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Breath

Her mere presence made other people feel ill at ease, and on her agonising journey home, she realised that she could never be safe, comfortable or relax in the company of other people, and that she never really had, she thought; her true fragile self was suddenly back.

A short story by Vigdis Hjorth, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund

Vigdis Hjorth26 March 2024

Breath

The writing was on the wall, it had been for a while now and she knew it, but she was reluctant for it to end. As was he, presumably, which was why he hadn’t done anything about it either. People are like that, reluctant to end relationships, to reject another person and cause pain even when it is unavoidable, and nobody wants to be alone, being alone is painful. So they let it drag on in order to put off the pain that follows a breakup because no matter how inevitable that breakup is, breaking up is still painful, even if it just hurts for a few days, it still hurts, you are alone again. They hadn’t slept together for a long time, they hadn’t had fun for a long time, they had argued and said horrible things to each other, it was degrading and agonising for both of them. Frustrated and upset she talked to her friends who said that she had to end it when ultimately there was no other way, they advised her not to put off the pain but to embrace it. So she plucked up the courage, overcame her fears and guilt, called him and ended it and he was brusque and dismissive and said that it hadn’t come as a surprise and rang off. Shortly afterwards he sent her a reproachful text message and then she was there, enveloped in pain, crushed, sad and alone.

The next day he came over to pick up the few belongings he had kept at her place. As she leaned forward to check that everything was in the bag she was about to give him, he scrunched up his nose and said: ‘Oh, your breath smells.’         

She looked up. He fanned his hand in front of his nose to demonstrate how bad her breath smelled. She didn’t say anything, he took the bag and left, slamming the door behind him and she heard his car drive off. 

Did she have bad breath? She raised her hands to her mouth, exhaled into them and tried to smell her own breath, but didn’t think she could smell anything. She had cleaned her teeth that morning. She always did. True, it was the afternoon now and some hours ago, was that the reason, should you clean your teeth several times a day? Or was it because of something she had eaten today, onion or garlic? In her mind she went through everything she had eaten that day. She hadn’t eaten much, might that be the problem? Again she breathed in as deeply as she could, cupped her hands over her mouth, then breathed out for as long as she could to empty herself of air, to expel the air at the very bottom of her lungs, in order to smell her own breath, her deepest; she sniffed the exhaled air from her own lungs, didn’t think it smelled of anything, but then again that might be because she was used to her own breath and oblivious to it. Her heart was pounding now, it felt like she had been thrown into the deep end. She googled “bad breath” and read that it was a big problem – especially because the sufferer would be unaware of it. One way to find out if you had bad breath was to lick the thin skin on your wrist, wait ten seconds and then sniff it. She did so, but didn’t think she could smell anything. You could also floss your teeth, then sniff the dental floss, she read, and she flossed every single tooth and sniffed the floss, but didn’t think she could smell anything until she reached the gap between the furthest molars in her top right gum; when she had flossed there, the dental floss didn’t smell pleasant. Was that the smell other people detected when she was near them and opened her mouth? She had a nightmarish vision of all the people she had been standing next to and spoken to in the past week. Work colleagues in the reception, by the photocopier, queuing for the canteen, was that the smell they smelled when she opened her mouth? She was mortified. Because she subconsciously had noticed that people would often step back when she entered the room, when she opened her mouth to speak, hadn’t she? And was that the reason, because of her bad breath? The shame of it made her redden. And that work trip she had just been on where four of them had shared a car, where a colleague had taken out some chewing gum and offered it around, and another had said, thank you, that will freshen up the atmosphere, had that been aimed at her, was that to make her aware of her bad breath? And hadn’t her colleagues smiled knowingly to each other later when they bought bottled water in a shop later because they didn’t dare clean their teeth using the water at the hotel? So was that another hint to her that she should be more considerate of her fellow human beings and clean her teeth properly? Was her bad breath a topic of conversation at work when she wasn’t there? Something everyone knew about, except the woman in question? How embarrassing, how awful, how could she go to work now?

She sifted through her immediate past, hunting for clues, found many and continued to spiral downwards. At the company’s AGM, the delegate from Bergen had asked if she had packed her toothbrush and she had taken it to mean that he was wondering if she was staying the night, that he was flirting and coming on to her, but she realised now that he was hinting that she should clean her teeth better. And that it was because of her bad breath that she and her boyfriend hadn’t had sex for a long time and were no longer a couple, and when people asked him why it had ended, he would tell them about her bad breath; it also had to be the reason why she hadn’t been invited to Åsa’s wedding, it was all about her bad breath.

She felt sick, but she had an appointment at a furniture store so she scrubbed her teeth and her tongue until she almost threw up and stepped out into the world with her mouth closed. In Bogstadveien she bumped into a friend from university who gave her a hug and she froze, held her breath, then stepped aside as she mumbled, with her face turned away, that she had to run in order to catch the metro. The train was full and she positioned herself as close to the carriage wall as she could, as far away from people as she could, she tried to breathe as little as possible and only through her nose. But at Nationaltheatret station many more people boarded and it became impossible to avoid standing very close to anyone, and she found herself next to a woman who gave off a strong smell, it seemed to escape from her in wafts. Although the woman didn’t say anything, although she never opened her mouth, a bad odour emanated from her, and she guessed that must also apply to her; she didn’t even have to open her mouth, it seeped out regardless. She had read online that bad breath might be caused by digestive problems and is consequently difficult, impossible even, to cure merely by brushing your teeth; a sulphuric smell was coming from the other woman as if something was rotting in her digestive system, she tormented her surroundings merely by existing, did she do the same herself?

She got off the metro and walked the last stretch.

When she entered the furniture store and went to the till, she realised immediately that the sales assistant had bad breath. Really bad breath, a foul stench poured from his mouth, it instinctively made her take a step back when he came up to her to make a note of the fabric she had chosen. Wasn’t that exactly what she had noticed people doing when she opened her mouth, on the work trip, at the annual general meeting? Did she smell like the sales assistant? It was impossible! Or was it? When the sales assistant’s breath smelled like that, why couldn’t hers, it could happen to anyone; the sales assistant looked completely normal, he was a well-groomed man in clean clothes, but it made no difference. It was rare for someone’s breath to be as bad as his, but she was sadly one of those unfortunate people. The smell seemed to come from the core of his body, something was rotting there, that was how it smelled, and she imagined how the smell from her own intestines rose up through her stomach and poured out of her mouth when she opened it, and even if she didn’t open it, it would seep out anyway.    

She pointed to the fabric with her mouth still closed and left in despair, what was the point of getting a new sofa when she smelled like the sales assistant?

She didn’t take the metro home, but walked as it fell dark and a darkness grew inside her, and it was just like the old days when she walked into the school playground, when everyone knew something she didn’t, shared something she was outside and couldn’t enter into, something which was secret to her, but which related to her in ways she didn’t understand. 

She had to see a doctor or a dentist, she thought, breathe on them and ask if her breath was as bad as she suspected. It would be unpleasant and humiliating, but if she smelled like the sales assistant in the furniture store, she had to do something. Perhaps her tonsils were infected and she would need an operation to have them removed, perhaps her problem was medical and something a doctor could fix? She googled “tonsillitis and bad breath”, but got no hits. Or perhaps it was the crowns on her molars? One of them had come off once and it hadn’t smelled good, she remembered. In truth the smell had been awful, and the stench that poured out of her mouth now when she spoke, when she breathed, was probably similar to the one that had come from the stinking, detached crown. Bacteria had entered between the crown and her remaining tooth and there they were all snug, reproducing and having a whale of a time fouling the air in her mouth and thus also her surroundings? But many people had crowns on their molars and not all of them could have breath as bad as hers? She googled “crowns and bad breath”, but didn’t get any hits this time either. Yet she decided to have all her crowns replaced regardless of the cost, just to be on the safe side.

If she had had a child, she thought, she could have asked her child, breathed on her child and asked if a bad smell was coming out of mummy’s mouth, and the child would give her an honest answer, but she didn’t have any children. She could ask a friend, she thought, breathe into her friend’s face and ask her to be honest, but how honest would a friend be? Would she herself be honest, should one of her friends ask if she had bad breath? Probably not. If her breath was a little unpleasant, she would trivialise it and shake her head to bring an end to an awkward situation, and if her friend’s breath was terrible, she would probably also shake her head out of pity and so that her friend, already embarrassed and humiliated, wouldn’t feel worse. She would prefer to send her friend an anonymous letter about the problem, she thought, but then her friend would realise that the letter was from her so she wouldn’t have done that either, and her friend would still wander around with her terrible breath as did the sales assistant and she herself. And anyway, what good was an honest reply or an anonymous letter if that kind of bad breath couldn’t be treated because it came from her digestive system?

She stopped by a chemist she didn’t normally use because she had read on the Internet that you could buy lozenges to counteract bad breath, she found the oral hygiene section and selected various products and blushed in front of the counter when the chemist picked up the small boxes to scan them, but he couldn’t know if she was buying them for herself, she thought, unless he could smell it, and of course he could, given how bad it was, like the woman on the metro, like the sales assistant in the furniture store, her mere presence made other people feel ill at ease, and on her agonising journey home, she realised that she could never be safe, comfortable or relax in the company of other people, and that she never really had, she thought; her true fragile self was suddenly back, her childhood had come back and the pain was just as excruciating now as it had been then, growing older had made no difference, it hadn’t helped, she had always had a default setting of causing other people’s discomfort and now it was back, she had only had a break from the feeling, an imagined break, but now her delusion had been shattered, and she was, she understood, excluded from human company, exiled to the periphery of humanity, she came home that night and exhaled – literally – and crept under her duvet and that whole night she practised breathing as little as possible, but that is a tricky art to master when you are a living, breathing thing.

 

 

 

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