There was a particular deodorant I used when I was a teenager going to junior high school in Katy, Texas—TEEN Spirit Stick in a floral scent. Orchard Blossom to be exact. Today when I smell the Lady Speed Stick version of the same scent (the TEEN Spirit Stick has since been discontinued), I’m transported back to the gym changing room at school.
I remember my terror of being the new kid at school, of being foreign, of being the outsider, and of being the girl who didn’t want straight hair for her school photo but managed to trip over a cord running to another girl’s straightening iron. The memory is fresh like a first disappointment. The other girls in the big bathroom twisting their little necks, scowling down at me and my thick, thick, brown hair. I remember hanging onto a basketball with a steel grip, wrestling for the ball, pulling it away from another girl who fought just as hard. I held on with a hold that spelled out fear and determination, that said: “Let me be. I’m just a girl wanting to belong. Let me in.”
After that, from the pleased looks on the faces of the adult coaches and the other students, I could tell that I’d gained some ground. It sickened me to know that I had to fight and claw my way to be accepted. That I had be challenged first, like I was guilty until proven innocent.
Most of the time, I felt like a nobody at school. A walking hollow of a kid. Not American, but not quite British. An imposter. A hybrid person. An anomaly that didn’t fit into the American dream’s puzzle of being a young American schoolgirl. I remember coming home one day and writing on the white board stuck to the fridge, “I’m losing my soul.” My mother frowned at me later, asking me to clarify what I meant. I couldn’t explain it till much later when I was in my twenties.
Sometimes I ate my packed lunch sitting on a closed toilet seat in the bathroom holding a book in one hand and a sandwich in the other. I was a shy, introverted kid who dreamed in video games, daydreams of being an artist, and fantasy novels where girls were strong and flew majestic flying ships. These things took me far, far away.
The smell of orchard blossom is a lesson in the meanness of strangers, in the value of solitude, and in the early crafting of an identity.
It’s March 2010 and I walk through the campus in the aftermath of the huge hailstorm. I smell a strong, pungent, and earthy smell. It takes me a moment to identify the source, but once I see the tall, eucalyptus trees shivering before me, I know it’s coming from them. The fact that there was that much fragrance—that much love—coming from destruction was surprising and enlightening. It was a relief to know that sometimes a little shaking could release something new. It was the first time I looked at the trees with a sense of wonder. I hadn’t realized their full beauty—their potential—until now.
Hello, I said.
I thanked the heavens for the joyous, freakishly strange occasion, the sky still gray and broken overhead. I stepped over broken bits of tree like I was stepping over a dead body: slowly and respectfully, trying not to stare too much, whispering words of mourning, words celebrating the life that was, the life that could still be felt. While standing on the white carpet blanketing the grassy oval in late summer, a strange, sudden chill shook my body and I knew that a memory had been born.
Before bed, I take a sniff of the eucalyptus oil I keep on my bedside table and shudder with the memory of the hailstorm. My body relaxes and I lay myself down like tree branches stretching in the air.