Jorie Rao delves skillfully into the aftermath of an assault. The piece explores the tiny sensory details that form whole memories and how those memories can grow into large parts of ourselves. Here, the smell of soap in a bathroom takes Rao’s readers through a thought process of panic and, ultimately, self-preservation.


Kills 99.9% of Germs

by Jorie Ann Rao


I remember the smell of the dial antibacterial soap and his sweat better than I will ever remember his face. It lives in my nostrils still, the smell of the summer on his skin mingled with the soap I used to try and scrub him away after he left me on the dirt trails with leaves in my hair and blood on my skin.

Each time I wash my hands in a public restroom, I remember his smell and the soap and my blood-stained shorts and it chokes me, so I hold my breath, hoping the smell, the memory, will float away, dissipate, and leave me alone to dry my hands in peace. Sometimes the memory that surfaces is faded like a old, worn pair of jeans with holes in the fabric, and so I can tear at the holes in the memory until it is nothing but fragments.

But other times the smell brings me back to that night, pouring soap over my blood stained shorts as they lay in the bathroom sink, frantically scrubbing at the spots with a Brillo pad where the red overtook the beige like the first wave of a plague.

I remember the only thought going through my mind that night: Soap. Not enough soap. I needed more soap. I had to get the stain out. Soap would get the stain out. It couldn’t be there anymore because then people would know, so I pulled off the pump and poured more soap onto the shorts, watching it fall in orange globs until the shorts lay in my bathroom sink covered in bubbles.

My body, bare from the waist down, was cold from the air conditioner blowing up from the vent on the bathroom floor. I thought of my underwear, left forgotten on the forest trail, was probably covered in blood, too. The thought made bile rise in my stomach, so I scrubbed harder and harder. Pushing the thought away and the Brillo pad into the fabric. All the while, ignoring the cool air wrapping itself around my bare thighs trying to remind me of my body.

I focused on the shorts. The stain. I could deal with the stain. I used so much soap, the bottle was nearly empty. The bathroom was filled with the smell of antibacterial soap. It reminded me of a hospital. That sterile, empty smell that covered tragedy and death and sickness with a clean scent. I was dizzy from it, but all I could think about was getting the stain out.

The blood mocked me. It seemed to say, “What did you expect? You told him you liked him. You went to the trails with him, alone. What did you think would happen?” It watched me as I scrubbed. The blood judged me, shamed me, blamed me. “It’s your fault,” it said.

I scrubbed so hard, new blood joined the drying blood and the soap stung my fingers which had grown pruny from the watery mixture. I remember the soap bubbles on the shorts reminded me of the way peroxide bubbles on a cut when it’s infected. So I scrubbed, trying to clear the infection away. The blood started to fade, moving from a brownish-red to a faded pink color. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was working. The blood was coming out.

That’s when I remembered the blood on my thighs, between my thighs, running down between my legs in single-file lines. I was disgusted with myself all over again. And, without thinking, I took the soap to my legs and started scrubbing until my skin was raw and blood-colored soap bubbles dripped down my legs in slow trickles, meeting the blue carpet under my feet.

The soap filled my lungs, so I got in the shower. The water came on cold at first then scalding hot. I left it like that, so hot it turned my skin red. I wanted to disintegrate my top layer of skin. I wanted it gone. I wanted to put that skin out of its misery. I wanted new skin. Fresh skin. I wanted skin he had never touched. Skin he had never run his fingers down. Skin his lips hadn’t lingered over. Skin his teeth hadn’t sunk into.

Steam rose around me, filling the bathroom. New blood joined the old as I scrubbed and the soap stung, but I welcomed it because that meant the poison, the sin that resided in the cracks of my own skin, would be purified. 99.9% of all germs, killed. Guaranteed.

Antibacterial soap still makes me think of that summer day and those shorts in my bathroom sink, judging me. Some days, I can walk away from the memory and tell myself it was not my fault and that I am not to blame, but other times, well, other times I remember the smell better than I remember myself.



Jorie Ann Rao has an MFA in Writing Arts and Composition Theory. She is currently teaching freshman composition at a small community college in New Jersey.