I’m not sure how it began. It could be something I ate or drank, and looking through my receipts lead me here. There’s nothing unusual about the pub, in a modest hotel along a broad street. Tonight’s bartender is new, I’m sure I’ve not met her or I’d be hard pressed to forget her height, a man’s, her edgy hairstyle like a bird nest’s fern. She winked when she slid the cocktail across the counter, causing me the sensation of floating. I’m flattered, surprised of my appeal, which I thought must have vanished in 2021, the year Dominica left, taking along the poultry in the fridge, with a cold note in the freezer compartment saying, “This is what you owe me.” Yes, I’d forbidden her to eat pork. I dislike the stench it left in her mouth, but not my own.
I must sound like a monster. It’s idiosyncratic and unfair of me, I know, but still I make sure my dates are vegetarians or have disavowed pork. At the bar counter, I consider asking the bartender if she loves pork chops, which she’ll only construe as an invitation for a date or a humorous pick-up line, since I only reveal this quirk slowly—if we pass the fifth dinner date, for instance, is the sign of maturity, friendliness soon crossing over into intimacy. Subtly, nonchalantly, I’ll reveal my detest for pig eaters (“The poor animal,” “Do you know eating pork is prohibited in some countries?”), the aftermath radiating trails of fatty scent and there I’ll be, trying to kiss and not vomit, juggling both like a clown with two batons.
Strangely, my own pork-eating isn’t a problem. I could eat plenty—ham, sausage, bacon, spam, Japanese tonkatsu—without retching, they go down with the satisfied burps after meal. The problem lies with my olfactory tract that detects it so keenly in another’s mouth with full-blown withdrawal, but forgives readily my chewing of baby back ribs at restaurants or pork rinds, my all-time favorite snack. My nose tract is a puzzle, if I have no difficulty with any other smell—beef, chicken, fish, perfumes like the Gucci Bloom Dominica wore. It is pork, only pork, I have the exaggerated response of revulsion and repulsion, that push, my hands cruel against Dominica one day when I came home and she was chewing pork jerky her friend had sent from Malaysia, coming towards me saying try it, try it; it was the best cured meat cuisine on earth.
“What’s wrong,” she asked, when she saw my horror and feet involuntarily backing away. “Are you sick, Jimbo?” I couldn’t pretend anymore I didn’t mind, I raised my arm and said, “Don’t talk, please.” She didn’t heed, of course, our romance were on the upswing then, all sweet and doting, honey bunnies, and disregarding what I said she stepped right up to me, thumb and finger clasping a corner of the pork piece. I backed up, soon feeling the hard door behind me. “Don’t come any closer,” I said, and that was when I gave her the first push. That was what happened when people didn’t listen, when they think you didn’t mean what you say.
She stepped back, pouting. “No need to do that,” she said and set the wretched pork down on a plate. My eyes must have protruded like ping pong balls and she bade me to lie down on my convertible couch. All along, since our third date, since I really liked her, I’d been dropping hints about my plight like Gretel’s clever breadcrumbs, but she didn’t get it. Happily nibbled at pork buns during our Sunday morning dim sum, despite my admonitions to “Drink more tea, they’re good for your skin,” or distract her with an egg tart. I should have come right out with it, explained that I’d vomit if we kissed, and it was nothing to do with her but an allergy. Rather than keeping it secret or my subtle hints, placing the mouthwash in a conspicuous place in the bathroom, hoping the bright blue liquid would attract her attention and wash out the pork malodor before our afternoon’s snuggles, which did. She emerged from the bathroom breath minty, and that solved my problem for the time being, kept our relationship cozy.
Instead, Dominica made me grow a conscience. Since she loved pork, since I was aware of the double-standards, if I confessed the only consequence would be her abstinence, her watching while I gaily ate my spam. It wasn’t fair. It’d be tyrannical, the despot and his appetite, the secret feedings and self-conscious kissing, no longer spontaneous. Thus I tolerated the oily aftermath of her pork ingested mouth, a mess the mouthwash suppressed somewhat except for moments when they peeked out, like the glorious animals they were, in the middle of a kiss, and my tongue would freeze for a second. Once, she burped after eating meatball spaghetti. It was a tiny one that jumped over into my mouth like a migrating flea, but a dizzying cloud began to spread in my brain. My stomach somersaulted and I had to break off from her instantly. Thankfully, she did not perceive it.
I’d gone to the pharmacy for help. Stronger mouthwashes that might desensitize my nose or end all pork odors, only to meet the pharmacist’s sullen countenance until I blurted out, “Please, I really like my girlfriend.” To my surprise that moved her, nametagged Angie, a girl whose boredom exceeded her smile. Wordlessly she exited the counter and hands in her pharmacy coat, shuffled to the aisle of Oral Hygiene and pointed to a bottle of gleaming amber liquid. Then she said, “Good luck,” while I watched her back view fade. She’d gotten the wrong idea. I wanted to say it wasn’t me, it was my nose, it was Dominica, but I only stared dumbly. Women’s rights were a brewing colony, and my rare condition might sound like an excuse. I didn’t hesitate to stock my bathroom cabinets with her recommendation.
Two bottles, one liter each—that was how long we lasted. That day, after I broke down, after Dominica set down the fiery piece of cured pork that was the root of our separation, the beginning of our irreconcilable gustatory views, she took an ice pack from the freezer and placed it on my forehead, hovering above me motherly and anxious. Her face loomed close, five inches near mine murmuring what happened, sweet Jimbo, was I ill, was it the heat, last night’s dinner, something she did or didn’t do, at which point I opened my eyes and screamed. In her mouth were the wine-colored shreds of chewed pork, slivers caught between her last two molars.
More horrible was the smell. The terrible, pungent smell that’d haunted me, chased me to the edge of my dreams. I’d stood before the mirror puzzled, asking that engine of sneezing, breathing, smelling, what was wrong. Why pork, not sardines or duck, but pork so readily available in our diet? Why now, just as things were going so well with Dominica? To all appearances, I must admit, it was a fine, splendid, nose, a harbor for my breaths and sorrow for thirty-one years, the tears I snorted back whenever work at the office got chaotic, unfair. My boss Terry who killed time off our overworked hands, chiseling to his delight traumatic sculptures in his likeness, that, considering my stress, it was possible he fitted right into the origin of my predicament with this malfunctioning nose.
Perhaps it began that Tuesday when he came to my cubicle and slammed down the file I’d presented to him that morning, knocking the coffee over and soaking my trousers, saying loudly, imperiously, “Did you actually graduate from college? Clean this up before you leave.” I felt toyed with. The inevitable snickering came soon. My humiliation was a theater. My nerve must have connected the scent of pork in the office—it should be my colleague Annie’s Subway lunch—to the incident, derailing my olfactory tract like a railway track. I was home late that night, stopping by the pub.
Perhaps it was just cheap psychology, connections I made anyhow to explore the reasons that might be found in Dominica’s breath. How could I tell? Life, all rolled into one, without beginning or end, like a ball of loose thread. As I said, I’d had no quarrels with the overall look of my nose. It sat agreeably at the center of my face, like a king on his armchair, relaxed and in control, haughty and knowing everything would be provided for, the nostrils cleaned out of boogers and the hairs, whenever they ventured out of their caves, did not survive long in the outside world without the prompt snipping from my trimming scissors. The dorsum, while not as straight as I wished, was after all a valuable inheritance from my mother Helen, the poor but beautiful woman from up north—a legend she invented for me, I suspected, a tragedy she repeated at bedtimes ending her story with “That’s how I got my nose.” Indeed, it was a slender, handsome nose, good for all seasons. The taint from my father George was apparent at the wings, flaring up easily when they misapprehended facts, such as Patricia Knatchbull was born under the zodiac sign of Virgo, corrected loudly again by Terry during a conference dinner, which I doubt I’d ever forget.
Power and money explained themselves. Or they needed none, they were gleaming in the knife I cleaned with a napkin and slotted into my tuxedo pocket and took home that night. Patricia Knatchbull had nothing to do with it. Patricia Knatchbull was born on Valentine’s Day. Dominica was sweet enough, laying me down on the couch to examine me like a nurse, though she was a secretary at a law firm, but I couldn’t help and gave her a second push, a rough shove this time, pushing away her hovering maternity and ice pack onto the ground. Alarmed, for I’d only showed her gentility, opening her doors and pulling out restaurant seats, she stumbled after me as I headed to the kitchen and opened the cutlery drawer. The knife I pickpocketed fitted my hand like a glove.
“Don’t come near me,” I yelled.
“What’s wrong, Jimbo?”
“Okay, okay. Easy does it. Hand me the knife,” she said.
She was more powerful than she looked. Not an ounce of fat after all that ingested pork, with an elegant nape and tiny hands that made me fancy a one karat ring on her fourth finger. She wrestled the conference knife off and pinned me to the ground. After all, it was a knife with a blunt tip, nothing to worry about, a homicide would need the meat or bread knife. Distraught, I escaped to the bathroom and sat in the bathtub.
Minutes later, she knocked. “You’re scaring me, Jimbo. Tell me what’s wrong.” I wanted to yell at her to wash her mouth. When rationality, the doorman of my life, settled me, I came out of the bathroom and said, “My nose has gone wrong.” I told her everything. When (most likely one hot June day) and what, and no clue why. “No, honey bunny, it’s not you. It’s me.” I said.
She left my apartment early. When she called that night from the safe distance of the cellphone, I reiterated my problem. “I see,” she said. She brought me to the doctor that week. After that, however, our magic broke. It wasn’t the same even though she cleaned her mouth carefully before kissing. This went on for a bottle of Listerine—the half-hearted, self-conscious kisses, her look each time she watched me devour pork buns. Once, we were invited to a barbeque where I had no consideration for her and wolfed down a pulled pork burger, while she’d had to decline to the hosts, meekly and hungrily, “No thanks. I don’t eat pork.” I supposed it was too much for her, being unfree, unherself. I must have overdone it when I belched right next to her face. She pushed me away.
Yes, it was a double-standard. I can and you can’t, love sundered by pork, an inequity. “This can’t go on forever,” she said in the car. “How long can a love like this last?” I pretended not to hear her. What did she want me to say, no kisses then? A week later, when I opened the freezer compartment of my fridge, I found that note, written in red lipstick. I put it back in the freezer. I never saw Dominica again. At the bar now, yes I’m still here, by the counter, reminiscing and pondering if I should finally get over Dominica. The bartender is closing shop. Occasionally she glances at me, no doubt wondering when I’d leave. Her wink, while not an illusion, isn’t an invitation. And certainly, like the many drunkards she’d encountered, like a lonely hunter hungry for company, like the double standard I really am, I blurt out, “Hungry for pork chops?”
She says, “Yes.”