Nicia has read about people who taste sounds as an impression of flavor upon their tongue. She has read, also, about people for whom number and letters are represented, in the mind, by a specific color, and about people who feel music as though it’s physically touching their body. Nicia feels kinship with these people, though she’s never heard of anyone who shares her form of perception.
For Nicia, every person has a specific smell, whether Nicia is thinking about them or seeing them or just hearing their voice. For some, the smell is strong enough that she can taste it. Her mother, for example, is represented by a strong vanilla. This is her base flavor, the one that’s always present no matter what Nicia perceives her as feeling. It shifts slightly, with her emotions: sometimes it’s the warmth of a vanilla candle burning in a cozy room, sometimes it’s the cool taste of vanilla ice cream, and sometimes, it’s the bitter, regretful taste of vanilla licked from a spoon.
Nicia’s father smells in a pleasant way, like woodsmoke. Her brother smells like pine, and her sister, the hot, sweet smell of strawberry jam being freshly made on the stove. They’ve all had the same tastes for as long as Nicia has known them. She hadn’t known what her brother’s smell was, when she’d been young. Pine trees didn’t grow around their home. It wasn’t until late in elementary school, when she smelled candle at a store, that she could label his scent.
She remembers the way he looked at her, when she held the candle out and said, “This is your scent.” His face had scrunched up, his head tilted to one side. The candle hadn’t smelled as full and pure as him, but it had smelled like a representation of something similar. She hadn’t expected him to react so poorly.
Later, she realized that most people didn’t smell others as she did. To others, people just smelled like skin and sweat, or whatever scents they happened to layer upon their bodies that day. Nicia hates when people wore cologne or strong deodorant, because it almost never combined well with the scent she perceived from them.
Nicia doesn’t smell anything from herself. She used to look in the mirror, wondering what her smell might be: Orange? Peony? Lavender? She couldn’t know. She wished, in her teens, that she could meet someone who shared her perception, so that they could tell her what she smelled like. She wonders, now, if their description would even be accurate. If there was someone else for whom people had smells, would they even be the same smells Nicia perceives? She doesn’t know.
Evan smelled like fire. It wasn’t the pleasant, calming woodsmoke smell of Nicia’s father, which made her think of fall and of roasting marshmallows and warm, comfortable clothes. It was a hot, burning scent that made Nicia wriggle her nose in an attempt to scratch it. It was oddly undefined, which intrigued Nicia. She couldn’t identify what sort of material, burning, would produce the scent. It was like the smell of pure flame.
Nicia didn’t like the smell, not really, but the mystery of it drew her toward Evan. Normally, she avoided people who had smells she didn’t like, like her sixth-grade teacher, who had smelled like mildew, or one of the boys in high school that had repeatedly asked her out, who had smelled like stale urine. Evan’s smell wasn’t nearly so offensive, most of the time. It just wasn’t good or wholesome, in the way of her family’s smells.
She spent a lot of time around Evan, over the course of a summer, trying to get a better sense of his aroma. Sometimes it was weak and barely perceptible. She had to strain and focus in order to catch a whiff of it. Other times, it was overpowering in an almost frightening way. It overrode the smells of everyone else around her. Nicia felt like she was trapped in a burning building, with the walls and floor not only aflame, but made of flame — there was no solid matter beneath her feet.
In those times she caught a hint of what might have been burning. Sometimes it smells like meat or hair, burned to a crisp in a hot oven. Other times it smelled, perhaps, like molten rock or steel. She hadn’t smelled those things, but that scent brought images of lava and orange-white steel being poured from one vat into another.
She got caught up in that powerful scent, lost as surely as if she were wandering directionless in a burning forest. When his scent came up in a wave like that, she found that she couldn’t smell other people for hours thereafter. She viewed this, at first, as a curiosity; then, as a concern; and finally, as something to hate.
Nicia loved knowing others by their smell. She wanted to be able to walk through a crowd and see and smell and taste everyone in it, in such a wild variety that a simple day at the mall was, to Nicia, as brilliantly overwhelming as a journey through a grand, open-air bazaar full of spices and food and scented oils.
Evan took that from her. She knew he didn’t mean to. She knew he wasn’t even aware of the fact that he did it. It didn’t matter, because she wasn’t willing to give up what she lost because of his presence. She left him behind her.