Essay Encounter

Scent


At the beginning of the pandemic we began to order our groceries to be delivered, rather than going to the market, an errand that previously gave my husband and I the simple pleasure of companionship in our elder years among the vast aisles of abundance that now had become aisles of scarcity. Consequently one morning I heard a small delivery car come down our long driveway and park.  A heavyset middle-aged man with thick black hair and dark eyes brought four brown bags of groceries into our garage and carefully set them down in a neat row. When I hastily put on my mask and went out to thank him, he said happily but without smiling, his red mask hanging from one ear, “Oh this place, the scent of this place reminds me of my country that I came from so long ago! It’s the jasmine.”

I smiled though I realized he couldn’t know this unless he saw the smile in my eyes. “And where did you come from?”

“Algeria,” he said and then asked “do you mind if I take a small cutting? You know, you can trim just a short piece of the vine and put it in the ground or a pot and it will grow.” He demonstrated with his hands, miming the cutting and the planting.

“Of course, of course. We have so much jasmine. It grows everywhere as you can see.  Here’s a good patch, take it from here,” I said pointing to a clump near him, forgetting for a moment to keep my distance because of the virus, then quickly backing away.

“Thank you, I don’t have a garden because I live in an apartment but I have a small balcony,” he said as he began to dig up a section of vine with his hands.  “You know, in my country, every garden has jasmine. Every garden has three things.” He stood and held up three fingers, stopping what he was doing for a long moment as he said, “jasmine, a lemon tree and a rosebush. You can always smell one or the other as you walk down the street.” He waited before he resumed digging, as if retrieving some fragrant memory that held him in its grip.

For some reason when he said this, I saw them. The gardens of Algiers behind gleaming white walls on the coast of the blue-green Mediterranean Sea.  And I could smell the heavy languorous scent of jasmine mingled with the sweet innocence of roses and the wonderful tang of lemon blossoms. I saw the dark-eyed man in one of those gardens clipping jasmine, and for some reason tears sprang to my eyes. Because now we were all in danger from Covid-19 and our sense of smell, our very breath was at risk. Because he was an immigrant who lived in a small apartment with a balcony. Because maybe delivering groceries was the only job he could find now. Because his melancholy was pungent. Because he’d delivered me a rare gift and now I could give him jasmine.

“May I take a little dirt with me as well?” He asked.

“Of course, here – I have a pot for you.” I went into the garage and found an empty terracotta pot that seemed just the right size, and placed it six feet or so away from him.

“You can always take jasmine from here if you like when you come,” I said.

“Oh I will always ask first, thank you,” he said politely , digging up the dirt with cupped hands and beginning to fill the pot.

“Wait a moment,” I said as I rummaged around in the garage for a broken terracotta shard to put over the drainage hole in the pot. “Here,” I said and handed him the shard.

He nodded his thanks and set it in the bottom of the pot.

“And, if you don’t mind, what is your name?” I asked.

“Jamel.”

“I’m Regina, and it’s very nice to meet you.”

“Thank you. Oh and one more thing. In my country, we always put a single jasmine blossom in our coffee. You should try it. Just a single blossom.” He put his forefinger and thumb together, covered now with small dark crumbs of soil, and dropped an imaginary blossom into an imaginary cup of coffee, that I imagined to be a white demitasse of very strong aromatic coffee.

“I’ll try it, thank you for the suggestion.”

He carried the pot of soil with a couple of jasmine vines to his trunk, got into his car and backed slowly all the way up our long steep driveway, a little bit of vine trailing from his trunk, as I stood still, removed my mask and breathed in the scent of jasmine.