The Memory of Sound and Smell
Certain human faculties are linked to memory, especially sound and smell. For the longest time, if I smelled Chanel Cristalle cologne I'd see I see the pink cowl neck sweater I wore in my senior photo. If I heard "Heart of Glass" and I was back at prom night, all my teenage memories taunting me.
Eight years ago I had a cad for a boyfriend. We never had a song that was ours, and he never bought me a bottle of cologne. For my birthday he gave me a screenplay he'd just finished, some action thriller about badasses trying to blow up the Hoover Dam. Te dedication page was something he inserted in my copy alone.
He wore Banana Republic "M" cologne. For a while after it ended, I couldn't shop at Banana Republic. But despite my avoidance of BR stores, I'd find myself sandwiched on a subway platform next to a young turk on his way to Wall Street wearing "M." And I was back in that cad's dark apartment, watching the his arched eyebrows as I tearfully explained how, when he "didn't introduce me to his parents," it made me feel "unimportant." Thank God Starbucks was never "our" place.
But then I found a real love from a real, good guy. He wore regular-guy clothes; he stuck to navy because it was simple. He loved the underdog and everyday life and real things. Like me. He was true blue. My true blue guy. He bought me my favorite cologne: Chanel Cristalle, with which I promptly made new memories. That is, I "resymbolized" it. I replaced the memory of the cowl neck with strolls through Central Park and his nose on my collarbone smelling the mix of Cristalle and just-snuffed candles. For three years we made memories all over New York: museums and bookstores, trips to his family's house, holidays with cousins. For three Christmases we stood in a snowy churchyard silently watching the place where his father's ashes lay. Our lives wove together with those sounds and smells that three years add up to.
I even went back to Banana Republic. And if I caught a whiff of M, the cad was only the fifth thing I thought about, followed by gratitude that the cad was a lifetime of smells behind me.
There are so many scents that make me think that True Blue guy. The smell of Dunkin Donuts coffee. He and I would meet in the pink and orange neon store near his house: after a day apart, or to negotiate an argument, or to just to sit and love the real things of real people's lives; lives like ours. There is the scent of eggs in his kitchen. Or the odor of electricity and grease on his subway platform where we'd meet to ride the train together, when I'd see his face light up from across a subway car. And there was his personal smell. When he did wear cologne it was Aqua Di Gio, and it would mingle on our skin with the scent of soap and sweat and the Tide in his flannel sheets.
There were sounds that belonged just to him. Music he introduced me to, like Radiohead. But the most unique sound that was his was the ring tone on my cell phone reserved only for him. Work-related calls got the Chicken, friends got the Polka; Mom got the Octave. He got the love song. "Fur Elise." Whenever he called, "Fur Elise" rang out in haunting, reverberating bells.
This spring I went out to Los Angeles to try to find work, and we stayed connected through dozens of late-night cell phone calls. "Fur Elise" made my heart flutter every time I heard it. There were the CD mixes we sent to each other, and his packages I am sure hinted of Aqua Di Gio and Dunkin Donuts coffee.
The calls got detached. The CD's he sent were filled with unfamiliar music. Then there was the call when he couldn't come to LA after all and I could not to back. So we cried and spoke kindness and love anyway. And in one call three years of shared memories became simply that. Memories.
A week later I received a copy of Radiohead's newest album. He had sent it before that last trill of "Fur Elise". Not long after that he met someone. "Fur Elise" rang a few more times, accompanied with arguments and tension and attempts at conciliatory remarks. It turned into to a taunting dirge. Suddenly everyone had bought the same model phone, and they all had their ringers set on Fur Elise: some tool at Blockbuster talking to his pals trying to decide between Pluto Nash or Get Shorty. A housewife in the protein bar aisle at Trader Joes arguing with her husband. And all the calls rang in on Fur Elise with its haunting, aching bells, and every time I heard it, it was a jolt of rejection and emptiness. I could not get away from it.
So I did something drastic. Immersion therapy. I set all the ringers on my phone to "Fur Elise". Each time anyone called me I was forced to hear it. It pierced me each time. But each time a little less. Five months later, I just pick up the phone. But only the fourth or fifth call do I get that jolt of pain, and remember that was the love song that used to be his alone.
This summer I ran into the old cad with his girlfriend. We were pleasant to each other, and it struck me odd that I had ever infused him with such power and evil, when after all, he was just a guy. Even if he had been a cad to me, a lifetime of smells ago.
I went back to New York three times since I broke up with that true blue guy. I've sat at a Dunkin Donuts almost every day. A safe one near Times Square that I frequented, long before I met him. And I'd drink a cup. Sometimes it was just coffee, but then would be our coffee and I'd see him across the pink table, smiling, laughing, frowning. The first time I smelled his cologne was at the Times Square subway station. I cried. Then someone on the sidewalk at 76th and Columbus was wearing it. Then an old man at Fairway. So I immersed myself in that too. A guy friend has the cologne, and for a week I sprayed it onto my collarbone to try to resymbolize it too, make it into something else. But that one would not change. it was still the smell of the true blue guy.
Good friends have held my hand as we've walked city streets, streets that were mine even before I met that man. But how many times have I had to turn away? Turn away as I pass the restaurant we had our first date. Look down as I pass a Greek statue at the Met, because that perfect marble body looks just like his did in the half-light of his room.
It will take a lifetime walking these streets to them into something other than What This Place Was To Us. Maybe I'll start again in spring. But I cannot be here now. Christmas is coming. And I don't want to be back in that snowy churchyard, my hand squeezing his as we look down at the place in the dirt.
And as for "Hail To The Thief." I had to throw that CD away. Some things will forever be associated to a particular moment. That CD will forever be linked to that week I listened to it, when that one true love passed into memory.
Nov 23, 2003
The Memory of Sound and Smell