A few months ago, I met my friend Brenda for lunch—we’ve been friends since my sophomore year of college—we don’t see each other often but when we do, we simply pick up our friendship, our conversation, where we last left off. After that lunch, I walked her back to her car and hugged her as is my habit. Later, she emailed me, “You know,” she wrote, “After I left, I realized I could smell you and I realized you smell exactly the same.” It was then that I remembered I’ve been wearing the same scent, Cartier’s Santos for decades. It seemed to me she took comfort in that familiarity, that sameness.
Years ago when Toby, our silky terrier, had to be in the hospital over a few days, the attending vet suggested we bring in one of my worn t-shirts to comfort and calm him. Now, years later, on the rare occasions I must be away overnight for work, I leave the t-shirt I slept in the night before for Toby. Otherwise he sits by the kitchen door all night waiting for me to come home.
If you read last week’s blog post, you know I wrote about sounds, particularly the role of sound, of music, in my writing. This week, I turn my attention to smells.
When I approach a story, I try to give it dimension. I may only be writing words on a page, but I try to manifest those words corporeally in the material world. As I write, I see my settings, my characters in a movie. Perhaps, that’s not right. I see them as living. While I’m writing I live in the story. The fictional world becomes real for me. There is color and furniture and sound; often music is playing nearby or in the background. The characters have words and feelings, but they also have density, and their own particular smells.
This was perhaps truest in my first book, What Binds Us.
When protagonist and narrator Thomas-Edward first meets main character Dondi, he tells us:
I smelled him before I saw him or even heard his voice. It was a smell that was peculiarly his own—clove cigarettes and sex. A scent that clung to him even when he was freshly showered.
We know very little about Dondi’s mother Mrs. Whyte—we never learn her first name—but we know what she smells like. The first time he meets her, Thomas-Edward notes:
She wore Opium. Its opulent scent wafted over me.
When he parts from her that first summer, he again notes her scent:
All of a sudden the steel went out of her posture and she leaned into my embrace. Her lips touched my cheek. The scent of Opium enveloped me. It was like falling into a soft-scented cloud. I could get lost in that smell. I could close my eyes and no one would ever find me.
And when he meets her again after many years absence he remarks:
She entered the room behind me. She still wore Opium. The smell took me back all those years to the first time I’d met her, when she’d descended the stairs so elegantly and called me Thomas-Edward.
Thomas-Edward notices smells. A lot. Including the smell of old money:
I ran up behind him, looking over his shoulder into a high ceilinged room. Pale sunlight filtered in through half-open shutters. The walls were lined with glass-fronted cabinets holding leather bound books; the gilt lettering on their spines gleamed dully. The room smelled of paper and tobacco and leather.
And the smell of betrayal:
In the breaking light I could see that his mouth was bruised and raw-looking. He smelled of sex and someone else’s cologne. I held him and watched the new day dawn.
Thomas-Edward may have smelled Dondi, his first love, but he tastes Matthew, his endless love:
He tasted of butterscotch. I called him my butterscotch prince. He snuck across the street and stole peonies from Mrs. Chang’s garden and presented me with a contraband bouquet. He told me I was his world.
This last was not quite random. Research has shown that our body odor, can help us subconsciously choose our partners - read more here. Further, kissing is thought by some scientists to have developed from sniffing; that first kiss being essentially a primal behavior during which we smell and taste our partner to decide if they are a match. Thomas-Edward and Matthew are a match.
Read more about smells and emotions here.
Read my blog post about the role of music in my life and writing here.