I am trying to smell the cheese.
A scientist gave her subjects an oderant in a vial, and told them it was parmesan cheese. They sniffed. Mm, nice. Pleasant. Familiar. Evocative. Had she waved it under my nose, the smell would have mingled with memories:
-Dad bringing home pizza on Lenten Fridays, 5:15. Sesame crust. Mozz had slid into clumps in the car, leaving saucy triangular tips. Sprinkle it on.
-Mom’s meatballs, we folded the cheese in by hand. Egg plastering ground beef on my fingers, the smell of it mixed with parsley and Parm. Licking it off. We did that then! We licked raw beef!
-Babysitting my little brother and attempting to improve on the Elio’s frozen with Kraft processed.
A week later, the scientist called back the same people for a second sniff test. This smell was vomit, she warned. The subjects all agreed that this odor was, indeed, sickening.
They were shocked when she told them they had tasted the same concoction as last week’s. The cheesy and the queasy were one and the same, and the scent cocktail had equally delighted and repulsed them at different times. The power of suggestion is that strong. And context can completely color an experience.
One year and ten months after Hurricane Sandy, we are still waiting for our home to be habitable. We are still renting an apartment and completing endless paperwork as “finish dates” rush by in the fast lane, sending us into a tailspin each time. We never learn. The newest new date is Labor Day, and we see it coming fast in the rearview. Dare we hope it stops and lets us in?
Meanwhile, in this apartment, I can’t take a shower. Well, I can, but only by following these directions exactly:
- Reach into stall and turn handle all the way to hot. Stand at the ready until first steam puff clouds door. Slip in quickly; hope water is right as you must pull door shut immediately to prevent minor flooding.
- Start shaving ASAP. Ward off goosebumps by completing one leg during first round of hot water. Finish before scalding back. If back burn occurs, be careful not to jump up too quickly lest you bump the door open with your butt and again risk causing a small flood. Manage to wrestle stubborn faucet handle ever-so-slightly toward cold. Quickly, desperately wet your hair and then shut it off before it becomes PAINFULLY COLD WITHIN SECONDS.
- Proceed with dry shower, giving hot water time to psyche itself up. After shampooing, wait minimum of three minutes before turning on. No matter if product runs into eyes. If you cheat here, shower will remain frigid to the end. After requisite amount of time, squeeze into corner, squint eyes, hug self, and turn on water and wait for acceptable—not ideal; acceptable—temperature. Rinse head before water boils. Repeat for each stage of self-cleanse.
Today as I wait, hugging myself, I remember the smell experiment. This shower routine reeks of puke, but I’d really prefer the Parm. How can I turn this shower into something approaching pleasant? What is familiar, even exotic, about this experience?
I know. Eyes closed, dripping, I project myself across the ocean that took my perfectly fine shower from me, and I stay there for the length—the very long length—of my new bathing routine.
I’m in an Irish farmhouse B&B, in a 2×3 compartment and my elbows bang the walls and it takes ten minutes for the lukewarm trickle to wash out the shampoo. And I love it. Because it’s owned by distant family. Because I’m going to drive past ancient ruins today, on the left side of the road. Because outside my windows are magpies and cairns and possibly faeries.
I’m in France, in a third floor walkup I found a few hours after landing. I flew here alone without planning out a place to stay. I spent the day wandering streets, trusting I’d find one and I did, but not before finding the flower market, or the Mediterranean, or the beautiful mural strategically draped along a construction site, or the lemons burst open on sidewalks, or the ferris wheel that wondrously appeared as I turned a corner as in children’s a pop-up book. The mild, lukewarm spritz of a shower at the end of this afternoon is perfect because I don’t want to wash any of it away.
I’m living on St. Croix again, showering at the end of a long day of “working” in a quiet book store by myself, walking home as the fishermen came in, sharing a Coke with them as they told their fish stories, ferrying to the key, and meeting friends for drinks. I turn the water on and off to conserve resources and preserve this way of life. Taking this shower in fits and starts, I can call myself a Cruzan.
Normally, I find myself (literally) boiling with rage as I negotiate this shitty shower nearly two years after Sandy. I should be home. We were told we’d be in A YEAR AGO. Our hope was renewed when the sheetrock was started FIVE MONTHS AGO. Week after week after week after week after week, and still this shower: the only place I can’t hear the upstairs tenant’s anxiety-ridden dog, who yips and yowls like a gremlin baby for nine hours straight every day three feet above my head. Imagine needing so badly to stop having your fingernails pulled out one by one that you are willing, even eager, to be tarred and feathered as a handy escape.
But I am trying to smell the cheese. So I think of all the shitty showers I’ve loved, that were just as shitty as this one, and yet I was overjoyed to be where I was.
If I could love those, I could learn to love this.
I am here. I survived. I am with my love. I hear him shout when he gets scalded, he hears me squeal when I get iced. We yell and laugh about it together. This will be what we recount a year from now when we tell the tale at our housewarming. The tale has become a fairy tale now that the facts are so exaggerated—one year in a concrete room, two years to get home (we hope), three years of benefactors waiting to be asked to the ball (“When’s the party?”).
Outside of this shower is Steve, and a community of survivors, and another spectacular beach sun setting on dunes and fishermen and sandpipers. I live here. I take a beach vacation every day. A shitty shower is not too high a price to pay, I decide. This is OK.
I step out. Oh yeah. Oh no. The gremlin baby.
I don’t even know where to begin with that one.