No matter where they come from, what they do for a living, or how much effort they put into it, the odor of human society is a mix of perfumes, cologne, deodorant, eau de whatevers, and even the dreaded BO. Hell, there’s even articles about “why does my lover’s sweat smell so good” for those poor souls who don’t realize that it’s all about sex. Sex is sweaty. Sweat reminds you of sex. Especially the person you tend to sweat and sex with the most.
Go ahead. Look it up.
For my family, scent is everything. From my great-great-(insert a few more greats) grandfather, putting together oils and herbs to mask his daily labors from his wife’s rather more delicate sensibilities to my sister Clara’s “Mix and Make” suburban scent shop, perfume is life. Hygiene is life. Even as toddlers, none of us were allowed out of the house until we were thoroughly bathed (scentless soap to not clash), shampooed (also scentless), deodorized (I bet you can guess what kind), and perfumed. A different scent each day.
You can imagine that my sisters and I grew up slightly neurotic about smells. The slightest whiff of something unpleasant is enough to make us feel green, even today. Even as adults, in an adult world and with adult smells, we try to mask it from our noses in our own little bubble of Dior Hypnotic Poison.
And that was how we could drift along in our little sheltered bubble, in a world we made to smell fresh and clean and perfect. Just as long as you didn’t look too closely, of course.
Now, someone might think to call us snobbish and entitled.
They are absolutely, one hundred percent, completely and totally correct. What sort of family can afford to perfume fucking babies for crying out loud? Really godawfully rich ones, that’s who. Probably the only reason Clara and I weren’t bullied for smelling like a couple of fruitcakes is that the private school we went to was full of other kids as pampered and wacko as we were. None of us had any idea what normal people were like. We didn’t get that until our twenties, and even then we were safely ensconced in a buffer of social events and trust funds.
Boohoo, I’m so rich, poor me.
It wasn’t all like that. Not for me, at least.
Clara was content to coast along on our parents’ money and support. Her shop is “owned” and run by her, with mom’s name on the papers and a joint bank account so they can make sure she’s spending money wisely. Wisely, as in, not doing anything without telling them first.
And the reason I’m sitting here in the back room of a Starbucks, faithfully spritzing my wrists with a three-dollar bottle of Target perfume is that I didn’t want that kind of looming presence. My life is my life, and sure I’ll keep doing the ritual of smells because it’s all I know, but every other part of my day is mine and mine alone.
Emphasis on alone.
I tuck the bottle back into my bag, and smooth the rumples from my green apron. The murmur of voices and sounds of the espresso machine are comforting, as is the ever-present aroma of coffee. Not much can punch through the coffee smell, and with every different type comes a different scent or taste. Sometimes I feel like I can even smell the texture of the beans- especially the ones gone bad or stale. It’s a vicious pleasure of mine to pick those out so they can be banished.
Some people say that every type of coffee smells or tastes the same.
Those people are idiots.
I push my way through the door and take up my place behind the register, nodding briefly to my coworker Har- something. Harold? Harry? Harlequin? It’s too late to peer back at his nametag that I’ve been meaning to glance at ever since he was hired a week ago. But awkwardly never using his name in conversation has been working out for me so far.
A line hasn’t formed yet, at least. We’re still a few minutes off from the very earliest of the lunch rush.
I shift my weight from side to side, idly adjusting some cups in their upside-down stacks. I could do something more, like clean a counter or prepare the cup of ice water that I know I’ll need after ten minutes of taking orders, but the cups just felt like they needed attention.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the door swing open.
The practiced smile I had sculpted over many sessions in front of my mirror slides neatly into place as I raise my gaze towards the customer making his way before me. But even before I can process what he looks like, the smell hits me like a resounding smack to the jaw, cutting through the coffee, the woodsy smell of my own hastily dabbed scent, the lingering over-spritzed rose of my manager’s visit an hour ago.
Acrid and tangy, the man’s overpowering scent collects in the back of my throat and sticks there like a glob of burnt tar. It is both sharp and clammy, and I find I can’t even swallow past it. It’s like no sooner does it pass through my nose than it becomes something physical, clogging up my nose and throat and burning up through my eyes.
“Kgh,” is all I can say as I realize I am at the top of my grandma’s porch steps, looking down at the boy with bright blue eyes standing before me.
“Hello,” he says. His smile is tentative and shy and he holds a little wooden box in his hands. “Do you want a gift?”
I purse my lips and wrinkle my nose against the smell. “You smell bad,” I say, with all the candor of youth. “Why would I want a gift from you?”
Instead of growing angry or upset, the boy laughs. “So do you!”
“You take that back!” My fists ball up at my sides, and I stamp my foot. That’ll show him. “I smell like Bergamot and Rose today.”
“How do you know?”
“Mother said so.”
He lifts the box towards me, and my breath catches in my throat as the acrid smell grows stronger. My stomach roils, protesting the thick grossness of the scent. “Won’t you just look?”
I gross my arms and stick my chin up. “Show me, then.”
He slides his hand across the lid of the box and unclasps the shiny brass keeping it shut. With the faintest creak of hidden hinges, the boy opens the box. I lean forward to peer at the glass bottle inside.
“It’s perfume?” Confusion colors my voice. “But why do you smell so bad?”
He shrugs. “Try it.”
I look briefly back to the house. “What’s it called? I might already have it.”
“I don’t think you do.”
He inclines his chin. “Limbo. It’s new.”
That sounds like nothing I had ever used before. Maybe Mother didn’t have it. Maybe even Father didn’t have it, though I knew his collection was vast.
“So why are you giving it to me?”
He shrugs again, a quick up-down of a single shoulder. “You like perfume, don’t you?”
“I love perfume.”
The boy smiles. “That’s why.” He hesitates, his mouth open, and his gaze flickers beyond me to the opening door of the house.
“What are you doing?” My sister says. She comes out onto the porch with her nails newly painted green and in an identical dress to mine. Her face screws up as she catches the same smell as I had. “What is that?”
“He’s offering me a gift,” I say. I’m not bragging at all, of course.
Not much, at least.
“Both of you, if you’d like,” the boy says, stealing all of my thunder.
I cross my arms. “Well, then, I don’t want it. You smell bad anyway.”
My sister’s eyes fall on the box and the bottle within. “Perfume?” Without any of my hesitation, she trips lightly down the steps and snatches up the bottle. She sniffs at it and pulls off the cap. Another sniff. “I don’t smell anything.”
“You just have to try it,” the boy says.
She shrugs and spritzes the perfume once on her wrist before raising it to her nose.
I watch, my lips pushing up into a pout. It was supposed to be my gift anyway.
“You don’t even smell bad anymore!” my sister says with wonder. Her eyes lift to the boy’s, delight bursting in her voice. “This is amazing!”
I approach, wrinkling my nose against the boy’s stench. Immediately, my sister frowns at me. “Ugh… you reek.”
Horror sends a shocked gasp from my mouth. “I do not!”
“Yes you do!” She pushes me back. “Go away, smelly!”
Angry tears prick in my eyes and I fling myself back up the stairs and through the door, bawling out, “MOM! MO-OM! Liselle says I smell bad!”
I hadn’t mentioned her yet, had I?
Something had happened that day, flipping my other sister’s sense of smell completely upside-down. All of a sudden, the worst things smelled as sweet as flowers to her. And anything that smelled good to us, was utterly revolting.
It didn’t last too long before my parents couldn’t take it anymore.
Sometimes I really miss-
“-you there? Miss?”
The voice snaps me from my reverie, the smell hitting me all over again. I finally look up, my teeth gritting together, to meet those brilliant blue eyes.
"What can I get for you?"
“A Venti White Chocolate Mocha,” the man says. And he smiles.