A few weeks ago my dear friend Marcella took a nasty spill whilst walking in the forest (she is British so I have to say whilst). As she took a step forward on the muddy ground, her right foot slid, and then, in a feat of staggering anatomical gymnastics, it flipped over onto its top side. She heard the sound of bones cracking before her body even hit the ground.
In the ER, she learned that she’d suffered a bimalleolar fracture (four breaks), and was told she would need to keep the leg raised above her heart for at least two weeks, to help reduce the swelling.
At the end of two weeks, she underwent a 4-hour surgery, during which time a steel plate and eleven screws were inserted into her ankle. She spent the night in the hospital, bore the indignity of hospital garb, but greatly enjoyed the fresh and spicy Thai soup they offered her for lunch.
Once back home, Marcella settled again into her frustratingly immobile couch-bound existence. No longer could she go on long evening walks through the nearby Intervale Farms with her husband, Jack, and their dog, Jasmine. There would be no hiking or biking or camping or, any number of outings she and her family had planned for their much-deserved summer break.
Though I am overwhelmed by both the impending release of my memoir, as well as my mother’s rapid decline into dementia, I’ve tried to get over to her house as much as possible to keep her company. There’s something sort of magical about just sitting around with a friend bullshitting about this and that. We don’t do this enough, do we?
You can really get to know a person better when they’re rooted to one spot, like Marcella presently is. Before the accident, Marcella was always working. Her job is all about helping other people have better lives, so she always feels there is more to do.
Now, I don’t have to talk to her while she’s driving or doing dishes or walking beside me or meeting me for a quick 15-minute coffee. I can just look at her face and be with her. In the moment. And here’s what I’ve learned about Marcella these past weeks: she’s not angry or sad or resentful or self-pitying. She’s suffered this awful break with the sort of grace I know I would be never be able to emulate. Additionally, I was surprised to discover that she’s not lost her biting sense of humor.
Nor her generous spirit.
On one of my last visits I’d bought her a new kind of chocolate bar from the co-op—dark chocolate with ginger, lemon, and black pepper. She snapped off a square, placed it on her tongue, and grinned with the sly satisfaction of a mistress who’d just been told her lover is finally leaving his wife.
I said something about how certain flavors can do that—ginger, for instance always comforts me, whether in a stir-fry or tea or salad—it warms my spirit. This reminded me of a funny scene in my new book, Rash, where I am talking to Seni, our cook, about a character in the novel I was writing:
As she scooped what looked like a succulent mixture of tempeh, mushrooms, spices and things like galangal and lemongrass into the leaf sections, she asked me how my writing was going.
“You are telling stories about Bali?”
“No. I’m writing about a man who can’t smell.”
“Why he no smell?” she asked as she pinched in one side of the leaf square, then the other, folding over the flap and securing the two ends with bamboo toothpicks. This, in Bali, is referred to as bungkus, which more or less translates into “food in packets.”
“He was born with this genetic—this rare disease, I mean he was sick with this thing called Kallmann syndrome, and his pituitary gland—the part of his brain where his sense of smell is made—it never formed correctly. It was broken.”
Where was my Balinese dictionary when I really needed it?
“Oh,” Seni replied. She placed the packets in the bamboo steamer one by one. After she covered it she looked up at me and frowned. “If he no smell, then he no taste the food, and that make him be very very sad, ya?”
No taste? I’d been focusing so long on my protagonist not being able to smell roses or gas leaks or spoiled milk that I’d not bothered to think through anosmia’s other repercussions. “I guess that is true, ya,” I said getting off the stool. “Thanks, Seni.”
I wandered back over to my computer imagining Miles sitting in a restaurant on an awkward first date. First he has to decide what to order based on texture or look. I assumed he’d hate the look of meat, but love fruit, and maybe noodles. Jell-O, for sure, but who orders Jell-O on a first date? Or any date for that matter. Then Rosemary, his date, holds a forkful of something up under his nose and says, “Here smell this; it’s so divine,” and he has to make up a reaction because it’s no different than smelling a dead cow as far as his nose is concerned.
I typed without stopping. I wanted to tell Victor I’d written a few good pages today like I’d promised. I knew that no matter how he felt, or where he was, or how hung over he was, Jack London always wrote twenty-five pages of prose a day.
Heck, if I could slam out two excellent pages a day I’d be self-smitten.
After paraphrasing the scene, I suddenly sat up. “I just remembered something,” I said to Marcella, who, by now had consumed the entire bar of chocolate. “When I was a kid, the parents of one of my friends brought home a jar of rose jelly from Belgium, or France, or somewhere. The stuff inside the jar was this beautiful pink, like glass. I asked my friend if I could taste it and she said no, it was too expensive and too special.”
Before leaving my friend’s house I tiptoed into the kitchen, opened the lid, and dipped a spoon into the soft gel. As I brought it to my nose I was almost overcome by the smell of roses. And then I tasted it and was shocked that it tasted like it smelled. Like a rose. “It was the first time,” I said, “that I realized a smell could be translated into a taste. I’d forgotten all about it until just this second.” Marcella smiled knowingly.
“I mean it was amazing. To be able to TASTE A ROSE. It was one of the best moments of my life, now that I think about it.”
Two days later, this arrived in the mail.
I’m sorry Marcella broke her ankle. I get that this is a sucky way to spend her summer holiday. I feel sad having to watch her hobble her way to the loo on metal crutches that dig into her palms as she endeavors to hold herself up. I know she misses sleeping in her own bed upstairs, and dinners out in small restaurants where there is no room to buttress her extended leg.
But because my friend was a little clumsy, I get to spend more time with her. Quiet time. Time to reflect on what’s important. Time to share what’s going on in my life with someone who sincerely cares.
Someone who smells as good as she tastes.