by Carol Guess
The fear had to be taught. It wasn’t something women were born with. Kirstin birthed the fear in them, not like giving birth, but like controlling a robot.
It was Kirstin’s job to make women think their body odors were bad. To scare them at the signature of their own scent, sour them on sweat, breath, sticky under the arms, wet between the legs. The product itself meant nothing. It was just scented water.
Kirstin had only been with SenX for a year when she realized that the company’s research strategy wasn’t working at all. Sure, Kirstin could try to create new online questionnaires, new clipboard quizzes. She could generate rich data, crunch numbers all day, but what was missing was the actual scent.
Kirstin herself didn’t wear perfume. She was mildly allergic to scented products. Her hands were constantly red and itchy, but she stayed on at SenX because it paid so well. A job this glossy felt like a life. She had her own condo, 498 square feet in South Lake Union. Everything in her condo was unscented and spare.
After a year of what wasn’t working, Kirstin pitched an idea to her boss. He held meetings on a treadmill desk or a trampoline; employees could pick. Kirstin chose the treadmill, because when he talked to her from his tiny trampoline, she felt dizzy. Also, the perfume smell in the treadmill room was lighter, less cloying. It was a men’s scent called “Take a Hike.”
On the day of their meeting, her boss was on the treadmill when she arrived, running and talking into his phone.
“Hang on,” he said into his cell. Then to Kirstin: “Whatcha got?”
“I believe that we need to move product development beyond data and into …”
“Okay,” he said. Into his cell: “I’m back.”
Kirstin waited for more, but there wasn’t any. The next day a budget appeared on her desk: an insane amount of money with no agenda, no suggestions, no requirements. For research, wet signature illegible.
So Kirstin put up flyers to recruit test subjects, women between the ages of 25-42. The ages were random, chosen to give some semblance of signification. Test subjects were paid $1000 to live in a hotel for a week, doing nothing but eating, sleeping, watching TV, reading, talking, looking out the window, jogging in place and/or stretching, and talking on the landline. At night they slept piled together on the beds like puppies, but bigger and angrier, dreaming violent dreams.
The one condition of their participation was that they not bathe or brush their teeth or wash their faces or pluck hairs or cut nails or wipe themselves after using the toilet or engage in any form of personal hygiene whatsoever. For women with vaginas, tampons and pads were also forbidden, although Kirstin permitted highly absorbent period underwear after striking a deal with the underwear company to provide freebies in exchange for product placement.
To ensure compliance, Kirstin sat at the desk in the hotel room, reading magazines and eating the bottom, cakey part of cupcakes. She left the frosted tops of the cupcakes in a pile, which grew taller and taller until one of the test subjects (she never managed to learn their names) jogged past the icing tower and grabbed a handful, stuffing it into her mouth.
As required, all of the women tweeted, texted, instagrammed, and otherwise boosted the signal. The pictures and captions they posted were cheerful, filled with jokes about how smelly they were, about how much fun they were having together. Like a giant slumber party. Like camp. Like a porno, test subjects fucking in the shower stall. Kirstin was fine with all of it. They’d signed the release. She figured SenX could use the video footage for their top-secret scented virtual-reality project.
Kirstin sat at the desk, reading magazines, eating cupcakes, texting and liking friends’ posts on Facebook. She didn’t need to pay attention because she had power over them; she was running the show. She left the room precisely at 5pm and walked down the carpeted hallway to the elevator. Then she took the elevator to the 11th floor, where she got out and walked down the carpeted hallway to her room. Her room looked exactly like the test subjects’ room. Inside she wiped, cut, scrubbed, and showered. She ordered dinner from room service and texted her finance, Chad.
The test subjects had been in the experimental trial for 4 days when the phone in Kirstin’s room rang at 10:42pm. She wondered if Room Service had come back with dessert or more breadsticks.
“Hello. This is the front desk. I’m afraid there’s a disturbance on the 21st floor.” The dial tone buzzed in her ear.
Kirstin groaned. Stepped out of her slippers, tugged off her pajamas, and squeezed back into her suit. Glancing in the mirror she realized she had bits of pizza smeared on her chin. She wiped with one of the bone white towels, gargled some mouthwash, and stepped into the hall.
The minute she stepped from her room into the hall, she could smell it. The smell sent her stumbling backwards, gasping, clawing at her door. Fumbling in her purse, she found the keycard and slid it into the slot. The light blinked red. Again. Red light.
Unable to go back, Kirstin pushed through the smell toward the elevator. Pressed L and waited while the doors shut with a whoosh. Then nothing. No movement. She tried 1 through 10. Crackling, the intercom voiced its displeasure. “Going up,” the voice said, and then she was, elevator rising, numbers lighting and again going dim, all the way to 21.
On the 21st floor, the doors opened and the voice crackled.
“Get the fuck out,” it said, and she did.
Here the scent was even stronger. Kirstin stood, silent and still, hands over her mouth, breathing through her nose, aware of her heels sinking into the carpet, aware that the door to room 2101 was wide open. She could hear ice clinking, soft hum of the soda machine, television blaring, the white noise of sleep. But wasn’t this, she thought through the smell, exactly what her experiment was meant to capture? She had vials for this in her purse.
Kirstin walked toward the open door, unlatching her purse, fumbling for the vials that were specially made to capture the smell. This was what she was born to do; it was her moment. She walked toward the room where she, Kirstin Jennifer Diffenbacher, would capture the pure, natural smell of the modern American woman (cis and/or trans). This smell would then be used to instill fear in women who would buy their products. And of course, in secret, it would be reproduced as part of the new artificial reality-scented porn films SenX had been developing for years.
Kirstin stepped toward the open door. Walked through the narrow hallway, then into the sitting room of the suite, where half a dozen people sat on the sofa and arm chairs, white lab coats starched, paper masks over their mouths.
One of the men gestured for her to sit in a chair by the window. A woman took her arm and immediately Kirstin felt the needle sink below the skin.
“Beautiful work,” someone said. The others nodded.
“You captured it,” said the woman with the needle. “You smell exactly like fear in the context of meaningless control, mixed with corporate power undiluted by ethical standards. We’re calling it Mid-Level. The bottle’s tall, glass stopper.”
Kirstin nodded, wondering if she’d get a raise, if she could refinance her condo, if Chad would propose.