Writer Steve Friedman on falling in love—forever—with the scent of a woman
ELLE MAGAZINE OCTOBER 19, 2011
When we say "You smell good," here's what we mean:
You make me think of fireflies and precisely five tiny beads of sweat on her Coppertoned neck, which was mine one weekend long ago. You make me taste buttered popcorn and Junior Mints and feel the scuffed movie theater seat on my bare calves, and you inspire visions of barbecued hamburgers and pudgy strawberries, purple soap and faded blue sheets.
We mean you smell pure and sweet.
When we say, poleaxed, "What's that perfume? I really like it," here's what we mean: Stealing a kiss in a cab, drinking a Manhattan, which I have never drank before, in Manhattan, where I have never been before tonight. A marbled lobby, a cavernous club, shivering at her hot breath on my cheek when she whispers something about literature on the dance floor, and then another cab, another kiss, freely given, stumbling up narrow, steep stairs in what people of this loud, pushy, wondrous city where I have been one night and want to live out my days call a "walk-up," which sounds as exotic to my midwestern ears as "prewar" or "schmear." Her hand on the back of my head, my hand exploring the small of her back, us leaning against a wall in the entryway, fumbling with keys, whispering. Closing my eyes, wondering why people here say "on line" instead of "in line," feeling drunk, being drunk, having found my future wife, wanting to breathe her in forever.
We mean you smell sophisticated, and a little dangerous, like you know things we don't but want to.
When we lean toward you and close our eyes and inhale deeply, and it looks like we're happy for no apparent good reason, here's what we mean: The crickets are making a racket outside the open windows, and we are rising and falling, rising and falling (it's the '80s and it's a water bed; don't judge) and James Taylor is singing "Sweet Baby James" and the record skips in the places I know by heart. There, a hiccup between "moonlight" and "ladies" and I swear I can see the sound waves in the clouds of marijuana smoke, and Huxley, her aged German shepherd, is twitching by the door. There's a sweet, yeasty stench of beer and bacon and fried cheese and onions from the sub shop where she works, and there is her shiny black hair, all the way down her back, and the deep, delighted voice of St. Louis Cardinals announcer Jack Buck coming from the tinny transistor radio in the window next door, as he bids "Adios!" when slugger Jack Clark clubs yet another tiny ball and it spins into the thick, black Missouri night.
We mean you smell like musky abandon, like surrender.
When we're shopping for a sweater at a mall or watching our nephew run at a middle school track meet and in the middle of a crowd, we suddenly stop, dazed, here's what we mean: I'm 15 and she's the nice lady who works in the candy store in town where counselors in training go on days off and she gives me free Cherry Cokes. She invites me to water-ski with her at her cabin by the lake next week, and next week comes and there's a drumming thunderstorm on the roof and when she drives me back to camp she tastes like grape, because it's the flavor of the lipstick she applies before she gives me the first kiss of what seems to me at the time to be my undeserving but abundantly blessed life.
We mean you smell like a vanilla milk shake.
When you are asking what looks good on the menu and we slump, and we're staring at something that's not there? Here's what that means: Gigantic, impossible blobs of color, purple and yellow, red and green, splotching and dripping and filling up the starry sky. Fresh-cut grass and the scent of gasoline from the pump behind the camp kitchen. Sweaty palms—mine and hers, the summer camp director's daughter—and we kiss, not knowing that 17-year-olds looking up at the aurora borealis should keep looking, should hold tight to the vision, because we'll never see it again. She wants to be a lawyer and we talk about raising children and she smells like hot milk cake and I imagine all the summers of my life unspooling in the sky, in northern Wisconsin, in the tall grass up the gentle hill from deep, green Towanda Lake, until the assistant camp director strides out to the athletic field and smacks his clipboard against his thigh and yells at us both to get back to our cabins; do we want him to get fired?
We mean you smell like the summer sky—and hot milk cake.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart." I submit that he had the wrong organ. Looks matter. What you say is important. Actions count most, at least to any reasonable man. But for summoning memories, for transporting us to distant times, for evoking and stirring feelings that we didn't know were still there, there is scent.
There is only scent.