Every woman I’ve passed today has been wearing perfume that’s a scent from a hopscotch block memory of my life. Recollections that are organized in lopsided chalk outlines, out-of-focus in their bygone lives. The commute from 11th street station to 69th street station is a time machine fashioned out of the limbic system – I travel through stretches of the past, driven by mood, memory, behavior, and emotion. The limbic system is primitive, found in the very first mammals.
We are all connected to the past.
I inhale bodies on the platform of the subway stop at 11th street and am filled with the shape of these emotions that hold weight like water in sweating glasses – melting ice cubes that you try to pull the ragged last tastes of whiskey from.
There is a twisted curl of a woman standing on the yellow safety bumpy line next to me who smells like perfume from the Body Shop that I thought was so sexy when I was in my early twenties, when all the witches who I surrounded myself with smelled like sandalwood and also sort of like the receptionist from my high school. Before boarding the oncoming subway, the woman shakes out tresses like unfurling a sail; the scent of heavy yellow trees billowing behind her – aromatic wood. I am a stern in the wake. As we enter the subway car, humidity pours over us. The heaviness of the clammy interior is aromatic and impenetrable, uncomfortable like first kisses.
Some scientists believe that kissing developed from sniffing; shuffling close to a person to draw their scent into your body. First kisses: a primal behavior where we smell and taste our partner to decide if they’re a match.
In the silver bullet body of the train, next to me on the blue plastic seats, is a cool arm belonging to a dark-haired woman which she periodically brushes against my body – she is cloaked in the scent of off-brand Tommy Girl body glitter gel. It smells like the kind I used to buy at CVS to replicate the 7th-grade popular girls with their real designer perfume. I would coat my body with the gel and it was a slick reptilian skin, smelling sour like rubbing alcohol and fermented flowers – later I would scrub the specks off me; born anew every night. Every flake a Daughter of Danaus; the popular girls with their swaying ponytails never liked me, and they certainly didn’t like me in the way that I liked them – and by extension all girls. The cool arm exits the train at 15th street, leaving the memories of grade school behind her.
As the subway sways past graffiti in forgotten tunnels – stops that no longer gather passengers – I mediate on moments from my youth where I could have been brave but wasn’t; I re-create playground scenes with loose limbs entangled upside down on monkey bars with hair follicles contracting into goosebumps after flesh to flesh encounters. And how my best friend smelled like the Hawaiian Barbie my brother got me for Christmas a few years earlier, both of them – the friend and the doll – with so much long brown fig-colored hair in waves to the small of their backs. The week before that Christmas, I crept through the closet to find the gift, my short hair scratching my neck like a crumb brush. The doll came with a solid perfume balm and it smelled like islands that I have never been.
My best friend and I stopped talking in high school, she chose boyfriends and proffered cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon while I pretended that my emotions for her were merely friendly. She took the scent of Barbie balm with her. Young love is always hard.
High school was and is all longing, and it carried the fragrance of blueberries and blueberries reduced and then reduced again. Lip gloss from Bath & Body Works in glass cups that I painted over my mouth and then licked off – I gave myself all the kisses I wanted. Held myself in solo embraces, walked my fingers up the staircase of my spine; ran hands over the curve of my puppy belly. Every day was an outfit, like a riddle that I never quite figured out – am still confused about it in so many ways still as an adult. Now, I try to piece together the frenetic ardor of my teenage self – the jigsaw fragments of emotions that haunt me whenever I see a pretty woman on the train, like why do baby’s breath, the filler flower, look so lonesome as they surround the crowned head blossom of roses?
The train maintains its course to 69th street with a fresh slew of well-dressed bodies creating volume in the sweating cars at the 30th street stop. Coltishly shaped men with square-framed glasses dart through the doors – 30th street station Clark Kents – followed by briefcases and the clatter of heels. An expensive fragrance permeates the world of the train car and the scent belongs to the kind of women with haircuts that speak for them – dagger sharp bob edges that ask, “Where are the twist-off bottles of rose?” Haircuts and smells and jobs and relationships that I will never be able to break into. The old swinging ponytails have been cut into right angles. The woman wearing the designer fragrance is elegant with clavicles that sing sonnets. She chooses to stand by the electronic doors and gaze in the moody detached way that only beautiful people can perfect.
On some days I fall in love with ten different women on the way to work.
Barreling forward, pitted tunnels and bridges make up the grey world of the subway, they create edges around the city linking the concrete and the green – two different biospheres circling the conurbation. Bodies replace one another on the seat next to me, a parade of sweet and fetid and flowery and feelings that don’t yet have names but are as real to me as joy and sadness. In the swaying cradle of the car, my emotions are a flightless bird. With each revolving person, I am at once an ostrich and an ogre. A girl sits next to me, snapping bubblegum with the alien eyes of her sunglasses reflecting the faces of all of the passengers. Her face is a canvas and in the periphery I see myself parched with the ache of hunger – unsure of what the craving is for.
The 69th street terminal is the last stop. It smells like pizza that bubbles with life, boiling rolling seas of cheese. Banks of pretzels fog the end of the commute and coffee brewing in the inside-bodega screens the station. My mouth fills with warmth from pockets of saliva. The $27 dollars in my pocket makes me feel like a millionaire – even though there are holes in the bottoms of my shoes that have soaked up the end-of-winter sludgy snow. As I walk through the station, I leave prints in my wake like the facial impression of a bloody sweating Christ – the soles of my shoes: Veronica. The tears leak through the soles my shoes; my face is dry.
The cloud of scent hangs above my head, and as I navigate through the swarm of bodies memories continue to rain down on me. Brief almost-tastes of instances that glimmer just out of reach, phantoms of desire flow over my worn clothing – they shroud my holey shoes. How do you outrun longing? If I lost the pathway to smell, would I also lose the tender sting of sentimentality?
Even though everything itches with scent memories, I find comfort upon reaching the pizza place. Pizza for breakfast, like I dreamt of doing when I was a kid. I buy the extra large slice of pepperoni, knowing there is even enough for a big cup of soda to go with it. Inside the warmth of the shop, everything smells like the color orange, it darts a ray through the haze of past bodies.
I raise the triangle to my mouth over and over, the same action and taste and smell that brought me joy throughout the confusion of my childhood, teenage, and adult longings – we’re all connected to our own personal past. In the solitude of my communion, I imagine building a bouquet made out of baby’s breath alone. Every bobbing filler flower comprised of sacrosanct bodies waiting to be worshipped, giving off their heady scent and filling people with wanting.