The savor of smell

person smelling flower
Julie Zhang/File

The building lights turn on, decorating and illuminating the surrounding campus structures, signifying the exit of the afternoon sun. The hills behind campus remain as solemn figures in the dark, encasing the cold wind swirling around campus.

The school is almost empty, 10 minutes until the next hourly Campanile bell performance. Students are scattered about, roaming by O’Brien Hall or Evans Hall, like a stray cat here and there. Idle, random bodies head off into some direction.

But it is here that my nose flares. An overgrown bunch of wild jasmine planted along some benches startle me. The smell is sensational and sweet. Almost tart, even. Maybe it’s because the air is cleaner, quieter or perhaps thinner.

“Students are scattered about, roaming by O’Brien Hall or Evans Hall, like a stray cat here and there.”

And as I’m thinking about it, I forget how I got here or the path I took — though I am almost certainly aware of the path on which my nose takes me, the one of past memories.

Suddenly I’m 10 years old again. I’m in my front yard, waiting for Dad to come home. The orange trees sway in afternoon life.

He might be tired from work, but on the off- chance he wants to play catch, I already have my tiny hand in a small glove and his big glove on my other hand, gray, dried and cracked from overuse or from being left out in the grass under the arid sun. It’s almost as gray as the pavement surrounding me and the jasmine out front.

Like a hopeful contestant in a game show, I’m hoping for Dad to show up. I wait around, as the sun hangs high above, by the sod growing between me and the street. This is where the jasmine blooms, a mass of green and white living creatures, breathing, thriving and glowing.

As the bees swarm around the bundles, pollinating to and fro, I smell the flowers, crude and nectarous, as if sapped with syrup. Almost ubiquitous and everlasting.

I can’t seem to remember if he showed up or not. Sometimes I went running with the dog, and other times he’d surprise me with a football. But the smell is spellbinding, fixating in my memory and settling forever in my narrative.

Aromas, fragrances, scents, smells — the sense of olfaction is fascinating.

The ability to remember memories through scent is permanent, a nostalgic tool that is both a blessing and a curse. The moments are ephemeral, yet engage with my mind, acting as if I was back where I first noticed that smell. Like déjà vu.

The shampoo in hair, the chlorine in a pool, the perfume of a passing stranger. When the waiter arrives, it’s the oil on the fries, the char of the burger, the salad dressing on lettuce.

“Aromas, fragrances, scents, smells — the sense of olfaction is fascinating.”

When my nose relives the aromas, I’m transported to somewhere back in time: on the playground, in time-out, at swim practice or on my way home. As I get older, my memory grows younger into my childhood. I seek out those periods of security and comfort at home.

When I am thrown back in time, however, I take on those emotions. My memory can bring delirium to my mind, exalting energies and jolting my core into pure clarity. The memory is almost fragile and forgetful, but in these moments where I notice the familiarity, I swivel around, forgetting what I’m doing now, in order to remember what I was doing long in the past.

But the smell is temporary. As the Campanile begins to ring, my nose still smiling, I awaken in silence.

The overgrown bunch of foliage is still drunk in the planter, carelessly overflowing the crevices of the benches and spiraling around the base of the patio. I simply stare. After a few moments, I continue walking, still dazed by memory.

I leave behind the jasmine, as the cold air brings me back to reality.

Contact Robert Patrick Van Tooke at [email protected].

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