I remember vividly the first time I was mortified in front of a stranger. I was 14 years old and my mother had taken me to our pediatrician for a routine check-up. I remember sitting in the waiting room and wondering how I — with my softly rounded beignet breasts, my tall-for-my-age height and Stephen King readings tastes — belonged in this room of Parents magazine, rattle toys and grimy babies.
But no bother. I was already getting used to pulling away — to having a life of my own not recognized by the adults around me, secrets of my own, an inner self that was exploring and learning and discovering without the burden of being conscious about it.
People talk a lot about how terrible it is to be a teenager, but remembering it now I know it was a great time to be a person in a body.
My check-up was normal and I had already edged forward in my chair when my mother brought up something she hadn’t even talked about with me yet.
“Emily, do you think we should talk about your little problem?” she said.
“Um… what problem.”
Teenagers talk in declarations, by the way, not questions.
“You know, the soap sniffing.”
I had been taking a lot of baths. How much is a lot? Every night, for an hour and a half to two hours, I had been submersing myself in about two feet of water in our upstairs bathroom. What in the world was I doing up there? Well, looking back I think I might have been watching my breasts grow until they were two floating islands poking out through the top of the water. Or maybe I was seeing how far my big toe would fit into the water spout. Or perhaps I was memorizing the ingredients of on a bottle of shampoo and saying methylchloroisothiazolinone until it became something of a mantra, or at the very least spoken-word poetry.
I was doing all of these things, but more than anything else, I was smelling a bar of Safeguard.
Safeguard is a pretty harsh soap to use on your skin. But at the time it was all I knew, and I was completely in love with it. It was clean and the texture was just slightly rough in my hands. I developed a way of massaging a bar of Safeguard with my hands, rolling it between my palms in order to produce a mass of bubbles as large as a hydrangea bouquet. Then I would pop them with my nose and inhale the scent.
Lather. Pop. Repeat.
There is a perfect moment in the life of a bar of Safeguard, by the way. When your hands have rounded the curves on the four corners, reduced the volume by about half and made it into an almost flattened egg shape, that’s when you know the soap is at the perfect phase for making scent bubbles.
“I don’t have a soap problem, mom,” I whispered to her in the doctor’s office.
“She’s carrying a bar of soap around with her,” Mom said.
“Really, I just like the smell.”
I liked the smell so much that when the bars of Safeguard got beyond their ideal size and shape for popping soap bubbles I would dry them out on the counter and then carry them in my pocket at school.
I was a girl with a C-cup in eighth grade. Enough said.
Soon, my friends knew me as the girl with the soap. I started getting soap gifts from people and amassed a small collection — Cherry bath beads, pristine, paper-wrapped Crabtree & Evelyn soaps shaped like shells and a green glycerin hippo. But it was always the bar of Safeguard I had in my pocket, ready to be whipped out at a moment’s, notice, a teenager’s talisman.
It was never about the shape, and I didn’t have any unfortunate OCD obsession with cleanliness. It was the smell — the act of inhaling, of finding the best way to get that scent, of smelling that scent when I really needed it, of where that scent took me, which in this case was back to the bathtub, and total, complete, unadulterated solitude.
“I think she’ll grow out of it,” Dr. Boben told my mother.
I grew out of Safeguard. But I didn’t grow out of the traveling through smell.