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Nonfiction, Clara Unger

Givenchy L’Interdit

Fragrance Family: Florals

Key notes: Orange blossom, jasmine, patchouli

Fragrance Description: You, blowing smoke out the window in your dorm. Things have been hard, recently. Memories don’t work like they used to. Maybe because nothing is familiar. Your parents call from different houses to complain about each other. Your dorm smells like your roommate’s perfume and chicken tikka masala. All the girls you’ve been before are stuck in your desk drawer, gasping for air.

Mandarin oranges

Fragrance Family: Fresh

Key notes: Citrus, honeysuckle, bluebird skies

Fragrance Description: Remember that everything used to be new. Your sticky citrusy fingers paint the sky a thin bluebird band across the top of the paper. Do you recall the moment you first learned that it stretched all the way to the ground? You tapped your parents’ shoulders, raised your hand in the air and closed your fist. Announced, “Look, I’m holding a piece of the sky!”


Fragrance Family: Fruity

Key notes: Ripe cherry, cobblestones, hazelnuts

Fragrance Description: Your twin’s grin drips red with false malice and cherry juice. The gap between her teeth forms the shape of the Arc de Triomphe outside the window. The two of you pile the Nutella you’re only allowed on vacation high on top of street vendor crepes.

She chases pigeons across the courtyard. Giggles when they flit away. Doesn’t know what bitterness is, yet: teeth, juice-reddened.



Fragrance Family: Spicy amber

Key notes: Sumac, thyme, fresh bread

Fragrance Description: The Turkish restaurant down the street with the good bread. Your family sat on that porch once a week just so you could dip floury pita into olive oil and spices.

After dinner, your tongue excavates sumac and sesame seeds from your molars and your father simmers across the picnic table.

It doesn’t take many years for a girl to notice the way that men’s shoulders bundle into tangled livewire when they’re angry. The same way you notice the hanging lights turning harsh in his hazel eyes, sharpened by the scrape of his chair on concrete while your mother is paying inside.

Twenty minutes ago you swept your finger around the rim of the bowl, the last of the seeds bursting tangy in your mouth. Now you chase red-hot footsteps all the way home.

Crystal Light Lemonade Powder

Fragrance Family: Fresh citrus

Key notes: Lemon-lime snow cones, 99% humidity, chlorine

Fragrance Description: Pop! of sweet-tart summer, sweaty popsicles and bare legs on leather seats. Shock! of sprinkler showers and summer reading deadlines. Bang! and it’s fourth grade already. You wear braces and earrings now, wrap an unfortunately bright neon yellow infinity scarf around your neck and a sweatshirt like a disguise around your hips.

This is when you dip your pinky in the lemonade pouch, sweet sting on the tongue.

You don’t cry when you scrape your kneecaps anymore, only slide the whorls of a fingertip under the new sticky flap of skin, this evidence of your body.

On top of the monkey bars, Logan’s telling you what sex is. You don’t believe her. Luke tells you he thinks you’re pretty. You don’t believe him, either. Rachel whispers the word penis in the back of the bus. You think she says peanuts. You get your first period on field day and cry.

You kept all this secret from your twin — the fact of your growing up. And she, from you. It felt shameful, somehow. To depart. As if you could be those puffy-cheeked kids in the bluebonnet field forever. Or if you could always remain running through that one incredible summer; days worn by neon green softball jerseys and tasting like yellow gatorade.

So you tie yourselves together, but the string is really barbed wire dipped in lemon juice. You’ll soften the sting this time only with the balm of hindsight. The gift of memory is this:

You’ll live forever in the brightest spaces between your grandest stories. The two of you sneaking Crystal Light from the pantry. Lemonade & cartwheels through the itchy grass.

Burt’s Bees lip balm

Fragrance Family: Earthy

Key notes: Peppermint, rosemary, fresh mountain air

Fragrance Description: A memory, camera-flash of a dozen road trips. Americana anthems drip honey from the speakers, and your mother’s voice trills so sweetly as you pinch her lip balm from the center console.

(You won’t talk about dad living in the basement.)

Grab her hand, join in the song. Can the child within my heart rise above?

Together, you make blurs of the landslide warning signs along the highway. Only the inlet and the silver-lined clouds lie still, and even then it’s only a matter of perspective. The tide here is the strongest in the world. Strong enough to sweep away anything, even ourselves.

The story is that three teenagers got stuck in the quicksand at low tide and a helicopter came and ripped them in half. They’ve been telling that story for 50 years. It’s not true, of course.

But that doesn’t really mean anything.

Like, back then you didn’t lean your head out the window, but what if you did? Imagine for a second the breeze lilting off the water. Before it exhaled toward the mirror in the sky it caressed your lips, mingled with the menthol, the stereo, joining in the chorus: I’ve been afraid of changing, ‘cause I built my life around you.

You have something to learn from the wind, who whispers both hello and goodbye in the space between our breaths, between our stories. (Remember.)

Instant Chai

Fragrance Family: Amber

Key notes: Spices, morning dew, birdsong

Fragrance Description: The cookpot is still dirty from dinner the night before, but your father wakes up at dawn to clean it. By the time you crawl from your sleeping bag, the water is ready. Him: french press coffee. You: chai.

On a two-acre island in the middle of a lake. On the porch of a public use cabin at the crest of Resurrection Pass. On a rocky beach over blue-rushing water, swiping away mosquitoes.

He carries your canoe on his shoulders for miles, until he is hunched and bruised. (But he sure as hell does complain a lot.) Drinks too much whiskey. Always cuts a slice of salami for you. You know that thing about your mom? Hangs the bearcans. Filters the water. Boils water for your tea, to warm your muscles in the morning. Just enough to face the sunrise.

This is what you will remember. Not the hours before dawn, the anger and the couch in the basement and the divorce. Not the apathy, not the vodka bottles on the fridge.

Instead, the August sunrise through tent walls. Your father outside under the god rays, tending the fire.


Fragrance Family: Florals

Key notes: Fresh cut grass, late-April, paperbacks

Fragrance Description: “It’s called Peace Park for a reason,” she said, shaking jasmine over your face and every other person in the circle, lying on your backs under the sycamores. You look for jasmine essential oil on Amazon as soon as the class is over.

You’ve been trying this out recently: yoga, meditation. Journaling, for once. Every trick in the book: exercise, therapy, changing your meds. Changing your major, changing your hair. You’ve been reading a lot of books — changing your mind.

Emily Dickinson pressed jasmine into the first page of her herbarium. You learn this in English class.

She wrote almost 1,800 poems and more, uncounted — her pages of pressed flowers themselves sing verse, each stem a stanza, petals for syllables. Blooms pressed so they never rot — gifted spirit from a human touch.

Bereft of life and immortal, too.

Jasmine officionale is sometimes referred to as “poet’s jasmine.” You learn this while ordering seeds on Amazon.

Campfire smoke

Fragrance Family: Woody amber

Key notes: Carbon, smoke in the eyes

Fragrance Description: Remember how kids would burn their binders of homework on the last day of school? Some collective catharsis, an excuse to drink beers at a bonfire and toast to wishing death on their English teacher.

You never did. Kept thousands of pages hibernating in your closet, like someday you’ll need them. If you ever need to rotate a curve around the z-axis or recite the names of the Chinese dynasties, pull the box down from the shelf.

So you’re scared of losing your memory, but who isn’t? You know your uncle lay on an operating table and recited the names of his children while doctors cut away chunks of his brain. You and everyone else has watched their grandmother’s mind drift away on the breeze. You know about entropy and heat death and you know how to stare into a campfire, logs slowly scaling, contracting, falling to pieces.


Fragrance Family: Sweet floral

Key notes: Almonds, pen ink, your favorite book

Fragrance Description: You baked a bone-dry Christstöllen on Christmas morning the year before your father moved out. The loaf was crumbly, dense. Pieces flaked off when you slid a serrated knife down the middle.

In the center: a circle of marzipan, your favorite part. Later, the loaf will begin to get stale, and you will peel the crumbling edges, the toughening raisins away, leaving only the sweet almond paste. Soft enough to form any shape, so you do.

Roll it between your fingers to shape it into something truer, something sweeter.

Something like a metaphor. Like a familiar scent.

You’re scared of losing your memory, but mostly you’re scared that it’s wrong. The wrong light, the wrong story, the wrong canvas.

A pair of jeans you could have sworn fit you last week.

A puzzle piece mutilated to fill the wrong space.

But then there you are, peeling mandarins at the counter. Your fingernail pierces delicate flesh, and everything is new again. Everything is true.


Clara Unger (@clara.unger) is an undergraduate at the University of Missouri, where she studies journalism, creative writing, and philosophy. She is the 2023 winner of the Literature Emitting Diodes undergraduate writing contest and her work is forthcoming in the San Antonio Review. Clara drinks copious amounts of tea and is currently planning a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. Everyone is invited.


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