There is a moment when I look up—less than a moment, the smallest block of conscious thought—when I see the flakes illuminated in the halo around the streetlight and think it’s snowing. I am a northern girl, so my soul instinctively smiles at the first flurries of a new winter, still white and playful.
But the snow that gathers in the gutters of Manhattan Avenue is not white. And it is not snow. I know this, and I shiver. Not from cold. There are beads of sweat across my brow and my nose is full of the sticky-sweet sour of garbage that had spent all day rotting under the late summer sun. This is the familiar scent of this place. The base layer.
This night there is the other smell, smothering the base like an oil slick. The smell that is a memory, not the image broadcast on TV screens and printed on commemorative coins. It is the smell of things burning that should not burn: florescent lights, cubical walls, Skymall magazines, and eyes mid-seeing. I long to go back to just the innocent smell of sun-rotted things. I could hold my breath through that smell. But this new one penetrates me. It overrides my body scent. It soaks into the lining of my stomach and softens the marrow of my bones. I will stink of it for weeks. We all will.
And when a hollow-eyed stranger approaches me days later with a photo and asks me if I’ve seen this person, his person, I will drop my eyes and shake my head like everybody else. I won’t be able to bring myself to speak the truth that we all feel thickening the air. The truth of her body still here, not lost. The truth that I saw her that night in the glow of the streetlight. And I’ve seen her every morning since in the black that pours off my body and pools around the slow drain in my shower.