Eau de Toilet

Below the Beltway
(Eric Shansby)

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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, December 25, 2005

I think women smell great. That is why I dislike perfume. I want women to smell like women, and not the sitting room of a 19th-century San Francisco bordello. That may be extreme, but I know I am not alone. Several famous men have shared my distaste for perfume, among them Adolf Hitler, which is one reason I seldom mention it.

Still, it bothers me. I once lived in a region of the country that seemed to have a perfume-based culture. At social gatherings, women revolved around the room like planets, each with her own distinctive atmosphere. When two were in close proximity, I feared some terrible, quasi-gravitational climatic event.

Because she knows my feelings about perfume, my wife seldom, if ever, wears it, which fills me with both gratitude and guilt. Both these emotions came into play recently when I was on Fifth Avenue in New York City. I decided to at last confront my biases and shop for perfume with an open mind; my goal was to buy my wife a Christmas present she'd never forget, if for no other reason than it is the least likely present she'd ever expect from me, other than, say, a gift certificate for butt enlargement surgery.

Manhattan establishments that sell perfume do not have sensible, helpful names like "The Olde Perfume Warehouse" or "Perfumes Inc." They have names like "Gianfranco Abattoir Ltd.," and the only clue that they sell perfume is that there is no perfume or perfume-like product in the window. The windows display scenes like a scowling, naked female mannequin contemplating a rooster.

One place had a small sign identifying itself as a "perfumery," so I walked in with some small measure of confidence, which evaporated immediately -- like the best perfume -- the instant I saw the young woman at the counter. She wore a distractingly tight sweater, perfectly applied makeup, knife-blade eyebrows, and that stony, forbidding expression you'd expect to find on a croupier at a casino. I stammered that I would like to see some perfumes. She stared patronizingly. "You mean 'fragrances?'"

That was my first lesson. You must never call it perfume, even if the sign outside says "Perfumery," and the little bottles are labeled "perfume." Or, more precisely, "parfum."

Calling French perfume "pricey" is a significant understatement, like calling a tsunami "moist." Your typical ounce costs a C-note. I decided that I was going to shop intelligently and not lose my head.

Immediately, I lost my head. I blame it on the fumes, but it may also be because perfume saleswomen tend to be young and lovely and will frequently, without sufficient warning, offer you their necks to smell. The fact is, after about half an hour of perfume shopping, I was cheerfully looking at $150 liquids in quantities that could fit in a contact lens case.

Fortunately for me, everything stank. In store after store, women spritzed fragrances onto little cardboard cards that they grandly offered to me like sous-chefs presenting their pieces de resistance. Invariably, all I would smell was easy virtue. True, each was different: There was Marseille waterfront strumpet, 42nd Street flophouse whore, Monte Carlo gigolo, and so forth. Some resembled the bathroom deodorant my ma used to use. I liked those the most.

Eventually, I found myself at a Guerlain counter. Because the saleswomen seemed friendly, I decided to throw myself on their mercy. I will call them Gwendolen and Cecily. I explained to them how much I love my wife, and how nothing is too good for her, but that I did not wish her to smell like, you know, a streetwalking skank. They nodded knowingly and began pushing samples. It was just more of the same.

I was about to leave when Gwendolen said, "Show him this," and Cecily said, "Yes, why don't we?" I took a whiff, and, suddenly, the fog cleared. This was everything I had been looking for. A delicate, sensuous aroma, autumnal, more woody than floral, flirtatious yet demure, effortlessly feminine, not desperate. "This is it!" I gasped.

Meanwhile, Cecily and Gwendolen were shooting each other a certain cautious look. They began to speak at once, a babble of enthusiastic salesmanship. I didn't catch it all. So much was blotted out in the cacophonic rush of blood to my brain.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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