I was in elementary school during the final sad years of my parents' marriage. We had moved out of New York City to Westchester and lived on a street that was more country than suburban. I had a friend named Kevin who lived up the road in a big, dilapidated house. He kept a water-logged copy of Hustler under the front porch—my first glimpse of pornography. Next to the house was an enormous barn. They had horses and Kevin's mother and his sisters gave riding lessons in a big rink next to the house. The father was dead. Nobody talked about him.
I remember being inside that house wondering, What happened? Kevin's mother looked respectable, commuted to work in Manhattan each day and was polite. But the house was a mess. There were cats everywhere. It was cold in winter and the floors were covered with newspapers soaked with cat urine and covered with cat shit. I navigated the upstairs corridors in fear and mostly stayed in Kevin's room, which had a small TV where we once watched ABC's Monday Night Baseball.
It was as if after Kevin's father died, everything fell apart. At least that's how I imaged it as I lived with the feeling that my parent's marriage would not last.
There were only two smells that cut through the stench. One was the sweet smell of shampoo in Kevin's sister's feathered hair. It could have been perfume too. He had four older sisters and they listened to records by the Eagles and Led Zeppelin, wore tight jeans and seemed so grown up. All they had to do is pass by and the air was cut by a rush of something sweet and exciting.
The other pleasing smell came from the kitchen. It was a cold room too and the fridge always seemed bare. There, Kevin would toast a few slices of Freihofer's white bread, spread them evenly with margarine and then shake equal parts cinnamon and sugar on top of them.
He was precise and deliberate and the cinnamon toast was reminder that something cheap and simple can be lavish.