A man goes to the doctor. He says, Doctor, my memory is bad. Every morning I wake up and I can barely remember what I did the day before. I try to make resolutions to be a better person, to travel, to learn things, to lose weight, to stop bad habits, but then I forget and nothing changes. I make plans for the weekend, but then I forget, and I just sit there on my couch, not knowing what to do. I forget what I like and what I don’t like. I can’t remember why I have the job that I do. I can barely remember my childhood. My whole life is a blur, it passes faster every day and I don’t even know who I am anymore.
The doctor looks him over, looks in his eyes, his ears, his throat. He weighs him, measures him, listens to his heart. He asks questions. Do you smoke? Do you drink? Do drugs? Any medication? Work with chemicals? Family history? Then he stands up, leans against the counter at a crooked angle, as if he’s stretching. He has a strange look on his face. Then he stares at the man, waiting.
Do you smell that? says the doctor.
Smell what? says the man.
I think I know what the problem is.
You have no sense of smell.
Smell is deeply connected to memory. People don’t realize this, but they remember things largely because of their sense of smell. Sometimes they pick up a scent somewhere and memories come flooding back. You don’t remember anything because you have no sense of smell.
The doctor reaches into a drawer and pulls out a small vial. He opens it and sniffs it, then quickly pulls his face away. He waves it under the man’s nose.
Here, smell this.
See? No sense of smell. Most likely due to severe allergies. I’ll write you a prescription.
So the man starts taking pills, little white pills, every morning with breakfast. He sniffs everything, testing it out. He sniffs the inside of the fridge, his armpits, the toilet after he’s gone. Nothing. He can’t believe how long he’s gone without noticing his defect. If he’d gone blind, or deaf, or numb, he’d have noticed, surely, but smell had eluded him. He’d simply thought that nothing around him had smelled enough to notice. He grows embarrassed suddenly, wondering if he’s had B.O. all this time and his friends and coworkers have been repulsed by him but didn’t say anything. Has he even been using deodorant? What about gas? he wonders, with horror. Has he been offending everyone in the office, thinking he was getting away with it?
He thought he could taste food fairly well, but he knows, how everyone knows, that smell is a big part of taste, and surely he’s been missing out on food as well. He eats some cereal, chewing slowly, feeling the mush with his tongue. Is this taste that I’m feeling, he wonders, or is it just texture? He thinks about all the money he’s wasted on expensive dinners when he could have just eaten frozen broccoli at home.
He begins to smell things. He steps out of his house one morning on his way to work and his neighbor is mowing the lawn next door. He smells the grass being cut. Grass becomes a different thing to him at that moment, not just the green leafy things sticking out of the ground, but a flavor, something he can taste in his mouth, and a time and place. He remembers the smell from long ago. He remembers a day when he sat on the grass with friends after school. It was a sunny day, and warm, and they were looking forward to something, something that was coming up soon. The school year was almost over. It was almost summer vacation.
At work there are flowers on the receptionist’s desk, roses, lilies, and baby’s breath. He can smell these. Their scent wraps around his face as he walks past and grabs him, pulls him back so that he can sniff them deeply. He remembers the corsage he bought for his girlfriend in high school for senior prom. He remembers the smell of her make-up and perfume, how her skin had felt against his as they slow danced in the dim gymnasium. He can feel her touch on his arms, his neck, and they tingle. He smiles at the receptionist and goes to his cubicle with a smile still on his face.
After work he goes to an Indian restaurant on the way home. He is swimming in smells. The waiter uses a sandalwood soap that reminds the man of college, when he went to the meditation seminars with the Indian guru, with the incense always burning on the bookshelf in the corner. He orders a sag paneer and remembers graduation dinner, when his father had given him the keys to a used, red, four-door sedan with power windows and a CD player. He remembers listening to Paul Simon in that car on the drive down to Philly to start his first job, the address written on a crinkled yellow paper in his leather wallet. He orders a cabernet sauvignon and he can smell it in the waiter’s hand even before he reaches the table. He sniffs it, sips it, sloshes it around in his mouth, and he is suddenly back in Rome with his best friend on their backpacking trip before college, tasting, really tasting wine for the first time, thinking of the new credit card in his back pocket, relishing all the wines and fish and bread and pasta he knows he can look forward to.
At home he sniffs everything he owns, every condiment in the fridge, the oil and vinegar in the cabinet, the chemical sprays under the sink, the spices on the spice rack, the candles on the windowsill. He smells the paper in his printer, the litter box, the laundry basket, the carpet, his shoes, his shirts and coats hanging in the closet. He sees his apartment for the first time, although he’s lived there for years. He touches the walls and smells the paint. He flicks on every light switch and smells the electricity humming through the walls. He goes into the bathroom, urinates and smells the scent of his own body. He smells his armpits and is overcome by his own pheremones, the blood rushes to his extremities and he masturbates right there in the bathroom, then smells his ejaculate, remembers the first time, the second time, the hundredth time, remembers the harem of imaginary women he kept locked up secret in his mind for those times alone, how he used to thirst to make them real, how he planned to search them out in the world. He washes his hands and face and smells the soap, looks into the mirror and remembers himself. He weeps for all the days that he’s lost.
One day the man sees an ad in the paper. The ad says, “Aromatherapy.” He doesn’t know exactly what this means, but he makes an appointment over the phone for an evening later that week. He arrives at the address, a small storefront place with satin curtains in the windows. The place is dim and there is soft music coming from speakers in the ceiling. The woman greets him and takes him to an even dimmer back room and sits him in a soft recliner. She sits in a nearby office chair on wheels. On the wall there is a rack, like the spice rack he has at home in his kitchen, only much larger and filled with tiny amber vials with colored labels.
What do you want? she asks.
I want to remember, he says.
What do you want to remember?
She tells him to sit back and close his eyes. He can hear her shift in the room, the tinkle of tiny glass.
Lilac, she whispers, and the scent creeps up under his chin, wraps itself around him. He’s back at the senior prom, dancing with his date. The DJ is playing a Peter Gabriel ballad, a song he knows well, has sung along to many times alone in his room. He knows all the words. He feels an urge to sing along, to whisper the words in her ear and mean them, to make her know the trembling he feels in his chest, how her touch gives him chills, how he would give her everything if she’d let him. Her perfume guides his hand around to the small of her back, and suddenly he’s scared, scared because he knows what he wants to ask her later that night, he has no idea what she’ll say, has no idea what he’ll do if she says yes, no idea how he’ll live if she says no.
Lavender, the woman whispers, and the man grows sleepy. He’s younger, he’s in his bed and it’s early morning. He’s been up all night to the sound of his parents fighting and only wishes he could fall asleep, but his stomach and hands hurt and it won’t go away. He knows that his father will leave soon, that things won’t ever be the same. He’s afraid to leave his room, so he stays in bed all morning, watching the square of sunlight move across his wall. The birds start to chirp outside his window. He shifts around and lies on his stomach, pressing his face under the pillow and squeezing it around his ears, wishing it all away. The blanket falls off his body. He feels something light and sharp grab onto the heel of his foot, but he doesn’t move. It twitches a few times, and still he doesn’t move. Then, it’s gone. He looks up, sees the window and screen open, realizes that it was a bird, a bird in his bedroom.
Saffron, she whispers. He is in the woods, it is night and it is cold. He has run away from home after a fight with his parents. They have discovered the pot he had hidden in his room, screamed at him, furious. His father had grabbed his shirt, yelled in his face until he began to cry. He had yelled back, told them that he had heard what it was that they were fighting about all the time. He called them horrible names, that he hated them, that he would never be like them, that he wished he wasn’t their son. He sat in the woods all night shivering and hungry, profoundly alone, scared to go back home, not knowing where else to go.
Cardamom, she whispers and he is alone on the bleachers behind the school after everyone has left. His heart is aching with the knowledge that the girl he loves is now with someone else, so soon, only two weeks after she’d kissed him at the football game. He has so much to say, yearns for someone to talk to, someone to listen, but there is no one. He gets out his notebook and writes some lines of verse, some rhyming, some not, and draws small pictures in the margins. He writes, knowing that no one will ever read it, and it comforts him. He begins to feel warm. The pen moves by itself and he can’t stop writing. The sun is setting, there is a pinkish glow in the sky and he knows that what he is doing means something, that there on the page is a part of him that is truer than what everyone else sees. He is terrified of growing up, of leaving home, going to college, of getting a job in an office, marrying someone he doesn’t love who doesn’t love him, of being like his parents. He knows that what he writes is true and that he mustn’t ever stop writing, mustn’t ever give up feeling this way.
Lemongrass, she whispers, and he is in Italy again, standing with his friend at the top of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea as it pounds against the shore below them. Home is so far away it couldn’t possibly exist. If only they could see him now. The hillside behind them is ripe with lemon trees and grapevines. Their legs ache from the hike so they stop to rest. They take off their bags and sit in the grass, watching the sky grow dimmer in shades of opal and turquoise. His friend takes out of his bag a small glass bottle of limoncello, bought from an old woman in the village down below, with the foreign currency they have in their pockets. They pass the bottle back and forth, taking sips. It’s a strange, strong, intoxicating flavor, unlike anything he’s ever tasted, and it melds with the smells in the air of the sea and the lemons growing all around them. He looks around, at the sky and the sea, the crops on the cliffside, at the ancient village in the distance, so much older and wiser than where he came from. He suddenly knows what they all mean when they talk about this place, how it can change you. He feels how young he is, how much there is out there that he hasn’t yet seen, how much there is to learn, to taste, to touch, to smell, to live. Remember this moment, he says to himself. Remember this one moment, and everything will be okay.