Sniff Anything

by Elizabeth McGinn on April 22, 2021

Creative Non-Fiction

perfume bottle
Photo courtesy of

by Fiona ’23

The next time someone asks me what I do for fun, I’m going to say that I keep an olfactory scrapbook. My hope is to put an end to that line of questioning right then and there, and slink away in a cloud of enigma, but in the event that my dogged interrogator pursues the line of questioning, I’ll explain that in the same way some people collect stamps, I collect smells. I think that’ll be sufficient to end the conversation. Nobody likes a sniffer. 

We’re all sniffers, though. We all keep olfactory scrapbooks. There’s actually a name for the way that smells evoke memories—it’s called the Proust phenomenon, after French author Marcel Proust and his madeleines. In layman’s terms, the phenomenon could loosely be explained thus: if the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, the way to a man’s memory is through his nose. So I’m not crazy; my nose has just caught the whiffs of literary giants. Think about it: you smell lavender, and you think Grandma and her lavender perfume. I smell lavender, and I think a doll named Samantha, and then I’m ricocheted back to 2008, when I had bangs and was firmly convinced that I was going to meet an untimely end at the hands of gorillas. (If some psychoanalyst is reading this and has any idea why my worst fear is the common or garden gorilla, I’d love to have a chat. I am a twenty-year-old American woman, and if I have ever met a gorilla in person, I have completely repressed that memory.)

I like thinking about this. I like to think that someday I’ll run into someone wearing a particular sort of cologne, and then all of a sudden, I’ll have a picture in my head of my mom in a black dress putting on that same cologne, with my dad suited and tied and twiddling his thumbs by the door. I like to think that if someone were able to bottle up the smell of the hallway in my dorm and gave it to me in twenty years, I’d immediately recognize that strange cocktail of bleach, marijuana, cigarette smoke, floral air fresheners that smell like no flowers God ever made, and the indescribable pong of Old Building. It’s not bad, exactly, but it wouldn’t sell as a Yankee Candle. Well, maybe it would. Yankee Candles sells a “Mango Peach Salsa” candle, so who knows? Maybe “Aquinas Aroma” wouldn’t do so badly after all. 

Lest I look too much on the upside, let’s turn to the obvious downside to the Proust phenomenon. Life doesn’t all smell like roses and vanilla extract. It also smells like 36 inexplicably pungent ounces of weak gas station coffee, spilled on the back seat of a 12-seater van already drenched in its signature scent. It smells like four kids’ sweat-soaked soccer jerseys. It smells like Michigan farmland. It smells like paint in a room without windows or doors. The “Aquinas Aroma” isn’t so fun to be steeped in day in and day out, and I don’t like to think that I may never be able to smell plain old cigarette smoke without twinging recollections of an old friend’s nicotine habit. But if I can think of my sister at the age of five every time that I unwrap a cherry cough drop, I think that’s worth the trade-in. So I’m going to go get a lungful of something.