Each time I shifted in my seat, I smelled something sour. I tried to dismiss it as a run-of-the-mill other-people-sweat smell but eventually had to admit it was urine.
Was it on my shoes? On the coat of the guy seated in front of me? The woman two seats over? I sniffed my arm, my hands, my knee — I sniffed my knee during an IMAX showing of Interstellar. Getting no closer to identifying the source, I leaned over and whispered to my brother-in-law. “Dude, do you smell periodic waves of piss?” He squinted, shrugged and smiled — he didn’t hear me. I would have repeated myself, but with Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway deep into a discussion about wormholes and space-time, I felt that my “What’s that smell?” mystery was a little immature.
But I couldn’t let it go. I reached for my popcorn on the floor, bending a little further than necessary so I could catch a whiff of the carpet. It wasn’t the carpet.
I shifted forward and inhaled.
I leaned back as far as I could…
And then to either side. Deeeep breath.
The scent would hit me, and then dissipate before I could track it. I knew I looked like a confused dog to the patrons behind me, so I tried to stagger my investigatory shifts. This discipline led to periods during which I would become engrossed enough in the movie to forget my woes. But then a small fidget, as simple as shifting my weight to the opposite butt cheek, would remind me of my situation. Meanwhile, on screen, McConaughey floated through a futuristic fifth dimension in which time was a physical property.
Of course, I was also lying to myself, unwilling to admit that the smell was in my seat; embedded deep into the fabric of its cushion. I leaned forward again, hoping the man in front of me had used a strange-smelling hair gel. No. I was out of options. I had already been in the seat for over two hours, so moving to a new one was pointless. And I had too much pride to stand up, turn around, and smell my seat.
I waited until the movie ended to do that. I was almost relieved when I could finally squash what little doubt lingered. Still, I wanted to do it with stealth. Pretending to stretch my legs I was able to get my face within a couple of inches of the cushion without anyone noticing.
You know when you see a famous person on the street, and you’re certain that it is indeed that person? Like, it’s impossible that it could be anyone but that person? “Oh look, that’s Steve Buscemi!” Well, that’s exactly what my nose experienced. “Yup, that’s pee. No doubt about it!” I wiped my hand on my denimed buttock and was pleased to find it dry. But any relief was immediately drowned by a swell of disgust that I’d touched my ass—the same one that spent the previous three hours grinding against urine-scented foam.
My brother-in-law asked me what I thought of the movie, and though I wanted to discuss it, I was too distracted. I had to tell my secret to someone. Sounding like a third-grader, I blurted, “When I got up, I smelled my seat, and it smelled so badly of old piss that I nearly threw up!” For a second, he seemed confused, but then it all clicked: The fidgeting; the whispered, unintelligible question that included the words ‘smell’ and ‘wave’; and now this announcement about the seat.
“Gross,” he said, shivering in disgust. “Ugh, that’s so totally bogus.” I stopped in the bathroom on the way out to wash my hands. I dried them in the Dyson Air Blade, and as badly as I wanted to wedge myself in there, I knew it wouldn’t help—my problem could not be solved by wind. Over at the towel dispenser, I waved my hand past the sensor until it produced a long, brown paper scroll. I ripped it off and folded it into a thin cushion, roughly the size of my butt. I would need it for the ride home. I still wasn’t sure if my jeans had absorbed any of the pee particles, but I had to play it safe; especially as a passenger in someone else’s car.
It was around 30 degrees, but we decided to drive home with the windows open. The fresh air was invigorating, as was the idea that soon I would be home, where I could strip out of my clothes, jump in the shower and scrub my body as if I’d been exposed to radiation.
After confirming that the jeans had indeed absorbed the smell, as had my boxer shorts, I still had a problem, though. I had showered, lathered and rinsed many, many times. But how could I be sure that my skin hadn’t also been exposed? I rubbed my bare cheek with my hand and smelled it — nothing. I had to go on faith because it’s physically impossible to smell your own butt cheek, and with the exception of drunken kinkiness, it’s also entirely inappropriate to ask someone else to do it for you.