What are my earliest memories of perfume? Most of them are ugly.
I am 14 years old, sitting behind an elderly couple at church. A dense cloud of scent stings my nose and makes we want to cough. A heavy, complex floral musk. There’s nothing I can do but sit and endure. Escape when I can. Perfume is a thing that touches me without my consent.
I am 10. I am snooping in my grandmother’s bedroom. I am curious but I know it’s wrong to be there without permission. One by one, I uncap and sniff the perfume bottles on her dresser. Powdery smells, mixed with an ambient medical tang. My heart races and I flee the room, queasy with guilt.
I am 17 years old, settled into my accustomed seat in Advanced English. A girl seated near me loves Bath and Bodyworks lotions. Cucumber melon. Something with sweet raspberries. At first I adore the scent and feel envious of the little luxury she enjoys. As the days pass, the scent loses its charm. The girl and I are now friends so I don’t tell her I find the scent unpleasant. When she pulls a bottle of lotion out of her bag and offers me some, I accept. Scent is a thing I do to please others.
I am 21 years old at my first “grown up” job. The office discourages wearing fragrances. If there is someone in your work area who is sensitive to scents, others are discouraged from wearing them. I learn that abstaining from perfume is a sign of professional courtesy.
Over and over I’ve learned that perfume is offensive to myself and others. Practically a sin to wear.
So how is it that now, deep into my 30s, I’ve suddenly fallen off the deep end with perfume?
How did I stop thinking of it as a social evil and start thinking of it as a personal treat?
It took a pandemic. Lots of time at home alone and a strong desire to indulge in a “frivolous” pleasure to lift my spirits. No one else to consider or to bother. I stopped thinking about wearing perfume as a something done in relation to other people. I began to understand it as a simple sensory experience, just for myself.