My queen Britney Spears just released her latest single, “Perfume.” It’s about an insecure new girlfriend who’s a little uncomfortable with her boyfriend’s relationship with his ex. She “marks her territory” by coating herself in her signature scent, hoping a bit rubs off on her man so the ex can smell it on him when they meet.
“I wanna fill the room when she’s in it with you.
Please don’t forget me.
Do I imagine it
Or catch these moments?
I know you’ve got history.”
Scent is one of the most powerful nostalgia triggers there is. Regular black Chapstick will always remind me of my most recent ex-boyfriend. The smell of fresh dirt and Lava soap is forever tied to my father. You know how powerful a device it can be. The scary part is that it can jump out at you out of nowhere, stop you in your tracks. There are a few bottles whose scent takes me right back to a certain moment in my life. I like to think I’ve grown up right along with my perfume.
Poison by Dior
I am a very little girl and my mother is getting dressed to go out with my dad. I am fascinated by her bottle of Dior Poison and like to crawl up onto the bathroom counter to play with it when she isn’t watching; I also do this with her plethora of makeup, transforming myself into Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. I like to watch Mom put on her makeup. In her dresser drawer, she has a tiny bottle of Poison that I wish she’d give me – it’s the perfect size for a four-year-old, I think. Mom likes perfume; she also wears Chanel No. 5. This is the late ’80s, when perfume was perfume and it made an entrance. “Fruity florals” didn’t exist yet.
When I smell Poison on my mom, all heavy tuberose and sophistication mixed with the comforting “mom” scent of Lubriderm and cigarette smoke, I know that a babysitter is coming over and Mom might put on her pearls. I will fall asleep on the couch and my parents will come home late; I will wake up to the crackle of gravel under the wheels of our old blue Suburban. They will smell like beer and cigarettes; it was legal to smoke in bars when I was a kid. I will be in that half-place between sleep and awake, but I will remember them paying my babysitter, carrying me to my twin-size bed in my pastel pink room. Many, many years later I buy a bottle of Poison for myself. I rarely wear it, but I like the comfort of knowing it’s there when my mom isn’t.
It is 1997. Titanic hysteria is in full swing and I am in the midst of a Beanie Baby craze, collecting as many as I can get my hands on and preserving their tags as if they were priceless artifacts. My parents take my brother and I to meet our cousins at the Mall of America, a place we’ve never been but I’ve dreamt of all my life. (In a … fortunate? … twist of fate, I later end up working there.) I have a bright purple winter coat from Land’s End (my best friend Ali has the same coat in raspberry) and upon entering Bloomingdales, a department store so fancy to my small-town child eyes it makes my head spin, I spray some of this brand new Clinique fragrance on said coat. I feel very grown-up. I have decided I want to live in a city so I can go to a store like this every day. I yearn for a bottle of my own but Mom says ten-year-olds don’t need perfume. I make do with asking for samples from the ladies at Dayton’s and hoarding them in my jewelry box.
Marc Jacobs for women
I am 14 years old. If you ask me, I am grown up enough to have my own signature scent. My friends and I have been wearing Ralph Lauren Ralph and Victoria’s Secret Love Spell, but after falling in love with fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle, I think I’m too mature for those teenybop scents. The one I’ve chosen for myself is Marc Jacobs’ eponymous scent, a rich, buttery gardenia. It feels sophisticated but not too old for a girl my age. I get confirmed (begrudgingly) and use $60 of my gift money to purchase a small bottle from Marshall Fields. I am thrilled; I spend a lot of time admiring it as it holds court on my dresser. My best friend Ali has started wearing perfume too; she is wearing Michael by Michael Kors. We douse ourselves heavily before cheerleading and school dances, hoping to enchant boys. Maybe we do. We rule the school, bounding down the hallways in a pack with our pom-poms glittering and ponytails bouncing. When I smell Marc Jacobs now, a fragrance I’ve long since left behind, I don’t think of boys at all. I think of Ali curling my hair for a dance in her lilac bedroom and the closeness of my lifelong girlfriends. I think of a pile of girls on Ali’s bed, reading magazines and painting nails, piercing each other’s ears and learning about sex and love.
Angel by Thierry Mugler
Thierry Mugler Angel is my first “grown up” perfume. I buy it right after turning 21. I am living in a house off Dinkytown in Minneapolis with three of my best friends, best friends I cherish to this day. It is my junior year of college and to this day my favorite year of my life. I spend a lot of time lusting after Angel, which immediately makes an entrance and leaves the dreamiest trail, before I finally buy it. I wear it throughout the entire winter of 2008-2009, from college campus to downtown Minneapolis to my internship at the city newspaper. I kiss a lot of boys while wearing it, fall over drunk a few times, learn how much it hurts when the boy you love doesn’t love you back. I don’t wear Angel very often anymore – too nostalgic, maybe – but I smell it often on other people and I always remember that hopeful 21-year-old girl in an American Apparel minidress, tights and broken-down boots.
But I’m the inverse of Britney’s song; I’m the ex-girlfriend who hopes the new girlfriend smells my perfume, whether that’s the bombast of Hanae Mori or the radiating jasmine of LUSH’s Lust, on pillowcases in his room, hidden in a sweater, filling up his space like a ghost. I’m the ex-girlfriend who hopes my former loves walk past a girl on the street wearing my perfume and get a shotgun blast to the heart, missing me or at least letting my memory pass through their head for a minute. There are some perfumes so tied up to a certain boy that I have to give them away when we’re through.
I want to fill up their rooms with my presence, even if it’s been a long time since we parted ways. Don’t forget me.