Last night, I discovered a portal to another time and place—specifically, Hyde Park, Chicago, in June 2000. I hadn’t meant to, but when I opened a new tube of peppermint foot cream, there I was. The smell had transported me.
Like all sense memory, smell is evocative for many people—for some of us more so than music or even taste. The Stanislavski method often involves conjuring smell to infect the audience with theater’s noble ecstasy. But until last night, I had not known its true power.
There I was, walking down the Midway along Fifty-ninth Street, black low-top Converse on my feet and finals on my mind. My cares were fewer and lighter, but felt more pressing. It was hot.
I could not even say what about that smell had worked the magic. Had I owned some peppermint lotion at that point—maybe one of those pumice scrubs from the drugstore? That rang a faint but audible bell—at least, I could vaguely remember a soft plastic bottle whose scalloped, graduated top evoked the rise and fall of toes. But if I had used such a product, it hadn’t been a major part of my routine. And yet, here I was.
Had it been a one-time fluke? I had, after all, had a brief spell of vertigo earlier in the evening. At the time, I’d chalked it up to allergies—the Internet, of course, was happy to back me up on this in its yes-man way—but maybe I was in fact going mad, or having a stroke. (I had eaten a lot of barbecued ribs.)
I put the tube to my nose and, eyes closed, took an experimental sniff. And there I was again, in Chicago, scrub grass below my feet, Gothic architecture to my right. I did it again, and again. The funny part was, suddenly I could even conjure things that I’d long since forgotten about—the necklace of seed pearls on an “invisible” plastic thread I’d gotten for my high school graduation and wore all that year, the watery lemonade from the dining hall, a creepy French TA who made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t really any more exciting than being in my own bed all these years later, but it was sort of an interesting novelty.
I have never particularly wanted to time travel, and if I did, I wouldn’t have chosen a fairly uninteresting moment in my freshman year of college. But as is so often the way, I could not control it. The magic was as banal as life itself. I was still me.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.