We were in Queens one day, visiting my cousin, and she suggested a walk in the park. We must have gone to the wrong side of the park, though, because the only options we found were a playground, where dogs were not allowed, and a horse trail, marked by huge piles of horse poop in case we missed the sign.
We walked down the path and back, dodging horses and as many piles of poop as we could, and then we did our best to wipe the soles of our shoes before returning to the car. But no one told Cricket to do the same, so when she, inevitably, climbed up my neck and stretched out behind my head, she left horse poop aroma on my hair, on my coat, on the headrest, and on the seat belt.
It was the seat belt that became a problem.
Even after putting everything I had been wearing into the laundry, and scrubbing the seat belt and seat and head rest with different cleansers, the smell refused to go away.
I don’t know if I am especially sensitive to smell, or if horse poop is especially offensive, but I had to hold the seat belt away from my body, with a paper towel, just to sit in the car for a ten minute ride. It was either that or not use the seat belt at all and tolerate the constant beeping of the seat belt alarm.
I was enraged and impatient. I felt like I was being punished by God, for something.
Mom couldn’t smell it. I don’t think this is simply a factor of aging – it’s always been this way. Smells bother me more than they bother her.
Mom thinks that my sensitivity to smell might be related to my other neurological problems, and since nothing has been diagnosed yet, despite too many tests, anything seems possible. But I think I’ve always been sensitive like this. I knew people by their smells even as a kid, and I was naïve enough to think it was okay to tell them that. No one wants to know that they smell, by the way, especially if they smell like blue cheese, but even if they smell like cookies. It’s like telling someone that you recognize them by the bumpy red rash on their face, when they were hoping to God that no one would notice, or at least that no one would ever mention it.
Smell is one of the most direct routes to memory, because of the way the brain is wired. One sniff of mildew can send me back to my grandparents’ house in Chappaqua, which had its own pond within feet of the garage. Turpentine is a memory slide back to my father’s Industrial Arts classroom, and the communal sink where we scrubbed ink and paint from our hands. Newsprint always gives off the faint smell of puppy diarrhea to me, because we used newspaper to fill the whelping box when we had a litter of puppies when I was a kid.
When we finally took the car in to have the interior professionally cleaned, because of the horse poop, and the lingering smell of dog vomit in the back seat from an earlier trip, I felt like a weight had been lifted.
Mom thinks it was too expensive, I think it was worth ten times what we paid.
Not all dog related smells have the same extreme effect on me, though. Cricket smells of snot, and it’s not a totally unpleasant smell. Within hours after a trip to the groomer, the white hair under her eyes starts to turn brownish and then black with tears. I have plenty of occasions to smell Cricket’s face up close, because she likes to climb on me and stare into my eyes to compel scratches. I get a close up view, and sniff, of the salty, gummy, black goop that she does not want removed by human hands, or wash cloths, or scissors. It should be an offensive smell, but instead it’s a cozy, Cricket-y smell.
Butterfly has a whole chorus of smells: there’s some pretty bad breath from her not-so-good teeth; there’s the stale chicken smell that starts to waft from the top of her head once the shampoo smell dissipates; there’s the corn chip smell of her feet; and the generally dogly smell she develops as she runs and sweats and sniffs around the back yard. It’s amazing the smells I can get used to, and even look forward to, when they mean my puppies are nearby. I’ve realized that when a smell is attached to someone I love, it is easier to bear. Though I do have to be careful not to breathe in too deep.
When we’ve been away too long (say, more than an hour) the smell at the front door is of doggy drool, and it wafts up at me as soon as I open the door. The smell is the accumulation of hours of impatient waiting by the door; a cloud of moist unhappiness and dread. And yet, it makes me feel loved, and surrounded by dog, as if their leftover breath is embracing me as they jump and squeal to welcome me home.