The Stud Book and Clown Girl author Monica Drake read this essay on Live Wire Radio Episode 219, which also featured Marc Maron, Natasha Kmeto and Scott Poole. Enjoy.
The Scent of a Stranger
(Published previously in a slightly different version in Oregon Humanities Magazine)
We’d gone out for pizza, and there were these worn-out old cushions on the benches, and I watched as my three-year-old daughter pressed her tiny face right into them, into the sag and faded spots. She gathered one loose cushion into her arms. It was a long cushion, meant to seat two adults, maybe more kids. It was tattered and flattened and looked like it could stand to run through the wash. She held it tight, like an old friend. She couldn’t get that raggedy upholstery close enough. My husband and I sipped our pints, waited for pizza. We talked in that way parents do, when they’re glad for a moment together, and let our daughter entertain herself. It was gross, this old pillow business, but it wouldn’t hurt her. After a few breaths, a deep inhale, she said, “Those smell like some different kind of boys, Mama.”
Kids are human, sure, but my daughter, our darling beauty, she smelled those cushions the way our dog smells cushions. She smelled them in search of complicated clues.
She’d been collecting information, on the kids there before us. We’d seen them on the way out. There had been four boys and a girl, at the table right next to ours. Each one of the kids was maybe a year apart, creating a ladder of ages from three on up. They were out with their dad. They were this tumble of gorgeous children, a mess of blond hair, blue eyes and red cheeks, and they were out of control. In the five minutes our paths crossed, the dad issued a steady stream of gentle threats. The kids had him outnumbered. They were under the table, then across the table. The were up off the bench, then they climbed over each other, rearranging themselves. The dad said, “We don’t act like that in a restaurant,” while the kids showed, they very much did act like that. He said, “Gin, honey, I don’t ever want to see you do that again,” to some act of defiance she probably did again, immediately. He said, “If we can’t settle down, we’re going to take this pizza home.” The kids were unfazed. Pizza? Home? Whatever!
Those kids sported handmade sweaters and tangled hair. They looked like they deserved to be raised in untrammeled wilderness, to get their own fresh start in a clean world. What would it be like to live with the crazy richness and chaos of five kids, all so close in age? Five animals. While they were there, I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
When they left, their exit was as good as choreographed. The father went first, and three kids followed. Two hid under the table. The first three kids came running back. One grabbed another’s hand. Then two ducked out and three stayed. Two more went. The last, the smallest, lagged behind. Finally the four came back, collected their sibling, and they all ran out together in a swooping arc, like a flock of migrating swifts.
Our daughter is an only child. She watched the kids, this tribe, as closely as I did. Then she smelled where they had been. She wanted a trace, a hint of their lives.
I watched her bury her face in the pillows. My husband said, “How many asses have sat on those things?”
I’ve read that standard poodles have the IQ of an average three-year-old child. This assessment was based on vocabulary comprehension. Tell a trained poodle to sit and the dog sits. Tell a kid to sit and who knows what might happen—(believe me, I tried it. At least once. In the middle of a poetry reading, no less. It didn’t work at all)—but we still believe the child knows the word. I don’t trust the results of that study, though. Three year olds know more than we think.
In my own little study, I’d turn it around: babies and toddlers have the olfactory capabilities of the average bloodhound.
I learned this from my daughter.
One morning I poured her a bowl of Cheerios, and a small black ant showed up swimming in the milk. I was in the kitchen. My daughter waited at a table in the next room. Before she could see it, I did what hundreds of mothers before me have done—I flicked the ant out of the bowl and pretended it didn’t happen. Then I went around the corner, and put the cereal in front of my little cherub.
She wrinkled up her face. She said, “This smells like ant, Mom.”
I didn’t even know ants had a smell. It turns out that scout ants, the ones who search for food, leave an odor trail for their colony to follow. Each colony has its own scent. When you crush an aunt, it gives off an awful whiff of formic acid. It’s an ant alarm pheromone.
Ants tell a story in the trail of scent they leave behind. They use scent to define insider from outsider, their own colony from another. At three, my daughter can read the drama of a single ant’s memoir on the side of her cereal bowl.
Years ago I studied animal behavior. I interned at the Oregon Zoo. I had a timer and a clipboard. I’d record certain animal’s behavior at intervals. Now, as a mom, I realize toddlers are little animals.
My daughter was born in four minutes, in an emergency C-section. The medical staff hung a blue cloth across my chest to block my view so I couldn’t see my own body cut open. They lifted my daughter out. I saw her, as she rose above the curtain, come into the world covered in blood. She sat in a V-shape in the doctor’s hands. Her legs unfolded, like a fast-motion movie of a flower blooming, or like a colt, a fawn. I was slashed open through the middle and numb up to my shoulders, but it was the best day of my life. How weird is that?
I’ve been watching her ever since. I’ve been listening. When she was a newborn, I didn’t know her at all. I’d look at her all day long. I studied her every eyelash and fold of skin, her hair and hands. One day my mom said, “Babies don’t like to be stared at. You need to smile, to make faces.”
Researchers don’t smile, and make faces. I was doing research. I was trying to learn what I had, now in my house, this new person. But okay, I smiled.
I’d smell her hair and pull her close. These days I listen to her stories. Sometimes, I know I seem like a permissive mom. At the pizza place, I let our daughter press every inch of the pillow to her skin. I let her smell the pillows, taste them, feel them. We’re all gathering information, all the time. While she smelled the worn-out cushions, while she searched for clues to the lives of other kids, I watched her. She’s my daughter, and she’s her own person. I don’t pretend to know yet exactly who she is. I just try not to let her catch me staring.