My mom lives out in the middle of nowhere. Fifteen years ago, she and my stepfather made a conscious decision to remove themselves from society, a series of life moves I've been trying to understand ever since. Like her own mother, my mother rarely makes the effort to visit her children. Perfume isn't the same kind of motivator for her it is for me, and taking care of her husband and dogs makes leaving home for any length of time very difficult, she says. A year ago, I didn't speak to her for months, after she promised to make the local premier of my first film and backed out at the last minute. She'd missed my first book signing for the same reason: who would feed everyone in her absence?
So there's some baggage involved in these visits, and typically I arrive with my feelings shut down. I go straight to my room, and try to make myself come out. It's so quiet and remote where she lives, so slow, that for the first forty eight hours I can barely keep my eyes open. It's like checking into rehab; like coming off speed. You crash hard. This makes quick, overnight stays problematic. It also works against me, because I seem not to want to help around the house or engage in any social interaction, adding to the overall impression my mom and stepfather have of me being a total jerk off.
I try to create things to talk about, so that I have some kind of outlet and can direct the conversation myself. This time, I go straight for the perfume I've given my mom over the last few years. She always loved Joy, but she hasn't worn any of the bottle I bought her. The vintage Chanel No. 19 seems untouched, too. I feel guilty for wanting to take them back. She does seem to like the Fath de Fath. She admits she wears that one the most.
I've packed her a grab bag of presents for Mother's Day, including a few small perfume decants, and I wonder whether she'll use them. She tends to save things. The perfumes are in their boxes, sitting out on her bureau. Last time, they were in the closet. I'd warned her about keeping them in the light. But a closet is a miserable place to keep something like perfume, especially when you really only look at the stuff, so she boxed the bottles and brought them out: a happy medium. While we're in the closet, she points to the highest shelf, where a large blue plastic tub sits. "That's where I keep all the letters you and your sister have written me," she says. "If anything ever happens to me. Just so you know."
I feel weird in anyone's house who doesn't have a special relationship with at least one perfume. It's like someone who never had children or a pet. There's some kind of emptiness there. My mom had me and my sister but something about the quiet out in the country reminds me of her loneliness and has the same basic effect. It makes me want to get out. Or to smell a lot of perfume in private. I brought about fifteen bottles with me. That seemed like a reasonable number at the time. Now, in this barren environment, it seems lavish, remarkably excessive.
My mom was one of three sisters. Her mother was pretty tough. I don't remember any of them wearing fragrance. I do remember a special bottle of perfume in my grandmother's medicine cabinet. It was special to me, anyway. I stole it when her health started to wane. Who would ever give it to me? I don't remember my mom wearing perfume as a child, though the bottle of Oscar she has now seems to have been around forever. I remember it sitting out on her dresser as far back as my memories will take me. It occurs to me that her perfume would probably be fine wherever she puts it. The Oscar has traveled all over the country, sitting in cars, boxes, bathrooms, and bureaus. It smells like it always did.
I don't know where my thing for perfume comes from. I wonder about it, as I smell my perfume stash behind closed doors in my mother's house over the weekend. I'm careful not to spray too much. I can write whatever I want about the genderlessness of scents on a blog, and I can wear whatever I want pretty fearlessly most everywhere in my life, but this is Arkansas, and my stepfather is a truck driver, and I can't imagine Poison going over so well at the dinner table. I feel as if I'm huffing glue. The act is so clandestine. All weekend I have sudden surges of memory; what it felt like to grow up in places I had to try to try so hard to fit into. At some point, I spray on Angel, and I think about that fragrance in an entirely new light.
Angel is beauty and force. It's a mingling of opposites, a declarative mission statement. I understand now why I feel so great wearing it. Angel means not having to hide anything. It's a rebellion, like some hostile act of beauty. You either get it or you don't. This is a stretch, but during my visit I read a book on the Columbine school shootings. I also watched Man on Wire, a documentary about the guy who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center Towers in the seventies. Inevitably, I viewed Angel and my feelings about my upbringing through the prism of those two influences.
Here were two senseless acts, both of them driven attempts to reorder a universe. It's amazing, how much time and effort, how much focus and passion, went into planning the Columbine attack and the walk between the towers. All kind of subterfuge was required. These people planned their acts of defiance for over a year. They had no real lives to speak of as they prepared, like monks, for these fateful days. Each was thoroughly unhappy with the conventions imposed by society. And look how different the results of their malcontent. The people who looked up to the top of the towers from the sidewalk saw inexplicable poetry. It changed them. The act spread hope and possibility through generations in one way or another. It hurt no one. Witnesses to Columbine have had their lives rent apart. They're still trying to make sense of what happened; the hate and unhappiness fueling the incident. The parents of the killers have asked themselves every day since what they must have done wrong.
All of these things came together for me as I sniffed Angel and others furtively at my mom's. I've always been at odds with her. I've always protected her from the complications of who I am. We talk about what she can handle. We hardly know each other. What kind of inner life must she have, I wonder? What must it feel like to be so disconnected from your son? The Columbine kids were in the basement everyday, plotting, fantasizing, assembling pipe bombs. Right under their parents' noses. Dylan Klebold, one of them, was horribly depressed. He was miserable in his life, and totally alone in it. Reading the book, I kept thinking, he and his mom must have been disconnected.
I remember when I first got Angel. I'd sprayed some on a strip of paper and had it in the car with me. My mom was in town on a rare visit, and I took her out to dinner. When we returned she asked what the smell was. I felt awkward about telling her, but it was such an obvious smell. There was no hiding it. Back then, it still seemed slightly feminine to me. Now it's androgynous, but only the way glam rock is. My mom put the strip to her nose and seemed to really like it. She wasn't put off at all. I was amazed she saw the beauty in it. I considered getting her some but knew she'd never wear it. No. 19 I can bear to see unused. Seeing an untouched bottle of Angel would feel like someone cut down in her prime.
I'm a filmmaker. My mother still hasn't seen my first film, though it's been around the world. I think she's scared to see it. It's sad, because so much of me and my childhood went into it. The movie I'm finishing up now is based on a lot of my experiences, too, though it's all been fictionalized. It has a lot to do with motherhood, with the complex relationships mothers have with their daughters, and vice versa. Growing up, I watched the women in my family as if they were in a movie. Their lives seemed so interesting. One of the characters in this film, a home shopping network saleswoman, gets in an argument with her boss, who wants to take away her callers, most of them women. She talks about her mother and their children with them. Some of the women have been calling her show for years. "The whole world is mothers and daughters," she tells her boss. "The whole world is mothers and daughters, and what's going on between them."
Like her boss, I've often felt outside the world of women in my family. But I'm fascinated by the connections they make, and I've always wanted to be a part of them. I never planned to hide in the bathroom with perfume. It was never my intention to be disconnected from or at odds with my mom, and I often wonder where things went wrong. Still, I look around and see it could have been much worse. And we're both trying, though we act as if we have all the time in the world to get it right. I know perfume is a crucial component of the connection I keep trying to make, the poetry I keep trying to create between the two of us. I keep throwing the line out, hoping for magic.