Today I want to forget everything; tomorrow it won’t matter. The wild sockeyes can never forget their home. Because their smell is so intertwined with memory. To smell is to mingle on the past. I read this somewhere, I forgot the book or the texture of the cover, but the pages seem to waft inside my nose like origami ballroom dancers rhythmically tapping away to songs mildly Latin. The same book told me how acute dog snouts are. When we smell the tough and nutty notes of oak, they recognize the moisture, the collaboration of nifty termites, and even which humans have touched the smooth planks.
Most mammals have noses; nearly all animals do. Almost as if nature had intended for us to remember. Or simply to appreciate how gritty the earth can nearly taste. Another book told me how humans have started to create their own smells. How an alcohol and an acid can make such a complex smell as wintergreen. To flavor gum. I’ve never tasted real wintergreen, not the plant at least.
I like the smell of sweet things. Hot caramelized popcorn. Quickly cooled fudge on a copper slab. The first chew of rounded bubble gum.
I think the smell of pre-climax rain is overrated. Tangy when none is desired. Almost as if the sour notes of the toxic air are concentrated the moment before a feisty storm. I’ve always wondered why it’s peoples favorite smell. Why not the smell of recently tanned leather? Or the cleansing sting of alcohol? Even the smell of an aging library is more appealing. But none of these smells have as much meaning as rain does. Rain means steaming cups of marshmallow topped hot chocolate. It means wooden heaters brimming with smoky tendrils whipping below the nose. Forcing eyes to water. A pot of thick chowder slowly boiling. Stewed potatoes and beef.
People have memories attached to rain. How it collects on each drop until it crashes onto the pavement and pops. I liked rain until recently. Now, it just makes me gag every time. My body rejects it. And to assume I, like everyone else, could bear to imagine the destructive confusion water has on the senses is foolhardy. Water has a tendency to enhance smells. Sometimes, I am fine with that.
But when unrecognizable scents lingered in my own home, I began to hate it. I could smell him before I had left the entryway. The bitter hint of half-smoked cigars and suckled tobacco refused to leave. Sicily was not much of a smoker. Neither was I. Without the sickening intensity of the mist dripping from my nose, I may not have smelled anything off. I may not have even heard the rustling upstairs if it were not for the alertness of my senses.
I had followed the faint trail of burnt plant matter up the staircase and into our bedroom. The smell was far more engulfing, the way the smoke clashed with the stink of sweat was beyond overwhelming. At that point, I knew far too much. I had wanted to plug my nose and wish away the smells like the way children pinch their nostrils so that they can forget what vegetables taste like. I had opened the door to find Sicily and another man’s scent tango.
And now, the smell of rain reminds me of cigars and sweat. How can smell be so damaging, but so important?
And so, I try to smell more pleasant things. I try to cover up the memories with much more powerful ones. A redwood bench recently stained dark maroon. A finely ironed dress shirt folded over itself. Memories that smell so cold my nose would grow ice crystals. Or memories so hot, I can only remember the oblong assault of sunscreen and crisping skin. To cover up the residual scent of carsick vomit with a measly tree air freshener.
I’ve always wondered why specific places have such universal smells. An elementary school in Buffalo, New York smells exactly like one in Minnesota. New cars smell like new car even if the manufacture is as different as Volkswagen and Jeep. Places that are so recognizable, that only the scent is needed.
But I bet I could probably smell the difference in subtle things. Milk or dark chocolate. Leather and the fake stuff. Laminate and hardwood. Pulped and non-pulped juice. Fear and anxiety. Things only the most attentive dogs can pick up. And if I were to try and describe the nuances, I would fail. How would one realize the stark difference in canvas and cotton, without first knowing what to sniff for?
This is also why my memory is so strong. I am able to catalog each situation with a particular and unique smell. Maybe it is too good because even when I try to block the embarrassing memories out, they sit right next to the prized ones. Filed away like some sickly accurate Dewey Decimal System.
Like my failed attempts at reasoning with Sicily smelled like burnt garlic bread and over salted tomato sauce. Her questioning gaze smelled like a buttery slab over intense heat.
How had she remained so stoic, so composed when everything around us was falling apart? How everything had smelled of crumbling red brick baking in the summer sun. Or of steak done so well, its center is tough and tastes like nothing.
My memory is filled with her smell. And sadly, not all of them are bad. Because if they were, it wouldn’t have been as hard as it was to leave that bedroom and never come back. The smell of laughter and thorny roses. Have you smelled laughter? It’s a thick, warm molasses-like drizzle atop steaming cornbread. It smells so fantastic, so utterly delicious that I simply would have to laugh, too. Especially if it were coming from Sicily.
And somehow, somewhere along the way the molasses stopped flowing. Thing began to smell bland. Unseasoned. Bearable, but not bursting.
Then, like some technicolor demon, the cigars and sweat made everything smell so overwhelming.
I have regular headaches now. Sparked by flowery perfumes and hairdryers. The type that seers’ sinuses and corrupts the forehead into becoming the enemy. And the same laughter now smells like used motor oil or heavily worn keys. The only way to relieve such pressures is to force myself to clog my nose. Or to pursue other smells. Other people. And associate the terrible with the tolerable. At least that’s what Capri says.
He says that the world is full of way more delightful smells. The ones that don’t cause headaches. And maybe if I were to stop sniffing my own patch of smells, then maybe it could all be tolerable. Even treasured. I hope he’s right.
I only want to smell the world before it had been adulterated. Can cinnamon smell anything more than gangrene? Why can’t I walk into a movie theater without nearly grasping my own forehead from the melted butter smothering the life out of the crispy popcorn? How limp and lifeless the popcorn would become. I can’t go to the corner store, or the flower shop, or even the bustling neighborhood park without smelling molding bread, or wilting tulips, or fuming dog droppings.
I don’t see how salmon do it. How they blindly accept the instinctual scents without so much as another sniff. Maybe they were meant to only smell a certain set of scents. Maybe this is my set of scents I have to live with. The ones that attack relentlessly. How can anyone forget anything in that type of environment? Because those dastardly smells pop up when I’m at work, or on a run, or even my own bed. Capri told me as much. He told me my nose will turn against me. And I just need to reprogram the world back in.
That’s what I was trying to do. Reprogram. Re-associate. I smelled my deodorized armpits to make sure I covered up the nervousness. Sadly, it couldn’t cover up the unpleasant tickling in my stomach.
This was not how I thought I would reprogram my nose. Maybe it would’ve started by changing the detergent of my sheets. Or even driving two blocks farther to the other scentless grocery store. Or constantly holding my hand to my nose.
Not this. Not this drastic. Maybe it was the familiar smell of recently cooked bread pulled from a stone fire oven. Maybe it was the smell of tea candles drifting to the push of breath. But these things calmed me and brought me back to the world of enchanted memories. Ones from childhood. To think of these things was to reduce the sizzle of Sicily on my sinuses.
And while an Italian restaurant may not have been the first place I would go to write over the memories with more pleasant smells, this is where Capri had sent me. He encouraged that this was a good thing, that I would like her. That she smelled of freshly trimmed roses and the scent of the sun. And I trusted him.
I tensed my fingers, letting them weave each other into intricate patterns. I paused my breath every time another person passed by. I closed my eyes and sniffed, trying to detect the hint of roses and summer in each person, but falling short every time. Rather, a person smelled of kerosene and tires. Another, of table crackers and cottage cheese. A third, of mildewing wooden beams and sawdust. A hell of unrecognizable and uninviting smells.
She was late. Nearly half an hour had passed, and I had managed to nibble a whole basket of buttery bread sticks. I closed my eyes one last time before I would give up and leave. I had thought Capri had never made his promise.
Gathering myself I breathed in a final time, desperately wanting to smell something different. And I did. A different smell had blended with everything else, like drying water colors. Familiar, but just out of range to categorize it. I opened my eyes and a lady in a sundress and beaming smile approached me. My face lit up as I locked eyes with her. And as she walked up to me, I stood up, untangled the knots in my hands, and hugged her.
I inhaled, desiring the promising rose garden and warm summer sun. The green and red and yellow all twisting into one scent. And instead, I was met with a familiar smell. One that had given me shivers. One that had betrayed me. One that had caused so much pain. One that had reduced my promises and pleas to nothing. One that had forgotten who I was and what we had been. And I knew, the moment I smelled this lady, she would do the same to me.