Even as he heard himself say the words “act of domestic terrorism,” Tom knew he’d made a mistake. They’d never believe anything he said on the subject—or possibly any subject—from then on. The phrase was self-tarnishing, forever marking him an exaggerator, a fabulist unveiling a mountain where once stood a molehill. The expressions on his guests’ faces were already transitioning from good humor into various gradations of distaste or outright hostility, and though he hadn’t yet turned to gauge his wife’s response, Tom could imagine how deep Margaret had gone into that dark—but by now familiar—territory of disappointment.
And yet, he thought, it was really the only accurate way to describe the situation. Although a small transgression by geopolitical standards, the aforementioned act had upended the delicate balance of domestic life, had exploded the tranquility of his home—a man’s sanctum. And in the bathroom, no less. How else to categorize the sleepless nights, the bleary-eyed vigilance, the unceasing search for answers to this calamity than as byproducts of terrorism? If the people collected in Tom’s living room could have only stepped outside themselves for a moment, dropped their semantic prejudices, and viewed the whole thing logically, he knew they would come around to his way of thinking.
Paul, his oldest friend, costumed that night in distressed black hipster clothes as if directing a middle finger at the exurban hinterlands in which he found himself, put his glass down on the table. Ignoring the coaster, Tom noted. These habits were unchanged since college, when they shared a tiny freshman dorm always on the verge of being overrun with Paul’s discarded takeout containers and Marxist pamphlets and poorly spelled protest signs while the man himself was out demonstrating against the country’s two disastrous Middle Eastern wars. Tom, of course, stayed in to clean, waging his own losing battle against the tide of entropy.
“Hey man,” Paul said slowly, “it’s just a smell. Nothing to get worked up about.”
“No,” Tom said. “It’s an intrusion. A deliberate intrusion. You think it’s something that merely exists, that floats in the air, but it’s not. You have to understand: this was done to me.”
“Us,” Margaret’s weary voice corrected him from the corner.
“This was done to us.”
Paul shook his head. “Honestly, I’m not even sure it’s real. I didn’t smell anything. Did you?” He turned to his fiancée next to him on the sofa.
“No,” June replied. “I used the bathroom and didn’t catch a whiff of anything.”
“There you have it.”
Tom felt a redness rising into his face, which hadn’t happened since his schoolyard days, back when he’d combust at any challenge to his claims, any hint of doubt that his uncle was friends with the founder of Nintendo or that he’d known the cousin of the kid who perished from a Pop Rocks accident.
Paul stood up, smoothing the crease in his raw denim, and with the tiny smile he’d deployed through twenty years of humoring his friend, looked first at June, who smirked back, and then at the door. Tom didn’t want him to leave now any more than he’d wanted him to move out in junior year.
“Now hold on, just hear me out. You’re not acclimatized to the house. You have to spend a sufficient amount of time here, in every room, to set a baseline odor level. Once you’ve got that, you can tell just how different the bathroom smells from the rest of the place.”
Paul began counting on his fingers. “One: leave the city. Two: move into a big house with a front yard, back yard, left yard, and right yard. Three: develop strong feelings for Cocoa Puffs.”
“Cuckoo, man. You’ve gone fucking nuts. This place has you chasing after phantom odors, complaining about terrorism this and intrusion that. Maybe the problem is that you and Margaret don’t belong here.
“Or maybe the problem is that you’re being an asshole.”
Thus began the evacuation. Margaret, ever the referee, stepped in to soothe frayed nerves and apologize for her husband’s behavior as she ushered Paul and June out the door. Margie, clad in the armor of the long-suffering wife, was the very embodiment of patience and conciliation, until finally they were alone in the house together and the real fight began.
It had been his idea in the first place. The move, the house, the start of something bigger than himself. Standing beneath twining tree branches under a purple fall dusk in Central Park, the meadow improbably denuded of people but brushed heavy with autumn color, with his hands wrapped around Margie’s waist and hers over his shoulders, he understood that they were nourished by each other’s love, and that he would spend the rest of his life with this woman. In that same moment, too, he vowed that the children they made together wouldn’t be raised in the city as he had been. Those countless hours crammed inside a gray metal subway car rattling up the city’s veins like a shot of heroin, the heaped trash boiling under the summer sun, the black sludge of winter snow clotting the sidewalks, and above all, the crush and sweat and stink of humanity pressing in from every angle—there’d be none of that for his kids. They’d inherit the space and freedom of a proper home.
And so, after four years of marriage and three years of saving as much as they could from Margaret’s bimonthly paychecks from the museum and the sporadic earnings from his odd jobs, they had enough for a down payment on a powder-blue two-story colonial surrounded by a quarter acre of patchy green-and-yellow grass.
It had taken some convincing on his part. Margie always said she’d be happy with something small since it’d be easy to keep an eye on each other, but in the end, he prevailed. She had so little for herself, and he was determined to rescue her from the small horizons of her life.
“I pictured something more like the Addams’ Family house,” she admitted a month into escrow.
“With the cobwebs and roiling fog?”
“Exactly. But this is where the Cleavers would live.”
“Good schools. Quiet neighborhood. Enough square footage to host a military parade—”
“Or a book club.”
“—or a book burning. What more could you ask for? Besides, Cleaver is a much scarier name than Addams.”
They kissed then over the promise of their future, and he wished that moment could live in a Polaroid that aged while they stayed the same.
The movers were a trio of Slavic men who ferried furniture and boxes with a vigor bred by countries where procrastination had been solved by firing squad. The leader was tall and sandy-haired and muscled like an action movie hero, while his two assistants were stout and bald and probably related. The head mover glanced at half a decade’s worth of cohabitation and immediately set to work, hoisting the heaviest objects with no hint of strain. Tom, thin and lanky as a wire hanger, tried to help, but he struggled to orient a single box down the narrow hallway outside their apartment and soon gave up to watch on the sidelines with Margaret. He saw how her gaze followed the foreign hunk, and remembered that on their wedding night she mentioned that the first thing she’d ever noticed about Tom was his elbows. Though he’d laughed at the remark, it had stayed with him all these years because she’d stayed with him too.
Like most people, Tom believed that the transference of goods was the transference of lives, and once their books and bedspring and sofa and chairs and the million other accumulations of adulthood had been shifted inside the colonial, he felt they were ready to become their new selves. The only thing left was tipping.
In a pique, Tom decided to shortchange the crew. He handed the head mover a hundred dollars to split between the three of them. The man looked down at the money and then back up at Tom. He arched an eyebrow, clearly insulted at this paltry sum for a day’s hard labor, and stared into Tom’s face for a few uncomfortable seconds. Tom was prepared for haggling, or even wrestling, but to his surprise the mover simply issued a grunt and stuffed the wad of money into the front pocket of his jeans.
“I can use lavatory?” the mover asked. “Is very hot today.” He tugged at the hem of his sticky T-shirt. Tom, feeling fresh and eager at the doorstep of his new and improved existence, decided to be charitable.
“Yes, of course. You’ve earned it,” he said, and directed the mover inside. The man concluded his business quickly and a few minutes later the truck was rumbling back to the city.
It was perhaps the second or third hour of unpacking when Tom had to use the facilities himself.
“Did you know there’s a species of termite that can bring an entire wooden house down to its foundations in the span of two weeks?” Margie said, up to her elbows in a box of dinner plates. She was preparing to take over curation of the entomology exhibit at the museum next month, and presented insect facts like an offering to the science gods. “This place wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“Fascinating. I’ll be right back.”
Just off the kitchen, the first-floor bathroom was a polished white-tile affair with an antique claw-foot tub bulked against a wall. It was a vast space, and Tom had been amazed during the tour when he stretched out his arms from the center of the bathroom without touching any walls. It was pristine and pastoral, the kind of washroom he imagined a gentleman farmer from centuries past would have used during breaks from writing the Constitution.
But now, when he closed the door behind him and took a breath, he started to gag. It smelled like a living thing had been eviscerated and baked in the noonday sun, then smeared across the room at the end of a pitchfork. The stench was death and decay, bones melted and organs crushed, the mortal end itself. He tried to isolate it, but the stink seemed to emanate from all around him. He checked the toilet, but the bowl was empty. He looked inside the medicine cabinet, then got on his hands and knees to scan the floor, even sweeping his arm beneath the raised tub, yet there was nothing, no visible source to the odor.
“And the giant mounds these termites build, it turns out they don’t live inside them. They use them to regulate the flow of oxygen, like an external lung. Incredible, right?”
“I’ll show you incredible. Come over here.”
Margie stepped cautiously, understanding that when a husband offers to surprise his wife with something in the bathroom it’s unlikely to be the height of romance. She looked around, conspicuously avoiding the toilet for fear of crossing the final line of marital familiarity. At last, she met her husband’s wild, expectant gaze and shrugged at him.
“Well?” Tom demanded. “Don’t you smell that? It’s unbearable. It’s like a coffin filled with diapers.”
“Huh,” she said, and took a deep performative breath. “Yeah… now that you mention it, I think it does smell kind of funny in here. Maybe try opening a window.”
“Opening a window?!” he said, as he crossed the room and opened the window. “I hardly think that’ll do it. Babe, we’re at DEFCON 1 here.”
So began Tom’s olfactory war. He drove to the local drug store, a quaint clapboard shop several miles distant, and returned with an armful of disinfectant sprays, steel-wool sponges, air fresheners (both plug-in and aerosol), a special mop that ran on batteries and squirted liquid from a removable cartridge, and a small statuette of Saint Jude whose perseverance Tom recalled from his distant Catholic past. Thus armed, he set about cleansing the tainted space with a fury and meticulousness that had eluded him in most other categories of life. While Tom sprayed and scoured every crack along the bathroom floor, Margaret unpacked and arranged the books onto the floor-length shelves in the dining room. While he picked at the grout between thousands of tiny tiles, she installed the lamps and hung the curtains and pushed the headboard against the east-facing bedroom wall and angled their mattress over the slats before it slipped from her sweating hands. For each of these tasks, she called to her husband for help, but he was forever “just one more minute” away.
It was only at midnight, when Margie was already under the covers, that Tom finally stumbled his way up to the bedroom. His hair was matted with sweat, revealing the asymmetry of his skull, and his prominent elbows and knuckles were reddened and raw.
“I think I finally did it,” he croaked.
Without saying a word, Margaret flipped over and turned off the light on her nightstand.
Margaret wanted to believe it was some form of depression that took her husband, because the alternative would have been madness. Each day, he insisted the smell was still there, though all she could detect was the overpowering scent of ammonia and panic. As she worked to transform this too-large and frankly ridiculous space that she’d never even wanted into an actual home, all Tom did was sniff and clean and complain. He reserved his energy solely for the bathroom, ignoring every other inch of the house he’d so cherished in his imagination.
Tom returned to the pharmacy dozens of times, sometimes arriving long past closing just to bang on the door and yell about how pathetic of a backwater town this was to not even have an all-night supermarket or hardware store. Next, he graduated to a professional cleaning service, cycling through a countless number of maids who each proved inadequate to his needs until eventually the company stopped answering his calls.
At last, he resorted to the internet. With a credit card nestled in his lap, he scoured websites for the most potent odor-obliterating substances known to consumerist man. Soon enough, boxes began appearing at the front door and from them Tom lifted ominous looking white jugs and triple-sealed plastic pouches. These were industrial-grade cleaning supplies, the types of chemicals used to sterilize emergency rooms after a local disaster or to convert a homeless shelter into condominiums after funding gets cut. He strapped on thick rubber gloves, a smock, and protective goggles before deploying these compounds against the bathroom. As she thumbed through her planner, adding and eventually cancelling dates to meet their neighbors for a meal, Margie wondered aloud why he didn’t opt for a full-blown hazmat suit. While Tom toiled day in and day out, she charted her own jogging route, hoping to befriend other runners or, hell, even a stray dog in need of rescue. But the solitude remained impenetrable. She started taking the long train back into the city to have dinner with colleagues once a week, and Tom never asked about or noticed these absences.
Extreme measures still didn’t work. Tom claimed that although he’d succeeded in concealing the odor, the smell was still there, lingering under the chemical-blasted coating of the bathroom tiles. He made one final attempt to find a solution, staggering recklessly into the deep web, where people at last surrendered their consciences. In this debased landscape, he found two options that sounded promising. One was an exotic purple plant extracted from the unlit Amazon jungle, which could be crushed into a powder and set ablaze to produce the sweetest of all perfumes or snorted up the nose to induce a euphoric high that left users permanently blind. Unfortunately, a single ounce of the stuff cost as much as the house itself, so that was out of the question. The second option was a secretive crew of cleaners who could be called in to eliminate any trace of foul behavior. Their methods were such that even the most determined police dog or forensics team would never find even a molecule of prosecutable matter. Yet they only operated in Australia and worked exclusively for whatever that country called its mafia. Another dead end. Exhausted, he logged off.
That night, he sat on the opposite end of the couch from his wife and asked, “Is it possible for a smell to give you brain cancer?”
“I’ve never heard of that happening,” Margaret said. “Maybe inhalation of toxins could do it, something like asbestos. But we’ve had the place appraised from top-to-bottom and it’s got a clean bill of health.”
“Appraisers can be bribed, you know.”
“Realtors looking for a fatter commission, neighbors hoping to keep their property values up, former owners trying to chisel you on the price—take your pick.”
She rested her elbow on the sofa arm and silently turned over this latest bundle of nonsense in her head. Which of them was he trying so hard to convince, she wondered?
Of course, Tom knew that it had been the movers—the head mover specifically—who had done this to him, and he suspected Margaret knew it too. The trouble was proving it. During his many hours of hands-and-knees scrubbing, he devoted a great deal of time to figuring out how that prick had pulled it off. He’d only been in the bathroom for about two, maybe three minutes max. Could the mover have found a loose tile or fixture and planted something easy to conceal, like an egg or a frog carcass, behind it? But no, Tom had scrutinized every millimeter and discovered not a single tile amiss. The man had to have used subtler means, a magician’s trick or a poisoner’s cunning, to deceive him. He leaned back into the sofa cushion and rubbed his eyes, trying to will himself to see what must be right in front of him.
For her part, Margaret was having trouble recognizing the man with whom she now shared her home. At the start, she’d loved him for the grandeur of his thinking. Tom had never been handsome—was even a shade of ugly in certain lighting—but he had a gentle smile that he was eager to show and carried outsized dreams of a better life that he wove into a kind of poetry for her. She didn’t care that he couldn’t hold down a job, had never emailed him about an open position or slid the classifieds under his elbow. What mattered was that when he looked at her, he only saw them. Now, though, as she watched him grind his palms into his eye sockets, she worried that what she’d once thought of as ambition was really a breed of stubbornness that swallowed everything around it.
Even under the worst circumstances—when a tour group of over-medicated schoolchildren desecrated a priceless sarcophagus on loan from an otherwise hostile totalitarian government or a museum trustee died and willed that his eight-figure legacy be spent on a new baseball stadium instead of, say, the cultural institution where he’d held his galas—Margaret always strived for a return to normalcy. The exhibit could be repaired, the funds replenished, and the man with the cleaning supplies turned back into her husband.
To that end, Margaret organized a dinner party. She made sure to invite only Tom’s best friend and his fiancée to avoid overwhelming her husband. Socializing, she’d heard from the head of the anthropology wing at the museum, could have a palliative effect on the emotionally disturbed, and in his present state Tom needed all the palliation available.
The night of, she made him shower in the upstairs bathroom (the sleek, modern one that he didn’t seem to have a problem with) and laid out a pressed collared shirt, slacks, and a light jacket on the bed. Mantled in wings of steam behind the frosted shower door, Tom looked down at the bar of soap in his hand and laughed. A paltry thing compared to the decontaminants he’d befriended. How could this harmless little rectangle hope to clean anything in such a filthy world?
By the time he stepped out into the bedroom he’d decided that he wouldn’t participate in the dinner party. There was no reason to celebrate their new home because it wasn’t in any proper sense a home yet. The very idea of shaking hands with people, of exchanging pleasantries and asking about their lives, seemed impossible given the disease in this house’s heart, which he could feel even now pulsing below his feet.
But when he saw Margaret seated at her vanity table, facing the window with her back to him, his resolve faded. He looked at the long waterfall of dark hair that she stroked evenly with her brush, at how the last sliver of sunset impregnated her complexion with pale light. She was beauty wedded to calm and, miraculously, wedded to him, and this knowledge made the fist inside him unclench. He vowed to try, come what may.
Margaret greeted each guest with a cocktail she’d invented herself—a molecular mixed drink of Pisco brandy and dry ice that steamed up from the glass like a thermal bath—along with instructions to relax and drink and be merry. June, Paul’s fiancée, was immediately admiring, cooing over the real-life functional fireplace and the original molding ringing the floors and doorways. “You can’t get a place like this in the city, no sir, and wow is this a powerful reminder that we’re living like rabbits back there,” June said, or something to that effect. Paul, unimpressed as always, whistled sarcastically at the size of the place.
“The reason you can’t find a place like this in the city,” Paul explained, “is because urban life doesn’t permit such gaudy forms of expression. It forces you to accommodate other people’s desires, not impose your own onto them.”
Tom bit his tongue and steered them to the next stop on their tour even as the gears of his obsession slowly clicked into place. The pillared kitchen, with its apothecary counters and stained hardwood floor, was met with further praise. June, a chef of some renown who had professional expertise in dealing with difficult patrons, ladled out more compliments about their kitchen and its artisanal whatevers in an effort to elicit some goodwill from Tom.
Once again, Paul was the sole objector.
“Yet another example of man’s futile attempts at reaching consumerist nirvana,” he said.
“Throwing up grand structures, filling them with details done just right—and for what?”
“Sure, just dump your shit on the floor, board up your windows, and move out when the garbage is piled up to your chin because it doesn’t matter where you live,” Tom said. “What matters is fighting for the ‘big cause,’ ending imperialism and rectifying the world’s wrongs.”
“Now that you mention it, yes. Tidiness is a sucker’s game, a way to distract ourselves from the blood and misery abroad that paid for this Norman Rockwell nonsense.”
“I’m so glad you’ve never had to be an adult for even a second.”
Paul threw his head back and laughed like a man come in from the wilderness. “Keep all the adulting for yourself. Make a perfect home in an imperfect world—you’re entitled to it.”
At last, the machinery inside him roared back to life, and Tom declared, “This place is far from perfect. There’s this…this stench in the bathroom.” Margaret, carrying a tray of snacks, stiffened her shoulders as if she’d been whipped across the spine.
“Oh?” Paul said.
“It’s more than that, actually. It’s the kind of thing that destroys your other senses. Think mass graves. Think septic tanks bursting in a cow barn.”
A smile spread over Paul’s face. “Well, this we have to experience for ourselves.” He took June’s wrist and led her to the bathroom. Tom felt a nascent hope spread its limbs inside him. Paul would recognize this stench as a carryover from his own chaotic world. He’d known Tom longer than anyone, would immediately understand how a creature of order could be brought to madness by decay.
By the time Paul and June came back from fooling around in the bathroom , Tom was at full intensity, belting out an aria of grievance and rage to his wife at the injustice of it all, at the way his dream had been poisoned by silage. He cut his tirade short and looked expectantly at Paul, waiting for him to acknowledge the truth lurking beneath his suspicions.
But his friend only shrugged. “Seemed fine to me,” Paul said.
It was at that moment that Tom began yelling about terrorism and turned an evening with friends into its opposite.
Alone again, surrounded by discarded glasses and half-eaten crudités, Tom and Margaret each waited for the other to break the silence. Realizing that her husband’s mind was probably perched between apology and arson, Margaret made the first move.
“What exactly do you think is going on here?” she asked. “You stole a cursed amulet? We ran over a Gypsy on the ride up? That there’s an ancient burial ground beneath the floorboards?”
“The preferred term is Romani, not Gypsy.”
“Let me try this: What the hell is wrong with your brain?”
Tom leaned in close and spoke slowly, his voice low and sinister. “It was that goddamn mover who did it. He sabotaged my home.”
“Why would he possibly do that?”
Tom waved his hand as if she were missing the point. “I may have stiffed him on the tip.”
“A guy we hired, and paid, and who behaved professionally, suddenly took it upon himself to turn you into a madman?”
“Margie,” he said. “I saw you eyeballing him the entire day.”
“You think I wanted to fuck him? That I’d trade in my marriage for someone I exchanged maybe three words with over the course of a few hours?”
Now Tom was standing, his face flushed again. “I’m the one who’s been betrayed. By that piece of shit mover, by our so-called friends, and by the goddamn odor that’s impervious to anything I throw at it.” His finger jabbed the air in front of her. “And the worst thing, the absolute most pathetic part of it, is that I did it all for you. This town, this house, this marriage, everything I’ve done is so we could have a better life.”
She saw then what the house really was. Not a shelter for their shared hopes nor an embarkation point for their future, but a bauble, a shiny prize for Tom, the lonely and mean little boy, the ugly and unloved teenager, the listless, unemployable man. It was a gold medal he could hold up to the rest of the world as proof that they were wrong about him after all. And the knowledge burned deeper, until Margaret saw what she was too.
“You’re a liar,” she said quietly. “I never wanted any of it, not a single inch. And you made up that smell in the bathroom. It’s not real. It never was.”
A strange look came over him, one she’d never seen before. It was a flatness, a hollowing out, as if all his features had suddenly resigned. With careful, measured motions he opened the door leading down to the basement and descended the wooden steps. She heard him groping through the toolbox. When he came back upstairs, she saw he had a steel hammer gripped in his hand. He paced toward her down the hallway and for the first time she was scared about what he might do. But before Tom could reach her, he veered into the bathroom, and she heard a tremendous bang. When she peered through the doorway, she saw him standing upright, swinging the hammer against the wall again and again, the same dumb expression draped over his face as chips of tile exploded outward like shrapnel. She expected him to tire out once the anger had left him, but Tom kept going, punching more holes and spreading the destruction to the sink, the medicine cabinet, the claw-foot tub that gonged like a bell when he struck it. Margaret went back into the living room, took a seat, and listened.
The next morning, they woke up in the living room, she on the sofa and he on the floor in a halo of drywall powder and shattered ceramic. They didn’t exchange any words, knowing that giving voice to what had happened would render the embarrassment complete.
Margaret put on a pot of coffee and, in a gesture that surprised Tom, patted the dust from his soiled jacket. She handed him a mug and watched him try to drink, every gulp slow and painful from the particulate in his throat. She left him in the kitchen and went to examine his handiwork. The bathroom was demolished, as if an earthquake had isolated a single room and expended upon it the force reserved for an entire town.
While she surveyed the wreckage, Margaret considered the many useful things she’d learned about insects. As an individual, a termite is mindless and chaotic, incapable of the simplest task. Yet he can be organized into productive activity, not through communication with fellow insects, but by altering specific stimuli in his environment. This was known as stigmergy: change surroundings to change behavior.
“Let’s go for a drive,” she said to Tom, and he agreed, pliant as a frightened child.
She took the highway north, heading in the opposite direction of her commute into the city each morning. There was a place she’d heard about but never been, a wooded ridge lipping the sea where, legend had it, widows once came to mourn the men they’d lost to the water. She spent the two-hour drive staring ahead at the road, determined not to look at her husband until the stimuli were right.
She parked the car at the top of a narrow trail and they marched together into the line of maples standing sentinel along a slope. After a few minutes, the trees opened into a clearing at the peak of the ridge, and below them they saw the spray of waves stretching into unknown distance. They sat down side-by-side at the crest. The sky was clear and warm with light, the air as clean on their skin as the day he’d proposed to her in the park.
It was Margaret’s final plan, the last possibility for a cure. Away from the house, away from the nightmare of its imperfection, she waited and waited for the new environment to do its work, to enter her husband and change him. At last, he took a deep breath and in a raw, scraped voice said, “I’m sorry.” For the barest instant she thought maybe there was something left to salvage. And then Tom began to cry. He didn’t weep and gnash his teeth in remorse, but sniffled in a small, self-pitying way, with his eyes fixed outward at the rest of the world, away from the woman beside him.
For a long time, she listened to him shed his soft tears. But eventually the light in the sky began to dim and her back began to stiffen. She looked over her shoulder at the car parked up the trail, and knew there was no place they’d return to together.