Friday, September 16, 2011

Of smells

Every few weeks in my "Writing Creative Non-Fiction" class, we have to submit a 500-1000 word "experiment" with a prompt given to us by the professor. This prompt was to find an essay by Michel Montaigne, use the title and quote a line from the essay somewhere within our own piece.

Although Montaigne wrote over 400 years before I even picked up a pen, I find a kindred spirit as I read his essays. No one can commiserate with me as well as one who “scent[s] at a greater distance . . . than other men.” Rank or sweet, I can pick out a scent sooner than most. While Montaigne focused on the perfumed versus the natural, I can only think of the time and place and feeling associated with every smell my olfaction registers, regardless of the pleasure or displeasure of the fragrance.

When my nose runs away with my imagination, I pretend my acute sense of smell is strong enough for a diagnosis of hyperosmia. It must be unnatural that when that woman passes me on the street and I can detect her Estée Lauder perfume, I think of my mother and I am there, in her room at six years old. She is wearing a salmon jacket and putting on makeup. Her jewelry box is open on her dresser and next she will put on her earrings that look like long, green leaves that match her skirt. We are getting ready to go to church on Sunday morning and I am lying on her bed, watching her in the mirror just so I can be with her longer.

Maybe the doctors will believe my self-diagnosis of a hyper smelling ability when I prove that I can smell the adolescent body spray on the teenager all the way across the room. I am walking down the halls of my high school, shy but pleased to be holding hands with someone. It is an aroma mixed with guilt, for dodging and sneaking and thinking that I am smarter than any adult in my life.

When my IV line is flushed with saline solution after my medical treatments and I taste it in my mouth and feel it in my eyes and smell it as though it were being spritzed in my face, then I think maybe I have a special sense of smell. And the whole hospital room is the same as my 17th spring, when I couldn’t speak or walk because I was tired and ill and something was wrong but no one knew what. The smells of disinfectant and bed pans and paper bed sheets remove me from the present and take me back a number of years in an instant, with one inhalation.

Perhaps my strongest piece of evidence is returning home, only once or twice a year. As I step into my parent’s home I smell something unidentifiable. It is the dog in the laundry room, it is the detergent in the dish washer, it is the freshly vacuumed carpet. It is my father’s aftershave and my mother’s casseroles and my stuffed dog that I slept with every night. It can’t even be categorized as a pleasant odor but it is pleasant in its associations. It is home and it is family and it is make-believe proof that I have hyperosmia, when I know that I don’t. I just happen to have an acute sense of smell.