Apr/May 2003  •   Fiction

Coming to My Senses

by Carolyn Steele Agosta

One morning I woke up and smelled the coffee. This was strange, because I'd never been able to smell it before.

"Is this a new brand?" I asked my husband.

Phil paused in mid-whistle, snapping his newspaper shut and putting it in his briefcase. "No, the usual kind. Why?"

I stared down at the cup, huddled into my robe, my bare toes curling away from the cold floor. "I can smell," I said, wondering if I should add, "Eureka!"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I can smell!"


I had always been clueless when it came to scents. There were very few odors I could detect at all, and the ones I did recognize, I got wrong. My family thought it was funny. If there was a messy job to do, one with unpleasant smells, a general cry would go up of "Get Diane to do it."

Now, however, I could smell things as they really were. I familiarized myself with all the scents everyone else had taken for granted long ago. So this was "the musty odor of old books," and that was "lemon-fresh Pledge." I learned the oily funk of Grandpa's old player piano, and discovered why everyone else found chocolate so appealing. I knew when my daughter was menstruating and if my son had bothered to wash.

Phil was delighted. One night in bed, I stuck my nose into his armpit and those strong male pheromones filled me with such a rush of lust, I practically attacked him. After that little experience, he found ways to entice me with a variety of olfactory delights, from colognes to oils to good old-fashioned sweat. Our sex life underwent a serious upswing. In the mornings after he went to work and the children left for school, I curled up in the big bed and reveled in the fragrance of our lovemaking. Sometimes, in the midst of a PTA meeting or while driving the car, I would sniff the back of my hand, rub warm skin against my nose and breathe it in again, my own special scent, the essence of Me.

It became an obsession, the discovery of new smells. I liked to go to the fruit market and the delicatessen, get drunk on blasts of grapefruit and kiwi, choose new ingredients like chicory or basil, prosciutto and chard.

My daughter fussed. "You didn't pick me up after school, I had to WALK home!" I'd been distracted at the garden center, choosing between jasmine and gardenias, sidetracked by fennel and spruce. "Aren't you ever going to be normal again?" she asked.

My son took to pinching my nostrils shut any time he wanted attention. "Sorry, Ma, you had that spaced-out look again, like you've been into the paint thinner. Not good."

I received phone calls from my sisters. "We're worried about you," the eldest said. "You're not available any more to baby sit or run errands for Dad. What's gotten into you?"

Everything, I wanted to say. The trees and grass and the sweet smell of sun-dried hay. The metal tang of freshly turned earth. I woke each morning before the alarm rang, anxious to find what scents the day would bring. They were all so new. Sickly-sweet gasoline and eye-crossing gym socks. Funky little boys and babies' warm necks. Pizza. Tar. Fresh newspapers. Beer. But when I tried to explain, I only got, "But honey, everyone can smell. You'll get over it."

I didn't want to get over it. Even the "bad" odors didn't bother me, they were just as new and interesting as the "good" ones. Phil chased me all around the house one day with a sour dishcloth until we collapsed, laughing, on the couch. The children muttered in awkward dismay. Parents weren't supposed to laugh like that. It was gross.

I caught a cold and went into a panic, afraid my sense of smell would disappear forever. "I cad stad this," I said, blowing into a hanky. "I'b goig bad."

"Oh, lighten up," Phil said. "It's a cold, not the seven plagues of Egypt. Besides," he added, "even if you did lose your sense of smell again, you'd still be you. Things wouldn't change, would they?" He put his hands on my waist and pulled me close. "We're so good together now, nothing can ruin that, right? Right?"

The cold made me more determined not to waste a moment. I felt as though all of my senses had sharpened and I was bristling with antennae quivering with sensation. I loved it. I loved it. Through the internet, I found other enthusiasts and we messaged each other endlessly about herbal extracts, aromatic essences, lost recipes for historic perfumes. I collected samples—bergamot and vetiver, sandalwood and musk. In the grocery store, I followed a man for seven aisles, just because he smelled like new lumber.

"You spent all evening talking to that jerkface in the sweater," Phil complained after a party.

"It was his aftershave," I explained. "I couldn't quite isolate the components, but I'm sure it included cedarleaf and lime. Are you jealous?" I asked, suddenly pleased. "We only talked. I don't even remember his name."

"Yeah, well, I bet he'll remember yours." He stared at me, a faint line showing between his brows. "You don't want to get carried away with this, Diane," he said. "People are starting to talk."


My sisters reconvened and took me to dinner. "You're getting ridiculous," my elder sister said. "You were seen in the park, kneeling in the dirt with your face buried in some old lilac bushes. Are you crazy?"

I twirled the spaghetti strands on my fork. There was cinnamon in the sauce, and a touch of almond. "They were Agincourt Beauties," I said. "Don't you understand? If I'd gone from blind to seeing, you'd call it a miracle."

"That's different."

"Not to me." I set my fork down, and looked around the table at them. "I have lilacs in my life now! Honeysuckle! I never expected this, didn't even know what I'd been missing. I'm happy, for crying out loud."

She looked me over. "Maybe you need therapy."

"Yeah, aromatherapy," our younger sister giggled. "A twelve-step plan for the aromatically addicted. Back to normal by the end of the month."

"Sorry if I'm not doing this right," I said, pushing my plate away. "I didn't realize there was a timetable for joy."

Their disapproval clung like cheap perfume. Perhaps it was a shameful selfishness, this greed for sensation, this avarice for a significant fume. I dutifully visited my father in the nursing home, but even then I was collecting and storing impressions of the emanations of old age and the spoor of death. If I could think about odors at a time like that, maybe I was crazy—losing my mind instead of coming to my senses.


One evening, Phil watched me work in the garden. The back yard was fragrant with honey-melon sage and citrus southernwood, sylvetta and thyme.

"You look tired, hon," he said. "Why don't you relax?"

"I'm fine," I said, stooping to loosen the soil. "I wish people would stop fussing at me."

"Well, you seem uptight."

"Look, I was great until everyone else got all bent out of shape." I stood up and pressed the back of my gardening glove to my eyes. "Okay. Maybe I am a bit... frantic. What am I supposed to do with this gift? I've been given a whiff of fougere, but what good does it do me if I'm going to spend my life surrounded by Glade Extra-Fresh?"

"But hasn't it made your life richer?" he asked. "Isn't that really what the senses are for, to enhance your life, not drive it? When is it enough?"

"I don't know, but I feel passion about something for the first time in my life and I want to follow where it leads."

Phil looked at me for a long moment. "I thought you felt passion for me."

I didn't know what to say. I put my arms around his waist and held him close. "You know I do," I said, sniffing in his familiar scent, so warm, so comforting. His skin, his shirt, his after-shave. And something else. I pressed my nose against his throat and tried again. Yes, I could smell it. The sulfuric reek of resentment.


In bed that night, lying beside him, trying to sleep, I became aware of the emotions seeping out his pores. The lemony scent of ambition. A spicy fume I identified as competitiveness. And beneath it all, almost masked by the redolence of male ego, the heart-aching current of loneliness. I wasn't sure I wanted that knowledge. Did perception require action? Phil's eyes were closed, and I couldn't help noticing how the little crinkles at the corners were deepening into furrows.

I curled up against him and he turned and took me in his arms. "I love you," I said.

"I know." He sighed and kissed my shoulder. "I know you do, honey. And I'm sorry to be a crank. When all this began, it was fun. I got a kick out of watching you run around like a kid on her first trip to Disneyland, but now..."


His voice was low. "Now, it feels like I'm competing with some other lover."

I could hardly breathe. The pain in his confession hurt me, but more than that, his breath exuded such envy and fear.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I want all of the good stuff and none of the bad, and I know that's unfair. But I can't help how I feel."

He rolled over and away from me. I pulled the sheet up to my face. Better to be suffocated by fabric softener and detergent than to deal with the vapor of guilt.


In the morning, I made coffee. Watching the steam rise, I told myself no big deal. It was just coffee, a dark-brown liquid, nothing more. Phil sat at the kitchen table, listening to the morning news. I had to turn my head away from the stench of self-reproach and insecurity roiling in his stomach.

"I hate that this is coming between us," I said. "There's got to be a way to compromise."

"If you could just try to keep it under control," Phil said. "Not get so carried away."

"I need to change, you mean. Keep my dreams pocket-sized." There seemed nothing else to say so I began running water into the sink, adding soap, putting in dishes. The electric clock hummed on the wall and upstairs my son murmured in his sleep. Somewhere outside, a bird began his morning song. Maybe Phil was right, maybe they were all right and I was the foolish one, thinking I could ever be special. The bird's trill rose up a key and I thought, but once you know, you can't not know. How could I ever go back to that narrower life? I started scrubbing the dishes and listened as the bird, whatever it was, trilled through a half-dozen different songs. "Do you hear that? He's singing his little heart out. Brand new day, brand new start."

"What are you talking about?" Phil came over to me and put his hand on my shoulder.

"The bird. Don't you hear him? He's as loud as a whole flock."

"I don't hear anything," Phil said. "The window is closed. How can you hear him?"

I became aware of the rustle of fabric as his fingers tightened on my sleeve. Far above us, an airplane droned in melodic counterpoint to the bird's song. Someone's radio played classical music. Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake. Oboes and bassoons traded places with flutes and violins. Funny how I'd never noticed before the whirring sound of bicycle tires from the kid delivering the newspaper, or the little rumble the kettle made before it whistled.

"I asked how you could hear that bird. Are you listening to me?" Phil's voice rose in an A-minor arpeggio. Outside, leaves rustled like taffeta and my heart lifted on the breeze that whispered softly as a lover in my ear. A tiny ripple of pleasure ran over me with each sigh of my pores breathing. "Diane? What are you listening to? Diane? Diane?"