Gohar Abrahamyan, BFR Staff

Last semester, I took a class on the forgotten literary art of the epistolary. To drive home exactly how forgotten this art form is, I had to look up what epistolary meant. But hey, I thought, I write letters! I don’t usually send them, but if I’m interested in writing them, I should take a stab at reading them. And what better insight re: interpersonal relationships throughout time than people (almost) directly talking to each other? Fun fact: Victorians talked to each other exactly the way you think they did. In the class, what counted as letters was expanded to include text messages, and looking at that correspondence through a new lens gave my writing a new sense of liberty. So in honor of under-appreciated literary forms, I’m making a case for the unsung heroes of metaphor — perfume descriptions.

I once read an article in a magazine describing a woman whose personality matched her perfume; a brazen confidence was accompanied by a smell that evoked a Turkish brothel. My imagination ran wild; I spent ages trying to figure out the right combination of tobacco flower, musk, jasmine, sandalwood, etc, and what it all meant. And I developed an obsession with reading all of the descriptions of confusing, complicated smell. What does mystery smell like, and how can I find the words to match the feelings and associations it conjures? The smell of onions cooking in butter has an almost mystical ability to sooth the soul — somebody should figure out how to make that a wearable scent. Why isn’t it ok to smell like curry as a fashion statement, as an assertion of personality, as expression? Why do orange blossoms smell like promises and hope? Most importantly, what made me feel most like me?

Is there anything with more power to conjure deep seated and long standing emotion than a smell? Anything more ingrained to our subconscious? Regarded as the strongest of the five human senses, our olfactory senses, according to Marcel Proust, carry something special, a point he outlined in In Search of Lost Time. As the first to link scents with memory, the Proust Phenomenon actually made strides for scientists using neuroscience to figure out how our instant recall functions work. But beyond the technical, Proust weaves a wormhole for his characters. The momentary whiff of a particular smell traverses barriers of time and space, constructing and reconstructing our pasts and how we interpret them.

As abstract as it may seem, the distortion of time and memory plays a very real part in my life. The rare moments of homesickness I still feel happen when I encounter my mother’s perfume. Like her, it is charming, elegant yet not without its liveliness. It is warm and comforting, but defiantly confident.

My sister’s first perfume was donned in her early high school years. Tucked away in a drawer, I would sneak long whiffs of the unequivocally girlie Pink Sugar, yearning to know the adolescent secrets it seemed to hold. As she got older, her tastes became more complex; I recall a particularly unpleasant phase in my life, and an uncomfortably uncertain one in her own, in which she wore a scent I can only describe as “chocolate schnapps.” It was rough. My own taste gravitates toward CK One, the first unisex cologne. It’s androgynous, hard to pinpoint, a contradictory scent that is somehow both feminine and masculine, bold but not loud. It smells like how I would characterize the 90s. It feels right.

How perfumed women smell is a choice they make about how they present themselves. There is an element perfumes share with letter writing, and that is the plasticity of authenticity. Just as we chose the side of ourselves we reveal to others in our writing, just as we construct a literary persona, so our choices of the impressions to leave in each other’s olfactory cortices are contingent upon how much we decide to reveal or conceal. I can use a scent to project who I want to be, or to express in the language of unconsciousness who I am. I can express a feeling, a memory, a sentiment in a mere moment, I can change my reality and alter yours. And the people who are tasked with creating an image, an aura, a story for these fragrant creations have no insignificant role. It is one thing to describe something as “musky.” It is another thing to bring to life a place I haven’t been to, a feeling I haven’t felt, an experience I haven’t had. To be able to construct a Turkish harem using only scent and a pen is a fine tuned skill, and one that in a perfect world, I’d be paid to hone.

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Eric Zhang, BFR Staff

Kellen stood back and admired his work. He had decided that The Lion in the Glass would be his last painting.

In the kitchen, his wife Shela was scrambling some eggs in a pan. Her focus was dreamlike, and he snuck up behind her in his bare feet. She jumped just a little, and a squeak came from behind her closed lips when he placed both of his hands on her shoulders.

“I have something to tell you,” he said. Kellen reached around her and shut off the stove, not caring if the eggs would be undercooked. His wife turned in his arms, locking him in an embrace. He looked in her eyes and sighed.

“I heard back from the testing place a couple days ago, but I didn’t know how to break it to you then. They’re pretty sure I have cancer. Went for some more tests yesterday to see how bad it really is. I’ll be going back tomorrow to find out the results.” There was a pause as this revelation sank in.

“…Dr. Zhivan’s office?” was all she could muster. He had been their primary physician since they had moved here when Kellen grew tired of New York.

Shela was going limp in his arms, trembling. For the last fifteen years, they had lived solely for each other. With no children, they were two souls bound and alone in the world, and she closed and opened her eyes, reeling from the possibility that it could ever not be so.

“But…but you feel alright don’t you? I’m sure it’s not too serious. You’ll go bald in treatment,” she said, running her hands through his hair, “but it’ll be ok.”

“I hope so.” Kellen released her from his arms, and she sat at the kitchen table without looking at him. He scooted a chair beside her, and they shared a moment of serious, intimate silence.

Then Kellen’s phone started to ring, and he walked back to the studio room to answer it. Marcus, his art dealer was calling him.

“Hello, Marcus?”

“Hey! Kellen! I’ve got some really exciting news for you. Normally I wouldn’t talk to clients about pending deals, but we’ve known each other for a long time. You won’t believe the deal that I’m working on for you. There’s this guy that wants to buy your entire collection!”

“What? The whole thing? How much?”

“Five million! He says he wants the deal done sometime in the next two months.”

“Are you sure this guy is serious?”

“Yeah. Some big shot doctor named Diego Zhivan.”

Kellen didn’t know how to respond at first, but several moments later, while Marcus was still talking excitedly, a sense of dread consumed his entire being.

“Hello? Kellen? Are you still there?”

“Yeah Marcus. Look, I’ll call you back.”

Kellen dropped his phone without waiting for a response and lay down on the cool, wooden floor. The throbbing nausea of the past few months was coming on again.

Edie Sussman, BFR Staff

The small bell above the door rang sharply as Dr. Magellan and an accompanying frozen breeze swept into the waiting room.

“Sorry I’m late, traffic was hell this morning.”

Her receptionist nodded knowingly. “Have they still not put out that fire out over on the 101?”

“Nope. The pyromancy department has its hands full dealing with it.” She hung up her jacket and scarf and took down a white coat. “Any messages?”

“Nancy Roswell. She wants to talk to you about seeing a specialist for her skin.”

“Who’s my first appointment?”

“Tommy Winters, routine checkup. Trish is in room 7 with him now.”

Dr. Magellan gave a thumbs-up and a thank you, poured herself a cup of coffee, and stepped into her office to pick up her patient’s file.

She sat at her desk, flipping through the reports from his last checkups. Nine years old, third grade, in general good health. He’d first come to her about five years ago, when the cats had started following him home from preschool. She’d diagnosed him with tendencies towards witchcraft and recommended adopting a familiar from a service animal agency.

“Dr. Magellan?” A nurse poked her head into the office, clipboard in hand. “Tommy’s all set to see you.”

“Thanks, Trish.” As she left the room, Dr. Magellan took Trish’s clipboard and started reading through the report.

When she reached room 7, a small sphinx cat was standing in front of the door, blocking her way. It gazed up at her piercingly, and she took a step back despite herself. Familiars were known to acquire magical powers of their own, and she still wasn’t sure what this one was capable of.

“Tommy?” she called out. “It’s Dr. Magellan. Can you tell Svetka to let me in?”

A faint voice responded from inside. “You’re not going to give me a shot, are you?”

Oh no. This again.

“Tommy, you’re due for a flu shot. If you don’t get it, you might get sick. You don’t want to get sick, do you?”

“I’d rather get sick than get a shot!” Tommy shouted back as Svetka hissed.

“Do you remember the last time you got sick, Tommy? You couldn’t play with your friends for a whole week. That was no fun, right?”

No sound came from inside the room.

“It’ll only be a second,” Dr. Magellan continued. “And you can hold Svetka if it helps you. You’ll barely feel a thing.”

Still, Tommy was silent.

Dr. Magellan sighed in frustration. “If you don’t get a shot, I can’t give you candy?”

Tommy didn’t respond immediately, but Svetka stepped to the side of the doorway and began licking a paw, which Dr. Magellan knew meant she was free to come into the room. She knelt to meet the cat’s eyes and whispered, “Don’t worry, I’ve got a treat for you too.”

Fifteen minutes later, Tommy was sucking happily on a lollipop as his father drove him away, and Dr. Magellan was in room 10 finishing her yearly check-up with the Nguyen family.

“So Pamela, how are you enjoying middle school?” she asked as she finished filling in the state immunization records.

Pamela sulked in her wheelchair and refused to answer.

“Are you still on the swim team?”

This time her mother answered for her. “They wouldn’t let her compete anymore because of her… advantage.”

Dr. Magellan shook her head in disbelief. “You should take that up with the school board. They can’t discriminate against merpeople like that. In the meantime, are you still swimming for fun?”

Pamela mumbled inaudibly.

“What was that?” Dr. Magellan asked.

“I said I want to do ballet.”

“Honey,” her mother interrupted, “we already talked about this. The ballet studio just isn’t ready for someone with your condition.”

Dr. Magellan frowned. “I don’t know about that, Amy. You know there’s a wheelchair ballet studio just a few blocks down from here? I could give you their contact info?”

“Well –“

“Yes! Oh please oh please oh please Mom, can I?” Pamela shouted, her face lighting up and her gills flapping excitedly.

“You mean instead of swimming? But is that healthy?”

“As long as she’s still taking a bath once a day and drinking plenty of saltwater, I don’t see why not,” Dr. Magellan reassured them.

Pamela looked up at her with gratitude in her eyes. “Thank you, Dr. Magellan.”

 

It was around 2:00 in the afternoon when a nurse rushed into Dr. Magellan’s office, wide eyed and out of breath.

“You need to come into the waiting room. Right now.”

Dr. Magellan shot out of her chair and raced to the waiting room, wondering what could possibly have been so urgent. What she saw stopped her in her tracks.

“Frankie? Honey, what are you doing here?”

Her daughter looked up at her from where she lay on the floor, curled up tightly into a ball. There were tears in her eyes.

“I… I don’t know, I was just in gym class and then suddenly it was so loud and bright and now I’m here and I don’t know why!” She began to cry again.

Dr. Magellan knelt to her daughter’s side and held her in her arms. “No, sweetie, you’re going to be ok. I’ve got you.”

“Is—is something… wrong with me?”

“Nothing is wrong with you, sweetie,” she said softly. “Teleportation abilities run in our family, you know that. Remember Aunt Susan? How she would always appear at your birthday parties with all those balloons?”

“I can…teleport?” Frankie choked out between sobs.

“That’s what it looks like,” Dr. Magellan said. She could see her daughter thinking over this new information, realization of a world of new possibilities dawning on her. She smiled. It would take some work for her daughter to be able to control her new powers, but that moment of realization—the sudden understanding that a child had been given a blessing and not a curse—that was why she was a pediatrician.

Jenna Mohl, BFR Staff

 

Steve Flinton sat in an armchair and watched the morning news. He tried to hold his tongue as he checked his watch. Again. Nine-thirty.

He had wanted to leave the hotel by eight forty-five for the museum, and the hotel stopped serving breakfast at ten. But in a family with three women—his wife and two daughters—Steve had long ago accepted waiting as an inevitable part of marriage and fatherhood.

However, in this particular instance, the waiting was longer than usual. In spite of all his meticulous planning before the trip, Steve had failed to account for one very important factor: the hotel room they were staying in for the duration of their vacation had only one bathroom.

Steve, with a growing impatience proportional to his growing hunger, listened to the ensuing struggle that was the result of this most unfortunate of circumstances.

“Kat, can you move? I need to do my makeup,” said Anna, his youngest daughter, as she tried to squeeze in between Kat, his oldest, and Lily, his wife, for a spot in front of the mirror.

Kat, who was in the process of brushing her hair, refused to budge. “I’m not done yet. I still have to use the flat iron.”

“Why? Your hair is perfectly straight already! Mom!”

Lily painstakingly separated each eyelash, never looking away from the task at hand. “Anna why don’t you use the mirror in the hall?”

Anna scrunched her nose and whined in the way that all younger siblings do when injustice arises. “Because the light is better in the bathroom. Why can’t Kat use a different outlet?”

Lily pursed her lips and rummaged through one of her many cosmetic bags until she found the right lip liner. “Fine. Kat. Use a different outlet. Your dad wants to leave, so you both better be ready in ten minutes or we’re going without you.”

“Breakfast ends in twenty five minutes,” Steve interjected. He knew his wife. When she said ten minutes, she really meant fifteen or twenty. He wisely didn’t point out the hypocrisy of Lily threatening the girls when she wasn’t ready herself.

Such prudence, however, did not extend to his oldest daughter. “Seriously, Mom? You’re still doing your makeup.”

Lily’s eyes narrowed and Steve saw the flashing sign of ‘Danger Danger Danger.’ His survival instincts kicked in and he turned the volume of the T.V. up.

Kat, however, was saved by the interruption of Anna, who once again tried to push in, whining “movveeee”.  Kat picked up the flat iron and elbowed her out of the way. “It’ll take me two minutes! Just wait, Anna!”

Seeing that she was not going to get her way and that her mother was in no mood to arbitrate, Anna took up a new tactic. “Well hurry up! Dad wants to leave.”

Yes, thought Steve. Dad does want to leave.

“You’re not even dressed yet!” Kat pointed out.

Anna stomped over to the suitcase she shared with her sister and dug through the carefully folded clothes. Returning to the bathroom, she asked, “Can I borrow your scarf?”

Kat, running the flat iron through her bangs for the last time, answered, “Yes. But remember this the next time you get mad.”

Anna rolled her eyes and looped it around her neck. “Thank you. Out of all the sisters in all the world, you’re the very, very best.”

Kat fluffed her hair one last time. “You’re being sarcastic, but it’s true. Mom.” She turned to Lily, who was putting the finishing touches on her lipstick. “Can I wear your peace sign necklace? Please?”

“I don’t know where it is in the suitcase and I don’t want you tearing through everything.” Lily glanced over at Steve, whose jaw was clenched in his effort to stay calm. “We better go before your dad has a heart attack.”

“But I haven’t done my makeup!” cried Anna.

Seeing that his wife was ready, Steve felt as though he could now impose discipline without fear. “Too bad. We’re leaving. Now.”

Anna glared at Kat. “Thanks a lot.”

“It’s not my fault. Get up earlier next time. And wear your own stuff if you’re going to be such a—”

“That’s ENOUGH!” shouted Steve.

“Honey,” said Lily, putting her hand on his arm. “Calm down. We’re going to have a good breakfast and we’re going to be pleasant. Right, girls?” she said, with a pointed look at Kat and Anna.

“Yes mama,” said Anna with affected sweetness.

“Katrina?”

“Yes” she answered begrudgingly. And so, they shuffled out of the hotel room, down to breakfast, with Steve leading the way.

 

 

Regan Farnsworth, BFR Staff

There is a common misconception that a writer is a particular sort of person. That being a writer is something you’re born into, that someone either can write or can’t. There also is a second common misconception:  the idea that people have to want to read what you write for it to be “good.”

Given these misconceptions, only the published can stand out as “writers,” and even then only the commercially successful published are held as objects worthy of imitation.

But let’s not even complicate the matter of writing with questions of commercial success and whether one must win some sort of lottery at birth to have the “right stuff” to write what people want to read.

No. Instead, let’s look for a moment at personal writing. Writing for you, or maybe a close friend or two. This isn’t exactly the kind of writing that happens all that often – or, rather, you don’t hear about it happening all that often—because that’s precisely the nature of it. And the thing about this kind of writing is it doesn’t have to be “good” the way best-sellers or literary classics are “good.” All it has to be is yours. And as someone who exists, I understand there’s more corn in that sentence than in the global agriculture industry, so allow me to provide an actual example of this type of writing:

As a cripplingly analytical individual obsessed with the metaphysical, I found myself in the midst of an existential crisis based on the possibility of free will. Without going into details, the crux of the issue was that there can of course be no absolute resolution. There is no answer, yet I was desperate for one. Thus, the need for this one piece of fiction: a setting in which there must be a resolution regardless of my inability to know one. That is, in writing I could create the necessary circumstances to better understand myself.

Let’s be clear: this was probably the worst story I ever wrote in my life—and that includes those ones I wrote in second grade. It was a couple pages, done in an hour, and truthfully was such garbage even flies couldn’t stand it. But that’s not important, because neither you nor anyone else is ever going to read it. All it did was what it had to do: it resolved my cognitive dissonance.

Obviously there are more uses for writing than settling the inner turmoil brought about by an excessive need for agency; all this example set out to prove is it didn’t matter if it was good, or made sense, or had a solid plot or possessed meaningful character development or even had proper spelling. Sometimes writing is its own reward.

All I hope to express is that you don’t need to be a writer to write. If you’re an avid reader—and surely you are if you’re reading a column on a fiction magazine’s blog—there’s something you get from a story. Sometimes you can get it from your own story, too, even if you—like me—would sooner set it on fire than on a shelf.