In the past year or two I've become obsessed with perfumes. I've managed to collect quite a few, and the number of fragrances I've sampled is well into the hundreds. Some perfume lovers have had an interest in fragrance since they were young, but I never did, not until I discovered the world of niche perfumery and scents that were unusual, unisex, and often rather natural-smelling. Before that, my only real knowledge of perfume was from the perfume counters at department stores.
The counters flanked department stores like fortresses, creating an obstacle course that required a strategy to cross unscathed. Averting the eyes and walking quickly and determinedly was the best hope, but not always successful. The women waited in crisp polyester suits, faces bronzed to an ocher sheen and lips pinched into lines of fuchsia, crimson, and coral. They looked bored but their eyes were predatory, tracking each customer winding her way around the bulging glass counters toward the escalators. As someone passed, their bodies lifted to attention and swayed forward, bangled arms stretching out to brandish bottles and paper test strips.
“Care to sample the newest fragrance from Gucci?”
They would lift the bottle, with its pale pink or lime-colored juice, and depress a thick spray on the paper, wafting the strip with a practice sweep. They would bestow it on the customer and watch her as she inhaled.
From the paper would emerge a chemical smell of fruit and flowers and sugar—sometimes a little more peach or a little more apple, a bit more freesia or rose, but always managing to be pretty and bland and suffocating all at once.
“Isn't it gorgeous?” they would say, mustering what appeared to be genuine rapture over the scent they had been smelling for days now.
Or, they would be practical. “It's a perfect scent for summer, not too heavy.”
Or simply appeal to consensus. “This is very popular.”
The latest perfume was always what they'd push, as they were directed to. Whether the person wanted something for day or night, something sheer or sinister, a perfume with florals or citrus or wood, they would steer their customers to the newest Gucci or Dior or Chanel as relentlessly as a jetstream.
They were not open to argument. “Oh, but this is very unique. It has lychee!”
Their enthusiasm was persistent but never personal. They remained ciphers with tight smiles and arched brows.
All around them the air was heavy with perfumes, heated by the bright lights of the makeup counters. The scents mixed together into a nondescript scent of femininity—a particular kind of femininity that sought to smooth over its anxiety with glittering powders and lifting creams. This femininity required perfumes that suggested flowers and fruit and candy, that had no dark shadows that could be interpreted as masculine, nothing that smelled of sex or sweat, nothing overtly natural, nothing that would stir souls or evoke memories. The bottles might be given names that suggested pleasure or danger or individuality, but the odor itself always conformed to a certain expected blandness. Perfume like this was meant to be functional, to promise passion but deliver safety.
And the sales associates always waited at the entrances of the department stores as if ushering one onto this narrow path of womanhood, their determined posture a signal that avoiding that journey was as impossible as crossing the sea of counters without a spritz.