[ Issue 5 / May 2013]
Perfume by Raymond Hutson
I was just out of school, an MBA from Drake not quite in its frame, (I still needed to pay outstanding fees at the computer center on the central campus), an apartment at River View Heights, and my stunning, punctilious fiancé, Whitney. Whitney, there to help me become a better man: I learned how to open her doors, how to introduce her, what to pay for (everything), how to signal the rest of the world we were partners. She corrected my diction, my taste in clothing, my hair style, my political views.
“I’m sorry, I said.”
“What I’d like to hear,” she replied, then corrected my apology.
I’d been anointed a desk by the window looking over the roof of the test laboratories at RadSterile International by Whitney’s father. RadSterile, established in the 1950’s business of irradiating produce, didn’t actually handle isotopes anymore. They cruised along on their former glory, selling janitorial products: RadSterile bowl cleaner, RadSterile diaper soak, RadSterile hand gel, RadSterile room deodorizer, RadSterile pet-poo carpet spray. One of every product underneath my kitchen sink, part of a gift basket last Christmas. We didn’t even own a dog.
Whitney, her mother and I circled Merle Hay Plaza Mall twice, trying to match an earring Whitney had lost on her last trip to Saint Thomas. The original had cost her father nearly 12,000 dollars, and nothing less than a perfect match could replace them, she insisted, because her father didn’t know it was gone yet. We found a close second in Macy’s, marked down 50% to 648.00, but she wouldn’t even try them on.
We wandered into Parfumuria, rows of enigmatic, colored bottles on every shelf around the perimeter and arranged on islands across cerulean shag that hushed our very thoughts. Whitney snapped my sleeve. “Time you change your trademark, boy-toy.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the way I smell,” I said. “Is there?”
“It’s not synchronous.” She rolled her eyes. “Your aroma should complement my bouquet.”
“My dad wore Old Spice.” I rubbed my hand on my neck and sniffed. “Nobody complained.”
“Doesn’t smell clean.”
“Whitney. Isn’t that, Afghan Black?” Her mom stood waving a cocktail ring studded finger over the counter, shuddering like a Weimaraner that’s found a quail. She looked closer. “It is, it is. And only 179.00!”
I slid on, distancing myself, gliding from one sampler tray to another, until I stood with my back to them. A girl was in front of me, a waifish with pale skin, auburn hair in directionless curls, large round lenses surrounding green eyes. I didn’t notice her fully until I’d lifted a curvaceous bottle, and she’d spoken,“That’s Forgiveness. Forty-nine fifty. Wanna’ smell?”
I picked up a test card, but by then she had placed her wrist beneath my nose, and in doing so, touched the side of my cheek.
“Lovely,” I said. A warm agreeable sweetness hovered around my face. I chose a second bottle, natural to my fingers. I’m not sure I even looked at it.
She glanced down, then across the room. “Right here,” and stroked a turquoise nail just above her lip, near a tiny diamond stud. The stud sparkled as I watched in the next moment as she had swept up on her toes, leaned across the counter, her nose next to mine. Our lips touched. “It’s called, Promise,” she exhaled gently into my ear.
“No!” I whispered hoarsely, mouthing no, no, no, pressing her away, already aware a pair of bodies were pivoting behind me.
“Toddy-poo!” and Whitney was there by my side, a square bottle in her hand, gunmetal shine with fake rivets. She puffed a cloud of solvent stuff in my face like you might spray a wasp. “It’s called, ‘Machine Man.’ And look,” she tapped a finger on the base of the bottle, “made by dad’s company!”
My eyes burned and I couldn’t focus.
“We’ll take this.” A card was thrust, my mother’s or Whitney’s I’m not sure, my eyes were tearing. I caught a glimpse of the green eyes, something sympathetic, and then I was hustled away into the current of shoppers in the mall.
“Who you were talking to? What had you so interested, Todd?”
“Just a salesgirl. Something I thought might be nice on you.”
“You know I don’t like those kinds of surprises. Only I know my chemistry.” She took my lapels. “And it really doesn’t honor me when you talk to other women when I’m not present.”
We had to stop at Christies for drinks, and a little snack, Mom insisted. We had just ordered when my cell rang, ‘text message.’
Eye ½ sum more sense 4 U. Tomorrow?
I punched delete and snapped the cover shut. “Junk.” I looked at my mother and fiancé, but they were both lost in the menu. I glanced at my phone and around the dining room, feeling the essence of the girl like a mist, so drunk with her I could barely speak.
I stood by a bistro table in the food court at the mall the next afternoon, watching her work the counter alone, joy in every turn, every step; never a scowl or anything less than a radiance of enthusiasm. I finished my latte and strolled over when the store was empty.
She lit up. “You got my message?”
“How did you get my number?”
“Are you stalking me?” Immediately I felt like such a wimp; it was something Whitney might have said.
“You came here, I think.” She softened and stepped into the gap in the counter. “Merchants can get it from the credit card. Electronic inquiry.”
“Okay. Just kind of unnerving, you know.”
She was taller today, wearing little strap heels. A green silk dress. Those eyes again.
“My god, what are you wearing?” she said.
“It’s just an old London Fog.”
“No. That smell. That’s the stuff she bought the other day, isn’t it?” And she went into the back, and I heard the sound of water running. A moment later she was before me with a warm wash cloth. “You really like that?” and she started to wipe my jaw.
“It makes me sneeze.”
“When we first got it in I thought it was bathroom deodorizer.” She stroked around my mouth, then loosened my tie, unbuttoned the collar. Her eyes darted across my gaze, nervous little jade inquiries.
“You still wearing Promise?”
Her lips sank against mine, eyes closed, the moment so natural, so frictionless I might have been swimming. Somehow we managed to breathe. She slid down to my neck, unloosed another shirt button, her mouth against my chest.
“No.” I pressed her away. “We can’t do this.”
She stepped back and brushed the hair from her eyes. “She came back this morning, you know. Was kind of rude.”
“Whitney’s my fiancé. What did she want?”
“Well that’s better.” She stepped behind the counter. “She bought the rest of the ensemble. Shower soap, body oil, aftershave. A hundred and twenty-nine dollars.”
I shuddered. Maybe it was visible.
She cocked her head. “Something isn’t right, huh?” She touched the register. “Should I void the charge?”
“No, it isn’t that.” I started to back away. “I better go.” She didn’t release my gaze, that same sympathetic look, now almost sorrowful. “Can I see you again?” I asked as I reached the door.
“You know where to find me.” She twirled, made a sweeping gesture of the shelves.
The following day I sat looking out over the roof of the laboratory, where little curls of smoke rose from the vents, wondering if exhausted test rats were rejoining the great circle of matter. It was so finite, this whole business of life. I leaned back in my chair, stared at the vent above my desk. Maybe in time I’d rise, nothing more than smoke, and disappear through those slats.
The following day was worse. I couldn’t concentrate on my screen for more than thirty seconds and by the end of the day had lost the contract for four tons of urinal cakes.
“That’s a lot of urinals with somebody else’s cakes,” my soon-to-be-father-in-law said.
I searched through my phone, found the date, the time, but the number was unlisted. I pulled into the Mall on the way home. She wasn’t there. A young guy was there instead, talking on his cell with his back to the customers who wandered in and out of the shop.
Whitney had found some handcuffs, two pair in fluorescent pink nylon, a gift at her bridal shower she said. She sat on the edge of the mattress in a black leather bikini and spiked collar, my wrists clipped loosely to the spokes of her wagon wheel headboard. I’d never done shit like this, I tried to tell her, in as polite, life-style sensitive terms as possible.
“They did it in that fifty shades book and they were just fine.” She drew a bottle from a plastic sack and poured something between her palms, then inhaled ecstatically. “Machine Oil. Smells so, clean.” She began to rub, little pools on my chest, my belly button, down into the reaches of my boxers, a tingle like Ben Gay. I sneezed.
“Live a little.” She said.
I sneezed again. I tensed.
She was stroking a finger across my chest. “You better get used to this, Todd.”
My throat began to itch. My lips tingled. I tried to swallow and was abruptly aware that I couldn’t. In the blur that followed terror swept over me. I sank beneath its surface while Whitney spoke, her face contorted by anger or disappointment as she slapped me and shrieked.
Sometime later—after flashlights in my eyes, a stab in one arm, then another, and the cold vinyl pad stuck to my back—I was sitting up.
“Feeling better?” A guy in scrubs down near my feet. Surgical light overhead, yellow tiled walls, stainless steel.
I looked around, raised my arm, where half of a pink plastic handcuff dangled.
“You had a little allergic reaction. Most of the swelling has gone away, except on your chest.”
I glanced down, where a pattern of hives streaked this way and that. ‘Boy toy’, upside down. My boxers were soaked. “Did I pee on myself?”
“One of the nurses scrubbed you down. You smelled god-awful when you arrived.”
“This wasn’t my idea.”
“Of course not.”
The sun was up when we got in the car in the hospital parking lot. Whitney dumped me at her apartment and went off to her job at the IRS. The sheets were a mess and still looked pretty oily. I slept on the couch.
When I woke up that afternoon, she was dangling my cell phone above me. “You got a few messages.” She squinted at the screen. “’careful what u wsh 4’” she scrolled. “’Miss U.’” The phone snapped shut. “I don’t like this. It’s a deal-breaker, Todd.”
“So call ‘em back. Tell them you’re going to beat them up. Probably a wrong number anyway.”
“It was blocked.”
A smile flowed through me. I looked down at my chest where the faintest red outline remained of her calligraphy. “You have any hydrocortisone?”
Whitney asked me to move out the next day. It only took about thirty minutes, because she hadn’t wanted any of my furniture or artwork in her apartment to begin with. I still had a lease on my old studio for another six weeks. It smelled cold and stale, and a mail pile blocked the door, mostly ads for liquidations, pre-approved credit apps, environmental donations appeals. The last glossy envelope, like a pearl atop crap, from Parfumuria. ‘Live fuller through all of your senses,’ the copy read, and a coupon for 35% off any single item until midnight, October 31st. I glanced up at the calendar.
At the mall mothers were corralling throngs of costumed children into SUVs at the curb, some sort of ‘Harvest Festival’, a tide of small monsters and batman wannabes pushing me back each time I reached for the doors.
She was pulling down the security mesh. I ran the last few feet and she glanced up, as if I was perfectly on time.
“I don’t even know your name,” I huffed.
“Is that important?” She pulled curtains from the sides. We both stepped inside and the gate clicked tight at the bottom.
“It’s just that I stopped by, all last week. I didn’t know who to ask for.” I held the coupon in front of me, like it might hold a clue.
“It’s Audrey.” She offered her hand.
“Audrey,” I repeated.
“I know. ‘Todd.’ Your credit card.”
For once I was grateful I’d paid for everything. “Whitney left me.”
“So you’re Whit-less.” She smiled. “I’m sorry. It must be hard.”
I drifted around the shop in a time lag as she turned off one light fixture, then another, leaving only the fluorescent lights on in the counter cases. She returned a moment later, arms around my chest, her ear against my neck. Her hair full of forest or flowers.
“You like it?”
She hugged a little tighter. “I suggest we do this. You proceed, until you find a perfume you don’t like.” She slipped up on the counter before me and placed her legs around my waist. “Engage your senses.”
My lips fell just above her clavicle, “Yes, nice.” I murmured.
“Dolce Angelica,” she whispered, and moved beneath me until my nose lay above her cleavage. “And?”
“That’s nice too,” I said, feeling inept, at a loss for words. “I want to take you home with me.”
“Rochelle. Ninety-eight dollars. From Holland.” She said nothing after that, our arms a blur, my overcoat on the carpet, she peeled my shirt, her dress fell up and tumbled off the glass, the case lights glowing between us, lace slid away. Moments later we were a unity of rhythm on the floor, every roll and motion smooth, familiar, synchronous; as if we’d known each other a thousand years, around us a bouquet of musk, lavender, wood flowers, patchouli, ambered scents on every surface of angelic white skin, her pinkness, her moisture against me, inside of her.
A century passed. Somewhere down the mall, a floor polisher whined. We lay in comfortable disarray, abandoned marionettes, my overcoat a raft on a cerulean sea. She moved to straddle me, stroked the hair from my eyes and said, “I’m saving your life.”
My fingertip glided in the perspiration in the small of her back and I brought them to my lips.
“Amour la Promesse. Last bottle, I’m afraid. Priceless.”
I dozed. When I awoke again she was slipping her dress on.
“You must get dressed. Hurry. Security comes around midnight.” She tugged at her hem. “This silk, it registers every wrinkle.”
She hurried me to a back door as I tugged on my shoes.
“When will I see you?” I asked.
“It’s hard for me, to get away from the shop.” She pulled my lips against hers, releasing me slowly. “I’ll find you, I promise,” and the steel door closed. I was in a long cold hallway that led to the parking, my car a half mile away.
The phone rang the next morning. It was RadSterile. I wouldn’t be needed anymore. A check was in the mail. I made coffee about eleven, stumbling around lost in my own cold, lifeless apartment, every molecule of my existence so sub-par in the wake of the previous night. I couldn’t even remember driving home. I phoned Parfumuria. Some dude answered, didn’t know Audrey, didn’t know who was coming on tonight. ‘Lot of girls here,’ he said. At five I showered, dressed and drove to the mall.
A stony-faced matron was behind the counter. “We don’t give out any information on the girls.” She stared, memorizing my details for the police, as I walked around the store. The space for Amour la Promesse in the case was empty. I bought a bottle of Victoria Rochelle and left.
Every day settled into a pattern of driving to the mall, sitting in the food-court with my laptop, watching the shop and looking half-heartedly for work. At night I would drink, sprits my pillow with Rochelle, and hope to dream some kind of re-run. I started to spritz myself, just to imagine her near.
There were two other Parfumurias in the city. I staked them out as well. There was one newly opened in Iowa City, so I drove over there. I used my air-miles to go to Chicago, then Denver, then St. Louis. Each weekend I got drunker. I don’t know what I did during those times, except that I didn’t find her.
I called up Dave, an old roommate at Drake, someone I knew had far more understanding of women than myself, a qualification based only on the rumor that he had slept with more women than I had. We met at the Dungeon, a bar on University Ave in the afternoon. It was starting to snow and the place was almost empty. I told him everything.
“You could waste a big part of your life chasing this chick,” he said.
“I’m afraid it’ll be a waste if I don’t.”
He sniffed at his hands, stuck his nose over his glass, then leaned forward. “Jesus, what have you got on? You smell like a hooker.”
I punched him in the face.
I took a job with Xerox, initially in corporate sales, but was anchored in an office where I deliberately propped my feet up, made long loud personal calls, and violated the dress code. In a few months I’d been demoted to traveling rep, with a tour of most of the west coast, and every perfume store with an address there. No luck.
A few missed sales appointments, and I was moved to service, sentenced to longer flights, eventually finding myself in Poland, trying to repair bad knock-off Xerox machines from the Eastern Bloc, watching Latvian TV and drinking myself to sleep on potato vodka each night for three years. My memory of the night in the mall replayed a thousand times, never less fresh than that first luminous magnetic embrace. I ran out of Victoria Rochelle. Green-eyed auburn haired prostitutes were hard to come by but I tried; it’s the feeling you can’t buy.
It was in August that I was given Paris, the French being difficult to do business with, a market they didn’t think I could fuck up any worse. It was rumored they were going with a subsidiary of Airbus anyway. Vodka was expensive and I’d taken to drinking brandy, the stuff I saw men in the stairwells drinking from plastic bottles in the Belleville District, where I had taken a hotel room paid for by the week. I came down from Clichy one afternoon, riding the subway, arising into the sunlight from the stairs. I looked up and she was there: from the waist up I could see her in the green silk dress, holding a crystal bottle in one hand, on a billboard atop a restaurant that rose just above the rooftop patio where couples sat drinking coffee beneath her breasts.
“Engager von Sens!” she said.
Not quite to the gutter I stopped, and a moment later was knocked down by a scooter. The driver swerved, cursed, and went on when he saw me stand. In the right lower corner of the sign, ‘Givauden.’
I swept weeks of neglect off the kitchen table and opened my laptop. There were dozens of numbers for Givauden International. Starting with the main office, I continued through one receptionist after another, describing the billboard in Belleville, said I represented the Whitney agency, wanted to hire the girl. When I finally made myself understood, they directed me to another phone, a location somewhere else I did not follow, to Monsieur Allemand, and after a long ring, the receiver lifted. He listened for a few minutes, then determining I was American and probably drunk, he said, “Impossible,” and hung up.
It was just outside the city proper. The next day I stole a yellow scooter and drove full throttle down the Champs–Élysées, beneath the Arc de Triomphe, my first sunrise in weeks. I spent the morning wandering around the Givauden corporate headquarters, wearing my Xerox shirt and a small tool belt. I was redirected without saying a word, to one office after another. No one’s copier was working. By two I had engaged an office boy who wanted to practice English, who told me that the girl on the billboard, all of the girls (there were more?) were handled by a Pubicis office in the 7th District.
I stopped there on the way home and hurried in, apologizing.
“But we do not have a Xerox,” the receptionist said. “Minolta, it is jammed all day.”
“I’ll have a look.” And I pulled it away from the wall. Across the lobby, a double door, ‘Directeur Arremand’. The door opened several times, where a little Claude Rains like fellow behind a mammoth walnut desk shuffled envelopes and photographs, frowning continuously.
I followed him that evening, torn between clubbing him with a ratchet for simply suggesting my dream was impossible, bridled by the knowledge that meeting her again might only be a day or two away. He took a table at a Bistro and looked at his watch. I took a seat facing him, at the next table.
“Monsieur Arremand?” I said finally, timidly, and exposing my entire subterfuge, laid the previous four years at his feet, omitting nothing, in a confession that might have humbled Saint Augustine.
He sat for a while, weaving his fingers together, then drummed the table top. “Her name is not Audrey.” He looked me in the eye. “You are a passionate man. I owe you an apology.” He paused. “It is impossible, only because, these girl, you love so much…she is not real.”
“But I held her, kissed her, I…”
He raised a finger and shook it gently. “She is, how do you say? A compose. Digital. She is five girls.”
I might have teared, I might have said no, I don’t know how I responded, but he reached over and laid a hand on my arm.
“Yes, I am afraid. The hair, it came from Bridgette—she still works in one of our studios. The mouth, a girl named Amilie. She is in Denmark now, I think.” He leaned forward, earnest, inspected my response. “The lips, from Anna Hirshaur, a girl who comes down from Cologne for some shoots.”
“But the eyes, the green eyes.”
“They were blue. We colored them, with the computer, you know. Victoria Rochelle. She is in Paris now. We named a scent after her.” He shrugged. “It is good to know this, that this girl, was such an object of your attention. Did you buy much perfume?”
I took an apartment across from the restaurant on Rue de Charonne, a building with fewer residents each week. I could not read the postings at the door that announced it would be torn down. Aside from some junkies in the basement I was eventually the only resident.
The electricity is off now, and I build fires of trash and broken furniture in the small fireplace and shower in cold water when it still runs. Each morning I awaken and look into her eyes, and each night she fades as the lights turn off–tabletop candles extinguished on the rooftop restaurant.
Workers are there now, they have rollers, brushes, standing in the chill October afternoon, debating if they have placed the first panel properly. ‘FIAT’ now covers her right breast. I know they will be covering the rest of her soon. It is the 27th of October, four years since first she kissed me.