So I had no idea what to write for my first story in Advanced Fiction, so I just kind of started writing and this was the result.
Cosmetic procedure. The two words jump out at me with their bold-faced lettering. They’re printed at the top of the page, above the name of the doctor and even above the date of the operation. They scream “vanity” to anyone passing by and I find myself cupping my hand over them as I work down the page. The rest of the phrases I’d seen before. Elective surgery. Experimental. The patient is aware of and assumes the risks…
I ask my wife for a pen; the one tucked in the metal clip of the clipboard doesn’t work. Print your name (Last, First, Middle Initial). Address. Phone number. Emergency contact phone number. All the standard fill-in-the-blanks. But “cosmetic procedure” sticks in my head as I check boxes and consciously try to keep my writing legible. I autograph the bottom of the page and finish with the date.
“Cosmetic,” I mutter, capping the pen. “They’re making it sound so frivolous.”
Dr. Branner says the swelling will go down in a week or so. Until then, the success of the operation will remain a mystery. I go in for a check-up. He peers up my left nostril with a lighted wand and tweezers, removing a few stitches that have already come loose and made their way down my upper nasal cavity. The threads are small and translucent, like bee’s stingers.
“Looks good, Michael,” he mutters as he clicks off the light and gives me his old doctor’s smile. “It’s healing already. You can start trying to use the kit in the mornings if you’d like, but I doubt you’ll notice anything for another week or so.”
“Won’t hurt to try,” I say. “Thanks, Doc.” I scoop up my jacket and shake his hand.
I set the kit on the kitchen table and peel the protective film from one of the half-dozen samples still unused. This one’s labeled “vanilla.” The kit is supposed to last me four weeks, but I’ve already used most of the samples, each time a failed attempt. It doesn’t stop me from trying again. I close my eyes as I bring the concentrated scent to my nose. Inhale. Nothing.
The first thing I smell is burnt toast. It doesn’t come from the kit. It comes from our toaster that always cooks the second round of toast substantially darker than the first—the toaster I never catch in the act because I can never smell the burning. Until today. I jump up from the kitchen chair and instead of exhuming the slices from the toaster, I poke my nose as close as I dare to the smoking slots and inhale furiously.
“Lorie!” I shout in between sniffs. “Lorie!”
The smoke alarm goes off and she rushes in, ready to find me fighting a fire that had started without my knowledge. Instead she finds me clutching the toaster, my fingers burning and my eyes brimming with tears from the smoke, but my nose full of something I’d never experienced in all my 30 years.
“I can smell it, Lorie. I can smell it!”
My new sense is selective. Apart from burnt toast, I can only smell cinnamon and car exhaust. Dr. Branner gives me another kit, explaining that I have to train myself how to smell.
“The implant works like a functioning olfactory bulb,” he says, “but you’ve never used the part of your brain that it’s connected to.” He explains that I have to form brand new neural pathways in my head. It sounds like science fiction, but I’m willing to try.
I go home with my kit and lock myself in the bathroom where I can minimize other sensory distractions. I sit on the toilet lid and peel the film from the sample labeled “banana.” I turn off the lights. Inhale. Banana. Banana. The scent is faint and sickeningly sweet. It is wonderful. Grow, neurons, grow.
Food has flavor now, not just taste. Things that were formally frivolous ingredients to me are now the most enjoyable sensations in the world. Butter is no longer simply a filmy coating of fat on my tongue but a warm, rich presence in the back of my throat and in my nasal cavity. I put it on everything. Garlic is no longer the name of an unknown flavor but a fantastic, pungent heaviness that gets even heavier with each chew. Lorie informs me of garlic butter and has to keep me from buying every stick of it at the grocery store.
I can smell Lorie’s hair. I can smell Lorie. I bury my nose in her Pert-conditioned curls as we kiss naked on the side of the bed. I hover over her skin with the very tip of my nose—down her neck and between her breasts. No touching. Just smelling. I smell her stomach. I smell her feet.
“You’re creepy,” she laughs. We make love.
Every food I’ve ever had is different now. It all has depth. Before, my five basic tastes were each experienced on their own, like discrete colors on an artist’s palette. But with smell I have flavor, and with flavor I can blend tastes as much as I want.
Lorie is the same. Sometimes she smells like shampoo. Sometimes she smells like dust. Sometimes both. But most often she smells like her favorite perfume. I love that perfume. I sneak whiffs of it from the bottle when she’s not around.
Cooking, a previously tedious and joyless chore, is now like creating art. I cook something new every night. Some of it tastes good, some of it tastes bad. It all smells wonderful. I try to convince Lorie I can even smell when water’s about to boil. She laughs, but it’s true.
Lorie is late. We weren’t careful. We go to the hospital, not for me this time but for her. She pees in a cup and five minutes later we’re no longer a family of two but a family of three. The first thing I buy is baby powder. I open the container and leave it on the coffee table like an air freshener. Soon there will be a little human I can cover in that fragile smell.
Independence Day. Family and friends barbeque in the backyard. The smoke from the grill stings my eyes and my nose, but not enough for me to leave the accompanying smells of cooking bratwurst and roasted corn on the cob. My previously inept nose is the highlight of the party along with news of the baby. Neighbors congratulate me. Drunk relatives laugh and take turns shoving smelly socks and armpits under my nostrils. Lorie is showered with gifts for the baby.
I laugh and drink, too. Alcohol is no longer just a bitter sting on my tongue but a scent that takes root deep in the pit of my skull. Getting drunk is like burying my face in a pillow that deadens every sense but smell.
Lorie likes to daydream about the baby. We lay in bed under the smell of the cotton sheets and we kid each other about who will have to be in charge of changing dirty diapers now that we both can smell them.
The first storm of the summer. I can smell the rain, though I don’t know it at first. As the clouds build in the south, a clean, sweet fragrance seems to saturate the air. I deconstruct the laundry room looking for an uncapped bottle of detergent or an open box of dryer sheets. I hunt in the kitchen cabinets for some unscrewed jar of spice. Then the rain comes and I understand. I go outside and stand in the chorus of raindrops as they beat their song on our wooden porch. I bathe my body in the rain. I bathe my brain in the scent.
Lorie and I argue. She likes a new perfume that I don’t and she wears it constantly. She tells me she hardly puts any on, but I am overwhelmed by it every time we’re in the same room.
“You’re going to make the baby sick with that crap,” I say.
“Embryos can’t smell,” she replies with a sarcastic roll of her eyes.
“What was so wrong with your old perfume?”
“Nothing,” she says. “I wanted a change, that’s all.”
“I don’t like it.”
“No one asked you. It’s not like I bathe in it. It’s not that strong.”
The argument stops abruptly as I feel a warm trickle of blood run down my upper lip. A nosebleed. I cup my hand beneath my chin until I can locate a tissue.
“Must be the change in the weather,” I say.
Lorie has morning sickness. She stops wearing the new perfume because she says it makes her nauseous. I plan a sarcastic reply but she’s off to the bathroom before I can speak. Instead, I take a walk outside. The house smells like vomit.
We try to stop arguing for the sake of the baby. We want a nursery and have enough money saved up for one. I draw up plans for a remodel of the extra bedroom and we go window shopping for furniture that looks like it will fit. In and out of shop after shop, smells of linen, down-stuffed baby pillows, sterile plastic toys, and fire-retardant rompers bombard me. By mid-afternoon, I am overwhelmed.
I stumble getting off the escalator and Lorie, sensing my exhaustion, suggests we stop for some lunch. The air of the food court is a mix of salt, MSG, and fried everything. I get an innocuous-smelling burrito but don’t get the chance to eat it as I head to the bathroom with a napkin under my suddenly bleeding nose.
We go to a ballgame. Lorie can’t drink and thus misses out on half the fun. I drink too much and the smell of the stadium overwhelms me. We leave after the sixth inning and go to the park instead. Things are much more pleasant there for both of us. We fall asleep beneath a large oak tree and awaken to the sound of fireworks cracking over the baseball stadium. The game is over. We won.
Nosebleeds every day for a week. Sometimes twice a day. I keep telling Lorie it’s the dry weather but she schedules an appointment for me with Dr. Branner without my knowledge.
“I can take care of this myself,” I hiss at her once I find out.
“Maybe it’s something serious,” she replies. “Maybe something’s wrong.”
I turn to head out the door. She smells gross. Vomit and Listerine.
“Get it looked at, Michael!” she yells after me.
I meet Dr. Branner in his office at 9:30 in the morning, more out of fear of my wife than fear of possible complications. He spends a good 20 minutes spelunking the depths of my left nostril with the same lighted instrument as last time. He smells like tuna and I wonder what business a person has smelling like fish before lunchtime.
“Everything seems fine from the outside,” he mutters, switching off the light. “We could get a look at the implant with an x-ray if you wanted to go that way.” He pauses for a beat. “That will be expensive, though, and insurance won’t cover it.”
That’s right, it’s cosmetic.
Dr. Branner rattles off everything we’d talked about the day I agreed to have the surgery. The procedure is experimental. The chance of success is less than 30%. Complications are likely, even four months out. His words fade into a muddled haze. I only really catch the last few of them.
“…think it over with your wife.”
“I will,” I say. “Thanks, Doc.” I leave before the stink of tuna makes me sick.
I get the x-ray. With Lorie’s insistence, I use the money we were saving for the nursery remodel. The hospital form is basically the same. Follow-up for cosmetic procedure. Print your name (Last, First, Middle Initial). Address. Phone number. Emergency contact phone number. Patient is aware of the risks involved…
The bones of my head show up bright white on the backlit x-ray sheet. The intermediate tissue is a muddy gray. The implant, no bigger than a kidney bean, is the same color as the bones. Darker veins of wire are visible through its thin silicone casing.
Dr. Branner colors the implant’s reverse silhouette with a red marker. “A calcified mass has grown above it, here,” he says, taking a green marker and shading the underside of a white bulb above the implant. The green and red touch. “It’s your body’s response to the foreign object. It has likely stopped growing by now, but it’s pushed the implant down into your cribriform plate, causing some of the capillaries there to shear.” The green lines he draws beneath the implant represent this delicate-looking tissue, which bottlenecks in the narrow space between the lower rim of my skull and my nasal cavity.
He sees my worry and quickly assures me that it is not life-threatening. The quickest, safest, and cheapest repair, he says, would be to go in and permanently cauterize the capillaries. That would end the nosebleeds.
I readily agree. “Let’s do it.”
He looks at me with reserved eyes. “These capillaries feed blood to your olfactory receptor cells,” he says. “If we cauterize them, there will be no chemical input going to the implant.”
I look at him dumbly, like he’s just spoken in a language I didn’t understand.
“So…so I won’t be able to smell?”
Dr. Branner shakes his head. “You won’t be able to smell.”
I lay in bed. I am a supine statue. If I don’t move, I don’t bleed. Lorie is curled beside me with one arm tucked beneath her and the other on my chest. She is a statue as well, except for her thumb, which gently glides back and forth over my collar bone. She is further along now and tired, but she doesn’t sleep.
We spend the day in bed awake, just like this. I smell the early autumn wind, hot and full of the decay of leaves, blowing politely through the open window. I smell the asphalt of the road outside cool as the temperature drops. I smell the sun searing the horizon as it bows to the entrance of the moon. I smell the stars burning their way through space. I smell Lorie’s sadness. I smell everything.
I walk carefully to the car, trying not to jar my head. I am no longer like a statue but like a circus performer, balancing dozens of plates on the top of my skull. Lorie guides me to the passenger’s seat, then gets in and starts the car. She is doused in her old perfume and the scent mixes with the faint exhaust fumes.
The car itself hasn’t been cleaned out in months. There are rain-washed umbrellas, sweaty socks, and old, half-folded roadmaps stained with coffee and dust. The floor of the backseat is littered with the leftover debris of my culinary-driven purchases: withered sprigs of coriander, the broken skeletons of dried oregano leaves, the dust of a spilt jar of cinnamon. It all smells. The new neurons I’ve grown get a workout on the three-mile ride to the hospital.
More medical forms. I let Lorie fill them out. I’m afraid to tip my head for fear of bleeding. As she completes the paperwork I shut my eyes and survey the waiting room with my nose. Latex. Flowers. Antiseptic. Humans. Fear.
The procedure will be quick—finished within an hour. Though the cauterization is fairly simple, I’ll be put under so they can reach the capillaries at the top of my nasal cavity. I have to get into a hospital gown. I stand and hold my head as still as possible as Lorie removes my street clothes and redresses me in the pale blue gown. Her hands are shaking. Her eyes avoid mine.
I lower into a wheelchair and a nurse pushes me down the hall toward the operating room. Lorie is to my side, her hand on my shoulder. I reach up and clutch her fingers. Before we are separated I ask the nurse to stop for a moment. I beckon Lorie towards me. Still seated, I loop my arms around her waist, pulling her tight, pressing my face into the field of blue flowers on her dress. She isn’t showing yet but her abdomen is soft, protecting the life that can’t yet be seen from the outside. I feel her nails digging gently into my back. I press my fingertips into her.
I inhale, holding her tighter. I bury my nose as deep as I can. I push past the light smell of the fabric softener on her dress. I push past the residue of soap on her skin, past the smell of Lorie herself, tucked away in the deepest levels of her tissues. I want to get to the life inside. I want to smell the child that is part of both of us, even if I can only end up imagining the fragrance of such a small, significant creature.
I find it. I hold myself there as long as I can with that faintest of faint scents burning itself into my memory, pausing in the moment as our family of three becomes a unit, waiting for the nurse to nervously clear her throat and tell me that it’s time.
(copyright 2013 Claudia Mahler)
Losing your sense of smell != losing your sense of taste. There’s a reason scientists/biologists have classified smell and taste as two different senses.
TASTE is what our taste buds give us. It refers to the five basic receptors in the mouth: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. You could rip out our olfactory bulbs and we’d still “taste” food. Taste is physically different than smell. It is the result of our tongues receiving chemical information, and we can basically get five pieces of information (the five tastes) about food from taste.
FLAVOR is everything else: it is the combination of every other sensory input that we experience when consuming food. Visual appearance, atmosphere, lighting, sound, music, texture, mouth-feel—and smell. Smell is obviously the big one here. While it too is chemical, smells can give us vastly more information about food than taste can, especially when combined with other environmental factors (sound, texture, and whatnot) and the fact that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory.
So while anosmics can most certainly taste food (or much of it, at least; garlic does absolutely nothing for me and onions are crunchy and nothing else), they miss out on the huge flavor component that smell provides.
Now that I think about it, I might guess that that’s the reason why a lot of acquired anosmics tend to claim that they’ve lost their sense of taste entirely as well—because they’re so used to experiencing food WITH that added flavor component from smell, once they lose that they’re reduced to just “tasting” food, which is likely exceedingly bland in comparison. Whereas the congenital anosmic—like me—has never experienced the extra flavor from smell and thus doesn’t “know” of the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences that smell can create. Therefore, for them, most foods are still very distinguishable from one another.
The next article I read that says “anosmics can’t tell the difference between a raw potato and an apple,” I’mma start stabbing fellows.
“Sensonics, Inc. provides the medical, scientific and industrial communities with the best smell and taste tests for assessing chemosensory function.”
I’d love to try their Sniff Magnitude Test to see if anything’s actually registering and I just can’t tell, but there’s no way I can drop $6,000 on…well, anything right now, haha. I’d also like to see what the TR-06 Rion Electrogustometer is all about. I know my nose is shot…how screwy is my taste?
From the site: “The Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation is dedicated to advancing research and knowledge on the effects of smell and taste on human emotion, mood, behavior and disease states.”
Just have a look around, especially at their research studies. Pretty cool stuff.
I wish I could smell, man. That’s another reason why I want to try out the 23andMe DNA thingy…they have an odor detection test of which I’d like to see my results. I’d just like to know at what level my sense is missing. Genetic issue? Brain structure issue? Olfactory bulb issues? “Olfactory bulb to brain” link issue? Something else?
Ah, the mysteries of life!
Maybe I’m meant to work at a dump or a skunk breeding farm or something.
Woah, hey, guess what?
Apparently Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s fame has no sense of smell.
I was unaware of this.
According to the article (forgive me for not referencing it with a link; I copied the text into a Word document but didn’t bookmark the page and now can’t find it in the vastness of the Tubes), “when the company began back in 1978, Jerry would make a flavor and see if it tasted good enough for Ben to notice. Ben also relies heavily on his sense of touch to enjoy food. That is why Ben & Jerry’s is well known for its distinctly chunky ice cream. The chunks of fruit and candy mixed in with the creamy ice cream is designed to provide an enjoyable sensation in your mouth even if you have trouble tasting it.”
Haha, that’s funny…I’ve always liked Ben & Jerry’s best because their ice cream is full of thingies.
So I went to the rec center late this evening, walked to WinCo for broccoli and lettuce, and got home finally around 11:30 or so (I take forever in the grocery store, I have issues). I go around back ‘cause my dad’s gone and the front door is always locked. Not expecting any creatures in the backyard, I turn the corner and surprise! Five skunks just chilling on the concrete. I must have startled them, ‘cause they all turned sharply and stuck their tails in the air like they were ready to spray. Not wanting to deal with the hilarity that would be me getting sprayed by skunks, I very slowly backed away until I was back around the corner from them. Since I couldn’t get in the front door, I picked up a chunk of bark and tossed it in their general direction, hoping to scare them away from the back door long enough for me to get inside.
It worked. And now all is well.
I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I got sprayed by a skunk. The scent does nothing to me, even in such close contact (our idiot dog got sprayed a few years back and I had to clean her), so I’d have to find a neighbor or some kind soul willing to odor test me to make sure I could get all the stink off.
Very glad that didn’t happen, haha.
Smell has long been explained by the “lock and key” hypothesis, which holds that we smell when odor molecules—each with a particular shape—“lock” into matching smell receptors in the nose. What’s the problem with this hypothesis? The fact that there are only a few hundred of these receptors in the human nose, yet humans are able to detect thousands and thousands of different odors.
So how exactly do we smell, then?
Researchers at MIT are looking now at the role vibration plays in our ability to sniff stuff out. They believe that the reason certain odor molecules can have similar structures (like vodka and rotten egg odors, apparently), they have radically different vibration properties, which may be the key to our being able to differentiate between so many different odors with so few receptors.
The MIT scientists performed experiments with fruit flies in which the flies were placed into a maze into which two nearly identical odor molecules were pumped. Despite the molecular similarities, the flies showed preference to one odor over the other, indicating that they could tell a difference between the odors—a difference the scientists say is due to different vibration patterns.
While this study doesn’t apply to humans necessarily (obviously), the scientists are looking to extend its results to tests with mammals.
Because I’m me, I wonder how figuring out how smell really works would play into treatment for anosmia and parosmia. If at all. You never know, biology is weird.
So apparently neurobiologists have genetically altered mice to smell light (MICE CAN SMELL PHOTONS NOW BUT I’M STILL STUCK WITH NOTHING, WTF?) with the goal to better understand how olfaction really works.
The reasoning behind this is that, while odors are obviously the best means by which to study olfaction, the odors themselves are so complex that we’re usually left with more problems than answers. Light, on the other hand, makes things easier.
So these scientists “made the nose act as a retina” in order to better characterize the patterns of activation within the brains of the rodents.
What did they find out?
First off, they found out that the structural patterns of olfactory activation in the brain does not on its own describe exactly how olfaction works.
Second, apparently the timing of the “sniff” plays an important role in how odors are perceived. Weird.
Anyway. Because I’m biased I do a disproportionate number of TWSBs on smell. And solar flares.
Today’s song: Circus by Britney Spears
Social science counts for these, but only sometimes.
I found this study today in which they concluded that extraverts have higher activity in their brains when smelling pleasant odors than those who do not self-report being extraverts.
Positron emission tomography (PET) was used to get images of participants’ brains (particularly the regional cerebral blood flow, or rCBF) as they were exposed to pleasant and unpleasant olfactory stimuli. Following this, participants completed the NEO Five-Factor Inventory, the results of which the researchers examined to see which participants were self-reported extraverts and which were not. The goal of the study was to see if there was an association between extraversion and rCBF, mainly because many psychologists feel that extraversion as it is currently defined is not the best way to describe exactly what it entails, as previous studies have shown that it more fundamentally represents a trait related to a bio-behavioral approach system that controls motivation.
So the study showed what they were looking for—higher extraversion scores were associated with greater activation in the amygdale and occipital cortex when exposed to pleasant odors. The authors also stated that the difference between how extraverts and introverts respond to such stimuli may also suggest that depression may be associated with decreased activation in certain parts of the brain (like the amygdale) when exposed to certain stimuli, since extraversion is negatively correlated with depression and other depressive disorders (I find this connection a bit fuzzy, but okay, sure).
And, you know, self-reported scores are always a little bit iffy, but whatev. I thought it was an interesting study.
Today’s song: Heather (Radio Edit) by Samin
One of the problems with not having a sense of smell is not being able to tell when perishable things go bad. If it’s not moldy or showing some other visible sign of expiration, I can’t tell, especially with dairy products.
This was proven today when I poured a glass of milk that was very disgustingly chunky. Turns out its “use by” date was May 9th. I used it last night (before it decided to go chunky) and it tasted just fine to me. And the feta I put on my pasta? Yeah, that expired back in April.
Someone needs to go to the store tomorrow.
And yeah, I know, I know, check the expiry labels. I’m a slacker, what do you want?
Also, more hilarity from 5 Second Films, ‘cause I didn’t catch all the freaking hilarious ones the first time:
- http://5secondfilms.com/watch/the_fire_island_players_present_5_second_films_ed_wood_2007 (because of the last one, holy crap)
Today’s song: Your Love is My Drug by Ke$ha (I don’t care how trashy she is, this song is pretty great)