I like to suck in smells

Sunday, March 15, 2009 | |

My first ever memory is triggered by the very particular smell of sweat, cigarettes and deodorant mixed together; it's the smell of my father. I'm three and he's holding me in his arms, my back flush with his forearms and my head cupped in his hands; I can feel the wind rushing past my dangling legs as he looks me in the eyes and repeats, "I'm sorry baby, I'm really sorry. I'm so, so sorry." His large hands almost completely envelope my head, and his brunette, blue-eyed and mildly weathered face, which I dare say is starting to match my own these days, stares at me with such intensity and earnest that there is no way I could ever forget it. He's circling my grandparents' house where my mother and I lived, because behind him I can see the underside of the long white-stained deck; the sun is shining through in streams that now remind me of jail bars. He rounds the corner and I can see the clothesline and the un-pruned fig tree fly past, then it's out to the driveway as mandarin, lemon and grapefruit trees pass by my periphery backwards - like riding on the local bus service's disorientating seats. I can hear the cicadas chirping in the family bougainvillea creeper above the front archway, which is flowering in the summer sun. My father looks over his shoulder and picks up the pace, keeping my mother's angry and shrill voice in the background at bay. "I'm sorry baby, I'm really sorry," he repeats once again, before pulling me close and burying my head into his shoulder and neck with his enormous hand. Twenty-two years later, I can be at bars or on the street at the pedestrian lights or waiting in line at the post office - if a man that smells like sweat and cigarettes and deodorant is in close proximity, I am three. Eight years ago, I found out from my Grandma that this was the day my parents finally split; I was horrified. He thinks my first memory is of a foil balloon at my second-ever Christmas; I pulled that idea from a photograph.

I used to truly devour the smell of play dough. Whether it was the homemade kind that my mother would make up in batches, or the store-bought, trademarked crap that Jane next door had, I remember grabbing it with both hands, shoving my face into it and inhaling with all my might. It was so intoxicatingly good that I can still remember being six years old, and looking down at my tiny hands and the large red glob clutched between them, imprinted with two small nostril marks from inhaling so fervently. Mum's stuff always smelled the best - I could smell it long before she made it. The Domestic Purposes Benefit never allowed for Skellerup or other such iodised luxuries, and I remember the excitement I would feel when I smelled her open the salt in the bulk section; she always tried to hide it from me but I knew exactly what she was doing. Later that day, I would be jumping around the driveway, my Skip-It scraping on the concrete, or double-bouncing Jane on the trampoline, when a sweet and smoky smell would waft past my nose. She'd be inside, up to her elbows in red food colouring, giving me something to occupy myself for as long as it took me to either get it dirty, leave it to dry out, or eat it. Jane's stuff never tasted as good, nor did it feel as good to play with, but these days you'll still catch me knuckle deep in it at Christmas time with my cousins, sucking in its pharmaceutical aroma like some sort of nostalgia junkie who is wishing for simpler times - being six and making playdough dinners with Jane's PlayDoh Spaghetti-O. Last time I saw her, we had pupils as big as dinner plates, and not a shit show of eating anything; we avoided eye contact.

Geoff always smelled like hair product and Jack Daniels, because Geoff wasn't like the rest of us. We - the unwashed, unkempt masses - smelled like grease and Jim Beam. Jim Beam was heavenly and disgusting, amazing on the night but never the next day, and ready and waiting for such grand occasions as Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Work or university would finish, bottles would be purchased, coke complements were procured, and the ripped-jeansed, barefooted, Pantera-tattooed masses would descend upon the basement bedroom we all seemed to call home. Reeking like roll-your-own cigarettes, spilt beer and that indefinable boy's bedroom stench, we would pile onto stacks of mattresses, fold ourselves into oversized and overused armchairs and start guzzling down the devil's nectar. The smell - so buttery, so smoky and so tantalising - still warms me in ways that my current friends do not understand. The first glug of the 40-ounce pouring brings joy to my heart; the foam on the top of the glass caused by carbonated deliciousness still makes my eyes smile. Back then, I would sit there, thin and smoking, holding my brew like a bible, wondering how I so swiftly morphed from poptart to grunger, from jock's favourite to groupie; Jim Beam was to blame. We'd down vessel after vessel, each less precise and more potent than the last, and laugh, cheer, jam and sing. Often we'd be kicked out, and en route to the neighbouring beach, I'd bury my face in my cup and inhale the sweet scent of Kentucky's finest. I'd smile a wry smile that due to a covered mouth, few would notice. I'd finally found people who I liked - people who liked me, who liked being themselves; one sip, one sniff, and I'm there again, accepted. Most of the great unwashed live in Melbourne these days, and no amount of Jim will ever bring them, or that feeling, back.

I used to be so good at smoking. I showed real promise; had real talent. I was such a dab hand in fact, that even years later my very presence still induces irrepressible cravings in those who have known me longest. Those were the days, sitting in that office with the windows wound up and the door closed, sucking down each special filter like a precious flower that blooms for one day in every million. Every day, each new packet purchased would provide the same series of pleasures - the overbearing aroma of cracking open the box, the twiggy smell of each stick as they were pulled from the pack, the first strike of a new box of white-tipped matches; the potency of the soon-to-be-secondhand waft that would escape off the end of each shaft. Hell, I even loved the smell of my ashtrays - of which I had many - thanks to the work of many discarded vanilla Coke bottles, fresh from the vending machine downstairs. Every morning, my office would smell a little worse than the last - latent smoke would hang in the air and in the sofas. Unlocking the door would be like releasing the devil's potpourri into the atmosphere; I loved it. And the closer it got to deadline day, the more likely I was to suck in the stench of the place than I was to actually smoke- money was tight and contributors were generous, giving my poor office a two-hour reprieve from my chain-smoked tailors twice a week. If the walls could talk, you could've put money on their want to cough. It was par for the course back in those days - we thought young writers were supposed to be disgruntled chain-smokers with a penchant for curse words and self-destruction. I quit six weeks after my contract expired.

There are smells I suck in for pleasure, smells I inhale as if ingesting them, smells that make me feel warm and nice inside and smells that make me six again. Then there are triggers. Triggers and smells differ in my mind. Smells hark back to fonder times, they're nostalgic; they're fun. Triggers are like that last drink that blows you into oblivion - that last moment before tunnel vision and hatred beset you, leaving you in a crumpled heap on the floor of her bathroom with the door locked. For me, smelling miso soup, coke zero or the chew of Winterfrost-flavoured gum are triggers; put more than one of them together and I'm doomed. One whiff of this unholy triumverate and I'm 23, working on a magazine I have no love for and swiftly wasting away. The three-packet-a-day Winterfrost habit, the odd colouring of a cup used for coffee, coke and miso without being washed inbetween, the 500-calorie but 90-minutes-exercise rules I would place on myself; these triggering smells bring back the memories of that disastrous year. I wouldn't eat for half the week - between Monday morning and Thursday after deadline, my life would consist of those three food items - one to kill cravings, one for what I believed to be sustenance, and the other to mask the awful smell of ketosis that would escape from my depths like a rotting corpse; in many ways, I guess I was. Each day I got a little closer to disappearing - each packet of that candy-cane-tasting gum brought me one more visible rib, a little more visible collarbone, another notch of my belt; each number that melted off the reading on the scale brought me a little closer to perfection, a concept that to this day I grapple with both understanding and shaking off. It wasn’t the first time these behaviours had surfaced, but I like to think they were the last. These days I'm doing better - Winterfrost got discontinued, full-sugared Dr. Pepper is too good to deny, and Cruskits beat miso hands down, but those smells - those triggers - always leave me fantasising, idealising and remembering what it was to be that person. She was unhappy, confused and an emotional wreck, capable of lying to all around her without so much as a blink, but she sure looked good in photos. Sure, last week I asked a friend who took my picture to delete it, on account of my thighs looking like 'a burst sausage', and sure, this week I bought a lot of gum, but I rescinded on my photo request. And I still have most of the gum.

Recently I've realised that I love one of my favourite smells with such regularity and exhilaration that it's impossible to attach just one memory to it. Of all of life's little pleasures - those raindrops on roses situations that make even the hardest of hearts skip a beat - new stationery is on top of my list. It's the whole experience that makes it - creasing a new staple-bound workbook for the first time, the neatness of page corners not tainted by my cack-handed writing, the promise of what will follow after I press pen to paper - and the smell. New workbooks, new diaries, new jotter pads - they all pop with a crisp brilliance that makes me want to fill each page with sparkling prose, witty commentary and bizarre lists that I will surely leave somewhere for another ephemera aficionado to find. For me, this need for the new and dazzling in life permeates both on the page and off. On the page, my desire for this fix shows itself in my room full of unfilled moleskines, visual diaries pored over and forgotten, and list notepads craving for a new morsel of organisation; discarded. Off the page I'm much the same - launching into new projects with untold fervour, inhaling my love for new places, people and things like lines off a table, and discarding old, boring or undeveloped ideas at breakneck speed. I wish I could follow through with these things I so readily douse myself in; I wish I had the passion and drive to always inhale life deeply, with both nostrils and a full chest's load. I want aftershaves to encompass me, restaurants to entice me, and intoxicants to reel me in so that my words may envelop me. May I have the smell of baking with cinnamon, polished wood furniture, peeled citrus fruit and freshly washed hair around me for years to come. May I be drunk on the world's bouquet evermore.


Aimee said...

I think you should read purfume!

Hannah JV said...

What's that and who's it by? Also, is it "perfume"?

Aimee said...

Perfume by Patrick Suskind. It's a sick tale of a hideous and murderous fellow who has a super human sense of smell.

P E R F U M E. I stand corrected.