WHEN I WAS IN THE SIXTH GRADE my sister, a couple of friends, and I each bought a little bottle of scented oil for about two bucks at the mall. In the car on the way home, we were passing them around and taking turns sniffing them. Though I suspect now that none of them smelled fabulous, Mom and Dad managed to mumble polite stuff like “Oh. Patchouli, right? Won’t take much of this.” “Mmm, very flowery. Special occasions only.” Then they got a nose-load of mine. Dad gagged, Mom rolled down the window, and everyone else ughed repeatedly. Mom screwed the cap back on my bottle and told me to put it as far in the back of the station wagon as possible.
I was hurt, but it finally got me thinking. How come I didn’t know that my bright-pink bubble gum— scented perfume smelled different from the others? Or, for that matter, different from Pledge or cat urine? As long as I was on this line of questioning, I asked myself why I never smelled the cinnamon toast blazing away under the broiler when I was in the kitchen, even though my sister could smell it from upstairs. How come it never bothered me if some boy threw an old, dead fish on me? Why didn’t I have to hold my nose when we drove by the petrochemical plants? That’s when it hit me: I couldn’t smell.
I realized I’d probably been born this way, which made me kind of like that amazing Helen Keller, didn’t it? All this time I’d thought I just wasn’t paying attention or was too stupid to learn how to smell. Now I knew it wasn’t my fault. What a relief!
Instead of being a liability, my congenital defect, known as anosmia, became my best parlor trick, a welcomed alternative to stuffing my fist in my mouth. It was and continues to be a guaranteed conversation starter: You could never smell anything? Nope, nuthin’, not even when my mom was complaining about how stinky my sister’s goats were until she discovered it was me, wafting away beside her, or when my dad was searching high and low for a dead rat in our walls that turned out to be my gym shoes. How do