I smile, say hello. They stare, and stare, and stare.
It smells like nothing. A wine region, a resort town. Paradise. Stinks bad. The kind of nothing that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Like golf courses. Like golf clothes. Like condos. Like plastic siding on million-dollar homes. Like carpets unrolled down hallways in LEED-certified buildings built on pine forest clear-cuts where owls used to nest and deer used to roam. Like the grey plastic latches made to look like metal on office windows where the birds who used to nest there fly in. It smells like the email that was sent to inform you of this. (Close them.) It smells like the Old Pond Trail the day after the university bulldozed it and cut the ribbon to open it. Dusty. Where is the lake? Nowhere.
Billboards in front of it advertise it.
I see a $350,000 Bentley. The cab driver points it out, including the price. Pink stucco mansions on dry hillsides—that kind of town. Doctors, drug dealers, no recycling.
I arrive at the university. I am thirsty. The secretary tells me to make myself at home. I go into a coffee area, take a mug from a shelf and turn on a tap. I see two professors. They talk in hushed, hurried tones. Like prisoners, they know I am there. They stare. And stare. And stare. Is it their mug?
I say hi. They stare. And stare. Ah, it dawns on them. The new recruit. Fresh meat. They sniff. One says: Take an apple from the basket. Feel free. They’re from my orchard. I reach for it. She says: They’re a dollar each. You can put it in my mailbox. She smiles.
The no-smell of nowhere is ongoing. It’s Valley of the Dolls or Village of the Damned. I replace the cup on the shelf and remember the blond kids from the horror movie. Who stared. And stared. And stared. (Brick wall. Brick wall.)
I walk back down the hall. I cross the quadrangle to the library to prepare for my interview. The buildings look religious. Pointy A-frame atriums atop brick. The crowded fountain in the centre of the courtyard also smells like nothing. Is it the smell of salvation? What is the next to go, the nose?
I see a bake sale. The lineup crosses the quad. Everyone is white. There is no one here who is not white.
I feel sick. I remember the water. It too tasted like nothing. Will I die?
I walk into the interview room. I smile, say hello. They ignore me. I open my folder and arrange papers on the table. They ignore me. In between their own conversations, they stare. And stare. And stare. One man stares at my shoes. My shoes are purple today. No one takes notes.
It is warm, I take off my jacket. Things improve. I get their attention. The jacket was the problem. Now they look at me and nod. My talk goes well. I have it memorized. Down.
They do not ask questions right away. First they stare. And stare. And stare. Like with the coffee mug. The man who stared at my shoes before, stares at my shoes again.
At the break I go to the bathroom, look in the mirror and see, through my white blouse, a blue bra shining out. I dressed in the dark in the early morning to catch the flight. Blue bra. Wonder Woman. It looked white in the night.
I remember the word for bra in French is soutien-gorge. I imagine myself river rafting out of here over the whitewater of BC, back to the sea. Or the other way, over the hills; portage the prairies to Ontario, Quebec or Corner Brook.
I return to the room. I head straight for my jacket. I put my jacket on now. I stare back at them. And stare. And stare. And stare.
They bring out a fruit plate.
I say I want to build a garden. The men ignore me and start eating grapes. I say I would like to grow kale and turnips. Root vegetables. Maybe get them into the cafeteria. Get the students involved and… a woman interrupts: Are you pregnant? Or, ha, do you plan to be? Is that a wedding ring? I did not hear you say. After all, someone says, you are from Vancouver! They each repress a chuckle. They reach for plastic tongs. What neighbourhood are you from? asks another woman, who looks exactly like a witch, reaching for a bear claw. What church do you go to? All I see are hands, reaching; mouths, asking; 24 karat crosses, hanging.
The questions. The tongs. The fruit plate. The melon balls from Mexico served since the ’50s. Faded orange and green. Always the last to go. Long after the end of the world, someone in space will still be finding melon balls no one ate.
They tell me to take a break while they deliberate. I walk down the hall. I finally see a person who is not white. He talks loudly to a brick wall.
I know you’re in there! I know you’re in there! he says.
We stand together and wait. Nothing.
He says, I have to keep working.
Back outside, same old smell. I breathe deep. Nothing. It reeks.
Read "Cowichan Sweater," the companion piece to "Melon Balls in Space."