4.2 oz is a lot of perfume, especially when you’re buying it mostly for the bottle in a country where the exchange rate increases the price by almost 50% and you could just as easily get it cheaper in New York. If you were less prone to whimsical, willful, and expensive mistakes, you might have reasoned yourself out of a purchase at the Guerlain store in Paris and ignored the carnivorous mauve-lipped smile of the sales assistant who stood watching you agonize in front of the tiny embossed Victorian bees and scallops that decorate the bottles of the exclusive-ish Les Parisiennes perfume collection. You wouldn’t have considered the touching anxiety of your travel companion, childhood friend, and ex-lost cause as he waited for you to make up your mind, hoping almost audibly that you would just make yourself happy. You wouldn’t have been half-drunk, dazzled, and so overwhelmed by the bright shiny glinting things on display that you would have actually bought one of them to take home with you and remind you of… what, exactly? Paris, and all of your attendant straining to be inoffensive without compromising your integrity? You certainly wouldn’t have handed over your credit card solely because it was sort of ridiculous to stand mutely for so long in front of a perfume display while the little voices in your head turned this decision into one that was more about the cost of self-loathing than the cost of pleasure.
But you would have felt really, really, really good the second the deed was done and the sales assistant went scampering back to the stockroom to find you some sort of promised free present. You would have laughed out loud with a lot of suddenly-effortless affection when you realized that Aaron had scouted out the only male (sales assistant) in the store and was now engaging him in (spirited, largely one-sided) debate about Sweden’s role in international politics. You would have been genuinely stoked when the sales assistant came back out on the floor with a free atomizer for your bottle of perfume, because you were, as she announced loudly, “so quaint.” You’d have smiled as you left the store with your beautiful Guerlain bag stuffed full of samples and gifts-with-purchase, even when the same sales assistant called gaily after you, “say thank you to mommy!” Insinuating, perhaps, that you American tourists were all alike–spending mommy’s money on expensive gifts for yourself to bring back home to your bloated continent and brag about in the locker room after tennis practice. It would have all been better outside, though, with the fairyland twinkle of the Champs Elysees demonstrating exactly why Paris is known as the “city of lights.“ When Aaron said, “how old did that woman think we were?” you would have shrugged. “I don’t think either of us look young enough for that mommy thing to make sense,” you’d have told him. “Maybe it’s because we’re so quaint.”
“But she liked us,” he said. “Look at all of the stuff you got.”
“We’re likeable kids,” you might have replied. “Very quaint, though. Like the Amish.”
“Maybe it’s the sneakers,” said Aaron, looking down at your feet in their ratty New Balances.
You would have understood, though, that the sales assistant had been responding to more to your long staring session with the bottle you just purchased than any of your other superficial details. It had been the perfect example of the unabashed display of giving a fuck in public that would shame a proper Parisienne, but since you were in no way even remotely qualified to impersonate one of those, she‘d found it… well, quaint. And like the eager-to-be-pleased puppy dog you may well actually be, you’d have pulled your good nature tightly around yourself and chalked the whole thing up to, “golly gee whillikers, Jim Bob, these here folks sure are different!” Then you’d have had an Aaron to narrate your walk back to the metro in a corny Lumiere-from-Beauty-and-the-Beast French accent, brushing aside your hair to stage-whisper, “le poisson! Les fromages!” smarmily in your ear while those around you dutifully ignored both your retarded amoureux and their own beautiful city.
You might have brought the bottle home and forgotten about it for a good month or so, taking it out only to admire the bees and scallops on the bottle, the sweet little white-suede cravat beneath the precise austerity of the atomizer. You’d sprayed it onto your skin in the store, of course, and enjoyed it no more and no less than any other perfume you’d been on the fence about buying. You knew the conflicted history: either created in 1929 by Jacques Guerlain as an one-up on the Chanel No. 5 he caught his wife dabbling in, or else in 1933 as a signature fragrance for Rose Kennedy, neither option holding much particular interest for you. But, much like your trip to Paris in general, your new bottle of Guerlain’s Liu did not capture your imagination until after the fact; when it had had a chance to settle a bit.
“Ugh, hotel soap!” Aaron had said of Liu, which would also explain why you didn’t wear it until you were both safely back on your respective continents. Tim, the Frenchman, had nodded vigorously upon smelling it and said, “that’s the one.” You don’t know what you thought about it then, just what you think about it now, which is that Liu makes you want to write in pretentious Marguerite Duras tenses and suffer nobly in some kind of improbable hat, turning yourself into the prism that reflects your experiences back in rainbows and sunbeams on a glassy marble floor. It’s not the roses, backyard-blowsy and simpering while the more angular and sophisticated jasmine note whispers something filthy in their ears. Neither is it the sunny, playful bergamot that arrives at just the right moment with a pitcher of lemonade. It could be the way this scene of potential intrigue dries down into a smooth, mellow woodsy-vanilla dusk, sending the roses back inside and leading the jasmine away from the punch-bowl. But you think that what you might like best is the soft-focus effect of the aldehydes, used here like a camera lens smeared with Vaseline in a 1970s porno, making sure we know that all of it has been nothing more than a dream.
For this reason, Liu suits you in a way many of your other perfumes do not: it has managed to say something true about the way you see the world. A shift in the quality of the light is often the purest form of reality for you, the cue you’re always waiting for, the difference between a good decision and a bad one.
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