My second year of university, I had to take an introductory psychology class. I didn’t really want to take it but it counted toward a science requirement. One of the challenges for many arts students is finding science courses that are possible for someone like me (who is practically scientifically illiterate) to pass. This course was fairly popular as it was mostly a survey of the history of psychology and the different disciplines, with just a bit about the human body–things like how the eye and brain process information and such. The class took place in large tiered lecture hall with about 140 students.
I walked into the final exam not feeling great. I had crammed the night before but I didn’t know if much stuck in my brain. My literature classes were always so much easier. You read the book, you attended the classes, you wrote the papers, and you shouldn’t have to do any studying. In Psych 104, though, I had a lot of memorizing to do and I had left way too much way too late.
I sat down about four rows from the front. The professor and three grad students stood up at the front getting ready to hand out the multiple choice exam and pencils. About fifteen minutes before the exam was to start, I first got the slightest whiff. I wasn’t sure what it was exactly but I kept my nose at it until I was sure. It was body odour. And it was building strength. I looked around for someone who appeared to be Jesus or had dreadlocks but these usual suspects were nowhere to be found. I tried to spot the culprit but no one immediately jumped out at me.
By now the smell was really building and I was getting angry. Who the fuck would come to a packed exam, in a too-warm room, smelling like that? Why would you expose people to that? It’s fucking rude and inconsiderate. “This is a violation of a social contract. I bet it’s one of those holistic medicine, conspiracy theory fucks, who believe secret government agencies are going to track them through trace elements of antiperspirant,” I thought. Like the government gives a shit that you donated to Greenpeace and you don’t like pesticides. Such a radical. I almost asked a sour-looking girl who was sitting beside me, “Can you smell that?” but her face said, “I’m miserable, don’t talk to me.”
The smell was really starting to gain momentum by this time, really strong, really pungent. And a nightmare flashed in head. A horror so profound, but so real, I had to investigate. I slipped my hand as discreetly as I could between the buttons of my shirt and placed the tips of my first two fingers into the heart of my armpit. I pulled my hand away slowly and brought my fingers up to my nose. Halfway there I knew it. My stomach fell and as my fingers were now an inch from nose, I knew it was me. The smell was coming from inside the house. My face was on fire and the room seemed to shrink as I panicked.
I bolted to the bathroom. I hiked up my shirt and confirmed that yes indeed, this rot, this chemical weapon, was me. I went through my morning. Coffee, breakfast, shower, teeth brushing . . . and then deodorant? Deodorant? “You forgot your deodorant,” a small, defeated voice somewhere in my head said. I washed my hands and hurried back to the exam, which was just about to start. Leaving was not an option. As I sat down I began to sweat profusely. Rivulets of sweat poured down my sides, tickling my skin, and practically produced physical stink lines emanating from my body. I kept my head down, almost paralyzed with fear that I would make eye contact with anyone and they would know. They would stand up and point and scream “Sinner! Violator! Nose Raper!” and I’d run out of the room crying.
I finished the exam in record time and handed it in. The professor, a kind woman, smiled at me as I left, as though I wasn’t spreading a smell that damaged her lungs and gave her nightmares. I just wanted to get home. My bus was due any minute and I stood apart from the crowd of kids waiting to go back home to the bedroom community of Sherwood Park, where I lived at the time. It was about a twenty-minute bus ride and the buses were pretty crowded during exams.
But I thought, “No way. I can’t do it. Never mind what other people can smell–I’m fucking dying here.” I walked the better part of Hub Mall, a long hallway with tables in the middle and stores (mostly food court restaurants) on either side. I entered Varsity, an all-purpose store that has outrageous prices, and bought a nine-dollar stick of antiperspirant. I then went to the nearest bathroom, unbuttoned my shirt, and slathered myself in the beautiful, smell-nullifying chalky substance that is a wonder of the modern world. I tucked my shirt back in my pants and headed for the bus feeling relieved.
On my walk back down Hub Mall, I noticed more than a few people smiling at me. “Now what?” I thought. Some raised their eyebrows, some giggled a bit. Jesus Christ! What the fuck? Rude! What the hell is so funny? I ignored them and finally hit the door to the outside, and that’s when a blast of icy Alberta wind hit my chest. And my stomach. I looked down. Oh sweet Jesus, you have got to be kidding me. I had tucked my shirt into my pants but I forgot to button it. I walked the whole length of Hub mall with my shirt unbuttoned, exposing my chest and torso like some aging, sad gigolo, trying to convince himself he was still sexy. In a fit, I threw down my backpack a la George Costanza, buttoned up my goddamn shirt, and with what little dignity I could muster, got on the bus and went home.
I did manage to pass the course but definitely failed basic hygiene.