The Scent of Strangeness

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I never clean the whiteboards. I wash the floors of the lab, wipe door handles, Windex small windows, dust baseboards. But I’m not allowed to wash the whiteboards, which line this particular corridor from floor to ceiling. I assume it’s because I’m not qualified to tell the difference between doodles and diagrams, to filter the genius from the gibberish. Or perhaps the lab rats are just sentimental.

When I left my last job (my “real” job, as I still refer to it) the daily assault had finally become too much. Colours had different smells or tastes, which was often evident by my expression, and numbers jumped off pages and screens. There were boardrooms I avoided because of the artwork. Coworkers were uncomfortable when I would gag at the sight of orange hi-lighter, or swat my hands in front of my face during my own PowerPoint presentations on financial performance. Numbers representing dollars were particularly jabby.

I probably could have managed the synesthesia a while longer – but I suffer from double vision that had become steadily worse and which baffled the ophthalmologists and neurologists. Once they gave up, I accepted I couldn’t analyze data if I couldn’t see it, and so had reached an end point in my professional career.

So now I clean, mopping and wiping and Windexing. Double vision isn’t a hindrance here, since I just have to clean the dirt from both objects in front of me. I’m better at ignoring floating numbers now too, and besides, there’s no one to see me if I unconsciously try to brush them away. But in the corridor outside the laser lab, I don’t bother.

This is the only exciting part of my day, this corridor. The rest is spent with white tile and stainless steel, some black vinyl chairs here and there, and fake oak veneer in the meeting rooms. Black, beige, brown and lots of white. Tasteless, but not in the traditional sense. Layered over everything is the faint odour of bleach from my rag, which serves the dual purpose of both cleaning surfaces and blocking out any other scents that might distract me. The building is the perfect environment for me now, except for this corridor.

Here, the numbers and symbols float out from the whiteboard’s surface and arrange themselves for me in a dance. They move in an eddy of numeric poetry, some fast, some slow. Some float or bounce and some sink to the ground. Some are sharp and others are a little fuzzy. I’m never sure what I’ll see. Most fascinating, the distance between them can be logarithmic, one farther away from two than eight is from nine.

Interestingly, the formulae sometimes have a scent, and occasionally a taste. This used to confuse me, smelling something visual, but not anymore. It’s just how the patterns smell, not really who wrote them. I suspect my ‘nose for numbers’ was what made me so good at my old job, ‘smelling’ trends and forecasting like a magician. I miss that.

As I come around the corner, the numbers start a slow tumble and I smell bacon. Adam wrote these, his current work always smells a bit greasy. But I like bacon days. Naphthalene (Dr. Moustache) and diesel (Socks ‘N Sandals) not as much. I don’t know everyone’s names. Popcorn is my favourite pattern-scent. It’s Bee’s work.

Bee opens the lab door while I’m wiping the couch cushions. She has her mug. When she comes back I’m crouched down, dusting the baseboards. I can’t tell if they’re dusty.
She pauses in front of the whiteboard and I hear her pick a pen out of the cup. At the squeak of the marker I turn my head. As usual, I don’t understand what she’s writing but this time it jumps off the board and I lose my balance. The numbers move like a fast river over a waterfall, rushing forward and then slipping down and away. She turns to look at me, sitting on the floor.

“Are you alright?”
I stand up, but all the numbers that have gone over the waterfall are pooling at my feet and I want to get my mop and push them away. They don’t smell like popcorn. They taste like iron.
I consider her question. Am I alright? There are only two possibilities: yes or no. A or B… Bee. Why did she write that?
“What’s wrong?”
“With me? Er…you’re the one who fell over.”
“Your numbers smell different today. Strange.”
“Strange! Wait. What do you mean smell?”
“Did you change something? Are you working on something new?”
Her eyes narrow. “Why would you ask that?”
“The smell. Of your numbers. It’s different.”
She stares at me for a moment and then turns back to the whiteboard. “What does this smell like?” The marker squeaks. I smell popcorn cooked in bacon grease in a cast-iron pot.
“Are you collaborating with Adam?” Her hand freezes. She turns back to face me, eyes wide now.
“How did you know that? Did you see – did you read our thesis? Do you know what any of this means?” She waves the marker at the formula she’d just written.
“Nope. I just clean the floors here.”
She turns and scribbles something else. The numbers march forward. Popcorn and bacon and mothballs. Gross.
“Dr. Moustache.”
She let out a harsh, bark of a laugh. “Dr. Everly. I KNEW Adam went to him for help. My god. This is so weird.”
“It’s just strangeness.”
"Hrm." She waved at the board again “Do all the numbers have a smell?”
“It doesn’t work like that. It’s more the…arrangement…of the numbers, which smells.”
“Will you read our paper? I want to double check Adam didn’t ‘borrow’ anything else.”
“I guess. I still don’t think it works that way, but I can try. Can you write it on the whiteboard? I can’t see small fonts.”
I sit down on the couch. “And can you not use the orange marker? It stinks.”

About the Author: 
J M Kinnear does not write for a living, but does enjoy checking out the whiteboard doodles at the IQC in Waterloo, ON.