Thursday, May 17, 2007

Scents and Sensibility

This morning, the smell hit me right away. A cotton ball damp with a new brand of toner, a fragrance so familiar, I was no longer in my apartment. But where was I?

It took me a minute to place the familiar scent. The lime top note hit me, and then I remembered. Going back several years, he mentioned the name of the scent, an obscure one. I made a special trip to a shop on Madison Avenue to buy it for him. This was during the long distance correspondence, before we met, before we kissed, before we moved in together.

"This is what he smells like," I held the bottle in my hand, pausing before I brought it up to my nose.

I know about pheromones, I know about the scientific theories that propose love boils down to smell. I know about the sweaty t-shirt experiment, where women were more likely to be attracted to the men whose odors they responded to best during a blind smell test. What I don't know is how deodorants, scented lotions, colognes, and perfumes mask or enhance a person's natural odor in a subconscious way. I know I'm sensitive to a person's smell, and highly sensitive to men's colognes (there are some brands that I find highly erotic and others which utterly repulse me), but I'm curious about how much we affect courtship and mating by changing the way we smell.

I was nervous that day, standing in a shop full of glass bottles, about to spray one, the one, about to inhale his scent. If I didn't have a positive reaction, I knew it would never work between us. Yet when I craned my neck to catch a whiff of the citrus mist that I sprayed, I was pleasantly surprised, even a little excited. I was also relieved. Of course, things ended up not working out between us anyway, but it was because of irreconcilable, not olfactory reasons.

Friday night, outside Bar K, a delayed hug hello. My nose against his black t-shirt, inhaling.

"You smell good," I said. "You always smell good."

I asked him to name the colognes he wears, one of which is my favorite male brand, and I wonder how much stock to put in such things. Is it really all about smell? Is that what we mean when we talk about that elusive x factor known as chemistry? If he wore the same cologne as my father, would I no longer be attracted to him? (I could never date a man who smelled like my Dad.) The first night we met, he told me I smelled good; if I wore a different perfume that night, would he not have been attracted to me? Not as much?

For the most part, I prefer it when men wear cologne, though it can be tricky to select the right scent. I made the mistake of choosing incorrectly at least one time that I know about: on a first date, I once wore the same perfume that my date's ex-girlfriend used to wear. We hit it off, but I knew there would be no second date; there wasn't. How much of that had to do with that perfume and the memory trigger is something I will never know.

I'm endlessly fascinated by the smell-memory connection. When I was reminded of my ex's scent this morning, I was so disturbed and overwhelmed, I had to spray myself with perfume to cover it up. I also had to think twice and choose a perfume that wouldn't bring back other memories. I sprayed a bit too generously in my haste, and can still smell it on me. This spicy scent does conjure a vague nostalgia, but I've worn it sporadically over the last five years, so it isn't tied to a specific part of my life the way other scents are.

Friday night, during that hug, I recalled the necklace he left on my nightstand, the way the leather cord absorbed his scent, made him vivid in his absence.

In a blind test, would I select his sweaty t-shirt over all others?


Gwendolyn said...

you are such a talented writer. your observations are so astute and well worded that sometimes i think i'm reading a really good book and forget that i'm reading about someone's actual life...
you should really consider writing a novel if you haven't started one already

Simon said...

hey dolly, can you please name that cologne? i would definitely be interested in finding out which one it is!

MissCurious said...

Remember how I asked you if you smelled your pillow after he'd left that one time? You mentioned the necklace... and then, probably thought I was crazy for smelling my pillows after men I've been into left my house in the morning.

It wasn't their cologne though... it was just their natural scent... the sweat they leave on the pillow. I would literally suck, not just inhale, suck it in.

When I left to live abroad, my then boyfriend kept my nightgown because he said it smelled like me... that he wanted to always smell me.

Ultimately, I whole-heartedly agree with you... scent is a huge-huge factor in attraction... but then, can you learn to love a scent? a scent that you're not particularly fond of in the beginning? Hm. Just a thought.

Hope all is well Doll!

blogging said...

Thank you for writing this. Its so nice to know I'm not the only one who can instantly be taken back, or feel a certain way when scents are involved.

Dolly said...

I've done some fictional writing in the past, but thanks for the encouragement to get back to it! Definitely something I need to do.

It's a secret...

Miss C,
I didn't think you were crazy at all. I just didn't notice my pillows smelling differently. It is something I've done in the past, though.

I don't think it's just you, I think it's most people. Maybe it's because we register smell more subconsciously, remember what we see and hear above what we smell. It's nice to know it does get stored somewhere in our brain, and brought back when we least expect it (for better nostalgia or worse).

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