What the nose knows

How important is your sense of smell to you? And I'm not just talking about the way scent can bring the past full-bodied into the present, though that's something important too. What I mean is how much are you conscious of the way scent influences your relationships?

When you smell someone, do you feel like you’re bringing them inside you? Because you are. Tiny particles of them entering your body, nestling into you, flowing along your nervous system. Residing in you. Your nose is an organ, and scent strokes it.

Can you tell what kind of a day a person's had just by the way they smell? Can you smell the traces of fear, stress, excitement, happiness in the pieces of them that you're taking in?

For me, all the above applies. My sense of smell is very sensitive. When I get someone in my nose I am flooded with more information that I can process. It feels animalian. And sometimes it makes associating with people difficult. I get offended when people smell strong enough (of whatever scent – perfume, cologne, b.o.) that I can smell them from feet away. It’s like they’re walking around with their genitals exposed. I hold my breath when people walk by quickly enough to create a breeze – I just don’t want any information from them. It's just TMI and nothing to do about it.

But when I love someone, I need to smell them. I need to breathe them in. It’s like talking. I get so much information. No, talking isn’t the right metaphor. It’s like looking into your beloved’s eyes – vital for connection. I can smell Kristin’s day on her. I can smell when she’s sick even before she has symptoms. I swear, I can smell her emotions. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s true. And I'm learning Julia's smells, too. I'm getting to where I can smell if Julia is getting sick, too, and if that sickness is viral or bacterial. I can smell the difference between a cold and a sinus infection.

And scent is one of the primary ways that my libido gets torched. I think it's interesting that before I met Kristin I dated only smokers. It's true, I just thought back, and everyone I dated was a smoker but for one. And I rarely got the hots for any of them. And the girl who wasn't a smoker, I was hung up on for years.

Here's something I did before I was conscious of how scent affects me: I was spending the weekend at her place. She lived 4 hours away and I would visit once a month or so. It was winter and she had an old heater that was on most of the time. I took the perfume oil I used to wear and I smeared it on the heater vents in her bedroom, in her living room. I wanted her to catch whiffs of me when I was gone and think about how I was missing from her home. A month later, she asked me to move in. And a week after that we were finished. But that's another story.

With a smoker, none of that extra information is present. It's all masked. It’s like looking in your lover’s eyes and finding them clouded with cataracts. And, having sex with someone who smokes is like having sex with someone who never takes off their dark sunglasses. At one point, this was what I wanted -- sex without intimacy, sex without really taking someone in. Sex without knowing. But now, for me, this is a radical disconnect that I can’t get over.

Not that the sexual part of this discussion is anything more than hypothetical at this moment in time. Kristin doesn't smoke. But I've got a friend who smokes, and I can only go so far in a friendship with her and no farther. She can't be one of my more intimate friends; she's not one I'll tell all my secrets and hopes and fears to, at least not in person. Because though I can smell her, I can't smell her. And there's that disconnect -- as if I've caught her in a lie of omission. And I want to tell her that my reticence does have to do with her smoking, but not from judgement on the habit, but from something more elemental, simple, primal, and inescapable as scent.

I was talking about this with another friend, a former smoker, who told me about how she was dumped by someone because she smoked. And that she felt that she was more than just a bad habit, and shouldn't be judged by it. And, while I agree with her that she (and every smoker) is more than just that one habit, I can't agree that the habit doesn't have severe consequences and effects on some people. I can't be intimate in a personal, physical (as in physically-present, not necessarily sexual) way with a smoker. And there's nothing I can do about it. It's like trying to be close to an invisible person. You never really know where they are.

So, what about you? What's your relationship to scent?

Posted by Trista @ 9:14 AM

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Smells are very powerful for me.

When Vince is gone, I save his t-shirts and under shirts then put them on my pillow so I smell him when I sleep. (Not the super sweaty bo ones, but the normal wear ones.) I mail him pillow cases or other items that I have either slept on, or sprayed my perfume on, and he loves that.
When he goes to sleep on a pillow case I've used, he says it is easier to imagine me there with him.

Scent also exists on a non-sexual level. When Sydney comes home from day care, she smells like her providers home, a mixture of spices and cooking oil. She smells like R's perfume. I get her home, hold her, sometimes put lotion on her hair or change her clothes, so she smells like home. To me, Sydney smells of baby lotion, balmex, and breast milk, with her own sweetness to it. She is wonderful to smell.

When Sydney was in the hospital, I would wear a blanket under my shirt for a couple of hours, then wrap her in it. It was warm with my warmth, and smelled of me. The nurses said she was calmer when her bed was made with a blanket I had worn. Sometimes we wrapped her in it, sometimes we made her little nest with it. I would also leave cotton balls with my milk on it in her incubator. It made me feel better. I would take home blankets she had worn, and would just smell them. It made me feel better when we were separated.

About the smoke, my grandpa was a smoker. After he died, and my grandma moved from their home, and the smoker smell was gone, it was like he had died again, because I could no longer go to their home and smell that smell. The packages they would send from Salt Lake to LA smelled of paper and stale smoke, but to me that has always been a plesant smell, a smell that I associate with Christmas and presents.

Smells are important in other ways. I was walking down the shampoo isle at the store yesterday and could smell my grandpa. It was his pomade "thres Flors" and his after shave which I smelled. I inhaled the scent and missed him.

I have positive memories of smells of things such as the ink of the national geographic, flowers, baby lotion, tires, mascara, etc. (My grandpa worked in a tire shop, and I associate the smell of tires with him, that wiff you smell when tires are on display.) I have negative smells associated with blood, the antesceptic smell of the hospital, gasoline, and betadine.

San Francisco has a wonderful smell. The salt water and sourdough bread. I remember places I've been by the smell.

Can we talk about taste next? People and places have tastes. My most loved family members have their own taste, in a non-sexual (and sexual)way.

Good topic!

Posted by Blogger WendyLou @ 10:59 AM #

When Joe and I were dating, I used to borrow his jacket just so I could smell him. He went out of town for a week or so to visit his family, and I would go to the store every day to spritz some of his cologne on my hand so that my hand would smell as much like him as possible, even though he wasn't there.

I don't have as strong a sense of smell as you do, but there are definitely aromas that evoke memories for me, good or bad. And I do agree with you about the smoke blocking a person's scent. The other day I was in the restroom at work with a woman who reeked of Dove soap and cigarette smoke. It was a ghastly combination.

Posted by Blogger Faith @ 11:11 AM #

Being a former smoker, I can certianly sense the difference between "then" and "now."

I HATE HATE HATE perfume wearers, and we were stuck behind one last night at Chorus line. For the WHOLE FREAKING SHOW!


I LVOE the way MP3 smells - we have this awesome new hair oil for her, and it's just subtle and wonderful.

I'm totally in tune with smell - there's a neighbor across the hall who HATES the smell of other people's cooking. I LOVE it - I can tell so many stories just by smelling our hallway - but our neighbor comes out every so often with a can of air freshner.

I'm so sad when she does that, because it robs me of the opportunity to "smell" a story...

Posted by Blogger Shelli @ 6:30 PM #

I'm very sensitive to smell as well. I love Co's scent...

Posted by Blogger Lo @ 6:48 PM #


A few thoughts:

1) 9 or ten years ago, when I was at my most panicked, when the world had been pulled out from under me, I turned immediately to smoking, because my daddy had been dead nine years, and smoking was as close as I could come to climbing into his lap, and dammit, I needed my daddy.

2) imo, easier to be intimate with a smoker than a perfume/cologne user; easier to smell past subtle smokey residue than to smell past in-your-face Eau de Crap.

3) just wait until you're pregnant -- your sense of smell will become even MORE superhuman (in my experience, anyway) than it is now

4) even though my sense of smell is supposed to have diminished with the smoking, I still find it to be my most powerful sense, and I will make all kinds of judgments about people based on what I smell on them or in their homes & cars; It's something I try to keep in check, but can't (quite), whether my judment is favorable or not.

5) in the 80s I participated in a National Geographic study about the sense of smell -- that's how much the sense fascinates me!

Posted by Blogger zilla @ 7:34 PM #
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