As the pandemic progresses, and the reality of no traveling sets in, I find myself using up the travel-size products that I’ve kept neatly in my “to go” bag for all of my cross-country adventures. Might as well, right? I mean, let’s save some money on shampoo and conditioner, etc.
One of the products I found in my bag was an unopened package of Cucumber-Sage-scented Burt’s Bees Facial Wipes. I bought these during my first trip into New York City after discovering the high level of grime that seemed to find its way to my face by the end of every walkabout. I kept a package on-hand in the apartment, and used them on my face daily.
I haven’t been to New York since June.
I peeled open the package to use one on my face, and as I pulled the cool wipe past my nose, the fragrance instantly transported me back to the city. Only I wasn’t really there. I found myself using the damp cloth to wipe away tears rather than city dirt. I was not prepared for the olfactory memory, and it leveled me.
I chatted with a friend who suggested I write about it. She was right, of course. I needed to put my feelings on (electronic) paper.
I picked myself up off the bed, dusted myself off, and headed to the shower for a fresh start to my day, fully intending to commit some serious time to my laptop.
Soaking wet, I leaned over to grab the soap. Then it hit me. Again. Staring up at me from an inconspicuous soap dish was a translucent green bar of glycerin soap. I had pulled it out of its travel case the day before and left it in the shower. In my “I’m so smart because I’m saving money” haze, I hadn’t noticed the smell. Now the steam from the shower was wrapping itself around this tiny rectangle memory and delivering the cucumber melon scent straight to my brain.
Five months ago, in June, I walked down the stoop of the Chelsea apartment, mask on, to make my way to the Rite-Aid on 9th and 22nd. This was the same Rite-Aid where over the last three years I had purchased random toiletries, hangover snacks, drinks for walkabouts, and where I would duck in to get out of the rain while walking a stubborn Cholula. Only this time was different. I needed soap. And the shelf where the soap used to live was empty. No liquid soap, no hand soap… and the paper goods shelves were bare as well. These were different times. Scary times. But I still felt safe in the familiar surroundings of this drug store.
I spied a tiny wrapped bar of glycerin soap on the bottom shelf. Not “antibacterial”, so it had been overlooked by previous soap-searchers. “Cucumber Melon” read the label. I took a sniff. It would have to do.
I kept my social distance in line. Blinked my eyes at the cashier who still recognized me. Did he know I was smiling? I paid and walked home past all the other masked New Yorkers. Once inside, I removed my shoes, sanitized the bag, and washed my hands longer than I ever had just 3 months earlier. Then I placed my new bar of soap in the shower.
For the next week, that was the smell in the bathroom… the apartment… and on my body. At the end of that week, I packed the soap away, along with all of my other possessions, and said a final goodbye to the apartment. I was sad to be leaving the neighborhood, but knew I would be back. It wasn’t as sad when I thought of coming back.
It is November. I have not been back to New York because the world has changed. And it is changing today… this week… again. I have hopes it’s for the better. But that’s not certain. Yet.
And so I’ve decided to write about my melancholy while standing in the shower that day, wrapped in nostalgia and crying again for the second time in less than an hour.
There is still enough soap to last me until the end of the year if I only use it to wash my face. And so I will. I will keep using it, and deliberately conjuring up the sweet rather then the bitter part of my New York City memories.
Maybe I will go back. And maybe I won’t. But for today, I am happy to let the cucumber melon-choly wash over me.