piped in, “Right? Instead of each posture lasting a minute, it would seem like an hour! The whole class would never end!” We all laughed and the blond and I continued talking. She said, “I don’t even like pot at all, let alone before I exercise!” I nodded aggressively, feeling I had something to prove. I wondered, do I look nervous? Do I seem suspect?
I edged away when she stepped closer to me and I said, “Yeah I hate pot. It makes me feel horrible. I hate not being able to think. It makes me so unhappy.” She said she totally agreed and we left the changing room with our mats and entered the steamy studio.
Although every word I said to the blond woman was true – I can’t stand pot – I knew with sinking certainty that the smell that everyone in the changing room noted was coming from me. I felt distracted throughout the whole class. I just kept thinking “Oh no, not again.”
Flashback 14 years. I am a sophomore in high school. I am wearing a patchwork skirt composed of blue, green and purple squares, lace-up leather sandals from the Renaissance Faire, a tight black tank top that reveals a sliver of my stomach and a large leather jacket. The jacket is a hand-me-down from my father, so it hangs loosely around me. But I like to wear it – it is comforting because it still sort of smells like him
It’s a cool spring morning. I am standing in a small group of friends outside the new gym, which the school also uses as an assembly hall. An assembly is supposed to be starting soon, but we are taking advantage of the few minutes we have left before our teachers inevitably shoo us inside. As we talk a few other people join us. At one point one guy comes into the circle and says, “Wow…smells like a skunk sprayed around here last night! Yuck.” Everyone nods and says yeah. I nod…but my heart starts beating rapidly and I think, “Oh NO!” I start to blush faintly as we all enter the gym and I feel a little bit sick – because I know that a skunk didn’t spray around the gym the night before. I know that the skunk smell is coming from me.
Teenage years are difficult. Teenage years can be embarrassing and traumatic. However if I had to choose a time that was most mortifying, I would have to say it was the month I smelled like a skunk.
Much worse than using bad fake IDs and being carded at inopportune moments. More embarrassing than when I decided it was a good fashion statement to wear hippy woven overalls with only a sports bra and my underwear on underneath. Worse than the year everyone called us witches. More embarrassing than the too-much-perfume era or the blackberry colored lipstick stage. More pathetic than getting so drunk in the first hour of a party that I slept all the way through the rest of it and was only able to experiencee it later through my friends’ epic stories. Worse than throwing up on my best friend in an elevator in Rome. Yes it was even worse than the time one of the first guys I ever dated showed up at my front door for our first date wearing a kilt.
No – the skunks were one of the true nadirs of my teenage existence.
Over the winter of my sophomore year some skunks seeking protection had broken through the wire mesh that covered a hole in the side of our house. They found the dry warm area beneath our house to their liking and promptly moved in, right in the space below our kitchen.
On some days all of us, skunks, cats and humans, could coexist peacefully. However, more often than not, the skunks were very trying neighbors. By springtime it seemed the skunks were quite lusty, frequently squeaking, shrieking and scrabbling around in passionate skunk embraces. Just like many humans, when the skunks were not amorously involved they fought bitterly – hissing, biting, scratching and tumbling around beneath us. Occasionally one of them would feel threatened and the inevitable occurred – it would spray directly beneath our kitchen.
Those of us who grew up in California are very familiar with the smell of skunk. It is never a pleasant smell – however a wiff caught wafting through a forest, or cycling through your car’s air conditioning unit as you drive down the freeway, is a different world of experience from how it smells when a skunk repeatedly sprays a few feet below your living space.
The first 24 hours after a spray were literally nauseating; we couldn’t do anything at all in the kitchen, and it was difficult to spend any time in the house at all without feeling sick. The initial intensity of the odor would dissipate somewhat after a day but the general smell would remain, settling into the fibers of our furniture, carpets and clothing.
This went on for months.
I gather that most people when faced with a skunk invasion that was causing every item within their house to smell worse than rotten eggs would, you know, do something about it. But my mother is not remotely like most people. She didn’t seem to mind the skunks all that much. They were to her a somewhat trifling annoyance, nothing to get too worked up about, nothing to act on too hastily.
My mother however was not a girl at the tender age of 16, who had to leave the house every day to be surrounded by other teenagers, smelling not so delicately of Parfum de Mouffette, Spray of Skunk.
Every day I went to school afraid. Afraid this would be the day that somebody would put two and two together and realize that NO the school had not been invaded by an aggressive hoard of warring skunks that seemed to be spraying all over campus every single day, and that yes, strangely enough every time they smelled skunk the one person that was always around was Pacifica. A true nightmare scenario for a teenager.
After the mortifying moment outside the gym, I was finally brought to a breaking point. That day I went home and told my mother I was moving out that week if she didn’t do something about the skunks. I had no real plan, but I was in deadly earnest. I thought perhaps one of my friend’s parents would take me in at least for a little while until I sorted out another arrangement. I didn’t really matter. All I knew was that either the skunks were going or I was going. Anything would be better than continuing to live with that smell.
My mother, finally taking the situation seriously, called in someone that week to set some traps, catch the skunks, and release them into the adjacent hills. We boarded up the entrance to their home after it was cleaned of feces and general skunk squalor. And after a week or two I started to smell like a normal teenage girl again.
(That is until my mother began her monthly ritual of boiling a vat of putrefied “Tibetan herbs”, given to her by a Russian “doctor” who swore he had been taken blindfolded to a secret monastery in the mountains of Tibet, where he learned healing arts. We never really knew what parts of his story were true, but he had a handshake like iron and wore leather pants. Several years later he died of pneumonia, and the authorities found his house scattered with hundreds of empty bottles of vodka. But that’s another story.)
As I entered my yoga class with the tall blond, all these memories rushed back to me and I suddenly felt like I was 16 again – different odor, same feeling of embarrassment. As I struggled through my class, I wondered who had put two and two together, who realized the smell of p_t was coming from my sister and myself –from our clothing, our towels, our mats, even our hair?
I realized that every time I left the house over the holidays this year I must have smelled like I had just gotten high. My sister had this confirmed when she went out for coffee with one of our yoga teachers. She asked him about it point blank, and he said, “Oh yeah, I just totally thought you and your sister were hotboxing your car before class every day.” Sigh.
For the record, no, of course we hadn’t been smoking. I only ever experimented with p_t one summer when I was 18 and I decided definitively that I loathed it. It’s just not for me. However my mother and her partner had been busy over the winter drying out certain (legal) medicinal substances in my old home that filled the place up with a very telling scent. In other words they had effectively hotboxed our entire house.
As someone who highly values my own brain and my capacity to use it effectively, it was pretty embarrassing to realize that everyone I had recently conversed with probably assumed I was a p_thead. I had a sudden fear of being judged.
I think we all have those moments where some little thing makes us feel really young and out of control again, and throws us momentarily right back into the pit of adolescence. On the other hand, it took me years to be able to laugh about the skunk situation, whereas it only took me a few hours to see the humor in what happened in yoga class and stop feeling embarrassed. It is truly wonderful to grow up, and no longer fear being defined solely by the strange odors emanating from my mother’s house. (Love you mom!)