For our first date, we met at a bar. I went in for a hug that was stopped by his outstretched hand. We spent three drinks awkwardly stumbling through getting-to-know-you questions before we were comfortable enough (or drunk enough) to settle into a flirtatious flow of conversation. Drinks turned into a makeshift dinner of dumplings with a hidden bottle of whiskey in the park under the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. When we left the bar to grab food, he pulled me close to his side and my nose dipped into the arc of his neck. That was the moment I first caught the scent of him.
Since childhood, I have always been told that a person shouldn’t ever smell bad. High school physical education and health teachers would deliver impassioned yet repetitive speeches about the difference between antiperspirant and deodorant, and reminding us of the importance of showering daily and after strenuous activities—likely for their own benefit, considering they spent a majority of their day in a room full of hormonal teenagers trying to settle into their shifting bodies.
My mom gave me the same lecture. One day she came into my room loudly announcing that I had inherited “The Sanchez Smell,” a foul body odour passed down from my father’s side of the family. It was a scent only a specific branded bottle of antiperspirant could block. (A claim that was proven correct when I spent a brief week experimenting with other brands and had the unfortunate experience of a tía—aunt—wrinkling her nose and recoiling in disgust when I tried to hug her.)
There is a certain nuance to body odours. During the late nights and stolen hours of my youth exploring my queerness in the bedlam of 2000s internet porn, I was introduced to the eroticism of a person’s smell. I was intrigued by the thousands of images and videos of men with their noses pressed into the insoles of shoes, gym fresh jockstraps and underwear, and in the armpits of other men. Suddenly, the smells of my world—like the sweet scent of the soccer star seated in front of me in Spanish class—became hard to ignore, a fragrance counter of horniness was unlocked.
I remembered all of this as my nose pulled me involuntarily toward my date’s neck. We were both drunk by the end of our impromptu dinner and looking for any excuse to touch and kiss each other.
Author and naturalist Diane Ackerman once said that “some researchers concluded that a large part of our joy in kissing is really a joy in smelling and caressing each other’s faces, where one’s personal scent glows.”
And that evening, my date glowed.
In the backseat of the Uber to his house, he laid against me with his head on my chest and we talked about nothing in particular while I played with his hair. I didn’t spend the night, but we enjoyed each other enough that when I was back in my bed, I fell asleep with his scent rubbed all over my body, filling my nose and making me smile. I thought my attunement to the smell of his body was a signal of a lasting connection, a biological green light saying this one would work out.
I spent many of the following evenings at his apartment, talking about how our days went and watching 10 minutes of whatever was at the top of his “Continue Watching” Netflix queue before getting distracted by roaming hands. Later, when he started drifting off to sleep, I whispered goodnight and left with his shirts. I fell asleep in my own bed with my face buried in them.
I admitted it to him once. “That’s hot,” he told me.
The more time we spent together, the more I began to understand how his life built his smell: a mixture of late—still humid—summer, his religious penchant for biking everywhere and a stressful job. Pieces of his life that seemed to harmonize his smell in such a way that I was forced into an involuntary physiological exhale every time I saw him, something that I later learned was my body’s way of flooding my olfactory receptors with as much of his scent as I could greedily steal.
Understanding the architecture of his smell didn’t mean I grasped it; scent is an ethereal thing. Author Helen Keller, famous for her inability of sound and sight, was known for her keen ability of smell. She described odours as things that “deviate and are fugitive, changing in their shades, degrees and location.” Something ungraspable, and fleeting. Like ghosts. Like him.
He disappeared from my life after a handful of hot, sweaty weeks, his smell still lingering behind in a pair of shoes, a sweaty shirt and a pair of used underwear. A trail of notifications indicating he viewed my Instagram story, and a video he added to his story of him biking across the bridge into Manhattan proved that he wasn’t dead and his phone wasn’t broken. He just wasn’t texting me.
There’s a picture of him and me being silly at a roller disco-themed work event I took him to. I remember looking at it one month after I had last seen him in person, and at least a couple weeks since we had made plans to see each other and I never heard from him again. I realized I was wearing his shirt that he left at my house; it didn’t smell like him anymore because I had washed it by mistake, an error that annoyed me when I discovered it neatly folded in a pile of my clean laundry. I still brought the shirt to my nose and inhaled deeply trying to pull any faint scent I could find of him into me. His smell wasn’t there.
If I had known what day would have been the last time I’d get to smell him, I would have enjoyed him more. I would have taken advantage of the moment, taken my time and enjoyed it excessively, trying to commit the layers and notes of his aroma, body and taste to memory to make sure I had no regrets when he disappeared from my life.
Smell is intoxicating, one of our strongest and most instinctual senses. But the happy delirium his smell caused me probably isn’t the best thing to base the longevity of a relationship on. I take the train over the Williamsburg Bridge every morning, and in the gaps between the cables of the bridge I can glimpse pieces of the park where we had our first date and kiss. And every morning, the ghost scent of his sweaty body fades a bit more and hurts a bit less.