Florine Stettheimer, Heat (detail), 1919, Oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer

Eau d'Isolation

Kashina waxes poetic on the scent of the year 2020.

by Kashina
Dec 25 2020, 5:00am

Florine Stettheimer, Heat (detail), 1919, Oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer

2020 was year of forced warren, enclosure, feeling like a blanched stem of asparagus grown in the dark. With little social interaction and opportunities for the everyday, the accidental touch that thaws, the scent of the body often filled in as invisible always-companion, a living presence projected outward, no longer a shadowy imprint but an intimacy displayed and made prominent, being acutely high-tension aware of one’s breath rising falling in-out, trying to find the colored ribbons in the monochrome. It’s an intimate sweet staleness, the same salt-milky warmth searched for when you pull on a loved one’s holey sweater or reach out for an embrace. Mammalian-twinship. Shared nestings. My breath weaves a blanket of toasted-brown threads, beige and furred. It’s unkempt, rough around the edges, patchworked from a dozen teas, medicines, hiccups, and foods, but it still reassures and comforts me. I discover it repeatedly, it regenerates and surprises, skating and breezing against my face, wave-rush, whispering that my body is still here, my body is still now.

Florine Stettheimer - Heat.jpg
Florine Stettheimer, "Heat," 1919, oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum​, gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer

All exhalations are captured, netted and hooked around me for hours. New writing and characters—scrawling a diary on cloth, an unspooling, the day’s activities stamped in scent for you to replace and wipe away when you return home and untie the strings, head for the laundry hamper or garbage. An article fashioned to hinder and avert the body’s airflow and givings, instead reversed and pitcher-planted, a steadily-filling receptacle of all that my body thought temporary, it types out your own inner responses and actions. Here is a record of myself, its goings and (more often) stayings, its visitors, lenses, and filters—the sweetish, too-ripe syrup of saliva from sneezing, with its tart hint of pears and undiluted peach nectar; the dryness of my throat when containing a cough, acrid and clouded with bitterness; rose-infused face cream mixed with perspiration melting into moist beads on my cheeks, petals wilted and curling in on themselves, saline-dusted; balms flavored with lavender and vanilla that form a cushiony waxed cloud around my mouth until they get pressed-off again, leaves in a book; sneaking drip from a sniffle, a river I don’t want to be swept into; poorly-judged lunches, allium-heavy, that can only make one laugh (muffled) at the foul absurdity of it all, garlic anti-microbial and anti-everything!, my mouth a steam locomotive of pungent reek until I shut it up (sitting on overstuffed briefcase, close, close!) with lemon geranium mints that leave me as rosy-lipped as a bisque doll, palate cleansed and transformed into a demure floral white, lemon pith and soft lighting, until I bite into something ill-advised again. This is what I processed—this is what I did. Here is a scroll to be unraveled.

In a time when only strong and screaming antiseptic, screechy odors pierce through the (heather grey, pink swirl, cream-and-peach-striped, black and blue) fabric—the hissy, blinding vapors of unmarked gallon jugs of mystery hand sanitizing solutions in doorways, carpet freshener foam’s sickly, artificial-lilac glare, fishhook through the nose of bleach and abrasive cleansers—glorying in the animalistic, low-lying, creeping waves radiating energetic from the body can feel freeing. The body doesn’t stop—it produces, exhales, secretes and exudes, an ivy tangle of scents that will grow and enmesh forever, against efforts to deodorize, tame, or negate. Freely available. “Yours to Discover,” as the license plate once read. Even if it’s simply wiping off sweat on your temples from hunching over a stove, inhaling the downy cedar-shavings in the crook of your elbow, or playing with a lock of two-day unwashed hair, your own scent is this year’s gift to you—one that can unfurl secretly, playfully, specially, luxuriously away behind closed doors.