This post may include talk of body odor and other unsavory references. Read at your own risk.

From the earliest onset of conscious thought, I have been extremely sensitive to smell.

One of my secret hobbies is olfactory profiling. It works like this: you walk towards someone, and as they pass, you very carefully inhale a bit of their odor/smell/aroma as it wafts in the currents of air the person stirs as he moves. Following several unfortunate experiences where I inhaled too sharply and proceeded to wheeze and choke on the numbing perfume scent or a powerful doze of BO, I am now careful to hold my breath and wait a few seconds before tentatively taking a whiff. Amazing how much intimate detail you can learn about a person just from the way they smell. If you think about the actual process of olfactory perception, you’ll realize that little bits of the other person you’re smelling are actually entering your nostrils and binding with olfactory receptors therein. Now, bits of that person live in you. Sometimes the intimacy is unwanted, and so I hold my breath until the other person is well behind me before inhaling.

The perceptive scent gene comes from my mother, who’s been known to smell things unseen and unknown to the other family members. Often in our home, conversations would go like this:

Mom: I smell something funny. I think there is gas leaking in the garage.
Dad: I don’t smell anything.
Brother: Me neither…
Mom: Only one way to resolve this! Call Anya.
Anya: Yes, it’s definitely a gas leak. But it’s not from the garage..it’s from right here in the stove!

There was also that funny incident that the family got into when I no longer lived with them, where Mom insisted that she smelled a very bad, rotten odor from somewhere in the house, and Dad and Alyosha (brother) insisted that she was hallucinating. Several days later the smell became so pronounced that even the males, with their unsophisticated olfactory apparatuses , could perceive it. Eventually they found the culprit: one of the family cat’s victims. I’ll leave the details to your imagination.

I don’t understand why in some cultures (like the one I live in) body odor is so terribly feared, while irritating, even noxious perfume and cologne smells are perfectly alright. Yes, I can see that inhaling a strong body odor may be unpleasant – I personally see it as too much information, but why then is inhaling an equally strong and disruptive smell like that of bad (read: STRONG) cologne alright? Perhaps because the cologne smell is not personal, not intimate.

Sometimes I also wonder about how I smell. Like, what is it that people perceive in the wake of my passing? Going back to the biological process of smelling, the fact that I don’t smell myself can be easily explained: all of the sensors that match up to my odor particles are constantly saturated, and so no new impulse comes through. The same happens when you’re in a certain place for a while: you no longer smell that fishy odor from the kitchen, the whiff of soggy laundry, the faint attempt of the air freshener to block out various odorous byproducts of human activity.

Good smells are: the smells of my children, each so distinct and familiar, the good smell of cigarettes (like that of wood or paper burning), familiar deodorant smells of family members, on women – light, pastel scents of vanilla or lilac, on men – hints of laundry detergent, old-world staleness, something dry and raspy, like mothballs; old book smells, fluorescence – the smell of sun-dried clothes or of those fluorescent lamps we had to sit under as children who were underexposed to natural sunlight, living in the northern city of St.Petersburg; food smells, chocolate, roast beef, strawberries, freshly cut grass…

Bad smells: bad cigarette smell, powerful armpit smell, strong cologne, perfume, laundry, cleaning detergent smells, closed-room odor, petroleum smells that you can perceive at gas stations and that I often detect in torn plastics or Mardi Gras beads. Worst smell ever: bag cigarettes PLUS strong cologne PLUS stuffy airplane. Makes me nauseous just thinking about it.

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