The rare guest to my apartment always exclaims, “You have so many books! You must spend a lot of time reading.”
And then there is the collection of ceramic cat figurines, gleaned from years of lucky thrift shopping. “You really are a cat lady!”
They might admire my burnt orange Danish Modern sofa (with matching chair). Or perhaps the crates of records will capture their eye.
But the ever-present, sickly sweet smell of coconut will be their first observation.
I burn dollar store coconut incense by the pound.
A solemn parade of “Tropical Magic” candles (obviously coconut, ostensibly accompanied by an imperceptible whiff of pineapple juice) marches along the windowsills.
“Hawaiian Getaway” (coconut with a hint of mango and tiare flower) hand soap rests in a bird-shaped dish in the bathroom.
“Black Coconut” hippie oil is copiously applied to all of my pulse points.
I’ve never been to the tropics. I despise Mounds candy bars. Pina coladas give me a headache. But the slightest smidgen of eau de coconut fills me with the most delicious sense of longing. Previously jammed filing cabinets of memories thrust open, spilling their contents before my eyes. Fuzziness sharpens in crystal clear focus. Long forgotten details reveal themselves.
Incident #1204: Wherein we drank Mexican beer in the backyard. He wore a faded black YMCA t-shirt. Nothing really happened. But how could I have forgotten the late afternoon sun warming my shoulders? The tiny beads of glittery sweat along his forehead? The way he wiggled his toes while he spoke?
Before I began my journey across the country, I spent hours in my bedroom, repeating all of the stories I could recall. “Don’t forget that he loved bananas,” I told myself. The list of required memories grew and grew. “And the nape of his neck smelled like nutmeg.” That’s key!
Incident #626: That time at the park when I climbed a tree while he serenaded me from below with Stevie Wonder songs. “My Cherie Amour, distant as the Milky Wayyyyy.” Note that he did not include “Superstition.” Red shirt, brown pants, grey sneakers. Don’t forget! Three little girls in matching t-shirts were playing jump rope on the sidewalk. I scratched a pair of mosquito bites on my ankle as I smiled down at him. “What if I’m stuck up here forever?” He promised to building a ladder out of cherry shoestring licorice and peppermint bark. He vowed, “It’s my job to save you.”
I fantasized about boxing up my entire apartment, preserving every last trace of him. The shed skin cells in the dust under the bed. The hair in the shower drain. His toothbrush (lime green, Medium) lounging in the Hello Kitty cup next to mine (pink, Soft). The Smurf glass he always chose at breakfast. The blue sock of his behind the dresser. “Did you see my sock? I guess I’ll just wear one today.” His shoes gave him blisters without it. Now it lives inside my pillowcase–on the other side of the continent–a true treasure.
Leaving was hard, but I knew that inertia would destroy my memories. I would carelessly sweep up his DNA in a fit of cleanliness. A leaky roof would decimate the box of his clothes in my closet. I would accidentally wash my sheets. Worse, I might rearrange the furniture.
“Don’t look back,” I commanded as I turned off my block that last day. I stared straight ahead as I merged on to the highway. I wanted nothing to steal precious memory space. I didn’t need to remember that the bodega on the corner now boasted a new ice machine. Or that my neighbor had purchased regal purple velvet curtains.
When I finally allowed myself to steal a glance into the rearview mirror, I was west of the Mississippi. I saw only McDonald’s and the grimy fluorescent lighting of tollbooths. The sun was gone and the moon was missing. Stars were hiding behind curtains. The highway held only my practical car and an assortment of tractor trailers. I was alone.
My car smelled like the feet of its previous owners. I could almost taste the collection of dirty sneakers that had once touched the gas and brake pedals. I perused the air freshener options at the next gas station. Pink Lemonade. Alleged New Car. Cherry Innocence. And last, a cheery shade of chartreuse, Coconut Cabana. The best $1.99 could buy.
As soon as I unwrapped its crinkly poly bag, a wave of something unnameable washed over me. Bittersweet, with a touch of warmth. Gooey, marshmellowy haze.
Incident #6567: I can’t figure out what to wear that night. I’m tired and grouchy. I would like to start a fight, just so I could have an excuse to yell and break semi-disposable objects. “All of my clothes are ugly,” I exclaim as I throw myself on the bed. He looks up from a magazine, laughing. “You could wear a burlap bag and still be beautiful.”