Cherry Chapstick

by C.C.
Image courtesy of the author. [A bright green field with a bright green forest behind it. In the distance. someone is lying face down on a patch of grass.]

This essay is part of Scent Access Memory, our editorial series with Dirt.

I wrote only once about a smell, and it was to say that Avenue U smells like bread. But not delicious bread. I know what that means: delicious bread smells warm, soft, and sour. The Avenue U bread smelled sweet, quick, and tepid, like it lacked passion. For anyone else to understand what I mean, they would need to have smelled the same breads as me or recall what bread even smells like. It can be hard to tell memory apart from imagination in these situations.

A song titled Cherry Chapstick played in my headphones as I looked at the chapstick selection.

In Midwinter Day, the avant-garde language and New York School poet Bernadette Mayer wrote a mix of prose and poetry to capture dreams, meals, errands, and family life on December 22, 1978, before they turned into memories. Mayer attempted to document memory in real time to avoid the imprecise transformations that happen when adjacent archived moments influence how each gets filtered through storytelling later. Mayer’s actual memories died with her in 2022, but they are kept alive by a cult following of young poets who attend and participate in annual marathon readings of Midwinter Day.

Cherry comes in a pack of three; I have to commit to all three if I want to smell it again.

Reading Midwinter Day isn’t enough for me to understand it, so every year on December 22, I document my day and the act of rereading the book. The theater director Jacques Lecoq wrote in The Moving Body that “to mime is literally to embody and therefore to understand better” and that miming becomes a form of knowledge. I must insert my body in the work’s space and time to discover who I am and how I’m different within Mayer’s framework. 

Midwinter Day continues to teach me new ways of paying attention to details of life, turning easily forgettable into impossibly unforgettable. I remember the neighbor’s bass-heavy music boring into my bedroom in 2019, the canvas bag a stranger carried as I walked behind them in the rain in 2022, and the large rock I used as a reading chair on a cold beach the following year. I remember listening to a sad song and noticing that everyone nearby walked away from me in a very organized fashion, all in different directions. 

I met the eyes of a confused store clerk as their boss told them to go help a customer in aisle six. We were in aisle six. Cherry chapstick smells like seventh grade. 

Things are loud and hectic in Midwinter Day. Mayer wrote mostly of sights (“Winter flies are dying by the window.”) and sounds (“Below us the ardent hairdressers are beginning to welcome customers like spoiled children.”) and of few other senses, but smells seem to be absent. I also couldn’t find smell in Memory, Mayer’s month-long project documenting an entire person’s stream of consciousness with photography and journaling. Reflecting on the project, she wrote, “I thought by using both sound and image, I could include everything, but so far, that is not so.” To include everything, like smells, Mayer would have had to recreate the whole month, moment by moment, for an audience or give the audience precise instructions to physically perform it themselves.

A loud radio commercial filled the thrift store as I looked for a simple scarf. I sniffed the rack of old leather jackets, none in a style or smell that appealed to me.

Like Mayer, I made connections between what I saw, heard, felt, and thought in my midwinter journals but seldom what I smelled. Like many, I avoided writing smells down because I needed more language to articulate what I smelled. The description of scent relies heavily on connecting imagination, memory, and metaphor. Mayer never showed me how to pay attention with my nose, and with no recorded smells in my midwinter journals, I don’t recall any beyond the Avenue U bread, chapstick, leather jackets, and tamales.

I tasted the cherry chapstick as I touched corduroy pants and knitted garments. Someone tried on a fur shawl and laughed in the mirror. 

Language is a product of observational learning, so gaining the vocabulary requires first noticing the smell, the environment around that smell, and the reactions it prompts. There doesn’t seem to be any way to represent smell other than to physically present it or describe what kind of attention it attracts. Even for a poet devoted to exploring the depths of language, Mayer seemed to take an easier path in Memory, mentioning details like “soap in the morning,” “smoke rising,” “street garbage & smells on the wheel of the tire.” The implied smells are there without confrontation, like there wasn’t enough time to stop and explain further. Building any more of the image is work left for the reader to build on their own.

Spiced meat filled the air as I watched someone ask passersby to join a discussion about the environment. I thought for a brief moment I would.

In Hirokazu Koreeda’s moving film, After Life, people who died are tasked with choosing one memory to exist in for eternity. They describe specific sensory details that affected them in their chosen moments: a breeze from an open window, tasting salt during a war, a blinding pale blue light, and the silence of snow. Scent came up only once when someone was encouraged to find a more significant memory than an ordinary day at an amusement park. “I remember how my mother smelled then.” She doesn’t describe how her mother smelled; it just made her feel warm, safe, and loved. As she explains the scene, she makes a note of every sense. She had to have complete awareness through every perception tool available to remember a small moment with such clarity. 

The smells of the tamale truck influenced a friendly reaction, but then it was gone after I spent it ordering food. 

The clearest, most potent memory I have is of a nap. I engaged every sense without interruption as I sprawled out, belly down near a tree. The strong herbal scent of thyme creeping through the grass lulled me, the spring sun warmed my back, and a bronze bell swayed in the breeze. A wall of trees was the last thing I saw when I closed my eyes and the first thing I saw when I opened them again. Someone took a photo of this nap, and when I look at it years later, I can recall everything as if I were still there. If tasked with choosing one memory to exist in for eternity, the nap is a high contender, but there is still time to make more fully realized memories. Maybe next midwinter day, I will smell something I can never forget.

Tamale stuck to the cherry chapstick on my lips as I took a bite.

C.C. uses text, image, performance, and sound to write poetry.