The Scent and the Fury: Part 2

A follow up to part 1.


In college I experienced a plethora of new and exhilarating freedoms. I wish I could say the same happened with my perfume experimentations. It seemed rather that as I transitioned out of teenhood, I learned by practice the famous dictum that notes we form "taste" through things we find to be lacking in it. I can't recall what I was wearing in my first year, but I do recall my best friend, who was French, green-eyed, and languorous, absolutely dousing herself in a rich, heady perfume the color of champagne while she experimented sexually in ways that scandalized the Protestant majority of our hall, who sprayed themselves with bath and body works 'fragrances' that smelled of overripe fruit in the communal bathroom. Sasha, the French friend, was worldly (and thus, world-weary at her 18 years) and a consummate cigarette smoker (Malboro Reds). She smelled of all of her experience, and though I can't place the fragrance in the sleek round bottle or recall it, I realize now it was an unapologetic chypre, like Diorella, but perhaps more violent.

I don't think I owned a bottle of perfume that was my own all through my first 3 years of college. I remember CK's famously androgynous "One" in a tiny trial bottle acquired from who knows where, and abandoning it early on. I tried watery Aqua di Gio for women for awhile, which, while delicious and easy-going, was equally as easy to leave behind, like a one-night stand from a frat party. Mostly, I was wearing other people's perfumes, friends', which seems fitting for a time in which I barely knew myself, when 'myself' was being constructed on a weekly basis.

Once summer in Greece I remember almost entirely in olfactory sensations. I was in a little town 5 km away from Marathon, the coastal village made famous by the Greek messenger Pheidippides, whose race to Athens, 26 miles away, established the tradition of marathon running. For two months of lackadaisical volunteerism, I slept on a small cot in the auditorium of an abandoned school with 12 volunteers hailing mostly from Italy and Romania, baking in the pebbly beaches of the Agean when not suspended in remote fire towers in the pine woods that swept up the dry mountains and tumbled into the sea. The area was prone to devastating forest fires, and the fire towers, sprinkled throughout, served as lookouts for the wispy beginnings of trouble. The towers were a simple affair, generally a 150 foot structure accessed by climbing the rungs of the base, which was crowned with a small, windowed cabin containing little more than topographical maps and a telephone. We were instructed how to use the wall-mounted phones, which called the forestry department, and the only Greek word I remember was one that we were taught to use in these hypothetical exchanges: fotia, fire. Because we were stretched thin as a voluntary workforce, and I assume also, because the job was an extraordinarily tedious and easy one, only one of us at a time were deposited on these towers in the early morning, and not recovered until early evening. Most of the volunteers hated this long, hot, and solitary shift, but I preferred it to the other assignment, picking up trash on the beach in oversized fluorescent hazmat suits. For 8 or 9 hours, I would sit on a beach towel spread on the concrete, railed walkway that surrounded the cabin, stripped down to nothing but a swim bottom, accompanied only by the tossings of the pines below and a book, looking out towards the hazy aqua line that shimmered miles below. This summer is recalled in the odor of resinous pines, salty sea air, espresso powder that we would mix with rich Greek milk and ice cubes to cool down in the afternoons, and a perfect Escada perfume in a kaleidoscope- colored bottle, whose fruity sweetness I never wore again, but one that strikes me as a natural partner to that stuperously hot and idle summer spent on the back of mopeds, tearing around the dusty side roads and on moonlit beaches, sharing sips of ouzo from the bottle.

In my fourth year at college, after my anais anais experience in Madrid, I began dabbling in serious with scents. For awhile I enjoyed the soapy pink purity of Philosophy's Amazing Grace, which I (over)wore so feverishly that I can close my eyes today and conjure it up immediately. It's a simple smell, like a White Linen for beginners, one that has a straightfoward story to tell, but looking at its notes, I find the bergamont, rose and musk where the elements that must have attracted me in the first place, though they are the least obvious, the laundry and freesia being the main attraction in the composition. Calvin Klein's Euphoria entered the picture at some point (courtesy of a roommate), its gorgeous, metal clad bottle seeming to describe the incredibly sweet and opiate contents. Ultimately, not for me, as the perfume did and does strike me as having an oddly sickly-urine undercurrent. Later, I relapsed back into a familiar mode of sweet and sticky scents, enjoying Nanette Lepore's Shanghai Butterfly, passed on by my aunt Vivian, whose jammy, candied notes strike me still as delicious, but simple and young. I still love the squat, matte, mint-green bottle. Things got dark later in the year, as I was consumed with a strange affair with a boy whose love of marijuana inspired me to purchase him a bottle of Fresh's Cannibis Santal, one that I ended up keeping and wearing rather angrily for a few months after a rainy late-summer visit to Vermont in which our infatuation unraveled.

Then came Stella Absolute, a weird rose that I nonetheless wore somewhat confusedly for a year; I knew I liked rose after a stint with the mega-rose of Yves St. Laurent's Paris sometime in college (later abandoned in the back of my demolished Volvo station wagon for emergency wearings until I casually gifted it to someone who found it in a seat back pocket), but Stella mostly seduced me with its gorgeous faceted purple bottle and little else. I was without a defining fragrance for another year after this until 2 summers ago, when Narcisco Rodriguez for Her entered my life. Bought smell unsniffed with a Sephora giftcard, I gravitated towards the minimal, squared black-glass receptacle and its description of sexy darkness. At this time in my life, I may not have recognized the profound change that was taking over my life; like all massive things, it moved slowly and almost imperceptibly. Mountains were being formed from the raw material of my experiences, of their own accord and without interference. I slept more than usual, and everything about this time seems shrouded in dusky gray shadow. In the mysterious and banal manner in which life rites are performed, going unobserved and transferring without much ado, I closed my eyes sometime in 2008 and when I opened them in 2009, I had grown up. Somewhere in that darkness, something about NR's obscure description and cipher bottle resonated very strongly with me, and with uncharacteristic impulsiveness, I sent away for it.


I immediately loved it when I finally sprayed it on: radiant, warm, musky, it smelled imminently more grown-up than anything else I'd ever worn. If the scent had a corresponding color, it would be a muted shade of black, with orange swirled in around the edges. When I wore it(and after wearing it for a year, I unconsciously had begun dousing myself in it, as I was becoming anosmic to it), people (women, usually), would stop me from exiting elevators and upon greeting me with a hug with: Whoa! what are you wearing? This reaction credits NR's accessibility and deliciousness; simply, it smells wonderfully, and especially in the cold seasons.

I can credit NR with my introduction to fragrance communities and a deeper interest in perfumes;after a few months of wearing it, I wanted to try something different, but related, and I turned to internet fragrance communities, with their passionate and abundant contributors. It's easy to look back in scorn on your unenlightened years of blissfully spraying on whatsoever may have crossed your path to produce a 'good' (ie, mostly candied and acceptable) smell on and around your person, but as I actively sought out perfumes to smell, based on guidelines of value and character established by the enlightened ones, I returned to basics, namely, the preferences and scent memories that have defined and transported me and continue to do so, to this day. There is something to be (still) said about the power of aspiration, and how it plays into our most innocuous seeming desires of identity; I am still privy to the power of seductive marketing, and the pull of gnostic recommendation from perfume communities. But now, rather than dismiss a difficult fragrance that challenges my idea of what smells like "me", or attempt to enjoy or assimilate it because of the commendations of others, I enjoy not smelling like something comfortable, something myself, slipping into a new persona via the environmental effects of an invisible mood that perfume, with its subtle magic, can only conjure.

Like the mood created by Agent Provocateur, which initially struck me as old lady-ish and overpowering-- not a tame, sweet dame. I had ordered a sample in the fall, when, through deductive amateur sleuthing, I thought I might be interested in chypre smells, and recoiled from it: P.U. I wasn't ready for the minx.

It was in the winter when I found myself sneaking little dabs in my decolletage, with the safety net of NR radiating from my wrists and clothes. What compelled me in these little sneaks I still can't explain. It might have something to do with the slight skank that AP gives off, like unwashed skin: not exactly armpit B.O., but the slight sweat, delicate, that a powdered woman might produce on her gilded shoulders after a night of relentless dancing. It also smells like dried, powdered spice from the spice rack (this is the saffron in the composition), which was its selling point, eventually, with me. It's billed as a chypre, but it's really not; it's supposedly a predominant rose, but that also doesn't define this lady. It's dry, but doesn't lean on heavy aldehyde or powder to produce this effect, and its richness comes from the interplay of the spicy oriental characters that allow the jasmine and rose to peek through. I think a man might wear this scent very well. When I wear it, I feel dolled up yet raunchy, like I've been smoking galouises at the Turkish baths while I get an oil rubdown, and I might put on a black leather bomber jacket over a pink silk dress and head to a burlesque show later in the evening.

With AP I learned that I could smell like an undercover dominatrix when I wanted to, and then the next day I might feel like a wind-blown Amelia Earhart, and wear something else. I've worn a different scent every day for the past 4 months.

The other day, I pulled my black NR bottle from the cabinet, after 9 months of neglect. It was a cold, overcast spring morning, and though I thought I'd moved on to more exotic, sophisticated places, I was surprised by Narcisco. She was still warm, sweet, and wore a half-smile to meet me that rainy morning, reminding me of what I'd once loved, and still love, and who I'd once been, and still am.

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