April 4, 2023
I rub on some Hawaiian Tropic in the mornings, around my neck and my arms. The brown bottle of tanning oil that smells like coconut.
That's my secret.
I do it so I can smell like the sun. Like the beach. But not just any beach – my favorite beach, and everyone else’s too. The one where we all scavenged for fun little seashells when we went on family vacations, always convinced each one was beautiful and unique. But now I know they were all the same — nameless white shells and pebbles.
When I walk to school, I can smell myself, and I smell so good. I feel so good because I smell like summer in September. I still want fall, but I love smelling like summer, and I don't think there’s anything wrong with that.
I keep walking, and I start sweating. I sweat so much, but I like it. I like smelling like the outside, like I’ve had a long day playing in the grass. With grass and flowers. Flowers and friends. Friends at an elementary schooler’s birthday party back when we celebrated with bouncy houses in each other's backyards and played with water guns, squirting at each other’s faces and getting offended.
I like being reminded that I am young — still a child, who cares about how they smell.
Every year, the air eventually deepens, and my thoughts turn crisp.
I need to spend more time thinking about myself, pretending weekdays are weekends, and thrifting with headphones on. Going on walks and calling my brother just to update him, my mom, and my dad too. Putting on lipstick and kissing paper, just so it looks pretty when I flip through the pages, reading before bed, washing my sheets — standing still.
My body scrub makes a transition from peony to Tahitian vanilla. Periwinkle to rich cream. My body wash, once coconut tangerine, smells like marshmallows and cookies now. I feel different, so I want to smell different too.
When I was 12, I road-tripped to California with my family, smelling like Our Moment by One Direction. I felt so ugly then, I remember. I listened to “Ultraviolence” by Lana del Rey the whole way and kept up with daily episodes of AwesomenessTV’s YouTube series Summer Break. A show about California teens, just as you would imagine California teens living their lives. This was during the Brandy Melville-girl era, where if you didn't look like a Brandy Melville girl, you wanted to die.
What I told myself repetitively was that it's not about being a girl you know everyone thinks is pretty. Not just pretty but ideal. Their dream girl. Wavy-ish hair, tan skin but still light, always glowing. Not very unique, but ideal. A soft, pretty face. Nothing too complicated.
Years before the Brandy Melville girl era, I can't remember how old I was, really, but the youngest version of me I can imagine wrote on a piece of paper, “I want to be the prettiest girl in the world!” and stuck it under her pillow. Something along those lines.
When I was 14, I resorted to Bath & Body Works’ Marshmallow Pumpkin Spice Latte body mist during the fall — a delicacy in my eyes for as long as I could remember. During Christmas time, Bath & Body Works becomes a winter wonderland. Everything is in theme, pumpkin spice and Warm Vanilla, each candle a variation of the next. I stocked up because I wanted to wear it year-round, and for some time, I did.
I love fall so much that I want to smell like it forever. I want to smell inviting. I want to remind others of good things, warm things. I want them to feel the urge to tell me I smell familiar, but they just can't put their finger on it. They never want to stop smelling me because I smell like home.
It was September 22, and I had yet to smell the crisp air that lets me know that fall is here. My roommate and I walked down to class in scorching heat, complaining that we are walking to class in scorching heat — we made jokes that every breeze was Fall’s whisper, letting us know that she was almost here. Every leaf we saw gave us hope. Each crunch gave us hope.
I couldn’t tell what I wanted to smell like this fall.
It was October 22 when I felt the first crisp breeze of air I anticipated so much. It felt like Halloween, the first day of Halloween. I had to stop everything I was doing just to tell myself that. The air was so crisp I could take a bite out of it.
On October 22, I woke up anxious. It's like I had so much to do that day, but at the same time, there was nothing at all. It felt like every day had to mean something, like I was running out of time because I was — I was. It felt like I had to speak coherently to everyone and make sense of myself when I didn't even know what I was trying to say. Like right now.
On October 22, all I could seem to do was remind myself that time was fleeting. Time was fleeting, and I still didn't know what I wanted to smell like this fall. My bottle of Hawaiian Tropic stared at me with eyes of summer, its golden presence and tropical packaging out of place in my cottage-core room. I felt tempted to reach over, spray it on, and just rub a little bit on my neck — just enough. It would feel like summer.
During this time of confusion and not knowing something as simple as what I want to smell like, I'm counting down the days to Halloween, my favorite holiday. I dedicate time and preparation to this day to curate the perfect amount of build-up. The underlying pressure for the day to live up to expectations haunts me.
On November 19, I felt like crying, but it seemed a little dramatic because almost everyone else seemed so happy. Around the same time last year, Thanksgiving, I felt this sort of melancholy too, when I looked out the window onto empty streets and took the elevator down to an empty parking garage. When I went to Whole Foods for lunch and Christmas decorations were up. Families everywhere, shopping together. The sight of them made me want to cry. Everything is still the same this year, except for me.
The next week consumes me, and so does the next month.
The crisp breeze I wanted so badly was here. But now all I wanted to do was to go back, back to when I would walk to class in scorching heat and complain. When all I could do was wish for new air. Now all I had was a bad cough and one jacket. The cold air infiltrated my lungs.
It was December, and I remained scentless.
My phone rang with a text from my mom. It was a picture of one of her must-have perfumes when she was around my age that she had recently rediscovered. Her close friend, Laura, my favorite of her friends, used to work for the company that made the perfume at Nordstrom. She had passed away a few years ago, but I always remembered her smell. She smelled sweet and soft in a subtle way — only the right people noticed. We used to visit her, and she would give me samples of sweet, inviting creams with hints of sparkles. Her aura was radiant and open. Fruity elegance in just the right amount. It was Blackberry and Vanilla Musk. The scent lingered with me for years, but I never knew its name.
Each month went by so fast, I never really got to smell like how they felt, or how they looked. Not fall, not Halloween, not Thanksgiving, not Christmas. My periwinkle-peony body scrub stood still, empty in my shower.
On December 8, I finally felt clean. I took a shower like none other that day and took my last final. I thought about how much I would write when it was hot outside. I’m starting to think that's where I belong: the heat.
Even if it's cold outside, I still want to feel warm, and smell warm, like an animal of the sun. The cold had made me forget who I was when I enjoyed my sweat and its scent. It made me forget who I was, how I dressed, and how I spoke. I still love fall, but right now, I belong to summer.
On December 8, I felt sweet and inviting in a subtle way. Only the right people noticed. I wanted to smell warm, but this time in a way that was new. In a way that was mature and mine. I finally felt clean. ■
Videographer: Belton Gaar
Model: Joy Richardson
Stylist: Eileen Wang
HMUA: Reagan Richard
Model: Joy Richardson
Stylist: Eileen Wang
HMUA: Reagan Richard