When I was a child, I sat on my parents’ paisley bedspread and stared at the kaleidoscopic bottles of perfume arranged on my mother’s dresser: Chanel No. 5, Poison by Christian Dior, Opium by Yves Saint Laurent. They cast rainbows around the room in the right light, and I was mesmerized. Less appealing were the scents themselves, thickets of chemicals my young nose was too untrained to understand. But I knew even then that they were symbols of glamour, subtle ways to send signals in the night.
As I got older, I began to experiment. My grandmother dabbed Tresor behind my ears and it gave me a migraine. I saved up my allowance and, like so many kids of the nineties, spent it on travel-sized silver bottles of Gap Dream and Gap Heaven. As a teenager, my parents gave me Ralph by Ralph Lauren, because for some reason I wanted to smell like the sticky sweetness of a Jolly Rancher, or a tangerine putridly close to expiring. To no one’s surprise, the attention I most often caught was that of wasps at summertime barbecues. Later, I’d wear Chloe by Chloe, hoping in an awkward phase that it would flirt for me and because my boyfriend at the time liked it, and I did, too. And then there was Philosophy’s Falling in Love, because I wanted so badly to be sweet to everyone I knew. For a while, I wore Le Labo’s Labdanum 18, for a boyfriend who thought a carnation doused in baby powder smelled sexy as hell.
None of them lasted. And I realized, eventually, that every perfume I’d ever worn was to be something for somebody else. So I put them away.
It is not common knowledge that when you go in to the hospital to have pre-cancerous cells removed, you come out smelling like a rotten fish. The procedure leaves you with a scent that hangs onto you for more than a week. It makes sense; you go in to an exam room to have a little part of you burned away, and you come out smelling a little like a burn. It’s a lingering, acrid reminder in the days after, when you’re told that you don’t have to worry so much.
As anyone who has ever waited for test results knows, the unknown is an excruciating place to be stuck. For a month this spring, I wandered around, paid more attention, noticed better, wondered if I had cancer. When winter finally turned to warmer weather, the sky seemed the bluest of blue. I sat on a park bench beside a man rabidly scratching at a pile of lotto tickets, wishing for a little bit of that kind of faith. Walking through the rain one afternoon, I watched droplets fall into puddles, unfurling into endless ripples. That’s how cancer grows, I thought. But it’s also how time passes and, if you’re lucky, how love works, too.
Like so many moments that seem utterly trivial until they become pivotally significant, I stopped in to a shop in April to buy a bottle of shampoo because mine was running low. After walking purposefully to the back of the store and grabbing a purple tube of the usual stuff, I browsed a little, which I almost never do. A bottle nearby stood out to me, a glass vial that looked like something out of an apothecary shop. It read “Replica” in plain, blocky black type across the label. I’d never heard of the line, from the fashion house Maison Margiela. The accompanying copy read that the scent, Beach Walk, would evoke a walk on the beach with its notes of salt air, bergamot and coconut milk, which seemed to me like a lot to accomplish in just one whiff. Still, I picked it up and held it to my nose, which I almost never do. I spent the rest of the afternoon with my wrists affixed to my face, like a scratch-and-sniff sticker, except the sticker was me. It was the least perfume-like perfume I’d ever worn, and I knew right away I should have it and wear it and be my best scratch-and-sniff self every day.
When I was young, perfume was about transformation. But in the weeks before and after my procedure, I learned to value a scent’s transportive quality. As I swiped it across my collarbones each morning, my new perfume helped me both to forget and to remember, to feel a little less afraid. Gone was the burn, healing slowly, and in its place were the unbridled smiles of memories of my best-loved days, like when my dad would toss my sisters and me in the ocean’s thunderous waves as my mom and brother watched from shore; the feeling of awe as I stood, a speck of a human, facing a Pacific sunrise at daybreak; the afterglow of a near-perfect afternoon spent holding hands for the first time with someone new.
It seems natural now that such a scent would find me eventually, after 32 years of wandering, and that it would be a musky smell like a romp in the sand dunes, like unwashed, sun-baked summer skin, my favourite kind. A month after that serendipitous moment in the shop, and weeks after my procedure, I ran into an ex-boyfriend and we got to talking about perfume. “I can’t smell it,” he said, as I held my wrist up to his nose. But I could. I smiled. After all, it wasn’t for him, and in my mind I was already in the sand hundreds of miles away.
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