To Smell A Rose

Jorge Villaneuva opened a new document on his laptop. This just didn’t create the same feeling of excitement as rolling a fresh sheet of bond paper into a 1970’s Selectric, but what today is as exciting as it was when we were all young?

If only we could learn how to capture in writing the scent of the rose, we could write about anything. It very often turns out that painting, poetry or music are better mediums for expressing these kinds of experiences. When Jorge had tried this sort of thing in the past, lacking just the right approach, he knew he tended to flit around the subject. It was that old moth metaphor, spiralling once again around the flickering flame.

Others have already researched this from different angles, Jorge learned.

“Verbal context strongly influences the perception of odor quality—a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet,” explained the researchers. “For example, the same odorant smells entirely different depending on whether it is labeled as fresh cucumber or mildew.” — learning to smell the roses, context weblog

To start filling the empty space on his blank page, Jorge wrote:

To Smell A Rose – by Jorge X. Villaneuva

Here he stopped. Doubt struck him. If he was wrong in this, or off the mark, confirmation would surely arrive in the form of another rejection slip.

Just how does one describe the fragrance of a rose? Here we are hoping to capture the essence, as it were, of that which cannot be apprehended directly by cognition and descriptive language. In situations like this, writers resort to metaphor and simile. They concoct over-elaborate literary dramas; they concentrate on what it feels like to smell such a blossom.

And so Jorge wrote:

When we smell the colorful perfume of a flowering rose, it infuses the timeless intoxicating fragrance of blossoms in the springtime of memory. We inhale the love of the very spring itself. Some say our sensory experience is affected by what we are told we are smelling. I would argue it is associative in other ways as well. I want the rose to recapture the scent of my Julia’s hair when she stepped out of the shower, wrapped in a clean turkish towel, smiling shyly with that delightful invitation to draw closer.

And here Jorge stopped again. Julia, my God, how long has it been since you passed from our world? His eyes brimmed with wetness until he couldn’t read the damned document.

A slow, tortured panic engulfed him. Once again, he felt this old encroaching paralysis of uncertainty. He could remember their redwood planter box on the front concrete walkway. In it, Julia’s orange rose bush thrived. They’d lived in that cramped apartment in one of those parts of Fresno where people just never grow roses. He remembered how Julia tended their rose. How beautiful she looked when she talked to it! It became, in her care, their symbol of a love that could never die …

So, how again did it come to pass that his Julia died, and his love for life died with it in that awful, awful, terrible year? Without that love how could he say for sure he, Jorge, truly remembered Julia?

Whenever Jorge found himself remembering the bad years, he had long since acquired the habit of stopping work. There is no point in it, he knew, when sorrow washes over the afternoon like tide and surf erasing clean all our fragile trails in the sand. He poured himself a generous glass of Wine In A Box. He put on the music. It was the old mourning ritual he’d acquired over the years.

Their old Fleetwood Mac favorite was playing –  ‘Landslide’, sung so hauntingly by Stevie Nicks:

“I took my love, I took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills
till the landslide brought me down …

Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love
Can the child within my heart rise above
Can I sail thru the changing ocean tides
Can I handle the seasons of my life

Well, I’ve been afraid of changing
cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Children get older
I’m getting older too…”

In the old days, they used to listen to this song together, Jorge and Julia, but to them it sang of an earlier, innocent world. In the old days, they fancied it sang of two people, a couple growing old together. In the old days, they would draw closer together in giggles and wonderment at what the future had in store for the two of them together.

Today, their song sang to Jorge of the icy reality of self-imposed confinement: isolation in a bare dark cold cell in plain sight of the sunshine of a world already paraded past and gone, as if it had forgotten you as you had forgotten it, and not a damned thing heaven and earth could do to make life whole again.

First there had been the visit to the oncology clinic on the fateful day when they broke the news to Julia and Jorge. Then followed the youthfully ebullient “we can lick this too” months. Finally, they faced brutal weeks of accelerating physical and spiritual decline, yet they tried to shield each other from the fearful new landslide of private dread, the looming specter of   inevitability.

Jorge remembered the day Julia started shutting down. She turned away first from the future, then from their past, and finally, even,  from the tendernesses of the moment. Even as Jorge could not accept, Julia knew. And so it happened the phone call came that one night when Jorge was not prepared and was not there by her side. That, he knew, was the night he, Jorge, had really died inside.

He had taken his leave of absence from the day job, at the Metro Express Daily Review, where he used to write ad copy and short general interest articles. That leave of absence stretched out until finally everybody understood Jorge Villaneuva had left the employ of the Metro Express Daily Review.

Jorge tried freelancing. He tried to discipline himself to write six hours a day. Most of it, he knew, was not his best. He threw that out, but he managed to place a few articles and stories in the shoppers, trade journals and special-interest magazines with limited circulation. Freelance was not much, and brought home less. It was not exciting or demanding, as he’d hoped, but it filled the days, and most months, it paid the rent and the booze bill. Still, evenings, his music played on while Jorge tried to remember what it had felt like when he was alive.

The next morning, Jorge brought a cup of strong french roast over to his writing desk. He stared again and again at what he had written. There used to be satisfaction in tearing a sheet of paper out of the typewriter, wadding it up, and tossing it into the wastebasket. Not now.

Holy crap, Jorge thought. This is all wrong. I am become the man bereft of sight, still trying to describe the world of color to the sighted.

On a clean new document, Jorge wrote:

To Smell A Rose – by Jorge X. Villaneuva

It is useless for those who can no longer smell roses to write of the smell of the rose.

And what exactly, we must now all ask, is the real essence of the rose?

My name is Jorge. The “X” used to stand for Xavier, my middle name. In those years when the days were bracketed by a living past and future, they used to kid me that the “X” was the placeholder convention for “no middle initial”.  They had it wrong. Only today does the “X” stand for what I shut out of my life — all those precious things we celebrated, which brightened our lives every day.

You, who dance in the seasons like the breeze, may perhaps say the scent of the rose is like the timeless intoxicating fragrance of blossoms in the springtime of memory. You, who play in the sunshine of life, may perhaps say it is like inhaling the nectar of the very spring itself. You, who grew up with the roses, may say that the idea of a world without roses is frightening.

I wish to tell you I encountered a more horrifying specific. I had forgotten how to embrace the fullness of life that the rose represents. As will happen to all of us as we walk hand in hand down those paths life deals us, I lost my Julia, the great love of my life. I shut out the scent of our rose. I forgot the excitement it had brought us.

I leave you, for now, with my orange rose. Somehow it was given to me again to directly apprehend the face of my love in this rose, and she made me smile in recalling the wonderful time we spent together. This is the real essence of the rose: its beauty is not just in its velvet petals, but in the whole plant, and in the people who care for and nurture it. The rose is everything, the smell of life, growth and the loamy richness of laughter. This is what it means to be alive: once again, to smell a rose.

short story by Alex Forbes ©September 26, 2009

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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