After Durga Chew-Bose
Driving north on the I-5 toward Santa Barbara I inventory the things I’d miss if I died, if my car veered into the median or if another driver plowed sideways into me. There’ve been two fatal accidents this month—people I know, once removed—which feels like death tapping at the edges of routine. But it’s beauty, not morbidity that leads me to this inventory. Everything feels extravagant and it’s because of Santa Fe, because I’m coming off immersion in words and art and people who make me more porous, quicker to exclaim over a misshapen moon or the way evening light columns over mountains and across a freeway.
Driving north I watch the sky melt into peach, palm trees deepening into silhouette caricatures. I think about how I’d miss flowing up the coast like this, the anticipation of arrival. I’d miss the sting of the ocean, sand swirling like glitter in the shallows. I’d miss the sensation of hunger, and of surprise. The warm fragrance of my husband’s sleeping skin. I’d miss stepping off a plane into air that confirms my imagination of a new country—the way southern Mexico smells exactly like I think it should, of taxi exhaust, wet stone plazas, and tulip blossoms like fistfuls of orange. The way Santa Fe burns with sage and piñon and smoke.
Scent is witchy that way. It harnesses a physical place through something invisible: particles floating through air like noise. I left Santa Fe over a week ago but the particles cling to me. I can still smell sap and sage and rain on concrete. The scent of that place is charged, like thunder cracking over the mountains. It is a dorm hall stairwell: cleaning solution and dry linens and expectation. It is cigarette smoke diffusing through the screen of an open window. The scent seeps into the thin bed sheets of St. John’s College, sheets that absorb the way one falls into them: buzzed off low-grade whiskey, shoving pages and pens to the floor, brimming and unsteadied and ready to do it again tomorrow.
If I had a cauldron, I’d make a perfume of it—a catalog of scents to conjure you up. One spritz and you’d be here, all of you. You making coffee, you gripping the balcony railing and watching thunderhead clouds roil. The blue beat of your ankle in the chair next to mine. You holding an ice cream, smart and self-deprecating even as you lick chocolate from the cone. Your pinprick of light in the courtyard at night, heat between your fingers that you stub against the faux-adobe wall. You rushing through pages to find a rebuttal. You with your glasses or your good eyes. You leaning forward, expecting epiphany in that breath of silence between words. You, and you, and you.
Driving north I add the smell of Santa Fe to my inventory. I’d miss it, and I miss it now. And even without it I’m waking up with the same unsteadied, brimming feeling, ready to discover some new word that rinses me all over in gladness for being alive today, today. I’m scouring every conversation and page for that word, ready to lift it and hold it and tuck it away. This is something you taught me—you, and you, and you.