Australian writer Jehane Sharah has worked as a journalist, a public-affairs officer, a copywriter, a speechwriter, and, since her move to the United States, as a graduate teaching assistant, first at the University of Maryland and currently at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she is pursuing a PhD in English. Her fiction debut was in our November/December 2018 issue’s Department of First Stories. Her publications since then include the story “Words Don’t Kill,” featured in the EQMM issue now on sale, November/December 2020. In this post she takes up the important—and difficult—topic of endings.—Janet Hutchings
There is a strange odor in the Art-Deco apartment I recently moved into. It hits me every time I walk through the door. It smells almost like vanilla, but is far too pungent to be considered pleasant. It’s as if something, somewhere is fermenting, although the scent also has an astringent quality to it, which makes me sure that it is derived from something chemical, man-made, although I can’t pinpoint its source. The trouble is, once I’m inside I become accustomed to it. I occasionally catch a trace of it as I’m going about my day, but then I lose it again. I have to step outside, then in again to fully sense the odor.
At first, I thought it might be related to the gas leak in the kitchen I discovered the first week I moved in. But even after airing the place out, the smell remained—the two air purifiers I bought didn’t make a difference either. I threw things out in the hope that one of them might be the culprit: an air mattress. A bottle of hand sanitizer that smelled like cheap tequila. Some cardboard boxes left over from the move. I kept the windows open for all of August. Placed bowls of vinegar and baking soda in every room. Bought candles and little bags of charcoal. But nothing seemed to work.
Then, over the Labor Day long weekend, the smell suddenly vanished. It was as if a miracle had occurred. How wonderful it was, to open the door and not be greeted by that strange, overwhelming scent–to smell clean, unblemished air instead.
This reprieve was fleeting though. The odor returned on Tuesday morning and has stuck around ever since, a mystery that continues to confound me.
I search online for answers. Mold? Formaldehyde in the paint? Rodents in the walls? The fact that the smell disappears from time to time, albeit fleetingly, makes me wonder if it is coming from a neighboring apartment. Has someone turned their living room into an artist’s studio? Is it an accumulation of cigarette smoke and incense that someone downstairs seems to burn around the clock? Or could there be a drug lab somewhere in the vicinity? Someone in a Zoom meeting suggests that maybe it’s a ghost.
My building manager—a kind and helpful man who is always responsive to my requests (and even gives me book recommendations from time to time, knowing of my love of literature)—drops by to check the odor out. But he can’t detect anything, politely adding that he has a terrible sense of smell.
I begin to wonder if I’m delusional, suffering from some kind of olfactory hallucination. And so I reach out to one of the previous tenants, whose name I see from time to time on the junk mail in my letterbox. I send them a message on social media, almost certain that they will ignore me. But they do reply, confirming that there was “a weird smell” when they lived here (a neighbor’s activities, in their opinion). It doesn’t solve the mystery, but I feel vindicated nonetheless, knowing that I’m not imagining it.
My friends tell me that I should write about the saga. The problem is, while I very much hope to get to the bottom of the mystery in real life, I can’t think of an ending that would satisfy a fictional retelling of it. Most of the possibilities seem mundane and anticlimactic. Others are too awful (I refuse to write about rodents in walls) or fantastic (do ghosts really smell and if so, do they take vacations on long weekends?).
I’m always curious to know how great writers approach endings. Toni Morrison once famously said, “I always know the ending; that’s where I start.” In contrast, apparently the only time Dennis Lehane knew the outcome of one of his stories in advance was with the brilliantly plotted Shutter Island.
I don’t necessarily have to know the outcome of a story before I begin, but if I can’t think of at least a few satisfying possibilities, then I find it difficult to embark on a project.
There is, of course an alternative to my dilemma: the ambiguous ending. But these require mastery.
When I taught creative writing at the University of Maryland, College Park, my undergraduate students would often end their stories ambiguously. When I asked them why they made that choice, they would usually say something along the lines of: “I couldn’t decide how to wrap things up, so I just decided to make it ambiguous.”
But when an ambiguous ending comes from a place of indecision, it tends to disappoint. When done well, it is haunting, unnerving. Some of my favorite stories leave me with a counterintuitive feeling of satisfaction, even when there is none. Perhaps there is something cathartic about an ambiguous ending—after all, our emotional highs and lows are often linked to not knowing, trying to find answers where there are none. Not knowing why someone has died, not knowing if the person we’re falling in love with feels the same way, not knowing if someone who disappeared from our lives will ever return. . . .
I first read Joan Lindsay’s Australian gothic classic Picnic at Hanging Rock as a schoolgirl and remember being enamored with the enduring mystery of what happened to Miranda, Marion, and Miss McCraw on the fateful day of the picnic. Later, when our teacher got us copies of the sequel, in which the author explained the disappearance in a definitive way, our class was disappointed (angry, even). We much preferred not knowing.
In Amparo Dávila’s brilliant short story “Moses and Gaspar,” not knowing is central to the story. The protagonist has been asked to care for his deceased brother’s pets, the increasingly disturbing Moses and Gaspar. But what exactly are they? Dávila demonstrates how frightening ambiguity can be when done deliberately and with precision.
Ambiguity is also a key part of the structure of Tim O’Brien’s novel In the Lake of the Woods. The narrator in the story’s footnotes describes it as “a love story,” but it reads like a mystery: a missing wife, a husband with PTSD. O’Brien presents a number of hypotheticals as the story progresses, building up to an even more uncertain ending. But it feels like the only choice–how can such devastating circumstances be explained in any concrete way?
Of course, some people see ambiguity where others don’t. I was genuinely surprised to learn that some people interpret Rosemary’s Baby as possibly being about mental illness, when I have always taken the supernatural elements of the story literally. I was delighted to discover this tidbit in Ira Levin’s notes that his family have published online, in which the author revealed his true intentions. Levin wrote:
I’ve gotten letters from psychiatrists and from doctors who say, This is such a wonderful picture of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. I’d say, no, no, she was absolutely right! They really were witches!
The Latin word ambiguus means doubtful, fickle and treacherous. And that’s how much of 2020 has felt–there has been too much uncertainty. Not knowing when the pandemic will end is a case in point–it has been excruciatingly difficult for everyone. Like most people, I have been spending more time at home than I would normally care to, and perhaps this is why I have been so caught up with the mystery scent.
I recently emailed the property management company about the matter. They sent a maintenance man to take a look around.
“I think it smells nice,” he said.
“But what is it?” I replied.
He put his hands in his pocket and shrugged.
Perhaps one day I will discover the ending–either in real life or my imagination. Until then, I will be left in this strange space of not knowing.