Is your sense of smell really that important?

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sense of smell, girl smelling flowers

I have no sense of smell. I know, you have a lot of questions.

In elementary school, my friends passed around tiny bottles of perfume samples their mothers got from Avon representatives. They critiqued their fragrances. But when I sniffed, holding each bottle closer, I began to suspect there was something different about me. I simply didn’t know what it meant to have a sense of smell.

Confusing and embarrassing

When my fourth grade teacher told me I smelled like a rotten banana, I was mortified. But mostly I was confused. I hadn’t eaten a banana, but I had also not brushed my teeth that morning.

I like bananas, but they must be just ripe, no green and certainly not even a speck of brown. My grandmother, however, loved bananas just as soft as possible, practically liquid between her fingers. The browner they got, the sweeter they tasted (so she said—I never experimented). By the time she ate her practically rotten bananas, they tasted like candy (so she said).

So how would something that tasted so sweet smell so repulsive that my teacher sneered to the class that I smelled like a rotten banana? She wasn’t a very nice woman. I hear she’s teaching in the prison system now and, I imagine, smelling far worse odors than a child’s unbrushed teeth.

Limiting my options

High school science experiments require smelling substances to determine their physical properties. This meant I’d never have a career in the sciences. Doctors on my favorite TV shows smelled the breath, sweat, urine of patients to diagnose ailments. Most disappointing, I could not enter the field of police investigation. I thought I would’ve made an excellent detective. I have keen powers of observation, an eye for details and a penchant for tattling. But without a sense of smell I couldn’t, like TV detectives, track down a murder weapon or dead body as soon as I walked into a room.

My siblings had no problem recognizing smells. They snatched a shirt from the floor and pressed it to their faces to determine if it was wear-worthy. They hovered their noses over the milk carton before deciding whether to dump its contents onto their cereal or down the sink.

Smell was a mystery to me, a superpower, like mind reading or x-ray vision. It bordered on the paranormal, odor molecules pulsing through the air, latching themselves to clothing, drapery and nasal hairs.

Living with no sense of smell

I discovered in my college abnormal psychology class that about five million people in America have no sense of smell. Some lost their ability to smell from a traumatic head injury, exposure to some chemical, cancer treatments or diseases like Alzheimer’s. A few of us just can’t smell and never could. It even has a name: anosmia. So I am anosmic. It sounded cool. I tried it out in the cafeteria.

Me: Are you having fish?

New friend: No, that stuff smells terrible.

Me: I wouldn’t know. I’m ansomic.

New friend: Anosmic? That sounds cool. I wish I were anosmic.

Of course that last part isn’t true. No one ever said that. In fact, they mostly challenged my ability to taste and wondered if I qualify for a handicap placard.

And they pitied me.

“You can’t smell roasting turkey on Thanksgiving? Don’t you miss the fresh pine smell of a Christmas tree?” Like it’s my choice not to smell. Like if they could just convince me what I was missing, I would mend my ways and smell, like everyone else.

One woman told me that her boyfriend came home from Vietnam with a different smell. Something about the experience changed him chemically. She had to break up with him. She never married. She never met anyone else who smelled like that pre-war boyfriend.

“Smell is that important,” she warned me, in case I ever debated getting mine back.

A rich life after all

As a writer, I must understand an odor before describing it. My family still finds it strange when I ask, “What color does this smell like?” or “How does this odor taste?” I feel like a fraud sometimes when I compose a descriptive passage about an odor. Then I remember that Stevie Wonder, blind and anosmic, wrote “Isn’t She Lovely” about his baby daughter, whom he never saw nor smelled. William Wordsworth, also anosmic, wrote poetry praising the fragrance of nature. Beethoven was deaf yet composed brilliant music. He was not anosmic, but he smelled pretty bad (so they say).

So don’t pity me. It’s true I can never own a gas stove. I can buy only fragrance-free toiletries. I never receive candles or perfume on Mother’s Day. But I also never mind changing poopy diapers. I have no problem scooping the litter box. I don’t fall into convulsions when passing a skunk on the highway. And I have never, ever felt the need to humiliate a student who forgot to brush her teeth.

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