a vacation, in perfume

I. Dark Amber & Ginger Lily Cologne, Jo Malone

Her name is “Laure.” No “l” or “n” at the end — just Laure. The cab takes me to Rue de Albert instead of Rue de Paul Albert so I’m nervous and late. When I finally arrive, she opens the big bright red front door with an excitement I’m sure she’s manufactured dozens of times for dozens of tourists. But she seems genuine, and I welcome the hug that’s accompanied by a smell I’ve convinced is new to my nose, and French, and not made for women like me. It’s dark, heavy, floral, feminine. The kind of scent for a person — a decidedly not American one — that is good at intimacy and red wine and tanning in Nice.

Laure’s apartment does nothing but yell what her perfume already whispered. The large mirror above the fire place. The vintage lamps. A fridge filled with fresh produce and unknown cheeses and bottle of light orange rose with less than a glass left inside. Tinkering around her bathroom, I notice a black bottle of perfume. I’m excited to discover the source of Laure’s sensuality, but I’m disappointed when I realize she wasn’t wearing something rare and spectacular. Her enigma was created by Jo Malone, a brand you can get in the mall back home.

II. Voyage d’Hermès, Hermès

“You can use my brusk,” he says, meaning tooth brush. I laugh and head into the bathroom, leaving him and his group of friends gesticulating and ranting wildly about something, I’m not sure what. There is a nautical-looking glass and silver bottle on his sink, and I instantly recognize it as Hermès. I sniff it before brushing my teeth. It smells feminine, I think. Then I correct myself: it smells more feminine than scents American men wear. I look it up later and it’s a unisex scent, of course—many French perfumes don’t make gender distinctions.

I spray myself instinctively, but then regret it. This man might smell my neck later and catch me in my little theft. How weird, I think, to smell a stranger and recognize yourself. I’ll wonder about this as I walk home delirious from alcohol, smooching, and cigarettes. I’ll feel happy knowing I’ll never see him again. And I’ll wonder for the first time wonder if I’m too old for this shit, or at just the right age to actually enjoy it.

III. Tom of Finland, Etat Libre D’Orange

I think my mind is playing tricks on me, reminding me of a ghost just as I am about to release them. When I leave Paris and meet my family in Dublin, I start smelling him everywhere, thousands of miles from home, months since I’d seen him in the flesh. But day two into the trip I remember that my brother wears the same cologne — the one I bought him for his birthday, the one that’s always made my stomach drop. The loaded gun comes with the wind when I least expect it. It makes me love more, and then less and then more again. It makes me feel sick, hungry, angry, alive.

IV. Opium, YSL

On the last day, I visit Brown Thomas and spray myself generously, because you can’t get classic Opium in the States even though it’s a bestseller in other parts of the world. The perfume’s boldness doesn’t quite fit with our conception of beauty. But that wasn’t always the case — the launch in 1977 caused international outrage that culminated, naturally, in a fashionable Manhattan boat party featuring Truman Capote and Cher (Andy Warhol, who was in California at the time, wrote in his diaries he was sad to miss the “big, glamorous YSL Opium party”).

I remember when I first looked up the perfume at the suggestion of a friend. I was fascinated by how fans in forums focused not on “notes” or “lasting-power,” as they usually do. Instead, it was entry after entry like this:

I Wore Opium in my 20s back in the 90s. I wore it way too heavily and on hot summer nights … I can smell it now, although in reality I haven’t smelt it for years. It was heady, sickly and headachy.. I loved the idea of it, the bad girl image, the name, the way I seemed to be carried by a physical cloud of fragrance, so strong it was.

This fragrance is a way to access a memory, a myth. I keep fantasizing about all the women before me who wore it. But not just them — also the lovers their glamorous scent probably haunted. To wear Opium isn’t just to smell a certain way, it’s to carry with you a cloud of associations, ideas and flashbacks, hundreds of forgotten exploits and trips to Paris.