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March 4, 2008:
†Quoted material excerpted from the novel, How to Make An American Quilt, copyright © 1991 by Whitney Otto (Ballantine Books, 1991, pp 20-28).
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The first thing that strikes Glady Joe when she sees Hy and Arthur that evening is the powerful smell of Hy’s perfume in the house. It seems to drift and settle about the furniture, underneath chairs, relax in the corners of the room.…It is as if Hy’s perfume has shape-shifted and is now a fourth entity in the room; as if the musk has somehow become personified. †
Last weekend I went out to dinner and a movie with a friend, and after leaving the movie theater, which was so cold I never removed my coat, I realized I must have left my scarf back at the restaurant. So on the way home we stopped by the restaurant again, but it had just closed for the night, the doors were locked, and I didn’t want to make a nuisance of myself by banging on the door and trying to get the attention of the skeleton staff that was vacuuming and cleaning up the place.
I have a number of scarves: a couple that are silk, one that is cashmere lined with silk that my father gave me, some that are knitted, and some that are cheap rayon, but pretty, which I use as dresser scarves. The scarf that I left behind at the restaurant was not cheap, but nor was it particularly valuable; it had come to me as “part of the package,” so to speak, of a winter coat I had bought eight or nine years ago, and though I’m not sure what fabric it was made of, it must have been some kind of synthetic considering how well it had held up over the years and through so many launderings. Under really close inspection, you could see that the fabric was starting to pill slightly, but overall, the weave of green and gold threads, with just a touch of red, still shone with jewel-like clarity in their intricate design. It seemed to go with every coat I owned, the length was just right, and for some reason, I always looked forward to tying on this scarf at the start of winter each year.
But none of that explains the dread that filled me the next morning after my evening out, when I realized my scarf might be floating in the lost-and-found bin of the restaurant, where I imagined the entire detritus of winter had come to collect: the hats and gloves and mittens that get dropped on the floor and are either forgotten or unimportant, as their owners never come to collect them. Hadn’t my own friend dropped her gloves twice that night, at both the restaurant and the theater? I had a strange vision of the lost-and-found bin getting bigger by the minute and swallowing my scarf like a black hole—and then the entire thing being hauled off to the dumpster at some point. If not the dumpster, then the Goodwill, which to me was even worse—and yes, I know how awful that sounds, but hear me out before you judge me. It’s not that I have anything against the Goodwill, and it’s not that I am opposed to the kind of house cleaning that involves throwing things out (just ask my husband). No, what drove this crazy, little, panic attack was this: I couldn’t stand to think of my scarf, which smelled so intimately of me and my perfumes (not just one perfume, but weeks worth of perfumes, all of them mixed with the smell of my skin, my hair) floating about in some careless world where it would eventually gather dust and restaurant grease before being tossed into a ripe dumpster, or worse, passed among the hands of strangers trying to decide whether it was worth their 99 cents to toss it in with the rest of their Goodwill treasures. Maybe even bought and worn by a woman who sprays her neck each morning with Britney Spears’ Curious.
Okay, now you can judge me. I’m a weird one, I’ll admit it.
And if you’re wondering if it would make a difference if my lost scarf was claimed by a woman who thought it some great treasure, a woman who dabs her neck each morning with Guerlain Mitsouko … well, that would certainly be preferable, but still it doesn’t assuage this lingering, incomprehensible fear I have about strangers stumbling upon the things I hold most private and dear, the things I consider most intimate. I realize how ridiculously false that sounds coming from someone who puts her thoughts in writing and then invites all and sundry to come read them. Yeah, who but a writer to claim a fear such as this and then blab about it on the page—on an Internet site, of all places. (Hey everybody! I didn’t want you to know this….Shhh!)
So, how to explain why the notion of my personally scented, perfumed scarf floating loose in a small-town world unnerves me, while the thought of my personally written journal entries floating loose in a much larger world does not? (Especially when my scarf represents me in such a lovely way, whereas my writing sometimes, umm, stinks.) I suppose it all comes down to a matter of control. While I aim to be honest in my writing, even when aiming towards honesty, I’m exercising control and only putting out the stuff I think is consumable (palatable?) about myself. And knowing I’m not always a good judge of what is palatable, that, too, is sometimes a little frightening. But what really frightens me is the thought of something I consider intimately mine being Out Of My Control, prone to judgments I can’t foresee or defend myself against. I think that’s why I couldn’t stand the idea of my scarf being lost. (Which it no longer is, thank God. It’s back, freshly laundered, and smelling of Amouage Gold today.)
Out of this whole experience, what I came to realize is the difference between “perfume people” and those who are not. The perfume community understands that scent truly is an intimate, personal thing—its connection to memory so raw, so visceral. This explains some of my other perfume-related fears, which I won’t go into in great detail, except to say that isn’t it funny how I will drop large amounts of money on a bottle of perfume I might not have smelled before, whereas I am almost crippled with fear to spend $10 on two things that I have longed to re-smell again? (Old Spice aftershave, which my father wore in the early years of my childhood before he began exploring other scents, and Diane Von Furstenburg’s Tatiana, which my mother wore in the 1970s.) The memories that Old Spice and Tatiana send up are so hallowed in my mind that I cannot bear the thought of purchasing them and discovering that these are just cheap scents that only a child of the ’70s could love, nothing more. (Because, of course, they are something more.)
Novelist Whitney Otto clearly understands how intimate a thing scent is, and she employed it well in one of the early chapters of her stunning novel, How To Make An American Quilt, published in 1991. The book examines the lives of a group of eight women who are members of a quilting circle—and she provides a richly detailed view into each character’s individual experience about what it was like to grow up, get married, and raise a family in an era when a woman’s roles were somewhat confined to those of daughter, wife, and mother.
Two of the characters in her novel, Hy Dodd and Glady Joe Cleary, are sisters who look a lot alike, are often in the company of one another, yet in personality are markedly different. Both have enjoyed happy marriages, but while Glady Joe’s marriage is a partnership built on friendship (she and her husband sleep in separate beds), Hy’s marriage seemed to be cemented by the more sensual bonds that fit with her personality. At age 50, Hy is forced to watch her ill husband die a slow death in a hospital bed, and Glady Joe’s handsome husband, Arthur, is appointed to drive her back and forth to the hospital:
Of course, you know what follows next. At the peak of Hy’s duress, seeing her husband suffering and knowing she will never feel his touch again, she commits the unthinkable, giving herself over to her sister’s husband. It does not take Glady Joe long to puzzle out what has happened:
Sometimes, as he sat beside her in the car, he would marvel at how alike she and Glady Joe were, physically. Out of the corner of his eye, he could almost mistake one for the other, but looked at straight on, he could see that Hy took a little more care with her appearance, was without the more conservative aspects of Glady Joe, was slightly more stylish. They seemed to be aging in exactly the same way and at roughly the same rate, their figures subtly thickening around the middle, their legs still "good."
Hy carried the scent of musk, moistened and released by her perspiration. The air-conditioning dried and cooled her perfumed skin, which Arthur admitted he found seductive. Which led to shame and guilt.
But he began to live for the days they spent driving to the hospital, her musky odor filling the car. †
Arthur’s wife, Glady Joe, wears Shalimar, a scent that provides a similar form of torture. “Despite their arrangement, Arthur still has flashes of desire for his wife,” Otto reveals a few pages earlier, writing:
The Intimacy of Scent
…maybe it would hit him as he watched her dressing for an evening out, anointing the hollow between her breasts with Shalimar before dropping her dress over her head (careful not to muss her hair), turning her back to him, saying, "Sweetie, come zip me up."
The unfairness of his desire for her was that it would assail him at any random moment. Arthur punched his pillow and tossed in bed; he could not get comfortable or stop remembering the smell of Shalimar, so named for the garden at Taj Mahal—one lovesick husband’s monument to his absent wife. †
Personified: that single word is the best description of what scent is to those of us who hold it in such intimate regard. For fragrance lovers, a perfume or even a non-perfumed scent becomes more than the sum of its parts. Binding with mind and spirit, it takes on the personification of our hopes, dreams, and yes, even our fears.