sniff test

My friend is convinced that it’s all about smell. “Didn’t you read that article,” she asks, “about how for women, chemistry is all based on how a man smells?” I admit that I did not.

The smell of the man she’s in love with – the one she meets in hotels against her better judgment – she finds enthralling. She says: “I went up to him and I just put my face right up to his shoulder and inhaled.” She lifts her face up and closes her eyes, breathes in deeply, to demonstrate. She’s lovely and effervescent and it’s hard not to get a little caught up in her.

“That’s why I can’t understand all this online dating,” she says. “All these people who say they fall in love online. How can you possibly know you want this person until you know the way they smell?”

After a few months of walking in to any room where M. and my son are playing, only to have my son ask me to leave, I am giddy and charmed by his newfound affection for me. The other night, at bedtime, he tells me that my hair gets in his face when I kiss him goodbye in the morning. And that it’s wet, too and it gets his cheek wet. I tell him I am sorry, and does that mean he would rather that I not kiss him in the morning before school? He thinks for a moment, and says, “No, it’s ok. I don’t mind that you put your wet hair on me.”

That following morning, I was careful as I unbuckled his seatbelt: I held my hair back with one hand to kiss him on the cheek. He smiles. “That was perfect!” he exclaims. I watch him walk down the three concrete steps to the school entrance. He is wearing the red winter jacket we bought him that always looks dirty, no matter how many times I wash it. At the door, he turns around, raises his small hand in a hesitant wave. I hope that I will remember this image – him in the dirty red jacket, the strap of his blue backpack slipping down on one narrow shoulder, his other hand raised, eyes wide – for a very long time.

Over dinner the other night, we trade family stories. My friend, raised here, tells of her sister and the first time she went to New York as a teenager. The way she spoke of the experience as if it had transformed her in one short day from a young suburban girl to a jaded urban woman. Her sister came back and told her, “I have seen a car on fire in Harlem. And other things that you will never see.”

We laugh, but the image is a haunting one. I remember driving back from New York one night – the familiar route between home and school – seeing one point of light in the dark. It was a stretch of I-95 without streetlamps and a car – or what was left of it – was pulled over to the shoulder, engulfed in flames.

The city has taken back the park now where the tents had been. Talks held, agreements reached. The grounds looks strangely bare, like the parking lots of strip malls just before sunrise. I drive past slowly, taking it in, and there is a man there, walking through the park in a plaid wool coat. He is tall, hunched over a bit, lighting a cigarette against the wind. His posture, his gait – the way is cupping his hands up near his mouth – reminds me of my father. I smile at the thought. My father, gone all this time, but then here, walking through the park – after all these years, a cigarette in the morning before the day has even begun.

When I first had my daughter, what struck me most was her fragility. I carried her around as close to my body as I could. It seemed impossible that I should be responsible to keep her alive. The dangers were pervasive, endless. She was here, in my arms, entrusted to my care. But there was no way for me to predict what lay ahead. What perils I would need to shield her from. What might take her from me, without warning.

Some time ago, I heard the story of a man who, upon learning that his son, nineteen years old, had been killed in Afghanistan, locked himself in his van, which was parked across the street from his house, and set himself on fire. I could not get this out of my head, told M. over dinner that night. Said, “My god, why would anyone do such a thing?”

M. shook his head slowly, said, “You can’t possibly know what you would do facing that kind of grief.”

It is true, of course, of course, and I am reminded of the other grieving parent whose story has haunted me for years. She appeared on a talk show. I remember little of the context. Only that her son had been kidnapped, murdered as a small child. She said what she missed most was when he would come home from playing outside. How he was always filthy and sweaty and would smell “like a wet dog,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. I will never forget this. She said, “I miss that most of all. That smell – that little boy, wet dog smell.”

The morning is cold. This pleases me, after weeks of unseasonable warmth, though I am completely unprepared for it. I leave the house with my lightweight coat open wide, my hair wet. I still have not found my hat from last year, though I have looked. I am reminded of the afternoon several years ago when we showed up for a winter walk with friends dressed haphazardly like any other weekend day. They eyed us skeptically, asked if we thought we’d be warm enough. As they recalibrated their plan, D. remarked – cheerfully, but not without a hint of irritation: “You guys dress like you don’t know that there’s a world out there.” I looked at M. in the jacket he wore over his t-shirt and at my own skirt and tights and canvas sneakers. They both wore hats with ear flaps and sturdy boots. Sweaters, coats, and scarves. There was not much we could say in our defense. The comment stayed with us, though, and we vowed to think in more practical terms. Later that year, he moved out of the house they shared and we didn’t see them much after that.

J. does not describe the smell of her man. Says only that she loves it, is addicted to it. I remember my sister, when she was small. How she wrapped a mound of dried garlic in a square of fabric and kept it under her pillow. I didn’t understand this until much later when I was first exposed to kimchi, Korean foods. How she must have longed for this thing for which she did not yet have the language to express.

I try to think of the smells I love – heady, sweet honeysuckle; gentle lilac in late spring; the milky breath of each of my children while they were still nursing. The malty, earthy scent of M.’s forehead, at his hairline, when I bring my lips to it. The bitter, peppery coffee aroma in the morning.

This morning, I help my son put his backpack on the sidewalk in front of the school. He’s already started walking away, but I follow him, stop him at the steps, turn him around for one last hug. I inhale deeply. The sweet mint of toothpaste over a trace of sour breath. I stand there, watching as he descends the stairs. He does not turn around to wave today. The glass doors close behind him. I get back into my car, pull out into the street.