My roommate has an odd musky cedar smell. Like a cloud front it emanates from her room. It’s not a bad smell, just a strange one. Lately, she’s taken to wearing this new very flowery perfume, and so her roomsmell has morphed a bit. Now it’s a botanically improbable combination of freesia and cedar trees. Not bad, just odd.
Many years ago, I had this gay black Scottish roommate, which is quite the pile-up of modifiers, each less notable individually than the whole combination is together. He only lived with me for a few blessedly short weeks. His smell was a serious strange funk of soft cheese, unwashed feet and freshly shorted electrical outlets. It was tough to live with, and it was with a giant breath of relief I saw the door close behind his unpleasant and smellful ass.
There are a few people whose scent I can recollect without the madeleine of their bodies present. My mom has a pungent hot animal smell that both comforted and horrified me as a young girl. Baby Ben, my boyfriend of over twenty years ago, had an acrid pointy citrus smell. I used to sleep with his unwashed tee-shirts. My grandmother smelled like dusty paper and Heaven Scent, her Prince Machiabelli perfume of choice. Donny, my love, smells like water, like beech trees. Rare are the times when his clean odor gets any discernable funk around his crinkly edges.
Smell is the most primordial of human senses. It used to serve us well when we were closer to the ground and hairier. Now, we use it like a toe in a pool—we dip our noses into questionable items to discern whether they’re fair or foul. Or we use it in a sybaritic delight—we sniff and mentally loll in smell’s ephemeral pleasures. Smell, social scientists have theorized, makes the infant us bond with our parents, helps ovulating women act like bloodhounds in detecting the virile dude, and signals to the virile dude which women are menstrual thick with bloodlust. Scent, the social scientists suggest, is at the root of déjà vu, sexual attraction, and that immediate and inexplicable dislike we get from time to time.
(You know that guy? I hate him. I don’t know why, but he really bothers me. Surrounding that unfathomable loathing is smell, those social scientists aver.)
I have both fucked a guy because I liked the way he smelled, and I have kicked a guy out of my bed because I didn’t. I have an acute sense of smell, which is of course the richer cousin to its poor relative, taste. When I was waiting tables, my chefs liked to surprise my tongue with mystery bites to have me guess what was in them. Custard, I’d say, raspberry, star of anise…and is that tarragon? They’d smile indulgently. I have quite the sense of smell. Not that it’s useful; it’s kind of a party trick.
The guy I fucked because I liked the way he smelled was tripping on acid the night I smelled him. I knew him, he was a writer for the same school paper as I, and as Vlad and Serge were too. I had been in the same room with him many times, but it wasn’t until the Wednesday night that the Dead played, and we were putting the issue together, and he bounced in, pupils shiny-bright and crazy-dilated, all happy-high with the joy of the Jerry and the crew and with about three controlled substances.
He was simply dripping in sweat and pheromones. I took one sniff and felt my girl parts lock step, all perky and attentive. I would have pushed him over the glass-topped layout tables, pushed the galleys and the Exacto knives to the side, ripped off his nasty-dirty jeans and fucked him right then and there with the rest of the paper’s staff looking on and shouting encouragement, except that would have been “inappropriate.” So I waited, I bided my time, and I fucked him later that weekend.
It was nothing to write home about. In fact, I don’t remember it. Sadly, his LSD and his sweat had washed out of and off of his body and fucking him was as banal as fucking anyone could be. He was no longer a dark god mysterious and rank; he was a sanitized human.
There have been other men whom I wanted to fuck and fuck immediately because of their smell. One was this Italian waiter with a gigantic Roman nose and a passing resemblance to Adrian Brody who wore this licorice-note Italian perfume. I wanted to inhale him through my nose, my pores, my cunt. I could have soaked that man up like a sponge. I was not porous enough for how good he smelled to me. Last year, Tony Comstock gave me the shirt off of his back. It was sweat-scented and gave me a wicked crush on him for about three weeks until I broke down and washed it. I considered masturbating with the shirt over my face, but my rational mind put the big kibosh to that in its extreme creepiness.
The idea of smell being an ineffable and enigmatic force of desire is nothing new. Anaïs Nin has a story of a woman who fucks an Arab man until his perfume runs out and her desire for him with it. Patrick Susskind’s novel Perfume—its movie adaptation will be released in a few weeks—centers on the idea that human smell can draw us in, and lack of it will push us away. Scent is what makes the man, or woman, according to Susskind’s novel, and if you haven’t read it, you should because it’s excellent.
Junior year of college, there was one guy whom I liked. He was a movie buff, and he really liked the words “montage,” “lugubrious,” and “dystrophic.” He taught me where to sit in movie theatres to have the seat directors think ideal (center and two-thirds back from the screen). I liked him. We dated. We fucked.
And then at about 3:00 a.m. I kicked him out of my snuggly warm bed into the cold winter of the night. I just realized that I couldn’t be near his smell, not a minute longer, not a second. He could not leave fast enough. I felt badly about it too, my histrionic reaction and my imperial demand that he remove himself tout de suite. I felt bad about it, but I could not abide him in my bed.
His smell, I found, was lugubrious. He smelled of dystrophy, as does the scent of lilies. I hate lilies. He had to go.
I sometimes wonder that our sense of smell may be our last bastion of honesty. You smell, you like. You smell, you hate. You smell, you recollect, you are plunged in recollection beyond your ken, beyond your control. In the end, it may be only our politesse—or lack of it—that in the face of smell keeps us from acting like the animals we all are at our beating, hairy, feral hearts.