This fall, I briefly lost my sense of smell. Covid, of course. In that handful of days, I slid into a state of sensory dullness. I stared at the pad Thai I’d ordered, unable to pick out the notes of lime or fish sauce, those scents of my childhood. I drove my nose into a sachet of ginger tea that would not, could not, summon any aroma. Some smells, I was glad to be rid of. Good riddance to the overflowing trash bin; no sorrow for the wet-dog stink of a towel flapping by the heater. But mostly, the loss awakened in me an unexpected displacement of identity. I couldn’t even smell myself.
Who was I without the whiff of my lavender deodorant cutting through the sweat of the day? Without the sweetness of a jam streak from my daughter’s lunch, the fetid remnants of coffee on my breath? My own sterility of scent was disorienting, like Dorothy’s technicolor transition in reverse. The plainness of the world devastated me.
I’ve heard people passionately describe their partners through their scents, that indefinable alchemy of pheromones and fragrance. In romance novels, women’s smells are compared to flowers; men, to fir trees in late December. When strong feeling overwhelms us, we hook our memories to fragrance, that most intimate of transactions. You can gaze at a person from a distance, but to truly smell them, you have to close the gap.
My first crush was devoted to CK1, a citrus-heavy fragrance that rose to popularity in the nineties. Middle school, for me. Sometimes, he’d lend me his sweatshirt, and I’d bury my nose in the collar, like a hound before a hunt. At the time, we’d all recently been inducted into the world of body mists, dousing ourselves in enthusiastic sprays between classes. When I think of middle school, I still expect to encounter that preteen potpourri of Hawaiian Ginger mingled with woodsy pencil shavings and the gummy funk of decades-old textbooks.
That is to say, the smells of our lives tell a story. If you step into a house you’ve never been to before, you’ll catch clues of the residents’ lives — foods they’ve eaten, candles they’ve lit. That history of scent leaves an impression, as clear as the color on the walls. When it comes to our own scents, what stories are we shaping? What do our signature scents say about us?
There are so many words to describe smell. Sillage. Petrichor. Noisome. Musk. Miasma. For fun, I’ll sometimes read the descriptions of perfumes. I ask myself: do I really know the difference between tuberose and run-of-the-mill rose? What does ambergris smell like? And how, exactly, can I detect a heart note versus a base note?
Lately, I’ve noticed a cultural preoccupation with smell: TikToks devoted to perfume history, A-list celebrity endorsements for colognes, promises of mood regulation through aromatherapy. If I had to venture a guess, I think this smell-mania has something to do with our desire for individuation in a highly fragmented world. We believe our scents can reveal something singular about us, the way an Enneagram or horoscope might.
Perhaps for the first time in human history, through the complicated marvels of capitalism, fragrance is more accessible. Not just for the wealthy, almost every personal hygiene item can be scented these days — shaving cream, chapstick, face wipes, pads. Is it any wonder that some of us are overwhelmed by the aromas of the world?
I’ve come to a crossroads when it comes to fragrance. For the past year, I’ve used a clinging rose perfume that I picked out in a fit of indecision at a fancy boutique. I’d gotten so flustered, my nose so deadened to nuance, that I grabbed whatever felt least offensive at the time. But when I wear it, I don’t feel like me. I have the impression of an elegant retiree stepping into my shadow and leaving her sillage behind. After I recovered from Covid, I tried using my rose perfume again, but had to shelve it quickly after. The scent would be lovely on another, but now it only nauseated me.
I’ve been dragging my feet on finding a new fragrance. What I liked in my twenties — florals, herbs, citrus — isn’t the same as what I enjoy now. I’m craving complexity and verve; I long for unprettiness. It should be sly and a little dangerous, the right kind of bitter, a waltz in the dark. Over the past few months, I’ve tested dozens of perfumes, to no avail.
But then one morning, I took a drive through Midwestern farm country at an ungodly hour, when the roads stretched empty and the air still held the wetness of the night. As the sun shrugged its way onto the horizon, I smelled it — a combination that made my eyes widen, my senses tingle. I nearly stopped the car. How to describe it? Damp earth, just-split wood, the caramel scorch of bonfire, the musk of vintage clothing.
I’ve been chasing that scent since. Is it possible to distill so many things at once? Or is it like capturing magic in a bell jar? On some level, that smell was a product of a very specific set of circumstances, an olfactory bonding as inimitable and fleeting as a perfect memory.
Maybe the idea of a signature scent is less about the mists we put on our body, but what our bodies themselves exude on a given day.
When my daughter hugs me before school drop-off, I burrow my nose into her scalp. Is it her shampoo I find so irresistible? Her lotion? The laundry detergent from her clothes? What makes her smell uniquely hers? With my mother, through every perfume she’s used, I can sniff out her underlying essence: the warmth, the sweat, that cinnamony-thyme bouquet that feels as elemental to me as home. You can’t bottle those aromas.
Maybe some smells are revealed to only a select few through the tedious slog of days, careful observance, love. It takes at least two bodies to make a smell: the one producing it, and the one consuming it. The word “perfume” comes from a set of Latin words that mean “through smoke.” So, maybe that’s how we find each other and ourselves; through the smoke and confusion of the daily shuffle.
As much as scent can nest at the locus of the self, it seems to operate at its strongest when emanating from communal rituals. I’m thinking of the sway of joss sticks at a temple; chlorine wrung from sagging swimsuits in a locker room; gravy boiling on the stove during the holidays. A summer road trip squashed in a minivan bursting with aunts, grandmas, cousins, each exuding their distinctive smells. A perfume-heavy embrace of bridesmaids before a wedding. In the end, the power of fragrance emerges not from its singularity, but from the way it weaves among the other beloved scents of our lives, creating an endless chord in which we are all minor yet necessary notes.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor in Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her wonderful debut novel, Banyan Moon came out this year. Thao has also written for Cup of Jo about absent fathers, styles of mothers, and physical affection. You can subscribe to her newsletter here.
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