My father must have been a politician in a previous life. Not the spineless rambling type of peacetime, rather one of the greats who lead millions of young people blindly to a glorious death in wartime. These days, I can vaguely remember his facial features, he looked similar to most of the men of the neighborhood, the same height, the same manly air and the same strong confident knowing look that they all had, and he had a smell – the distinct smell of all good hardworking men that I would grow up to acquire as he often proudly told me.
My father had an overwhelming presence. He had a hoarse rough voice that dominates any setting and sets the tone of the conversation. His presence, though, was about more than his voice. He spreaded his dominance from the moment when he entered a room before even uttering a word. He was very passionate. He moved, talked and listened passionately. I always contemplated the vein popping on the right side of his neck when he talked about an issue that mattered to him. Sometimes, in days like this, you would see two veins popping from each side of his neck.
He stood up, clenched his strong muscular hands on the table, and announced – matter of factly – that the smell had to be eradicated, his hoarse voice was more determined than usual, it was also angry. I don’t remember seeing him angry before that night. Anger was a vice for the weak that he never succumbed to.
I hated the smell of our food.
That night, when I overheard my neighbor’s father talking about our smell, I took two hot showers trying to get rid of it, and I failed. Even our water and soap had the damned smell. My parents were oblivious to the problem. My mother kept inviting our neighbours to our house, mostly using her sweet smile as her grasp of the language failed her. They kept rejecting her offer and she kept thinking she was lost in translation.
This was not a matter of words’ choices, we simply didn’t belong there. Not even the proud telegrams from my grandfather should give us the illusion that this was our new home. My father should have recognized that fact, if not the first winter, then the second one. But as my grandmother used to say, only drunk people and children tell the truth, and we also are the only ones who see it.
The truth was that, in this place, we were as inauthentic and unfitting as the exclamation marks that fill this foreign language I was forced to learn. We were out of context.
Nothing is more unfair for a child than being out of context.
I closed my eyes, and I took a breath. The smell started soft. A bit shy at first before it got louder and more confident. Ticklish and slightly naughty.
The scent was definitely hot. It was proud and opinionated. It was eager to take you somewhere you’ve never been, and you were eager – after a brief moment of initial hesitation – to follow to that scary unknown place. Was that why my husband hated it? He was never a fan of unfamiliarity. The scent got your senses involved slowly, steadily then it left you hanging. Incomplete. You came back for more, you believed that the following time, it was bound to get even better and the hanging sensation would immerse you even more, or maybe it would even let you fall from its height. The exhilaration! You would become obsessed about the fall, you would yearn for it and pursue it and one day, it would happen. And you would be complete.
Completion, though, is a mirage, an unattainable hope. Once I experienced the scents from my neighbors’ house, I desired more. I wandered around the houses of the newcomers in our town every day of that summer. I discovered new scents, new families that were moving to the neighborhood from other far lands, who stirred different gossip, and their colors were different shades of caramel. They all brought with them their own eccentric scents.
Some were as hot, others were more playful, some were loud, others whispered. Some were selfish and demanding, while others were caring, encompassing and sweet. They had sounds accompanying them, like that family, that had war drums sounds accompanying the scent of their food. An opinionated scent – as you know – always has a sound.
“We must eradicate the smell!”. I announced to the hums of agreement and satisfaction of my neighbors. This was a simple matter of common sense, of being able to recognize what was right and what was wrong and to stand up to fulfill our duty to preserve the good order of things as I had always been trying to teach my son and as my father had taught me. My father never had to fight for that order. This was the purpose of having an established order – many things never needed to be said and many fights didn’t have to be fought.
The murmurs of agreement were not as satisfying as they should have been that day. I was never a person who actively seeked his companion’s agreement. I always knew the way, and acted accordingly. That day, I was less sure. The argument I had with my wife the night before didn’t help. I was, of course, shocked for her sympathy with the new neighbors, her affection for that almost blasphemous smell. She didn’t see the obvious truth.
She said that there was no scent to remember or be nostalgic about or to fight for – we were a scentless town before our neighbours, and we should be grateful for their arrival.
I spent that night trying to remember how our neighborhood smelled before.
It was the first week of the winter break. I went out to play in the corridors of the building as usual.The air was cold and indifferent. The graffiti we drew playfully last week was still there. Give us back our fresh air, it read. The black graffiti was washed up by the rain, drawing an image similar to the Kohl in the teary eyes of our beautiful neighbor.