When my best friend Christina Bouvier’s daughter Coralina was about 10 years old, they decided it would be a good idea to enroll Coralina in some sort of music lessons. They dipped just one toe in the water, choosing the piccolo as their instrument of choice, so as to avoid the costly mistake of a huge investment in a piano or harp that could become their household’s next clothing rack or “place to set stuff.”
The piccolo lessons were held in an old building, just 2 minutes away from my condo. Every week, Christina Bouvier would report back to me about some new odor being emitted from Coralina’s piccolo teacher. I’m a profiler from way back, perhaps derived from my love of David Sedaris novels, so my imagination was well into overdrive, building an elaborate back story around this poor woman. I savored Christina Bouvier’s every tiny detail. As the weeks went on, I grew insanely curious about the piccolo teacher. Here’s what I learned:
#1. Her hair was washed once a week, probably the day after Coralina’s lesson.
#2. Her breath reeked of dental decay and cigarette smoke.
#3. Her fingernails were nicotine stained.
#4. Her teeth were coffee and nicotine stained.
#5. She smelled like ass and crotch.
#6. She’s about 55 years old, but that could have been from the cigarettes ruining her skin.
#7. It’s possible that the Bouviers detected the smell of a household of many cats who don’t always hit the litter box on this woman’s ratty, old taupe sweater.
#8. She was brilliant about music, but socially retarded.
The fateful night finally came…Christina Bouvier invited me to join her in the waiting room for Coralina’s piccolo lesson. Naturally, I didn’t hesitate. The phone rang, and here is how the evening evolved:
Christina Bouvier: “Want to come with me to smell Coralina’s piccolo teacher?”
Me: “I thought you would never ask!”
Soon I was in their Jeep, driving off to meet what had to be the smelliest human being this side of men’s pro wrestling. I actually felt a bit sorry for Coralina, who looked all wide-eyed and fearful when she was ushered into the room alone with this woman. It didn’t help that the building was creepy and the teacher looked not too unlike the witch from Hansel & Gretel. But Coralina was a means to an end, the end being my fascination with this sorry, fascinating creature.
Outside in the lobby, Christina Bouvier and I heard the strains of her daughter Coralina’s performance, and I do mean “strains.” Coralina would never get a mention in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” as the best piccolo performer with the 10,000 hours of practice under her belt. After a painful 30 minutes, the piccolo teacher emerged with Coralina in tow.
Christina Bouvier and I were sitting a chair apart from each other, side by side, facing forward. The piccolo teacher grabbed a chair and sat before us, facing us, her legs spread in a mannish pose, with Coralina sitting to her left, also facing us.
They were right. She did stink. Her hair was oily. The teeth and fingernails were stained. I was delighted to see all of these descriptions coming to life before my eyes. They did forget to mention the bad 1980s eyeglasses with the self-darkening lenses, which made her eyes unreadable beneath the fluorescent lighting. The piccolo teacher adjusted her legs to sit even more man-like, and I worried about the swarm of flies this might attract. They also forgot to mention that this teacher, like many academics, spoke very thespian-like, using the collective “we” when she meant just one person.
Chritina Bouvier and I sat sober as two judges, facing the piccolo teacher and Coralina. I recall the piccolo teacher inhaled to begin speaking, and erupted into a phlegmy smoker’s cough. What she said next I will never forget as long as I live. I may be 100 years old in a nursing home with no short-term memory, unable to recall the pre-chewed food I had for lunch moments ago, but I will never forget the piccolo teacher’s evaluation of Coralina’s piccolo playing, in her booming, theatrical voice: “WE have a PROBLEM with our BREATH!”
Christina Bouvier and I quickly processed what the piccolo teacher had said, in her burst of hot, stinking breath in a room that suddenly had zero air circulation. We spent the next several minutes struggling to avoid eye contact with each other. Unfortunately, Coralina, facing us, emitted a giggle snort. Christina Bouvier and I distorted and contorted our faces every way we could to not reveal the shit-eating grins that were trying to overtake our countenances, not to mention the guffaws we were trying so hard to suppress, bubbling to the surface. I finally put my entire hand over my mouth, in an attempt to pull off a pose of oh-so-serious contemplation, looking down at my lap. I have no idea what Christina Bouvier did. We had a bad case of the church giggles.
I remember that the teacher continued forth in her criticism of Coralina’s breathing control while playing the piccolo, but all I can recall from her tirade was that first sentence – “WE have a PROBLEM with our BREATH!” Of the many things she could have chosen to say about Coralina’s piccolo playing, or the way she could have worded them, this particular choice of words couldn’t possibly have pushed our giggle buttons any harder.
The critique was interminably long, although in hindsight, it was probably just 5 minutes. We practically ran out of the building, hoping we could restrain our giggles until our feet hit the parking lot. We barely made it. We were in tears, doubled over, laughing all of the way back to my condo. Christina Bouvier could barely drive, but luckily it was a road not heavily traveled. There are times when I literally feel drunk with laughter, and this was one of those times. We shed so many tears, an innocent bystander would have thought we’d just left a funeral. I had no makeup left on my eyes.
The next week, Christina Bouvier called to inform me that the piccolo lessons had been canceled. The school had fired the piccolo teacher and they had no replacement. We were conflicted about it — devastated and relieved, all at the same time. I would never again be able to put the piccolo teacher under my microscope, in my attempt to figure out what made her tick, but as a trade-off, I would be breathing fresh air. Coralina rejoiced.
A short time after that, I seem to recall hearing that Christina Bouvier and Coralina were in a Barnes & Noble, and Coralina came running over to Christina just bursting to share news. A familiar odor emanated from the music aisle, and sure enough, it was the piccolo teacher. Her odor was her trademark… her legacy. If Procter & Gamble ever needed to conduct human testing for an extra-strength deodorant, we knew their ideal candidate.
Coralina never did take up another instrument after the piccolo. She cited breath control as her alibi.