There’s this hotel I once stayed at for well over a week in Laguna Beach called The Montage and every aspect of that place is forever imprinted in the happiest folds of my brain. The pillows? They were clearly fashioned by a large group of benevolent angels out of the finest fluffy materials available anywhere in the spiritual stratosphere. The loofah placed lovingly next to the enormous bathtub? That wooden-handled scrubby thing gave me the single finest exfoliation of my entire life. The hotel’s bath gel smelled of verbena. The salad served out of white oblong bowls poolside had perfectly grilled shrimp and the creamiest goat cheese I’d ever tasted and the men climbing the bluffs at dusk after a day of surfing the spiky waves looked like the sort of Ken doll Tom Ford might have fashioned just for sport.
We were supposed to be there for only five days, but on the plane ride home, news came in to the pilot that a blackout had just engulfed much of the eastern seaboard. As we were still closer to the west coast than we were to the sweeping darkness of the east, the plane literally turned around in the air and eventually landed back in California where my family and I hightailed it back to The Montage and checked back in for another four days, which is how long it took us to get a flight home. Never before have you seen someone more thrilled to be experiencing some travel inconvenience. I got to spend more days with that magical loofah – though I’d already stuck one in my suitcase to use at home – and I slathered myself with the verbena stuff the moment I was back in a new room. Since we suddenly had free time on our hands, my brother and I took surfing lessons over the next two days and I discovered muscles in my chest and in my arms that I never knew existed before. I managed to stand up on that board three times and I rode a salty wave almost to the shore while my brother cheered.
I thought about that hotel and those blissful nine California days last night as I stood in my shower and squeezed a brand new shower gel I just purchased into the kind of generic pink loofah you can buy at a drugstore. When it comes to body gels and lotions and scrubs, I tend to go for anything in the coconut family or for something that smells of muted lemon. This new one was meant to be lemon – that’s what the packaging said – but it came out of the tube looking more green than yellow and its scent filled my steamy shower and, in mere seconds, I was transported back to Laguna because of the strong undertones of verbena.
It was the best shower I’ve had since the one I took with the guy who had two showerheads installed so neither of us would ever feel cold.
Sense memory is a funny thing. I wonder sometimes why I’m only taken back to the very finest times in my life by a fragrance, if perhaps my psyche has blocked the worst of my history by locking the scents of those moments away for my own protection. I mean, there had to be something cooking in my house the night my parents announced they were getting a divorce, but I have not once smelled anything that whooshed me miserably back to that miserable minute. It’s things like sleepaway camp and the basement of my best friend from high school and the second semester of my sophomore year in college when I found my closest friends that come back to me. It’s the smell of doing cartwheels near the honeysuckle bush when I was five and how the first guy I ever loved had hair conditioned by Paul Mitchell. It’s the purple sprunch spray I used to coat my own hair with back during those days when I didn’t know straight hair was a possibility. It’s what a Chipwich smells like on an August night after a day at the beach.
It’s a scarf my mother gave me that still smells like Angel and the way men who wear Polo remind me of my father. It’s the new face wash I got that is supposed to smell like grapefruit but actually smells like patchouli and reminds me instantly of my friend Annmarie and the way she would put on the Like a Prayer album that I will forever know by heart. It’s the way I still have my Wookie’s yellow plush duck that is now just a yellow rag on a hook in my bedroom and how, every now and then, I will inhale it deeply and I can almost see again the way my life was back when I raised her from puppy to an almost eighteen year old dog and the way we sort of grew up together. It’s walking into my parents’ house when my mother is midway through making a pot of chicken soup. It’s whispering to her, “This house smells like my childhood,” and the way she always smiles widely with pride.
It’s a spray of Black Orchid that takes me back to the weeks when I thought one man might be The One and the spritz of Calyx that makes me feel seventeen again. It’s the memory of nuzzling against his chest right after he gets out of the shower and applies moisturizer to his face because that’s just the sort of guy he is. It’s the scent of fiery autumn leaves as we walked out of restaurants and the smell of the dark beer he used to drink and the way I would wonder if I could live in a place that smelled of oak bark instead of cherry trees.
But scents themselves can also be fleeting. I remember the moment the sweatshirt that I have of my father’s – the one with a cartoon of Hemingway’s face on the front – no longer smelled like him. I have it still, but I never hold it close to my face anymore. I keep it in a drawer and I touch it every now and again, but now it feels like only a memory.
Still, there is a beauty to the way the mind can race back in time simply because of the presence of peppermint or aloe or saltwater or banana bread or bug spray wafting through the air. Sometimes it takes me a second to place where my memories are trying to take me, like the way you try to remember lyrics to a song. I always get there, though. And I recall those perfect moments and I smile a really slow smile and always – and I mean every single time – I feel grateful.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter