The Smell of Five AM

There’s this scene in the first Tomb Raider movie, where Lara Croft’s geeky genius robot-building sidekick Bryce is rudely awakened. “What’s that smell?” he asks, and Angelina Jolie almost, almost rolls her eyes.

“Five AM,” she says. “Let’s go.”

Five AM does have a definite smell. When I’ve been up all night, insomniac and frayed down to bare nerves, it’s like burnt insulation. When I’ve had some sleep and I’m hitting the trail for a multiple-mile run, it’s concentrated bullets of information. Temperature, humidity, someone’s doing laundry and using different dryer sheets, wet grass, a dog, the dry raspy-oily of feral cats, the bloodred wash of new fear from the rabbits, exhaust from the cars I feel like I could outrace if I really wanted to, incipient rain or the edge of cold harvest-breathing wind…

Yeah, you can smell five AM. I like it better while running. Somehow the burnt-insulation smell of insomnia lingers all day, and I don’t like it.

This morning it was utterly clear, the waning moon casting shadows less knife-sharp than the full moon does, Orion (or someone very much like him) riding in a sky the color of black velvet. My favourite mile has changed–it used to be the second one, when I was warmed up but before it became a struggle. Now it’s the third that’s my unqualified favourite. I’m warm, it’s past the park where the footing is sometimes uncertain, I’ve settled into the rhythm, it’s the “break mile”–after I run it, I’m on the downhill side, and I only have two more to go, may as well just get them done, right? That’s also most often when Miss B’s energy level drops a bit. I can feel the almost-thud as she settles back into her skin and all the fidgets have been worked out. All right, she says, glancing up at me with a big doggy smile. We’re into it now, right, Mum? Let’s boogie. And we run, my breathing and the slap of my feet mixing with the jangle of her collar and her happy panting.

Bands of smell like tree-rings–coffee from some houses, a clothes dryer venting from others, the one house where there’s always sausage sizzling in a pan on weekday mornings. The honeysuckle has died back after several mornings where it burst with a last penitent sweetness. Dried leaves crunching, not yet wet, a sharp spice instead of the humus-rotting there will be later when the rains come in.

I’m ready for the rains, I guess. There’s a certain semi-enjoyable component of physical misery in running through rain. The best part is arriving home, getting dry, peeling the socks off my wrinkled feet and shaking wet hair out of my eyes. But I don’t have to worry about that for another little while. For right now it’s the dry part of autumn, and the Halloween decorations going up around the neighborhood watch me with stupefied jack o’lantern eyes, sheaves of corn and hanging scarecrows rustling as I pass.

The rabbits have learned we won’t bother them. Now, sleek with end-of-summer gorging, they’ll wait on the concrete pathway as we run past the school, and Miss B goes mad with wanting. They flick their tails and hop away a little bit, just to be sure, and laugh at her. Phred the Coyote looms like a ghost, especially if the morning is misty. Miss B, having gotten a good snootful of him–and the coyote, I have to say, smells like grated ginger left out overnight, dry oil on fur, a breath of carrion and a sharp stink of wildness–bristles, her fur standing on end as she runs and the jagged copper-ceramic of adrenaline and alertness puffing up from her in waves. She was fine when she thought he was another canine, but one morning the wind veered, she inhaled, and gave one of her “I-mean-BUSINESS” growls. Yeah, that was fun. Of course, Phred just ran alongside us for a while, as is his wont when he’s not rabbit-chasing. “DUUUUDES!” he’ll pant. “YOU’RE, LIKE, WORKIN’ TOO HARD. LOOSEN UP. HEY, DON’T SCARE THE RABBITS, DUDES, RIGHT ON.” Then he’ll yip and lope away, off to do his coyote business before the sun comes up.

And the sun is coming up later and later. Now there’s only a faint smudge of gray on the horizon when I come home, dripping and victorious, Miss B ready for her real breakfast (she doesn’t like running on a full stomach and neither do I) and Zen-calm now that she’s done her job and shepherded me through the five miles. I open the door, and home enfolds me. The cats, sleek and full of kibble, disdainful of our heavy breathing and activity so early, the burst of steam from a Princess’s morning shower, a faint ghost of warmth still lingering on my toss-turned sheets and blankets, lights on and the clatter of silverware as the Prince gets his cereal. The oily richness of peanut butter and yeast and wheat of bread as I make their lunches, coffee that smells best because it’s my own, the dishwasher purring and giving out breaths of steam and lemon soap, paper and dust from the books stacked everywhere, and finally, the jasmine of shampoo as the salt veils from the morning’s sweat run down the shower drain and I stand, for a moment, breathing in warmth and safety. The smell of five AM becomes the aromas of seven, seven-thirty, and the rush of getting everyone ready for school.

On the map of my day, the two blend seamlessly into each other. Yet I can close my eyes and evoke each moment, smiling. Every morning is a tiny bit different, the sensory map changing over time as seasons and morning habits evolve.

So, dear Reader, what does your morning smell like?

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