Illustration by Christina Ung
Looking back, I can see it began with the samples, the small glass vials of perfume that I had begun to collect—do I really need to use the word hoard to be clear here?—in a wooden cigar box hidden under the bed. Some of them I had gotten for free from kind sales associates. Others had come in the mail from one of the specialty boutiques I'd read about online: For the price of an inexpensive meal out, I could own small amounts of five or six expensive perfumes. Those little vials were mine and mine alone in a selfish, secretive, Halloween-candy sort of way that made me feel about 4 years old. I liked to paw through them in their little boxes, separating them into shifting categories of my own devising. Like any stashed treat, they were always lurking somewhere in my thoughts. I spent a luxurious, not to say obsessive, amount of time considering which one I might try next, and when I finally did, I used only the tiniest amount of perfume on my wrist or hand, savoring it, making it last. Perfume was my private, guilty indulgence, and if I accidentally applied enough to elicit a compliment from someone, I blushed, caught with my hand in the cookie jar.
I've always been somewhat mournful over how quickly flavor disappears from my mouth, and then—when I take another bite, and another, to bring it back—from my plate. But a good perfume can unfold for hours on the skin, long enough to bask in, think about, live with. I learned that my favorite way to sample perfume was to put some on and then research it. Sniffing along with reviews I found on blogs with names like Now Smell This, Perfume-Smellin' Things, and Bois de Jasmin, I soon came to recognize the fragile sweetness of violets or the rough green dirt of vetiver in a perfume the way I had once recognized the buttery herbal note of dill in a dressing or the resonance of red wine in a stew. When I found a smell I loved, I chased after its variations, as I had so often done with a new ingredient, learning not just the smell of leather but the soft apricot skin of suede, the sexy, sweaty warmth of a used saddle, the lipstick-and-powder polish of an elegant purse, the tarry street smell of a black leather jacket, and the fierce, thin smoke of a cracked whip.
The more I sniffed, the more I read. My food books gathered dust while I picked my way through the lavish coffee-table tomes that held the bits and pieces of perfume's story, a hidden history as full of scandal, politics, and eccentric characters as anything I had read about food. Late at night, when I should have been working or sleeping, I followed links into the blog archives, paging through the comments for more leads, reading for the pure pleasure of being talked into trying new things.
A couple of months into all this, I was sitting in traffic, tired, bored, and a little hungry, and realized that instead of ordering imaginary takeout, I was daydreaming about perfume. The channel in my brain that normally ran perpetually on food and flavors now offered me a program of smells. Waiting on the phone, or working at my desk in the late afternoon, I no longer considered the various possibilities of, say, the butternut squash I had just bought—the way its beautiful saffron color might look in a risotto or pureed in a soup, whether to pair its sweetness with a touch of sage or a pinch of curry. Instead, I conjured up the scent of vanilla, roughened and deepened with smoke or smoothed with the milky comfort of sandalwood. I considered the beauty of honey lifted by orange blossoms and the way green leaves could lead to the lush erotic rot at the heart of a gardenia.
But it wasn't until I left for a trip to New York City that I realized just how far things had gone. Where, my longtime boyfriend asked me on the plane, were we going to eat? It was a fair question. My parents had always planned our family vacations around restaurants, and I'd kept up the tradition. In a place as food-mad as New York, every meal was an opportunity to be researched and debated. Normally, I'd have answered his question with a sheaf of reviews, recommendations from friends, neighborhood maps, even a possible subway route, but I realized with a start, and quick twinge of regret, that I hadn't even thought about it. For the first time in my life, I didn't care where or what I ate. None of our city friends believed me when I told them this. "No, really," I insisted, surprised how much I was enjoying my strange new freedom. "We can go anywhere." Anywhere, as long as I had time to slip away in the afternoons and follow the routes I'd planned out to all the perfume boutiques in the city.
We Hear You!