I am a sucker for any soap, perfumey type of shop or stand. My husband affectionately calls it "stinky stuff." He knows that I will inevitably have to go in, drawn like a moth to a flame. My encounters with product and scent are as engrained in my memory as my dating history, perhaps even more so, as there are certainly guys whose names I have forgotten, but I never forget a scent.
Looking back now, I think that my romance with scent first began with a whiff of my mother's Shalimar as we headed into New York City for my father's office Christmas party. I was no more than five years old, and we were all dressed up. My mother looked and smelled wonderful. I can still feel the touch of her fur collar and smell the perfume. Then, too, there was my grandmother's Jean Naté After Bath Splash and Shower-to-Shower powder, early indoctrination into smelling fresh and clean.
My sophomore year of high school I took a trip to Paris, and as I wandered the streets with my friends, I happened into a perfumery. The delicate and spicy smell of Opium hooked me instantly. I felt so adult tipping the bottle, removing the stopper, and dabbing it onto my pulse points. My boyfriend loved it too. He would tease me as I would unfold my turtleneck over my nose. "Taking a hit," he called it. And so I was.
A year later I was an exchange student in Paraguay. I spoke no Spanish, but my host father had a very attractive, younger brother who spoke English. On one of my first days in the country, they took me to a perfume shop. The brother escorted me in and had me pick out any perfume. I was so embarrassed trying to make a selection with him there, and quickly rushed the process picking out a bottle of Gucci – light and floral. I never really fell for that scent, but I did have a crush on him. My fantasy was dashed when the long awaited kiss came to fruition one evening on a rooftop in Asunción. I was shocked to discover this very handsome man’s kiss left me cold. Upon my return to the U.S., it was my grandmother who ended up falling for the perfume, and it became a favorite gift for me to give her.
My junior year of college I discovered The Body Shop. My roommate told me of the fabulous new store that had opened up on Wisconsin Avenue. It was a British chain, and their products had not been tested on animals. In those early years they even accepted their empty bottles back for recycling.
As I walked into the store, I was transported into a whole new world. Shopping there was an experience – very clean design, bottles of different sizes but uniform shape, green labels and black tops, translucent, with a hint of pretty colors shining through. You see these bottles everywhere now, but at the time it was novel. I walked by all of the shelves, wide-eyed, reading labels, sniffing the testers with great anticipation. I fell in love with Passion Fruit Cleansing Gel, Seaweed Shampoo, and Banana Conditioner. I topped it all off with Peppermint Foot Lotion. I stared at the men’s section longing for a boyfriend secure enough in his masculinity to allow me to appreciate these subtler, soapy jewels.
My boyfriend at the time was a Drakkar Noir type and he preferred me in the heady scent of Poison, sickly sweet and buttery. At the time, I preferred Anne Klein II, a strong but clear scent. I tried to fit myself into his vision of an ideal woman – seductive, yet submissive, sweet and tamed. He kept a small bottle of Drakkar Noir in his glove compartment and put on deodorant before bed, wanting to overpower with the artificial perfumes. A year later he and I were no longer a couple, and as devastating as it was at the time, it’s a huge relief that the relationship ended. At my essence I wanted passion fruit, not poison.
The first Christmas of my Body Shop years, I purchased sample sets for my female relatives and sang the praises of these cruelty-free products. I was puzzled by everyone’s lack of enthusiasm and disheartened when months later the products were still sitting, unopened in my mother’s bathroom. How could she not appreciate the virtues of clean body and clean conscience? I was not deterred, though, from my path to eco-purchasing. I could smell good and do good at the same time, and this was a heady combination.
My next step on this ladder was Aveda. Green glass bottles that felt like silk and the fragrance was heavenly -- even the lipstick sucked me in -- mint! Farewell Body Shop and hello Aveda. I convinced myself that my skin looked better than ever and that my hair shone like a movie star’s, but truthfully it was the scent that sucked me in, that and the fact that these too were cruelty-free, plant-based beauty products. I had entered a more sophisticated era.
Not long after Aveda, I met my husband – coincidence? We spent Valentine’s weekend in Cape Cod, and sealed our love as I puked up breakfast in a parking lot in 15 degree weather, while he held me, and my vomit splashed onto his shoes. Not a moment scented forever. Fortunately we had found China Rain in a shop earlier that weekend. This scent was back to basics. One small glass vial, three inches with a simple label – no marketing or branding. This was the real thing, perfume at its essence. We chose it together and thought of it as “our” scent.
A few months later we were engaged and living together. One morning I dropped the opened bottle into the sink and watched it spill down the drain. We were crushed. I had read somewhere about selecting scents for your wedding. With this in the back of my mind I searched for a new perfume to start me on my new life. I found it during one of my moth-to-flame adventures and chose it in spite of its name – Elixir of Love No. 1. It is sweet, floral, and innocent, just as I wanted to be on my wedding day. My husband made fun of me, but soon fell for it and even chose a new scent himself – Jockey Club, which had been worn by none other than JFK. We spent our honeymoon strolling through streets in Italy, enveloped in the mingling of the two scents, and still today when we go out for an evening, both scrubbed clean and perfectly perfumed, I am transported back to Capri and tiny alleys and the colors of the Mediterranean and bougainvillea.
Thirteen years, three kids and one big fat mortgage later, I am forced to buy a mixture of supermarket soaps, lotions and hair care products with designer ones. Friends and relatives generously provide me with gifts that indulge my passion. I still make the pilgrimages to the stinky-stuff shops, refueling on a product I can’t live without or looking for a gift, taking the liberty of foisting my obsession on others. I find it impossible to pick out any new perfume for myself, though, wearing my old favorites like a broken in pair of jeans with which I cannot part -- China Rain (I did find it again!) and Elixir of Love (how I cringe at that name), and every morning as I prepare for the day, I don’t feel fully dressed without some sweet scent to accompany me.