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Unconditional


by Lorna Garano


My mother lays out five swatches of sterilized linen, each one spritzed with a fragrance on the kitchen table, which the cleaning lady had scrubbed with bleach yesterday. She's brought the fragrances from the lab to test out on me. I go to lift the first one from the saucer it rests on and Mom blocks my hand with hers, which is sheathed in a latex glove. She lifts the saucer gently, holds it at my chin, and then suspends her other hand over it.

            “Remember just breathe a little deeper than normal, but don't sniff,” she says.

            “Thanks. The last 200 times you said that had slipped my mind,” I say.

            “It's not going to work if you're agitated. Do we need to do a relaxation exercise?” she says.

            I roll my eyes. She keeps the question hanging on her face while she looks at me. I wave my hand to signal her to get on with it and she lifts the saucer to my nose.

My mother is a psychologist. By that I don't mean one of these feathery voiced therapists who nurtures you through grief or self-doubt and has infinite faith in the human spirit. She's not the kind of psychologist. Not at all. She's the kind who develops interrogation techniques for the military (to build better rapport allow yourself to be proven wrong once at the start of the questioning) and helps corporations design products that evoke certain feelings (rounded corners in car interiors simulate a sense of security). She thinks any psychologist who sees behaviorism and psychoanalysis as natural enemies needs to spend more time in the business world.

For the last few years she's been working on a scent that incorporates colostrum enzymes to trigger feelings of unconditional love. This has applications in industries as varied as automotive and educational, she says. She also says that I'm her ultimate test subject, the one she needs to crack before getting the patent attorneys involved. That's because with me everything has conditions, even, or maybe especially, love and that's exactly how I think it should be. Mom wants to see if she can make me feel loved for no reason. 

After I breathe in the first swatch she has me take a sniff—this time definitely a sniff—of coffee beans to clear my olfactory pallet. I do this for each of the four remaining swatches and then Mom gives me a questionnaire to fill out. It consists of a hundred questions that drill so deep into my feelings that I feel a sense of violation even before I answer them. Here are the first three to which I answer, “none,” "nothing,” and “no”:

 

1.     Which of the five samples do you have the clearest memory of?

2.     Did sample 3 make you feel a) anxious b) pleasure c) calm d) sad e) longing f) nothing? (answer all that apply).

3.     Did sample 2 evoke any visual images that you remember?

 

Mom retreats to her home office while I work on the questionnaire because hovering around me might bias my answers. As always, she overestimates her own importance.

            When I'm done I slide the questionnaire under the door and wait until I see the shadow of her feet and hear her clicking on her computer keyboard. Then I go back to the samples and throw out all but number 3, the one that made me feel like nothing could ever go wrong in the world ever and if it did I'd still be protected. I take a deep sniff of the linen and let it fill up my nostrils and then my head. It makes me feel deliciously dizzy. I rub it over my palms and then clasp my hands over my nose. My mother couldn't know the truth, but I'd admit it to myself: If I could spray sample 3 everywhere I would.

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