IV. Dump and Spritz
To while away the time downtown while the Little Monster was at the birthday party at the video game arcade, I could buy a cheap book at Barnes & Noble and relax with an eggnog latte. But, a week before Christmas, the bookstore line was twenty deep. I’d purchased the birthday boy’s present at my local independent bookseller the day before, waltzing straight up to first place at the counter, and the line at the downtown chain store saddened me.
I entered the surreal shopping center connected to the bookstore. An atrium the size of Delaware was all gussied up for the holidays. I rode the escalator up, up, up, one flight at time, up all four flights, to the top. I thought a restaurant would appeal to me, but I ended up fishing a granola bar out of my purse. I got on the down escalator and rode down, down, down. Surely a storefront would snag my interest while my kid blew up aliens. I glanced at my watch. Too pathetically early to check in on him.
I walked back over the nifty pedestrian overpass, which isn’t so nifty when your nine-year-old isn’t there to appreciate it with you, and stumbled into a scenario as eerie as the video game arcade: a department full of women from Stepford, smiles frozen on their made-up faces, all wearing feather boas, and all armed, ready to shoot the bottle of perfume they each held shoulder-high. “It’s a special we’re having today!” one of the ladies explained to me. As if I had not noticed, she said, “We’ve all got boas! Isn’t it fun?”
I owned exactly two bottles of perfume. One was given to me by my sister-in-law Kansas because I used it every time I was at her house, so finally she kindly gave me the bottle. When I wear it, I think of her.
The other was purchased at the garden shop where my other sister-in-law, Reno, lives. I wanted to support the store. When I wear it, I think of her.
Mostly I don’t use either one. When I do, I wear perfume for myself. I might spritz it on when I’m home alone writing or right before I go to bed. I don’t tend to wear it when going out, because I know what it’s like to be held hostage by someone else’s scent that might smell great to them but smells like bugspray to me.
But now that I found myself by chance in a perfume department, I thought I’d try Chanel No. 5. All my life I’d been hearing about Chanel No. 5. It was so pervasive in our culture that it was downright literary. I could buy a bottle of Chanel No. 5 and it would not be materialism; it would be homage. So I found the Chanel No. 5 counter and sprayed it onto my inner wrist, my charge card at the ready.
This was like being disappointed in a long-awaited novel by a favorite author. Plus now I was going to smell like this all day.
“Would you like to try the new scent by Elie Saab?” a scant wisp of a saleswoman at the next counter asked me.
I stopped. I was raised to be polite, so I responded with party small talk. The woman was wearing a boa, after all. “Oh. Um, so she’s married to the car maker?” Bored rich carmaker housewife starts perfume line, I guessed. Kind of like I took up crochet for three days?
“HE. HE designs fabulous women’s clothing, and this perfume is what he thinks women should smell like as they walk down the runway.”
“Well, screw that b.s.!” I did not say. A man deciding what fragile women should smell like? I find that notion offensive. When my husband says, “You smell nice,” that’s one thing, but this seemed like quite another matter. Plus I’ll never walk down a runway unless I’ve just escaped from a wrecked airplane, in which case I’d probably look a lot like the shellshocked women I see in fashion show snippets. Only I won’t be wraithlike. Guaranteed in an Armageddon scenario such as the Little Monster was now facing at the video arcade, I’d outlast any of those women. I could survive for two months on the body fat on my rump alone. Plus I could run faster to get to any food and water because I wouldn’t be in seven-inch heels.
“I like it better than the Chanel No. 5,” I confessed to her once she gave me a hit.
“Yes, well,” she chirped, “that is quite conventional. Elie Saab fragrance is ultra feminine.”
So are maxi pads.
Every three feet, a boa-constricted woman offered me a scent. Mostly they obliged by spritzing it onto a strip of heavy paper that reminded me of the cardboard tabs I pee on to see if I have a bladder infection. But these tabs all remained white after they’d been sprayed.
Then the cheerful saleswomen—who would obviously prefer to be inside a reeking store with no windows earning a paycheck on a gorgeous December Saturday rather than anywhere else on the planet, judging by their exuberant joy—would rattle off the list of scents that combined to make this one unique scent, each uniquely costing about a hundred bucks.
At least a half dozen of the women mentioned amber as an ingredient.
“But amber doesn’t have a smell,” I, puzzled, finally said to one of the women. “Amber is a hard resin.”
Oh, Lord, now I’d gone and done it. I’d made her unhappy during the joyous holiday season. I’d truly f&cked her day judging by the smile that slid off her painted face clear down into her cleavage.
“I mean, maybe it had a smell before it hardened,” I babbled, trying to make her feel better. “Like maybe it smells like pine needles before the resin fossilizes and eventually becomes amber?”
Oddly, the thought of amber conjures a smell for me: sort of musky and yellow. Which isn’t really what I want to smell like. I’ve smelled like that on long motorcycle trips when showers felt ignoble. I didn’t need to drop a C-note to smell skanky.
“They must have meant ambergris,” a friend said later. I also knew that ambergris was once a stabilizer in perfume, but since ambergris is essentially hardened whale vomit, it’s difficult to come by and probably a lot more expensive than whatever chemical stabilizer is used in perfume today. I would imagine that amber in perfume would also make it too prohibitively expensive to be spraying it on indecisive women holding a dozen spray sticks. My only coherent thought was the spray sticks would make great bookmarks.
The next saleswoman sprayed a scent called Angel right onto me. One of the ingredients was chocolate.
“I love chocolate,” I said, “but I’m not sure I want to smell like it. I’d be hungry all day.”
Angel was made by Thierry Mugler. Wasn’t that a Harry Potter character?
A mostly-unclad woman advertised Angel on a big poster and the product’s packaging. I’m not sure how an angel would fly in a dress that tight. Her skirt had already ripped up to her hipbone. She looked like she’d had to fight tooth and nail with other angels for her scrap of sparkly material, which was apparently in short supply in heaven. Once she went horizontal overhead, guaranteed a couple of things would fall out of that dress. Despite what I’m sure must have been a plethora of hair and makeup artists, she still had her hair in her face, probably a result of her earthward flight. She should have asked for a do-over.
“That’s Eva Mendes,” the saleswoman gushed. “Isn’t she just gorgeous? I love her.”
What’s the advertising thought process here? I spray this stuff on and I’m going to look like that? My man is going to take one snort at my neck and think I look like that?
“And you get it in this great bottle!” the saleswoman said, Vanna-Whitishly modeling the star-shaped bottle for me.
Truthfully, while I had no idea when I left the house that morning that I was in need of perfume, I now had to have a bottle of perfume. My life would not be complete unless I found the perfect scent. I was a driven woman, suckered in by the pressure from a cadre of feather boas and a lot of time to kill. I’d left my child for two hours and I had a vacuum in my heart to fill, a frightened ache in my chest to deaden, and I needed to fill it now by handing over my plastic. Perfume required no dressing room horror scene. Perfume would be easy to carry home with Timmy the Play-typus Sock Puppet. Perfume could be handed over to the Man I Married to put in my Christmas morning stocking. My spending money on myself would be doing MIM a favor! It all made perfect sense in the insanity of shopping downtown the weekend before Christmas while my child gorged himself and then blew up evil conquerors of the universe.
I liked the scent of Angel. There were worse things than smelling like a baking cake.
But I hated the cheesy bottle. The saleswoman commented on how lovely it would look decorating my dresser (which I don’t have), but I thought that it looked more fitting for my cheap junior high school after-bath splash of Jean Naté. I couldn’t bring myself to drop a hundred dollars for something that even I knew looked tacky.
If I was going to buy into all of this, then packaging mattered, and I could not bring myself to fork over a Benjamin for that embarrassing bottle.
Time was running out, and I had not checked on the Little Monster even once.
Up next, Part V: GUILTY!
The Strangler Fig: Stories by Jennifer D. Munro
An obsessed paparazzo stalks his subject—a singer whose photos morph but face remains unchanged. An unborn triplet haunts and taunts its mother for the choice she made. An infertile woman seeks to learn the language of the dead baby she continues to carry.
From New Orleans to Mexico to ancient Hawaii, six sensual, darkly fantastic tales reimagine classics such as Dorian Gray, Helen of Troy, and The Yellow Wallpaper.
From the pages of Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica; Thou Shalt Not: Stories of Dark Crime and Horror; Best of Crossed Genres: Fantasy & Science Fiction with a Twist; South Dakota Review; and others.