There was a woman on the F train. If I had lost my eyes, ears and mind, I would still have known she was Jamaican from her smell.
Well seasoned and salty. Years of perspiration imprinted in her skin. Slow release. Lingering . Inescapable. Jamaica make you sweat until the sweat cyan’t never leave you. Jamaica make you sweat for more reason than the hot sun. 13 months of not seeing her family coming from her damp armpits. A little jerry curl grease.
Can pride have an aroma? Can attitude have a smell? Can working 6 days a week to Western Union a likke something back to you family have a fragrance? It smells like tired.
“Maxine me a go haffi call you back” she is ventriloquising into another continent through a Nokia brick phone. “Maxine? Eh hee, di signal nuh so good”. She kisses her teeth like this is the first time there has been signal lacking in a subway station. How dare there be no signal in a subway station. I imagine that the minutes on her calling card are up.
Does she have the same phone plan my parents call me on?
“Why you have an A minus and not an A plus” Mummy can call me back on the digicel phone.
“What you think I send you to foriegn to do you?” Mom I’m not in wifi
“ You saw on facebook that… ”Mummy the long distance charges
“Ooooooh! of course baby, wait hold on aunty Cheryl just walked in. Hii Cheryl I’m on the phone to Sum Sums. Mhmmmmm she get 3 A’s in her subject them you know.. Come say hi to her. Sums talk to you Aunty Cheryl.” MUMMY. CALL. ME. BACK.
Can’t miss that smell. Would recognize it anywhere. She smells like crickets at night time. The smell of a double six domino smashing down on a wood table. 6 - Love. Fan bruck down in the kitchen and the food well oily. You know them smell there? The black grunge in the corner of old kitchen corners, in the creases of the counter, between the cracks in the fridge. No amount of bleach can remove it. No amount of bleach can change who we are.
Bamboo leaves rotting in fresh river water. She smelt like home.
She was massive. We wouldn’t call her fat, she was fluffy. Substance. Not no skinny mawga plyboard gyal. Not like me. Her thighs were like tree trunks bursting at the seams of her nurse outfit. Itching to be free. Rolls of belly pressing defiantly against her shirt. A discolouration across her cheek. I wonder where she got that from.
It’s like -The smell of night coming down. Dew in the early morning. Sour skin after a 6 am inna di dance. Rain on a zinc roof. Woiii, rain on a zinc roof. That smell after a fresh rain, you know them smell there? Soil releasing itself. Make you grit you teeth and want to run you fingers through it.
Do you know what breeze in a palm tree smells like? Not like a freshly printed tropical post card. Like a stink sea breeze, running through a dutty, dusty palm tree. Not like vacation scented coconut sunscreen. That is a white man smell.
“Ma’am would you like my seat?”
She doesn’t hear me. She is asleep standing up.
I remain nestled in the comforts of more than a subway seat. Cushioned. We are both Jamaican women living inna foreign, but the difference is vaster than the ocean that divides us from the land that we have loved and left. She sends money home, money is sent from home to me. My tuition. Jesus christ my tuition. You know what that could buy for Jamaica. I am nauseous.
The train jerks. “Mmf”. She kisses her teeth. She doesn’t open her eyes.
You know the smell of laughter, and the oldies tunes that make you mummy and daddy and aunty start to rock and sway? Make them drink a little too much rum and laugh a little too loud? You know dem kinda smell? Lullabies.
Peeking out of her crocus bag is her bible. She says her prayers every night. For what, I am not sure.
Peeking out of her hairline is the netting of wig. She puts it on every morning. Good good white people hair, Coloured a strange orange.
That smell of wet sand. Dusty. A mango that has just turned. Beautiful but rotting. A metaphor that is too easy. Jamaica is like one big, dutty, beautiful rotting fruit.
She closes her eyes. She looks exhausted. She breathes out heavily. Grunts.
Smells like a cover up. Talcum powder and Blue soap. Scrubbing at epidermises and identity until they are raw. Cheap perfume, bought in Mobay market or in Flatbush? Stucci, Dolci and Gabinni. Quickly evaporating. Leaving it’s promises of Pomegranate Passion and A Better Life behind. Concealing but unable to eliminate the root of the problem. Jamaica is always the root of the problem. Jamaica is the root of every God. Damn. Problem.
It has been a long shift I’m sure. A long life. Hospital shifts traded for transfers back home. Some for the family and some for the 5 bedroom house in the hills she’s been building for 20 years. For when she, finally, retires. The outside is fresh turquoise, inside the fat concrete walls are still showing blocks. Piece, piece, block by block. Doesn’t matter that the inside is rotting. The outside is the perfect shade of pastel blue, to rape a passerby's eyes. You cannot miss this house. She wouldn’t want you to miss this house.
“Maam would you like my seat?”. Not a trace of twang in my heavily educated voice. Not a trace of melanin in my unpatriotic skin skin.
Her eyes flutter open.
“Is okay baby, I getting off at the next stop”
I sit back down. In guilt. And privilege. And silence.
The train comes to a stop and we go our separate ways.