Since the day Mr. Salim left, Mom began to develop an unhealthy obsession with sweet scents. A week after the divorce settlement – or four days after Miki’s 18th birthday – she brought home a small pink bottle adorned with little glass roses. We should have commented on her sudden purchase, because from then on our house had been plagued by the sweet scents of Mom’s limitless supply of perfume. She would spray it all around the house without restraint as well as on herself, often depleting a whole bottle in as short as a week. Her children had also become the targets of her flowery wrath, which was why Miki and I decided to invest most of our time in places where Mom wasn’t present. We could always tell when she arrived on site when we could smell a sickly saccharine scent in the air without seeing the source.
Sogo was the largest department store in Jakarta and the place where we would be conducting a present search. We were on the first floor, where multiple stalls were set up in neat squares between narrow pathways that allowed browsers to look around and select items with ease. I dubbed it the ‘smell sampling zone’, since every few steps or so a salesperson would greet us warmly and offer up a small piece of paper with the name of a perfume and its scent. They were great for making our pockets smell nice, but I had always thought of that kind of marketing strategy as a waste. A lot of trees were probably killed to sponsor it.
“What kind of scent should we get her?” Miki asked while holding up a random product.
I made a face before responding, “Was there ever a birthday in her life that she lets us pick out the gift? Has there ever been an incident where she chose something else besides an ‘insert name here’ generic sweet perfume?”
Miki put up an expression similar to the one I was making and said, “As much as I’d like to disagree, you’re actually right.”
“Of course I am.”
Not far from where we stood, Mom scoured the area, sniffing and prowling like a dog on a hunt. Her strong scent was masked by other smells, which made it even more sickening. If I could run away from this place, I’d make sure to go to the fifth floor and buy myself a well-deserved cup of cappuccino from the Starbucks up there.
While I aimlessly moved around, stopping once in a while to pretend like I’m admiring a brand or two, Miki focused his energy on browsing around. I watched him go through the stalls, asking the employees a question or two about the products they sold, before he came and showed me a small green cylindrical bottle capped with a silver top. “You know, I think we should really recommend a…better scent for her,” he began after spraying a bit of the perfume on his hand. “She’s been getting super sweet ones for years. Isn’t it time for a change?”
Daun, the brand that he held was slightly peppery and refreshing, like the smell of fresh autumn leaves after a rainy day. The scent was much more satisfying than the ones Mom usually wore, but at the same time it was unsettling.
“It smells good, Miki,” I told him, “and I do agree that a change would be good. But I don’t know why…it just doesn’t fit Mom. If we want a change, we might as well get her something besides a stupid bottle of perfume.”
Besides his usual unlikeable scents, Mr. Salim used to come home at night smelling like Daun, or at least something similar to it. He gave no explanation regarding that particular odour to Mom; nor did he care about how she would have felt after she found out that he had been going to brothels every night after work. Even if she confronted him time and time again, he would push her away roughly and squander our money on unnecessary luxuries that neither Mom, Miki, nor I ever got to use.
That was one of the many reasons why Mom had decided to do two things that would change our lives for the better. Firstly, she restarted the career that she had left long ago when she married Mr. Salim. Before Mom became ‘Mom’, she had been a young, yet successful business consultant who was handsomely paid by her company. Luckily for Mom, her old workplace accepted her once more after reviewing her excellent past records and credentials.
Secondly, after establishing a solid standing in the company, she immediately cut all ties with Mr. Salim. Some divorced couples still visit each other regularly; other couples with two children would usually take one child per parent. Mom and Mr. Salim, on the other hand, tried their best to never see each other again, and Mom nearly murdered him when trying to obtain custody over the both of us. Miki and I never bothered to visit him afterwards.
“This one’s really nice, and really subtle, too.” I turned my attention towards Mom, who was holding a semi-transparent glass bottle that glimmered under the artificial light. The basic shape reminded me of a plump, short vase, but surrounding its neck were delicately crafted blue crystalline flowers. She sprayed a bit of it on Miki’s and my palm and told me to smell it.
“So? What do you think about,” she took some time to pronounce the name on the bottle, “Terpsichora by Creda?”
In all honesty, I didn’t know what I was supposed to think about. Regardless of what I said, she would never let me have my way. Miki and I had tried to buy her a nice pair of white pearl earrings three years ago, but she sold them back when we least expected it and bought herself a bottle of Lavender Blue by Laurent. She particularly loved that brand, and would spray copious amounts on her clothes and around the house. The scent had stung my nose too many times to count with its extreme sugary sweetness, as if it was a lollipop on steroids. To this very day, she still insisted that my nose was far too sensitive for my own good, and that I should be more appreciative of her fine taste.
If I could tell her a thing or two about that ‘fine taste’ of hers, I would. Note the ‘if’ word.
“I think it’s a great choice, Mom!” Next to me, Miki swiftly responded. His overly excited voice and stiff smile told me that he had been lying through his teeth.
Following his lead, I brought up my palm to my nose and sniffed the perfume gently and said, “It smells like nothing.”
…What did I just say?
“What did you just say?” Mom’s question echoed the question I had just asked myself. One glance at her tight-lipped face was enough to freeze me on the spot. I sniffed my palm again and tried to come up with a better reply, but I couldn’t think of anything else.
Because the sweet scent smelt like ‘nothing’.
I must have unconsciously left my mouth hanging, because Mom shook her head in disbelief and exclaimed, “Why is your mouth open like that? Shut it and answer! Yes or no? It’s that simple!”
“But…” I started half-heartedly, then paused immediately after getting a harsher glare-down from Mom. Even a look a Miki told me that I should just go along with what she wanted, despite the fact that the ‘nothing’ smell was a serious problem.
Damn it all. With all the bluff I could muster, I flashed a wide grin at her and said, “It’s a great perfume. You should definitely buy it.”
I had to admit: I sounded pretty convincing for someone that couldn’t smell whatever I was smelling. Mom pursed her lips and seemed to meditate over my words before she dropped the issue and proceeded to the cashier.
When I mentioned that something was very wrong at the restaurant, I didn't think that it would extend this far. It wasn’t only Terpsichora that smelt like nothing – it was the whole goddamned store. Where had the mixture of perfume odours that always lingered around the place gone? Why didn’t the smell of paper bills that I handed over to my brother register through my nose? Why was everything so scentless all of a sudden?
Once again at a loss for a reason, I pulled my brother away from Mom as she paid for her purchase and whispered to him, “Miki, remember when I said that my taste buds are broken?”
I gently jabbed my nose and said with all the gravity I could muster: “I think my smelling nose is also broken.”
Wearing a displeased frown, Miki’s reply was hard and clear: “I know that you don’t want to be here, because I don’t want to, either. And I know that you don’t like Mom’s choices very much, but you don’t have to be a prick about it and make up these lies. Were you even telling the truth at the restaurant, anyway?”
Miki moved away from me, avoiding the shocked look I had given him after he finished speaking. If I assumed before that my brother would always have my back, regardless of how crazy I became, then I should have thought twice.
“We’re done here.” Short and succinct, Mom’s words startled me out of my musings. Miki stood beside her with an unreadable expression. So, I said to myself, my only comrade has deserted me in favour of a greater power.
As we left Koma and headed to our next destination, I tried not to scream out in anguish: If even my mother and brother refused to believe in me, then who will?