I’m a November baby; a week of unseasonably cool, rainy weather doesn’t send me to the streets shouting “apocalypse!” It finds me nodding over my incense collection in an XXL black hoodie sweatshirt and china-doll flats, sipping a cup of English Breakfast and glowing inwardly with the sense that all augurs well or at least okay. If I squint into the candles, I can almost see the unreal neon flare of wet leaves against black branches and a slate-gray sky on a blustery day not too far off from this one. Time flies when you keep track by menstrual cycles and ex-boyfriends.
It’s a Black Cashmere day in August, and it will not go unmarked or uncelebrated. Cedar for the functional gravity of nostalgia, sandalwood for its gentle voice and calm presence of mind. The musty honeyed bite of broom for packing into old wounds while they heal in their own time and dry, wry patchouli for its antiseptic properties. Cinnamon to cure sluggish blood with its warm, spicy bait, cumin to remind us that we are all human and sweat and bleed and cry, saffron to tie it all together in the warm orangey light of necessary sensuality. And that swinging censer of frankincense and myrrh carried by an invisible hand, offering the whole experience up to a higher order.
If you want to know where to find all of the girls today, they’ll be shut up in their towers practicing witchy stuff and drinking dark, bitter beer until further notice or the rain stops. It’s one of those days.
Filed under: Perfume | Tags: Caleche, Hermes, Janet Weiss, Rocky Horror Picture Show
Like the naive, conservative character of Janet Weiss in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, something prissy and pallid about Hermes’ Caleche begs for a comedic debauchery. It’s the sort of low-grade debutante of a perfume about which the only thing that can be said is a half-truthful, half-pandering, “gosh, what a pretty little thing!” It smells of the seashell soaps collecting dust in someone’s maiden aunt’s powder room and ivory pantyhose and smug virginity, all tied up in a crisp pink hair-bow. It’s a fresh change of nylon panties trimmed with a little rose at the top every single morning before a breakfast of dry toast and frozen orange juice. It’s a young life dessicated by too much contact with the wrong type of older women: the ones who tell you that a tampon might compromise your hymen and smile jealously through thin lips as they practice bust-firming exercises.
Hermes Caleche is roses, jasmine, iris, and some shrivelled-up woods blurred over and tinted up by the chameleonic effect of aldehydes; a creepy old sepia portrait colored in by a mawkish hand. When I put it on, I keep waiting for the olfactory punchline, a la Rocky Horror: an outrageously filthy civet note like that which occurs in the similarly composed Joy, or the lascivious banana tones that come out in the also similarly composed Arpege, the larger-than-life hot-air blimpishness of Chanel No. 5. No luck. Caleche stays sweet just like a good girl should. And frankly, I’m bored sick of her.
Looking at these boots makes me feel like all of Classic Rock Radio is trying to push itself headfirst out of my ladyparts. A girl needs a good heavy shitkicking foundation when trying to step light through all of these Hotel Californias and Houses of the Rising Suns, waiting for the levee to break and feeling about as faded as my jeans. Every thunderstorm this summer has sounded exactly like that slow part with the piano in “Layla.” Please either hide the tequila tonight or be ready with the lawyers, guns, and money. The boots only get me so far.
Every so often, breakfast from the Metropolitan Bakery on a rainy Monday morning is a profound enough experience to liken to the religious or ecstatic. Strong, bitter iced coffee with skim milk and an apricot-cream cheese danish with an almost-burned sugar crust on the outside. There is a charging in my chest that can only mean that I am in love. How will I get through the rest of my day if I already feel this strongly about breakfast?
“I had an ornamental veil, but I couldn’t bear to use it.
When my hair was cropped, I craved covering, but now my hair itself is a veil, and the scalp inside is a scalp of a crazy and sleepy
Comanche lies beneath this netting of the skin.
I wake up. I am lying peacefully I am lying peacefully and my knees are open to the sun.
I desire him, and he is absolutely ready to seize me. In heart I am a Moslem; in heart I am an American;
In heart I am Moslem, in heart I’m an American artist, and I have no guilt.
I seek pleasure. I seek the nerves under your skin.
The narrow archway; the layers; the scroll of ancient lettuce.
We worship the flaw, the belly, the belly, the mole on the belly of an exquisite whore.
He spared the child and spoiled the rod. I have not sold myself to God.”
–Patti Smith, “Babelogue”
Shalimar is the smell of any number of artificial wombs I have created for myself since leaving the original one. It is waking up hot and stifled but free in the tent that was set up in my childhood backyard for the many inevitable occasions upon which I felt like running away. It is my best friend’s mom, so like my own mother yet so undeniably different in her lack of actual blood relation that she was therefore safe. It is the musty interiors of boys’ cars and their hot metal seat belt parts pressing up against my cheek on the last day of school, vanilla air freshener, a waft of skunky pot smoke. It is the ammoniac tang ever-present in the studio where I practice Bikram yoga, the heavy air swirled around by the passage of myself and other students through the inside of what feels like a hot, wet July thunderhead. It is recuperative without being convalescent; like that first day you start feeling like your old self after a long illness and wake up seized with joy even though you still can’t really go out and do anything yet.
Shalimar also speaks to me of the artificial womb inside yourself for others; the shelter and protection and nourishment and inspiration that is necessary for a creation that is shared by both the womb and the person inside it. It is the perfect stillness in which a long-bothersome problem is finally allowed to just be, the night you and a friend decide to get as drunk as possible instead of studying for that final exam tommorrow, the timelessly appropriate whisper that everything will all be okay if you leave it alone for a little while.
But let’s not kid ourselves that safety is a quantity that we can know. These situations and actions have more power tensed and curled inside their apparent stillness than that of an entire army, and they are equally as dangerous. When Shalimar, whose name in Sanskrit means “house of love,” first made the perfume scene in 1925, it was deemed “indecent” and practically banned by the same people who thought prohibition was a good idea. Despite, or perhaps because of its conceptualization by Jacques Guerlain as a fragrance celebrating the love story that built the Taj Mahal, Shalimar’s reputation was that it was for women who smoked, drank, and blasphemed. We’re now only a scant eighteen years away from Shalimar’s one hundredth birthday, where we will find it the still-popular olfactory hallmark of four generations of mothers and grandmothers and daughters and other secret hellraisers everywhere.
Shalimar unapologetically carries with it all the smoke and dust and sweetness of these long years fighting the woman-fight, making it often difficult and oppressive, exhausting to smell and even more exhausting to wear. The top notes are agreeable enough: sunshiny hesperides glow around the edges of a thick, doughy orris-vanilla haze like a dog-days skyscape. Wait a few minutes, however, and Shalimar reveals her secret core of sorrow and wisdom. It’s a dark, musty oppopanox blast straight from the umarked desert graves of all who have tried and failed, or succeeded, and died anyway. It tingles and itches and finally catches fire, its smoke rising to create oily heat-mirages against the outline of the sun, and they’re burning the witches again, again, again. The vanilla-orris accord holds calmly steady, though, reminding us that the sky will always be there no matter how many times in history this happens. And in the end, it smells no more sinister or less familiar than your grandma’s lap.
You can wear Shalimar with pride, or fear, or self-loathing, or power, or in the ecstasy of creation, and know that you have never been alone. In fact, you’ve always been in the best of company.