the perfume shop
Before I discovered the little East Village Fragrance Shop, I had opted for the clean citrus-y notes of Dior’s Fahrenheit for Men. It suited me and few women wore it, at least none that I knew of. The store was owned by Lalita who was Thai —and kept the staff that way. It was a small bountiful boutique crammed with creams, soaps, and spa treatments: candles, face masks, face scrubs, pore cleansers, herbal soaks…
Behind the counter were hundreds of pure oils and essences, with the help of Lalita or her fellow Thai personnel, you could engineer your own precise scent. Over time, I refined a signature base of dark amber and Egyptian musk, depending on the season, the mid notes would be green tea, Persian musk, or chocolate, coffee, or spicy wood or lavender, grapefruit… usually topped off with vanilla or black pepper. Despite it’s devotional attributes, I was allergic to sandalwood. The florals— jasmine, ylang ylang, jungle gardenia and rose were a “no no” for me—no one knew this better than Gregoire, who worked behind the counter in the late fall, usually October to the early Christmas rush—then he was gone for the rest of the year— in which time he traveled, picking up work as a make up artist or set dresser on film sets and photo shoots. Occasionally he modeled. He liked to party hard in Frankfurt, London and Amsterdam, then go home to Thailand to recoup. Then hit the road again—
“Like a holy man” I say, he tosses an exquisitely bald head back and laughs,
“More than you know…”
On this day he sashays up and down the length of the small shop in an elaborately wrought corset. A few passersby peer through the window dressings to take in the spectacle then hustle along in the East Village cold. The corset is from a Dublin photo shoot and he plans to wear it for his Halloween get up as Elizabeth I of England.
I explain that I had met her once in a dream:
“She was giving an address, but I couldn’t really see her because it was a college of priestesses and we were all seated behind, sort of like a choir…”
Later, a high-ranking nobleman—a friend, guided me through the crowded hotel lobby to meet her. She sat in a frosted phone booth, a kindly, luminous Vivienne Westwood, her head aflame in short red curls…
“Like yours?” interjects Gregoire, noting that I too have short red hair— “Of course—It’s important to live out one’s dreams…”
Gregoire tries to convince me once of the benefits of Jungle Gardenia—feminine, broadcast sex appeal, exotic… I demure, it’s the sort of heady morass a Joan Crawford type might relish… A woman walks in, Gregoire looks up and gives her the trademark, Hello! Take a look around and let me know if you need any help— then returns to me, proselytizing. A minute later, we fall into instinctive hush, looking up to meet the glare of the new customer.
“Did you need some help ma’am?”
“Oh never mind, why don’t you just carry on chatting—”
“Ma’am, if you need something, all you need to do is ask—”
The glare intensifies, the other customers in the store look questioningly at Gregoire—we exchange glances, shrug and return to our discourse: glamour, men, sex, power…
“That’s really not how we do business in this country.” Up close, her face is pinched contortions. Gregoire pauses and gathers—
“Take your attitude and leave this store.”
“I’d like to speak to the Manager!”
“I am the Manager. Please leave.”
She wants to say more, but Gregoire motions his hand into Halt:
“Your behavior is useless. Where I come from, someone your age would be preparing for death. Your actions only hinder you in your next life.”
The small boutique is silent, save the buzzing transistor TV set Lalita keeps in the back. A game show laugh track, Gregoire’s visage blazing, the mundane world strips away. We all see him…
Time suspension slowly thaws with the departure of the customer. The rest is a blur; I don’t recall the conversation after that. The winter scent we settle on is simple: dark amber, Persian musk and white tea.
The next year Gregoire didn’t show up till late November. All season I had been itching to tell him about my new project:
“Actually, you inspired it—remember that dream you had when your brother died?”
He frowns—no, he did not recall.
“Remember you told me about it— this time last year. The night your brother passed, you had a dream were you were sleeping in your grandmother’s hut and then you heard your brother’s voice outside. You step outside, but no one’s there—and suddenly there’s star fire falling all around you like rain…”
He smiles, “I like the dream. But it’s not mine.”
“You don’t remember telling me?”
“I couldn’t have, my brother died last January—and I saw you before that, in November. But I like the dream.”
I don’t press the matter and we slip into the business of fragrance. He sneaks in something floral, rain lily, I have no way of stopping him, I am lost pondering his brother’s dream.
Saddam Hussein’s execution was open for public viewing on the internet. I watched it about eight times and pored over the transcripts. My boyfriend, unnerved with my fascination with the clip—left the matter alone. He did mention it however, when we were at dinner with our friend Ryan. It was New Year’s Eve and a heady one, our relationship was newly minted and the coming year rife with possibilities,
“You look great,” pronounced Ryan “and you smell fantastic—“
“It’s A-Men, Thierry Mugler—“
It was true, but I said it mostly for Ryan’s benefit, he had been in a tryst with said designer and still savored the afterglow. For my part, I had spent time away from New York and no longer frequented the little East Village Fragrance shop—in my travels I had rediscovered designer fragrances, if you sweat distinctively enough, you make them your own…
“So what’s so fascinating about Saddam Hussein dying?”
“It’s not about Saddam Hussein. How many times do we actually get to witness the passage from this life to the next? Actually the cell phone footage doesn’t show much—I actually read the transcript over and over—what he wore, the exchange with the guards, the two official witnesses in the background speaking quietly and having a cigarette…”
“I just wanted to see someone shape their own bardo. He was belligerent till the end and suddenly he found God in the last minutes and then he started to bless Prophet Mohammed and his descendants—“
This part had piqued my curiosity. Once I heard a great great great grandson of said Prophet on the radio. He was a British author and he’d written an account of moving his family to Casablanca on a whim, because he was tired of living in an apartment in London. He purchased a derelict former residence of a Caliph and then a comedy of errors (and terror) ensued when he attempted renovations. Granted you hear similar stories about renovating property in Queens or the Bronx, but this involved djinn, marabouts and contracting whirling dervishes to establish order on the construction site. I wondered what this writer/descendant of Mohammed had thought of Saddam’s blessing upon him and his family.
“I’m just curious about the moment of one’s passing—do you shape what happens next by how you choose to go out?”
“I don’t think Saddam chose to be hung, that was an American decision-“
“Yes but within the context he still made certain choices, to be calm or irate, to be well dressed or elicit sympathy, to engage with the taunting guards—or not…”
Saddam Hussein died with curses pouring from his mouth, I had wanted to pursue the thrust of his defiance down the rabbit hole, see where it brought him… Other people arrived at our table and the mood lifted into general New Year’s bonhomie. I returned to the general excitement, experienced one year slide into the next, wondered briefly if a passage in time could be revisited on a space-time grid, then succumbed to the general vodka of festivity — the evening blurred into vivid gaiety.
New Year’s Day was bright, groggy — the phone ringing intermittently with voice mails of glad tidings and goodwill. When I finally mustered the resolve to pick up, it was a friend, who had long moved out to California,
“Happy New Year!”
“So I had to call, I had this intense dream about you last night…”
“Oh? Do tell…”
She told me the dream was set in Las Vegas and I was being executed, but the punishment far exceeded the crime—
“But you were very excited and full of light, and when the time came, you sat in the electric chair in the midst of the desert and all the lights of Las Vegas glowed softly…”
I liked the dream and told her so. The conversation turned to other dreams and then our significant others, travel plans, friends who had moved away and those who returned. I return to marvel at the scene of her vision—
In what distant deeps or skies
burnt the fire of thine eyes…
My mind flows out into the neon desert: blazing stars fall from an electric heaven, surround me, gentle piercing flames—
Important to live out one’s dreams.