Illustration by Christina Ung
I am lying on my back on the cool wood of my bedroom floor, an arm resting gently over my eyes, breathing deeply through my nose and sighing—long, full sighs that taper off into little creaturely murmurs of contentment. I don't remember exactly how I got down there. A prickly flush of anxiety over something had sent me pacing through the house. There had been a fevered search for a certain glass vial, then success, a brief struggle with the cap, the application along the insides of my wrists. Then, somehow, I was on the floor, and very happy to be there, with the dry, dusky, resin-sweet scents of myrrh and frankincense blowing through my head like a high desert wind, and then, just when that dryness began to feel austere, the round, dark-wine scent of a deep red rose, blooming up through the resins, a hint of ripe fruit in its velvet petals. The scent warmed and expanded and changed on my skin, and I went on breathing it in, following it along, diving into it. The floor seemed like a perfectly sensible place to do this.*****
For nearly four years now, I've been carrying on a wholly unexpected, wildly passionate love affair with perfume. I am an earnest, bookish person, inclined to Birkenstocks and recycling, and at first I resisted, startled and embarrassed to find myself so excited about something so girly, so frivolous, and so distasteful to most of the people I knew. But not long after I ended up lying on the floor, I made a quiet internal decision to go ahead, as far as I liked within the limits of my budget and basic sanity. Mostly I did so because, well, if you found something legal that made you feel that way, wouldn't you? But I had another reason, too. I had noticed out of the corner of my eye—I didn't want to look too closely for fear it would stop—that perfume was slowly but inexorably nudging aside my lifelong obsession with food.
I suppose this is the moment to confess that I don't believe in diets. "Oh yes, of course, diets never work," the diet people assure us. "You need a sustainable lifetime eating plan." By which they mean a permanent diet. But that's not quite what I mean. I've spent most of my life starring in a not very interesting B-grade melodrama about a woman torn between two food worlds: the one beloved by doctors and nutritionists, with its endless studies and measurements, every inch, gram, pound, percentage, and portion counted and accounted for—and the rich, messy, gorgeous one created by writers and cooks, where food and flavor fuse with art, memory, culture, storytelling, and all the comforts and pleasures the sensual life can offer. I can talk complex carbs and glycemic indexes, but I can also recommend restaurants in five different cities and see three wars and an empire in a bowl of soup. The ultimate penalty for turning my back on the diet world is early death, so I worry over my cholesterol levels and my waistline. But I can't help noticing that no matter what my height-weight ratio is, neither I nor any of the people I love is going to live forever, and I haven't found a sustainable eating plan yet that takes that fact fully and completely into account.
So my perfume diet was not some silly swap program where I tried to satisfy my cravings for, say, the tang of the nuoc cham dipping sauce that comes with my Vietnamese egg rolls with a spritz of something bright, savory, and citrusy. (Though it's not a completely terrible idea—try Annick Goutal's classic citrus, Eau d'Hadrien, or L'Artisan Parfumeur's strange and wonderful Timbuktu.) Nor was it a perfume-for-pounds reward system. Let's face it, if I had the self-discipline and restraint necessary for that kind of plan, I probably wouldn't be here writing about diets in the first place.
What I did, and do, have is greed—greed for knowledge, greed for sensation, greed for delight, and for deliciousness in as many forms as possible—and larger than average portions of enthusiasm and curiosity. Though I didn't know it at the time, these were my tools, and when I gave myself permission to follow my passion for perfume, I put them into unfettered, unified action for the first time. The result was not a diet so much as an invasion—the infiltration of perfume into nearly every aspect of my life touched by food.