Autumn brings with it a whiff of homesickness for me. A scent of smoke and leaf color and longing and nostalgia. I forever miss the vibrancy of the New England autumns I grew up with. Even in New York the season was somewhat muted for me. Outside of the Northeast, it is like watching the season unfold through nearsighted eyes; but travel to New England in October and it is as if a myopic veil has been lifted. The colors are sharper, more intense, there are more of them. I miss my father stockpiling firewood and boxes of kindling for the stove. I miss the stove itself. I miss sitting in front of it, hogging the heat it threw out, my back to the warmth with a book spread and splayed on the floor in front of me. I miss the longer stretch of time from the humidity of August into the quiet snows of a Massachusetts winter.
My memories of autumn go deeper than leaves of gold and apple-smoked air. Fall is high school football games on cold, metal bleachers, scalding hot chocolate and cheers shouted between gloved hands. Fall is speech bookended by the frost of breath in the chill of an afternoon. It is foot stamping and blankets and ferverently hoping the game doesn’t go into overtime. I cannot explain the allure of high school football for Americans, but it is pervasive and palpable. Not just in the deep south where it is a quasi-religion, but even in small towns way up in Yankee territory. Perhaps it embodies the lost dreams of fathers who are desperate to rekindle their glory days in the end zone or of mothers who recall the swish of pompoms and the hoarseness of cheer squads. The whys don’t matter so much. Football was a big deal. It was part of the collective consciousness of the school, of the town, of the time. Even I got caught up in the whipped frenzy of pep rallies and big games. No jock, I tagged along to my fair share of football games. And the school dances that followed.
Couples were made and unmade in those dim cafeteria nights. A shy glance under the lashes, a whisper from a friend of a friend. Teary break up post-mortems took place in the girls’ bathroom, and I’m sure that whispered confessions still echo in those pink and white tiled walls. In between swipes of Bonnie Bell and spritzes of Aqua Net the names of crushes were spilled, gossip spread, blue eyeshadow reapplied and bangs re-feathered. It smelled of wishing and nervousness and hairspray and young love.
I was never a true wallflower, but even so, I experienced enough of my own butterflies. Will tonight be the night? The night when Tony will ask me to dance? Oh, Tony Thornton* with your gorgeous locks, how I longed for you to ask me to dance. But you never did. Please, please don’t let the boy who smells of b.o. ask me to dance when they play Purple Rain in all it’s 9 minute soundtrack glory. Such unyielding hope and sweaty palmed nervousness scenting the air.
We called it slow dancing, but really it was just swaying in time to the music. If you were a couple, you were draped casually over one another. If not, it was her hands on his shoulders, his hands on her hips—a Frankenstein like stomp. But sophomore homecoming, I was part of a couple. I borrowed a purple, cowl necked sweater-dress from a friend and the quarterback and I slow danced to Whitney Houston, my nose buried in his neck. I went home smelling of joy and Obsession. Sure, there were the group dances to Ozzy Osbourne and Twisted Sister, there were the white boys who did their own version of breakdancing (which I thought was great until I saw the real thing later in NYC), but it was the slow dances that I remember. The way his arms slung down over my hips and linked up in the back, just above my tail bone. The way he smelled, the song that played, how good I felt.
Of course I experienced the other side too, the soul stomping of watching the boy you like sidle over to your best friend and ask her to dance. Even more horrific, when he shyly approaches and you allow yourself to think, for one terrifying moment, that he’s about to ask you to go out there and shuffle to Wonderful Tonight before he blurts out a stumbled invitation in your friend’s direction. O trodden and pock-marked heart, how you still beat is a miracle. The disappointment of getting into a parent’s car at the end of the night, alone with thoughts and dreams of crushes that crashed. The jealousy of those girls who had a steady stream of dance partners, but even more, the ones who had the same one dance after dance. The ones who went home smelling of Drakkar Noir from those make out sessions in the corners where no one could see.
Always though, the smell of longing, seeping through the pores of children poised on the brink of young adulthood. The smell of chance, of luck, of prayer mixed with a little Poison or Anais Anais. The smell of the nervousness of a wallflower mingling with the self confidence of a cemented couple. The smell of lust coming off of young bodies in waves in between Bon Jovi lyrics and sips of Pepsi.
The music’s changed, but I bet those smells still perfume school gyms and cafeterias around the world.
*Not his real name
I’ve included a writing tag with this piece because these scenes, though not filtered through fiction in this piece, are some of the ones that I am drawing on heavily for THE BOOK. Thoughts, suggestions, constructive criticism is always welcome.