The Scent That Reminds Me Most Of My Abusive Father

Always, that stench is there in that cursed house, as if the walls had absorbed it permanently, or as if he himself consumed so much of it that he’d become the very source of it.

The first time it happens, I don’t say anything.

Of course I don’t say anything; that’s just how it was growing up. If you don’t say anything, you don’t get yelled at, probably. Moreover, it just seems so trivial. I push it aside. Compartmentalize.

I don’t sleep well that night.

The second time it happens, my sister is staying with us. She, too, associates the smell—we know, with just a glance, what the other is thinking—but we say nothing. We leave the dishes for the next day, but by morning it’s overwhelming.

“Do you…?”


We clean up and get out of the house for a few hours. We blast our favorite songs and try to forget another house, the home of a steady descent into abuse. A word we only started saying after he died, one we’d considered years ago, but pushed aside after desensitization and stigma had their say.

Dad loved to cook. It was the one place we found common ground, that last year before I moved out; the one place our relationship actually resembled normal, and not the bastardized version of normal we’d all come to accept as truth. Mom was back in the workforce after 20 years of being a stay-at-home, little sister was in school, and I, between two part-time jobs and full-time classes at the community college, had picked up the slack. Maybe it was because he knew I could leave whenever I wanted; maybe it was because I’d learned to suffer silently. Whatever it was, it was…well, “good” can hardly be accurate. We still fought over my future plans and over the tiniest little perceived slights to his all-encompassing patriarchal authority, his God-and-country-given-right to rule his household with an iron fist. Still, it was the closest to normalcy I’d had.

We cooked everything that year: beef and barley stew on snowy days when classes were cancelled; assembly lines of fried zucchini, which had to be prepped fast to keep enough food for five hot; jambalaya, full of meat and bay leaves you had to pick out, slightly burned at the bottom—the first time was an accident, but after that on purpose, the golden crust of rice forming little pockets of delicious texture. Weekends were devoted to pizza loaf, an enormous, stromboli-like creation which took a full day to prepare, and more often than not ended in a shouting match, but the resulting taste usually burned our arguments out with the roofs of our mouths. Always, it was about the process, the composition, the science behind it—and always the spices. Mom’s objections were overruled by a dismissive wave. Spicy it was; spicy it would always be.

Our house always smelled like cumin.

When my partner comes home, I tell him. I apologize frequently; he assures me I don’t have to; I do anyway. We agree not to leave the dishes.

The third time it happens, I’ve hit a roadblock in my score and I’m feeling a little isolated from the real world. I emerge from a half-nap to the overwhelming aroma, creeping its way up the stairs, insidiously lodging itself into my memory. I come home on a college break; the power’s been shut off. I’m on the phone, screaming back at his violent vitriol over my inability to send him $20. I can’t visit for Christmas because my partner is not permitted to see the house in its dilapidated state: every material possession hoarded, not a floor in sight. I’m told the roof of the basement caved in; the water main’s been broken for years. They should have been evicted years ago, but a hitch in the system stalls their foreclosure. Inevitably, it catches up and they abandon the house I grew up in, the house that smelled like cumin.

Further back still—I’m sent to the garage instead of my room during an argument, because “you deserve to be punished but you don’t deserve to die.” I accidentally lock my door; he breaks it down. I ask for a second helping of eggs and I’m told to leave the house. Coffee is thrown in my face and I have no idea why. Always, that stench is there in that cursed house, as if the walls had absorbed it permanently, or as if he himself consumed so much of it that he’d become the very source of it.

My parrot screams happily; I’m jolted back to reality.

I take two bites of cauliflower and can’t eat any more. My partner, ever supportive, agrees to my embarrassing request; he’ll find a substitute for the sake of my mental health. He asks if I want to order something; I treat myself to sushi and buy him an order of those little donut things. I feel guilty. I feel stupid. He brings the birds over and sits with me on the couch, tells me I’m not broken, and we crack jokes that the warranty is expiring in a few weeks, is he sure he doesn’t want to trade his fiancé in for a better model?

My second attempt at dinner arrives, and at the first bite of Philadelphia roll, I’m carried away again.

Apartment 303. Where home couldn’t touch me. Where we dreamed impossible dreams and danced at 2am on the balcony; where I played Fire Emblem on the living room carpet while my housemate wrote screenplays, The Decemberists on the record player. Where I furiously composed at the dining room table—not for lack of a desk, but the pleasure of company—and subsided mostly on diet coke, bargain pizza, and instant macaroni and cheese, but splurged on grocery store sushi every payday. Where I found the first few members of the rest of my family—the family I chose, the family who supported and loved me unconditionally.

I’m transported to out-of-the-way sushi joints in Illinois, an hour from university, just because my partner knew it would make me happy. To the hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurant in downtown Madison, found on a 10-hour road trip we’d made in a day, just so that my grad-school comrade could see the musical I’d prioritized over actual homework. To the smell of the food court at a mall near St. Louis—I didn’t even eat sushi that day—and secondhand smoke off a motel balcony: the day my best friend became my best friend. To the second-floor upscale restaurant in my own adopted hometown for my sister’s 16th birthday, where we drank mango tea, looked down at the world, and imagined a different life.

That different life is here now, 14 months after his death. Others, too, have left, though not in so permanent a fashion; my circle has tightened, but grown in love exponentially. Leftover sushi in the fridge, I sit surrounded by photos of that love: the beginnings of a collage to display at our wedding in four short weeks. Four weeks until I marry my partner; four weeks until my entire family is all in the same place.

That, I think, should be enough to banish the smell of cumin.

Jennie Huntoon is a composer, music teacher, and occasional writer of words. She lives in Frederick, MD, with her partner, and much of her free time is spent catering to the whims of their three birds.

Other Links: