I used to work with this guy, Bill. He was really sweet, as many in our shared nightmare work situation could attest. He was a veteran of some kind of internal drug war in his 22 year-old life, and because he had lived through this, he did a cleanse every year for 30 days, as if to remind himself of the journey his body had been through. I admired him. He was my kind of people.
But I couldn't be friends with him. Because he smelled.
Not "smelled" like the kid in your eighth grade class with B.O., the one who everyone felt bad for because he was at the mercy of the adults around him, ones who had clearly never had "the talk" about personal hygiene. No, Bill smelled like mothballs. Intensely. Every single day I had contact with him in the six months we were co-workers, the odor permeated from his person.
I'm a super smeller, and since I can remember, it has kept me from shopping in certain stores, sustaining jobs, even getting close to people. It has left me with the understanding that there are parts of the world I will never visit, because of the possible smells I may encounter.
In the wonderful shared living situation I moved into last year, I was faced with something I wasn’t prepared to handle: open food. This is what my mother called anything in a fridge that wasn't in an airtight container.
You see my mom, too, is a super smeller. I grew up in a household where it was not only not okay to leave an open container of anything in the fridge, it was grounds for automatic disposal of the food, no questions asked. No tab-popped sodas, no half-eaten cucumbers, no bowls of potato salad without proper cling wrap coverage. While some people's refrigerators are mosaics of weeks-old Tupperware surprises, open blocks of cheese, wounded soldier condiments and past-expiration milks and O.J.s, my childhood refrigerator was a spotless army of well-organized and hand-dated cartons. Nothing was left a day past expiration, and leftovers were born into a limited existence.
But the open food surprise I came across in my commune of great friends was a much bigger shock than a container of old spaghetti; I opened the fridge, and there on a shelf, at nostril level, was an onion. It was a half of an onion, stinky innards exposed, just staring at my nose.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing -- how could someone cut an onion, the smelliest of smelly organic beings, and leave it in a fridge with other things that would surely absorb its frank odor? Hello, milk? The only thing milk is good at other than wetting down cereal is collecting the odors of other things.
Luckily, my new-ish home has an open door policy between cohabitants -- we talk about something if it bothers us. Building a case of resentments against each other as roommates is lovingly illegal in my house. When I brought the onion situation up, everyone graciously accommodated my finicky nose.
Beyond open container laws and the constant questioning of the origins of other humans’ odors, I have one great nemesis that trumps them all: baby powder. My Kryptonite, the rotten stench of baby powder can render me powerless to everything else going on around me at any given moment. Even typing the words "baby powder" makes my stomach turn.
If I catch a whiff of it when meeting someone for the first time, it will remain a stain on my relationship to him or her, like a disgusting timestamp I have a hard time shaking. It might not even be coming from that person directly, but it will forever be an association. Worse, if they are the source of the baby powder smell, chances are we won't be very close friends.
My mom says that even as a child, I detested the smell of baby powder. There wasn't a specific incidence that she or I can pinpoint that rooted the repulsion; I was literally born hating the stench of baby powder. I remember teenage me reading an interview with Shirley Manson from Garbage in Spin Magazine sometime in the mid-90s wherein she described losing her virginity; Manson said her gentleman suitor smelled like "baby powder and metal." I even looked at her funny after that revelation, as if that had anything to do with our non-existent fan-to-photograph relationship.
But, like most personal problems in life that seem to affect no one else outside of my body, I get over it. I deal with the ability to smell noxious gases of the chemical and human kind from 500 feet away from a source, rotting food before anyone else knows it’s gone bad, hot garbage in a dumpster, human feces in public places, the putrid funk of a person a table away from me’s hangover, and what I can only guess to be the smell of perm solution gushing from the open door of a hair salon.
I avoid any perfume labeled “fresh” and the Vietnamese market by my house. I hold my breath when passing people on the street. I end relationships when I can’t deal with how someone smells.
The weirdest part? I wear way too much Chanel Coco Mademoiselle on a daily basis. It seems like my subconscious "fuck you" to a world that 90 percent of the time, smells indescribably disgusting.