Zach Stafford’s story of the day a passing scent instantly evoked puberty and all its crippling awkwardness.
In middle school, kids would walk down the halls and check out what everyone was wearing. It was the goal that one was in head-to-toe Abercrombie & Fitch – even down to undergarments. Clothing had strong ties to one’s popularity and socio-economic status. The kids who were wealthier wore strictly Abercrombie & Fitch and kids with not as much would wear things like American Eagle or Aeropostale or, gasp, something from Wal-Mart.
These were the days of my teen years, days stricken with acne, classism, and no personal style. I went through puberty wearing Abercrombie & Fitch.
I had forgotten about these times until recently while making my way home after work. It was rush hour and bodies crammed into the metal cages that we call trains and as my stop approached a teenage boy nudged next to me to signal to the crowd: this is my stop, move. As we stood next to one another a smell I recognized began to pollute the air around me and a memory began to form.
My mind shot back to my middle school locker room and the guys that were in it, and a day replayed in my mind.
The guys in the locker rooms in those days seemed like giants. They were attractive and fit from all the sports they played. Their voices had begun changing and hair was sprouting up everywhere. They were becoming men in those locker rooms, or at least that’s what it felt like.
I, on the other hand, was not any of those things. I was chubby and puberty wasn’t a friend of mine who I had yet met. And I enjoyed reading and studying geography more than sweating in the mid-morning air on the school grounds. My athleticism was not something I would of ever boasted about. I couldn’t run a mile in under 10 minutes like most of the boys, but I could read a book a day unlike any of the boys I knew.
One day after gym class all the guys made their way towards the locker room to change for 3rd period. In those days, I always tried to be the first one in the locker room so as little people as possible could be around as I accomplished the daunting task of changing in a semi-public forum.
As I began the process in our locker rooms a guy standing across from me barked, “Nice boxers, dude,” while a group of other guys walked in.
“…Thanks,” I answered back, nervously. That day my boxers were pink and green.
The guys that walked in snickered at this boy’s remark. After their snickers died down they continued rambling to one another about winning some game or liking some girl. I tuned them out and focused on my wardrobe change.
“Hey, what size jeans do you wear?” The same boy who remarked about my boxers asked, reaching for my jeans that sat on the bench dividing the both of us.
“Umm, I don’t know, I can’t—” I reached for them, but was too late. He held them in his hand and began searching for the size tag.
I knew what size I wore, 33×28. I knew that because my stepmother would always have my jeans hemmed and 28 were the same length of her jeans she would always remind me. In those days I would pray that I would just get taller or become 28, whichever came first.
“Lookie here, big boy: a 33!” He began showing the other guys and they laughed and I cringed and I reached for the jeans back but could not reach them.
“Let’s see how much bigger yours are than mine,” he picked up his pair of jeans and pressed them against the lockers putting his on top and mine behind.
“Eh, not too bad. You win by, like, an inch or so.”
The guys laughed, again.
I win? What does he mean I win? I thought to myself.
He handed the jeans back to me and began undressing so he could change out of his own gym clothes. As quickly as the other boys had developed an interest in me they had just as quickly forgotten about me and went back to their usual nonsense.
I began putting one leg in at a time into my recovered jeans. As I slid them up I stared blankly into my locker and noticed my bottle of Fierce cologne— a cologne only sold at Abercrombie & Fitch —had a picture of a man’s torso on it. This man’s abdominal muscles were ripped and his body was lean. He had no face and I thought that was because any one could be him or at least dream of being him.
I wanted to be him.
Once I got completely dressed I reached for that bottle and closed my eyes for a moment. Wishing or praying or hoping, I don’t really remember which one.
“Can I borrow some of that?” It was the same boy, again, “I forgot mine at home.”
I looked at him, tall, in-shape, toned. Why do you need this? You are this I thought. “Sure,
but not too much, it’s my last bottle,” I responded.
He grabbed the bottled, spraying three or four squirts on him, and handed it back before walking out of the locker room. The smell of the cologne mixed with the smell of sweat and teenage boy that hung around the room and I just stood there, bottle in hand, alone in the locker room.
When the train arrived at my stop the doors opened and the teenage boy pushed past me onto the platform. I walked behind him while we both made our way through the train station and towards the street. As we walked the intensity of his cologne lessened and I began to smile as that memory faded back to it’s deep place in my mind.
And in this moment I remembered I no longer wore the cologne of my middle school years, nor did I have to visit middle school locker rooms or go to gym class. I remembered that my waist size hadn’t been a 33 since high school and my jeans no longer needed hemming, because now I am taller.
Once we both got to the street level, the teenage boy went right and I went left. A winter breeze hit me in the face, pushing past me and towards the boy’s direction as he headed to his destination. A homeless man sat on the street with no sign in hand but rather a warm cup of coffee, a mother pushed a stroller past me while talking loudly on her phone, and a car honked while sitting at a stop sign in front of me.
Life kept moving, I kept moving, and all I could do was smile.