I noticed the correlation between secrets and smells from the confines of my dad’s house. Later, I discovered that both coexist outside as well. On one Saturday morning, my brother was in the shower long enough for hot steam to slide through the crack underneath the bathroom door. He had brought his speaker inside, and was blasting 90s R&B. The music was loud, and I knew my vocal chords could never get a word in if I needed to warn him about a potential natural disaster. I felt a bass vibrating through the wall dividing my shower and bedroom, as I sipped hot tea cross-legged on the floor, a sacred tradition that I refuse to discontinue. As my throat warmed up, I contemplated my plans for the day. When my brother finally left the bathroom, my father replaced him inside and raised his voice in a tone that could have gotten progressively angrier, but did not:
“The bathroom smells like smoke.”
This announcement resonated in the air as Noah rushed to defend himself against the implied accusation. My dad did not have the heart or energy for reprimanding or liberally delegating consequences. Instead, he withdrew his comment by blaming the smell on a draft coming in from outside. For the moment, Noah’s secret, threatened by a well-known scent of his favorite flavored smoke, was suppressed.
On a different day, I heard my dad go into his bedroom and comment on a sweet feminine fragrance lingering inside. He asked me if I had applied my perfume. I had not. Noah went in and denied that there was any sweet smell, but he was sick and his sinuses were congested. Again, my dad insisted it was there. I could see right through his act, after all, he was using one of my own manipulation techniques: subtly acknowledging a secret with confusion so that no one suspects you might be involved in it. I wondered what woman had carried in the smell; who had temporarily interrupted the neutral scent in our house, the one we’d all grown accustomed to? Why did it smell distinctly like flowers? Did she wear floral prints on pencil skirts, bright colors juxtaposing our barely furnished living room? Was she a school teacher or CEO? From behind closed doors my dad felt satisfied that his secret was kept, as sugar faded from thin air.
I remembered when my house was under construction, when we had no heating, in such iciness I always smelled wet wood. The scent rose from the basement, where stacks of plywood absorbed rainfalls overnight, and became walls the following days. One morning, a day after my mom had written off a large check for her contractor, a whole team of construction workers failed to show up at our house. Nor did they answer their phones. My mom concluded that she had just experienced corruption, which can happen in an industry where people can get paid large amounts of money for work they have not done yet. They can take the cash and split. I mourned for her as wood flakes rose and settled around her restless feet. The wood had witnessed the laborers’ secret, had just breathed and said nothing. I resented inanimate objects for their inability to do more than observe. I felt helpless, like my mom’s small child again.
At night, when I bunch my sheets in fists and draw them up to my face, I can smell my laundry detergent. The smell takes me back to bedtime in my childhood when Noah and I read in bed. My mother always bid us goodnight early. She leaned into our books and kissed our foreheads.
“Just let us finish the chapter! Please!” We chanted desperately, without looking up from our pages. Sometimes, she caved in, standing at a light switch waiting for us to finish our chapters. I always finished mine and then read on. When the lights went off abruptly, the papers in my fingers turned the color of the words I so desired. I pushed the books by my pajama pants and feigned sleep until my mother’s footsteps finished descending stairs. Then, I illuminated my book with a flashlight underneath my sheets. My breath heated the limited space around my head until my cheeks were flushed. While the distinct odor of laundry detergent soothed me. To this day, I do my laundry and am reminded of those late nights that made me intolerable when morning came. I savor the smell of such innocent secrets.
Recently, I sat in a sandy ditch with a boy I really liked. Our legs were intertwined, and the absence of wind in this protected place provoked many thoughts. I pointed out the irony of being on a beach, but not watching the water, which is what people seem to do along coasts. The boy remarked that we were hearing seagulls and smelling much salt. What struck me was that salty smell, so distinguishable and addictive. It draws people to beaches in Los Angeles smog and California wildfires. It is a sanctuary for people with secrets that like to stand in sea foam and pretend they are on the edge of the world. Every gold miner, Beat poet, and immigrant with a secret expanded westward to San Francisco. Did they inhale this smell, charged with such understated power? It could make any olfactory nerves tremble. It also drove me to kiss the boy.
Pondering the correlation between secrets and smells, I wondered if the absence of smells can hide secrets. I once heard that infidelity is one of the most common secrets people keep. Does cheating smell like sex or something else? Does it smell like waking up with someone strange and coveting your apricot deodorant? Forever smelling a secret when you smell your own pungent sweat? Perhaps one should hide mistakes with hygiene. Is every secret a shower away from forgotten?
Nina Berggren attends Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco. When she is not writing, she is drawing, drinking copious amounts of tea, and wandering aimlessly around San Francisco, people-watching, and listening to music. She has had her writing published in Moledro Magazine, Apprehension Magazine, Synchronized Chaos, Umlaut Literary Journal, and Off The Walls Plays. She has also been awarded the Silver key award by Scholastic Art and Writing, as well as ‘Best Advice’ by the SFUSD Literary Awards. She hopes to continue pursuing writing in her spare time.