sensory sensuality: a late bloomer's take on scents and falling in love

Writer Ashley Reese could never explain the power of fragrance until she fell in love.

In the sixth book of the Harry Potter series we’re introduced to a powerful love potion called Amortentia. With one whiff of the pearly elixir, you’re immediately overpowered by the scents that you’re fond of, including scents that remind you of your one true love. It made for juicy subplot progression – oooh, I wonder who reminds Hermione of freshly cut grass – but when I was a teenager reading all of this, I was immediately skeptical. Whether in literature, music, or mediocre fan fiction, I was and still am regularly inundated with vivid descriptions of friends or lovers or friends one wishes was a lover smelling like this and that, arousing the senses and inspiring Shakespearian-lite sonnets. Do people really smell like old books and lilacs? What does green apple shampoo even smell like? Who really smells like ink? Honestly, I really want to know who smells like ink in the kind of charming, studious way that I think I’m supposed to associate with someone who smells like ink. Do I really know what my crush smells like when I don’t even know what I smell like 90 percent of the time?

In reality, none of us really remember the way a mouth tasted, the imemorable tang smoke or onions. People taste like salt, not strawberries; they usually smell like distant shower gel, sweat, deodorant, a faded fragrance that’s hard to pinpoint. I have no trouble conceding the fact that smell has a strong impact on us; we all know that a smell has the ability to transport us back to some unmemorable park we went to one time as a kid. A warm perfume reminds me of my godmother’s house, old cigarettes of my late uncle’s bear hug and his alligator shoes. The power of scent isn’t a secret, and science explains its magic: The olfactory bulb processes smells to the brain. It also happens to be directly linked to the amygdala and the hippocampus which, according to Psychology Today, are “strongly implicated in emotion and memory.”  It was the language I struggled with: the purple prose didn’t feel romantic or relatable, but rather nonsense – describing a world where everyone smelled of a specific flower or hip baking spice. Did people really navigate the world of love that way?

Let the record show that at the height of my jadedness, I had subzero experience with romance. I spent the entirety of my teens and half of my early 20s as a virgin who had never been kissed. In high school, I thought boys were cute, but never got physically close enough to admire the stench of teen boy mixed with minimal deodorant – or just as often, an overdose of “fresh” smelling entry-level cologne. In college, men remained a mystery, but one I was largely uninterested thanks to the traumatic rigors of academia. Then I moved to New York City, realized that I maybe kinda-sort-of wanted to at least feel the occasional touch of another human, and finally felt the call to the wild world of 21st century dating. Almost immediately, the power of scent became a spectre in my foray into romance; a friend of mine suggested I use pheromone perfume to lure men my way. She swore by it! Was this black magic, like  Amortentia IRL? A love potion of my own? I never took her up on that offer – quietly sneering at the idea because it felt artificial.

It wasn’t until I was 23-years-old that I had my first kiss with a stranger in a grimy Lower East Side bar while early-aughts bangers blasted in the background. Looking back on it now, I know exactly what he smelled like: Leather. Good leather from his thick, black leather jacket fitting impeccably on his broad shoulders. That’s one of the few things that resonated with me, as his name is totally lost to me now and only exists somewhere deep in my text message archives.

And then I fell in love. Don’t worry, I’m not a convert to the school of eloquent descriptions of a lover’s smell. Those who can point out the notes in a fragrance – the notes of anise, of sandalwood, of myrrh, or even more mystically, dry grass on a hot day, damp pavement, subdued wasabi – will always impress me. Their ease of deciphering seven different scents with a simple spritz of perfume is either science or witchcraft or a killer combination of the two, but even as a writer, that kind of language just doesn’t come to me naturally. I’m not sure the average person can wax poetic about subtleties in scent and aromas, picking them apart is a skill in itself, but what I’ve come to realize is that we don’t need to describe a scent for it to be significant.

I’ve been with my boyfriend now for nearly two years. Even living together I am unable to describe the way he smells. I mean, he smells like his deodorant and occasionally like the fancy aftershave he sometimes uses. If there are light notes of cardamon or pine trees, I wouldn’t know it because what’s important is the way his faintly soapy smell makes me feel: comfortable, safe.  For example, there’s his soap. I swear, he alone is keeping the bar soap industry afloat with his bulk online purchases of a needlessly gendered soap for men. I revel in the simple scent of it when he emerges from the shower, a skinny thing covered with not one, but two towels. I’m not sure what scent it was meant to have – is man soap smell like rugged evergreen, craft beer, a moustache? – but it was the kind of manufactured, generic clean that I’m sure a scientist concocted as a universally inoffensive fragrance. Maybe it’s because the smell reminds me of what my boyfriend looks like when he’s naked, but it touches a deep primal part of my lizard brain that knows that nothing will get me while I’m with him. It means I’m home.

Before starting this piece, I asked my boyfriend what I smell like, if there was a scent he associated with me. The moment confirmed that he, just like most of us mere mortals, was unable to accurately describe me the way one might describe a scented candle. But then, he bent his head down and smelled my hair, taking in the scent of the mélange of hair products that I use on my afro on a given day.

He just smiled, a little dazed, a little in love.

“That’s what you smell like.”

The look on his face told me everything I needed to know. It was all that mattered.

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