Scented evocations

This morning I committed the cardinal lupie sin of sitting for two hours without moving much. So, as my Access database was being a little asshole and decided to freeze up rather than export my data, I decided to stumble downstairs to the bathroom, which is inside the university administrators’ suite. One of them occasionally uses a lot of hairspray – sometimes when you go into the restroom, which is pretty small, it just reeks of that chemical smell.

I guess today she decided to do her hair in her office, because the whole hallway reeked of it. I can’t move too quickly when my joints are pissed off, so I was trudging my way down the hall, and suddenly, it was 1992. I guess the administrator in question switched hairspray brands to whatever the other girls in my junior high school were using in the early 90s. I don’t know what the early 90s were like elsewhere, but in rural Ohio, big crunchy bangs were still very much in vogue. I did not have bangs, or use hairspray. But I remember going into the girls’ rooms in the big ugly building that housed 7th and 8th graders and smelling that particular hairspray. It just lingered. So now, in my brain, that’s what the early 90s smell like.

The mid-90s smell like incense and burning candles. Had one of my first “oh shit I like girls” moments over a few lit candles somewhere circa 1996. Not that that’s a bad thing, but at the time, I had to keep my burgeoning bisexuality hidden from my mother. She was hyper-vigilant for anything “abnormal,” so even my candle usage became suspect. Apparently I was doing some sort of pagan rituals in my room. Like most teenage girls in the mid-90s, I read about Wicca and really really loved The Craft for about 5 minutes. Buuuut as far as making sacrifices to Satan or summoning the pagan gods or communing with Sauron, I was completely innocent.

I will say there’s a certain candle scent that brings back vivid memories of a certain night spend listening to Enigma’s Le Roi et Mort, Vive Le Roi in a friend’s bedroom. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, running our fingers through the candle flame. I even remember what we talked about.

I came here to say something about how scent triggers the most vivid memories for me. Are others like that?* Seeing something or hearing something can bring back dream-like memories, or pieces of things, or evoke general feelings. But one whiff of that particular hairspray this morning, and I recalled with perfectly clarity what the girls’ room on the second floor of the building that I went to junior high in looked like. I recalled with perfect clarity the face of the girl who had the biggest, crunchiest bangs that all the other girls aspired to be like. I even remembered her name, and not only were we never friends, but I haven’t seen or thought about her since 1994.

Upon emerging from junior high with the raging hormones typical of fourteen year olds, I was forced to go to the Catholic high school, which always smelled like floor wax and preached a lot about suppressing things. I opted against suppression. I had a vivid flashback to the hallways of my high school in the fall when they waxed the floors before orientation weekend. I remembered the institutional green walls – they were that mint green that was so popular in the mid-20th century, that always evoked the feeling of a psych ward to me. Or maybe that’s just because that’s how high school felt – like I was locked up with a bunch of weirdos and psychos, run by a bunch of quacks who wanted to instill in me a sense of shame for who I was becoming.

Luckily it didn’t work on me, but a lot of people I went to high school with still roam those mint green hallways…literally (several now teach there) and metaphorically (many are still very, very Catholic and hyper-vigilant for anything “abnormal”). And I think those sorts of metaphorical hallways have contributed to the state of the States these days.


*Because I’m a nerd, I looked it up and yep…there’s a 2004 study that indicates that scent does evoke more intense memories than other senses. Click here to read it, if you don’t mind wading through a very academic article. (If you want the Cliff’s Notes version, go to page 377, second column, the paragraph that begins, “Our results provide strong support…” That will give you a neat summary of the study.)


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