Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Scent Memory: Paris by Yves Saint Laurent


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.

22 comments:

*jen said...

Thank you.

Bryan said...

You have the pen of a poet and the wit to back it up.
The last paragraph is nothing short of brilliant. The whole piece is haunting and sweet in equal doses.
Thank you for opening up and sharing a significant piece of your childhood with me.

Melissa said...

"Who can explain what a smell does?" You can, and you have done so beautifully in this post. Well done.
Melissa

Angela Cox said...

I am sure Holly ( my daughter) could identify only too well with the bullying. It was so bad I home-educated her from age eight . The school did nothing to help . As parents we were quite old and we listened to speech radio and she grew up a quiet book reading girl. We live in an area where school is more like an institution for the delinquent.I have social phobia from having an alcoholic father who was violent .
Maybe that's partly why I fell head over heels with fragrance . It didn't smell of beer and cigarettes . I remember when Paris was launched .I am much more a fan of it's flankers now. It's not usual that I like flankers but I really love the Paris ones like Pont D'amour etc. My little sister is a fragrance fan too but in a much more limited way .It's my luxury , am affordable one mostly.

Tamara*J said...

Brian I was bullied in a merciless way when I was little too, by girls and by boys, and they all happened to live on my street as well.I have many , many bad painful memories of running home after school because they chased me, having stomach-aches before the final bell, crying to my dog Chico , a lil' mutt of a weenie-dog and him licking my tears. I walked for hours in the desert with my dog chasing prairie dogs and crows and building lil' forts with tumbleweeds and we climbed over the brick wall to my backyard to return home as the front was kept watch my all those cruel children.My mama tried to help but had no idea the anguish and misery I felt. I was picked on until 8th grade until I had finally had enough and started to stand up for myself. But by that time I was living with my dad who married a evil step-monster who hated me and the bullying picked up where it left off.I still remember her wretched White Shoulders that she stunk off when she would be cussing in my face and grab my hair and slap my face. I think sometimes people are just are born with a mark. But bi-focals at 7 don't help either.
All of that made me into the woman I am today for good and for bad. I am strong,but tender-hearted to anyone who I can feel a connection to. I observe people from afar but am not afraid to speak my mind.I have raised my girls to be sensitive but tough and I have stayed in their corner and if need be stand in front of them to shield them from the blows of the world and fight for them. I love that you shared once again and as always want to hug you for it.

Dane said...

I love your reviews Brian. They often have nothing to do with the perfume...but who cares! We all know what Paris smells like anyway. Keep up the good writing! ;)

Olfacta said...

Hi Brian -- I bet if you polled all the people who were miserable in high school, they'd be the ones who became interesting adults. And, conversely, many of those who were All That in those years seem to have peaked there. Kind of like Al Bundy. I went to a high school reunion about 10 years ago (after being away for 20+ years) and found that axiom to be absolutely true!

Vintage Lady said...

This is lovely. Paris makes me remember the first time I smelled. a girl at my dad´s school was wearing it. She worked in a perfume store, or a perfume enterprise, I can´t remember well, but as soon as I smelled it I asked her to give me a sample! Now I would not wear it, but I don´t hate it neither!

elizabeth said...

Ah, Paris. One whiff brings back such vivid memories of the vicissitudes of high school. I can almost picture the fuchsia leather skirt and white sweater I wore to school regularly, the desperate search for friends to eat lunch with in the immense lunch room, excitedly talking about the upcoming football game against Upper St. Clair...all while longing for the attention of a certain boy who wore Polo and whom I never spoke to, but only admired from afar. Thankfully, nothing really horrible ever happened to me during that time, apart from realizing that I was never going to have any member of Duran Duran as my spouse one day. ;o) Thank you for the nostalgia that your post brought to me!

Karin said...

I love the way you write about fragrance. In a sense, I Smell Therefore I Am is my very favourite perfume blog; your voices are very unique, there is nothing else out there quite like the two of you, and this piece really highlights that, somehow. Thank you for doing this.

Riviera Brides said...

You are a poet no doubts. I'm a new follower, hope you're gonna follow back.
www.rivierabrides.com

brian said...

Thanks, Jen, and Bryan. It wasn't snowing where I am--but raaaaaaiiiiining. Lots of gun metal sky. I guess it put me in a reflective place.

brian said...

Angela, when we lived in the suburbs it was rough going. Before that, I'd been in Houston. Inner city Houston. I was a sensitive kid so that wasn't tons of fun. I haven't gotten my hands on the Paris flankers, but for one. The Pont sounds good. I'm going to investigate.

brian said...

Tamara, I think as a bullied kid I would fare a little better today. I'd go online and make friends, and read about perfume and film and history and all kinds of other things. Instead I ran out into the cornfields behind our house. It was trippy. At the far end of them were some pretty intense woods. I wasn't into unicorns or stuff but it did seem like the place had magic in it. And one time I found a change machine someone had stolen and dumped there in the woods. It was hemorrhaging coins. Like a brown noser, I called the cops.

brian said...

Thanks, Dane. As you know I love your writing too. I'm constantly trying to figure out how to fatten up writing about perfume. It seems to be about a lot of things to me. So I try to bring more in. And I'm not the best at non-stop straight up reviews. I start to feel like I'm reciting the ingredients off a bag of Cheetos.

brian said...

Olfacta, I went to someone ELSE'S reunion this year, and it scared the living daylights out of me. I know I can't ever go to mine now. I've looked some of them up on facebook. Weirdly, they all look pretty good. But I think you're right about those shifts and peaks. Most of them seem to lack a certain luster high school gave them. And some have suddenly, clearly, peaked now. I think you're right too about becoming interesting people. Most of my close friends were total misfits back then.

brian said...

Elizabeth, I remember outfits very much like that!

brian said...

Karin, thank you very much. We're often surprised that people read us, and even more surprised when they keep coming back. I think in many ways we do this ALL WRONG. I think to myself sometimes, oh come on, write a real perfume post.

museinwoodenshoes said...

Read this yesterday and got all choked up... hey, I'd have been your friend... but had the worst time trying to comment that I finally retreated to try again today. (Blog loads r e a l l y s l o w l y lately, don't know why. Video embeds? I'd say it was my 'puter, but it's slow on my work 'puter, my home one, and my laptop all three, whether I'm using IE or Firefox.)

I don't remember smelling Paris in the 80s; all the popular girls at my school wore Giorgio. ALL of them did. You got whiffs of Exclamation and Sand & Sable in the halls too, as well as Opium, but Giorgio was the smell of status.

Thing was, I wasn't all that interested in status. The in-crowd annoyed me because I couldn't see any reason why they should feel so superior to the rest of us; they weren't smarter, wealthier, more talented, more athletic, nicer... what they *were* was, mostly, better-looking. And I had my own friends, anyway: the science geeks, the lit geeks, the music geeks, the kids from church youth group, and, to be honest, the kids who didn't have any other friends. I couldn't help noticing the new kids and the ones on the fringe, and if they didn't have anyone to eat lunch with, I felt too guilty to walk past without inviting them to sit at the sci geek table with me.

(As you might guess, this caused me trouble, in that one day I'd say hi, the next I'd have... remoras. Limpets. Once, a stalker. I'm 25 years out of HS this year, and this guy STILL asks my brother about me. Eek.)

FB is so strange, isn't it? I joined mostly to keep in touch with my sister, and to say hi to old friends. It's plum freaky the way some people have turned out... the wiseacre B student who kept the entire low brass section in constant trouble with the band director is now president of a regional healthcare corporation. The star wrestler still stands about 5'4", but manages the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in our small city. The quiet fat girl I used to pass notes with in govt, sending each other bits of our recent poetry, is now a full professor of Russian at some midwestern university. (I miss HER.) The couple that "had to get married" our junior year is, to my astonishment, still married and always posting flirty notes to each other on FB. My old boyfriend, the one I broke up with largely because he told his mother everything, got married - THREE YEARS AGO, *after* his mother died. (I'm well away from that one, he was trouble... but he smelled like SSS Tabac Aurea, minus the patchouli. Rrroowwr. Talk about a scent drop-kicking me into the emotional whirlwind...)

Love the post. Write more.

Please.

Zanne said...

Oh Brian, this IS a "real" perfume post, for the sense of Smell is not an ounce less Powerful & *Important* than what you've Celebrated here ~ Perfume is SOOOoooo much more than the sum of its ingredients. It's a Time Machine that Rockets *Recall* most Vivid and Visceral - How the nose & perfume leave the eyes & photographs in the DUST!!

And how you & Abigail are set apart in a loud-loud perfume-blogosphere! (I was as emotional and illuminated reading this as I was when Abigail wrote about Angel's role in her relationship with her mom).

The sense of smell simply takes no prisoners & it would seem to be all about vulnerability, but there's a flipside to that coin - those who "get" *Perfume* (and are willing to "go there" in their writing) are about STRENGTH! They wield an Aragorn-Sword, Harness & Pacino-Tango with *Golden* memories and Burn a forever-return to *New* ones. (I have the bottom half-ounce of my first boyfriend's cologne, an 80's drugstore something - he gave it to me so I'd never forget his long-black-haired-wrong-side-of-the-tracks-hunka-Burnin-Love self :) - no idea where he is now - Wait! He's in that bottle.)

In Ever-Gracias for you two,

Zanne :)

Karin said...

Brian, there are plenty of other blogs out there doing that, but virtually none doing this. The online perfume community would be a duller, drabber and less fascinating place without you!

Autmrane said...

Searching for Paris, something I wore long ago when I was happy with my life landed me at Brian's door. Here I read on about his school life and felt a kinship only those of us of deep feelings can appreciate. Things seem to mean more, run deeper and last longer to those of us who smell a scent and it takes us back to another time. We can never escape it. An old song comes on the radio and it takes me back again too... Scent and Sound Memory. My mother wore White Shoulders and it brings with it memories of her. My father and his Bay Rum. Will our kids someday think of us when they smell something? Maybe I'll be gone by then...I hope I am remembered fondly.