a phenomenology of parosmia

“I mean, if you are going to lose any one of your senses, it’s totally smell,” a friend reasoned. “Absolutely,” I agreed. And yet.

Over the past twelve months, I have become an accidental advocate for the least-favored sense. It’s really not so much that I have lost my sense of smell, but rather that everything smells different.

Like so many who had COVID-19, I remember the precise moment when I realized that I could not smell. I had left New York City in mid-March, before the official shutdown, and had been quarantining in Vermont with two close friends and my boyfriend, D. I was hoping to head to my dad’s farm in northern New Hampshire, once we could confidently deem ourselves COVID 19-free. D and I had recently gotten over a bought of stuffy noses and utterly debilitating body aches, but, thank goodness, no fever or cough (this was early days when the latter two symptoms were thought to be required for a COVID-19 diagnosis). It was D’s birthday and, as we were feeling a bit better, I was cooking an elaborate dinner. I had mushrooms sauteing, onions caramelizing, a cake baking, and two steaks sizzling in cast irons.

“Oh wow. It smells amazing,” my friend proclaimed as she walked into the kitchen. I can still feel the surge of panic as I inhaled deeply and smelled nothing — nothing distinct and nothing faint, just nothing. I turned to D who was chopping herbs beside me. “I smell nothing,” I confessed. He stuck his nose up and sniffed the air around him and then bent down to sniff the herbs. “My neither,” he said.

I also could not taste anything. That night, I could tell that the steak was salty and the cake was sweet and that was it. For the first time in my life, eating felt like work with little reward. All of that chewing and swallowing yielded no flavor. Even texture failed to satisfy — it did not matter that the mushrooms were perfectly done, crispy on the outside and pillowy on the inside, without the complexity of umami.

Two days later, a COVID-19 test confirmed our suspicions. Well, actually, two days later I drove ninety minutes to an urgent care center in a converted Pizza Hut and selfishly asked for one of Vermont’s then-scarce PCR tests. Seven days later, I got my results and embarrassingly became one of the state’s five hundred or so confirmed cases. Antibody tests eventually revealed that our quarantine pod had been more of a chickenpox party, but thankfully we all emerged unscathed. Except, of course, for this smell thing.

I went about six weeks without any sense of smell and a very muted sense of taste. During this time, I subsisted largely on salty chocolate chip cookies and somehow lost a fair amount of weight (don’t worry, I gained it all back). Slowly, I started smelling something or, really, one thing.

It is a smell that I had never previously smelled and so I don’t know how to describe it. It’s a little sour, a little sweet. I don’t want to say earthy because it lacks a certain depth. Maybe it is more herbaceous? It’s can be sharp, like plants in arid climates. But it smells like it comes from the earth. Or at least from a natural foods store. Sometimes I liken it to burning trash, a smell I have always low-key liked. Or rancid chicken broth, if that were a pleasant smell. At first, it felt foreign, like the scent of stale clothes when you have been living out of a suitcase for too long. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from and would try to root it out. But, gradually, I have learned that some version of it is everywhere and it has become familiar in its unfamiliarness.

“Everything smells like the puppy” was the way that I described it for a while. (After we recovered, we did the pandemic puppy thing.) But then it occurred to me that the smell I associated with the puppy was probably not the smell that most people associated with puppies. It was not even the smell that I had once associated with puppies. Instead, all of the things that smelled — compost, bleach, coffee, sweat, cleaning sprays, all kinds of poop, and the puppy — shared one smell. So, it’s not that bleach smells like puppies or the puppy smells like poop (or, maybe she does), but that all of these things have strong odors.

Indeed, my altered sense of smell has called into question the existence of universally-agreed upon smells. I tried to explain emotional toll of no longer experiencing comforting smells to my cousin. “So you can’t smell baking bread?” she asked. “But what is the smell of baking bread?” I replied. I knew that we probably meant the same thing, but maybe my baking bread had always been different from her baking bread.

I guess I had thought of smell as something essential, located within the object itself and happened upon by a person. I had never given much thought to the subjective experience of smell. I knew that smells could be more or less agreeable to different people (think gasoline), but I didn’t think that agreeableness could change the nature of the smell itself. Gasoline was Gasoline. Some people liked it, some people didn’t. But now that gasoline is no longer Gasoline for me, I have to wonder if Gasoline ever existed. Moreover, it has finally dawned on me that, when some people find gasoline agreeable and some people don’t, perhaps they are smelling different things.

I’ve broken up with people because I didn’t like the way that they smelled. Especially so often, and so intimate. I attributed it to pheromones — that’s supposed to be a real thing, isn’t it? But maybe such an issue was not immutable but entirely imaginary (what!). Maybe they would smell fantastic now and we should be dating (not really).

The loss of my own scent has been a bit alienating. I used to think that I knew eau de moi. It was a combination of my body odor, which I thought was somewhat distinctive, and the way my mom’s house smells. I could have picked my clothes out of a smell lineup. And not even super dirty clothes — if I had worn a t-shirt just once, or if it had merely sat in a drawer with my other clothes, I bet I could have identified that t-shirt on smell alone. I am gradually learning my new smell, but it bears no relation to the smell I have associated with myself for my entire scent-ient life. Perhaps most importantly, I am learning when I smell (or at least trying). And, not to let myself off the hook or anything, but I do wonder what it means that we have so internalized discomfort and disgust at the scent of our own body odor. I used to shower, put on deodorant, change, etc. because I did not like the way that I smelled. However, now that my rankest funk conjures no reflexive response, I realize how much the decision to shower, put on deodorant, change, etc. is also for benefit of those around me and how I think society wants me to smell. While I wouldn’t give a second thought to running up the subway stairs to meet a friend and loudly proclaiming that I am schvitzy, smelly mess, I feel intensely vulnerable at the thought that I may not know when I am schvitzy, smelly mess and a friend will have to proclaim this to me.

It is fair, however, to say that bad smells tend to signal bad things and that serves some evolutionary purpose. I have long railed against tossing food preemptively, claiming that all you need to do is give those leftovers a good smell test. Sadly, this no longer works for me. I can think of only one really bad experience over the past year. Having grown far too many cucumbers, I had made far too much (delicious) cucumber soup and had forgotten to freeze it. The soup was so delicious that I thought I would try to eat the leftovers long after this was a good idea. I took a whiff and, of course, nothing. I made myself a bowl and took a big bite.

Unlike popular depictions of people reflexively spitting out revolting food, it took a minute. I knew it wasn’t right, but I wasn’t sure if that made it bad. The soup, which had no watercress or fennel, tasted strongly of those things. It was very sour. And then I started to taste the smell. I poured the soup out, thinking that I had avoided the worst of it. My stomach was a bit unhappy, but the worst of it, by far, was that everything started to taste and smell like the spoiled cucumber soup. Or at least anything with a strong taste or smell. For example, I had been eating gummy vitamins to boost my immune system (even though I am 100% certain that science does not support this). The gummy vitamins started to taste, powerfully, like the soup. My mint bodywash, which had smelled like nothing post-COIVD 19, started to smell like the soup. For days and even weeks, my decision to eat that soup haunted me and, moreover, spoiled cucumber soup became part of my pantheon of strong smells, an enduring point of reference for all other smells.

The puppy has likely been the greatest test of my ability to protect others — and myself — without the aid of smell. I ended up spending a better part of the summer and fall at my dad’s farm, including the week in which the hay fields were fertilized. Every day and throughout the day, a tanker truck from a local dairy farm would come rattling down the road, drive onto the fields encircling the house, and then just start spraying liquid manure. I knew it smelled because I could smell the smell. The first night, I even closed my windows because the smell hung in the air — and, as has become the theme of the past year, though I couldn’t smell the manure, as manure, I was conscious of not wanting to smell like a bad thing. The second night, the smell was even thicker. I turned on a fan. It wasn’t until there were puddles of manure everywhere that I observed how much the puppy, whose bed was right next to my own, loved rolling in these puddles. The physical traces of manure would disappear as she ran through fields and streams, but she was undoubtedly infused with manure.

Then there was the porcupine. My dad had a hip replacement in August and, on the day before his operation, he triumphantly shot and killed the porcupine that had piqued his dog’s curiosity — and her nose — on repeated occasions. When I asked him what he did with it, he gestured vaguely. (“That’s why you always need a hole,” a wise vet later told me.) Sure enough, the puppy emerged from the woods a week later with quills on the side of her face. I was able to pull them out, but was not able to find the porcupine. A couple of days later, she emerged covered in quills, having clearly rolled all over that dead porcupine. I frantically drove to the first vet who would see us, nearly an hour away, and realized that the car was full of the smell. It didn’t smell like what I used to know as dead animal, but was just a more complex, sulfurous version of the smell. When we got to the vet, I handed the puppy off. “I’m so sorry,” I said, “I think she smells really bad.” I was apologizing for her stench, but also, as has become familiar, for not knowing that something smells and for not taking some kind of corrective action.

Part of the puppy’s recovery regime included anti-inflammatory medication. These pills did not agree with her stomach. She was up for most of the night, as was I. However, the next morning, I woke up to evidence, under the bed and as close to my sleeping head as possible, that she had tried, unsuccessfully, to rouse me one last time. Based on D’s reaction (his smell eventually returned), it did not smell good. But I cleaned up the mess without a grimace or a gag.

The fact that I don’t smell bad things, or at least not the way that I used to, makes me genuinely ambivalent about my altered olfaction. New York City sidewalk piled with trash on a hot, humid, windless day? No big deal. Low tide? Whatever. In clinical terms, I’ve self-diagnosed my condition as a combination of hyposmia (diminished smell) and dysosmia (distorted smell). One form of dysosmia, parosmia (distorted smell, often accompanied by unpleasant smells) has been making headlines, particularly in the United Kingdom. And while much of what people with parosmia describe sounds very familiar (struggling to describe the smell “because it’s unlike anything they’ve encountered before” or bad smells sticking around “for an unusually long time”), I cannot claim that “everything smells like rotten egg, rancid fish, and sewage” or that “everything tastes like fresh blood.” Though, as with all things COVID-19, the experience of parosmia seems to vary greatly from person to person.

I’ve had moments of thinking that I should take my condition more seriously, or at least try to understand the phenomenon of which I am a part. In an ideal world, this essay would include some authoritative quotes from a neuroscientist or a rhinologist. I know that there are a lot of us; an estimated 5% to 15% of those who recover from COVID-19 have “olfactory disfunction” after six months. I learned that my experience of taste is fairly consistent with the science. SARS-CoV-2 leaves our taste buds — which are responsible for sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami — relatively intact. However, much of what we experience as taste is, neurologically speaking, actually within the domain of smell, specifically retronasal olfaction (smell arising via the mouth) and, to some extent, orthonasal olfaction (smell arising via the nose). I learned that my experience of poop (or, fecal odors) as smelling not entirely terrible and somewhat nice is common. I followed the initial debate on whether SARS-CoV-2 attacks the olfactory neurons themselves or the cells that support the neurons. Growing evidence points to the latter, which is promising because these cells regenerate faster than damaged olfactory neurons. Parosmia itself is thought to be an indicator of olfactory recovery — that quantitative recovery of smell precedes qualitative recovery. However, much remains unknown about the precise mechanisms through which SARS-CoV-2 messes with the olfactory epithelium and, consequently, what that means for recovery. Beyond the molecular and neurological, research is beginning to look at the psychological impact of widespread olfactory disfunction. A (non-peer reviewed) analysis of comments on a popular Facebook support group found that people commonly reported feeling sad, scared, anxious, isolated, and depressed.

In December, I signed up for an alumni association webinar with an inscrutable title: “Fragrance: An Invisible Art in a Digital World.” I had never signed up for an alumni association webinar before and will likely never do it again, but I reasoned that people who have dedicated their careers to scent could have some interesting things to say about the emotional experience of smell and its loss. I could not imagine that there were enough people in the world, let alone graduates from one university, who were interested in the topic absent some kind of COVID-19 connection. But I clearly underestimated the fragrance industry (a $40 billion industry, as I learned on the webinar). I kept waiting for the panel to address my affliction — who cares what the olfactive forecast says about sandalwood, what does it say yeasty, rancid chicken broth? I entertained myself by imagining what happens if a nose gets anosmia, but quickly discovered that googling “nose” and “anosmia” does not yield stories about perfumers receiving workers compensation.

I finally decided to send my question to the moderator for Q&A and, in keeping with the spirit of the panel, I asked about the anticipated impact of widespread loss of smell on the industry, rather than the individual (or, consumer). I even linked to a then-recent article about the plight of Yankee Candle (which, in retrospect, may have been offensive to someone who works at Chanel). When it became apparent that the moderator was not going to pose my question, I hit “leave meeting” in a huff. I was unreasonably upset with these fragrance enthusiasts and, while I told myself it was the frivolity of it all, I also detected notes of envy. There is this whole world of smells in which I can no longer credibly take part. The scents that I experience are corrupted signifiers; they can make no claim to truth or reality. When the panelists talked about creating a taxonomy of scent, I imagined data points clustered around verifiable scents (puppy, coffee, dead porcupine) and I wasn’t even on the chart, an outlier of no Gladwellian import. My smell has no value, emotional or commercial. (I started to appreciate why the Facebook support groups, with individuals sharing detailed descriptions of “covid smell” and photos of things like a “F*CK PARASOMIA* cake, are so popular.)

I will admit that I have probably learned the most about the science of smell from the puppy or, really, from Alexandra Horowitz, author of Being a Dog. I got the book hoping for a glimpse into the puppy’s vibrant olfactory universe — and perhaps insights as to why dead animals and poop are so spectacular — but found myself, again, confronting my own olfactory disfunction. Horowitz rhapsodizes about scents familiar and bizarre, often urging her reader to do things like get on the ground and smell what the dog is smelling. Alas. She also goes on all kinds of fun, smell-centered adventures, like wine tasting, fragrance testing, truffle hunting, and playing with prodigy puppies. Her detailed account of the olfactory systems of dogs and humans reveals that, one, we aren’t all that different (I think this is kind of the thesis of the book) and, of great interest to me, that so much is still unknown (a researcher in the book is quoted as saying, “‘The basics are easy…and then the hard stuff [about how smell works], we have no idea’”).

The super basics are that the back of our (human) nose contains an olfactory epithelium made up of olfactory receptor neurons and supporting cells. Odorants are volatile molecules bopping around and, when we inhale or chew food, odorants stimulate the olfactory epithelium and the olfactory receptor neurons send a signal to the olfactory bulb. From there, the olfactory bulb sends a signal to the brain, namely the orbitofrontal cortex (sensory input), amygdala (emotion), and hippocampus (memory). These structures are also all part of the limbic system, which is largely responsible for emotion, memory, and learning. Researchers like to point out that, unlike the other senses, smell bypasses the thalamus (the so-called relay station); it is the fastest route to the amygdala, hence the automatic, emotional response. Researchers also like to note that, unlike most other neurons, olfactory receptor neurons have the ability to regenerate and do so every 30 days, but as I near 30 days X 12 months, I am not so impressed. Yet, there remains great uncertainty about the detailed mechanics of it all — how the epithelial membrane is stimulated, how different odorants translate into different patterns of neural signals, and what the brain does with that information to register a specific scent. So, when it comes to COVID-19, little is known about how it interacts with a system about which little is known.

At some point over the summer, I found the Weizmann Olfaction Group’s SmellTracker. This online tool allows you to select five common household scents and then rank them on two scales, very unpleasant to very pleasant and very weak to very strong, over time. I was more interested in testing all of the potential items (did peanut butter ever smell?) than sticking with the same five items, but the tool rewards you for you consistency by plotting your results on a graph. While the SmellTracker was originally conceived to monitor the spread of COVID-19 and aid in self-diagnosis, I was interested in using it to monitor smell recovery. Moreover, I wondered if repeatedly smelling the same five items could actively aid in recovery. This inquiry quickly led me to the world of smell training, or smell therapy.

Smell training is precisely what it sounds like: you regularly take little sniffs of the same scents in order to improve your ability to smell those scents and, theoretically, all scents. I was immediately skeptical as it seemed like yet another way to push essential oils onto people with elusive ailments. (The U.K.-based group AbScent sells a smell training kit for £34.99; though, they also have instructions on how to make your own.) There are smell training videos on YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram, as well as threads on Reddit (r/anosmia) and a whole smell kit cottage industry on Etsy. Though the evidence base for smell training is limited, a recent systematic review and meta-analysisfound a strong association between smell training and improved smell among patients with postviral olfactory dysfunction. The study also found, however, that treatment regimens vary widely and there is need for greater research and standardization. I created a modified regimen for myself using items that I was likely to use anyways: coffee, lavender hand soap, sunscreen, and garlic. But I found that the muted smells stayed muted (sunscreen and hand soap) and the bizarre smells stayed bizarre (coffee and garlic). Moreover, I found it hard to focus on smells in isolation. The experience I was missing was trans-sensory; it was even trans-temporal. Many people, myself included, drink coffee in the morning for the ritual. The smell of coffee is indistinguishable from the experience of morning, the sunny patch in the kitchen corner and that thrilling mix of dread and possibility. Roasting coffee beans will always take me right back to the grimy coffee shop of my misspent college youth and that thrilling mix of eavesdropping while pretending to read. Indeed, a recently-published pilot study found that smell training produced changes within the brain’s visual cortex, suggesting “a visual connection to smell that has not been previously explored” (a largescale Washington University School of Medicine clinical trial that integrates visual prompts into smell training is currently recruiting).

The questions that I keep coming back to have to do with smell’s pronounced synesthesic quality, particularly when it comes to memory. The authors of Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell posit that it is precisely “because [smell] is felt to threaten the abstract and impersonal regime of modernity by virtue of its radical interiority, its boundary-transgressing properties, and its emotional potency” that it is “probably the most under-valued sense in the modern West.” Such statements about smell’s anti-modern, unempirical, overly subjective character abound in the olfaction literature. Others focus on the fact that smell is, evolutionarily-speaking, primitive: it was the first sense to develop in early forms of life and the only one we share with single-celled organisms; it is the only sense that is fully formed in the womb and we gradually learn to rely on it less; and, of course, it is the sense of the animals, with their noses pressed to the ground. While I do not dispute smell’s disfavored status, my very cursory exploration into olfaction has helped me appreciate the difference, in the words of Rachel Herz, author of Scent of Desire (2007), between a physiological and psychological understanding of a sense. And while there does some to be a paucity of information about the former, the same cannot be said for the latter.

The literature on “odor-evoked autobiographical memory” is eerie in its ability to capture the most uncanny, ineffable properties of scent. The fact that smell is basically a portal for hyper-emotional time travel is, apparently, well-established: “Numerous studies have now shown that autobiographical memories triggered by odors feel much more emotional, activate the neurobiological substrates of emotional processing, and that people are more brought to the original time and place of their memories compared to when the same events are recalled through other modalities.” My cousin has recounted how, when he quit smoking, his childhood returned along with his smell; he visited his childhood home, and not only smelled things that he had not smelled for years, but also retrieved memories that he didn’t even know were lost. Indeed, the special relationship between smell and childhood, too, has been tested and proven (“odor-evoked memories have been shown to be…from an earlier time in life, specifically clustered in the first decade compared with memories evoked by verbal or visual stimuli”). There is even an acronym that summarizes the unique features of odor-evoked memory: LOVER (limbic, old, vivid, emotional, and rare).

Memory loss is the source of greatest anxiety for me — a sense of existential panic akin to when my phone fell from a great height and I realized that I had not backed it up in nearly ten years (don’t judge me and don’t worry, after nearly $2,000 of data recovery, I still have those pictures of all of the shoes I never bought but kind of liked). I worry that I will some of the most delicious parts of nostalgia, along with parts of myself. I found that being at my dad’s farm, a place where I had not spent such extended periods of time since childhood, was a series of Proustian misfires. I’d walk into the barn, on one side, hay and wood shavings piled high and old leather tack gathering dust and, on the other side, two fuzzy horses munching on grain and chickens softly clucking in their coop. I had long associated each one of these things with a distinctive, potent scent and, together, they smelled like barn, a smell so visceral, so evocative, that I would have sworn it was encoded on my DNA. I guess not. My dad’s books from college and graduate school line the walls of my bedroom and the experience of taking a book from the shelf (who doesn’t want to read Philosophy and Cybernetics, 1967?) has always been synonymous with that old book smell. I really love that smell and, for the time being, it is gone. Then there is the smell of mud season, when the earth has absorbed too much water and it all starts to come oozing out, excavating primordial detritus. Or, in the fall, the mustiness of the decaying leaves mixes with the crispness of the air and the smell is so pure that it burns your nose. None of that.

I only felt acute sadness, however, about the lilacs, my favorite flower. Next to my dad’s house is a huge lilac bush — a tree, really — and when it is in full bloom, the smell of lilacs punctuates the air. It is not cloying or overwhelming, but delicate (like lilacs). I associate the smell with the early days of summer, but also with a childhood spent outdoors, running barefoot on prickly grass and searching for wild strawberries at the lawn’s edge. Last June, the smell of lilacs did not punctuate the air. I would jam my nose into low-hanging boughs or pick a tiny flower and rub it between my fingers as I inhaled deeply. I was able to catch a few hints, but it was not the same.

I tend to dwell on the loss of odor-evoked memories that are positive — or, at least interesting. While the lilacs are a loss that I can pinpoint because of a visual cue, in many instances, it may be the case that I will never know what I have lost. And then there are negative associations and memories. When I was thirteen, I suddenly clued into the concept of spring break. I observed that, at my fancy private school, it was when my friends went on family trips and came back tan. With their new sweater sets and golden hue, they marked the transition from winter to spring with a notable change in appearance (which felt very important in middle school). And I, only child and fairest of fair, desperately wanted to go on a family trip and get tan. I relentlessly begged my single, working mom to correct this injustice (she tried, I remember, to counter with a tanning booth). She relented and a colleague of hers, whose dad worked for Starwood Hotels, hooked it up at a hotel in Key West, Florida. My mom printed out the hotel information and brought it home in a manilla folder. I studied the pictures of the pool as I carefully packed all of my favorite warm weather outfits. We drove to Key West from the Miami airport and, along the way, stopped at a retail behemoth to pick up a few items (I distinctly remember fighting with my mom about how I did not need sunscreen — if only I could have seen these sun spots!).

I wandered away from my mom and wound up in an aisle holding a thin plastic bottle with bright pink liquid. I don’t know what purpose the liquid served or when he appeared, but I remember feeling his gaze. He worked at the retail behemoth and asked if he could help me. I was (and still am) quite shy and shook my head, immediately realizing that such a demurral was insufficient. His skin was sallow and his eyes were big and he kept moving towards me, smiling as though we were sharing a joke. I became very aware of the enormity of the store and how empty it was. I must have insisted on changing into one of my warm weather outfits because I also became very aware of how my spaghetti straps were too thin and my shorts too short, leaving my spindly adolescent body too exposed. He asked me questions about myself and laughed at things that were not funny. I wondered if I was flirting. His attention made me feel filthy, like there was a parasite moving through my body. But I politely answered his questions. At some point, he encouraged me to try the pink liquid. I knew, from ye olde Bath & Body Works, that you were supposed to only test the testers, but I sprayed some on my bare arm. He told me it smelled good.

When my mom showed up, I didn’t feel relief but shame. I remember that she asked what I was doing and I thought it was accusatory (part of me still thinks it was accusatory, which is insane). I felt I had to cover — for him, for me — so I showed her the bottle and asked if I could have it. He waved goodbye to me. I remember grabbing some candy at the checkout aisle, so as to detract from the bottle’s significance. As we drove through the Florida Keys, I could still feel his gaze and the parasite moving through me, hollowing out my insides. The car reeked of the putrid pink spray. I felt like Icarus; I had asked for too much with my spring break fantasies and flown too high with my spaghetti straps, and I had gotten what I deserved. I said nothing to my mom.

I imagine that most women have a version of this experience (though I so desperately hope that we are in the process of changing this). The visceral realization — and abject shame — that you involuntarily possess a quality that may cause you grievous physical and psychological harm, at the hands of a man, is a threshold that you can never uncross. For me, it was embalmed with a scent. And this makes some sense; a small-but-growing body of literature explores the relationship between odor and trauma (“[w]hile many sensory and cognitive cues are known to elicit intrusive reliving in PTSD patients, smell can have distinctive characteristics that make evocation of vivid olfactory memories particularly likely”). Again, it is believed that smell evolved to warn our bacterial ancestors of danger. In a Wall Street Journal article, molecular biologist Dr. Nancy Rawson even postulates that parosmia features bad smells (feces, rotten food, sulfur, etc.) because, evolutionarily, “it’s safer to err on the side of smelling something dangerous.”

I held onto the thin bottle with the pink liquid throughout my teens and twenties. I don’t actually remember throwing it out, but I do remember periodically making the decision to not throw it out, to smell it, and re-bury it in the back of the toiletry closet. It was a totem of my shame, revolting and alluring. I wonder what would have happened if I had not kept the bottle. Without the odorant, would the memory have lost its vivid detail? It’s power? Twenty-plus years later, I still know the scent in my bones; it smells like leering, synthetic and floral, like empty aisles, rental car, and Starwood hotel. But what does it mean that, today, I likely could not smell it?

If I am being honest with myself (and you), I have kind of assumed that, at some point, my sense of smell would return. On a bitterly cold February day at the dog park, a not-so-stray blue rubber ball came flying through the air with such force and precision that it broke my nose (yes, this really happened and, no, no one claimed responsibility). When I got home and inspected my very discolored and slightly off-center nose, one of my first thoughts — after crying because I’m vain and raging because I have horrible health insurance — was that maybe this would miraculously knock some sense into my scent. It did not. (A less expensive and less painful version of this wishful thinking, which involves touching your finger to your forehead while someone flicks the back of your head, was recently trending on TikTok.) Before I got the vaccine, well-meaning relatives kept sending me articles about how the vaccine has resolved symptoms for COVID-19 long-haulers, but so far, the vaccine has just given me my life back, if not my sense of smell.

But there have been glimmers of hope. A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting with one of my closest friends before she moves to California (ugh). She, her husband, and their one-year-old, M, have blessedly been living close to my dad, at her parents’ in norther New Hampshire, for the past year. I will never forget sitting in their Brooklyn apartment and cradling M, with her sweet baby scent, only a few days after she was born and only a few days before everything changed. Going on frequent walks with them through the North Country wilderness — and seeing M grow up — has been a grounding force in a profoundly isolating year. M is presently learning how to be gentle with faces and part of this most important lesson involves dabbing baby lotion on her parents’ faces. When she reached out to touch my face, my heart almost burst with the sensation of this tiny hand grazing my cheek ever so gently and, also, with the scent of baby lotion. I was conscious that, in that moment, baby lotion locked into my limbic system, as though I were smelling it for the first time. It smelled like the weight of M’s fingers on my skin, like daylight savings, snow melting, and the orange shag carpet underfoot. It was not the kind of smell that can be — or should be — reproduced through smell training, but I do hope that it will stay.