February 5, 2018


This morning while brushing my teeth, I found a small bottle of lotion that I loved many years ago, where "found" means "it fell out of a hidden recess in my medicine cabinet through the bizarre workings of clumsiness and physics and landed in my sink, splashing toothpaste-water on my shirt and scaring the shit of me so that I yelped and woke the dogs".  It's Bath and Body Works' old "Breathe Sensual" formula, redolent of jasmine and, ostensibly, a bit of vanilla that lurks undetected in the background of the fragrance.  Why the hell not, I thought.  I applied some of the lotion.

I had forgotten its potency.  Now I feel like I'm walking around in a cloud of jasmine, like Pig-Pen but with jasmine fog instead of animated dirt.  I keep looking around the corner for an old co-worker of mine.  She wore, or maybe bathed in or imbibed, pure jasmine essence, with the result that I could detect her presence in a large building at least twenty minutes before she actually visited my desk.   She walked and left the scent of jasmine in her wake as though an acolyte had swung a censer down the hallway.  Strangely, she never asked me how I knew to have her packet of paperwork and a good pen ready whenever she came by.  She must have assumed I'm just frighteningly efficient.

I am acutely emotionally sensitive to scents.  Not food smells, so much, but perfumes.  I cannot purchase the same shampoo, bar soap (even handmade), lotion, deodorant, hair spray, or hand soap twice in a row.  The scents become associated with seasons in my life, certain eras, sets of circumstances.  If I wait three years and then buy something a second time, I'm transported back to whatever was going on the last time I smelled it.  Raspberry-scented glycerin soap lets me close my eyes and stand in the dorm shower in college and feel like I'm behind on my math homework.  Jessica McClintock perfume evokes the vinyl of the chair in my high school guidance counselor's office; it mixes with musty wood furniture, certain book titles, and my own neediness.

Le Couvent des Minimes orange blossom is my first date with P.J., wrapped up and preserved.  I pay exorbitant prices to keep a bottle of it around.  It is rare and precious stuff.

Healing Garden lavender body wash can make me faint.  They pegged fresh lavender with singular accuracy.  I used it just before my first son was born, and during the few weeks he was at home with us, before we knew.  The omnipresent disinfectant in the hospital at the time can do the same thing.  They use something similar in home improvement stores, inside refrigerators and washing machines sitting out on the floor.  I once opened a refrigerator to look at the interior shelving layout and fell to the ground.

My sense of smell seems to have a hard-wired connection to every other part of my brain.  There is a bitter odor that I remember smelling in childhood, source unknown, that is red and yellow to me.  (That's synaesthesia at work.)  Scents can bring forth recollections of joy and horror and everything that lies between.  They can link to trauma and music and weather and relationships.  They can enhance a sense of tradition and become unbearably familiar. 

They're more powerful than sights or sounds, for me.  I bought a bottle of lavender hand soap for use in therapy, if we ever need it.  P.J. put it inside double freezer bags with a skull and crossbones drawn on the outside.

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