There was a time during my teens when every girl seemed to be wearing this, which made being a girl seem very exciting to me.
Paris came out the year I entered high school. I'd been in public schools until then, out in the suburbs, but it was decided that I might be better off at a private school. I got picked on a lot. I'd moved to the midwest from Texas, with an accent to prove it. I might have been a mama's boy. I was sensitive, anyway--and that was all most of the guys my age needed to know. I was quiet and kept to myself and it seemed for a long time that everyone wanted to beat me up. Girls harassed me on the bus, first thing in the morning. I'd never been bullied by a girl before. I had absolutely no idea how to deal with it. I dreaded going down the block to wait at the curb. I dreaded the bus pulling up and whatever I was in for once I stepped past the driver. Once I arrived at school, the boys took over. It was like a relay race and they picked up the baton from the girls. They waited outside the building for me, after the final bell. I waited even longer, hoping to outlast them. Sometimes I did; sometimes I didn't.
I'd moved from Texas out to the middle of nowhere to live with my divorced dad. I'd moved mostly to get away from my stepfather, who was weird and kind of abusive. My mother asked me if I might want to go live with my dad out there in the corn fields and I said yes with an exclamation mark before she even finished the question. I knew she was sending me away to make her marriage work better but I didn't care. I just wanted out. I looked up to my dad--I'd only seen him on vacations for several years and had the luxury of thinking the best of him--and I imagined we'd get along splendidly.
There was a lot I didn't know about him. I understand him better now because I see a lot of myself there, but at the time I had no idea how to handle his incessant criticism. I'm not sure people know what it's like to live with that, not as a child. Your hair is wrong, you sound stupid, you don't know what you're doing, no matter what it is, no wonder people don't like you, no wonder you mom sent you away. It was hard living with each other, and I was hopeful when my father announced he'd be marrying my stepmother, who seemed to get along with him a lot better than I did and might at least distract him from picking me apart, if only intermittently.
They married my Freshman year. We moved from the farthest edge of town to the middle of things. Buildings were much older. Neighborhoods were more active, more connected. I was ecstatic to get away from all the bullying. I look back now and realize the first fifteen years of my life were about trying not to get beaten up, emotionally and physically, be it at school or at home. I didn't know any different and settled in for the long haul, determined to wait it out like the boys outside in the school yard. It might be why I speak my mind so incautiously now. Maybe even the idea I shouldn't be allowed or should have to watch my tongue makes me ballistic, now that I live under nobody's roof but my own. People in our new neighborhood seemed so civilized. It was hard to believe they ever beat anybody up. So I was hoping for the best when I entered the private school, which was right down the street from our new old house. There were trees older than I was. If they could stick it out, so could I.
There were a lot of unspoken rules at this new private school and for once, if only because no one had grown up around me, I thought I might be able to learn them and conform. I tried my best. I studied the way guys at my school dressed and imitated them. I got to where I could pick clothes out like I imagined they or their parents would. I trained myself rigorously. Had you seen me you would never have known that I hadn't grown up in the preppiest family this side of an LL Bean catalogue. There was no uniform at our school but there was a socially enforced dress code. I made sure to make the right kind of example of myself. Eventually, I made the wrong move one too many times, and was sort of discovered to be a fraud in some way which disqualified me, I guess (not Catholic enough, not athletic, not merciless enough, as always: too sensitive) and I probably could have redeemed myself, by trying harder, by lying to fit in and get back in those good graces, but for the first time in my life, instead of being banished from a group, I gladly left it, having discovered the hypocrisy at its core. The last two years of high school were lonely--but by choice, which is a very different place to be.
What I remember more than anything from those first two years were the girls at the sister schools. There was one boy school in town. There were at least three girl schools. One was impossibly cool. I'd never seen girls dress with such style and carry themselves with such confidence. The last I'd seen of girls, at the public school, they looked more jarheaded than the boys. The private school girls were intelligent and seemed so worldly. They probably weren't worldly at all. But they were raised, more often than not, by people who weren't quite as afraid of the world as the folks out at the edge of the cornfields. I still can't believe how charismatic these girls were. Their acceptance mattered to me more than anything the boys might think of me. The boys were children, which is why leaving their good graces electively wasn't such a travesty, whatever the inconveniences. Men are still children, I find, and I find, still, I care not very much what they happen to think.
Some of those girls could fix you with a gaze that seemed to read your whole character with the efficiency of computer technology. They told fantastic stories. Nothing they went through seemed to be the slightest bit banal. Everything became interesting when filtered through their sensibilities. They wore other things besides Paris. Giorgio was ubiquitous, certainly, but for some reason, Paris seemed to epitomize their essential qualities. Giorgio was bright but Paris was blinding. Like the bottle, the fragrance seemed jeweled, sharp and angular like a cut diamond. I remember seeing the bottle on girls' dressers on the rare occasions I ended up in their rooms. I remember it looking like something that belonged there. Like you should stay out of its way because it caught the light in a way which made you feel it could lacerate you if you handled it ineptly.
Paris seemed sophisticated to me, bright and cheery but in a remorseless way. Giorgio could feel sentimental. Poison was a whole different thing, a totally different story. Paris was like broad daylight in the form of a floral bouquet. The sun in your eyes as you leave a building, spring air rushing into you. It made everything feel crystal clear, with a kind supernatural clarity that isn't real life but magnifies or intensifies it. I have horrible memories of my childhood but smells like Paris rescue the good parts and carry them back to me. Who can explain what a smell does? I felt safe and sophisticated--in charge of my feelings--around Paris, which was an emotional landscape I didn't see tons of back then. Paris seemed to embody the fantasy of a self-empowered, happily carefree youth.