taboo subject

“Is it a bad sign when you start smelling things that aren’t there?” I ask my daughter. My daughter isn’t a doctor or anything like that; we’re just having a conversation while driving to a restaurant for supper.

“Uhhh,” she says, “why?” She turns her head to look at me and I wonder if a mother ever, ever feels comfortable being driven around in a car by her kid. I hold tighter to the door handle and will myself not to tell her to keep her eyes on the road.

“Oh nothing,” I say, “I just thought I read somewhere that people who have strokes start smelling smoke when there isn’t a fire. Or something like that. Smoke without fire—ha,” I bark out a sound that passes in my mind for a laugh, “that would be some kind of inverted pun or irony or something, wouldn’t it, the non-smoke indicating a stroke?” I am not entirely up on grammar or parts of speech or whatever puns and things like that are. The only thing I know for sure is similes—they have to have ‘like’ or ‘as’ in the sentence and these two small words and what they indicate have somehow clung to my many-years-past-high-school-English-class brain like…like a barnacle to a boat bottom (although I recently read in the Walrus magazine that marine paint now contains antibiotics to discourage barnacle growth and this is contributing to killing sea life as we know it. So maybe I’ll file that boat simile. It’s too disturbing to think about).

“Fire?” repeats my daughter. “You smell fire? Now?” She looks behind her at the car seat where my granddaughter is sleeping. I brace myself for a collision with oncoming traffic. “Here?” she asks, and her voice sounds a more than a trifle strained.

“No, no,” I hasten to say, “not here. Or I guess not only here.” I wave my hands about, indicating an expansive range. My nasal universe has no borders. “Everywhere,” I say. “I smell it everywhere I go.”

My daughter leaps backward into the conversation, neatly picking through the fog of dispensed-with words floating around the stuffy car interior like microbes in a drop of pond water (I can see that I’ll remain obsessed with that barnacle fact for a while yet. That’s how my brain works). “Stroke?” My daughter sticks in a thumb and pulls out a plum, “did you say stroke?”

“No, I mean yes, I mean yes I said stroke but I didn’t mean stroke,” I flounder. It’s difficult to have casual conversations about potentially deadly medical conditions without alarming loved ones. I know this. “I was just wondering aloud,” I say.

“About strokes?” my daughter says. “Are you trying to tell me you think you’ve had a stroke, because if you are—“

“No!” I say firmly. “No, I don’t know anything about strokes, or very little anyway, just a bit from when my uncle had all those strokes last summer and he had to have surgery to graft an artery—“

My daughter doesn’t like anything to do with blood: even the thought of it makes her feel nauseous. She stops me from going down that road, with another question. There are no flies on that cookie. She may be driving, at night, in the rain, with a kid in the back, and a flaky mother in the seat beside her, but she is listening. “So you smell smoke all the time?” she asks. “That can’t be good.”

“I know,” I say, “it’s weird. But it isn’t smoke, it’s kind of a perfume-smell and I keep smelling my clothes because I think it must be coming from them only I don’t use laundry soap with perfume in it and it doesn’t matter what I wear, or where I am. It’s a sweet smell, like my mother’s talcum powder. Or I think maybe she used a perfume that smelled like talcum powder, I think that’s what she used. After she died I took a bottle of it from her bathroom. It’s still in a cupboard at home.”

“What’s it called?” my daughter asks. I have successfully derailed the conversation; I feel some satisfaction in this.

“I don’t remember, I think it begins with a T,” I say. “I read in a book the other day something about a queen of England using a certain scent and I thought that was the same one. But I’m not sure—Taboo—that’s what it was called,” I exclaim with some excitement. I am impressed with myself for remembering this.

“The queen of England used a perfume called Taboo?” my daughter says with surprise. “That seems unlikely.”

“I know, maybe it wasn’t the same, maybe that’s the name of my mother’s perfume and not the queen of England’s perfume. Probably I’ve got it wrong. I’m terrible at remembering stuff like that,” I say.

My daughter remembers stuff better than I do and she has learned from a master (mistress? a.k.a. me) how to cling to a thought like a barnacle to a ship-bottom: “So you smell perfume all the time that isn’t there? How long has this been going on?”

But we have arrived at the restaurant and the next few minutes are busy waking up the toddler and paying for parking and by the time we are settled in our seats the conversation turns to more immediate concerns like who wants a mango lassi.

A week or so later I realise that my new mascara has perfume in it. I always use hypoallergenic cosmetics, because I have allergies, but this was a sample. And the package said, ‘ophthalmologist-tested’ so I thought that meant perfume-free. I threw the mascara out and since then I’ve stopped smelling smells that aren’t there.

This little narrative is my way of telling my daughter the true story of how I’m not having a stroke.