The women lined up early for a chance at the best gift bags. Some had spent the past 20 hours miserable and sleepless on a Greyhound from Iowa, such was the desire to inhale some combination of cupcake accord, sumac leaf note, and diet brambleberry liqueur that was reputed to possess magical and potentially aphrodisiac qualities unknown to the women’s experience and previously unavailable in the United States, despite their already owning several hundred bottles of perfume each.
Some complained that their bag did not contain a sample of the latest absinthe scent, the one with a sprig of lavender spiked clear through the heart. Who cared if it smelled masculine or like gin dregs at last call? The point was to say that you had smelled it—been there, sniffed that—before anyone else, and not to claim an affinity for smelling like the bottom of the Bowery.
“Aren’t you going to have a lookie in your bag?” the organizer asked. She was petite, I was Amazon-ish, she was a brunette and I had black roots. She made me wonder why petite women—brunettes especially–are never at a loss for gumption and drive and do quite well for themselves in public relations and marketing. Exactly the opposite of what I do, categorically speaking. She took the bag from my hands, breaking the paper handle, and spilled the bag’s contents out onto the counter at Barney’s, chiding me for not realizing that I had somehow miraculously come across a sample of La Mer skin foundation, lotion style, color deathwatch. “The others didn’t get that, I don’t think. Hmmm. Paula, do you have a sample of the La Mer lotion foundation? Renee? May I have a show of hands for those who have a sample of La Mer lotion foundation in their gift bags?”
There is a simple premise behind this cosmetic rodeo: We are assembled one and all to partake of special olfactory events (personal appearances, bottle signings, atomizer huffings, and secretive, closed-door shopping hours that must aggravate the hell out of the shopkeepers, who endure it with forced good cheer and tight grimaces) offered through various Web forums dedicated to the discussion of things scented and potentially repellent. There are candles, eau de toilette, sachets, incense, and silky panty powders. Not a Glade Plug-In air freshener in sight. We are vain, middle-aged, overweight, flat-footed, and largely secretarial by occupation. We are invisible, but we stink good.
The only life we have is the one we can smell. The redhead with the panty-powder purchase lumbers over and asks if I’m married. “No,” I say. “Good,” she chirps. “We have some common ground.” She spends five minutes outlining the many benefits of the panty powder, not the least of which is to cover up funk in case of a lack of shower facilities after a blistering date. She shadows me on the way to the West Village, where we are going to crowd into the small Aedes shop on Christopher Street. Many of the women call this shop “Eeds” and are politely corrected. The men who run the shop are German and very, very kind, although with a thin brutality that would surface like a fin if the waters were too grandly disturbed. These men are elegant and sleek; the perfume fanatics are dressed in polyester and sweat. Several break out copies of Perfumes of the World, the most recently released edition, and waft dramatically about the conjunction of wine and scent that has led to the shared official descriptions of rubber, tar, wet wool, wet dog, and cat urine. The perfume book even has a little colored wheel like the wine wheel developed by the vinology program at the University of California at Davis. Neat. The shopkeepers are accommodating about the subsequent interrogations and even have wine on hand in little plastic flutes. You can learn about grace here, even when your arse threatens to overturn a delicate display.
My red shadow asks if I have purchased a bottle of the scent that perfumes the rooms at the Hotel Costes in Paris, and whether I know if there are matching soaps available. “I’m having a soapy incense month,” she confides. Personally, I am in a strange vanilla month in which I insist on smelling like a patisserie, and a cheap one at that, a common bakery, or perhaps even a plastic brioche. Someone had pointed that out earlier. It’s not the first time I’ve had something pointed out to me: You smell like burnt leaves and Grade-C maple syrup. Do you want to smell like that?
“If you buy that Costes, I want a decant of it,” the shadow whispers. I quickly toss up some rough figures in my head: If I purchase a 1.7 ounce bottle of this perfume I am reconnoitering out of the desire to appear involved and nasally stimulated, I will spend somewhere in the vicinity of $70.00 and probably not get any free samples, because I am loath to ask for them. I’ve worked a perfume counter in my day and was fired for giving away too many samples without immediate mega-purchase. Both the customers and the management hated me. I stank. I cannot sell three thousand dollars’ worth of perfume on a weekend. I will have to share at least 10 milliliters of the bottle with my newly acquired companion, who has smartly brought along some empty atomizer bottles for this exact purpose. And then her friend from the makeup forum will want some, and twenty minutes later I’ll end up with 20 milliliters for myself—less than half the bottle—and a sample vial of Paris Hilton, which is not hot at all.
We have lunch at a Swedish restaurant where everyone takes out all of their purchases and participates in a round-robin distribution and an informative presentation by the maker of what I will forever after refer to as Dung Ho perfume (chocolate, jasmine, gym sock and dreadful animalic) and I am forced to give up my sample of the La Mer lotion foundation to the organizer, and when we disperse I realize I have purchased nothing, want nothing, and can’t afford anything to begin with. It has been a very productive day, and I reek magnificently of day-old bread and the sweet toxin of wanting what you aren’t stamped out to buy.