Unscented

When Life Doesn't Stink

I once thought my mother was psychic. After discreetly playing at her dressing table, certain that she was busy downstairs stuffing bell peppers or doing other motherly things, I would wander past her on my way outside and she would call out from across the house and around the corner, "Suzy, have you been messing with my things again?" I was always stunned. Oh, sure, in the beginning the big globs of VO5 in my hair and the traces of lipstick on my cheeks were a dead giveaway. But I had given up those indulgences for secrecy's sake, now only allowing myself a trace of powder, a bobby pin or two, a dab of Oil of Olay... and liberal doses of perfume. "No, ma'am," I'd lie as I rocketed out the door full of awe for a woman who sensed my transgressions from yards away. One day, however, I'm not fast enough and she catches me at the door.

"Phew, Suzy, you smell like a French whore."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"You've been in my perfume." She sniffs."Chanel No. 5 and White Shoulders? Oooh. You're going to have to take a bath." She marches me to the bathroom. "And stay away from my vanity," she insists as she shuts the door.

Foiled again. But how, how did she know, know everything down to which two fragrances I'd picked from the multitude? As I bathe (in the middle of the day!), I swear off the beauty treatments for life, convinced that the price of knowledge and allure are much too steep.

The family is driving home from Westbury Square, once the hippest shopping center in Houston. (They had a Santa with a real beard and a tie-dyed suit). My sister Cindy and her friend are passing around the scented oils - patchouli and sandalwood - they bought. Everyone says how nice they smell. I'd picked out "bubble gum," such a nice, rosy color. As soon as I open it, my dad pulls over and everyone in the car asks me to throw it away. I certainly feel persecuted; as far as I can tell my bubble gum smells no different than the other oils.

My dad is walking down the hall. As he passes my room, he stops, sniffs the air, and says, "Whew, I smell something dead." He tracks the scent into my room and over to my closet, grimacing in disgust the entire time. "Something must have died in the wall," he says. He keeps sniffing, finally locating the source of decay: my shoes. I'm mortified and vow to pay more attention to smells.

One day I confess to my sister that I don't think I have a sense of smell. I'm oddly ashamed. We conduct some tests. She fills Dixie cups with various potions and holds them to my nose. I take a deep whiff of one after the other. No, nothing. No, nothing. No. Then, wham! I'm rolling around on the floor holding my nose, tears streaming from my eyes. "That was ammonia," Cindy announces. "Could you smell it?"

My sister and I share our findings with my parents. They aren't entirely satisfied with my sister's scientific testing methods so they take me to see a highly trained, expensive neurologist in Houston who has reportedly cured some smell disorders with zinc. This fellow may have been brilliant, but his superior intellect had cost him; apparently he'd had to sacrifice all his social skills and fashion sense. When we enter his office he is laying so low in his office chair he's actually sitting on his neck. And around this neck is wrapped a vibrant tie as wide as a tablecloth which he flaps around like a nervous tongue. His tests consist of asking me to close my eyes while he holds little vials up to my nose to smell. No, nothing. No, nothing. No, nothing. After about 25 samples, he tells me to open my eyes, gives me an impatient look, tells my parents I do, in fact, have no sense of smell, leaves the room, and sends us a large bill.

I've learned to live with my disorder (I refuse to call myself olfactorily challenged) and considering how life stinks these days, I often count myself the lucky one, such as when I have to clean the litter box or go to the fish market on a hot summer day or drive by a slaughterhouse or use a Port-A-Potty or when a rat dies in the wall. But when my husband Richard is baking bread or I try to imagine if pine trees smell as good as they look against a blue sky or when the star jasmine is in bloom, I don't feel so fortunate. I also, desperately, want to smell Richard.

Richard has become my nose, among other things, and has rallied to the challenge of my constant query: What does this smell like? I shove scented candles, lotions, shampoo, perfumes, and potpourri in his face during every shopping spree. I am perpetually quizzing him about the odors in the cat room, the bathroom, that container of yogurt that's two days out of date, even my armpit. Does my car stink? Do yucca blossoms smell bad? Does that rose smell good? Should I burn a candle in here? Can I wear this T-shirt again? Did I already wash these towels? He always answers with aplomb. A wrinkled nose at the offending armpit. An elaborate description of a citrus-scented lotion: "It's like you're eating an orange on a really hot day and the wind is blowing a fine mist against your skin from the sprinkler, the circular fountain kind."

His ability to describe smells is a gift, one that won my heart. Scientists say that people are attracted to one another, at least on a subconscious level, by their unique smells. (And apparently some liked 'em ripe: Napoleon was reported to have written to Josephine, "I'll be home in two weeks. Don't bathe.") When I met Richard, I could rely only on my eyes and ears. I liked what I saw and when I asked him what the wine smelled like that the waiter brought us (in quantity) on our first date, he said "The way a grape feels if you roll it on the counter until it's kinda soft and mushy." Boing! I was in love. Most people try to describe smells to me based on other smells or exclusively on taste. "This smells like rosemary" or "Oh, it's kind of peachy" take me nowhere. Richard transports me.

I have poor taste (see how punny this can be?) and can only rely on what my tongue will tell me: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy. Consequently, I'm a stickler for texture. Try to serve me boiled okra and it'll likely wind up under the table. And since my precious tongue overcompensates for my worthless nose, I'd just as soon eat a bar of soap as one of those trendy salads filled with bitter greens. If food is too spicy - jalapeños and cayenne are major enemies of my taste buds - my entire tongue is laid to waste and everything tastes like nothing. As far as salt, a single Frito wipes me out for the rest of the day.

As you might guess, I'm not the best cook, although I've got a touch for visual presentations. I can't taste any herbs, except fresh peppermint, which I love and everyone else in America seems to hate because it reminds them of toothpaste. I seldom salt or pepper anything. I can't tell when fish is fresh or meat has spoiled. I always forget to add the vanilla to recipes because it seems like a joke to me. Couple this with my perpetual absent-mindedness and you have legions of burned toast, pots left on the stovetop until their Bakelite handles melt off, cookies that look like charcoal briquettes, whole chickens shriveled to the size of a hummingbird, pizzas broiled into tar-covered Frisbees. I sit right in the kitchen while these disasters occur, reading a book, twisting my hair, burning my dinner until the smoke detector screams in alarm.

I should be more frightened by fire, but what really scares me is gas. I tremble and sweat when I'm forced to light the pilot on a stove or furnace. Now all my appliances are electric, but when I first left home, I lived in a house with a gas stove. My parents share my fear of leaking gas. (At least when it leaks in my world. Both of them were blessed with super-hero schnozzola powers. I inherited the impressive size and shape of their noses, but not their talents.) My dad rigged up a device in the cabinet over the stove that could detect leaking gas - a little screened button, like a tiny microphone, attached to an amp meter. At the first sign of gas the meter would peg to the right and set off an alarm. Unfortunately, this device also registered alcohol fumes, which some friends discovered at a party. One inebriated fellow was so taken with the device, he decided to pour a little rum right on the detector button to see how it responded. Well, it broke. I was too ashamed to tell my dad how the little lifesaver had been destroyed, so I took my chances with gassing myself to death. I figured I probably deserved it if it happened.

The most profound effect my lack of a sense of smell has had on me, however, has been less tangible than life or death. You might guess it is the limits it's placed on my career options; I can't be a chemist or a perfumist or one of those women who smell armpits for Proctor and Gamble or a doctor or a truffle hunter (although I'm olfactorily overqualified to raise hogs) or a wine snob or a bloodhound. But you'd be wrong because I never wanted to be any of those things in the first place, except possibly the bloodhound. Perhaps you've heard the theory that smells trigger many of our memories and you think this
is my major complaint. Wrong again. A certain moisture in the air, the slightest sound, a color, a particular feel of carpet under my feet, or the weight of a cat in my arms sends me hurtling back in time; I do not lack for memories.

What I do lack, however, is a complete picture of myself. I will never know what I smell like. Considering some of the comments from friends and family about my odor over the years, I'm stunned that I should even want a whiff of myself. In high school, when I still believed underarm deodorant was as big a joke as vanilla, just a ploy by General Mills and Gillette to sell a bit of snake oil to the gullible public, I ran and jumped in my boyfriend's lap in the cafeteria and threw my arms around his neck. He nearly passed out. He knew I couldn't smell, but he was now convinced I sure could stink. He asked me if anyone had ever mentioned deodorant to me. I'd seen the ads on TV, yet I had to admit I'd never had a discussion with anyone about its necessity. I told him my theory that it was just a ploy by manufacturers. He rolled his eyes, went into his locker in the gym, and brought back a nice, manly stick of Mennen.

I dutifully used this brand until college when another well-meaning, but overly natural boyfriend convinced me people didn't really need to wear deodorant. Who's a girl to believe? Her current boyfriend, I suppose, since he is the one most frequently within sniffing distance of her armpits. So, I threw out the Mennen Speed Stick, quit plucking my eyebrows, and drank shots of wheatgrass juice like it was going out of style. Then one day, my parents and I were out at my sister's goat farm and my mom said, "Gee, these goats stink." She kept sniffing until she got within five feet of me and the T-shirt I'd worn for a couple of days and said, "Oh, my gosh. It's not the goats."

Of course, I had to dump Mr. Natural. How could I trust him after that?

Now, I try desperately to remember to wear deodorant. Sometimes I forget and sometimes, no matter how heavily I layer it on, it does nothing to mask an apparently powerful stink I emit when I'm nervous - which is almost all the time when I'm around people because I'm worried that I'm stinking. It's the Catch-22 of social retardation. As I've grown older, this constant concern about my body odor has undermined my confidence in everything I do. I'm petrified of hair cuts, dental exams, medical exams, eye exams, having sales clerks at clothing stores tug on some garment I've tried on to see if it fits, getting on crowded elevators, having someone stand too close to me in line, trade shows, hugging, packed airplane flights, radio interviews - any situation where I'm too close to and too contained with other normally functioning noses. I realize other people with full olfactory functions stink sometimes, too, but I'll never know how badly or how frequently or
how pungently. I don't know where my particular stink fits into the human scope of body odors.

You'd think someone as paralyzed by a debility as I, would seek counseling, but that would mean sitting in a small office quite close to another person in a very nerve-wracking situation. Not my cup of tea. You'd think those of us without a sense of smell would form a support group, but there seem to be so few of us. Even if a bunch of us scentless mutants (See? There's not even a name for us.) were to gather, what exactly would we do? Demand societal changes to make our lives more complete? Require perfume companies to make an unscented cologne? Call for mandatory labeling on everything from soap to new cars describing the smell in terms we could understand? Request dogs be trained to help us detect our own body odor? (Would they be called smelling-nose dogs?)

My grandfather didn't have a sense of smell, but he died before I knew of our shared quirk, so we never got to discuss it. I know one fellow who has a very limited sense of smell, but still enjoys the taste of herbs and certain odors, like spaghetti sauce bubbling on the stove. I've only met one other person my whole life that has absolutely no sense of smell. Richard and I were hauling empty barrels from Adam's Extract into the Austin Diagnostic Center. (We were in the silver recovery business and we were loading up used X-rays to take to the recycler, if you must know.) Apparently, we'd nabbed the barrels that were used to store garlic powder and dehydrated onions because everyone in the building was either moaning about the stink or looking for the pizzas. An older woman got in the elevator with us and our odoriferous barrels. She didn't say a word. Ever nervous, I apologized for the smell even though I couldn't smell it. She said, "Doesn't bother me. I don't have a sense of smell."

It was like I'd found my long-lost grandmother believed dead in the bombing of Dresden or something. When I discovered she had no sense of smell at all and wasn't just another one of those types who exaggerates a little cold or simply a diminished sense of smell, we chattered on for about an hour. She had never met anyone else without a sense of smell, either. We both agreed the smell of baking bread was tops on our list of wanna-smells. She lamented she'd never smelled her two daughters when they were babies and she wondered how that had affected her bonding with them. I wondered if I would have still been attracted to Richard and other friends if I could smell. We parted and never spoke again. What else was there for us to say?

Most often, I joke about my missing sense (scents). My confession that I've got no sense of smell is a showstopper; no one is ever as interested in anything else I have to say as they are in finding out more about my nose's shortcomings. I have the standard lines: "I can stink, but I can't smell" or "I've got no taste" or "How else do you think I could have married Richard?" (At which point, I stick my nose under his arm and take a big whiff.) And, really, I do agree with every well-meaning person who tells me, "Well, if you have to be without one of your senses, you're lucky it's your sense of smell."

Yeah, that's it. I'm lucky.

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