For somebody who slashes the hypocrisy of advertising this move will show my true colours- that i too, along with the-nearly-seven billion fellow inhabitants on earth, am a hypocrite. I am also lazy. So while i should been writing an entry, i was actually enjoying whisky ‘up north’. To make up for my laggard attitude i’ve decided to advertise a text that required much more thought and development than a simple rant about my fascinating life. I had to write a story. Bear in mind that the assigned theme was science. Please, you are more than welcome to critisize (this time im not being a hypocrite, i can’t get better if im not corrected) and don’t worry if you don’t have the patience to read it through (i’ll never know, so my ego won’t suffer).
I will show you fear in a handful of dust – T.S. Elliot
Fear is frightening. It subsists in the air you breathe. It feeds your dreams and fuels your reality. One is never free from fear. And if you confront it, you risk death. Fear killed my father. But I…I survived the rubble. Because I didn’t know fear.
The Descent of Man changed Ariel’s life forever. As a child she was at loss on why all the women of her family fussed over ‘love’. It was a concept she could not comprehend. All this fascination with telenovelas and their tales of triumphant impossible love. The interminable discussions about so-and-so devoted to a man who loves another, whose feelings are reciprocal, but who doesn’t want to get in the way of the first. It sounded so messy. Why should she have to adapt her conduct to attract this future and unknown ‘prince charming’? Why on earth should she want to sacrifice her interests for those of another being? Why would anyone want to make illogical decisions in the name of a feeling? What could make man, supposedly the most rational of all creatures, less than reasonable? “Ay Arielita”, her aunt Chola used to chant, “one day you will understand”. And she did. Just not the way her aunt meant.
For Ariel, undying love was a myth. Even at a young age she realized her parents were not in love. If they had ever felt a shared ecstasy, the sensation was long gone. Her mother smothered her and her siblings with the attention of a frustrated intellect, while her father deceived his age and family with the ever-more frequent late ‘work dinners’. They had lived a Schopenhaurian romance. The will-to-live was a force with the power to distort wisdom, an inherent drive to continue the clan. Once children were born, desire was consumed and love evaporated into thin air; leaving only the faintest scent behind. At 17, Ariel discovered Darwin. It was an epiphany. The Englishman had legitimized Schopenhauer’s cynicism of love into a scientifically sound theory. In terms of sexual selection, senseless choices were justifiable if they allowed individuals to prolong their lineage. Colourful feathers attracted predators and potential mates. Early death didn’t matter if the mates had already become mothers. Given enough time, a whole species could evolve to possess such aberrant characteristics. Love was like the peacock’s male plumage, dangerous and exorbitant. Having grasped the mechanics of love, she concluded that if it existed, it was an evolutionary trick. A deluded dream she did not want to fall for. She wanted to demystify love. So Ariel decided to combine chemistry with biology. To study the science of attraction. More specifically, the smell of love.
Smell is the less acknowledged of the senses. We have become oblivious to our nose; yet we use it all the time. You may presume that it serves to enhance our experience of life, not to save it. But I will argue the opposite. Mites can sniff danger. The whiff of an attack sends them to sleep. This allows them to survive in hiding, without food, for long enough to ensure that the menace has moved on. Humans are not mites, but with over a thousand olfactory genes, we shouldn’t take the possibility of recognizing peril for granted. When they lived in the open planes of the African savannah, smelling danger could have delivered our ancestors from harm. If we developed an extensive library of genetic texts to instruct our snout- their function must have been critical for our survival. Their directions operate at different levels: the conscious and the unconscious. Consciously, you could recognize the incense of smoke, and escape before the fire reached you. At a less palpable level, the aroma of anxiety could arouse alertness in a group venturing into a vulnerable position. But like most things in this world, smell is double-edged. What can save us can also kill us. Though it brought me into life, the smell of love killed my mother.
Our genetic triumph depends on the success of our children. Their psychological and physical fitness will determine whether they advance in the game of life. Passing-along our inherited talents is just as important as teaching them tactics. Without the selective process of love, the number of possible couples is innumerable. How do you know which match will give you the most profitable pedigree? And even if you have identified a potential concomitant, you do not want to spend expensive time and emotion seducing someone who will not reciprocate. You want to fall for a realistic partner of the same rank. It may be too risky to aim higher, and wasteful to aim lower. Love may be mad, but there is always reason in madness. If love evolved to help us fall for the correct partner, some of our attractions must be innate. Like with the smell of danger, some selective processes are obvious, others operate at an unconscious, more biological, level. Ariel feared this ineffable chemistry, because she could not shield herself from its consequences.
Unlike most girls in the 1980’s who attended University lectures in search of a husband, Ariel joined with the hope to research. She became one of the few females in the Biology department at the UNAM, Mexico’s leading university. Back then, smell was not the field of study it is today. Ariel’s ideas on its drawing power would have been mocked as epicene romanticism. To be labelled what she had always scorned was the ultimate insult. Convinced that her concept was rational and provable she immersed herself in studies. Given the multiplicity of her subject, a valuable clue could come from the unlikeliest of sources. Biology was not enough. Whenever possible she would join seminars in psychology, chemistry and physics. She kept her suspicions on the scent of love a secret, but believed that one day, she would confirm her fancy as scientifically sound.
Solving the mystery of love is not easy. Much less if you want to prove it with science. If attraction relies on the senses, then smell is probably the easiest one to test. The method is easy: make men, or women, sweat into cotton T-shirts; pads sewn into the underarms soak up their scent. The opposite sex then grade the collected essences according to their appeal. This approach has suggested people fall for their ‘equals’. This may be in terms of allure or intelligence. Despite this attraction to members of a similar echelon, humans also love a genetic clash. The most successful sex appeal is invisible. It is an opposite immune system. Why? Well, because combined, the resulting system will be far more efficient than the two originals. If parents truly want their children to have what they didn’t- this is the ultimate opportunity. Combat diseases, survive, and reproduce. This is what sexual chemistry is all about.
Ariel had guarded her heart fiercely. She wanted to concentrate on proving the power of scent, she never expected to be its victim. Caught unawares, how was her cautious army to respond to this aerial attack? Even if she had foreseen the assault, there is no defence against this biological warfare. Her sense of smell was not outstanding, but it didn’t need to be, the weapon was intensely pungent. Micky’s approach had released and directed molecules into her lungs. They travelled through her body, discovered her every cell and presented their potential. Bathed in the must of another’s fragrance, she could no longer recognize it as alien. More difficult still, came the realization that someone other than herself was real. Nauseous, she surrendered to the dictate of her DNA. One by one, her organs shut off; they endured on Micky’s odour. The first infested where the first to lose independence. Her lungs, the previous entry point of his whiff, no longer distinguished the smell of other, it only searched for his scent. Last was her mind: the imagination of love had finally eclipsed her intelligence.
Why Micky? Why not Jose? Or Mario? Or even the rare-to-come-by Anton? What made his odour more potent? Maybe Mario wasn’t sexually active, after all, women prefer the pong of promiscuity. Jose probably possessed a similar immune system. Anton had bad timing. Her conscious had never looked for a partner, but her biology had. She was at her prime to produce young. If her intellect was averting her attachment to someone at such a valuable time, her body needed to step up the attack. It would have to exploit her senses to circumvent the problem. Unconscious of her body’s stealthy search for a mate, she fell in love. Love halts the search for a father. It signals a ‘stop’, even if only temporary, so that we can get on with the business of breeding. To focus on the fruit of intimacy. Even if Anton had been a better match, had he attempted to court Ariel during this period, it would have been to no avail. However luring his bouquet may have been, it blurred into the dank pool of everyman’s perfume. A woman in love can only notice her lover’s smell.
Micky had exchanged the vineyards of California for the concrete landscape of Mexico City. In demand by the rich aspiring to imitate a western lifestyle, he established himself as a sommelier. Though trained to distinguish tannins, he applied his nose to assess most situations. He could smell the Antons. He could smell their threat. But love skews the senses and he distorted Ariel’s blindness to them. In those days there was tension and jealousy, uncertainty and passion. The pressure built up, until one day, their emotions erupted. As Ariel approached ovulation, her body launched an advertisement campaign. Encouraged by the pleasant fragrance of fertility, Micky planted the seed of commitment. Life grew, leaving less and less space for the phantoms of distrust to return. Ariel’s wits squirmed. But they had already been defeated by whims of adulation. Her academic hopes were at the mercy of time. She had succumbed to aunt Chola’s definition of love, and yet she failed to see it that way. Deep inside, she remained sceptical about its duration.
Nine months later I was born.
Screams and the stench of blood welcomed me into this world. My parents were happy-in-love and appreciating the warm smell of new life. Their new life. The reek of death was around the corner and no one noticed. As I said, few people listen to their nostrils nowadays. My father might have been able to pick up the whiff, but he was in love, and love blinds your sense of smell.
It was 7:19 am. Ariel woke to a roar. As thunder clapped around the medic centre, Hospital Juarez shuddered. Patients assumed Chac was angry. But it wasn’t the rain god whom they had irritated. Once she realized it was Huemac, dread gripped her. The 43rd floor of a cement tower was the last place she wanted to be in when the lord of earthquakes gnashed around. Her body tensed, her mind flurried. Why was she here? Love. She could have been safe at home focusing on her ambitions had it not been for love. Love. Love! Where was Micky? Was I safe? Shaking, she wobbled over the trembling floor towards the window. Huemac was furious- the city was collapsing, quivering with qualm. The floor gave in. The hospital, the checkpoint between life and death, whose officials often helped the fugitives of demise, would indiscriminately exile ordinary civilians to the grave. My mother was crushed by the falling building. She had travelled in the direction of love, it had misguided her, and she ended up at the wrong district.
Nothing is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a perpetual sway. Huemac’s blow had unleashed a torrent of smells. The gas-lines had broken, the aroma of anxiety set loose, and danger prowled the air. Anxiety is a condition of agitation where one wishes will for the best and fears the worst. Fear and anxiety can be smelt. They are quite literally, contagious. The funk of someone’s terror activates your sensation of angst. If in a disturbing situation, aroused emotions will open the nasal vaults of your nostrils. Your sense of smell is so acute you cannot ignore your surroundings. The ability to absorb and release panic increases exponentially. Accelerated by fear, the hearts of my father and his city began to beat irregularly. Tremor grasped his throat, invaded his arteries and reached for his heart. Mexico City, whose blood pumped in every direction with verve and activity, stopped. The transport of lives halted. There was no communication between the different boroughs of its body. Though scarred, Mexico’s capital survived its cardiac arrest. My father didn’t. Fear killed him. Like love, fear can also signal ‘stop’.
Several days later, 58 babies were rescued from the rubble of Hospital Juarez. I was among them. Like mites who sniffed danger, we had hibernated under the debris of a wrecked nursery ward. We didn’t know fear, we couldn’t recognize its odour. Ariel died. Micky died. And I survived.