When I was sixteen, the boy next to me in my history class told me I’d be a lot prettier if I got a nose job.
I spent the next few hours with my hand casually over it, inwardly wondering if it was just always going to be a little cartoony.
I imagined myself looking like a dolphin—I imagined myself like an abstract, loopy painting that was vaguely pointy in the wrong places. I thought my nostrils were like big caves that flooded with sorrow.
I could fit hard candies in them—if I tried, I could probably fit my hand in them, I thought.
I failed to realize that my nose is powerful. It bombards my amygdala, where my emotions and memories of emotions lie dormant.
My memories are lined up and packed like clothes in a suitcase, in a tiny sweet spot in my olfactory cortex, in my limbic system, in my brain. I have five million smell receptors, 200 million less than a dog does. It lets me breathe and work through a yoga pose, up a hill on my bike, around the next corner while running.
I know that my best friend always smells like fragrant, yummy bread. I know my boyfriend smells like the ocean and bicycle sweat. I know the powdery smell of my Mom’s bright pink blush when it’s on her cheeks. I know that cucumbers smell like nausea, that apples smell like home, and that clove cigarettes smell like springtime.
My girl squad smells like frozen yogurt.
These receptors are little people who yell names and places at me when they’re hit by a scented breeze, and a few inches below yellow mucus grows like a coral reef.
I failed to see the power in all of this.
The smell of orange juice reminds me of drinking screwdrivers at a low-key get-together. I blacked out, wasted, embarrassed by the morning. My vomit stank like white beans and citrus in my hair as we left the house and I woke up in Rob’s bed, plastic bag held gently over my face. I had been carried up the stairs.
“Metal,” his roommate said.
Summer smells like burning air and wood, abundantly sweet drinks, sunscreen everywhere, catfish—like growing up on the lake with all of my cousins. Eating meat was just something you did, and every little hair on our heads glowed.
I smell pizza. Oily, red, and sweet—it’s the porch of the pale yellow house I grew up in.
I remember the first time my brother said “Jesus Christ!” My Mom was mad because of how adult it sounded, not because we ever believed in God.
The sterile and sweet smell of Cetaphil brings me to showering at the big house on Breckenridge, where rent was low. There was half-used men’s bath products stacked like cards on every corner and within every divot.
We both scrubbed our faces; we had just met. We dabbed tea tree oil on any and all red spots, and when Rob climbed into bed it’d sting my nose, antiseptic.
We got so clean at night that our hands would squeak as they touched.
He’s still holding mine.
The first time I ever rode for eighty miles on my bike smells like goose shit in the sun on the Erie Canal, and it’s beautiful. I got big, swollen blisters.
I used to drink a minty green tea five times a day to avoid eating solid food. Last summer, I found some in my Mom’s cupboard from the old days. The green packaging was inviting. Deceiving. I heated some up, but before I put my lips to the mug I smelled the leaves and smelled fifteen pounds leaving me and I poured it down the drain.
It was like rotten fruit.
I smell popcorn: salty, dry, yellow. Sweet like her. It is my Mom popping kernels on the stove and munching them with a book in hand on the white loveseat. She always poured a plate for the dog and left it on the floor.
We look so much alike.
If someone leaves me, will they be spooning out a jar of peanut butter one day and get hit with an image of me talking in their face in the morning, stirring it into my oatmeal with nutty breath? When they take the cover off their pot of quinoa, will I be in the steam that rises up? Is it like Daisy Buchanan crying into a pile of shirts except over laundry detergent instead of luxury? Can you smell period blood? Snot? Can you smell mine? Would you know it if you did?
I’ve got a painful reflex.
I ignore what’s inside my nose and instead concentrate on the shape, the texture; I do this all over my body.
I sniff out the imperfections.
In the moments before I stop myself, I am flat, foreign, like a photo of a girl. A cartoon of a young woman. Sometimes, I still forget what’s inside my stomach as soon as it gets there. What I know is that it seems heavy and I want to hide.
I forget how hard my legs have been working and I run when I should rest; I become exhausted.
I have felt my body begging for my forgiveness, my fingers making collages and taping words to the page that they needed me to read.
I started to try sniffing out the stories—I’m not a doll, after all.
These legs can take me around town and these eyes don’t passively open and shut.
This nose is not as silly and useless as I once believed it was.
Moira Madden is a student of writing as well as Women and Gender Studies who loves to read, write, doodle, work—and play every single moment. She trusts things that are wacky, neurotic and open. She eats a whole lot of peanut butter.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise