As I open the condo door, I immediately notice that the space is flooded in darkness. One arm outstretched to prevent my clients from entering the unit and breaking something that would best remain unbroken, I feel around blindly with my left hand, my fingers searching the wall for the light switch. Click. A vintage fixture with warty bumps spread across the surface of its milky glass – likely original to the Kennedy era with its our-President’s-so hot-we- should-buy-a-place-at-the-beach attitude – flickers brightly for a moment overhead, then dims slightly, casting the foyer in a jaundiced glow.
My clients’ eyes travel the arc from hall closet to ceiling lamp to light switch, unimpressed. “Did you see that flicker, Josh? We should have the home inspector take a look at the wiring, don’t you think?” Marlene blinks at me several times, apparently waiting for me to agree.
“Absolutely,” I say. “That’s, uh, what a home inspector does. If he thinks there’s a problem with the electricity, he’ll definitely recommend that we bring in an expert.”
“Expert?” Marlene echoes, frowning. Now Josh is staring at me, his head cocked like a supermodel who just heard another two syllable word she couldn’t comprehend.
“Yeah, an electrician.” I nod. No response from the Peanut Gallery. “You know, an expert. On electricity. An electrician.”
Josh’s neck remains bent at a perfect 30 degree angle. Pursing her lips, Marlene finally asks, “Well, then why are we paying for a home inspector? I mean, if he can’t fix it…” She turns to Josh. “Am I right? For three hundred bucks, he should be able to fix a stupid wire.” Returning her gaze to my face, she blinks again. And again. And again. How can one person blink that often? You’d think her eyelids would tire and close from fatigue. “So why can’t he fix it, Cristy?”
“Because he’s a home inspector, not a home fixer. He’s going to check out everything: the A/C, all the appliances, the plumbing, the windows, the roof, the electricity. Everything,” I reply, resisting the urge to say: Because he’d have to be a goddamned genius to be able to repair all the things he inspects, and geniuses cost a hell of a lot more than three hundred bucks an hour. I find myself blinking in time with Marlene’s eyes. It’s contagious. Like yawning. I hope our periods aren’t also synching as we stand here in the friggin’ doorway. “Why don’t we head inside? I’m sure you can’t wait to see the place again.”
Leading the way, I begin the ceremony of turning on the air, clicking on lights, and opening curtains and blinds. Sunshine streams through the windows, illuminating the fact that the faux-bamboo dining room set that was long ago painted yellow and speckled with brown paint to give it that chic Seventies antique finish is hopelessly ugly. And not the least bit antique-looking. More like freckled. Why would anyone want a freckled set of furniture? Just looking at it reminds me that I need to make an appointment with my dermatologist. “Like I mentioned before, if you want to get top dollar as far as rentals go, you’ll want to go ahead and update the decor.” And the flooring. And the cabinetry. And the appliances. And the – oh, just gut the damn thing and start from scratch.
Crossing her arms against her chest, Marlene shakes her head of bouncy dark curls. “Oh, I don’t think it’s so bad. And the rental figures looked pretty good to me. Am I right, Josh?” Her husband nods. Clients never listen. Yeah, the numbers aren’t bad, but they could be fantastic. But these people are cheap. And stupid.
For what it would cost to buy some new furniture, they’ll hire a photographer to bring in professional lighting and snap fish-eyed pictures of the rooms so that they appear wider and brighter. He’ll avoid close-ups of the artificially pigmented chairs. With Photoshop, he’ll texturize the matted, rust-colored shag so that it looks like a high-end, stained concrete floor or, maybe, custom terra cotta tiles. His kitchen shot will be taken from a boat floating in the middle of the bay, so that he can get far enough away to disguise the fact that the cabinets are made of cheap, peeling formica, and that their brass handles are rusted and have taken on the patina one usually only finds on Greek coins discovered in shipwrecks. Oh, and the dishwasher is avocado, but the refrigerator is not. Think Harvest Gold. Think disco.
Of course, my clients will get suckered into paying for a Virtual Tour, a travesty of the technological age designed to make one both dizzy (from the circular spinning motion originally intended for rides involving flying elephants) and thirsty (from the tropical, steel drum beat that accompanies the tour and subliminally instructs the viewer to make themselves a frozen drink doused with half a bottle of rum). Apparently, head spinning and drunk, the viewer will inadvertently hit the “Rent” button on the Virtual Tour and won’t sober up in time to take advantage of the 12-hour cancellation policy. The problem with this scheme is that my clients won’t garner many repeat customers. Once a tenant discovers that the full bay view can only be seen by leaning over the balcony railing and craning one’s neck while holding a mirror, he or she is unlikely to return, especially when the décor screams Three’s Company.
I wave my hand, signaling my clients to follow me. With the hard heels of Marlene’s designer sandals already clicking and clacking on my last nerve, I head towards the smaller of the two bedrooms – the one I call The Green Room. Interestingly enough, the only things in the room that color are the sheer drapes. If it’s possible for something to be both translucent, yet saturated with a color so intense, it’s hypnotic, then such greatness was achieved in the manufacturing of these curtains. Looking at them is much like staring directly into the bottom third of a traffic light – that’s as bright as the sun and only five inches away from your nose. Even though you feel your corneas melting, you can’t peel your eyes away. Shielding my own peepers with my hand, I quickly whip the sheers apart and yank the blinds upwards. As the light hits the curtains, the room bursts into color, the walls, the bedding, the lamp shades, the dresser all drenched in an electric lime shade that won’t be quelled by anything but the blackest of nights – or a blow torch.
“I really think the curtains should go,” I suggest firmly. Hearing no response, I spin around to discover the Manescos transfixed, irises aflame. At least Marlene has stopped blinking. Physically, I turn them around and steer them towards the closest bathroom for cold compresses and a few out-of-date Tylenol I discover in the mirrored medicine cabinet.
I leave them admiring the Land Rover-sized walk-in closet (the one thing a vacation rental doesn’t need) in the master bedroom with its I Love Lucy double beds, as I return their water glasses to the kitchen. It’s then that I realize I’m in trouble. Earlier that morning, my rather sensitive stomach had thrown a tantrum, as troubled, misunderstood organs often do. Having calmed it with Rolaids and positive affirmations (“What a good tummy! No one digests better than you. You have the strongest enzymes I’ve ever seen.”), it was now acting up again, except this time it recruited my intestinal tract in some sort of digestive system mutiny.
Some people cry prettily. Some people look fabulous the moment they wake. Some people can experience abdominal distress with no apparent outward symptoms. I can’t do any of the aforementioned. If even one miniscule tear dares drip its way down my cheek, my face reddens, puffing up as though I’d eaten a bucket of peanuts while subjecting myself to a thousand bee stings simultaneously. Moreover, my eyes swell shut, so not only am I temporarily blinded, but I resemble Sylvester Stallone after he’s had the shit kicked out of him – or so I’ve been told. I couldn’t see myself in the mirror to confirm this fact. It’s dangerous for me to watch a film as benign as The Notebook since strangers in the theater have been known to rush me to the emergency room against my will, claiming I’m suffering from anaphylactic shock and or that I’ve just lost a prize fight.
So as I stand here in the kitchen, rinsing the glasses in the chipped enamel sink, I know I will not be able to hide this problem for long. Much like Jim Carrey’s seemingly-elastic face, my abdomen has the ability to stretch at will, distending itself to the point that I am, once again, often rushed to the emergency room by complete strangers who insist that I’m either about to give birth to sextuplets, or I’m the whitest and most malnourished African person they’ve ever seen. Either way, they’re certain I need a doctor. The strain of my rapidly bloating tummy against the unyielding waistband of my skirt is becoming painful. I can feel the fabric cutting into my flesh and hear my abdominal muscles snickering in front of my back: Wish you’d done a few crunches now, dontcha Flabby?
There is only one way to prevent my clients from demanding to know how I became impregnated with multiples in the short time it took to walk to the kitchen and rinse their glasses. No, I can’t stand behind the sofa or carry a large briefcase in front of my belly for the rest of the season. I don’t own a briefcase, my purse is the size of a Hershey’s Miniature, and the sofa’s one of those nubby vintage numbers that only comes up to my knees. One solution exists. What is that? As my Aunt Kay likes to say, “Better out than in.” I have to release the pressure. Yes, I’m going to fart.
No biggie, Cristy, I tell myself. Just let one rip right here in the kitchen and no one will ever have to know. The Manescos are way on the other side of the condo, holding cold washcloths over their eyes while oohing and ahhing about all the bathing suits their guests will be able to hang in the walk-in closet they can only see with the tips of their fingers. I know I’m right. Pavarotti could come back from the dead right this moment and belt out “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot in front of the Harvest Gold refrigerator, and Marlene and Josh wouldn’t hear a thing. But then I remember The Morning Incident.
Earlier in the day, when only my most pwecious tum-tum was rebelling, I had also passed a little gas from my ass in order to zip up my plaid skirt, so I could jump in the car to head off to meet my clients. To say that the impact of my decision to float that air biscuit was devastating to not only my olfactory nerves and the glaze on the bathroom tiles, but fatal to my window herb garden, would be an understatement. I say this because I sprinted from the house as though it was ablaze and I haven’t been able to fully assess the damage yet. I can’t even let myself think about Fluffy. Stop it! Don’t think about her sweet, formerly-whiskered face singed beyond recognition. Seriously, cut it out! They’ll grow back.
Needless to say, the stench from The Morning Incident had been incredible – a combination of rotting eggs, Limburger cheese, skunk spray, wet dog, sulfur and Egyptian-era toe jam, tinged with a straight shot of shit and Cool Ranch Doritos. As my husband likes to say, “What crawled up your ass and died?” Don’t think about Matt! I’m sure he made it out in time. He can hold his breath for several minutes. There is no way I can be flatulent in this kitchen without my clients being exposed to the toxic odor and, possibly, suffering irreparable neurological damage – if not worse. And I’m pretty sure my Errors and Omissions insurance doesn’t cover death by butt burp.
Suddenly, it occurs to me that a solution exists. I need merely to make it outside. Though the fetid fumes will likely linger even in the open air, they can easily be blamed on car exhaust, nuclear disaster or a recently discovered open grave filled with thousands of rotting corpses just down the street. Waddling past the pantry and down the hall as fast as my bulging belly will allow, I realize this may be a mistake. Though hot air typically rises, in this case, my tightening waistband is acting as an intestinal tourniquet. That, combined with my rapid side-to-side movement, has made farting no longer a kind choice on my part, but an immediate order issued by a not-so-benevolent dictator, a.k.a. My Digestive Tract. And at this particular second, My Digestive Tract is making Hussein, Mussolini, Stalin, and Gaddafi look like a bunch of little girls with blond ringlets whose worst offense is burning ants with a magnifying glass.
Tightening my sphincter and squeezing my butt cheeks together as tightly as possible, I hurry my steps, the front door finally in sight. As my fingers brush the rounded knob, I feel a sense of relief pass over me. I made it. I can relax now. Oops. No, I can’t. Not just yet. But it’s too late. Out it comes. There’s no need to describe the birth of this particular fluffer doodle. One need only know that it was born with cloven hooves, fangs, talon-tipped wings and horns that could gore the fastest and strongest of matadors. Silent, but deadly, it clawed its way from its anal womb and immediately soared around the foyer, spreading its evil scent throughout the room in the same way a tomcat marks its territory. Don’t think about Fluffy!
Before I can open the door, wave my arms and scream, “Napalm attack. Everybody run for cover!” I hear the sound of footsteps. In particular, the distinctive click of Marlene’s Jimmy Choos on the tiled hall floor. There’s nothing I can do.
“I don’t know what Cristy is talking about,” comes Marlene’s distinctive whine. “Green is perfect for the bedroom. Such a soothing color. Conducive to sleeping. Am I right?” Though I can’t see him yet, I imagine Josh nodding – then gasping for breath and scratching at his throat with his fingernails as the gas burns through his esophagus, slowly suffocating him. The only reason I’m still alive is that I’m somewhat immune, having been exposed on many previous occasions.
A moment later, Marlene and Josh round the corner, the first, blinking once again, and the latter, nodding wearily. I can’t believe it. No reaction whatsoever to the fog of Agent Orange hanging in the air like a veil of pungent death. Perhaps I’m oversensitive. Perhaps Marlene has her own digestive disorder and has developed a similar immunity. But wait. No. There it is. The wrinkling of Marlene’s prominent nose. The grimacing of her glossed lips. “What’s that odor?” she shrieks. “Omigod! It’s awful. Am I right, Josh?” This time, Josh doesn’t nod. Instead, his head rears back like a panicked horse who’s just encountered an angry diamondback rattling its tail less than a foot away. Except the rattlesnake is my barking spider.
Go ahead. Say it. It smells like a goddamned fart. Say it, Marlene. Ask the question you’re dying to ask.
She sniffs the air. I must admit that she’s braver than I thought. Taking a few short steps toward the closet, she inhales another whiff. Thrusting out her hand, she yanks the louvered door open and sniffs again. The woman deserves a medal. And then she asks the question. “Is there something wrong with the A/C? It smells bad. Like sulfur. Am I right?”
Okay, that wasn’t the question I was expecting. I was thinking more along the lines of: “Did you break wind, Cristy?” Yeah. I may have also broken a few light fixtures in the process. And your lungs. “Umm, I don’t know, Marlene,” I respond hesitantly.
“Oh, God. You don’t think there’s mildew or something in the HVAC system, do you? I’ve got really bad allergies, you know.” Her forehead creases and the blinking commences. “You’ll have the home inspector look at it, won’t you?” she asks, her eyelids suddenly fluttering so fast they’ve turned invisible like a hummingbird’s wings. There’s now an oddness to her face, but I can’t quite place what it is.
“Of course.” Is this woman serious? The tragic photo of the young, naked Vietnamese girl running, arms outstretched, after being severely burned in a napalm attack is more along the lines of what I was anticipating, but Marlene’s only concern is whether or not there could be mold in the air conditioning system. “I don’t think it’s mold, though. It doesn’t smell like mold,” I say. “Mold smells – you know – moldy.”
Then it occurs to me that, perhaps, Marlene has never farted. Apparently, there are people who simply have never experienced anal acoustics. Considering that Josh is the most passive-aggressive, hang-dog man I’ve ever met on this planet, I doubt he’s ever served Marlene up with a Dutch Oven while in a playful mood. If he had, she’d have ripped his eyes out with her sharpened, two-toned, acrylic nails, then shrieked, “How dare you? I’m not some common trollop who’s interested in your sexually deviant behavior! What are you gonna do next? Pee on me?” But there is a real beauty to her ignorance.
“Well, something is definitely wrong. I don’t know, Josh. First, the wiring. Now the A/C. Maybe this is a sign. A sign from God.” Yeah, I sign that I shouldn’t eat Cool Ranch Doritos and bean dip before bed. Hands on her hips, Marlene shakes her head as though she just can’t decide what to do. Josh, on the other hand, knows exactly what he wants to do. Run.
Pushing past Marlene in perhaps the boldest move he’s ever made, Josh elbows me out of the way, jerks the door open and dashes into the open air, breathing deeply. You’d have thought he just finished the Boston Marathon by the way he’s leaning over – hands clenching the skin just above his bent knees – and sucking in oxygen like we’re scheduled to run out of it by tomorrow afternoon (actually, we’ve got at least another week).
Marlene doesn’t budge an inch. “Josh!” she calls after him, a note of irritation creeping into her voice. “I was talking to you. Do you think it’s a sign? Do you think we should back out of the deal? There’s somethin’ funky with the A/C, I’m telling you. It didn’t smell like this when we first walked in. Am I right?” Josh merely waves a hand in her direction – a signal that could mean anything, but I suspect it means, Fuck off, Marlene!
I have to do something quick. I can’t allow these people to lose their opportunity at second home ownership because I blew the butt bugle. “Umm, I just remembered that I turned the air on when we came in. It’s been off for awhile, so that’s probably why it smelled just a little. Happens all the time. Trust me, it’s no biggie.” I smile brightly, confidently. All the while, I’m jealous as hell of Josh – who’s outside, inhaling fresh air.
“Really?” she asks. “But you’ll still make sure the inspector checks it out?”
“And he’ll bring in an expert if there’s anything wrong with it?”
“Yep.” And that expert is known as a gastroenterologist.
“Alright.” Seemingly satisfied, Marlene strolls out the front door and waits with Josh while I lock the place up.
On the elevator ride down, Marlene turns to me and, making a strange twitch with skin above her right eye, says, “I still think it smelled like mold.” That’s when I realize what seemed odd about her face earlier. Her eyebrows are gone. Completely singed off. Makes her look like Eugenia, my neighbor, before she draws hers on in the morning with a brown pencil. “Am I right, Josh?” she asks.
Her husband leans back against the wall of the elevator, arms folded against his chest. His eyes travel the length of her face, taking in the absentee eyebrows. Calmly, he says, “No, you’re not, Marlene. You’re not right.” Then he closes his eyes, inhales the clean air deeply and smiles to himself.