You live in L.A., you know the smell of skunk. Like night-blooming jasmine, it is the smell of summer darkness, rank and funky, rising from somewhere beneath the oleander, from amid the stands of eucalyptus and jacaranda. A familiar smell, not unlike badly burned coffee, not unbearable, it is simply part of the landscape.
Until your house gets skunked at 3:30 in the morning and you realize you do not know the smell of skunk, or anything else, at all.
It was our own fault; we had left a bowl of dog food out, knowing full well there were skunks and raccoons and other critters lurking in the brush. Apparently, the temptation proved too much for one brave skunk, and I was awakened by the murderous growl of our lab-pit bull mix, a growl that was cut short by a yip and followed by the frenzied clatter of nails as Blackie high-tailed it inside. My eyes flew open.
"We've been skunked," I said, elbowing my husband out of bed. While he dragged the dogs back outside and inspected the perimeter of the house, I madly began shutting windows. But it was too late. Like fog rolling in over the San Francisco Bay, the smell of skunk invaded our house. What began as that familiar sharp musk soon became a toxic stink that left me breathless, eyes tearing, heart pounding.
I searched for an end to it, for the final reaches of it, but it was a bottomless stink, mauling and fierce. Wild-eyed, I ran to the children's room, with a speed and sense of panic appropriate to an earthquake or a sudden cry of "fire," slamming windows shut, turning the fan on high. Miraculously, the powdery baby-smell of their room remained relatively untouched, though the hall outside reeked. I went in search of my husband.
How can this be happening? I wanted to ask him. How can we live 15 minutes from the downtown of the second largest city in the country and here we are gasping for breath in Skunk Central? We are not the Clampetts. We are not the Joads.
But the smell was so bad, I could not open my mouth.
"What?" he said, meeting me in the dining room. "I think it's OK now. I think it's dissipating."
I stared at him in disbelief while all around us a noisome fug rose and swelled. Already it was clear that the house was permanently damaged. No way this smell was ever going to fade. In the morning I was sure we would find the walls streaked, the wood floors pocked by it.
The day before, we had been wondering if we should call our Realtor, move to a bigger house. But now, I knew, we would never be able to sell. Never. We would have to live in this house, cramped and smelly, until we died. We would have to send the children away to live in the country, like Londoners did during the Blitz. They would grow apart from us, become Republicans, move to La Jolla, never call.
My husband headed for the bedroom. "It's not so bad in here," he said.
I have long suspected that my husband is not a human. There was that trip to Italy, when I was still trying to impress him with my femininity by waiting for him to decide it was time to eat. Invariably, after nine or 10 hours of straight touring, I would crack, gasping, "My God, aren't you hungry yet?" and he'd say, "Yeah, sure, I guess I could eat." Then there was the February visit to New York when I swathed myself and our son in polar fleece and wool, and Richard walked around in a Windbreaker. And now this. While surrounded by a paint-peeling, boundless stink, my husband got back in bed. "I don't really smell it, even."
I went to the children's room, laid myself down next to my son. I was doomed to live out my life in a skunky house, married to an alien, whom I couldn't divorce because I certainly couldn't afford to send the kids to the country on my own. Especially since I wouldn't be able to go to work the next day because no one in the office would be able to tolerate my stinkiness. Soon, I would be fired and friendless, unable to make the payments on the stinky skunky house.
This is why I should never be awake at 4 in the morning. It has never been a good hour for me, although God knows I have seen it often enough. Watched a sky I knew would never lighten, listened to the night birds mocking me. The decisions I make at 4 in the morning are never good ones, the thoughts I have are palsied with psychosis. At the best of times, my mind is, as they say, a dangerous neighborhood; at 4 in the morning, it's a war zone. A skunked-out war zone.
Still, I must have slept, because eventually I woke up. The smell had permeated the kids' room, but it seemed to be fading. My husband was gone. I assumed the mother ship had summoned him home for an olfactory retuning, but a note on the table informed me he was at the gym. When he walked in a few minutes later, he did not look well.
"That smell," he said. "It really did make me sick. I mean, I'm still sick."
I smiled with relief.
"You know," I said, "I think it's getting better."
And it was. Of course it was.