I am a perfume slut.
I can't be faithful to just one fragrance. I have serial love affairs; no signature scent for me. This morning, I own thirty-something bottles of perfume and 103 sample vials on a dedicated closet shelf. And that doesn't include the bottles I've grown tired of this year and given away.
Some people are drawn to wine, and can parse the specifics - an oaky taste, or notes of cinnamon or chocolate or grass. For me, it is perfume that plucks the strings of my neural wiring. Smell is the most primitive sense, a synaptic relay station to the limbic system, where memory and emotion lodge.
Just as some women can tell you exactly what they wore or what they weighed at every significant event in their lives, I can tell you what perfume I was wearing. As a child, I loved to sniff the flask on my mother's dresser, a cobalt blue bottle called Evening in Paris, whose name conjured up smoke and midnight blue swirling taffeta.
At eleven, when I got my first period, my great aunt Jeanette marked my emergence into womanhood with a gift of solid stick Tabu eau de toilette. Briefly I loved it, even though it smelled like patchouli mixed with maple syrup and was strong enough to clear a room.
As a teenager, I had the requisite flirtation with fruity floral perfumes that were the olfactory equivalent of cotton candy. In college, I consorted with Cachet, a drugstore perfume by Prince Matchabelli.
As a young assistant in book publishing, I wore Bal a Versailles, a soft and sexy floral oriental, though I confess I hanky-pankied with Halston cologne too. Right after I met the man I would eventually marry, I strode into Saks on my lunch hour in search of a new fragrance to launch a liaison. The sales woman produced a flask of Fracas eau de parfum. It was an overdose of tuberose and orange blossom in a tiny jewel of a bottle, its neck so tightly wound with silk thread that in struggling to open it later that evening, I dropped it and, dismayed, watched it explode on the bathroom floor.
Next, I moved onto Clinique's Aromatix Elixir, a sparkling herbaceous floral I'd sniffed on the elegant former model who tailored my bridal gown. I uncorked it on my honeymoon.
"I don't quite know how to tell you this," my new husband said, "but you smell like Raid."
Instead, he bought me Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue, a husky sweet pastry of a perfume he said was his favorite, which I refused to wear for years because his mother wore it too.
During the big-shoulder padded 80s, I wore Yves Saint Laurent's Opium and Christian Dior's Poison, both heavy orientals that took no prisoners. In the sleep deprived years at home with young children, I embraced Joy, a jasmine rose eau de parfum I remember today through a scrim of Similac and Johnson's Baby Powder.
This month, I'm especially loving Chanel's Bois des Iles, a fragrance like a cashmere sweater, warm sandalwood overlaid with gingerbread and balsamic vanilla and bathed in dappled golden light; or the melancholy of Guerlain's Apres L'Ondee, that smells like violets soaked by rain, an herbal accord of restrained, ethereal beauty that evokes Debussy. I gorge myself on the creaminess of Casablanca lilies; the lemon camphor of cardamom; newly milled wood; the talcumed top of a baby's head.
Fragrance experts Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, co-authors of Perfumes: The A to Z Guide, say, "there is a base pleasure in perfume, in just about any perfume, even the cheapest and the most starved of ideas, that is better than no perfume at all....it's a substitute for having an orchestra follow you about playing the theme song of your choice."
I happened upon Turin and Sanchez's book in a review in The New Yorker. It lead me online, to a world of perfume blogs with names like Scentzilla, Perfume Posse and Now Smell This. I've found a fellowship of fragrance aficionados in cyberspace. I'm learning new words like sillage (the trail of scent left behind by a perfume) and chypre (an accord of bright citrus and woody oakmoss), and the difference between a fougere and a gourmand scent.
I still like to dally, but today I deploy my perfumes more carefully. I've learned to seduce, not to sandbag. There's a term for recovering perfume sluts like me: a-say-it-loud, out-and-proud perfumista.
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