The Smell of Creosote

Desert view with creosote

There was a storm the other day, just a little thunder, wind, and rain here, but farther to the north, it was a storm. When I went outside the next morning it smelled like creosote. More precisely, it smelled like waking up at the hotel I used to manage in Desert Hot Springs, where creosote grew outside my floor-length window. In the desert I never pulled the shade on my window. I liked to fall asleep looking at the lights in the distant city and wake up to the very beginning of the sun.

The other morning, the air smelled like taking my coffee outside and watching the sunrise with a whole desert day ahead of me to fill. A day with a hike to take and laps to swim in a pool I would clean, and rooms to turn over, and strangers to check in and talk to and maybe a drink with the group of women I’d become close to, or a visit from my hush-hush secret lover that even my friends didn’t know about until I was ready to leave. My friends in Desert Hot Springs were a group of women about 10 years older than me. Two of them were married to each other and the other two were single and we drank wine and I tried to figure out if I was like them, if I could make my own life, with no husband or kids, without a “regular” job. If I could live in a strange place and take in the smell of creosote every morning.

I’m sure the smell in Chicago had less to do with the storm and more to do with the destructive fires in California. A force of destruction blowing a little bit of peace for me. I am sad about the fires, but I took my hot water and lemon outside and breathed in as much as I could. By the time I was ready for tea and working, the smell had dissipated. I tried all day to get it back, but couldn’t.

I have lived in a lot of places, but Malawi and Desert Hot Springs, neither of which I lived in for long, remain fixed in my imagination. They are places where I found myself, at least for a time. I lost myself again recently. Maybe it was last year when I lost my breast to cancer, maybe it was years before when my life became consumed by the day to day of kids, husband, dogs, and work. All things I want and love. I’m not sure when I disappeared, but I spend a lot of time trying to find little bits of myself, grasping at them like a half-forgotten smell in the wind.

Online high school started for us last week. It is my son’s freshman year. He has always thought of himself as “a sports guy,” but now, starting high school at 5’2″ and 95 pounds, in a year where the intramurals aren’t happening and only the best of the best are playing any sport, in a town that asks kids to specialize early, he is realizing that maybe he is not a sports guy. He wants to be taller and bigger and be able to be on a team. He knows he is not those things, but he is unsure what he is. He does not want me to tell him that he is smart, funny, and loving, that the debate team would be perfect for him, or that he would get a role if he auditioned for a play. He does not want me to tell him that he is possibly a comedian or a writer.

So I do not. Instead I try to tell him that I know how it feels to not know who you are. I know that feeling of being someone with a missing piece. I felt complete when I gave birth to his sister and to him. Sometimes, when I am talking to one of my kids or helping with homework, I feel complete again. Once, in pre-Covid times, his sister was out for the evening with friends. I had washed her sheets earlier in the day and told her to make her bed. But, it was getting later and so I decided to make the bed for her. He followed me into her room and asked if I liked doing stuff like that. “Yeah,” I answered. “I like knowing that she’ll come in thinking that she has to make her bed but instead it will be all made with nice cold sheets and she can go right to sleep.” “Yeah,” he said. “I get that. I’d like doing that and thinking about that, too.” I felt complete again that night.

But, most of the time, I too wonder what kind of person I am, and what piece of me is missing. I wonder if there is a team for me or if maybe I was meant to be one of those women alone in the desert.

The day after the creosote smell I woke up at 5:00 AM to thunder and lightening, but no rain, and no creosote smell. I will need to keep trying to find my missing pieces.

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