Pause, sniff. Pause, sniff. Blocking traffic, foot traffic. Oblivious to passers-by who, like gullible patsies who point and look up when one person points and looks up, start sniffing—but subtly. The slightest suggestion of inhalation. Sniffing is an indelicate habit. One should not sniff unless a scent is being proffered, and only if that scent is, perhaps, a lemony poesy of verbena or an aromatic lentil soup.
My husband, hyper-conscious of the maintenance of social mores, is bothered—I am ground zero for this explosion of undignified nasal activity. I don’t care. I can’t care.
I smell something.
A twist of the head side to side, a lift of the chin, I search for the one thread among all the threads—sorting through the dirt-sweet pig manure on someone’s boots, the burning diesel engine, the tang of dirty toddler, the bitter pungency of a wheelchair-bound homeless man parked on the corner with his cardboard plea. “What is that smell? Where’s it coming from?” Piquant, a little flowery, a touch of citrus. A rosehip blossom in the urban plot edging the bank building, a young lesbian’s first boy-cologne drifting on the breeze, a steamy cup of herbal tea in the hand of a girl on a park bench.
My husband tugs at my elbow, distracting: “What are you? A dog?” He smelled spicy this morning, the tiniest bit sweaty after being bundled up against the air-conditioning all night. Nutmeggy, cinnamony, like something you’d add to a pie. I call it the “baby making smell,” and spoon up to his back to shove my nose into the curve of his neck or the spot between his shoulder blades. It makes me want to do the baby-making thing and make babies, nutmeggy, cinnamony babies with warm little bodies to hold up to my face and huff.
Baby-smell arouses the same reward centers in the brain as food, which is why mothers speak so disturbingly of munching on fat little bellies and thighs. Babies smell like food. Tempting, delectable, dopamine-triggering food. My daughter’s infant-scent recalled rising bread dough, which I thought was lovely—like my childhood kitchen on winter afternoons when my mother spent the day baking. But a more experienced mom lifted my wee ball of yeastiness into her lap and ran her pinky between the soft rolls of neck-fat. “It’s breast milk,” she said of the pale, cheesy substance that clung to her fingertip. “Your baby is fermenting.”
Now sixteen, my daughter makes smells. The gasses produced by her inefficient digestive system have no discernable effect on her, but are, nonetheless, potently toxic, poisoning the entire house and driving me to open windows, turn on fans, clasp perfume-soaked handkerchiefs over my mouth and nose. But my once-yeasty not-baby has no day-to-day smell. She’ll not bathe for days and my pungence-detection apparatus draws a complete blank—no armpit sweat, foot-funk, halitosis, vaginal whiffiness—pubescently invisible. The girl is a slate unmarked.
Puberty was less kind to my brother—his little-boy aroma of dirt and sunshine replaced at the age of twelve with a stale, sweaty man-funk that spun me sideways whenever I tried to enter his room, or sit next to him on the couch, or hug him. I love my brother, but even as an adult he invariably reeks of mildew or limburger cheese, even first thing in the morning before he’s begun his daily round of sweating, even fresh out of the shower. This is the biology of smell. The bodies of people who we are supposed to have sex with, or who require our care, smell good to us (use common sense to know the difference). The rest of the population is either foetid or scentless.
My father smells terrible, like dying. He is not my responsibility. Decades of heavy drinking left him in a state of pickled preservation, unable to die. Without plumbing or running water in his backwoods state-built shack, he pisses right off his front step and never bathes. He shits his pants, years of alcohol having eaten away muscle control. Left untended, he rots. I visited home not long ago and perched on the edge of his grey-sheeted bed for an hour or more, breathing through my mouth and making uncomfortable conversation about something that I can’t now remember because all my brain and body could process was the inescapable, stupefying stench—a shout, a scream, a rotting blanket thrown over my head. Shit and piss and sour sweat, unwashed bedding and cigarette butts and spilled liquor and spoiling food, and the sick, sad putrescence of his decaying body.
Right now, the whisper of scent that has me nose-up and hunting in the street ends at a girl walking a few yards in front of me, summer-dressed and sandaled and wafting deliciously. I skip ahead to catch up, snuff around her like a horny Labrador, all but humping her leg in my excitement. The fragrance she wears tugs at my olfactory nerve, prods at my amygdala, my hippocampus, igniting memory and emotion.
I’m in the single hallway of my rural high school, dodging girls assaultively spritzing this exact cologne on each other and themselves, the same one that counterpointed the sweet-hot girl-sweat of my best friend’s room, and her skin, and her clothes, the best friend with whom I spent four endless adolescent years desperately in love.
“What is that perfume?” I say as I come abreast of my sweet-scented target, half in love again though I know that her false pheromone is just cheating my biology.
She smiles at me, all Midwest-honey hair and American-blue eyes. “Charlie.”
“You smell wonderful.” People like it when you tell them they smell wonderful. Mostly.
I drop back behind her and, olfactorily satisfied, try to tuck my nose into my husband’s neck, but he shrugs me off. I growl like a thwarted puppy and try again.
About the Author
Suzanne Cody holds an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Recent projects include the production of and performance in a play developed from her collection of performance essays, Love, Sex, Shoes, and serving as a co-editor for the Seneca Review anthology, We Might as Well Call It the Lyric Essay. Her work has recently appeared in The Timberline Review and Pithead Chapel. Suzanne lives and works in Iowa City, IA, and makes no apologies for her passion for writing BBC Sherlock slash fanfiction.