You cannot know the agony of commuting until you have stood in a train crammed with people and you’re smashed next to someone who has the breath of a dead cat. No, it’s worse: a cat dead for four days whose last meal was another dead cat. And you can describe this man’s breath so perfectly because he has just leaned in to ask you a question and the message he is trying to convey is lost in a flood of vulgar odor. And it’s like your life is flashing before your eyes, only it’s not all your life experiences but just the most putrid smells you’ve ever smelled. The whole milk left untouched for three months in your ex-lover’s fridge. The poopy diaper festering on the back stairs, carelessly discarded by the neighbor’s babysitter. The stink of the paper mill on a humid day in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. The garbage piled in the alley behind the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. The smell of the train bathroom, just around the corner from where you are currently standing, but even that smell would be welcome in place of your current olfactory torture.
And you understand through your haze of disgust that this man is making a comment about the state of modern day commuting, and he’s witty, intelligent even, and he probably has a respectable job and his suit is well-pressed and it reminds you of your father whose suits were always impeccable. And his shoes you can’t see because of the crowd but his briefcase is made of gorgeous greenish suede that is like the color of the forest you strolled through in Patagonia. But you can’t enjoy these memories. Instead you think of other times this has happened, this experience of being paralyzed in the face of unrestrainedly bad breath. There was that work gathering with Tom the CEO, who must have chewed garlic before arriving, or the party where the offending girl was overpowered in glitter but lacking a breath mint, or at the supermarket, from that chirpy cashier. Perhaps it was possible to draw inspiration from how you handled those situations. You could smile, nod, and attempt to casually move to the farthest corner of the room, or smell a flower. But here in the crowded train there is nowhere to go and no flowers to smell, just the damp odor of the free newspapers. So you subtly breathe through your mouth and keep your lips turned up, stiff but miming pleasant.
Then the train finally stops at Schiphol, and you hold your breath, now figuratively as well as literally, and hope to the depths of your soul that this man has a flight to catch. And you watch even more people get on the train. A crew of KLM flight attendants dressed in their bright blue suits. Grungy tourists with suitcases. Business types heading to Amsterdam to make deals. And the man does not disembark, and you hear your own voice scream inside your head, noooooo, and you picture falling to your knees in desperation, but you don’t move or make a sound because that would be strange and rude.
And you think of all the solutions that could help this man. Mints. Gum. Bubblegum, cinnamon gum, sugarless gum. A toothbrush. Mouthwash. Bacteria-killing Listerine. A different diet. A dietician with a fancy degree who would stand before him and say sternly, no more garlic, onions, cheese or bacon. Cut coffee and cola, embrace peppermint tea and sparkling water.
And you will the train to move more quickly, and marvel at the strangeness of being held hostage in a small space yet simultaneously flying across the ground, just like astronauts must feel, hurtling upwards into the unknown, the earth revealing its curvature, the moon getting larger, the space suit heavy but comfortable, its tightly fitting helmet shielding them from the terminally bad breath of the other astronauts.