My friend Kate makes fun of me because when we go to the grocery store together, which is often (since she has a car and I don’t), I’m always smelling things. I smell the marshmallows through the bag. I smell the circus peanuts and the maple nut goodies and the Necco wafers in the candy aisle. At the checkout I lean in close to the minty gums—spear, pepper, double, winter—and try to inhale their brisk, crinkled scent. I’d open the bleach and sniff if I wouldn’t have to buy it afterwards.
When we get to the bread aisle I’m hopeless. I crouch a bit and skirt along the shelves with my nose just centimeters from the plastic bags; I hyperventilate in the effort to get as much yeasty musk in my head as possible. I want to gulp in the air, but it’s not a smell you can taste. I want to hold it in forever, but lungs don’t olfactorate either, and they must be emptied to get another whiff through my nose. Kate just laughs and keeps a safe distance so strangers won’t think we’re together.
The truth is that my sense of smell is very weak, and I’m so excited by the few things I can smell that I can’t help myself. For me the world is a mostly colorless smellscape. I can go on breathing for days without being reminded of my nose’s other function, but when I am, I’m as happy as if I’d been kissed.
The first mixed drink I ever had was a screwdriver of sorts. I was at my best friend John’s house after school in the fourth grade. He asked me if I wanted some orange juice. I said yes. He brought me a glass and I drank it, upon which he asked, “Did it taste funny at all?”
“I put rum in it.”
It was an odd moment for me. I felt alienated from John. Here I thought we were friends, and it didn’t seem all that friendly to slip a guy a drink. But John’s face didn’t hold any malice; it only showed a little mischievous curiosity, the same look I’d see the next year when we found a box of condoms in the attic or when there were reports of a stack of Playboys having been dumped in a storm drain. I didn’t know what John’s parents thought about alcohol or what they had taught him about its right- or wrongness—his dad was a trucker, almost never home, and his mom was Filipino and spoke no English—but in my family it was pretty clear that alcohol was taboo. I wondered: Have I sinned? Was John a good friend or the type of guy they warn you about at church? Will I be drunk?
I paid close attention to my physiology over the next hour, waiting for some sign of impairment or highness. But I didn’t feel anything, so I assumed John hadn’t put enough in to sway my ninety pounds. Things went on as normal.
In college I dated a girl who wore Moonlight Path, a Bath and Body Works fragrance consisting of lavender and lily. My brother and I would show up at her house, or she’d come over for dinner, and my brother would take one breath and start pumping his eyebrows up and down in mock romantic reverie. “Smells like love, like…Moonlight Path!” he’d croon at her, teasing. I’d be so jealous because I could never smell it; all I could smell for some reason was the faint scent of pizza dough in her hair all the time. Don’t get me wrong—I loved it; it was comforting—but I hated feeling excluded from something wonderful and womanly, and I worried that she would feel like I couldn’t appreciate her properly because I couldn’t smell her perfume.
The first miracle Jesus performed was to turn water into wine. This he did at a wedding in Cana when his mother gently informed him that the party had run dry. She told some servants to do whatever he said to do, and then she left the room. He had them line up and fill with water six pots of two or three firkins a piece (about 120 gallons all told ), and when the servants drew from the pots, they found the water had transformed. Jesus had done so well that the “governor of the feast” joked about how people usually serve the good stuff first and put out the bad stuff once people were too drunk to care or notice. But here, he remarked, they had obviously saved the best for last.
When I disembarked from the plane at the Kimpo InternationalAirport in Seoul, my first impression was the smell. Cigarettes. Seoul, Korea, smelled like Austin, Texas, like my grandparents’ trailer, like my great grandmother sitting there at the kitchen table smoking. It was comforting to feel at home at a moment when home was as far to the east asit was to the west.
I was in Korea as a missionary; my job was to explain to people what Mormons believe and to help those who were interested come closer to Jesus by being baptized.
Over the next months I came to know the other smells of Korea—the pungent stink of garlic; the sour tang of kimchi; the ripeness of doenjang, a fermented soybean paste much like the Japanese miso. Everything in Korea smells, and does so more potently than here, which I found to be the source of some disparagement among expats. I, however, never really disliked what I smelled—it was more important that I smelled. Even the winter reek of urine and dirt and cold porcelain in a public bathroom was a kind of joy for me, part of the mental map I was constructing of my new home. To a nineteen-year-old with a weak sense of smell, finding Korea was like opening the door onto a Technicolor Oz.
Mormons don’t drink alcohol. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, received a revelation in 1833 called the Word of Wisdom. In it, the Lord directs the members of the Church to live a law of good health, which includes abstaining from coffee, tea, tobacco, and alcohol.
Thus, as a practicing Mormon, I’ve made the decision not to drink alcohol. My first drink, that accidental highball at John’s house, was also my last.
There were things in Korea that I couldn’t smell. When people found out I liked doenjang soup, they’d often ask if I’d had cheonggukjang,another form of fermented soybean paste: “You like doenjang? I thought Americans couldn’t stand the smell.”
“It smells alright to me,” I’d say. “It’s delicious, anyway.”
“Oh-ho, you should try cheonggukjang, then. It’s like the big brother to doenjang. It stinks like shit, but it tastes like a dream.”
“Yeah, pay attention when you walk in the market—you’ll smell it!” they’d cackle, tickled to death that an American approved of their foul-smelling edibles. I always tried to keep an eye open for a sign and a nostril open for an unearthly stench (for a Korean to describe something as strong-smelling meant it should be clear as day to an American, I reasoned), but I never caught a whiff. It’s impossible that I didn’t at one time or another walk past a cheonggukjang restaurant, and I could smell other potent edibles just fine. Bundaegi, for example, the roasted silkworm larvae kids were crazy about, haunted street corners and market edges, and its reek was obvious: it smelled like melting tires and burnt hair mixed with mud. But I smelled no cheonggukjang, no delicious shit.
After high school I started waiting tables at a local steakhouse. It was exciting to be challenged at work after spending months mopping floors and stocking shelves at a craft store. Waiting tables was a sudden test of charisma, memory, stamina, and balance, and I was good at it.
During my first month on the job I was required to become certified by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in the safe serving of alcoholic beverages. I spent a Saturday learning about the relationship between weight, blood alcohol content, and metabolism and listening to horror stories about litigation against servers. I learned it was legal for a parent to order a beer and hand it to his or her child, but that it wasn’t legal for me to hand alcohol to anyone but a confirmed adult. I learned to work story problems: A 200-pound man drinks a beer, a glass of wine, and a margarita over the course of an hour. He also eats a 16-oz. ribeye, a sweet potato, and a wedge salad drizzled with blue cheese dressing. What is his blood alcohol content and, if he orders another drink, should you serve him?
But more importantly: how big a tip should he leave? I didn’t just have to know how to safely serve alcohol; as a server I needed to know how to sell alcohol. For the first time in my life I learned the difference between vodka, tequila, gin, rum, whiskey, and liqueur, and I memorized which brands were our house and which were our premium varieties. I had to learn which mixed drinks contained which kinds of alcohol so that when a guest asked for a Colorado Bulldog I could say, “Stoli or Smirnoff ?” and not, “Beefeater or Seagrams?” and look like an idiot. Martinis were served “straight up” (no ice), but could also be made “dirty” (with olive juice), “dry” (with less Vermouth), or “with a twist” (meaning you ran a slice of lemon peel around the rim before twisting it and dropping it in the glass); “neat” meant a shot of alcohol with no mixer or ice. Garnishing drinks became second nature for me—a Corona got a lime jammed in the bottleneck; a Lone Star Iced Tea got a lemon wheel wrapped around a cherry and speared with a plastic sword—and asking about preferences became a reflex: “So that’s a Sangria Swirl Meltdown Margarita™ made with our top-shelf Bacardi®, splash of Grand Marnier®, and no salt on the rim? Got it.”
I became proficient in carrying long-stemmed martini glasses filled to the rim in the center of a tray balanced on the tips of my fingers, across the restaurant, smoothly around corners, around bumbling guests, and down onto the table without spilling a drop. Same with tall, top-heavy pilsner glasses frothing with draft beer. I kept a wine key in my back pocket and learned how to throw a white napkin over one wrist and present a bottle of White Zinfandel or Pinot Noir to a table: show the bottle to the ordering guest for approval; insert key and remove cork (this is really hard to do while maintaining a single, classy grip—an inexperienced hand tries first to hold the bottom of the bottle and then the top, looking for the best leverage); remove cork from key; present to guest so he can smell it, pretentiously; pour small amount of wine into one glass and give it to guest so he can swirl it, sniff it, swig it back, and nod his approval (as if that means anything in a suburban, mid-priced steakhouse, not even the nicest on the block); fill the other glasses and then the orderer’s glass all while holding the bottle from the bottom, letting the wine slosh just a bit as it pours and then lifting and twisting as you finish each glass; and finally place the bottle on the table with the label facing the guests. Then go check your other tables because you haven’t seen them in a while.
I liked being around alcohol, liked feeling natural around it, not having had much practice at home or among friends. I idolized the bartenders a bit, Denver and Gerard, because they knew everything and could wait on the entire bar, the four smoking-section tables, and the thirsty people still waiting at the door—all while making drinks for the other sixty tables, keeping an eye on the basketball game, and sympathizing with whomever needed sympathy. I admired the good feelings among strangers that alcohol seemed to inspire, the camaraderie associated with a common hobby.
I liked being able to recommend a red wine with steak, a white wine with chicken or fish, liked gently upselling to our better brands.
Once in a while someone would ask me my personal preference on a wine or margarita. I’d stumble a bit, slightly embarrassed that I’d never once tasted a single beverage that came from our bar (except perhapsthat splash of Captain Morgan ten years before). “I’m only nineteen,”
I’d say, feeling prudish and feeble, “but many of our guests seem to like the Kendall-Jackson chardonnay.”
Once a year or so my sense of smell will break down entirely. I don’t know if I’m ill or what, but for a week or ten days I’ll only be able to smell one smell. I privately call it the “Edward Scissorhands Smell,” because the first time I ever recall smelling it was the night I saw the Tim Burton film of that name. I was 13. My parents had just bought me a sleeping bag in anticipation of a Boy Scout backpacking trip I’d be going on that summer—a mummy bag, they call this kind, because there’s only an opening at the top—and I, encased, a chrysalis, hopped into the TV room to watch with my older sisters.
I became hot wearing a bag meant for sub-zero temperatures. The movie was supremely weird. And I noticed that everything smelled funny—not bad, but a little bit sick. The “blah” way my stomach feels in the morning if I think about fudge or cotton candy. Like the memory of vomit or the shadow of nausea. I thought it might be the bag, but the smell remained with me the next day and the next. It made my food taste off and my clothes feel dirty. I’d try to forget about it by breathing shallowly while sitting in class or reading a book, but then I’d forget and take a heavier breath, filling my nose with the scent of sick—it was like being brought out of a daydream by a sudden noise and realizing that life would never be as good as I could imagine. I’ve been a little apprehensive of Edward Scissorhands ever since, even after the Smell finally left and life returned to normal.
It seems stupid to attribute such power to a scent, but we all feel this power don’t we? It takes only the faintest whiff of something to send us reeling into memories—my aunt’s apartment in Manhattan and her cat, Bob; the flat I inhabited one summer in London; my grandparents trailer home. The tiniest trace of car exhaust on a cold day can send me flying back to Seoul, and I’m sure it takes nothing at all—the breath exhaled from a canister of biscuit dough or the cold mist escaping the freezer door—to steep you in years of recollection. Small wonder I live in fear of a smell: our noses are time machines over which we have only limited control.
I’m honestly embarrassed to admit any of this to you. I’m sensitive about my insensitivity, about my wonky sense of smell. Maybe I should be more mature about it, but I really do feel like the kid who’s just gotten glasses and knows his friends will see him tomorrow at school. I’m mortified. I’m jealous of those for whom life really is a bouquet of roses. Every week I find myself in a room where someone says, “What’s that smell?” and I don’t know if they mean “that awful stench” or “that delicious aroma” until they elaborate. Is it me? Do I stink?
And so I go to the store and pump my lungs enthusiastically at the bread and the gum and the marshmallows, happy just to have the fleeting sensation of a full life. The air passing through my nose momentarily excites my broken sense and it flickers, like a poorly wired Christmas light; me, an outcast Rudolph.
I’m likewise embarrassed that I don’t know what a cold beer at a baseball game tastes like. That I’ve never chosen a bottle of wine for a romantic evening. That I’ve never sipped a piña colada on the beach, nor loosened my tie with a bourbon in hand. I don’t even know if these are formative life experiences or clichés.
While Jesus performed miracle after miracle, beginning with the changing of water into wine, John the Baptist did none. John was an ascetic. He scratched out a living in the wild by eating locusts and wild honey; he wore a rough garment of camel’s hair. He didn’t drink alcohol. He was known for his fasting. Said Jesus: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners.”
These men were contemporaries, were cousins even, were working on the same team for the same end. Both were godly, and both were ultimately rejected and then martyred for their belief. Why would God direct the one to abstain and the other to partake?
There was another thing I couldn’t smell in Korea: drunk breath. Missionaries attract drunks like cheonggukjang attracts flies, and I was no exception. My missionary buddies were always telling me of all the times they’d been kissed by some happy inebriate who proved faster than expected: “The breath, man! I mean, it’d be funny—no harm done—but the breath. It’s like death.”
It wasn’t just in Korea that I’d heard about this; alcohol breath is an old chestnut, the butt of so many sitcom jokes and seventeenth-century sonnets. But it was in Korea that I realized it was missing from my life, that I’d walked the streets for months and talked to countless sots without ever reeling back in disgust. And this prompted another question: How many drunken people had I spoken to without any idea they were drunk? They don’t always try to kiss you, and if I couldn’t smell the evidence, how could I know who I was speaking with?
God has always given commandments that seem arbitrary or contradictory. He withheld pork from the ancient Israelites, but allowed it to Christian Jews of the New Testament. “Thou shalt not kill” was preceded by the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and it was followed by the command to Saul to “slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
He made John a teetotaler and Jesus a bartender.
To Adam and Eve he gave the Garden of Eden, filled with all the good things he’d made, but he withheld the fruit of one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This presented a problem: life in Eden seemed good—great even—but how could Adam and Eve know it was good unless they ate that fruit? At the same time, how could they come to know good without also experiencing bad: one tree, one fruit, but two consequences. Eat and know how good you got it, but get kicked out for doing so. They seemed stuck between sweet ignorance and bitter bliss.
They ate, the story goes, and it’s been a mixed blessing ever since.
One day a few years ago I was visiting home and had arranged to meet some old friends from high school. Autumn and I met at the steakhouse where I had worked, and we got a table in the smoking section next to the bar. Over the course of an hour or so, people from way back when dropped in to chat for a while. Autumn and I got an appetizer to share, and she drank beer and smoked.
Story problem: Autumn, a 130-pound woman, drinks a few beers over the course of “an hour or so.” She also has some steak nachos, but the exact number is unclear because (a) she’s also smoking, (b) you’re a boy who loves nachos, and (c) Laurence shows up at the same time as the nachos and he is a boy who loves nachos. You’re not sure how many “a few” beers is either. And your TABC certification has long expired. When Autumn offers to drive you home do you (a) accept, (b) decline, or (c) forget to even consider whether this is a problem because you can’t smell her breath, have little sense of what intoxicated looks like (is it that much different from what Autumn was like as a teenager?), and have never in your life wondered if you yourself were safe to drive, having never had a drink?
I let her drive.
On the way home Autumn went to make a left turn onto a busy, divided, four-lane road (my house was to the right, but I thought it impolite to point out how much we’d all forgotten of our hometown geography in five years) and pulled into the path of an oncoming car. The other driver had the presence of mind to swerve away from our vehicle, smashing at 35 mph into the front, driver’s side fender instead of the driver’s door. After confirming my own status as safe and unbroken, I looked to Autumn and the other car’s passengers—all safe—before it occurred to me that Autumn might’ve been impaired. There was a 10-foot-tall, concrete barrier wall at that turn that made seeing far to the left difficult, but this wasn’t a spot I’d ever seen an accident before. How many beers had she had? How long had we sat at the restaurant?
No one—not the police, not my parents when they showed up, not the driver of the other car—questioned her blood alcohol content, so I let it go. I didn’t trust my own judgment, of course, the way I don’t trust my sense of smell, so if no one noticed anything odd about her behavior, that was good enough for me.
A large part of our sense of taste—some say up to 90%—is really just our sense of smell helping our taste buds out. So I can’t help but wonder whether what I taste as an unbearably delicious combination of sharp cheddar, golden grilled buttered bread, and basil-laden tomato soup is, to someone of full olfactory powers, a life-altering revelation. Whether my predilection for pumpkin and cinnamon is mere child’s play, and whether what I experience as a Fourth of July sparkler is, to the gourmet, a full-on fireworks display. Have I been coloring with six faded crayons my whole life while others have hundreds of tints and hues to enjoy?
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Hmm: seems like this guy’s sense of smell works just fine to me. He’s spent this whole essay smelling things, things I never even noticed.” But that’s just it—once I realized I wasn’t smelling as much as I should have been, I became slightly obsessed with smelling in an effort to compensate, like the undergrad who binge drinks to make up for years of parental supervision.
Maybe it’s foolish of me to think so much of something so little. After all, I may not actually be missing as much as I think I am; smell and taste, like pain, are subjective experiences. And there’s no telling how much trouble I’m spared by not smelling so much—Korea might’ve been a much different place to me had I a more potent sniffer.
John the Baptist never raised a glass of wine at a wedding, just as I will never pop open a cold beer at a barbeque. Did that bother him? Did he feel like he was missing out on something important in life? Did he see Jesus “eating and drinking” and feel jealous, or did he understand that some things are mixed blessings?
If nothing else, John understood that he didn’t understand everything. When Jesus came to be baptized by John, John at first declined, saying, “I have need to be baptized of thee.”
Jesus’ response was more a request than a reason. “Suffer it to be so for now,” he said, and that was good enough for John: he suffered him. Maybe John never knew the reason why.
The thing about alcohol that most tempts me is its variety, the sheer number of tastes and smells it promises. Thousands of forms, brands, flavors. Wheat, rice, barley, hops, corn, potato, grape, apple, honey, sugar, juniper berry. Single malt, blended, pure pot still. Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Shiraz, Pinot gris, Port, Muscatel, Madeira. Jack and coke, scotch and soda, Seven and seven. Hundreds of bottles of liqueur lined up against the mirror behind the bar, creating the illusion of hundreds more. Variety: the spice of life.
Distilling, fermenting, brewing. Mixing and pouring as art forms. Even the glasses are a science. Tall, thin flutes keep the hand’s heat from warming chilled champagne; short, broad snifters do just the opposite for brandy. Wine glasses force one to inhale the bouquet when imbibing the wine; aroma is said to be the most important part of a wine’s taste: “The nose is fruity with hints of black cherries and raspberries; it has an oaky finish, high complexity, well balanced, soft tannins.”
I would like to smell those things, to taste those things. The pub crawl, the wine-tasting, the champagne celebration. I would like die knowing I got to sample everything life had to offer.
By choice and by chance, however, there are some things I will never smell, will never taste.
Originally published: Winter 2011