Essence And Alchemy

Like people, the essences could bring out the worst in each other, or the best. Some were easy and affable in partnership; others were difficult but rewarding. Creating a perfume that captivates often means pairing unlikes, mimicking the oppositions that nature itself creates.
10/17/2014 09:06 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

Eight years ago, I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway from my home in Berkeley to teach a class in natural perfumery at Esalen, the famous Northern California retreat center. On the way to Big Sur, Bev, my assistant for the weekend, warned me that she was going to plunk us down at the first place where there were attractive men.

I was fifty-eight. Although I am passionate, even headstrong, by nature, it had been years since I'd been in a relationship, or even gone on a date. My second marriage had ended when I was thirty-six. I'd had a couple of love affairs in the years since, but for the most part, as a single mother wanting to give my daughter stability and security, I had curbed my impulsivity and devoted myself to raising her. Still, on some level I had never stopped, as my idol Bob Dylan put it, "searching for my double, looking for complete evaporation to the core."

Bev was true to her word. At dinner, she steered us to the end of one of the big communal tables, across from two men. I got into conversation with one of them. He was tall, with salt and pepper Albert Einstein hair and a warm smile, and he actually stood up as we introduced ourselves. He said he'd been meaning to come to Esalen for thirty years and had finally decided, on the spur of the moment, that it was time. He was so late registering that the only class with an opening was on Kabbalah, so he'd signed up for that. He had a big van that ran on oil from restaurant fryers, and he had given one of my students a ride down from Palo Alto, so he knew a little about what I was teaching. After dinner he walked me to class. The next day, he joined my students for lunch, and when his class took a break, he dropped by and peeked in on mine. That evening when I was done teaching, he met me in the hallway outside my classroom. Shyly he pointed to the top drawer of a wooden cupboard; I opened it to find a wildflower he'd left there for me.

"There was a whiff of something incredibly sweet and inviting about him, but somehow what came out of his mouth didn't convey it."

There was a whiff of something incredibly sweet and inviting about him, but somehow what came out of his mouth didn't convey it. He was still getting over the difficult breakup of his sixteen-year marriage, and he seemed depressed from that and from working long hours at an unrewarding job in Silicon Valley to provide financial support for his two children. He told me that he was thinking of moving to an intentional community that practiced polyamory.

Not exactly a come-on, especially to someone who wasn't hurtling toward entanglement. In recent years I'd suffered a major heartbreak, not a romantic one. The rupture had left me uncharacteristically passive, doubtful of my ability to assess character, and skittish of any kind of intimacy. I'd learned to cope with my sadness by immersing myself in my perfume-making, blasting Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen at top volume as I blended deep into the night, comforted by their gorgeous delineations of the dead ends of love.

When people found out I was a perfumer, they often asked me whether I could determine which aromatic ingredients were the right match for a given personality type. But although for years I was a practicing psychotherapist, I didn't think that way about fragrance. Truth be told, I had grown much less interested in human personalities than in the distinct personalities of the essences I worked with, which from the beginning had a mysterious familiarity to me. They were like those people you meet for the first time whom you swear you've known forever.

Costus essential oil , from the root of a Himalayan herb, had a "dirty" aroma that smelled like violets crossed with wet dog. Choya nahk, the essence of seashells roasted in cedarwood oil, had the knock-you-over-the-head intensity of a raging campfire on the beach. Drop-dead gorgeous but elusive Tasmanian boronia smelled like freesia and raspberries. Without words, these fragrances "spoke" to me, told me who they were. I came to think of them as intimates, investing them with human qualities and discovering their singular virtues by working with them. I came to see my work as a perfumer as giving voice to the materials I used.

"Like people, the essences could bring out the worst in each other, or the best. Some were easy and affable in partnership; others were difficult but rewarding."
Like people, the essences could bring out the worst in each other, or the best. Some were easy and affable in partnership; others were difficult but rewarding. Creating a perfume that captivates often means pairing unlikes, mimicking the oppositions that nature itself creates, as in jasmine's fecal-floral allure. I learned to take my time blending, let things develop. Would juniper berries bring out the seductive side of jasmine grandiflorum, or the putrid underbelly? I had to wait for the ingredients to "marry" in the beaker before I knew. But working on a new perfume never failed to lift my mood. As I fell into fragrance, the world receded. It was as though the essences, like the dearest of friends, were helping me along, reminding me of the magic inherent in every breath and of our mysterious connection to nature itself.

A month after the workshop, the man I'd met at Esalen called. He said he was coming up to Berkeley to visit his kids, and asked if he could stop by and say hello. We planned to meet for a casual dinner, but that evening found me at a particularly low point, and as we spoke I became teary. He responded to my pain with a kindness and understanding that seemed deep and nuanced and, if I could trust myself, true. We didn't dwell on my sorrow, but I appreciated how accepting and tender he was of that bruised part of me. There didn't seem to be any charge between us, though; somehow the essential charm I had sensed in him wasn't getting diffused in what he was putting out. Was it his native shyness? My atypical passivity? I couldn't figure it out.

A month or so later, he called to say he was coming up again. He warned me that he had gotten a particularly unfortunate haircut. He emailed me a recent photo, claiming that I'd need it to recognize him - and to have a chance to adjust to his radical change in appearance before I saw him again. I was amused, and invited him to come to my house; we'd order takeout.

He was right, it was a terrible haircut: tiny stubs of hair clung to his skull. But winning as he'd been via email, in person I was disappointed once again to experience him as merely comfortable to be with, even tender, but with no spark. He wasn't like a fragrance I didn't care for; he was like a bottle I couldn't open. He didn't seem to be making any progress on the polyamory front, though.

Six months later, he invited me down to Palo Alto for dinner. It was literally raining down in sheets, and I am a fearful driver, but I decided to go. No one who knows me describes me as patient or laid-back. In perfume terms, I'm not easygoing bergamot, the citrus that gets along with any other ingredient. I'm all-or-nothing oud, the intensely aromatic resin derived from tropical agarwood trees that have been pathologically blighted with fungus. The resulting essence, the most expensive of all perfumery ingredients, has a unique, complex appeal that is difficult to work with, at once sweet and sour, spicy and animalistically rich, earthy and woody, with notes of the forest, the barnyard, incense and wet earth. But if I am impatient and intense, I am also nothing if not stubborn. I simply had to get at the essence of this guy, an essence that so far had eluded me.

I arrived white-knuckled at the restaurant. Again, pleasant conversation, no alchemy. After dinner, it was still pouring. He jumped into the passenger seat of my car to get out of the weather and to tell me how to get back to the freeway. With the rain pelting the car roof, he leaned in closer to give me directions. He seemed to be whispering. I could smell the clean musky scent of his skin as he leaned into the driver's seat. He kissed me. It was electric and naughty, and I was surprised by both his bold assurance and my immediate raw pleasure. It was like the magic moment I experienced many of those late lonely nights blending perfume, when two essences lock - become more than the sum of their parts. We sat in the car for about half an hour, giggling and talking and kissing. Nothing about us was different. Everything had changed.

Reader, I married him.

Mandy Aftel is the author of Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent.

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