“That’s what I need,” said a few-years-ago date, pointing to a large display of passionflowers on top of the piano in the steakhouse where we were having dinner. “My last girlfriend was like… a half opened carnation.”
Somewhere inside my tight red dress and Cleopatra eyeliner, I winced for her. It was impossible not to suspect that deep down, I too was more like a half-opened carnation than a passionflower. And even if I wasn’t… Jesus, what a thing to say.
I’ve always liked carnations. They were in the bouquets my parents would give me after school plays, the corsages my dates would give me for school dances, and there were even some planted in one of my mother’s flower gardens. Their presence during some of the most exciting nights of my formative years were so consistent that it never occurred to me to find them humble or common. And that smell: spicy and creamy and sweet, like the weird purple clove flavored Necco wafers that I always ate first. Nothing else smells like that. Except maybe carnation perfume. Easy like Sunday morning to the end, carnation is a simple note for perfumers to get right. It always smells exactly like the real thing is lurking around somewhere inside the composition, just to say thank you or congratulations or I am so stoked that you are here with me. What could be sweeter than a half-opened carnation?
My first carnation love was Caron Bellodgia, a fragrance that dresses up the flower’s ethereal, misty qualities with a sharp-starched edge, like the stiff tulle of a tutu. Rather than pretending to be anything other than a carnation fragrance, Bellodgia takes the carnation and gives it hyperreal dimensions, as though it were a flower more capable of filling a whole room with its unassuming fragrance. I wear Bellodgia with sleek jersey pieces that feel like pajamas, messy updos, and flat shoes. Something about it just feels like an off-duty ballerina.
Yves St. Laurent Opium is a perfume that seems to be coming from roughly the same place as my steakhouse date and his lust for passionflowers of the world. The carnation is there to smooth out the brisk, almost mentholated spices up top and the formal woodiness of the base, but there are moments when it dominates the blend with an even-handed calm in the eye of the storm. While the rest of the perfume shrieks like Anne Sexton at a dinner party thrown for someone else, the carnation in Opium provides moments of much-needed respite. Call me a rube, but Opium mostly scares me. I don’t wear it, but sometimes I admire it.
Most recently, I’ve been breathlessly semi-monogamous with Cacharel’s Anais Anais, a fragrance referred to by Luca Turin of Perfumes: The Guide as being “vaguely dykey.” I see how this could be true. It’s girlish to a degree that it could not possibly have been invented for the enjoyment of boys. Smelling it on myself even now, I’m never sure why I like this–I just know that I do. It feels right. More lily than carnation, it has a soapy kind of feminine product assurance about it, like some hygiene video from the 70s assuring young women that their vaginas smell perfectly fine, especially if they douche regularly. I wore it for the duration of a debaucherous 4th of July weekend, and upon sniffing my shirt for potential grossness the day after wearing it during an all-day drinkfest that culminated in taxi kissing, I discovered that it smelled not the slightest bit like B.O. or smoke or beer. Just Anais Anais, fresh and clean and unsoiled to the very end. Just like me, if only because I passed out before things got interesting. While I don’t smell a ton of carnation in Anais Anais, it seems to embody the idea of a person who is more like a half-opened carnation than a passionflower. Some sweet naif, jazzed up on keg beer and fireworks and good intentions.
The evil pushers over at the Philly LUSH store made the mistake of informing me that they’d have limited edition retro products available the Saturday after the 4th. Guess who was there, nursing a wicked hangover. It was here that I discovered Potion, body lotion of gods. Milky and thin but unexpectedly emollient, Potion‘s most salient feature is its amazingly rich, thick clove-carnation-tangerine fragrance. It’s a carnation that is rendered sexy and juicy and spicy and sweet and thoroughly up to no good. I am obsessed. My legs are smoother than they’ve ever been, and the fragrance speaks of a less firm intention to keep them firmly closed than say, Anais Anais. It’s for that reason that I’ve been layering the two. It just feels like me right now.
Sometimes I think about my strange date and his passionflower predilection, although nothing he said during the duration of that evening has stuck in my head as iconically as the carnation comment. We never got together again, although we talked on the phone a few more times. He called me before slipping away into obscurity to tell me that he’d sold his business and was going to sail around the world. I’d have sent him a passionflower for his lapel, but it would have looked pretty goofy. Especially on a sailboat. I think I just said, “congratulations.”
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