Wednesday, Jan. 08, 2014 - 4:23 a.m.
The light wooden shelves were filled with glass and ceramic perfume bottles, each with a square white card in front, suffusing its individual scent into the air of the shop. No, he thought to himself, he wasn't exactly looking for her. He was looking (synesthethically) for her scent—and all that it triggered—which was different from her woman-shaped body of carbon and water. He picked up one of the white cards and inhaled. Then again, maybe he was just lying to himself, to make the act of cheating less morally onerous.
More than a faded child-hood photograph, or the half-remembered chorus of a song he had heard at the Nirvana concert of his youth, he found that smells trip-wired memories more strongly than any of the other senses.
The array of scents and bottles in front of him was overwhelming. There were glass bottles containing blue, pink, grey liquids, the sweetness of lemongrass, the cloying bitterness of ginger. For a while, he considered a terrorist plot—he would plant a bomb in this shop. After the explosion, the scents would escape into the shopping centre, the city, the country—olfactory clouds that would descend on unsuspecting human figures, touch their skins and enter their nostrils, detonating puffs of memories as they diffused deeper and deeper into the grooves of their brains. This country would remember once again—the intoxicating oil paints from a kindergarden art class, the thick, green smell of chlorine of a saturday afternoon public pool, the silver, mineral adolescent perfume of the girl who always stood near the back-door on the bus home.
A twenty-ish shop assistant came and asked if she could help.
If only you could, he thought. He asked her if she had heard of this small perfumery from the South of France. She nodded and led him to a corner shelf, where she pointed out five different silver aluminium perfume bottles next to each other.
Do you know which one you want? she asked.
She had worn it on each of the two times she had gone out with him for coffee, when his fiance was away. The first time, the scent had overcome him (and his defenses), and he ached to revisit it. The second time, she had worn it again, but less strongly. While driving her home, he asked her what she was wearing.
Regret, she said. Then she smiled, and told him the name of the perfumery. Her regret was in buying too small a bottle during her trip to the south of France. He deduced that her bottle was almost empty.
Looking at the five silver bottles, he had wrongly assumed that the perfumery made only one scent. He put the first card back and took the second card, but was stopped by the shop assistant.
She handed him a small, hexagonal glass jar of coffee beans, which fit into the palm of his hand. You have to sniff this first, to forget the first one, she said.
He was doubtful, but inhaled the cloud of caffeinated amnesia anyway, and was surprised when the smell of coffee completely erased all traces of the first scent.
Holding the coffee beans in one hand, he smelled the second card. This one smelt of lemon and frangipani, but it wasn't her. He went down the line, inhaling the coffee beans after each perfume, alternating remembrance, with deliberate, obliterating amnesia.
The last one. This was her. The scent trip-wire pulled in the full force of the memories of the two nights with her, talking for hours over coffee. The way she held the coffee cup with both her hands close to her face, warming them before touching her neck. A white floral scent with citrus accents, said the back of the bottle. He felt a sense of pleasure, at having found her again.
He left the shop with a white paper bag, containing two identical bottles of perfume and a small glass jar of coffee beans. The shop assistant was surprised when he said he wanted the beans too, and did not know how much to charge him for it. In the end, she just gave it to him for free, and said—I hope it helps.
The first bottle of perfume was for a woman who had an empty bottle of perfume, and the second was for his fiancee. Or perhaps, the second bottle was for himself, so that when his fiancee wore it, he could have the two women in one, the memory spliced with reality, both living in the same body of carbon and water.
Yet this duality of women in a single scent bothered him. Maybe asking his fiancee to wear the other woman's scent was actually a subconscious desire to get caught, an attempt to force himself to confess.
He imagined his fiancee asking, why did you buy this for me?
He turned around and looked at the shop one last time. It was a small shop filled with shelves and shelves of perfume. The shop assistant stood at the side of the entrance and waved at him. In a way, he realized, it was not a perfume shop—it was a Memory Shop, where people searched the shelves, looking for a particular scent that would invoke a specific memory. He was its first customer.
The newspapers that morning carried an article about the discovery of jets of water exploding out of one of Jupiter's moons. Where there was water, there was the potential for life. Scientists celebrated. Life was precious in our cold, black universe. Allowed to occasionally flourish when not burned by the invisible suns of cosmic radiation. He thought about it. More than right or wrong, winners or losers, regret or impending regret, the true dichotomy of life lay in the division of organisms into the damaged and un-damaged, the hurt and the un-hurt. He exhaled. He studied the crowd of people passing over him. Families with the entourage of grand-parents. A maid pushing a stroller. A pair of teenage lovers still in school uniforms, holding hands. The hurt and the un-hurt. He would need to forget one woman or the other.
He stopped and thought about the white paper bag in his hand. Two bottles of perfume and one jar of coffee beans. He realized then—that he had gotten the coffee beans for himself.
The symmetry of the universe meant that there would need to be a Forgetting Shop, and perhaps he would be its proprietor. His shop would be located where amnesiacs could find it, on one of Jupiter's moons, the one with the jets of water shooting out of the cratered ground as life, forests, stones, bacteriae, platypuses, ferns evolved around them.
His shop would look exactly the same as the perfume shop, except that he would sell no perfume. His shelves would instead be full of small hexagonal glass jars, each containing an individual blend of the brown forgetting beans. Each coffee-ed scent—a unique and un-repeatable combination of piquance and spice, designed to fit only the shape of the memory it obliterates.