I recently bought a small vial of Nag Champa perfume oil from the local headshop, hoping to duplicate the smell of the incense on my own body. This was a perverse craving: I spent my stoner years repulsed by Nag Champa incense and everything it stood for. I associated its thick, greasy-sweet funk with the aspect of druggie-culture that I took to the most reluctantly: having to hang out with other druggies. Marijuana, for me, was not a social drug. I liked it for isolated reverie or sex. Procuring it, however, often led me into a series of small, rumpled bedrooms where some kid with whom I had nothing in common with besides drugs was selling it. Buyer’s etiquette demanded that I share a few bong rips or a joint with this kid before going home with my stash. After a hit or two, I’d inevitably look through the haze of pot and incense at whoever was sitting across from me on the bed or the floor and realize the horrible truth: he’s going to kill me. Then I’d start to itch, searching desperately for an escape route. It didn’t matter whether I was there alone or with friends, I‘d sit through this ordeal with a rigid grimace on my face, trying to pretend I was having fun. Marijuana; the great equalizer, right? No. This was miserable. An interminable ten minutes or half an hour later, when I’d finally feel the fresh air of freedom on my face, I’d notice that I wasn’t entirely free: while pot smoke dissipates properly into the air, Nag Champa incense has this funny quality of sticking around. The experience, in all its cloying, unwanted sweetness, would stick to my coat for the next week, and by that time I‘d need another quarter-bag anyway. It was a vicious cycle.
My little half-ounce of Nag Champa perfume oil, at the feverish moment of its $12.99 purchase, didn’t strike me as the unself-aware, parodying nostalgia commonly referred to as “retro” I eventually decided it was. I had just ended an unconsummated series of fuck-me faces across the bar with Bond No. 9’s Chinatown, whose joss-stick note had enamored me while its simultaneous candy-corn stickiness was grossing me out. The thought was that if I found a dirty-sweet but dry incense to compromise the soapy virginity of one of my orange-blossom scents, I’d have exactly what I’d wanted from Chinatown.
It wasn’t meant to be. On my skin, Nag Champa smelled like an economy-sized box of Froot Loops anchored by an industrial turpenoid tang too aseptic to move it into the realm of the interestingly resinous. This is the stuff that the incense is scented with, not the smell of its burned effluves. Disappointed, I was forced to examine my own deeper motives for wanting to run around smelling like a sleepy-eyed college freshman draped in her mom’s worn-to-shreds batik tank top from the 1960s, hunched over a soup bowl full of sugar cereal while her vaguely and temporarily scummy boyfriend rummages through the ashtray looking for a roach. Because I’ve already been her. And I wanted nothing to do with Nag Champa in any form at the time. Is my former incarnation subject to the generic branding of a pre-exisiting truth that defines “retro” already? Jeez, it was only… okay, it was almost nine years ago. Still, in that light, I find myself reassured to discover that I still dislike that old compromised pothead reek as much as I ever did.
Back in my stoner days, I had some ideas about the qualities of a perfect drug dealer. I wanted someone who was consistently in saleable possession 24 hours a day, who would show up at my house 10-15 minutes after my call, hand over a bag of stem-and-seed-free hydro in exchange for a reasonable price, smile briefly at me, and go the hell away. At the time, this didn’t seem like too much to ask. I gave up smoking pot long before I ever found anyone remotely close to my ideal, so I still don’t know if such a thing even exists. Perhaps my perfect hippie-incense-and-white-flowers perfume is a similarly imaginary beast. It is also possible that I don’t actually know what I want, as I am ever hooked more on an auto-sensational head trip into the reserves of my own imagination than I am on actual perfume. It would be enough, I think, for something to sufficiently remind me of how it felt to sit alone in my first studio apartment, listening to Led Zeppelin and staring into space, pleasantly overwhelmed by dust particles floating on a beam of sunlight.
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