When I arrive at my friend Renée’s house in Paris, she is knitting a small fleecy white garment. She embraces me, holds it up, and says, “It’s for your grandchild-to-be.” I’d written her that my first grand was on its way.
“You will be a wonderful grandmother,” she declares.
Frankly, I see no reason why I shouldn’t be. I adore children, always have. Playing and adventuring with them is one of my top three delights, and they respond to me in kind.
“And your grandchildren will remember you forever,” Renée continues.
Well, now that’s something else entirely. I see no particular reason why anyone should “remember me forever,” least of all the young, who are typically absorbed in their own affairs. So I ask, “Why is that?”
“Parce-que vous êtes parfumée,” she replies with wisdom-of-the-world assurance. (Because you wear perfume.)
Despite her use of the formal “you” in her native French, an old-fashioned indication of respect that she employs even with her beloved daughter-in-law, Renée, once my professor during her New York years, has become one of my most cherished friends–profoundly cultivated, innately elegant, and, far more important, a mistress of empathy.
As for the wearing of perfume, I come by it rightly. My mother always wore a fragrance, most often Ann Haviland’s spicy “Carnation,” while her elder sister, for whom my daughter is named (so you can imagine how I adored her), favored “Wood Violet,” which echoed her sweet, self-effacing personality.
When I was about fourteen, growing up in deep, dark Brooklyn, my mother started taking me with her to the discount-perfume shop she patronized and allowing me to chose a scent for myself. I was finicky to the point of absurdity. At one session, the saleswoman, having proffered countless samples, all in vain, said, “Tell me, my dear, exactly what would you like your fragrance to smell like?”
“Soap,” I answered on the instant, then immediately corrected myself. “I want it to smell as if I actually–naturally–smelled like that.” (Our soap at home was Ivory. It did have a nice, fresh scent and, what’s more, it floated.) I can’t recall what we finally settled on that day. Fairly soon, though, rebounding from my “natural” phase, I moved into the realm of “Calèche,” “Cabochard,” “Antilope”–all three the antithesis of girlish, a mode I had come to despise.
In my later teen years, when I wore my clothes black, my long hair loose–Veronica Lake-style, my mother called it–and took a full ten minutes to layer my lashes with black French cake mascara, I wore Lanvin’s “Arpège,” it being so much more sophisticated, I still think, than “Chanel No. 5,” synonymous with Gallic chic in the mind of the general public.
I can’t believe I remember all this–I who have such indifferent recall–except for the things that constituted the pillars of my imagination: for instance, the names of all the dancers in the New York City Ballet when I first saw the company.
At college, inspired by Renée, with whom I studied medieval French literature, I wore Lancôme’s “Joyeux Été,” until the firm discontinued it. For me, that move was little short of tragic–I was far less disconcerted by the loss of a boyfriend that coincided with it. Eventually, I compromised for a while with the same house’s “Magie Noire,” but it wasn’t it, and when a thing isn’t it, it might as well not exist. For me, there’s no such thing as a Mr. Almost Right in the realm of scent.
Just before and after my marriage, I wore Worth’s “Je Reviens” (which used to be colored blue and stained your clothes, if you weren’t careful). The name means “I will return.” “Is that a promise or a threat?” my eventual husband used to joke.
And then, once I had begun writing about dancing, I discovered the old Guerlain fragrances. My favorite was “Mitsouko,” not least because it had been Diaghilev’s scent. Now favored by both men and women, it was introduced to me by my fellow dance writer Sally Banes and worn for decades by Balanchine’s right-hand-woman, Barbara Horgan. I abandoned it finally when the formula seemed to become more synthetic or something that made it not quite true to itself.
After the eclipse of Guerlain, I practiced a kind of serial monogamy, returning to old favorites for months, even years, at a time. More successfully–since the old scents or I had changed and thus lost our affinity with each other–I discovered new creations. Some later-breaking favorites: The original Vera Wang fragrance that had no name except the designer’s. “Armani for Women,” a brash (and, in my case, deceptive) statement of cosmopolitan self-assurance. Issey Miyaki’s “L’eau d’Issey” (back to the pure and subtle realm of floating soap). Calvin Klein’s “Eternity” as well as the same firm’s “Truth.”
I haven’t yet succumbed to the new fad for scents that evoke herbs, fruits, even sweets ( and exotic combinations thereof), concocted to gratify our time’s raging lust for novelty. Are they merely perverse or perhaps the next step–after the “Poison” phase–in the feminists’ repudiation of the innocent florals? After all, a Woman Warrior can hardly go around town (or to bed) smelling like a rose. Or so I assumed until, I was tempted recently by, of all things, Bulgari’s tender, shy Rose Essentielle.
I don’t know why people complain about the long waits at the airport nowadays. This limbo of ostensibly lost hours provides the perfect occasion to wile away time guiltlessly by trying out new fragrances–that is to say, new states of being.
Whenyou’re surrounded by a just-discovered evocative aura, anything could happen.
© 2008 Tobi Tobias