Trance Essay for Remembering Smells

Rainer Diana Hamilton

I stood without tears, chopping an onion, letting the cat wind around my feet, fidgeting with my
            phone, syncing the bluetooth speaker in order to listen to Donna Summer a bit louder,
            rinsing the lettuce, wrapping the leaves in a clean kitchen towel to dry, opening and
            draining the tofu container, wrapping a second towel around that block and then setting
            an empty dutch oven on it to press out the moisture, 

and I felt happy to take my time, to not try to rush these steps together, to not even anticipate
            exactly what dish I was making, preparing things in the order I pulled them from the
            fridge, by instinct or by memory of whatever I had last done with the same ingredient,

and I had started with the mushrooms, which were already on the stove, and—it occurred to me
            in the middle of this thought—absolutely burning, smoke filling the kitchen just out of my
            line of sight. 

My sense of smell had disappeared all at once that morning, even if the accumulation of dried
            mucus that caused its disappearance had come on gradually, and

without it, I did not know when the spices had opened themselves up to the oil, when the onions’
            sugar had begun to carmelize, whether beans were approaching that turning point from
            “simmering in water” to “creating our own broth;” 

without smell, even, I was prepared to let my house burn down while I waited for the missing
            signs to jump to the next step in the mind’s recipe. 

There must be some smell that will break through, I reassured myself, 

and so I began to make the smelliest meals: 

the next morning, I cooked tomatoes in the olive oil I knew from experience to smell of ripe
            apples, almonds, and fennel, adding all the red peppers I found in the cupboard—urfa
            bibber, gochugaru, cayenne, various paprikas, smoked and unsmoked—some dried
            herbs, five anchovy filets, each wrapped around a caper, 

and I put some garlic in the mortar and pestle with cumin seeds, adding them in just before the
            spinach, which, as it wilted, I covered in a bath of eggs to make a frittata, over which I
            grated some raw parmesan and grana padano. 

Still smelling nothing, I tore some of the most barnyard-y cheese in the fridge over the top,
            before putting it under the broiler, 

and then I ate in sadness, missing the part of a meal that reminds you to experience pleasure. 

In this state, I became convinced that, if I did not relearn to experience smell, I would soon
            poison myself

—the fridge had six dozens eggs, accumulated over a summer of farmshare, some of which
            were perfectly good and some of which surely smelled like death—

or burn down the house. 

To save my life and my cat’s, then

—and I hope, for his sake, he never gets a bad cold, as I must assume that any depression my
            dulled human consciousness experiences as a result of not smelling would be many
            times worse for him, not even my most smell-driven cat 

(who would have been Oliver, who routinely ate the feet of dirty pantyhose, pulled used
            underwear from the laundry hamper and carried it to the couch, where he would curl up
            and sleep with his head in the crotch)—

I set out to remember smells, hoping that memories could tide me over until I regained the
            ability to form new ones, or even promote their earlier return, like a well-written love
            letter to a woman who has not yet purchased her return ticket. 

In the research stage, I reread Francis Yates’s The Art of Memory, only to accept that the arts
            she documents did not cover the memorization of scent, nor was scent even used as a
            device for the storing of memories 

(I imagine this is because, as I would soon learn, a smell cannot be conjured as reliably as a
            building whose architecture you’ve mapped out in your mind for the purpose of storing
            some words you hope to have by heart), 

since smell appears only in its figurative sense: 

“For Perkins the art of memory has a mediaeval smell,” a complaint she reproduces in triplicate,
            the work of Simonides and Petrarch and other mnemotechnicians “smells of 'some kind
            of barbarism,’” while “Dicson's Latin style is obscure and does not smell of Roman

you get the idea; 

however classical or occult the practices of memorization, however complicated the lost tools
            that so enabled people to recall language that, accused of powers only the devil would
            bestow, they had to die, according to the church, those practices did not include
            perfumes, real or remembered.

Looking for a more reliable map to lost senses, then, I copied out a long passage from Swann’s
            Way about lilacs—as ”lilac time was nearly over,” some of the more fragrant blossoms
            get replaced with “hollow scum” 

(at hand both because I’d been on a quest to alter my memory enough that the first literary
            reference for the flower would be anything other than Eliot’s, so that scum might take the
            place of men, or, if poetry should prove easier to superimpose than prose, Walt
            Whitman’s “lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green” “with the
            perfume strong I love / with every leaf a miracle,” or, Kenneth Koch’s “One lilac” that
            “may hide another and then a lot of lilacs,” or Schuyler’s “lilac trusses” that “stand in
            bud,” or, better still, though it has not yet won out among my mind’s immediate
            references, Etel Adnan’s, which bloom because she “stood up to the sun”)—

alongside a list of the first smells of childhood that came to mind, turned over an hourglass, and
            began to write.

I remembered entering the kitchen of my middle school friend, where we all went when the
            school day ended to bake cookies, log onto AOL to research the personal lives of soap
            opera stars, make predictions about who would have sex first, and attempt to
            understand, through debate, the moods of our parents,

but this day the place was rank with the sulfurous warning of a gas leak, so we had to wait
            outside for the fire department to come. 

Because I’d been listening to Proust on my walks, I was particularly prepared to replace
            the experience of living with the recollection of my senses, 

and though I know smell to be the sense most tied to one’s capacity to remember, it
            typically involves a really-existing nasal trigger: 

I pass the lilacs in front of my stoop when when they are at their headiest, and that
, nothing else, teleports me to another lilac, also at its peak, under which a possum
            lay dying, newborns still wriggling in its pouch, and knowing there was something
            profane about smelling the flowers of this bush I passed on my way to elementary
            school, rather than the decomposition of an animal killed in a hit and run, 

but it’s not the smell itself that floods my mind at its likeness’ initiation;

I’m carried instead toward the rest of the walk to Davis Park, with a boy I had, before this
            encounter with the possum, perceived as “rough,” in one of those prejudices of
            childhood, in that he was someone who did not necessarily do what adults instructed,
            who kept his own counsel, a skill which must have also helped him in his decision to, at
            this moment, pull the still-living infant possums from their dead mother and put them in
            his pockets to take to school, where the 5th grade teacher used an empty classroom as
            a “Zooseum,” with hopes of saving their lives, leaving the smell of the lilacs behind

So this would not help me experience a remembered smell in the midst of anosmia.

But sure I couldn’t smell anyway, it wasn’t so disappointing to learn that smell does not trigger
            the memory of smell itself, but of something else related to it 

(which is why, to this day, if I smell the awful body sprays that an ex used to cover up their
            never showering, despite not having liked either that scent or the one it failed to mask at
            the time, I’m briefly turned on, remembering instead what it felt like to be a teenager who
            wanted someone so badly that these senses were matters of indifference: Axe in an
            elevator does not remind me of the smell of Axe, but of making out in a pile of leaves in
            Muncie, Indiana). 

I instead needed to learn how to call up some properly olfactory experience in its absence,
            which is after all something I’d been doing involuntarily for twenty years:

I was once watching, of all movies, Memoirs of a Geisha in my living room, home from college
            for the summer, when I found that I could smell everything that happened

—lit fires, clean fabrics, tea, etc.—

and I thought, this is it, either I’m having a stroke or 

the madness I’ve suspected has finally taken hold, 

I will lose reality. 

But it ended there, nothing so intense after all.

For a few years, I could smell movies, sure, but that was only occasionally stressful; 

later it would be worse, I would smell shit when it wasn’t there, 

I would smell my own infections that had cured months earlier, 

I would smell trash and believe it was coming from my own armpits, etc. 

I would leave classrooms in tears because I could not shake the hallucinated smell of having
            soiled myself. 

But, for my current purposes, this was good news, suggesting that I was capable of smelling by
            means other than nasal receptivity, which would help me in my attempt to remember. 

And so I tried going in the other direction, from narrative to its associated scent:

by picturing a girl with whom I had gone on one date, passed out against my locker, as I
            approached, realizing that I was ashamed of this, anxious for my friends to notice the
            rainbow choker and shaved head, uncertain which drug had led to the nodding, by
            focusing on the cruelty even a mostly-open closet can makes possible, I was able to
            bring back all of the notes of Victoria Secret’s Love Spell, a floral stench originating in
            the napes of many of my imagined executioners, 

by singing “Joy to the World,” imagining myself back in the green velvet dress of the fourth
            grade, imitating the swoon that would have led me to run, in the middle of midnight
            mass, down the pew and the aisle and to the steps of the church, I could smell the

by reading Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil, focusing on the memory of clutching it or some
            book like it under my arm while I ran to the library’s parking lot, knowing that if I moved
            quickly enough, I would catch my father unawares and thereby prove his lie, I could
            smell the way Salems lingered on plastic of a Toyota’s interior, 

and so I could smell without smelling. 

And this route from story to smell could be, again, reversed: on the last night of my illness,
            desperate for cinnamon’s return, I layered perfumes before sleep, knowing that, despite
            being unable to sense them, I’d be comforted by the certainty it would be wild if I could:
            first, on the sternum, a sample from Le Labo that, in the store, had all the complexity of
            sitting across from a fireplace with someone you’re trying to find the nerve to kiss but
            that, at home, seemed like a cheap McCormick’s spice blend, over which I layered a gift
            scent, dirt, specifically a freshly opened bag of potting soil (imagine you’re the happiest
            earthworm); behind each earlobe I sprayed En Passant, the best approximation of lilac
            available in a not-too-sweet perfume, which is perhaps why it costs so much; on my
            wrists I sprayed a simple floral concoction I picked up in Lisbon entirely for the purpose
            of remembering the trip (it normally smells “green’), plus a bit of some iris scent that
            came as a free sample, which, when I can smell, smells like an enemy, 

and then I poured some musk cologne all over my chest and, using the still-wet Portuguese
            wrists, mixed this all together over the surface of my torso, neck, upper arms, and lower

I slept, deeply, a forest dream I won’t recount, but each of those smells was there, and when I
            woke up 

I could smell everything: the perfumes then battling it out on my chest, yes, thank god, but also
            every flower in the garden I had planted in childhood, the sweat behind the knees of
            every former lover, the skins of poblanos I’d held with tongs over various flames, the
            mold from books left in wet purses, the inside-the-nose smell after vomiting, crying, the
            paper factory on the way to the Terre Haute mall, and not just the past, I could also
            smell the body odor of women I’ve yet to meet but will recognize as loves the moment
            they raise their arms in the subway car, the sea as it gulps down the coasts, the petals
            to be thrown over my or your grave.