Thank heaven love was in the air that day.
The crisp, clean scent was intoxicating. Like a cool breeze wafting in off the ocean... but where did it come from? I was alone in a stuffy eighth-floor law office late on a summer evening, finishing up my work as a document specialist. Occasionally one of the attorneys would also be working late, but not tonight. I was sitting at my computer, getting ready to log off and head home. Suddenly I froze. Raised my head. Sniffed the air. That scent...
Wait! This was something familiar, a smell I knew. In my mind’s eye, I saw him so clearly. Thirty-five years hadn’t dulled his features in my memory. Those blue eyes, that smile, and the golden-blonde hair that cascaded past his shoulders.
Kenny. My high school boyfriend back in the 1970s. We had attended different high schools but met when we were 15 years old, playing in a county concert band. At the first rehearsal, I looked up from my place in the woodwind section with the other flautists and saw him behind the bass drum in the percussion section. We started talking at the break, and I never wanted to stop. Over the next few months, we saw each other whenever we could convince our parents to drive us. I had never felt so comfortable with anyone before... or since. I was 51 now, and no one had ever captured my heart like Kenny.
I’d been counting the days until Kenny’s sixteenth birthday—just 16 days before mine—when he would get his driver’s license. He had his own car, and we had a big date planned. Finally, no more chaperones! I couldn’t wait. But the day before, Kenny called to cancel.
“I feel like we’re getting too serious too fast,” he told me. “We’re young and I don’t think we should, you know, get tied down. I just don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
I spent that day—and most of my own birthday, two weeks later—in tears. As I got older and wiser, I told myself our relationship probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway. I wanted to see the world; Kenny was content staying in Delaware. I moved on. I went to college, then made a life in the entertainment industry and lived in Philadelphia, then New York and Los Angeles. I eventually returned to Delaware to help care for my aging parents. I pushed thoughts of Kenny to the back of my mind.
Until now. That wonderful scent, out of nowhere.
There were so many things I had loved about Kenny. All these years later, the smell of his long, lustrous hair was a clear memory. I don’t know where it came from—his shampoo? Herbal Essences was popular back then. Whatever it was, it was a scent I associated with joy and excitement. With love.
Call Kenny. The thought just popped into my head. Then I laughed. Call the high school boyfriend I hadn’t seen in 35 years and say... what exactly? “Hi, this is Robin. The high school girlfriend you dumped. Does your hair still smell great?” How ridiculous!
But the scent stayed on in my mind. Even after I drove home that night. Even days later. That smell had evoked memories, and now the thought of Kenny was a constant drumbeat. Then an old friend from my hometown called me up. He was putting together a concert in Rehoboth Beach.
“It’s a reunion concert,” he said. “For all of us who used to play in bands back when we were in school.”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” I told him. The second I hung up, I wondered, Is Kenny going to be there?
I opened my calendar to write down the date. My heart skipped a beat. It was his birthday, I suddenly realized.
Maybe I really was intoxicated by that scent. On impulse, I searched the White Pages. Kenny’s parents were still listed at their old number. I found a listing for Kenny in a nearby town. This is crazy, I told myself.
I took a deep breath and dialed. “Hi, this is Kenny.” His voice after all these years jolted me, and I felt like I was a teenager again. Even if it was just a recording. “Leave a message after the beep.”
I hung up. What message could I leave? He’d think I was crazy for sure. Some kind of stalker. If the timing wasn’t good for us back then, what were the chances it would be good for us now? Still, it would be great to see him after all these years. I dropped the phone number into my bag and decided to go to the concert on Saturday. If Kenny wasn’t there, it just wasn’t meant to be.
The following night, I drove home from work and slowed to a stop at a traffic light.
It seemed as if a voice had called out to me. The thought was as clear as that scent in my office. Was I losing my mind? It’s been 35 years! I pulled off into a parking lot and rummaged through my bag. I pulled out the number and my cell phone. My heart beat faster with every ring. I almost prayed I’d get the answering machine again.
“Hello?” Kenny’s voice, live this time.
I took a deep breath and tried to keep my voice steady. “Hi. Kenny? This is Robin Hill. I don’t know if you remember...”
“Robin!” Kenny said. “It’s great to hear from you!” Did he mean it? Well, at least he remembered me.
“I was just calling to ask if you were going to play in that reunion concert at the beach on Saturday,” I said, trying hard to sound calm and cool.
“I heard about it, but I’m not going,” he said. “Why don’t we have lunch? I’d love to see you. Is next Friday okay?”
The following week, I was sitting in a cozy café with Kenny. It felt like a dream. His hair was short now, but he was still the same sweet person. I felt just as comfortable talking to him as I had been back at that first county band practice. We’d both experienced struggles in love and in life. I’d survived breast cancer; he’d survived two heart attacks. My parents had passed away, and his parents were in poor health. He had worked at the same job for 33 years, and I had hopped from one city to another, from job to job. Our lives had taken different paths, but we’d been led back together. We weren’t too young anymore.
Kenny walked me to the parking lot after lunch. I held his hand. It seemed natural. We got to my car, and he leaned in to kiss me. He held me tight and I breathed in deep. His hair still smelled the same—that wonderful, intoxicating scent.
“Do you think you’ll ever grow your hair long again?” I asked.
Kenny did grow his hair out again. Long—past his shoulders. And our relationship grew as well. We were married a year to the day of our reunion and the day before my birthday. Thirty-six years after our teenage breakup, I was married to the love of my life!
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You actually smell with your brain, not your nose, as you might assume. Sensory cells called chemoreceptors in the nose detect the smell and then send electrical impulses to the brain. The brain then interprets the electrical patterns as specific odors—what we recognize as smell.
Scent cells are renewed every 30 to 60 days.The olfactory nerve is the only one of the cranial nerves, a group of nerves that extend from the brain and are responsible for controlling bodily functions including eye movement, hearing, taste, and vision, that is capable of regeneration.
No two people smell things the same way because each of us has scent blind spots, meaning specific odors we can't pick up on.
Scents can cue memories. Most of your scent memories, however, come from the first decade of your life, unlike visual or other sensorial memory types.
There are fewer types of scents than you think. Some researchers hypothesize that there are only seven primary odors: musky, putrid, pungent, camphoraceous (like mothballs), ethereal (like dry cleaning fluid), floral, and minty.
Women generally have stronger sense of smell than men. One of the reasons for this may be that women have a more developed orbital prefrontal region of the brain. It may have also evolved from an ability to discern the best possible mates, or to help women better bond with and understand newborns.
You really can smell fear and happiness--at least, you can smell whether another person is happy or afraid, as long as the person you're smelling is a close romantic partner.
A fragrance you perceive as pleasant can have a profoundly positive effect on your mood. So if you love vanilla, keeping a little scented oil on your desk can help lift you when you're down. The same goes for citrus, jasmine, or any other scent that makes you feel contented.