Scent and Sensibility
There’s something about teenage love stories that I will love. So much. Those few years when just seeing your crush in the lunch room could quite literally drown you excitement. That palpable rush of emotion. That debilitating second when they looked at you for the first time. The full body-burn when they accidentally brushed by your arm before the pep rally.
It didn’t matter your level of cool or social status. A crush was an equal opportunity soul-destroyer and could bring anyone to their knees. We all knew that feeling. Some of us blocked it out. Others of us started a podcast so we could talk about it ad nauseam.
This story is about Charlotte. It’s also about Charlotte’s nose. It wasn’t oddly shaped or irregular. It didn’t work particularly poorly or extremely excellently at it’s sniffing job.
From the outside, it was just a run-of-the-mill, properly working nose. In certain angles, it could even have been considered adorable.
No. Charlotte’s nose, from her earliest memories, however, had been directly attached to her heart. We’re speaking metaphorically here. We already told you that it wasn’t a weird nose and it would have been just a bit creepy for it have been protruding from the center of her chest. No, that wasn’t it. It was that her sense of smell could control her every emotion.
Smelling popcorn would make her either laugh or cry hysterically, depending on which movie the scent of butter and salt brought to her mind. Her dog’s breath reminded her of the time that she got lost in the woods and Millie found her and brought her home and she’d find herself hugging Millie uncontrollably when the dog breathed in her face. The smell of Fall immediately caused her great anxiety because of the back-to-school connotations which forced her to run to the bathroom to poop, and, her freshman year of high school, the smell of a boy named Dylan pushed her close to a catatonic state. He smelled that good.
To this day, Charlotte swears that he was the cutest guy at Martin Van Buren High School in Southern New Jersey in 1999. But he might not have been. His ears stuck out just a bit and his mouth seemed to be full of more braces than teeth. But, dammit, did he smell good. So. Freaking. Good.
Charlotte would quite literally gasp for air when she passed him in the hallway. She’d look for excuses to walk by his locker and catch a faint whiff of whatever it was that clung to Dylan O’Keefe. She almost got to sit next to him in Trig but he dropped the class after the second day of school, thus leaving it up to Charlotte to trail him and his intoxicating scent around the high school.
Her attraction was so overpowering, so utterly paralyzing that she didn’t even tell her best friends. She couldn’t quite articulate the power that this fifteen year-old boy’s smell had on her. It was as if she inhaled herself into an alternate universe when she found her nose within ten feet of him. When she said it out loud, she felt crazy. So that fall, Charlotte kept her insane attraction to this Sophomore boy a closely guarded secret.
That was, until, she found herself sitting next to him after school at a folding table in the Journalism room for a yearbook committee meeting. With every inhalation, Charlotte felt herself closer and closer to passing out.
She could barely utter her own name when the students went around the room to introduce themselves. She could hardly move when they divided themselves into groups, and she found it close to impossible to breathe when she found herself on the photography committee with Dylan, instructed to take pictures throughout the year of the student body engaging in various activities. He clicked his manual Nikon with the confidence of a teenage boy who knew his way around a dark room.
“So, you take pictures?” He asked her point-blank.
Charlotte was temporarily rendered mute. Her mind immediately flew to the undeveloped disposable Kodak camera sitting next to her bed from her grandmother’s 70th birthday in The City. She decided that that counted.
Yeah,” she blushed hard, closing off her nose, forcing herself to breathe out of her mouth just to regain the slightest amount of self control. It helped. She imagined her hands on Dylan’s camera, snapping photos of him in his Vans and tousled hair while he laughed at some hilarious joke she told and the photo became a montage of all the incredible fun they would have together. She was a child of the 80s and, through John Hughs movies, believed that was how all relationships worked. She didn’t see herself as Andy or Dylan as Ducky. But that was really the closest image to the truth.
“I want to get better, though.” She looked up at him through her dark eyelashes before she even knew how good that move was. She was honestly trying to keep her chin down so she didn’t mouth-breathe on his face while still holding her nose. He smiled at her and she heard the shutter of his camera click. And that unintentional, highly flirtatious look just may have worked.
Because the following Tuesday, Ducky, sorry - Dylan was there at the folding table, holding a manilla envelope. Charlotte took an involuntary inhale at the sight of him and the smell almost knocked her to her knees. It may have well have turned the dimly lit, 1960s-designed public high school classroom into the Chris Isaac music video where he and the model roll around in the sand in black and white. That, in a nutshell (or in an MTV reference) is how sexy Charlotte’s nose found Dylan O’Keefe to be.
Charlotte sat down and dropped her messenger bag on the linoleum floor. Dylan pushed the large envelope across the table.
“Here,” now it was his turn to blush.
He watched her intently as she took her time opening it up and finding a mostly developed 8 x 10 of her face from the week before. She studied the print. It was black, white, and a little red. She could see the lines the developer made having sat in the wash for a bit too long. She saw her eyelashes in focus and the rest of her face just a tiny bit blurry. In that moment, she felt exactly like the model in Wanna Fall In Love and swore that the song was playing… somewhere. She looked back at Dylan, mustering the courage and the memory to give him the same look that she had a week ago when he’d captured her on film. She tucked her chin and reached her eyeballs as high up in her head as she could without crossing them and looking like a psycho. They crossed for a second. Dylan must not have noticed because he pulled out more pictures to show her.
Each week, he brought her another poorly developed photo and then another. Charlotte was too smitten to worry about how bad the quality of the yearbook was going to be with this level of talent. She didn’t notice anything about the room or the other students and forgot twice that her mother was picking her up early to go to the doctor for her allergy shots. It was in her parent’s brown VW Bug that Charlotte formulated a plan: she needed an excuse for a date with Dylan.
Maybe they could go to the movies and see American Beauty. She heard that was kind of sexy. Or maybe they could go to his house and watch Ghost with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. That was definitely sexy. She was so caught up in this daydream that she didn’t even flinch when Dr. Muddler pushed the needle into her arm.
“Getting used to these, huh?” He asked, squinting through his coke bottle glasses. Charlotte sort of shrugged. She still had one foot in her daydream. He mother patted her hand.
“I had the same thing when I was growing up. It got better by college. I packed a whole suitcase full of Benadryl!”
“Yeah,” Dr. Muddler nodded, “still, I don’t want you going anywhere without your Epi pen."
Charlotte tuned out while her mom and Dr. Muddler chatted about shots and pollen and dust mites. She imagined sitting with Dylan on a checkered picnic blanket in a field with no adults and, in granular detail, what would be her first kiss. This thought was so intoxicating that she didn’t even notice the second needle in her other arm and felt herself sort of floating out of the office, into the car, and on her way home. It was in the middle of a meatloaf dinner when the house phone rang.
Her father wiped his mouth and folded his napkin in his lap,
"Bet it’s those damn telemarketers. Always calling at dinnertime. Gonna pull a Jerry Seinfeld on one of ‘em. Watch.”
Charlotte’s mom smiled and took a bite while her dad answered the phone.
“Oh?” He said into the receiver, “Charlotte? Why yes, she’s right here. But she’s eating dinner. Because it’s dinner time.“
A zinger shot through Charlotte’s body as she whipped her head around to face her dad.
“She can call you back when she’s finished. And what was your name, young man?”
Our heroine tried very hard not to scream but something closer to a Poodle’s yelp still escaped her lips. She watched her dad scribble down a number on the small notepad that her parents left by the phone.
“Alright son, goodbye.” Charlotte’s father walked back over to the table, sat down in his chair, spread his napkin back on his lap, then methodically cut a piece of meatloaf, slowly, SLOWLY, bringing his fork to his mouth. Charlotte watched him chew in disbelief, waiting for him to say something, ANYTHING, about the person on the other end of the phone call. Five excruciating seconds passed until Charlotte couldn’t take it anymore.
“WHO WAS THAT?”
“Oh,” her father looked up from his plate, a bemused smile spread across his lips, “he said his name was Dylan. Tell him not to call during dinner time.”
Charlotte used ever morsel of strength in her body to remain upright.
The moment she was excused from the table, she raced up to her room, dialing the number on her father’s notepad with trembling hands.
She and Dylan talked for two hours that night. She snuck the phone under her comforter so her parents couldn’t hear and held the receiver close to her face. This was love. She knew it. On the phone, without being hypnotized by his intoxicating scent, Charlotte could be herself. She was funny and witty and charming and he laughed at every single one of her jokes. These phone calls started taking place every night, much to the chagrin of her Trig homework.
This was September. She had to wait until the weekend before Halloween for their first official date. They were going to see Never Been Kissed with Drew Barrymore and Charlotte hoped with all her heart that she would, in fact, BE KISSED.
They settled into their seats at the theater. The smell of popcorn made Charlotte feel warm inside and a little salty outside. She felt brave and cool and grown-up and even let up her mouth breathing for a few minutes. A half an hour into the movie, Dylan reached up and put his arm around her. And then she felt his head turn, looking deep into the side of her face. She swiveled to face him. And then he kissed her.
It was… magical. And then he kissed her again. And again. Charlotte forced herself to breath out of her nose because her mouth was busy. She inhaled his collar and tried to stay conscious. He wrapped his arms around her - there was that smell again - and she felt the softness of his waffle shirt against her skin. The make-out session was mind blowing, Charlotte was over the moon. She was so happy that she felt like she couldn’t breathe.
Oh no, wait, that was real. She couldn’t breathe. AT ALL.
She pulled herself away from the hottest guy in the universe and felt her neck… then her face. Hives. So many hives. All over. Huge hives everywhere his clothing had touched her. She felt her throat begin to close up and fumbled in the dark for the Epi pen that her mother insisted she carry at all times.
With a horrified look on his face, Dylan watched as Charlotte unbuckled her corduroys, pulled down her pants a few inches in the movie theater seat, and stabbed herself in the thigh, gasping for air. There it was… air…. And then the unmistakable scent that was trying to kill her; the smell of Dylan and his shirt.
Charlotte ran out of the theater as Dylan chased after her.
“Stay away from me!” She yelled as the entire Drew Barrymore-loving audience turned their attention to the young man chasing the young woman out of the theater.
Charlotte booked it through the lobby, through the glass door, and ran outside into the cool, Autumn air. She gasped, holding her swollen neck. Dylan was right behind her.
“Stay away!” She called to him, ready to explain her sensitive skin and the entire situation. But two older men had misread what was going on and had followed Dylan out to Charlotte.
The one who looked like he could have taken The Rock in a wrestling match stepped between the two teenagers.
“Now, kid, this girl says to stay away from her. And that’s what you’re going to do.”
Suddenly, Dylan looked a lot less like a hot skater boy with perfectly tousled curls. He looked like a scared child. And Charlotte looked a lot less like a pretty brunette with blue eyeshadow, and more like a bumpy, red alien.
No one was having their best moment. Charlotte didn’t have the wherewithal for anything but the truth. She turned to The Rock.
“No, that’s my - he’s my—“
The Rock wasn’t having it.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve been together for six days or six years. You never let a man tell you what you’re comfortable with. If you were my son, I’d-“
“No!” Charlotte cried, “I love him. I’m just-“ Charlotte gestured to her face and her neck. Then she looked down at the crumbling sidewalk, her eyes filling with tears.
“I’m totally allergic to him.”
That smell, that sexy, all-compassing smell that had pushed Charlotte so hard down the rabbit hole of young love, well, now? Now it made her want to throw up. Which she did. All over the sidewalk. All of a sudden, that scent had turned sour. So sour that she couldn’t be anywhere near it. Thus making this date both her first and her last with Dylan O’Keefe.
From then on, she avoided the hallway near his locker and held her breath if she saw him in the cafeteria. She dropped the yearbook committee since it was a recipe for disaster, and Charlotte tried out for the school musical.
It turned out, she certainly had a flair for the dramatic.