On Saturday morning I took the train from Grasse, a small town in southeastern France, to nearby Antibes, which buzzes with beaches and bikinis on the Cote d’Azure. I walked through the cobblestoned streets and bought a small tub of raspberries from a market where vendors sold ripe rounds of cheese and crusty baguettes. I spent time in the Picasso Museum, which is housed in a chateau overlooking the sea. Later, I walked along the beach, sinking my feet into the Mediterranean and shielding my eyes from the sun. I felt very far from New York.
As I write, I have been in France for a week and a half and will remain for a few days more. I’m here for work, researching and reporting on the sense of smell for the book on the subject that I am in the midst of writing. I’m here to attend an intensive course on smell at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery.
Perfume school, I’ve found, is both fascinating and odd. Ten of us students sit in a sunlit classroom up on the hill overlooking Grasse and, for nine hours a day, we smell things. We’ve smelled a few perfumes and colognes, but mainly we smell raw materials, the building blocks of fragrance. They have poetic names like benzoin, opoponax and cistus. Some are familiar, like lemon or patchouli. Others, like floralozone or cis 3 hexenyl acetate, are completely new. Each scent, carefully sniffed and studied and dissected in class, brings new memories, new images and associations, all of which dance somewhere beyond my eyelids with each inhale. I arrive home each evening exhausted.
I wrote the first three paragraphs of this post, above, on Monday evening this week, when my head ached with the vestiges of synthetic aromas and all I wanted was a glass of wine. I wrote much more, too: about France, about Antibes and about school. I described the scent of the ocean, and a salad I ate for lunch. I wrote about my life purely in this moment, which was a challenge in this blog’s context, but Matt and I had talked about where we want this to go, and agreed that I can’t write only about missing him and about being afraid every time that I sit down to type. I am here, and he is far, and there is more to my present than anxiety and love. But as soon as I sent him a draft of my post, I immediately wanted to erase it all.
“Are you sure you don’t want this blog to be just for you?” I asked him over Skype.
I reread what I had written. I felt silly. I felt inadequate. I felt very guilty. How can I write about my day in France when Matt is risking his life in Afghanistan?
Matt and I talked about it a lot on Tuesday night. We went back and forth, back and forth. I felt confused. He even emailed a former professor to ask her opinion. She wrote:
I understand Molly's concern. I don't think it's self-indulgent to describe her day, but I understand why she might feel that way. But the fact is you're in two different worlds trying to stay together at a distance. It is that aching gulf that people will most respond to. It's heart breaking and it's what drives a lot of couples apart but you are determined to stay together.
The aching gulf. I repeated that phrase to myself throughout the next day. It rings true.
The gulf between Matt and I, and perhaps others in a similar situation, goes beyond physical distance. It’s a gulf that picks at values and at honesty, at raw emotion, especially fear. It’s a gulf that brings some feelings bubbling to the surface and keeps others buried under layers of guilt. It’s a gulf that can be accentuated by daily routines and by small problems, by the often-burning question: how can I compare my life to his when I am not risking my own?
I don’t know how to address these feelings in my daily life. Not yet, anyway. My first reaction was to stop writing because I was embarrassed. But when Matt and I began this blog, we said it was to illustrate the experience of both fighting a war abroad and of being left behind. I never thought that being here would be so complicated. But, as my mother often tells me, “all you can do is be honest.”
So, on Saturday afternoon in Antibes I took myself out to lunch. I sat at a table in an outdoor café, just steps away from the Picasso Museum. It was sunny and hot and I drank a bottle of Perrier through a straw. I ordered a Nicoise Salad: fresh lettuce, hardboiled egg, tuna, green beans, radish, tomato and anchovy. I finished the book that I had begun only that morning on the train—a silly novel on both cooking and love. I sipped an espresso and watched the people walk by. The air smelled of lemon, and of salt. I thought about Matt.
It had taken almost a week before I told anyone in Grasse that I have a boyfriend in Afghanistan. My fellow students are from around the world and our language barriers are at times steep. We don’t talk about war or politics, newspapers or books, family or friends. We generally stick to smell.
But on the Thursday afternoon of my first week, I stood with a classmate from London during our break for lunch. She is a trained aromatherapist and was telling me about her work. She spoke of clients who had experienced shock or pain, and which scents she could use to help. Once a man came in for a massage when she was working in a department store in London, she said. He had asked her to massage his stomach with essential oil. He had been injured there, he told her. He was an American, a soldier, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. She used neroli oil, she explained, “because it’s good for trauma.”
At the end of the massage, she told her client: “You’re a survivor.”
“Yes I am,” he replied.
“I wish I could do more for you,” she said.
When I told her, somewhat awkwardly, that I have a boyfriend who is in Afghanistan right now, she looked taken aback.
“I can’t believe I just told you that story,” she said.
“It’s OK,” I said.
And it was.