“Andy would bicycle across town in the rain to bring you/ candy and John would buy the gown for you to wear to the/ prom with Tom the astronomer who’d name a star for you/ but I’m the luckiest guy on the Lower East Side/ cause I’ve got wheels and you want to go for a ride”
–From “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” Magnetic Fields
It could be said that one of the major reasons I have never gotten my driver’s license is because there have always been people around to do the driving for me. And by people, I mean boys. These boys weren’t my boyfriends, they were other boys, boys who were content just to have company as they glided over the roads in the most satisfyingly corporeal proof of adulthood imaginable. I don’t know why I never wanted a piece of this for my own, or why I equated the cars of boys with freedom when I was not the one doing the driving. But ever since I was finally old enough for my parents to allow me to get into the cars of my peers, I have been an avid passenger: all rapt eyes and enthusiasm, even when we weren’t really going anywhere. The same could be said for these not-my-boyfriends and their company. I wanted the sensation without the commitment. And the times that I have been able to obtain that have been among some of the happiest and most terrifying moments in my life.
First came Josh, in high school. He drove me to school (or, often, not) every morning in a secondhand white-and-wood-panel Wagoneer like the very privilege of owning a car was a dare from the universe to drive it as fast as he could. I wasn’t scared. Josh was an honor student. He had a mix tape that we used specifically for driving called “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” This was my first exposure to bands like Archers of Loaf, Man or… Astroman?, Stereolab, and Shudder to Think. I had a copy of it to listen to at home, but it only seemed to work its indie rock magic when we were going somewhere: the mall, the lake, High Rocks, some faraway diner. I have always thought that music was best experienced in someone else’s fast car; I still do. The freedom of being able to get Josh (who never needed much coaxing) to drive somewhere other than school was freedom as pure and absolute as I have ever known it. As Ntozake Shange would say, “WE WAZ GROWN. WE WAZ FINALLY GROWN.”
Eric was a Jersey boy, a pragmatic Virgo in an avant-garde prog band who made my acquaintance when he walked up to the coffee shop table where I was sitting with my college girlfriends and asked us if we wanted to go smoke some weed. From that point on, he and his car were mine, all mine. He’d drive into the city from Jersey at the drop of a hat, get me stoned, and play bootleg tapes of bands whose names I wouldn’t be able to remember even if I’d been sober. Eric was wise to my specific form of crack: he knew I just liked to ride, didn’t matter where. So he’d just drive anywhere. Sometimes we would go to his band’s practice space and I would lie on the carpet while they played, feeling the music’s vibrations through the floor, and it was almost as good as riding. We lost contact for a year or so and then I heard that he died in a car crash. This news reverberated deeply: I’d often experienced such passive ecstasy in his car that I’d thought if I died, it would be a good way to go, with the stereo up and the windows down. But I’d never thought it would actually happen, not to me or to him.
By the time Derek made his big move, my affinity for the cars of boys I was not necessarily going to even kiss must have been notorious, because he knew all about it already. He waited until he had a vintage navy-blue Benz in his driveway before beginning his campaign of phone calls and flowers left on the steps of my job. In the end, all he really had to do was let me see it. As soon as I was situated inside this beautiful beast with the seatbelt buckled firmly across my chest, Derek demonstrated the sound system by blasting Ink and Dagger so loud that I couldn’t even hear my own protests as he drove wildly over the bridge and into New Jersey in the space of about three minutes. This was a trip that should have taken at least ten. I almost pissed myself. It didn’t help when he started screaming over the music, “I’m Batman and you’re Vicky Vale!” I was grateful that I made it home to slam my front door in his face. Later I learned that he had been flush in the middle of a bona fide psychotic episode. Later still, I would get into a different car with him and hold his hand that wasn’t on the steering wheel. Later than even that, I would understand that a passenger was probably the last thing Derek needed, in his car or otherwise.
Bader drove me out to Ocean City one afternoon in October with the sun setting spectacularly beyond the bridge. I was wearing a fuzzy white sweater. My boyfriend did not understand why I would do a thing like this to him, even though Bader was just a friend. He wasn’t just a friend, really. At least, he didn’t want to be. I didn’t care. It was shortly after September 11th and I felt this painful but irresistible pressure to live my life the way it was meant to be lived: the edges blurred, as though glimpsed through a passenger’s seat window. My boyfriend drove me all over the city, wherever I wanted, on his Vespa, and it should have been enough. But it wasn’t. I needed Ocean City, too. Mostly because it was such a luxuriantly long drive. To the amazement of probably all parties involved, I didn’t cheat on my boyfriend that night. But the damage to that relationship had been done. My boyfriend knew all about me after that; he knew I’d get into a car with anyone regardless of where they were going.
PJ was the last of my great platonic chauffeurs. I’m not quite sure where I get off calling him platonic, either, except that he was always someone else’s and therefore not to be taken seriously. He had one of those special cards that police give to their friends to keep them out of trouble and put a lot of faith into this thing. PJ was like that generally; prone to discarding reason for superstition. You couldn’t convince him that the reason police stopped people in the first place was because they were already driving dangerously. I didn’t like this, but I liked the way it felt when he drove like we were in a video game, like the road might suddenly drop out from beneath us and his SUV would just rise into the sky like a shiny black bird. It was like we were eighteen even though we were both much older. Something about the combination of his recklessness and the fact that he was so pretty that he turned everything around himself into a movie soothed me. I knew how these things went; I did not have to worry about permanence. All I had to do was go along for the ride.
I’m not sure whether to be wistful or relieved that there hasn’t been a solid boy-with-car situation in my life for a few years now. My last boyfriend had one, but he doesn’t like to drive and lacks, mercifully, that romantic outlaw quality that makes for what I used to consider a good driver. If he is any evidence, it would seem that I am ready to slow down a little and take in the scenery from a more stable point of reference. By my own rules, though, boyfriends don’t count for this sort of thing. The boy has to be a not-my-boyfriend, has to be willing to work without return, and the conversation has to be tense and hormonal. And the simple fact is that unless I want to take up with someone much younger than myself, these boys have all grown up. Which makes me think that it is high time I grew up myself.
My risks have already been considerable, if prosaic enough. It’s worth noting that I have never found these risks more dangerous than the one I would take by learning how to drive myself. I worry about being my own kind of bad driver–a nervous, joyless one who slows down at approaching curves in the road and keeps the music low so they can concentrate. I worry that even this won’t save me from accidents, disaster, death. I worry that I will be one of those people who never truly feels comfortable behind the wheel. But mostly, I worry about my potential passengers. How will I ever keep them happy?
Filed under: Drugs, Perfume | Tags: Dior, Drugs, marianne faithfull, Perfume
The carpet undulated in little ripples of apricot and ivory. Andee and I were slave girls of the great pharaoh languidly reclining on the royal barge. The pharaoh was fondling James. (It was going to be a very tactile trip.)
We trailed our feet over the edge of the bed into the madder red ruby rosettes of the carpet. Indigo petals floated by like lily pads randomly bearing tiny detached heads of people I had known. I could now read our Persian-Kurdish rug in a way I had never been able to before. It was a mythological map of Samarkand with interlacing arabesques of mechanical peacocks, saffron pavilions, orchards and gardens and cypress trees.
We lived these lives a thousand years ago as courtesans, as opium-eaters at the court of the Kubla Khan. We had drunk of the milk of Paradise and its transforming liquidity made us all quite porous. There were no boundaries where Alph the sacred river ran. No genders, no time and space. We simply sparkled and vibrated. We were all pulsating little Bodhisattvas. I was in love with everybody. Actually, I was everybody.
–From “Faithfull: An Autobiography” by Marianne Faithfull with David Dalton
The thing I’ve always liked about drugs, hallucinogens in particular, is that you don’t actually have to be Marianne Faithfull to experience this sort of imaginative bliss when you take them. The fauxriental rug you got on sale at Marshall’s will work just as well as the real thing as far as undulation is concerned. Your friends will still feel like fellow slave girls and pharaohs regardless of the fact that they are not in or connected to any famous rock bands. The porous sensation resulting from a long draught of the milk of Paradise is the same whether you’re a college student or a sheik’s wayward nephew. Drugs are cheap, democratic, and work just as well on just about anyone who wishes to take them. Spending your whole life on them and having things turn out more or less okay is another story: that’s pretty much reserved for rock royalty only.
The same could be said about Christian Dior’s Addict, a narcotic potion available at almost any department store and priced at an equal-opportunity $42 for 20 ml. Addict sets the stage well for its particular amazing journey: it opens on a wonderfully weird green note that somehow carries all the mysterious dry tang of hash as well as the sensation of being in some dark primeval forest. This green note is not necessarily nice, in fact, on the wrong day it can be downright disturbing. It has elements of bitterness and dust that hold true throughout most of the perfume’s progression, never allowing the wearer to forget that what they are experiencing is not something everyone will want to experience. Then a deep, dark, syrupy vanilla thick enough to drown a woolly mammoth burbles up from the depths, enveloping the green notes and pulling them down into a deadly quicksand of amber and sandalwood. The effect is rich with all the acute fascination and heightened sensual impulses of an afternoon spent in front of an Oriental carpet with your mind blown and your body alternately strong and weak against its will.
It is difficult, when wearing Addict, not to be transported–I would like to meet the woman who wears this to work. It’s strength is such that even one spray leaves it clinging to a sweater until a visit to the local dry-cleaner is made, and its dense sillage makes it practically impossible to wear without drawing comments. Like drugs, once you get down with Addict, you have crossed definitively to the other side–the fun side, where all the bad kids hang out. The problem with this side is the chance that you could actually become an addict–a slave to your senses, existing only to experience an artificial thrill that has somehow become more important to you than actually living. Here’s the difference, though: this state is far more safely experienced with a perfume than an actual drug. I would venture that this something upon which Dior’s advertising executives, if not Marianne Faithfull, would probably agree.
To be fair, the Nord Hotel in Paris isn’t so bad during the day. That’s it in the picture. Possibly even the same room I stayed in. When you turn the light on and open the window, the yellow shade of the walls looks almost sunny and inviting. There are little individually-wrapped mints on the pillows and a sign instructing you to drop any towels you want washed on the floor so that the cleaning service doesn’t go to the trouble of washing the clean ones, too. A TV mounted in the corner of the room, near the ceiling. Sure, it’s a little shabby, but no worse than a hostel, and fuck it, you just got into Paris and lucked into a cheap hotel right across the street from the train station.
I didn’t think anything of it when I dropped my bags off in the afternoon. I am also in the complicated groove of traveling by myself, a state in which everything is experienced acutely and then hovers around in a space of its own, completely independent from the sort of value judgments I’d be making if I had the resources for comparison. It’s all new, and therefore all the same to me in this regard: the photos of women having sex with animals in the Sex Museum in Amsterdam, the insectlike curve of a door handle in the Art Nouveau district in Brussels, the beer coasters lined decoratively around the bars that never seem to be used for their intended purposes, the muscular and omnipresent tongue of the Italian guy I kissed after going out for Chinese food, the awkward but euphoric conversations held between people who can’t really speak each other’s languages well enough to do much except express happiness at meeting… all of it has been definitively foreign, and I’ve gotten used to my independent opinions pretty much stopping at that. I do not feel any added anxiety bringing a small supply of hash with me on the train out of Amsterdam because I am anxious enough about making the train in the first place. I am far more worried about radiation poison from accidentally passing my hand through the baggage X-ray machine than I am about going into a bar by myself and picking up a strange man. Nothing makes any sense; it’s all just a heady rush of information and adrenaline. I can’t yet tell what I will remember and what I will forget, and this doesn’t bother me yet. It feels pleasantly weightless to focus on small, sensory details as they’re happening.
“I am more than happy to have you make all the decisions for awhile,” is what I told Aaron when I met him in the lobby of the Nord Hotel in Paris, upon seeing him for the first time in almost two years. I mean this. My jeans are already hanging off me from the stress of doing everything for myself. I am exhilarated, sure, but my hands are also shaking and I’ve spent so much time alone that I’m not far from a point where conversations with myself will start to happen out loud. Furthermore, Aaron is the kind of person who likes to take care of things. He’s good at it. If I characteristically never quite know what to do, he always does. Even when he’s stoned.
When we got back to the Nord Hotel that first night, I washed my face in the bathroom while he sat at the tiny desk next to it, rolling a joint with the hash I brought from Amsterdam. I came out of the bathroom and pulled down the bedspread, revealing a velour blanket and scratchy grayish sheets. I didn’t want to get into it but I did, pulling the blanket up tightly over my knees and staring at the blinking red light on the TV set in the corner. Earlier, Aaron discovered that the door didn’t really lock. An old-building thing; the parts of the lock just weren’t in close enough alignment to work. When he was finished rolling the joint, he dragged the desk chair over and propped it up in front of the door. It wasn’t tall enough to jam it, but at least there would be something in the way if someone tried to come in. The carpets looked like they’d been subjected to repeated flooding. So did the walls, actually: the textured burgundy wallpaper was pulling up in some sections as though the entire room had been full of murky brown water at some point. Maybe with some bodies floating in it. The parts that weren’t covered with this wallpaper were painted a malignant egg-yolk yellow. Plus, it just felt empty. It wasn’t hard to imagine being shut up inside this hotel and forgotten. It was the kind of place someone might go to arrange a drug deal, seduce a teenager, or hole up for an anonymous, long-term bender.
Aaron takes his clothes off and gets into bed in his shorts, the joint he’s just rolled perched on the rim of the ashtray he has brought over from the desk. There’s another ashtray next to the bed on my side. He lights the joint and we smoke it. I’m having a hard time knowing what to say to him. I’ve known Aaron since I was thirteen, but the boxer shorts, the hash, and the general trend of multi-layered confusion I’ve experienced in Europe all conspire to make me feel like he is part of the scenery instead of an ally against it. It’s the blinking light on the TV that finally snaps me out of it: “This is so fucking creepy!” I say before launching myself across the bed toward his hopefully familiar armpit, my old favorite hideout. He puts his arms around me and I’m still half-hoping he’s going to tell me I’m being ignorant of European customs or something and that this is all perfectly normal. But: “I know,” he says. “It’s the TV. That’s the worst part.”
“It’s like those stories about the KGB putting cameras in everything.”
“They’re sitting downstairs watching us freak out.” He holds the joint up to my lips and I inhale, knocking ash onto his bare chest. I rub it into his skin with my free hand. I’d envisioned this as more of a bottle-of-wine-and-silk-negligee kind of scene, but we might as well sleaze it up. When at the Nord Hotel…
I wake up at five in the morning to the sounds of a running vacuum and a woman’s ecstatic moans coming from a room that could be down the hall or on another floor entirely. My T-shirt is clammy with sweat, the kind of sweat that makes you cold even while you’re overheating. I’m sort of in disbelief that I’d managed to fall asleep at all. I remember kissing Aaron last night, his feet covering mine under the blankets as we sought to press as much of ourselves up against each other as possible. I remember how he stopped in the middle of it, stopped without pulling away or saying anything, just stopped. “What?” I’d whispered in the dark.
It had been a good thirty seconds before I understood what he meant. And even longer before I realized that this was one of the parts I would remember.
“So Im back, to the velvet underground
Back to the floor, that I love
To a room with some lace and paper flowers
Back to the gypsy that I was
To the gypsy… that I was
And it all comes down to you
Well, you know that it does
Well, lightning strikes, maybe once, maybe twice
Ah, and it lights up the night”
–From “Gypsy,” Fleetwood Mac
The last time Socs slept over at my house, we walked to the Jamaican Jerk Hut the next morning for some wholesome, spicy food to cure our hangovers. We had debauched the night away to the point where any restaurant genteel enough to serve what is known as “brunch” would probably have turned us away, and besides, we were too far gone for a sip of mimosa and a few bites of a precious goat cheese omelet to do us any good. Hangovers or not, though, it was a perfect September morning, all mellow sunshine and and that deep, clear blue sky that only happens in September. We were hurting, but happy. And on the way there, we realized that once again, we had inadvertently dressed like crazy lesbian twins from some other dimension.
I’d been up with the birds after about an hour’s sleep for an early waitressing shift from which I’d magically gotten to leave early, so I was dressed for some serious egg-slinging: a swirly low-cut black cotton babydoll dress and black lace-up Doc Martens. This outfit was good for waiting tables because the dress was cute and cleavage-y enough to make up for the comfortably butch footwear; customers were never sure which part of my outfit they should be judging. Socs was wearing a silky black pantsuit, the top of which was held up by the thinnest of halter strings. She had black high heels that clicked an aimless rhythm on the sidewalk and breasts that bounced loosely along inside her top a second or two later. Socs loves her boobs and hates bras. Her naughty jiggle is her most constant fashion accessory. I admire her guts, but my cheeks get red just thinking about accidentally forgetting to wear a bra in public. We both had crazy flyaway hair and no makeup and the kind of big, I-can’t-believe-I’m-still-alive smiles that suggested the worst was yet to come as far as our hangovers were concerned.
“Whoa, we look like creeps,” Socs said as another group of people on the street stared openly in our wake. We laughed. Being creepy, we have always agreed, is not only part and parcel of being free, but some of the best fun anyone can have.
Over fresh, homemade ginger beer and paper plates full of spicy rice and vegetables and plantains, Socs told me how, a few weeks back, she’d holed up in her Brooklyn apartment for four days straight, smoking pot on her fire escape, playing and rewinding a tape of Fleetwood Mac’s song “Gypsy,” and having epiphanies. I cracked up. This was, at least to me, the exact kind of behavior that made Socs Socs. It was also the exact kind of behavior that I normally held myself back from, or at least held myself back from telling people about. Socs and I share a birthday and have spent years marveling over how similar, yet different we are. And one of the major differences has always been that she has no problem doing and talking about the kind of things I normally suppress. This dynamic is such that for every hour we spend in perfect mirror-image understanding, there’s another where we drive each other absolutely nuts with frustration. Sometimes she thinks I’m a dogmatic, manipulative prig; sometimes I think she is an outright menace to herself and society. This time, though, I just wanted to hear about her Stevie Nicks epiphanies. My Fleetwood Mac song was always “Go Your Own Way.” In my characteristic literal-mindedness, its words pointed out a possible alternative to my long lists of various petty rules and scores to keep. But Socs got “Gypsy.” I was jealous.
Of course she couldn’t sum it up in a sentence after having spent four days listening to it on repeat. Its meaning had already been internalized, it was more like a meditation mantra or a black-magic sigil she’d put all of her energy into and then forgotten. After she went back to New York, I listened to “Gypsy” myself, trying to hear what she’d been listening to.
First epiphany was from the “lightning strikes, maybe once, maybe twice” part: Oh! Things happen that put your life into upheaval and it’s a natural part of being alive that you need to roll with.
The second thing I got from the song was an unanswerable question as to whether the “you” that it all comes down to is the gypsy herself or an outside person. I liked to think it was the first option, really saying that she knows it all comes down to her when lightning strikes, because–well, this has been my experience of life. It does.
Epiphany three was from the first verse of the song, about being “back to the velvet underground.” I equated this with the kinda-scary but kinda-good feeling of suddenly having a huge amount of space after someone close leaves your life. And something about embracing it because that feeling is you at your most essential.
The last epiphany I had before I gave up on this exercise was that Stevie Nicks probably wrote it as a “fuck you, you will always love me even after I’m long gone” kind of song dedicated to one of her incestuous bandmates and that, historically at least, it had about as much to do with freedom as the song “Amie” by the Pure Prairie League has to do with love. But that’s me; petty and dogmatic.
I was thinking about this today, the time Socs listened to “Gypsy” for four days straight, and got the sudden urge to put on a spray from my mostly-unused bottle of Dana’s Tabu. My next thought was that I needed to send Socs some Tabu, because like the song “Gypsy,” Tabu had somehow become, to me, about her. The obvious associations with the name of the perfume and her propensity for wildness made me smile with gentle exasperation at myself, much like the time I dreamed I was at an all-you-can-eat buffet and woke up crying because I didn’t know what to put on my plate first. And I don’t know if she’d like Tabu at all. It’s kind of a tough customer.
At first, Tabu smells like someone was playing with a bunch of essential oils and added every single one into the same pot just to see what would happen. There’s a citrusy freshness, floral sweetness, a vanillic warmth, and a whole lot of headshoppy heavy-hitters: patchouli, amber, musk, oakmoss, sandalwood, and god knows what else. It smells like someone who’s been up to some serious witchy stuff knocked over the cabinet where all the raw materials and incense and oils and perfumes were stored. And mama, this is some strong stuff: raunchy and sexual, distinctive and distracting, deep and thick. I adore it for being balls-out, for refusing to compromise and smell like anything other than capital-P perfume. The spray cologne comes with the kind of old-fashioned sprayer that sends out a long, fine mist instead of an easily controlled squirt, and this is a fragrance where control is needed to avoid gassing yourself out of the house. For these reasons, it seems to be a fragrance intended to freak most people out. To my smug pleasure, I can wear Tabu well. It’s one of the times when having perfume-eating skin works in my favor. Sprayed on the inside of my wrist, I can tame Tabu into a milky, soothing amber with just a little powdered patchouli dust in the space of an hour.
This will be my fragrance for when I want to spray a little Socs on, a gypsy potion to remind me that regardless of how many times lightning strikes, I will always have myself, the only person I really need to answer to. Maybe in exchange for all she has done for me, I will help Socs find a perfume that is like spraying some starchy old me on her wrists, some fussy, powdery number that will keep her safe from her own adventures. That settles it. The next time Socs sleeps over, I’m chasing her around with my L’Heure Bleue.
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.
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.