The Scent of a Man


– Of memory, madness and Amouage Memoir Man

Nothing fires up our emotions or long-buried memories quite so well as a scent. It need not even be a perfume, although I’ve come to find more often than not that perfumes obviously have a special place in my heart precisely for that instant superhighway from nose to emotion and a whole slew of associations, images, and long-buried film reels of memory and feeling rush out to greet me.

Any man or woman, but maybe perfumistas in particular, will tell you… Clothes, demeanor, appearance, personal charm – all of these are fine and good, but really, those sparks and stomach butterflies and twinges in our hearts begin with our noses.

For all our sophistication, excuses and pretenses, that much of the primeval, atavistic animal remains.

I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, but I suspect that idea might have been bubbling away at the back of my mind that November night I wrote the short story that became ‘Midnight at the Crossroads Café’, which led to a book, which led to… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the course of my nearly three years as a perfume writer and over three hundred reviews, a select few are tattooed upon my soul in indelible, never-fading ink, often becoming so much a part of what defines me or my memory, it’s impossible to say where I end or the perfume begins.

When I’m confronted with this or that new perfume for review purposes, I myself often have startling reactions to the perfume I’m sampling. The best ones often involve a streak of spicy (and unrepeatable) language, or even inarticulate sounds that also can’t be repeated, which is no way to write about perfume.

Great art, so it’s said, has to be felt. This certainly applies to one in particular, which gave me such a violent reaction the first time I tried it I didn’t know where to begin or what to do.

Violent not for being bad, but for unleashing a whole blockbuster movie contained within that sample vial, one recurring, intertwined silken thread in my own life that runs silver and black, unbroken for over thirty years. For the longest time, it was padlocked and chained away in a secret vault in my mind until that afternoon just over two years ago when a spray and a sniff blew the padlock and chains to smithereens and out came… a story.

The perfume was Amouage’s Memoir Man. The story was inspired by that other story, that one real life tale of heaven and heartbreak, secrets and sighs called… The One.

Every woman has one. The one who got away, the one who lingers on, the one you try not to think too hard about. It’s over. It’s done. You know you will never again burn so hot nor feel so much, you know how that story ends (more heartbreak), you’re all grown up now, you’re over it, such madness, such magic can never happen again.

Yet if you’re a writer, it can and it will. It comes out in unexpected ways, provoked by who knows what hidden muses laboring away in the dark – by a perfume, or by the way that perfume accentuates and underlines that story and the man who inspired it. He was and still is the only one I’ve personally known who it defines and explains so beautifully.

I will go to my grave stating that no matter what they say to the contrary on all the perfume fora and discussion groups on Facebook, when it comes to bottling up the Guy Thing in terms of high romance, cinematic scope, style and personal statement, no one does it like Amouage. No other line’s masculine-slanted fragrances slay me or my ragged, battered, bruised and disillusioned heart to quite the same degree so consistently, and for over two years, I’ve wondered, as I often do… why?

It took serendipity to figure that out, or was it something even more portentous? Call it fate…

Because last week, while bobbing along on a summery tide of Business As Usual, bubbling with plans and dreams and things to do and perfectly serene, someone had the idea to track me down.

That one. The one who got away. Someone I’ve known for well over thirty years and seen in many moods and several disguises, the one who inspired a fair-sized portion of the Devil’s personality as he is portrayed in my novel Quantum Demonology.

Call him the Memoir Man. Or L’Homme Fatal.

Throughout those thirty-plus years, we were friends, both part of a tight-knit gang who had known each other through high school and far beyond. Until that fatal party thirty years ago that made us both take a good, hard look at each other, and in an instant, all our past lives and all our shared history of friendship was scorched away by something much more dangerous.

There was no turning back after that.

Since then, many other people wandered in and out of our separate lives. Ex-wives, an ex-husband, girlfriends and boyfriends, all the detritus we humans tend to accumulate as we proceed through our lives, and yet… chance encounters just kept happening. Unlooked for meetings on the street. Catching up. We began again because we couldn’t not. We ended. And began other ends, other chances to break each other’s hearts in ways no one else could ever manage.

Our last meeting thirteen years ago was high drama and super-heated words, and as he drove away, I was so glad I’d never, ever see him again.

I would be sane, I would be sensible, I would be cured and inured and inoculated forever more. If it killed me never again to burn so hot, never again to feel so much.

I would. Damn it.

Meanwhile, a writer was born, and as writers will come to know, no experience is ever wasted. Somehow, slivers of that old, repeating story would insinuate themselves into my writing of novels and stories and even a perfume review that came unlooked for as an old, dusty padlock blew up… with a perfume. That padlock came back on after my review, locked a little tighter and with thicker chains this time around.

Yet I swore a secret oath to myself, for reasons I could never articulate, if I ever met anyone again, he would be doomed to wear (among a few others)… Memoir Man.

So it was, until last week. I was a (little too) grown-up now, I was inoculated, I was sane and serieuse and a sensational writer (at least in my own mind). I certainly wasn’t that white-hot fury of thirteen years ago.

When I received that message, I wondered how to respond. As I walked to meet him again after all this time, (don’t ask) I wondered how much havoc was wrought with both of us in thirteen years. I wondered about that inoculation. Wrapped up my heart airtight with metaphorical Kevlar before I left, just in case. I wore an Amouage. (Fate!)

Everything had changed. Some things never did. We would be sane, we would be grown-ups, we would be sensible if it killed us.

We would. Damn it.

Last night, I suddenly bounced around the room and began to upend my perfume cabinet, looking for That One to remind me. My little sample vial of Memoir Man.

Because to me, that was – and is – the scent of a man.

The Memoir Man.

Image: Robert Mapplethorpe

With thanks to Christopher Chong, who knows a thing or two about getting a girl in trouble…


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Not Quite 20 Questions…on smell!

Prompted by a post on Yesterday’s Perfume and Michelle Krell Kydd over at Glass Petal Smoke, which got me thinking about some of the things I all too often take for granted…
Here are my answers…what are yours?

Q: What does your sense of smell mean to you?
A: Smell is a way of defining and explaining the world without words, it can manifest a presence, define a mood, an ambience, a state of mind. I have a terrible time imagining a world without smell, because smell centers and deepens so many other sensory impressions – sight and sound, taste and touch. It does it in a way we have a hard time explaining or rationalizing, because the brain’s olfactory center bypasses the verbal areas to head straight for emotion – and few things are so evocative of emotion as smell.

Q: What are some of your strongest scent memories?
A: The smell of wild pears in autumn when I was very young. They had incredibly tough skin and took forever to ripen, but I can remember scratching my fingernails on their skins and breathing in that smell. A fur coat my mother used to have, which was impregnated with the scent of Jolie Madame. Later, hiding in her closet and breathing in the perfume from her clothes – Eau de Womanhood, let’s call it, a heady blend of Mitsouko, Shalimar, Fidji, Narcisse Noir. The scent of the Florida Keys, where I spent my later childhood – key limes and coconuts, seashells and ocean and the frangipani on the veranda of our house on Key Largo, the fishy-pink smell of mountains of leftover conch shells and rum stills in the Bahama islands. The orange trees in bloom at another house, and how narcotic that scent was in the heat. In general, the scent of southern Florida in those days – tropical scents and Coppertone and sand and sea. The scent of elderflowers and philadelphus, when I returned to Europe, which always spells midsummer to me. The first time I ever encountered true perfume for real and for my own at age 14, when my mother took me to Maison Guerlain in Paris, and a whole new world opened up to me…

Q: What are some of your favorite smells (things in nature, cooking &/or your environment?)
A: The smell of wild oregano, which always reminds me of Greece in the summer, the heat radiating off the earth and vibrating with that pungent, heady scent. A blooming orange grove, or any blooming citrus trees. The way that cinnamon smelled in a Moroccan souk, like nothing on Earth. The frankincense they burn in Greek Orthodox Sunday services, which I experienced once and never forgot. The smell of a beech forest in May, right after the leaves have all burst out. Poplar buds. Apple blossom. Chocolate. Pine trees, especially those vanilla-scented pines called ponderosas in New Mexico. Vanilla. It makes a long list!

Q: Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?
A: Horse stables. I used to ride a lot, and that smell is associated with some of my happiest memories. I love the smells of leather and suede. A lover’s armpit in certain situations. When my son leaps into my arms in the morning and I bury my nose in his neck and smell sleep and dreams, I love that, too. The smell of my cats, asleep in a sunny windowsill. Tar and the gasoline smell of old cars. The leathery smell of new, expensive cars.

Q: What fragrances remind you of the places you visited on vacation?
A: That Greek oregano. A friend recently returned from Athens and brought me a bunch. All I have to do is sniff the bag and I’m there. Cinnamon – not the cassia cinnamon you usually find, but the Ceylon cinnamon I first smelled in a souk in Casablanca – which was heaven on Earth. Roasting chiles, sage, sweetgrass, burning mesquite wood and ponderosa pines all remind me of my years in New Mexico, as do the blooming daturas I found in the courtyard of the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe. She called them jimsonweed. I call them otherworldly, on canvas and in real life.

A: Q: Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.
A: My tomato sauce, bubbling away for hours. Baking cinnamon pastries, or bread. Or cake. Any cake I make. Homemade curries, bubbling on a stove or in a wok, Thai or Indian, Punjabi or Keralan – I love them all!

Q: What smells do you most dislike?
A: Bad breath. Smelly feet. Cheap, low-grade musk and patchouli oil makes my stomach turn. (Although not the good stuff!). I’m not big on litterboxes, and I own three cats! Certain perfumes make me turn green, but thankfully, they seem to have gone extinct in the Eighties, among them Giorgio! And Giorgio!Red, except for Angel, which hasn’t, alas. Certain kinds of plastic. Lovers who are not-quite-so…beloved!

Q: What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?
A: Patchouli, which I thought was horrible, until I found how good it can be. Labdanum, which I smelled in Greece in the wild for the first time, was a shock – all goat! All the time! – until one day, it wasn’t.

Q: What mundane smells inspire you?
A: Lemons or any citrus fruit, the scent of my rose geranium plant, the scent of leaves and mold and fallen apples on an autumn day, the scent of flowers and green in spring, the heady aroma of elderflowers in midsummer.

Q: What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
A: Jicky and Miss Dior take me back to Paris, where my mother took me when I was 14. And because they were the first two perfumes I picked for my new, almost-woman self!

Q: What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones?
A: Fidji, Shalimar, Mitsouko, First, Jolie Madame – all of these were my mother’s favorites. And with the exception of (vintage) Fidji, I can’t wear any of them for that reason. Chanel no. 5 reminds me of my sister, because it’s so divine on her, and horrid on me! Acqua di Parma, because my stepfather wore it. Drakkar Noir, because a former boyfriend did (so, guys – take note and pick something else, OK? 😉 )

Q: What fragrances remind you of growing up?
A: Coppertone suntan lotion, Seventies Clairol Herbal Essences (the one with the flowery earth Goddess on the bottle with the emerald green shampoo), Mr. Bubbles (I forgot that one!), Bazooka Joe bubble gum, Je Reviens and Blue Grass, because my grandmother loved them.

Q: What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
A: Charlie! Makes me feel about 16 all over again, Jicky and (vintage) Miss Dior. Strawberry scented/flavored sticky lip gloss that everyone used in my teens, Magie Noire, Paloma Picasso and Cabochard remind me of certain men in my life (in a good way!), Chanel no. 19 of the subversive (if fragrant) punk I once was!

Q: Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.
A: I couldn’t locate the quote I wanted. So instead, I’ll paraphrase from memory…
“I gave them money for food, but instead, June bought perfume, while Henry goes hungry.”
-from ‘Henry and June’ by Anaïs Nin.

Obviously, June Miller believed in hyacinths for the soul! As do I…

Do you?