Sunday, February 20, 2011
The Quebec woods in March were deep in snow, every maple tree had been punctured with a tap, and from every tap a bucket hung.
She was seven years old, bundled in a snowsuit, scarf, sealskin boots and woolen mittens that were safety-pinned to her sleeves.
The sugar shack was nothing more than a hovel with a horse track leading to it, and all around were huge black iron kettles suspended over wood fires.
Men on horseback brought the buckets of clear maple sap to the kettles, and after much bubbling and stirring, the sap turned to syrup and the syrup was ladled onto the snow where it hardened into maple candy.
She bit into a piece, experiencing her first taste of maple, complicated and sweet.
That first taste left its sediment in her mouth so that forever she would accept no Aunt Jemima or Log Cabin or ribbon cane syrup as a substitute.
There was a time when his sense of smell was acute and his enjoyment of perfumes and food was lusty.
He used to discern, for example, the scent of L’Aire du Temps on a woman’s neck or the subtle floral notes in Diorissimo ( iris) and Balmain’s Fleurs de Rocaille (geranium) to the amazement of those lovely women he dated.
He knew the riotous aroma of Mussaman curry as distinct from that of Panang or Vindaloo, and sometimes he used to sit over a plate of food for long minutes, just savoring its scent.
He is not sure when his sense of smell abandoned him, but certainly in his 85th year it was gone.
Perhaps it was a mercy, he thought, that he could not smell the pap they fed him by the spoonful from a plastic tray, not caring whether he tolerated the ground up soupy mess as long as he swallowed it on schedule.
He mused that sights and sounds are easy to recall, the evidence of which was that he remembered the colors of sand in Catalina and the overture to Swan Lake, but smells, once gone, cannot be called back.
“Some enchanted evening, you will see a stranger across a crowded room, and somehow you’ll know, you’ll know even then…” -- South Pacific.
That’s how it happened to Ben. He saw her at the Baxters’ party, he was stricken, and he walked to her across the room as if she were reeling him in on a short line. She was lively, bright, olive skinned with fantastic dark curls, and single. He invited her outside where they talked, and she agreed to watch the Stanley Cup playoffs at his house the following night.
The next evening, he could not take his eyes off her, drank her in, made no pretense of watching the hockey game. It didn’t last, though, because Ben was in love with falling in love, a pleasure he craved serially and often, and his fascination with beauty trumped all other pleasures that might have followed.
The air raid sirens of his childhood sent up flares of fear, and he fled with his family to an underground shelter with a hundred others. Once the precinct captains allocated a sturdy tunnel to a precise number of people, no more were allowed inside.
He crouched between his father’s knees, a small sweater-clad curl of terror, while the bombs sheared off houses from the face of London.
From the first waa-waa of the sirens, through the booming artillery and the crash of masonry above ground, he kept his hands clamped over his ears with such ferocity that he scarred himself.
Now an old man, he looks in his shaving mirror and sees the crescent imprints of his youthful fingernails embossed on his face.
He no longer dreams of bombs and sirens, but on some nights he has to remind himself that the wail of an ambulance merely signals a life being saved.
In Cambodia’s northeast provinces of Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri live the Kreung, an indigenous ethnic people who form villages of 20 to 60 families.
When a Kreung girl reaches the age of 15 or so, her parents build a hut for her some distance from the family dwelling, and there she may spend nights with boys of her choosing. By allowing the girl to choose her sexual partners and have privacy, the Kreung believe she will find the best possible partner for marriage. This time of experimentation and selection plays a vital role in the romantic success of marriages and the future happiness of women, the Kreung believe.
Halfway across the world, the predominant American religions forbid not only premarital sexual experiences, but also the touching of oneself. A Republican senate candidate from Delaware in 2010, Christine O’Donnell, reminded Americans, "It is not enough to be abstinent with other people, you also have to be be abstinent alone.”
I visit my parents after a long absence, and my mother says, “Well, Bobby Z. is getting married, and it’s all very sudden,” while my father emits a snort signifying his opinion.
“In fact,” she says, “I need to call the family to ask the bride’s name so I can address the gift card.”
In that moment, the room dims, a blackboard fills my field of vision, and a hand writes across it in a white feminine script: M-i-c-h-e-l-i-n-e. The image lingers a moment, the way a bright spot lingers after a flashbulb.
When I tell them, my parents scoff, “That’s ridiculous.”
Later, of course, it turns out that I am right