Adolescence stinks. I’m not talking about the heightened age of self-consciousness, the potential for bullying, the physical and emotional growing pains, or the shifting alliances with friends who become enemies who become friends again.
Those all stink applying the definition of the quintessentially American expression: “That stinks.”
What I’m describing is the literal smell, as in “Ooh, those roses smell beautiful”; or “Wow, that smell reminds me of the time I went to Montauk and we saw dolphins and whales while drinking aromatic hot chocolate with whipped cream.” With their spectacularly busy schedules, thanks to us, no doubt, teenagers live in the same uniforms day after day.
The last thing we do before going to bed, or the first thing we do when we get up in the morning, is to throw those uniforms in the washing machine.
We can’t and don’t wash their footwear every night. We can air it out, we can put deodorizers in it, we can even, in a fit of pique, rush out and buy them a new set of Storm Trooper cleats to protect ourselves, but, eventually, the sneakers in the cabinet by the door — or tucked in the basement — develop a cloud of toxic fumes above them.
On the positive side, I suppose, the horrific stench could be like smelling salts. If they are suddenly feeling tired or they bump into one wall too many, as soon as they go down on the ground, they smell their own and everybody else’s cleats and spring back into action.
“I’m fine,” they say, as they wobble on one knee, “just get me off that floor.”
Sensing that their sweat-driven, body-changing odors may be offensive, some children use deodorants, scented moisturizers or perfume — in the case of my daughter’s friends. That’s like diving into a pool that is way too hot and way too cold, confusing the senses without defeating the odor.
I recently brought my son and a friend back from a basketball practice and pulled up next to a mom who was shuttling home six sweaty teammates. We rolled down our windows at a red light and my nose felt as if it had returned to the gym. No car, not even one with a new car smell, would stand a chance against the pungent odors of adolescence marinating in her three rows of boys.
“Oh, hey,” I said, as the boys greeted each other through their open windows. “I guess you got the bigger carpool duty today.”
“Uh huh,” she grunted, making it clear she’d somehow drawn the short, smelly straw.
“That’s, um, a lot of sweat in there, huh?” I said.
She winced while concentrating on breathing only through her mouth.
When the light turned green, I thought about those incredible first few months of our kids’ lives. The smells from the delicate shampoos were like the kind of subtle flavor waiters describe to entice us into ordering the specials of the day.
Even after those magnificent miracles of life no longer occupied a room, their comforting smell made us forget the late nights of “what’s wrong with her, why won’t she go to sleep,” or the “why is she crying now,” reminding us, instead, of how sweet life can be.
Maybe the smell assault is one more way adolescents challenge authority figures. When their feet enter the room, we don’t need to see their frustrated faces or hear their answers-with-attitude to know another battle is about to begin, filled with arguments that sometimes don’t make sense — and scents that make their own arguments.