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Two years ago, I decided that I needed to smell incredible. I smelled fine before. But I suspected that people who smell really good are happy.
I was on the upswing of a breakup — well, the pause before the upswing — and I needed a sensory trigger vivid enough to pull me to the next stage because my brain, left to its own meandering, wouldn’t stop rifling through old arguments, inside jokes, and that camping trip by the river.
I’d spread my arms across my bed. How was it suddenly so big? We stuck out of every side of it months before. Now I could fit three of me in there, especially since I was sleeping so neatly coiled into my pillow, like it was a life raft. Sometimes I missed him so badly the longing materialized. I thought I could smell him. I’d keep my eyes closed and reach back to touch him. My hands found empty air.
I was being haunted by him. But that’s normal. Our brains assume emotionally charged information is important for our survival. So they choose which memories to keep not because they are good or necessarily helpful, but because they are intense. We can’t drop off emotional memories like a box of T-shirts and a Nintendo 64. Even if we want to.
Aside from being indelible, emotional memories are also more vivid. The responsibilities of everyday memory creation, storage, and recall are shared across a few areas of the brain. For neutral memories about basic recognition (like knowing which conditioner in the shower is yours), the hippocampus can pretty much cover the job. But when a newly forming memory is emotionally charged (like knowing the green toothbrush was his) other systems (such as the amygdala) come running to help. These additional systems all have day jobs (processing fear, verbal learning, visual cues, etc.). They document details (how nervous you were, what he said, the time on the clock) that would be missed if only the hippocampus were taking notes. It’s the difference between having one reporter on a story and having five.
I moved on in superficial ways. I stopped eating cheese and followed a lot of hard bodies on Instagram. I spent money. Loneliness can look a lot like independence if you have a flight booked, or orchestra-level seats, or a new leather jacket. These methods kept me busy and away from the bed. But it felt like he and I had planted memories on every corner in San Francisco. Those ghosts could not be immediately calmed, but I was curious if they could be outdone — superseded by new events that were even more vivid, built with a little emotion and a lot of neural input. This is where I got hooked on the idea of smelling differently. I could build a new life on a cloud of cologne.
I went to Tigerlily in San Francisco, a small perfumery intimidating in its immediate cuteness but friendly once I crossed the threshold and started talking about the new life I needed. Ashley, the saleswoman, was patient and extremely knowledgeable about fragrances. I dreamt out loud about how I wanted to smell. She methodically glided around the room suggesting scents.
“Something that smells fresh, but familiar,” I said. She sprayed a sample strip and handed it to me. It smelled like clean towels and some type of slick powder. Before I realized that the smell was similar to my ex’s deodorant, he’d already materialized behind me, pecking the back of my ear, laughing into my neck. I put the strip down.
“This is a bit too familiar.” I forced a smile. Ashley smiled too. No matter — there were so many other smells to try.
I mentioned that I was a writer, so she guided me toward Imaginary Authors, a fragrance line where each scent corresponds to a fake book written by a fake author. The little glass bottles are styled like vintage paperbacks with entire back stories I could write myself into. All I had to do was fork over between $40 and $100. If she’d asked for my entire life savings in exchange for one bottle, I would have given it to her.
We worked our way through the books. Was I a 1960s mystery now? Was I a gritty graphic novel? “Cape Heartache” had a green label with a lighthouse and a log. “That’s me!” I thought. “I’m that log.” The notes included “pine resin” and “mountain fog.” Ah, finally, my natural scent! Wearing it would be a firm handshake with my true, masculine self.
I tried Cape Heartache and realized I was not that log — nor any log, it seemed. Why do men always want to smell like burnt wood and empty whiskey bottles? Smelling like wood is great for furniture and trees and other things that aren’t going anywhere. But I was rootless, mightily without harbor.
I tried “Bull’s Blood”. It was roses, tobacco, and command. I liked The Sun Also Rises, but I didn’t love The Sun Also Rises. “Bull’s Blood” wasn’t for me.
The fake book excerpt for “The Soft Lawn” read: “They hopped the fence of the Governor’s Mansion, laid side by side on the cool grass tennis court, and invented constellations until the sunrise usurped their astral empire.” The notes were “Linden Blossom, Laurel & Ivy leaves, Vetiver, Oakmoss, Fresh Tennis Balls & Clay Court.” I didn’t know what lindens were, or that they blossomed. But being an ivy leaf sounded formal and calming. I put it on my wrist. It smelled like spring.
The fragrance had texture — soft, but not delicate — like the fuzz of tennis balls. It smelled clean and sweet, energetic and a bit fussy. It smelled like me — aspirational me. We’d found it.
I made a luxurious ritual of putting it on each morning, spraying the inside of my left wrist and the base of my neck, where someone’s head would go in a hug. While applying I thought, and sometimes said out loud, “Things are going well,” “You look great,” “It’s a just bad season — but it’s a good life,” or simply ”It’s Friday!!”
The following six months held all the excitements and disappointments of a transition. But through the changing landscape I smelled the same. It was a superficial detail, yet comforting and important to me. I sniffed the inside of my wrist whenever I was nervous, or excited, or could feel the edges of old darkness rearing, to outshine the old memory with a new neurological spell.
I took my best friend to a wedding in place of my ex. I gave the best man’s speech and the whole room laughed at my scabies jokes. On my wrist, I smelled Linden Blossom. “Things are going well.”
On the bus, I edited a brand new short story I was supposed to read that night. I saw that the line for the reading wrapped around the building. I switched stories at the last minute. I waited in the wing, anxious to perform. I smelled Laurel & Ivy leaves. “You look great.”
I heard that my grandmother died while I was getting ready for work. I booked my flight to Raleigh, North Carolina. I finished my tie in her bedroom mirror. I sat in her reading chair. Vetiver, Oakmoss. “A bad season — but a good life.”
I finally felt ready to go to a club. I got rejected in a club. I felt too old to be at a club. I had two more rounds and decided to name my first child after a club. Fresh Tennis Balls & Clay Court. ”It’s Friday!”
I heard that, in a 10-year window, all the cells in our body die and are replaced. This is mostly true. (The neurons in our cerebral cortex do not regenerate if they die, which is why we wear helmets and only huff paint at concerts.) But we are always growing cells, which commune into new tissues, which constantly band together to make us new, fresh creatures. In just a little time, even our bodies have moved on.
I learned that we can always begin again. We already have.