Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Bottling Shame: Why Perfume is My Dirty Secret
After all these years, I'm still ashamed about perfume. I am ashamed, I realize - I must be - even though I talk about it openly and wear it fairly indiscreetly, and argue for dispensing with the idea of some stratifying line between what's "Masculine" and "Feminine" in fragrance.
Last weekend, a friend who doesn't know much about perfume came over to interview me and to see what I have. People often want to come over and talk about perfume. They know I have a lot and many of those things are things they haven't smelled. I have a reputation for giving full bottles of perfume away. That tends to draw a crowd. This friend really didn't want any, for a change. She was, I think, genuinely interested in what this interest says about me. I still gave her some, of course.
All day I was anxious and nearly called it off, mainly because no one's ever really seen my stash. My stash, even more than my writing, tells you exactly how deep the obsession runs. You see my stash, I think, and you see that something I talk about on and off is, in fact, something I never stop thinking about. The stash is excessive no matter how you look at it.
I'm always guarded about the way I bring things out for people to smell. I seat visitors in the living room and ask them to please stay there and wait. They sometimes try to follow me into the room where I keep most of my stash, and I don't want them to see it, so I preempt them by stationing them out of the way. I even did this when Olfacta was in town from Georgia. Olfacta must be as obsessed as I am - she is, judging by our conversations over the last couple of years - and yet like everyone else she was cock-blocked.
Once or twice someone has been allowed to follow me in, but I make them avert their eyes and promise not to look. It sounds deranged but it's true. And they agree, although whether they sneak a look when my back is turned is something I think about. When someone tells you not to look you almost always feel you should.
Generally I seat people in the living room, disappear into the stash, make some selections, and bring them back out, loading up the coffee table with bottles and boxes. We sit there and smell and I get to watch their faces either shrink in displeasure or light up in epiphany, and this format is a lot more comfortable for me because their exposure to the depths of my stash has been controlled and contained and doesn't distract from their reactions to the perfumes themselves.
I don't want them to see me digging through a puzzle of precariously stacked boxes. I don't want them to see the overspill onto the nearby floor. I don't want to look like one of the subjects of HOARDERS who, when the camera follows her through her home, tries to pretend that stumbling over mounds of shifting what-nots is no different than Donna Reed navigating a vacuum across the carpet in heels.
But I showed this friend last weekend everything. I even took her down into the basement, where I keep maybe a third of my stuff in two laundry baskets. I let her take pictures, showing the cinder block walls in the background, pictures I imagine will look like some clandestine meeting in an underground bunker, where bottles of perfume are rationed out like cans of past due-date soup.
Having her there made me aware of things I haven't had to be. I do think about how I store my perfume, but not why I choose one way over another. I have thought about how I spend time with the stuff I own when no one else is around, but I've never verbalized it, which can make you look at something in a different way. "How weird I do that. I wonder why."
It was the first time I'd told anyone, for instance, that when I leave for work every morning I fill a small bag with anywhere from five to ten perfumes, the same bag everyday, and that, ever since I got a baseball cap at some event I'd been to, I keep the perfume covered with the cap when I enter and leave the building, as if to say, "Oh - hey there; I'm just coming in with my little bag of baseball cap. No girly things in here." I knew I was dong this, of course, but somehow it was just something I'd started doing because the hat once fell on top of the bag, and eventually I kept it there, as a sort of "cover".
This stash has been building for over four years now. I've had plenty of time to organize it differently. Some people organize in nice cabinets or have efficient storage systems - this shelf for this, that shelf for those. I have enough room in my house to devote an entire piece of furniture to what I own. I have the room to organize it all in one place, where I could get to anything I might want to find easily, in one stop. Yet I keep it scattered in little areas about the place: here in a cupboard, there in laundry baskets, and in various other stacks of varying heights and loosely organized categories.
It occurred to me there's something pleasurable in shame - some frisson or excitement I want to hold onto. Why else would I persist in storing my perfume as one stores hidden things in attics or hard to reach, out of the way areas? I remember being a child, sneaking up into my grandmothers' attics, where forgotten relics were shoved, then forgotten. I got to discover them in secret. They were secrets because no one wanted to remember them. I wasn't supposed to be up there, so I certainly wasn't free to talk about what I'd found. My family wanted to forget the things they were reminded by these objects, without being able to actually let them go. The loot lived up there in a half life.
It's ridiculous to be ashamed at my age, though many people are, and for me it's even impractical. I'm way too open about what I do. I think it's because of that openness that I protect and store my stash the way I do. I want to preserve an air of sacred secrecy around it. I hide it from myself in little places I can return to in order to make my discoveries all over again, to relive that private joy repeatedly. I think shame might be a comforting feeling for me, rather than some artifact of immaturity I've never grown out of.
The perfume was moved into laundry baskets during the shoot for my last film. I needed to transport it to one of the locations we were using, and that was the handiest way. I don't remember where these bottles and boxes were stored beforehand. I never returned them there. Something about those laundry baskets rekindles the sensation of the profound hidden in the banal that I enjoyed during my childhood. The baseball cap is a way to keep my obsessional shame active, a way to carry it out into the open world with me without diminishing its powers. Not "Oh, there's Brian, with his bag of perfume again" but "What's with the bag and the cap?"
I guess shame has its uses.