I’m told smells are one of the most potent channels into our memories. We can revisit places, hear our favorite songs, taste our favorite foods and even run our fingertips over the most comforting surfaces, but your nose is your true vessel. Scent can drive you back quicker and more accurately to a time and place. To a feeling.
I was taking the elevator up to my floor earlier and this man stepped in. He was older, with grey-white hair and a protruding belly and had absolutely NO attraction pulling me in. But he was wearing something, some familiar cologne that I couldn’t name. And it hit me. Like a slap in my face, I knew it. I’d smelled it before, when boys were still this foreign mystery, this exotic, exciting thing that, for a chubby girl like me, were off limits. I wasn’t in the elveator with old-man smell-good anymore. I was back in the ninties, in this haze of confusion and breathlessness, too ready to grow up. Too ready to know more masculine scents and what came with them.
And that was only middle school.
Sometimes I go back further, like when I smell my great-aunt. I’m not sure if it’s the lotion she used or her perfume or if it was just her own specific fragrance, but I smell her from time to time. On the sidewalk or in the apartment foyer or walking in the halls of some big important building. Even though she passed when I was 11, everytime I breathe in that unique scent, I’m thrown back to butterflies and orange-laced glasses. Virginia Slims and backyard grass. Hot days that were always too long, and soft hands, aged with color and wrinkles that preformed wonderous magic with pencils.
I’m a kid again.
By just a scent in the air, I’m transported to a different version of me. One so different and naive that I can’t believe time has blocked us. I can’t believe it’s taken a fragrance to remind me who I was nearly a decade into existence. And who I am now.
There’s this great short story by Tobias Wolff called Bullet in the Brain. I’ve read some other works of his, including his autobiography This Boy’s Life. I like the book and all, but his short story really got me, so much that I read it over and over from time to time because it’s like one of those great movie scenes you never forget. It’s the reason you watch the movie in the first place, the part you can’t wait to get to and when you catch it on televsion, you hope you haven’t missed it yet. If you haven’t read it, I sincerely suggest looking it up. It’ll probably only take you a minute or so to read and you’ll be glad you did. Because after the bullet pierces Anders head and you start learning about all the things he doesn’t remember compared to what he does (the second before he dies) you’re forced to examine your own past. Things that may have seemed buried and forgotten are suddenly here again, forcing you to relive it, to acknowledge its existence.
It’s incredible that something that can be carried on the wind or captured in a bottle has the power to remind us, to awaken us. To shake ourselves out of the present and remember something our consciousness might’ve thought to forget. Scents are powerful. Or, in Anders case, a bullet. But I’d rather not rely on the latter.