Filed under: Drugs, Nostalgia, Perfume | Tags: Betsey Johnson, boys, Guerlain
I put on this old Betsey Johnson dress I’d bought secondhand and worn to a New Years’ party or two because he was coming straight to my house from the airport. It was black stretchy velvet, long sleeved and high necked and swirly-skirted with a sober crocheted lace collar, buttoned up the chest by what seemed like a hundred tiny pearls. I loved this dress but I never expected anyone else to, particularly not a boy. It was more 1992-mall-goth than I normally felt comfortable being in public; perhaps a little too close to home. I wore black tights and my Doc Martens and sprayed myself all over with Samsara, which seemed to strike the same chord as my dress. This was last October.
Anyway, the boy came home and I gave him chocolate croissants and a backrub because he’d had the presence of mind to say, “wow” when I opened my door in my inappropriate party dress. It was too late to go anywhere fancy or even anywhere gross; he’d come in on a late flight from I think L.A. The dress was purely for him, equal parts tribute and test. This boy was crazy. I knew that. Everybody knew that. Years ago he’d given me what he’d called an engagement present that involved a random pair of not-new socks, a red light bulb, an extension cord, a skateboard catalog, a heavy brass paper clip, and a paperback novel based on the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” I had not been particularly receptive then, but whatever slow-acting voodoo he had infused into this gift apparently decided to work three years later. He didn’t seem crazy to me anymore, but maybe that was because he’d voodooed me and I’d always been fluent in Crazese to begin with.
So it was October and my emotions were doing the same thing the foliage was: going out in a blaze of glory. This boy made me unbelievably happy, like whatever I was doing at any given moment was the best possible thing in the world for a female human being to be doing. We spent hours upon hours Practicing Restraint from sex, which is what we did the night he came home from L.A. Practiced Restraint, that is. Practicing Restraint feels a lot like doing ecstasy when you do it for a long time, like weeks of near-constant contact, and don’t give in. It’s excruciatingly pleasant. I think we thought we’d invented some new kind of drug or something.
Samsara is a Sanskrit word that means the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, used with a negative connotation by those seeking nirvana, or the end of all that. Finding the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth about as excruciatingly pleasant and frustrating and wild as Practicing Restraint with my sleepy-eyed nutcase, the two concepts are forever entwined in my mind as one in the same. Along with, of course, the perfume by the same name and my black velvet party dress.
Samsara smells like sandalwood and ylang ylang while managing, for all its strength, to convey a murky softness that speaks of dark bars, lingering kisses, and assorted existential aches and pains. This boy disappeared without a trace or word of explanation shortly after I met his parents and we made Thanksgiving plans. Restraint was Practiced until the last. You’d think this would make me hate the perfume I wore for him, but I don’t. It just sort of reminds me to hope that wherever he is, he’s okay. It sounds callous to suggest that I might need this perfume as such a reminder, but such is samsara.
“They asked me how I knew/ my true love was true/ I of course replied/ something here inside/ cannot be denied/ They said someday you’ll find/ all you love are blind/ when your heart’s on fire/ you must realize/ smoke gets in your eyes”
–Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Kern and Harbach
Schmaltz strikes me as a literal interpretation of a purposefully insincere variety; someone else’s truth intentionally, willfully caricatured when placed in the wrong hands–hands that think it’s funny. The idiosyncratic nature of the new context serves to highlight the idea’s original sincerity, making it seem all the more poignant. Schmaltz is Bryan Ferry torching out a cover of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” dressed in feathers and glitter, forcing an audience familiar with the sad old standard to wonder whether he’s singing so pathetically about a man or a woman. It’s Hillary Clinton issuing an apology to the housewives of America and adding that she herself has been known to bake a cookie or two, a claim so ludicrous that it served only to make the offended party all the more certain that Clinton did indeed originally mean it exactly like that. It’s the impassioned “I love you, man!” issued by drunks everywhere to their drinking buddies, a statement probable truth is marred by the conspicuous consumption of alcohol, a substance which everyone knows makes you love everyone. And schmaltz is also your girl Boomtown Boudoir coming home after a long day at work to luxuriate in a tub full of Jean Nate-scented bubbles, followed by the lotion, body powder, and ubiquitous “after-bath splash.” Because Lord knows all the perfumes of Middle America are not going to turn me into a lemony-fresh paragon of the domestic sciences.
There wasn’t an ounce of schmaltz about it when the priest who eulogized my Jean Nate-wearing grandmother speculated out loud whether or not she was actually a saint. I myself have certainly seen no evidence in all the years I knew her to suggest that she was not. Nana spent her life ministering to eight kids and a husband, none of whom were, or are to this day, what anyone would refer to as saintly, and Jean Nate was her concession to worldly grooming. And this is probably all anyone needs to know about Jean Nate: it’s a cheapie range of bath products that seems to be specifically designed for a woman who might otherwise feel guilty for pampering herself. It is a utilitarian non-scent worn by someone like a stay-at-home mom, diner waitress, or school nurse–someone whose personal grooming urges necessarily take a backseat to the comfort of those around them. A Jean Nate lady is one whose goal in scenting herself is simply to be inoffensive. And this week, incongruously as ever, or probably even more incongruously than ever, I took a ride in this lady’s grooming products.
The packaging is all black and yellow and unapologetically plastic. The bottles are topped with round black screw-on balls, the powder comes with a fluffy satin puff inside the box, the lotion is thin and lemon-colored, the after-bath splash has an alcohol content so high that it actually cools when its put on. “Jean Nate” is written on everything in simple black cursive, providing no clues as to who this Jean Nate person actually is, or was, or if she’s even a real person. It smells like white flowers steeped in sweet lemonade and served on a picnic table in the woods, but softly, never sharp or acrid the way many citrus scents turn. When you apply everything all at once, starting with the bath foam, then the lotion, then the powder, and finally the after-bath splash, it lightly scents your nightgown and makes you feel like if you got any cleaner and fresher, you’d dissolve in a puddle of acetone. And you can buy the whole line at a drugstore for about $20 total.
Steeping myself in my grandmother’s Jean Nate has had the effect of making me feel like kind of an asshole. For all the olfactory personas I have tried on, this one resonates inside me with one of the strongest presences I have felt from a perfume: this contradictory pull of self-disgust and unmitigated comfort. It’s as though Jean herself, with all her brisk, no-nonsense compassion, has simultaneously pointed out what a flawed human I am and always will be while giving me a hug. Then again, I have had PMS all week. What can I say, Jean? I’ll try harder to be better next time.
Painting by Ralph Goings, www.ralphlgoings.com