“I can smell your perfume,” my husband said to me in a quiet voice, in a briefly quiet moment, as we passed each other in the flooded basement of our house this past Monday. A midwinter thaw had ended in a torrential rain that arrived under cover of night, surprising us. We spent the morning outside in it, wrestling with long pieces of corrugated plastic pipe in an effort to direct the rain away from our waterlogged foundation. After that we’d gone to the hardware store to purchase a wet-dry vac, which, by this time in the late afternoon, we had assembled and were exercising to the full limits of its horsepower.
“I can smell yours, too,” I said, managing a tentative smile. The only happy arrival on Monday was the morning mail, containing two packages of perfumes; before we tackled the basement, I’d taken a moment to rip open the packages and anoint the both of us with a spritz. He was wearing Sonoma Scent Studio’s Tabac Aurea; I was in L’Arte di Gucci. We smelled like movie stars though we looked as bedraggled as wet cats—not to mention we’d been acting like a couple grouchy wet cats, too.
Prior to this moment, in which we spoke the kindest words we’d said all day, we’d had the day’s big argument. On the basement floor, next to our rarely-used woodstove, was a pile of old firewood he had brought into the house two winters ago, and which the basement’s humidity had reduced to a pile of pulpy logs with decaying bark and mossy crumbles. After vacuuming up as much water around it as I could, I began sopping up the floating bits of lichen and wood chips with paper towels. When he saw me doing this, he peevishly protested: “No paper towels! I don’t want all those paper towels ending up in the landfill.” “Would you rather the new wet-vac end up in the landfill,” I asked him, “when it chokes on all of this debris?” He replied by grabbing a sponge-mop and bucket and painstakingly soaking up the watery pulp. When he suggested I take over with the mop, I ran upstairs for more paper towels. This kind of back-and-forth went on for two or three hours, sandwiched between pissed-off glares and the not-so-silent silent treatment under the roar of the wet-vac.
But then came this moment when he said “I can smell your perfume,” and I knew the worst of our day was behind us. There was a sweetness to this sentiment that, though perhaps not evident in the retelling of it, was palpable, and what I would savor later, recognizing it as the deceptively small hinge on which our relationship keeps turning.
Inspired by Quite a Year for Plums, a Giveaway
It was late May, housecleaning season, when Roger fell in love with a woman at the dump. He never saw her. He just liked the way she threw things away. Sometimes she left clothes draped gracefully across a corner of the Dumpster—a nicely laundered shirt, its long sleeves tucked up away from a rusty patch, or a pair of blue jeans folded across slightly worn knees. Sometimes she put things off to the side, arranged in orderly rows in the grassy ditch at the edge of the woods—a white plastic fan, a ceramic container of wooden spoons, a clip-on bedside light, and a whole hummingbird cake wrapped in several layers of plastic wrap and aluminum foil, set up on a stump. She left notes on some items.
“This fan works, but it makes a clicking sound and will not oscillate.”
“I can’t eat this whole hummingbird cake.”
And Roger’s favorite, taped to a Hamilton Beach fourteen-speed blender: “Works good.”
He admired the style of the notes, the generous margins, the almost childish legibility, the careful use of punctuation, and the casual and almost intimate “good” instead of the grammatical but pretentious “well.” He was intrigued by the skewed logic in some of the notes, where her mind seemed to go skittering away from reason and fact, in a direction he could almost follow, but not quite:
“If you are tall, maybe this light won’t shine in your eyes.”
“I’m intrigued,” he said to Hilma and Meade, who both seemed horrified. “How many people do you know who can spell ‘oscillate’?” he asked. “I admire good spellers.”
“O-s-c-i-double l-a-t-e,” snapped Meade.
“But, Roger,” said Hilma sensibly, “she could be a racist or a thief. She could be cruel to animals. You can’t draw conclusions about a person based on nothing more than a fourteen-speed blender and a white plastic fan.”
“No,” said Roger, “of course not.” But still he made a point of stopping by the Dumpster every time he went to Attapulgus ... just checking. She threw away a radio/tape player: “Squawking in left speaker will stop if you tap the volume knob.” She threw away two plastic chairs.
The absence of things can give a kind of shape to a space, and using his collection of negatives, Roger imagined the inside of her house, silent, light, and spare, without a cheap white fan clicking but not oscillating, without the high scream of an electric blender on Whip, without the ridiculous excess of a hummingbird cake. He imagined her in the house, padding silently from room to room on big bare feet, looking for things to throw away. †
Also, if you happen to live in the northeast United States, this week you might want to indulge your senses by taking a walk along country roads where the milkweed plants (Asclepias syriaca) are currently in bloom. On a humid summer evening, the milkweed’s blooms are extremely fragrant, smelling like a blend of lilac and lily, with a faint whisper of muskiness. The scent is less intense in the daytime; it won’t fill the air, but if you press your nose to the bloom, you will definitely smell its sweet aroma. (Please don’t pick the blossoms, though, as milkweed is essential to the life of the Monarch butterfly—which both feeds and lays its eggs on the plant—as well as several other insects.)
Photo credit: Image of milkweed in bloom is from wikimedia.org.
What I Wanted to Tell You
* * *
†Quite a Year for Plums, copyright © 1998 by Bailey White (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1998, pp. 26-28)
“A perfume is alive: you can place it. It’s a succession of harmonies that come together— that’s what a perfume is. But even when you’ve placed it in harmony, it can move. It’s never set. And because it’s not set, it takes you along paths you don’t know. You can have an idea of what you’re going to do…I can be working on a rose fragrance, it starts as a rose, but where is the rose actually going to take me? That I don’t know.”
--Serge Lutens, talking about perfume in a video interview with France 24
I’m still working on a perfume review for this week. Until then, I thought you might enjoy seeing a video interview that France 24 did last year with Serge Lutens, titled, “Serge Lutens, scents of Morocco.” The link to the video is here. [NOTE: The link is no longer operational because in the years since I first published this piece, it disappeared from the Internet. France 24 did another interview with him recently, but there are no English subtitles for it.]
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August 12, 2009:
Like most people, I associate perfume with glamour and beauty, but much of the time life is decidedly unglamorous: it is full of challenges, some of them mind-numbingly pedestrian, and others, downright messy and sad. When all that exists before me are endless hours of drudgery, being able to catch a whiff of beautiful perfume on my wrists is what keeps me going. Standing in my flooded basement this week, I realized that perfume is one of the few luxuries you can take with you into places where some kind of solace or beauty is sought, and where not much else exists to support such comforts. It’s invisible and weightless, while being fully present; it’s somewhat discreet and secretive (depending on how much you wear), yet immediately accessible. It’s a spirit, really—and yes, I mean that in the supernatural sense of the word—which is why, for me, it connects to my own spirit more powerfully than any other art form.
This realization was driven home in a profoundly moving way later in my week. By this time, the basement was cleaned up, the flood forgotten, and daily life was moving forward again. The weather too had returned to normal, throwing us back into the deep freeze. On Thursday afternoon, a woman emailed me to purchase a decant of Serge Lutens Un Lys. After filling her order and letting her know it was sent, I received a note back from her that evening. “Thank you,” read her spare and elegant reply. “This is so unrelated, but my young son just died and I wanted the lilies to remind me of him.”
It’s the kind of confidence that stops you in your tracks—that affects me even now and makes me question whether I should include this in my journal. It’s the kind of confidence that connects you to another human being—even to someone you don’t know—at the deepest level possible.
I wrote a note back to this lovely woman, and then I went upstairs and put on a spray of Un Lys, inhaling its pure beauty. It smelled as tender as robin’s egg blue, as brilliant as sunlight, as fragile as a heart, and as eternally sweet as the love between a mother and a child. “I can smell your perfume,” I wanted to tell her. “And through you, his,” I wanted to say.
And though I have no idea whether she reads here, I am hoping she does so that I can tell her what my paltry words failed to say in my email. Not that these long-about words are much better, but dearest R, if you are reading here, please know this: I can smell your perfume. It’s on my wrists and encircling my heart, and it’s more exquisite than words can say.
July 21, 2009:
Suzanne's Perfume Journal
A few miscellaneous, scent-related posts, filed by date ...
As mentioned in a recent post, I love Bailey White’s novel, Quite a Year for Plums, from which the above excerpt was taken. It’s a wonderful novel for scentophiles, as White draws upon the olfactory senses in many of her descriptions, but the reason I trotted out the above excerpt (which obviously has nothing to do with scent) is that it’s time for me to throw something away—sort of. A small bottle of Knize Ten toilet water (or in other words, eau de toilette). It literally hasn’t seen the light of day since July 2007, when I bought it from BeautyEncounter.com. If I were to put a note on this fragrance and carefully set it out on the dump, like the character above, my note would say, “I can’t wear rubber and leather both, sorry.”
(Or, as one Basenotes reviewer stated: “There’s something petroleum-like in the drydown that I simply can’t stand.” Amen, brother.)
Since I don’t live near a dump (thankfully) and would rather pass it on to someone who can appreciate it, I’ve decided to do a giveaway. If you’re interested and live in the United States, please drop me an email to email@example.com by midnight, EST, on Sunday, August 16th, at which point I’ll do a drawing for this one-ounce (30 ml) bottle.
By the way, I won’t use your email for any purpose other than the drawing. And, of course, the bottle will be shipped to you free of charge. [NOTE: This drawing has ended; the winner was Sabina. Thanks to all who entered!]
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the fragrance notes in Knize Ten include…
Top: bergamot, lemon, orange, petitgrain, rosemary
Middle: geranium, cedarwood, rose, orris, carnation, cinnamon, sandalwood
Base: leather, musk, moss, amber, castoreum and vanilla
January 31, 2010:
April 5, 2011:
Sex Panther by Odion: "Sixty Percent of the Time it works Everytime" . . .
...which is apparently the same percentage of time that the 2004, Will Ferrell comedy, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, works on me. Even though it runs with great frequency these days on cable TV, everytime I'm flipping through the stations and chance upon it, I can never seem to click away. It's my kind of goofy! Especially the scene where Paul Rudd breaks out his perfume collection, when he thinks he's got a shot at getting into the pants of newly-arrived newswoman Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). I was hoping I could find a YouTube clip of it that has the scene in its entirety, because the fragrance he chooses, Sex Panther by Odion, turns out to be a real "scrubber"—so stink-ass bad that he actually ends up getting hosed down by a couple of TV crewmen outside the station. But there's only one clip on YouTube, and though it's not in sharp focus and is only an abbreviated part of the scene, I thought I'd put it up anyway. Enjoy!
In a few days, I'll be back with a post of the vintage Guy LaRoche perfume J'ai Osé—received in a swap package from blogger JoanElaine, who calls it a "sexy little number," and she's right. It's a doll-face, glamorous kind of sexy, and I'd like to spend a day or two more with it so that I can do it justice. Hopefully, without going overboard and writing something embarrassing that puts me in the same league with Ron Burgundy—which (yes, I know!) I've done before. On more than one occasion. And without Ron's smooth-talking television voice and, umm, charm.
Credits: clip from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy uploaded to YouTube.com by kbthrilla15.
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The Alembicated Genie
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