Perfumes, like symphonies, are built with notes. Any decent one is concocted using the fragrance pyramid: top, middle, and base notes.
I explain this to our daughter, who frowns at my grocery list.
Ma— She’s frustrated, more so than usual, I can tell. —Did you take your medicine today?
I nod vaguely to conceal that I hadn’t, because why would I? My finger taps the slip of paper. I am making perfume.
What kind of a perfume has gasoline? Her brow crinkles as she turns away. Oh, also. Carol next door asks if you could stop staring out your window all day. It looks right onto her rose bushes and…I don’t know, it can make people uncomfortable.
So that was the name of those flowers: roses. I nod in agreement, my second lie in as many minutes. But who was our daughter to stop me when she herself is at work all day? I reach for a pen and take the list from her.
I draw a triangle:
My hand slips on the Mandarin character for envelope, which I spell out for her in English letters. Xing feng, I write, the latter of which I know she will mistake to mean wind.
Her nose wrinkles, possibly triggered by the sour, eggy smell befalling all geriatrics and, most recently, me. I am not sure when I acquired it, but I must have at some point, like a bad flu. My gaze steadies on those beautiful nostrils she once stuffed with cotton balls in defiance of my lessons in perfumology. Our daughter is quite the sight now. She has the best features of your hair, thick and weighty yet somehow also defying gravity. Unlike me, you always knew she would turn out pretty, even before she was born.
I gesture for her to bring me a chair, which is also my way of saying, you had better stay put. I smooth the list and tap the topmost section of the triangle, Gasoline, which is itself a smaller triangle.
You start with the top notes, I say. The bottle-open impressions that are first to come and first to go. Then come the middle notes—my finger lands on Spoiled Flour—which stay for hours, that bathroom-stall smell lingering in the wake of a previous user. And lastly you have the base notes, those back-of-the-closet scents on shirts and sheets. Red Envelopes. These last for years.
This perfume I am making—it is of your father, I announce. And the act feels something like releasing a sky lantern or tasting the first rose apples of summer. Freedom.
At this point our daughter is giving me a look typically reserved for stray dogs, or babies after soiling their diapers.
Ma…is this another one of your senior moments? Look, I had a long day at work. Can we just forget this? I won’t mention it to Dr. Praeger.
Of course. The name that is supposed to spark fear, or at least deference, in my heart. Surely she will make a scene of telling Dr. Praeger about this episode; come dinnertime she and Mark will sit me down to talk through my treatment options, as if I am the mothered instead of the mother.
You know how I’ve never trusted authority. But if I want this perfume of you, I need to side with our daughter, the side of reason. To show her just how clear my mind is, I say, but why would you want me to forget? I thought the whole point of Dr. Praeger is to do the opposite.
She can’t argue with that, instead crossing her arms and leaning back in resignation. Okay. I’m all ears.
If you want me to explain, I need to start at the top, with gasoline. Your father always knew how to make a first impression.
Wait— Is this just the story of how you and Ba met? I’ve heard it a thousand times.
Aiya. Don’t interrupt. This is different, I tell her. But really, I am telling you.
We met while watching the initial wave of soldiers march by. You approached me on the edge of the road after elbowing through the crowd, when clearly the other side of the street had more standing room. Though we were confused, fear was not poised on the tips of our tongues, and even if it were, we surely would have swallowed it.
The American uniforms were grimy with humidity and sweat, but no one seemed to mind. What first could have been the synchronized shouts of soldiers quickly revealed itself as laughter. That unmistakable military swagger, imported from overseas along with a certain scent of change. Overhead, the streets shook with a guttural sort of rumbling, as if afraid. At least they knew how to feel; I didn’t know whether to be scared or excited or both.
Some of our own men headed the pack, donning the signature dust-green of Taiwan’s Kuomingtang. In contrast to the Americans, they wore their lips in thin lines, traceable yet elusive. They had been at this for longer and understood it for the somber situation that it was. In nightly newscasts led by Chiang Kai-Shek, Communism was described as an invisible virus, intangible yet part of our physical reality. Our President likened it to a dust inhaled into vulnerable brains, filling them with ideologies of equality at whatever cost. (In response, Chiang’s cabinet regularly imprisoned bandit spies, either Taiwanese sympathizers or mainland Communists who had snuck over to “infiltrate our minds.”)
I tried to assess the soldiers’ lives then, tried, in my awkward young adult way, to spot the cutest one with whom I could orchestrate eye contact. It was my first time seeing Americans in the flesh and I was fascinated by their whole getup—some with tanned skin in hues not unlike my own, but which would clearly default to a lighter base in the absence of sun; others with shimmery complexions like chocolate or tamarind.
Suddenly I felt a nudge at my side, strong enough to be deliberate, soft enough to be excused as an accident.
Sorry, miss, you said in feigned apology. Mind if I stand here?
I flashed you a look. Who was this man disrupting my game of Spot the Cutest Soldier? I tiptoed to get a better view at whatever thing was making the grumbling noise amid the soldiers’ chants.
You stood at a respectable distance, but still (curse my nose!) I was overwhelmed by the scent of you. It drifted up my nostrils and I thought: now that’s a strange combination. Instinctively I reached for the bottle sewn in the waist of my pants—I kept perfume on me at all times in case I encountered any particularly offensive smells.
At last the back of the procession came into view—a growling mechanical beast transpiring on wheels. I had of course seen American cars before, but never ones so loud and clunky. Its deep green matched the soldiers’ uniforms; its open top exposed them to us, and us to them.
At its wheel sat a brown-haired man who possessed the kind of brawn that barely compensated for deficiencies of the mind and heart. He reminded me of Mark.
Our daughter bristled defensively, albeit pridefully. Mark was, if distilled down to two words only, incredibly hot.
We were lucky, the brown-haired man proclaimed, that they were there to help us. Through them the great dream of Capitalism would be upheld.
The Americans had a whole list of things they wanted to accomplish while here, at the top of which was to protect the Formosa from Red China. America, of all countries, knew what it meant to be free—even their cars exuded a certain energy of freedom. After all, the country’s Mandarin name, mei guo, quite literally meant beautiful country. Their soldiers would be stationed in several military bases along the island until their President gave further notice. They would assist Taiwan with counterespionage, governmental guidance, Chinese imports interception, and military intimidation. Make no mistake—at stake was the free world. Led by the Kuomingtang, the soldiers were united, if not in physiognomy then in agenda.
The Commies in China resembled us but held vastly different ideals; the Americans looked different but shared the same. Still, it wasn’t too long ago that the US had bombed us in the second World War, back when we were colonial subjects of Japan, sworn rival to the US. Across the crowd, you murmured with the others. Weren’t we enemies just years ago? Suddenly we’re friends, because we now share an enemy. America sees only in black-and-white. If you’re not a friend, you’re an enemy.
Then the soldiers started on their way, tail-ended by the Jeep. The beast exhaled in salutation, leaving in its wake an invisible invitation we answered. I led the way as we chased the car down the street. I can’t explain why we ran, but simply that to me, the gasoline smelled sweet, almost like perfume, and for once I felt as if Taipei could be the center of the universe. I could smell you right there behind me, chasing the new and novel. What would life have been like if they had never come, if they had never stayed?
Our daughter frowns. But they did, right? Stayed in Taiwan?
Yes, I reply. Now for the middle-note years of spoiled flour:
Soon after we chased cars down nameless streets, you told me the world was ending. Without the smell of gasoline, I was able to garner your scent more strongly. Of course it was ending. I laughed you off, avoiding your gaze. I didn’t want any more apocalypse talk.
It had been six weeks since the first Americans arrived, and you were now a regular in our store. Fate had positioned your parents’ shop at the end of our street, whose gentle curve allowed you a perfect view of my parents’ perfumery. The first time you sauntered in, I took advantage of the slow business to usher you out with some excuse for an early close. My overactive mind had branded you a bandit spy, sent from China to recruit young females for the Red Guard. I heard that because they were primarily the poorest peasants with nothing to lose, the Guard fought and lived without fear of death. You seemed to fit that description.
This tenacity drove you to our shop for so many days that I eventually lost count. Against a backdrop of ailments both real and fake, you treated our perfumery like an apothecary housing antidotes and cures. If not for the comical lengths you went to suppress coughs and gasp for air each time you entered, I never would have humored you.
The day you told me the world was ending, you had inquired about a particular scent for treating your mother’s lapses in memory (further complicating the matter by saying that your father, the primary witness to her memory loss, was also deteriorating himself). I assured you there was no such perfume.
As a joke or token of consolation, I showed you a favorite scent of my mother’s, which had played no small part in enchanting my father. It was a perfume heavy with middle notes, or heart-notes, as we call it, which take longer to dissipate. It had no medical basis for treating pre-existing memory loss, but the scent alone was potent enough to provide an olfactory anchor at the moment of inhalation—a perfumed time-stamp.
Of course the world was ending, I said. Everything was always ending.
Ma, you already said that, our daughter interrupts.
I did not. Did I? She shrugs, then nods.
Anyway. I passed the bottle to you but quickly drew away; I was growing hot in my flour sack shirt. You donned the same shapeless burlap cloth, popular in those days and sewn from military-rationed flour sacks. No matter how many times I scrubbed, notes of spoiled flour lingered in the rough fibers of the cloth.
But guess what, you said. Everything was always beginning, too. As an example you cited the classic conundrum of chicken versus egg, saying that everything circled back onto itself. Out of life sprung death and out of death life. You sprayed the perfume and it dissipated in our silence.
I need to go, I said, flipping the Open sign over our door. I muttered something about modified hours in the wake of recent shell warnings from the government. Besides, monsoon season had started.
You persisted even as I locked the door. Outside, the rains had begun, heavy and unforgiving. When I started running, you followed me for the second time in as many months as if it were the most natural thing, chasing after a girl who refused you. The street thronged with motorbikes and scooters—mere toys compared to the American Jeep. You picked up your pace along the side of the road and in my pride, so, too, did I. An American, off-duty on a motorbike, laughed and motioned for us to keep up as he weaved among traffic. We ran through our own throngs of side-walkers, trying to keep up.
Hey! I yelled to him. Wait for us! (It’s possible that in my shortness of breath I did not pronounce this correctly in English.) The American laughed again and sped ahead, turning back to shout, Come on! We ran even faster, soaked in our spoiled-flour sack shirts. For a few seconds we were actually running parallel with him, and I wanted nothing more than to touch his fingertips, if only for a graze. Like passing a baton in a relay, I could absorb that special energy of Americans.
Water had collected in uneven patches of road, and it was into a particularly large pool that the American rode before drenching us in the after-splash. You trailed after him a bit longer with a raised fist as if to say, This isn’t over! I was too exhausted and wet to follow suit. But I couldn’t stop wondering. In that brief moment when we had been neck-in-neck with the motorbike, were we running with or against him?
In this way, summertime passed, forgiving never but exciting always. Monsoons and rainstorms occurred on alternate days as if in a celestial pact to mock us—we thought we would never be dry again. We ran in it all, past the soldiers who rationed out flour without ever considering that it could spoil by the time it got to us, so long were the lines that looped around streets. And so I came to associate my racing heart with you.
Reality, however, was never more than an arm’s length away. It was not uncommon for neighbors to disappear following government accusations of their being bandit spies for Red China. Torture methods were horrendous and involved creative, slow methods that always ended in death. Anyone caught with a red book raised a red flag, never to be seen again. Across the island, American troops seemed to divide and multiply in their new bases—Navy, Air Force, Marines. There were rumors that the President himself would visit, and the streets shook constantly with cars shipped from America.
Bomb drills became another element of the new normal. An offshore island was being bombarded with metal shells almost around-the-clock after China had tried to land there. In response, we—Taiwan and the US—sank several of their ships. Over the next few weeks China would pivot their means of ambush from sea to air and back again, though their actions were never enough to claim victory.
Once, a terrific clatter at first thought to be explosives was upon closer inspection revealed to be hollowed metal shells containing Chinese propaganda leaflets. The leaflets, too, were deceiving—they were shaped and scented like red envelopes, but they were not the least bit lucky. A cruel trick it was, dropping false fortunes from the sky. I remember how children, far from ducking under schoolroom desks, would race out in attempts to catch these metal eggs holding what could only be interpreted to them as divine blessings. It didn’t matter that the red envelopes were neither envelopes nor red, or that they contained pamphlets of Mao’s teachings. Sometimes the delusion was enough.
Our daughter looks away. Ma… I think I know what happens next. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.
It’s not my choice, Daughter. I have to tell you while I still remember.
I point to the bottom section of the perfume pyramid. Last, we have the base notes, the enduring essence of a scent: red envelopes.
Base notes are like cats, or inspiration—they settle in only when they’re ready. Otherwise known as the smell that lingers in the backs of closets or buildings right before they are torn down. You can never be sure how long they will last—days, weeks, or even months. Often, they are the only thing you remember of a person.
The American President did not visit. Instead, nearly a year after the Americans first arrived, we got their newest Commander. I’ve forgotten his formal name, but we called him simply Da K, which meant Big K in Mandarin. By then our daughter was several months along in my stomach. The conflict with China had escalated to the point that the US was seriously considering atomic bombs, and had it not been for the disastrous aftermath of Hiroshima just a decade before, probably would have.
Da K and his men went cruising in their sleek motorcade, basking in our sunlight and stares. Why did they always have to go at the speed of light, as if driving faster across land could speed up their time on it?
What happened next was both instantaneous and irreversible:
1) A fresh torrent of propaganda leaflets rained down from the sky; Red China must have known that the Commander was visiting. Unlike previous pamphlets, they were not encased in metal shells but rather bulk-dropped by a mainland jet. And they were not leaflets like before but actual red envelopes, the kinds reserved for New Years and celebrations. Shiny envelopes filled not with money but the teachings of Mao. In any other scenario, so much red would have been considered lucky.
2) You were running across the street to meet me when the envelopes fell and circled you. Everything in sight was at the mercy of the winds.
3) The same winds carried the scent of red envelopes to the motorcade driver, who inhaled deeply and closed his eyes.
The red envelopes ended up costing you, because a whizzing motorcade can still whizz when its driver’s eyes are closed.
When the car swerved—too late—and made contact with you, the envelopes flew up,
on the ground beside you, and then you, too, were on the ground.
I could smell the blood before I saw it. In that moment a bitter claw squeezed my chest and it was then I knew that yes, hearts can in fact break. Half of me wanted to jump in front of the next moving car, but our daughter made it too difficult to run. Even as Da K stepped out to examine the aftermath, even as the Secret Service circled you in hushed tones and tried to temper my wails, I felt our daughter kick, already protesting her arrival into a world that left her single-parented. You were a pale rumple in the road, a flour sack adrift. The ambulance could only take us so fast. If we had a Jeep, would we have made it to the hospital in time?
We’ll pay you, they said. Enough to keep you comfortable (enough to keep me quiet) for the rest of your life.
It is only now in America that I realize what the scent of red envelopes must have reminded the homesick driver of, enough to make him close his eyes while driving at the speed of light. Roses. The nose does not lie. As much as I tried, I couldn’t get the scent of you out—I smelled red envelopes, spoiled flour, and gasoline in streets and corner-bends. And so the gasoline that brought you to me had just as quickly taken you away.
After the Americans departed and Taiwan settled into the growing pains of democracy, things stilled. Even then, it took something like years before life fully quieted down and the Chinese government announced a decrease in bombings. Did we win? Surely we must have. I remember the absences (Jeeps, flour sacks, you) more than the presences. The saddest part is that I recall the time after your death in only years and decades. Not in months or weeks and never in moments. I raised our daughter. I grieved the loss of my parents. I ran the perfume shop until I couldn’t. The rest of my life loomed before me like a beast that needed to be conquered. Because if I didn’t, it would conquer me.
Say something, say something. You believe me, don’t you?
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
Our daughter is silent.
“It’s not that,” she finally says.
“It’s all so long ago. How does anyone remember?” She meets my gaze for the first time that day. “Ma, you should know…this isn’t the first time you’ve shown me your perfume list. I just act surprised each time you bring it up.
“Your stories are different every day. Yesterday, Ba was killed by a stray missile that spared everyone but you. The day before that it was a heart attack. I just…don’t know what to believe anymore. I thought it would be better if you just forgot about the perfume. I kept hoping you would. But it’s actually the one thing you’ve brought up consistently since you got here. And today was the first time your story made some sort of sense.”
What on earth was she talking about? The nerve of her! Of all the memories I might misremember in my old age, yours would surely be the last.
Sometimes I wonder if you are hearing me, if you have been or will. And some days I wake up feeling like all that’s left of me are these base notes, these core memories, which linger in ways our daughter can neither appreciate nor understand. I am afraid these base notes will rebel against perfume anatomy, mutating into middle notes then top notes until they dissipate altogether.
I know how much you always wanted to go to America. Even in the beginning when you didn’t trust them, you were curious and maybe a little jealous of what it was like living in a country where even the cars were free. True to its name, it is a beautiful country, at least what I can see of it. My window view is this: rose bushes embalmed in sadness. If I open the screen and lean out far enough, I can just barely sniff that red-envelope base note.
If you’re not a friend, you’re an enemy. Even after all this time, I am still waiting to see what America is to me.
“Dr. Praeger said that scent is the sense most directly connected to memory, that if my sense of smell remains strong, then maybe my memory will, too. With the right triggers, I might even be able to regain some memories. That is why I need to recreate the scent of your father. Scents are memories, and memories can kill, but they can also save. Do you understand?”
Our daughter looks exhausted—her nostrils flare big and small, big and small. The nose does not lie. She starts digging for something in her purse. At last she stands, car keys in hand. “Okay, Ma. Let’s make this perfume.”
I’m so happy when she comes over to hug me, it takes a second to realize that her smell has changed. Then I know: she’s pregnant.
Because instead of my own sour-eggy scent, she smells like the opposite: freshly boiled eggs with hints of—could it be?—yes, spoiled flour.
I imagine a being inside her, this new egg-child born to replace me, the old chicken who lost its head long ago but is somehow still walking around. Everything circles back onto itself.
Once I make the scent of you, I’ll be safe. The life that was indisputably ours, that moment when we were so close to having everything. How could I forget?
And I remember, I want to remember, I remember that I want to remember something about something, I can’t remember what.
I think it had to do with the way we chased motorbikes in the streets, in flour sacks that dried stiff with sweat on our backs. I think those were the end of times. Or maybe, you surely would have said, they were the beginning.