“In the ninth minute, Leila’s memory simultaneously slowed down and spun out of control as fragments of her past whirled inside her head in an ecstatic dance, like passing bees. She now remembered D/Ali, and the thought of him brought along the taste of chocolate bonbons with surprise fillings inside – caramel, cherry paste, hazelnut praline…” (Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World)
The first minute after my death will carry the scent – some may argue, the stench – of midgrade gasoline.
Pause. Revert. Death?
Dear Reader, I’m pleased to let you know I’m not currently dying. It’s only the fact that I can’t get this one book by Elif Shafak out of my head. In this book, the protagonist, Leila finds herself in a dumpster, dead, but her mind keeps functioning for another 10 minutes and 38 seconds, recalling ‘core memories’ and associating them with a smell or taste. I like to think of these as identifiers, under which these definitive experiences have been deeply buried, only to resurface once Leila has left This Strange World behind. Her tragedy made me wonder about my own passing, and what olfactory or gustatory sensations my last 10 minutes (or well, maybe 7) will bring back for me to revisit.
Therefore, this piece is entirely a work of fiction, but in all honesty, it is also not fiction at all.
In the first minute after my death, a car drives by the dumpster I was hidden away in by my killer. The car’s exhaustion pipe has seen better days. The exhilarating, unmistakable scent of midgrade gasoline fills the street and finds its way into my decomposing body through my nostrils. My mind is alerted to the presence of the first critical identifier, and a painted picture of a memory appears. It’s sudden, like a bolt of lightning, but it lingers, so I can breathe it all in. It’s midday on a sunny September Tuesday, and I’m about to get into my driving instructor’s car. An old Toyota creaks past the parking lot, and I find myself shivering a little as the gasoline hits my nose. What a horrid stench, I think at first. But I catch myself taking a little too deep of a breath, and a sense of calmness enters my lungs. If cigarettes smelled like gasoline, I’d be addicted in a day.
I get in the car, the driver’s seat. My instructor sits next to me, and she writes in a paper booklet while simultaneously talking on the phone to someone (a man) whose voice is familiar (was she talking to him the last time too?). She talks to a lot of men on the phone. While I’m driving. All of these conversations are flirty. She trusts me with the car a little too much.
I catch myself almost too late, and yank the steering wheel before it hits the guy in the green sweatshirt crossing the street. My instructor’s pupils widen like a cat’s, and I realize the flirting came to an abrupt end. She takes two heavy breaths and turns to me, knowing damn well this near catastrophe is not on me. Then the whole thing fades away and I say goodbye to the smell of gasoline forever.
Still lying in the dumpster dead, when a middle-aged woman in promiscuous clothing sits down next to my humble abode, smoking a joint, hiding away to take a little time for herself. I do not question her profession or where she’s coming from (because I’m dead) and I can’t really see her —my mind is only making up her presence. But the smell of weed is very much real. Potent, it finds its way into my nostrils, and suddenly, I’m taken back to my very first night in Amsterdam.
It strangely smells like, I don’t know, ‘rotten beer’ in here, I tell my friend as we step foot onto the square next to McDonalds, which is, as I later found out, my first encounter with the odor of weed. It’s marijuana, you fool, she replies, and I feel dangerously uneducated and inexperienced in that moment. It was on a high school trip to the Netherlands; my math teacher was taking us. Later that night we took a walk around the Red Light District, and I certainly felt like the smallest piece of shit, a living-in-a-bubble, first-contact-with-the-real-world type of virgin boy. I look a hooker directly in the eye as she offers herself to me through a glass panel, her white underwear and dark ponytail bathing in the scarlet background of her room. A strange sensation creeps up on me as I’m searching the empty eyes of this shop-window doll for some deeper meaning about life, but the only thing I end up with is the smell of weed pulling me out of my trance. I nod at her, implying that I want her to have a nice day and that I’ll never see her again. I can’t believe my freshman year math teacher took us here.
The lady next to the dumpster finishes the joint, stands up, and flicks it at me before noticing I’m right there. She screams. It’s all a big hustle then. In the third minute of my death, I find myself at my funeral, because time is weird like that when you’re not alive. It’s the scent of my mother crying over me that I notice immediately. She’s wearing that deodorant I used to hate as a child.
This memory is different from the rest because I don’t recall anything other than the smell. But that in itself lives so relentlessly in my mind that I know deep within, something must be hidden underneath. It’s a nice smell, an ordinary deodorant. And yet I despise it, even though my dear mother used to wear it so much. Here are my best guesses on what the memory is: She was taking me to the dentist (she always used to put this on before we got into the car), or maybe she was taking me to school, or perhaps to my grandmother’s house. I can’t tell which one of these would be most excruciating for a 7-year-old. I am only sure of one thing: Deodorant or no deodorant, I’m going to miss my mother, and she will miss me even more. And in death I’ll forgive her (among a couple of other things) for wearing that godawful deodorant all the damn time.
The flow of time reverses itself, like a group of rowers rowing up a river estuary, and I find myself in the moment my body gets taken out of the dumpster by the police. Even though hours have passed, in my little world, this is only the fourth minute after my death. As one of the cops grabs me under the arms, a small midge flies into my mouth. After all, this is a dirty dumpster.
The taste of the bug is somehow both bitter and sweet. On one hand, it is like acid sprawling across my entire throat, leading me to slightly suffocate, on the other it’s like raspberries. I am a child again, running down the hill next to where my primary school was, with classmates I thought were going to be my best friends forever. We’re playing Tag, I am escaping the dreaded responsibility of having to be the one chasing after others (who knew that was going to be a role I’ll be stuck in for the rest of my short life). I almost trip over as I swallow a poor bug trying to make its way through the air and meeting its tragic death in my pharynx. I pause for a moment, as the guy behind me taps my shoulders and screams you’re it. The innocent drift of the game makes me forget the sprawling bitterness of raspberry in my mouth, and I turn my attention towards the friends I thought I’ll have for life. Even in death, I can’t recall any of their faces anymore. A little bug is all that’s left of them, and the notion of a distant happiness that my mind doesn’t let me forget about.
Flash forward to my funeral again, where my sister is downing a screwdriver cocktail from her flask, trying to hold back tears, hoping her memories of the whole thing will fade to the point that reality becomes but merely a dream. The scent hits my nostrils so hard that I start feeling nauseous again, as the ghost of the drink spreads across my tongue’s receptors, and it flies me back in time to the first occasion I got blackout drunk. Funny how a memory of not retaining any memories is one of the seven defining moments my mind chooses to remember.
Freshman year of high school again. Birthday party, at least 40 people. One of them is my friend I never got the courage to tell how I wished we were more than that. And as every 14 year old overachiever knows, when the person you like starts making out with somebody other than you, the only viable solution lies in forgetting you ever really existed. In the next hour, an avalanche of screwdriver streams down my esophagus and the last thing I remember is a burning sensation as I’m vomiting all over the stereo system. This is not a memory I enjoy, not even one that I more or less remember, but one that still, to this day, in my death, lives in me fully, and I live through it vicariously.
My funeral service is on a Monday, in a chapel very much minimalistic, and the crispy air smells of nothing. But it is a Monday, therefore everything inevitably smells of Monday, a scent I’ll forever associate with freshly cleaned dorm bathrooms and a mix of hot water, shampoo and bodywash. There is no particular moment rushing back to me as my mind enters its sixth minute of shutdown. It is an entire semester of college, a time of great hope, disappointment, insecurity, chaos, and strangely, peace. I used to zone out in the shower, waking up an hour later from a trance as the hot water washed away the pain of the day. In a dorm, the public, single-stall bathrooms start to feel more like your own room when your roommate expels privacy as a concept from the actual room you’re supposed to make your home for a year. I came to the shower for comfort. For peace. It was a bastion of safety in an environment otherwise hostile. When winter break ended, I had just declared it to myself that Princeton will never be my real home, for I cannot find comfort in anything, but the smell of the clean bathroom on the first Monday of the new semester hit me harder than I expected, a smell that somehow carried a splash of peace within. It was home, for home can be found even in the unlikeliest places. Even if I did not like to admit it.
In the seventh and final minute, my mind cracks like the glass under the fist of a gorilla, but before it shatters it takes in one last breath at the funeral service, the perfume of a friend I wish I’d met sooner. I’m at the end of winter break again, back on campus, feeling like a stranger, a legal alien allowed to work, when a notification pops up on my phone, and twenty minutes later I find myself in a warm embrace, in the arms of the friend with the perfume that smells like the color green. It is a smell I did not know I’d recognize or remember at all. But after a long month of spending time away from it, it greeted me like an old acquaintance. Sometimes you only realize something was missing once you have it in front of you again. I wonder if that means I’ll be gone without a trace. Unnoticed. Forgotten.
The perfume’s scent abates and my consciousness recedes with the waves of the low tide. I offer myself to the cold embrace of death ready, and in peace, for in the seven minutes passed since my death, I’ve found comfort in the things I used to know.
But of course, this is all just in theory.