A few weeks ago, I was sorting through storage bins to find an old pair of sunglasses to wear to the beach. I pulled out the decorative paper trunk that I thought contained them but instead found an unopened box with a 50ml EDP bottle of Coco Mademoiselle. I spritzed the perfume behind my ears and walked out the door. I still haven’t found the sunglasses.
I had forgotten that my grandmother gave me the perfume years ago, when she was still well enough to travel to Paris with her sisters to celebrate what she knew would be one of her last birthdays. From what my father told me about her trip, she had done everything an elderly tourist was expected to do — Visit the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame. Skip the Louvre because she wasn’t a fan of art museums. Eat at McDonald’s because it’s familiar and my father’s side of the family is comprised entirely of picky eaters. Her trip wasn’t so much about what she saw and did in the city so much as the fact that she was there, being who she normally was but in Paris.
I imagine the perfume came from that same excitement — a department store she and her sisters walked into because it was close to her hotel, a duty-free shop she found once she landed at Charles de Gaulle. Not 31, rue Cambon. She wasn’t choosy. It’s a bit of a stretch to even say that she “gave” me the perfume — I hadn’t known she had perfumes to gift to her grandchildren until after the funeral, when my mother gave me the choice between Coco Mademoiselle or Daisy by Marc Jacobs. My sister would receive the one I didn’t pick.
“The Chanel,” I insisted.
Even before I had tried the fragrance for the first time on my way to the beach, I had always assumed Mademoiselle was a classic, stunning fragrance. It seemed like a generally safe assumption to hold — my grandmother hadn’t been a perfume snob like I am, but she knew what was nice, and she wanted to buy nice things, and she wanted to give her children and grandchildren nice things. I held off on wearing it for a number of reasons — I wasn’t interested in designer perfumes at the time and preferred niche lines (a prejudice I would break quickly as I dove deeper into the perfume world). I was worried that the fragrance wouldn’t fulfill my expectations, whether through the fault of the perfume itself or my own skin not being able to hold in all its complexity. And I wasn’t sure whether I should attach a certain reverence to the perfume since it came from my grandmother, and if so, whether that reverence was preserved through using the perfume or savoring it.
As it dries on the skin, Mademoiselle doesn’t hit you with its floral heart notes like many spicy florals do. Instead, they sweep through you. That’s not to say those notes go quickly, because they remain long after, but that they rush up and past you like a whirlwind. It takes a bit of time to recognize the mimosa and ylang-ylang in a garden of rose and jasmine. Yet to start off with the image of rose and jasmine would almost be a disservice — roses and jasmine can have such heavy profiles to the point of delirious intoxication, but they’re tempered by the vanilla and patchouli base notes as well as lightened by the orange head note. Wearing the fragrance gave me a brief cockiness, as if I could challenge strangers to dare me to fly, and, failing that, that I was a person of some great but indefinable importance. As Chandler Burr wrote in his five-star review of the fragrance, “Coco Mademoiselle graces [the wearer] with youthful sophistication…Using a core of beautifully engineered patchouli, its scent is floral without a trace of heaviness, fresh without green, sweet without sugar — in short, the scent of loveliness. Come across someone wearing it, and you want to lean closer.”
There is also a sweet, powdery-balsamic note that introduces itself a little longer into wearing Mademoiselle. While looking at the Fragrantica profile for the EDP, I saw that the only note I didn’t know anything about was opoponax, a strange word whose letters look too round and sounds like a glitch when saying it aloud.
Opoponax is a natural gum resin like myrrh or frankincense. It is also referred to as “sweet myrrh.” The resin has been collected since ancient times from Somalian and Ethiopian Burseraceae trees and was used as incense in religious ceremonies — the origin of the word “perfume” comes from the Latin per fumus, or “through smoke,” referring to the smoke and smells of incense as it burns. (It has also been used since ancient times in herbal remedies, and, of course, perfumes.)
Like many incenses, opoponax has its own mythos, including being called “the noblest of incense gums” by King Solomon. Its name comes from the Ancient Greek words for vegetable juice and panacea, exhibiting the resin’s healing qualities. A handful of websites that focus on magic, alchemy, and witchcraft note that opoponax has been associated with protection, knowledge acquisition, and necromancy. As most would be, I’m skeptical of those claims, but it felt somehow fitting to learn about this resin and its association with the dead this summer, when I feel that my past keeps haunting me, and fears and pains that I thought were long-gone keep slipping into my mind.
I suffer from summer nightmares, but I haven’t had any this season. I have miraculously kept my bedroom cool enough to prevent myself from having them, and, while I enjoy sleeping through the whole night, their absence feels off to me, like perhaps in exchange for the nightmares I made some pact with the universe that I’d have to face uncertain fears and impossible situations in real life instead.
My grandmother died three years ago last June, and a month after her funeral, I saw a woman roughly her age on the subway wearing the same light purple cardigan she had given me as a birthday present. I found this perfume about a month since the anniversary of her death as well, a week after my mother had given me some of my grandmother’s old jewelry that she wanted me to keep. These are serendipitous coincidences and nothing more, but they’re fresh in my mind because of how vividly I remember my circumstances from three years ago and how many parallels there are to what I’m going through three years later.
I’m reminded of the terror of leaving college as a person who had always been good at her studies and, even a few internships deep, was worried about the inevitable failures and growing pains that come with leaving academia for the “real world.” I remember the thrill of moving to New York and knowing that it would take a while to get used to it after four years in Pittsburgh, and having to navigate myself around entirely new dynamics with the various communities I wanted to ingratiate myself with. There were so many things I just couldn’t understand and was frustrated about, such as how to find a job and an apartment and emotional support from newfound friends and mentors and the best anyone could really tell me at the time was that I was so young and didn’t need to get so wrapped up in all these concerns.
I’m worried, again, of leaving fields and places I once knew and immersed myself in. I’m terrified at the prospect of letting go of what I’ve been able to keep and build of myself, of rounding a new corner and not finding what I expected on the other side.
Even as someone who knows I can’t have it both ways, I’m similarly terrified of staying where I am with myself, of taking these risks and them coming to nothing. It’s put me in a spot where I read into each interaction as some sort of omen to follow, of finding patterns where there aren’t any, like the friends I see daily at coffee shops or cleaning at the end of the work day, saying their t’s softly, telling me when I ask them questions, “No yet, no yet.”
I have to keep this talk abstract, but lately I’ve been in situation after situation in which I have to explain myself to other people, give an overview of my life that shapes it into a narrative and makes it sound like everything that led up to where I am now has been planned carefully and deliberately. I’ve told friends that I’m tired of talking about myself under these circumstances. To the people I talk to, this seems like an easy enough task for them, and their life stories are crafted without any knowing blinks or twitchy hiccups. I’ve gotten better at reworking my own story, though I’m not sure how convincing I’ve been in telling it. I never let it show on my face, but with each retelling I think about the hardships I brushed past and the people I gained and lost in that time. I think about how utterly ridiculous it is to construct my life, or anyone’s life, for that matter, around such neat little statements.
Perfume is an even more ludicrous way to measure and construct a narrative of my life, though I’ve been toying with the ghosts that come to mind with each of my recent experiences with perfume. I find myself in fragrance boutiques and scrolling through perfume articles (and researching obscure notes like opoponax) much more often in times of stress and states of flux than I do under normal circumstances.
My first perfume, Tokyo Milk’s Bittersweet, was an impulse purchase I made three years ago, when I ran into a Sephora after my first interview and needed something indulgent to take my mind off the stiff, awkward conversation I had with someone who I knew would not hire me. Bittersweet is a perfume I chose because of how much it smells like Betty Crocker cake mix before the drydown, when it turns more sensual and cozy through its musk base note. It wasn’t my most sophisticated choice, but I had a lot to learn and it would do for the purposes that I needed it for – safety, familiarity, cheap decadence.
While Bittersweet was an amateur choice, it lured me into the world of perfume and I quickly learned how to go about letting a fragrance develop on the skin, which physical and digital places would provide samples, what the fragrance families are, which notes have surprising characteristics about themselves, who the big perfume critics were, what the history is behind perfume. I latched onto this pet interest as a way of cheering myself on–every new lesson I taught myself was also a reassurance that I was capable of something, that I would find a job soon, that my life post graduation would be fine, that I had a personality outside of the one I had to portray professionally, the one who knew how to act confident and had a life story and was ready for anything.
There are a handful of friends who knew all the ways I was hurting at the time and were also excited about my newfound interest, letting me teach them about perfume while supporting me with their sound arguments regarding why I would be fine. They had faith in me and my abilities, and they were happy to indulge me in something that I found (and still find) legitimately cool. Thinking back to where I was three years ago reminds me of when I found who I could trust and who trusted me. It was also the beginning of a sinking realization of who didn’t have faith in me or what I was doing.
Three years ago was when I started to have serious doubts about a longtime friendship that I had formerly assumed would span the rest of our lives. I couldn’t remember a conversation we had had in the past year that didn’t revolve around her wanting to teach me something or to affirm her opinions, and it had started to take a toll on how I presented her to others.
“She’s so cool but you have to be careful around x, y, and z.”
“She’s the best and I love her but she’s getting on my nerves about 1, 2, and 3.”
“She doesn’t trust me about a, b, or c views and won’t stop trying to re-teach me about these views I already hold if I don’t say enough of the right thing.”
It was a terrible way to talk about my best friend, and I hated myself for it.
Perfume measures the way our friendship ended as well. My budding interest in perfume after Bittersweet was surprising and fun and, like many things I was interested in, was something she wanted to demonstrate she had been two steps ahead of me in knowing about . . . by showing me the perfumes she was interested in purchasing full bottles of but had not yet sampled on her own skin. The Etsy shop she sent me links to was alluring, but I told her not to give into the temptations of a bottle with an edgy, astrology-influenced name and notes in a combination she hadn’t yet tried.
“Don’t worry, I’ve been reading the reviews and I’ll make sure anything I buy has at least a three-and-a-half-star rating!”
It took an adamant and repeated plea on my behalf for her to listen, to teach her that it is common wisdom within the perfume world to try the fragrance on your skin first to see how it develops and that buying without sniffing is a high risk that often results in disappointment. I’m unsure if she bought the perfumes anyway, but we stopped talking about fragrance after that.
Our friendship wouldn’t end until the following summer, but it was perfume that made me think about how little faith she had in me to show her anything new, to let her know more about what I was going through and how I was trying to find my way through the world in these undiscovered ways. How much more trust she demanded of me than I of her to make her feel that she was accomplishing the image she set out for herself, and how tiring our friendship became when both of us stopped trusting each other.
I find myself thinking about this relationship just as much as the one I had with my grandmother when I wear Mademoiselle, strictly in how my life would be different if both were still in it. How my friend would probably point out incessantly that Chanel was a Nazi even though I had already known that, how I would never point this fact out to my grandmother because her last few gifts as a dying woman were so sincere and so quintessentially her, how I would tell them both that the Nose behind the perfume, Jacques Polge, did not know Chanel by her tyrannical ways but rather was inspired by her distant and iconic image as an elegant young woman who led an elegant life, as well as the beautiful apartment she lived in and the collections she owned.
I’ve been searching for more perfumes that have opoponax as a note ever since doing my research on it. Opoponax’s associations with protection, knowledge acquisition, and necromancy aren’t my primary reasons for doing so, though I do find it fun to think of how I’ve been needing the first two and metaphorically running into the third. Opoponax is simply an incredibly lovely fragrance, adding a powdery dimension to flowers and fruits and spices that make them stay afloat instead of drowning in the humid muck of summer.
A close friend of mine, one of the same handful who helped me out three years ago and always believed in me, reminded me the other day that nothing regarding where I am currently and where I’ll end up will be as bad as it was three years ago. She’s right, and I don’t have to struggle with the reality that happened when my plans didn’t go the way that I had hoped. I have more ghosts and fears than I did three years ago, but I’m more capable of handling them now at twenty-five than I could at twenty-two. Perhaps the real summer nightmare I worry about facing is knowing that each change I make comes with the test of who I have faith in and who has faith in me, but it’s an old nightmare with existential horrors that I’ve since familiarized myself with.
Last week, I visited Twisted Lily, a fragrance boutique in Brooklyn, for the first time in nearly a year. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, and it always clears my head when I go. For a couple hours, I walked down the shelves and picked up each bottle, sprayed and dipped test strips, waited for the alcohol to dissolve before smelling, moved bottle after bottle to the counter of the store and then moved each back until I was left with the five that gave me the strongest impressions that day. A small ritual with each perfume, a ceremony I completed once I picked the ones I wanted samples of. It was exhilarating and I felt in control, that for this brief moment in time I had just as much trust in myself as my loved ones have for me. That I would make my picks and knew, regardless of whether any of my samples soured on my skin or made it blossom into something wonderful, everything would be fine. No yet, no yet. But soon.