Suzanne's Perfume Journal

Last Friday I went blonde—really, really blonde.  Not by request so much as by omission: my dim-witted failure to fully convey my desires to my hairdresser.  My idea of “natural” highlights and hers obviously differ, and it is hardly her fault that she could not see my thought bubble, where my new hair was the sun-tipped honey-brown color of Jennifer Aniston’s flowing locks, only much shorter.  So the bleach came and went and bitch-slapped me blonde, and afterwards, I smiled and hugged and tipped my hairdresser.  And after that…well, if you’re a woman or a man who has spent a fair amount of time with women, then you know how the rest of my weekend went.  Teeth were gnashed, desperate emails and phone calls to sisters made, and mirrors were consulted at every turn but proved to be as nebulous with their advice as the ouija board of my adolescence.  Is it as bad as I think?  Can it be fixed?  I received basically the same answers as when I was a lovesick teenager who, in the midst of almost every séance we held for my dead grandmother, asked whether the cute Italian boy I’d had a mad crush on would ever notice me.  Yes, it said.  Maybe 2morrow.  And days later, ostensibly under the same funk as my sister who’d been wheedled into manning the other half of the planchette, Farewell.

Amazingly, the weekend passed and Monday arrived without any serious hair intervention, and while there is still enough shock in my system to severely skew my judgment, I am now thinking that this is the most ingenious thing my hairdresser has ever done.  Because my new hair is so zealously, unapologetically blonde that to wear it this way means I must wear it.  To fully inhabit it and not slouch it off as anything other than what it is: a choice, an attitude, a thumbing-of-the-nose acknowledgment that most of what falls under the category of beauty involves artifice.  My highlighted hair is like one of those glitzy silver Christmas trees from the ‘70s that remind me of discotheques: it does not invite comparisons to anything natural—it was not created to mimic but to be a shiny happy thing unto itself, ready to party and have fun.  It is artificial, yes, but in such an upfront way that I have to admire its honesty, and the honesty it demands of me if I decide to keep it.  Do I have the balls to wear a head full of bottle-blonde highlights?  I’m not certain, but I respect the way it is forcing me to choose.

Most of the messages that I put out about myself come from bottles these days—perfume bottles; I am “sending out an s.o.s.” as the Police song goes, but of a different kind than the lyrics imply.  True, I am another lonely castaway, “an island lost at sea, oh.”  (Happily married, or happily single with a wide circle of friends, we all have a place at our core that is unseen, that exists at some remove from even those who are closest to us.)  And on some level, I probably wear perfumes with the hopes of sending a signal that will encourage others to chart a course to me.  But on a more conscious level, the message that I have been putting out since I began collecting perfumes a little more than a year ago is just the opposite.  I am my own unique island, full of splendors you can hardly fathom, seems to be the message behind my perfume choices.  It is an arrogant, perhaps ignorant message, I realize.  Full of contradictions?  No doubt.  Nevertheless, it is the message that drives most of my decisions these days, especially my perfume buying ones.

Because never was I more lost than when I tried to swim in the mainstream; in fact it was much like drowning, although, admittedly, I was a poor swimmer and this was my adolescence, this period I am referring to—a crappy time in a lot of people’s lives.  Basically, it covers the period where the deep contentment I experienced growing up on a dairy farm was quickly eroded by the population at large of my high school, the demographics of which didn’t reflect the rural county I grew up in, but rather the university town where it was located.  Our school was large, almost exclusively white and affluent, with the majority of the student body being the kids of university professors and the somewhat less-elite university employees.  Farm kids were the “minority” students and were labeled in all the ways that minorities are.  The other kids called us “the hicks” (not just “hicks” but “the Hicks,” so that it applied not just to a few but to everyone who lived ten miles or more out of town).  If you happened to be good at sports, you could escape the hick label; likewise if you were really brainy, you could hang out with the nerds.  Otherwise, you were lumped into one group and targeted for laughs, avoided socially, and sometimes physically assaulted (though the latter usually only happened to the hicks who wore FFA jackets, of which I wasn’t one.  I hadn’t the nerve to join the FFA and proudly wear my redneck heritage on my sleeve).

My parents tried to convince me that cliques couldn’t exist unless one believed in them, yet knowing their argument was weak they purchased the requisite Adidas sneakers, carpenter pants, polo shirts, Speedo swimsuits and other accoutrements of the fashionable University kids—the Bonnie Belle lip smackers and Babe perfume.  And so I tried to fit myself into the mold of what was popular, to keep up on the latest trends.  Of course, what happened was that I gave up big chunks of my own individuality—I stopped writing poems, stopped talking about 4-H and cattle shows, stopped wearing T-shirts that featured Native American motifs—without the desired reward of crossing over into the territory of the perpetually cool.  For three long years I existed in a no-man’s land, where I was too ashamed to be the person I’d spent most of my young life developing into—and yet, too thin-skinned and timid in my attempts to get in with the in-crowd.

Looking back on all of this from the perspective of middle age, I realize that more than the resentment of feeling that I was forced to choose between (what I perceived then as) two sides, what I resented most was my own failure to choose either one of them.  Life is about making choices—little ones, big ones, sometimes black-and-white ones, though not usually.  Our lives are defined by our choices, and I think that’s the lesson of my high school years.  I have learned to be definitive in my choices now, to live more fearlessly by them and whatever consequences they bring, and to know they are not always set in stone—that new choices will present themselves down the road.

Though I moved away for a while, I now live near the same town where I grew up.  I have friends who are university intellectuals, friends who are local rurals like myself, and a life that is anything but mainstream.  I write, I publish books (or help others publish their own), and I collect perfumes that most people in this town have never heard of, but which are so strange and beautiful that most people I introduce them to want to smell them again—even the ones that repulse them.  I am quickly dismissed by people who can’t understand why I don’t sell decants of Sarah Jessica Parker’s perfumes, or who think that a book that isn’t available at Barnes & Noble is not a book, and I am fondly remembered by people who are looking for a whiff of something different in both these areas.  These are the things I have chosen, the messages that I am sending out and the messages that I’ve received back (for the return messages are a part of me, too).

Oh, and this week—at least for the remainder of this week—I am blonde.

Photo of Chloe Love Story perfume bottle on a beach lifted from the Chloe Love Story perfume website, which notes that it was taken by blogger Liz Cheraskova of Late Afternoon.

Message in a Bottle

January 23, 2008:

To read my most recent posts, return to Home Page