by Helene Seifer
There’s a spot in the hallway where all the smells linger. The aroma of sautéed garlic sneaks out of the kitchen, rounds the corner and hovers there, in that hall. The intoxicating charred-meat smell of my neighbor’s barbecue wafts through the open window and snakes through the house, settling there, too. The vanilla-scented candle on the bathtub’s edge, the night-blooming jasmine that hides the chain link fence on the property line, the sneaked cigarette outside the back door, the dog’s mangy wet hair – all find their way to that one spot, trapping aromatic vestiges of our lives.
If I have a scary nightmare, the salty funk of my sweat finds its way to the hall and announces to all who pass what kind of night I had.
If I leave the house for a long walk, a trip to the grocery store, or a visit with a friend, the fact of my return is marked by walking through that hallway and a deep sniff reveals everything that occurred in the house while I was gone.
My son made a grilled cheese. My daughter spritzed cologne. My husband sharpened his number twos into nubs. My son had sex with his girlfriend. My daughter opened a new wand of mascara. My husband pulled a dusty folder from an old cardboard banker’s box.
One day, I came home from a hunt for rosemary, and the herb’s pungent smell began to drift into the hall as soon as I opened the front door. But not quickly enough to mask the smell of leather. Old leather. Worn leather. Leather rubbed lovingly by tender fingers over and over again. A scent I realized I had detected many times of late, but not as strong as this.
Curious, I left my herbs on the kitchen counter and went to trace the animal muskiness to its source. A whiff in my son’s room came up empty; likewise, my daughter’s. The living room dining room, and bathrooms were innocent of leather undertones, too. The master bedroom was clean. My husband’s office, a whirlwind of yellow pads, wadded papers, scattered pens and pencils, stacks of cardboard boxes, all with their competing smells, held promise. And then I saw it — a small vintage leather portfolio, unzipped and open on the computer keyboard. Inside, ivory papers, newly printed with photographs. Who are these people? A zaftig woman in black with pearl buttons, a slight scowl on her thin lips. A passel of children in matching outfits, the once-vibrant Kodachrome color faded to a memory. A bride and groom cutting a four-tiered cake covered in white-frosting roses. Wait, I recognize that photo: my mom and dad. And here’s great-grandma Luba and her nine children in the Russian shtetl. And here’s us, hiking to Bash Bish Falls, swimming in the blue-raspberry-popsicle-colored ocean in Bermuda. Me, with a gigantic baby bump. Me, holding our tiny premie baby. Here’s…here’s… My eyes stung with tears.
I left the album as I’d found it. And on my birthday, when I unwrapped the leather-bound album, I gratefully pretended to be surprised.