By Maria Browning
It started, appropriately enough, with a bottle of My Sin that sat neglected on my grandmother’s dresser. Granny didn’t have much use for perfume. Her personal scent was a seasonally varied blend of freshly cut grass, Safeguard soap, face powder and turnip greens. My Sin was a rich, sophisticated French fragrance that was wildly popular in the 1950s. I think one of my uncles gave it to her. She put it in a place of honor, and as far as I know never touched it again. But I did.
I was probably 6 when I first noticed the elegant black flacon. It had a scary allure that kept beckoning me. Granny never told me to leave it alone, but after my first surreptitious sniff, I knew this stuff was not something little girls were supposed to play with. It smelled like its name. Sweet and romantic at first whiff, it was all musk and civet at its core. “Animalic” is the polite perfumer’s word for the carnal scent that a stolen dab left lingering on my skin. I was mystified, but I knew I wanted more.
By the time I was old enough to start buying my own perfume, My Sin had gone downmarket and become a drugstore cologne, eventually disappearing altogether. I grieved, but by then things had progressed far beyond the occasional innocent dab of a single fragrance. I had gathered a small collection made up of my mother’s cast-off Avons and whatever Cotys or Jovans beckoned to me from the shelves of the SuperX. I would become passionately attached to one or another for a few weeks, craving the smell, even dreaming about it. But for long periods I would abstain completely. I even gave away (oh, how I regret it now) two of the three scents I bought during a high school tour of Grasse, France, birthplace of modern perfumery.
Things went on that way for years. Sure, as I got older and had more money, I bought myself the odd bottle of expensive stuff. Maybe I was a little bit obsessive about my olfactory pleasures, using a bit too often and too much, but who among us doesn’t have her little indulgences? Everything would have been fine if Al Gore hadn’t invented the Internet. Just as the World Wide Web has enabled legions of compulsive gamblers and porn hounds, it has made it much too easy for scent fiends to score a fix. In the privacy of my home, I can surf dozens of dealers offering up almost every perfume on the planet and have my Precious shipped to me in a plain brown box. Those of us who love the older scents spend a lot of time on eBay, where decades-old bottles of rare juice are traded for incredible amounts of money. A few years ago I found myself seriously pondering a $250 bid for a questionable bottle of the late, lamented My Sin. It finally went for over $300. That was when I knew I was in trouble, and that I was not alone.
Perfume dependency takes many forms. Everyone is familiar with the “signature scent” slaves who get stuck on one fragrance, dousing themselves in ever increasing amounts as their noses become dulled to the smell. Eventually, they can’t smell it at all, and yet they feel compelled to go on spritzing until their entire environment reeks. I knew and disliked a girl at college who had just such an unhealthy relationship with Bonne Bell’s Skin Musk. The odor cloud rolled off her like a summer storm front, filled whatever room she was in, and then crept out the door and down the hall. At the time, I had no sympathy with her affliction, though I did appreciate the way it made her easy to avoid.
By contrast, I’m more of a closeted serial perfume abuser. My life is a search for the ultimate osmic high, one that will recapture the power of that first hit I took in my grandmother’s bedroom. I now own dozens of perfumes. The ones I am currently dallying with cover the dressers and shelves in my bedroom, while the unloved and outgrown are hidden away in boxes. It is hard to throw out a bottle of something that costs $75 an ounce, no matter how much it has come to remind you of cat pee.
Not that all my loves are high-class. I am something of a fragrance slut, to be honest. I own high-end Carons that can only be purchased at their New York and Paris boutiques, where—really, I’m not making this up—chic ladies dispense them from giant Baccarat crystal urns. But I’ve also got drugstore cheapies like Tabu and Chantilly that a lot of my fellow perfumistas wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. I love them all—or at least I am capable of loving them, depending on the weather, my mood, the phase of the moon, etc. The trouble is, nothing really does it for me now. It’s never as fantastic as I imagine it will be, pre-spritz. So I keep searching, keep buying. Some days I look around at all the alcohol-filled bottles and wonder how big the explosion would be if the house ever caught fire.
You can never get enough of what you don’t really want. I suppose if I were so inclined, I could plumb the depths of my psyche to find the root cause of this impulse to chase a pleasure so elusive, and so often unshared. (For the record, true scent junkies are undeterred by hand waving and rude references to bug spray.) Maybe there’s some lurking childhood trauma at work, or some deep character flaw. Sometimes it occurs to me that I might be the teensiest bit weak-willed and shallow. But hey, it’s not as if there’s any cause for shame here. It’s just perfume. There’s no law against it. And I can quit any time I want. Really.