I’m fourteen, I have just been roused by an alarm that went off at six thirty in the morning, and I desperately need to check the mirror to make sure my hair isn’t sticking out in five different directions. Miriam and Alicia are using it, taking a frustrating amount of time de-clumping their mascara with a teeny-tiny comb that they pass back and forth with such reverent seriousness that you’d think it was something infinitely more important, like drug paraphernalia or a slam book. I stand in the doorway and wait my turn, noticing that Sarah rolls out of Kate’s cot instead of Nikki’s this morning, hitching up her boys’ boxer shorts with one lazy hand on her way to the shower. Heidi watches herself lacing up her Doc Martens, one endless leg stretched out in front of her, half a butt cheek hanging out of her miniskirt. Andrea’s crying because she dreamed that her mom was dead for the third night in a row, Megan slams through the screen door like she’s daring Shannon or Saartje to tell she’s not allowed to go smoke a cigarette, Heather meticulously straps herself into about five pounds of studded leather jewelry, Hannah can’t find her red shorts which are really my red shorts, and the sun is a fuzzy gray filter on the gray floorboards, just barely casting shadows of the bars on the windows. I hold out my wrists to Jo, who sprays me with her perfume. Miriam moves over finally and I see my face: all ashy white bangs, nose, and eyelashes. My own reflection never fails to startle me these days; I expect to see Eyeliner Boy, whose name I superstitiously won’t speak aloud, since that’s whose face has been burned onto the backs of my eyelids ever since I came here and met him.
I’ve never been in love before and I’m taking it like a stoic, my first impulse being to guard the fact that the entire world has suddenly gone fragmented and hazy by simply denying whatever I can’t manage to hide. This uses up large stores of energy, to the extent that I really can’t be bothered to think about whether I’m pretty or not before going to breakfast. Whatever is happening to me is less about putting on lip gloss and more about fire in the skies, plagues of locusts, boiling oceans, crowns of thorns, large and unwieldy albatrosses I killed by mistake, screaming violins, and just about anything else extreme and intense I have read enough about to think I understand. Never once does it occur to me that I should be enjoying any of this, despite the fact that Eyeliner Boy likes me too, probably for the exact reason that I look like some blonde shiksa cookie from the Eddy but do, in fact, walk around all day thinking of kissing a boy I like in the same context as biblical annihilation. At any rate, I don’t feel like smiling or sighing or floating on air on the way to breakfast. I feel kind of like breaking things.
Andrea holds my hand on the steep decline down the path through the woods that leads to the dining hall. I squeeze back; the birds are squalling in an obnoxious manner that refuses to be whatsoever poetic. It’s another misty morning at Camp Ballibay and my heart won’t stop beating too fast like something big is about to happen.
When we reach the bottom of the hill, Eyeliner Boy walks up and takes Andrea’s hand out of mine so that he can hold it himself. I would smile if I could, but I’m thrilled so speechless by this simple, overt act of possession that if there had been any gum in my mouth, it would have fallen out. Andrea wanders off and Eyeliner Boy and I stand up against trees and look at each other. That’s the extent of our relationship: looking at each other, up close, and for as long as both of us can stand it. I don’t say anything. I look at him like I listen to rain on the tin roof of the cabin at night when I can’t fall asleep, like I eat an olive, like I shampoo my hair. If I were to do anything more than stare at him, I think the entire planet would implode in slow-motion. I’m in utter disbelief that not only was he ever alive at the same time I was, but that he still is, and he’s standing there, looking back. The immediacy of this is as simultaneously complicated and simple as the Escher print on the ceiling of my back-home dentist’s office, with all of the accompanying helplessness of having some stranger poking around with sharp instruments inside my mouth. I dig my fingernails into his hand and he unpries them one by one, smiling at me like I’ve just done a soft-shoe routine for his benefit. He touches my stomach and it reminds me that I have to breathe. He breathes too. The bell rings and he follows me into the dining hall with his hand on the back of my head, so lightly that I can just feel it. Eyeliner Boy sticks a finger in my ear and I call him an idiot. Then we go sit at our separate assigned tables and eat breakfast.
For what is possibly the first time in my life, I am grateful to have rules, careful order, schedules, bells, rules, pretend responsibilities. In this case, these rules are the very things that allow me the time to languish freely on my cot with my head full of possibilities, like maybe I’m dying from consumption and Eyeliner Boy will be so bereft when he finds out that he’ll dig my grave up. These new and peculiarly Victorian sensibilities conjured up by meeting my first love at summer camp are the very spidery handwriting on the quietly gilt-edged calling card that is Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue.
From the first spray, this is a perfume about all the things to be learned while you’re waiting. The first notes tingle with a sense of expectancy visceral enough to be almost as uncomfortable as real expectancy: the same sparkly bergamot present in Shalimar coupled with a strong sour cherry-anise accord reminiscent of the kind of hard, dusty grandma candy that is pocketed instead of eaten. Instead of blossoming into an adventure, though, L’Heure Bleue explores the quiet, internal process of having to stay at home while others are out having the adventures. The top notes move into a territory at once delicately doughy with the heliotrope and vanilla that feature so prominently into the drydown and powdery-floral, like the dust from a box of orange-blossom scented incense or an old compact of estate-sale dusting powder that has retained its rosy-iris fragrance after all these years. The sour-cherry-anise disappears, leaving only a ghost of its presence as the opacity of the doughy notes speak in hushed tones to the more hysterical powdery ones. It must have been the very same disappearing accord they were discussing, because before you know it, it’s back again, bringing with it a mentholated cinnamon note that ties the topnotes to the heartnotes into a still olfactory space where all its moodiness has taken on a still, muffled consistency. L’Heure Bleue slowly and gently brings us into a deep drydown that, hours after application, introduces a dry, fragile sandalwood spine dusted with a hot-milk vanilla, tonka, and benzoin. Even at this point, the other notes drop by for surprise visits, or were possibly there all along without our having known it. This is a fragrance that lasts and changes for hours and hours without ever projecting itself into a sillage more pronounced than a quiet waft here and there. Its slow, accumulative language is one that must be learned patiently: if you don’t take the time to languish with it, you’re not paying enough attention.
L’Heure Bleue was created in 1912, a time when a woman could easily spend five hours preparing herself to greet the day ahead of her and if her man wasn’t doing what she wanted him to do, she learned to accept it. In this day and age, these traditions seem not only unfashionable, but oppressive. L’Heure Bleue’s values are the very ones that feminists have sought to remove from the female lexicon in order to gain greater worldly equality. While I don’t disagree with the idea that women should be free to have adventures of their own, it strikes me that there is still, even now, more left to be learned from the fine art of simply enduring before we dismiss it entirely. When I’m feeling fragile and contemplative, L’Heure Bleue reminds me that this is not necessarily a bad way to feel.
Painting “Thoughts of the Past” by John Rodham Spencer Standhope, 1859
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