The Perfume Diary, Week 3: Comme des Garçons’s Wonderwood

When I arrived in Austin, I realized that I had probably subconsciously chosen this week’s scent with the city in mind. Something about a fresh wood scent just seems like it belongs in Texas. In fact, I think they’ve done some kind of scent design in the airport, because the second you get off the plane everything smells slightly of mesquite. And that seemed to more or less continue throughout the weekend, though perhaps that had something to do with the diet I adopted for the occasion: strictly barbecue and tacos. My friend says that Austin residents have started suing the barbecue joints because the smell has permeated their homes.

I went to Texas to see an old friend who’d been away in the Peace Corps for three years. He started as a friend, anyway, some eight years ago when we met in college, though even then our friendship was reluctant. In order to get myself out of a bad living situation involving an ex-boyfriend and unhealthy levels of obsession, I’d agreed to move into a three-bedroom house with him and another mutual friend of ours, though without meeting him first. He’d been away the semester before learning survival skills in the woods. We met at a New Years Eve party a few days before we moved in and did not make the connection on our own. We danced (it’s kind of our thing) and flirted until the host came by and said something to the effect of, “Oh, great, you guys met.” It was like learning that I had a crush on someone who turned out to be my second cousin, but nevertheless we spent the first few weeks toeing an invisible line, and I remember so many of the childish things that still managed to seem like fun in college, such as staying up all night telling each other ghost stories under the covers. His covers always smelled of leather and smoke, an odor that permeated everything he owned for years after he came back from the woods with his cured animal hides and his eccentricities.

We returned to our own beds eventually, and by that point he had shown me what I needed to see, that some men are kind. I clambered out of the utter hell of that first love, at least that can be said. I trained for and ran a half marathon by myself. I did the Master Cleanse and wandered around our house at all hours of the night with the kind of feverish energy that does not seem to be fully of this world. I learned to love other people, even if I never learned to let him love other people. I’m still working on it.

When he picked me up at the airport he was nervous. He asked me questions as though he were a census-taker, and I could see his mind fumbling for the next one and the next. He is never not happy, he is never not okay — it’s one of the things about him that makes me furious, because I’m always guilty of harboring some low frequency rage or despair that he is only equipped to try to understand with logic, and I am ashamed, every time, by the color-wheel of feelings that refuse to adhere to its rules — but I could see that he was stressed. I leaned into the backseat to pet the dog, attempting to release some of the pressure. I put my nose to my wrist and was disappointed. What had smelled so lovely in the vial seemed strangely synthetic and flat on my skin.

Five years ago when I lived in Madrid I started to get homesick. I would take the bus out to the mountains for the day and the whole time I’d look out the window and picture all the people back home who loved me. Every time his face came into my brain, and only his face, I’d dissolve into a shapeless thing, and so when I came back home I said I thought we should date. He agreed. We had four months before he boarded a one-way plane to Africa, and we had enough faith in our own sagacity to believe that if only we tried it out we could force clarity, we could know at least if we were meant to drift back together for the last and final time when he returned.

If there is one thing that has been hardest about growing older, it has been the realization that the clarity never comes. Believe me, I have tried to manufacture it. I have traveled alone, I have isolated myself, I have meditated and taken psychedelic drugs and asked the Tarot and moved to other states and countries, I have followed all the advice of the people who claim to know. But equivocation and ambiguity will not be outgrown. When he walked out my door I cried out, I knelt down and put my face in the carpet, I borrowed a friend’s dog to keep me company over the several days I spent in bed, but I still did not know if I loved him.

In Austin, we became the people we were together. We went hiking and watched comedy. We salsa danced, as we always do, and we two-stepped and tangoed. We defied categorization in all the familiar ways. But we were in some respects as synthetic as the oud notes, and we accept the substitute because we cannot bear to face what has become inaccessible in each other, as well as in ourselves. We are through with ghost stories under the covers.

On my last night in Austin, we signed up for a midnight session at the sensory deprivation tanks, which is really an experience in trying to disappear. I kept finding myself on the precipice of such lovely dreams, but then I startled out of sleep, again and again, smacking my limbs against the walls. I found no clarity there, either. I was insoluble.