My hand is over my mouth, my eyes are watering, and I’m trying to hold my breath, but every few seconds, my throat tries to turn itself inside out. Most smells, after a little while, fade into the background—you become desensitized and can no longer detect them. But not this smell. You remember the sloth scene from Se7en? The one where the cops, handkerchiefs over their mouths, walk into a room that has hundreds of Little Tree car air fresheners hanging from the ceiling and find a guy who has been chained to a bed for a year, living in his own waste while his body rotted away? It was like that. Minus the air fresheners.


A week ago, Molly and I had entered our apartment for the first time after a month and a half of traveling. We had been to the Philippines, Thailand, Boston, and were finally home, after a long flight. It was nearly midnight and all I wanted to do was bury my face in a pillow, cocoon myself in a blanket, and breath in my bed, which smells like sleep. Instead, I found myself breathing in noxious fumes. Which smell like noxious fumes.

Molly’s first guess was that we had forgotten to take out the trash, but when we checked, it was empty. I looked for anything rotting in the sink, but it was spotless. Molly cracked open the fridge—also empty. However, as she closed the refrigerator door, it pushed some air out of the fridge and in our direction. A second later, a wave of warm, putrid shit smelling foulness washed over us.

“Oh dear, we’ve got to deal with this”, I said. Or maybe it was something more along the lines of “Oh Jesus fuck what the shit is that???”

I readied myself and peeled the fridge door open again and peered around. We had eaten or thrown out all the food before leaving on vacation, so the shelves were empty. All that remained were a few crumbs and stains. And yet, a cloud of corruption was flooding out of the fridge – I swear I could see green stink lines.

“We’ve got to clean this up”, I said. Molly suggests it was more like “Oh come on! Why the… what is the… what the fuck is that goddamn smell???” It was go time.

Approximate re-enactment of me approaching the fridge
Approximate re-enactment of me approaching the fridge

Molly and I began pulling out the shelves and drawers and washing them. The fumes of—what was it? Rotten eggs and a dead skunk floating in a bath of spoiled milk?—continued to waft through the apartment. We were finally on the last shelf when I randomly decided to peer into the freezer. Although the fridge was empty, we had left the freezer running to preserve frozen goods and various condiments. I peered around and saw a package of ravioli, a bag of Ikea meatballs, a bottle of maple syrup, some pink liquid, and then, wait a second, on the door… Oh god, what the hell was that??

I slammed the freezer door shut.

The creature I thought I had seen on my freezer door
The creature I thought I had seen on my freezer door

My brain was still processing what I had seen. Unfortunately, shutting the freezer door had pushed out a new cloud of noxious gas that nearly knocked me unconscious. As I came to, I began to wonder: why did the freezer smell worse than the fridge? Why was there an Alien facehugger on my freezer door? But most of all, I couldn’t get out of my mind the pink liquid in the freezer.

Wait a minute, why was there liquid in my freezer?

I took a peek at the controls in the fridge:

The fridge controls

Pop quiz: what happens if you leave the freezer setting at “4”, but turn the refrigerator setting to “off”? Did you say that *both *the freezer and refrigerator shut off? Because that’s exactly what happened. For the entire time we were traveling. That’s 1.5 months.

For six weeks, some monstrosity had been stewing, growing, incubating in my freezer. We had been scrubbing the refrigerator shelves, but all this time, the real evil lay quietly above. But what was it? What fiend lay in waiting?

What's in the box?

I had to know. But I didn’t want to know. Molly and I stared at each other. Our imaginations danced. Within the freezer, there lurked unknown dangers, and I felt naked. Actually, I was mostly naked, because I had stripped down after noticing that the putrid smell was getting in my clothes. I searched the house for some protection and found… a single glove. Not zero, not two, but one glove. Seriously, I don’t understand why you would have just a single rubber glove, but there you have it. It was purple.

I also found a bottle of Lysol, but it was almost empty. So there I was, wearing a pair of boxers and a single rubber glove, holding a bottle of Lysol, heading into the den of a dragon that could peel the armor off an Abrams tank with a single breath.

Don Quixote

I closed my eyes and pulled at the freezer door. As it swung open, I caught sight of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream that had transformed into a Xenomorph egg. No, that’s not right. The ice cream had spawned a huge blob of mold that tore through the lid and crawled, stretched, and oozed its fuzzy blue green body up the freezer door. I brought the lysol up, took aim… but I was too late. As the door swung a bit further, the full power of the smell hit me.

Later, when I told this story to my sister, she asked why I didn’t take a picture of the mold. The answer is that this was not mold. This was biological warfare, a weapon of mass destruction, the poison gas from the Hunger Games that causes your skin to burst into boils on contact. As the toxic cloud washed over me, it was as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror… and then farted. A smell so foul that we gave it a name: it became known as The Stank. This was no time for selfies.

My senses returned to me and I went to war. With one hand, I shoveled all the food left in the freezer into the trash. With the other, I began spraying with lysol. And I kept spraying. And spraying. And spraying. And spraying some more.

A reenactment of our battle against The Stank.
A reenactment of our battle against The Stank.

Finally, the bottle was empty. Now, the hard part. I had to wipe it all down. That meant reaching my hand - the one gloved hand - into The Stank. This had all the appeal of reaching straight into Satan’s asshole.

I don’t really remember what happened next. Somehow, hours later, I was huddled in corner of the shower, knees pressed to my chest. No amount of soap could wash out The Stank.

But our battle was not finished. The next day, the freezer still smelled horrible. We washed everything with soap and water. Then we tried baking soda and water. Then vinegar and water. Then we realized it isn’t a great idea to mix baking soda and vinegar, unless, of course, you’re trying to create a volcano for your 4th grade science fair.

The next day, the smell was still there. We went out and bought an anti-mold spray that contained bleach. We filled the fridge and freezer with the stuff and let the chlorine gas waft through it. It didn’t help.

Then we filled the fridge with smell absorbers: baking soda, charcoal, coffee grinds, oatmeal. We packed plates, bowls, and cookie trays full of the stuff and arranged it in the fridge. It looked like an altar of offerings to a vengeful god. It was our tribute to The Stank. It was not enough.

If you wake up at a different time in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?

Worse yet, The Stank followed us. A smell that powerful doesn’t just go away when you leave the house. You begin to imagine The Stank everywhere you go. The funky cheese at the fancy restaurant reminds you of The Stank; the bathroom at the library smells of Stank; does that guy on the treadmill have terrible body odor or is that The Stank too? Wait, do I smell like The Stank? Have I become The Stank?

We spent a full week trying every remedy imaginable. We took out shelves, we unscrewed panels, we scrubbed, wiped, sprayed, brushed, and polished every surface. Every visible inch of the fridge became a shiny, unnatural white. But despite it all, The Stank remained.

Finally, today, we ordered a new fridge. The Stank won.

One shot revolver

So, kids, here’s the moral of the story:

  1. Fuck the environment. We tried to be green—to save a little energy by shutting off the fridge during our trip. In return, we got The Stank. In fact, once you factor in all the chemical cleaning products, the rolls of paper towels, the years of our lives lost breathing in spores and cleaning agents, and the need to buy and ship a new fridge, I’m not entirely convinced our conservation efforts paid off.
  2. Fuck bad design. If your fridge has separate control knobs for the fridge and freezer, perhaps they should really be separate? Learn design, learn the principle of least surprise, and don’t make me think.