Friday, October 25, 2013

On Being A Corpse Flower

One of the most common questions in response to my interest in perfumery is one I suspect every diehard marginalized hobbyist encounters with some regularity. “Oh, that's interesting. How did you get into that?”

I smelled like this...
I've told the story of how I came to clutch my first few sample vials a couple of times here on Feminine Things., but I don't think I've ever told the story of the moment I knew that this wasn't a temporary interest, but a lifelong passion I wouldn't be giving up. It wasn't when I first noticed my house was covered in smelly packages or that my collection was worth more than my car. It wasn't when I started carrying around a small tin of one milliliter glass samples of ten to fifteen scents at a time so I could, on a whim, whip out a new perfume and try it on or even just sniff lightly from the vial.

The moment I knew I had crossed the rubicon from someone who appreciates perfume into a true, diehard, lifelong perfume maniac came in one hard, somewhat hilarious slap to my fragile perfume ego.

I still remember it clearly. I woke up one morning, got dressed, carefully applied my make-up, and then completed my morning ritual the way I always do: I stand in front of a large cabinet of scents, trying to decide what I wanted to smell like for the day. Do I want to wear something only I can smell and enjoy, or do I want a scent someone else might notice? Do I want to wear the perfume or do I feel up to the challenge of trying out a perfume that will more or less wear me? Do I want to find comfort in a tried and true favorite, or boldly go where few olfactory explorers, including myself, have gone before? What do I want to say to the world today, or to myself?

On this particular occasion, I was feel daring. I would try something new, an impulse purchase from an indie perfumer I liked who was discontinuing a number of her scents and had offered them at essentially bargain basement prices. I'd tried the scent a little when I'd gotten it, but this would be my first full fledged wearing of the scent. I pulled a small one third ounce roller out and applied it amply – my wrists, my neck, the backs of my knees, even the dip of my cleavage. I smelled earthy with a hint of old, slightly mouldering moss that was covered in aged leather and coated in heaping dose of patchouli and civet. It was a powerful, rich, sexy perfume and I smelled wonderful.

...well....sort of.
With a spring in my step and a bass heavy song in my heart, I headed out the door and off to work. I was bouncing in time in my satin heels as I hummed all the way across the parking lot to my building. I said hello to the security guard and slid into the elevator, followed at the last minute by two women, their arms loaded down with folders and paperwork.

The women, who had been chatting quietly between themselves, became silent almost as soon as the doors closed. It seemed abrupt, but sometimes that happens in elevators, so I didn't think a lot of it. One of them started coughing, and I backed away a little, trying to avoid getting sick for the umpteeth time that year. The elevator pinged, the doors opened, and I exited quickly trying to outrun the germs and headed for a long day's slough in my cube.

I settled in and got to work, focused on the day's tasks. Occasionally, I would get a whiff of my lovely, sexy perfume, and I would give a small inward sigh of satisfaction. I loved it. I felt like I was some sort of woodland nymph, or like my Greek goddess namesake, Artemis, hunting through the woods with her bow and arrow.

About an hour after I arrived, the coworker who shared my cube wall abruptly stood up and headed for the kitchen, carrying his full trashcan in hand. “Great,” I thought. “That dude is finally emptying his trash.” A few minutes later he returned, and sat down. I could hear him banging agitatedly on his keyboard, but I tried to ignore it. After about ten minutes, he stood up again and began prowling around, openly sniffing at different people. Finally, and without any further introduction, he demanded, “Okay, who here smells like death?”

Dear reader, the death smeller was – you guessed it – me.

Titan Arum in close up.
As it turns out, not everyone enjoys the earth smell of rotting greenery, dirt, and yeah, shit. To me, I smelled primal. Sexy. Even, yes, dirty, but in the greatest way. To my coworker, I apparently smelled like something had died. I was a walking olfactory corpse. It was the perfume equivalent of aiming for goth girl reading Poe in a cemetery and instead managing to capture the smell of being found dead and half-eaten by cats after a week of decomposition when someone finally came to check on me because the mailbox was overflowing.

Now let me be clear: the perfume did not smell like death. It never did. But there was something about the combination of my own body chemistry that day and the somewhat inaccessible scent that made my coworker think that of rotting flesh and uncleaned litter boxes. And he was not nice about it, reader. He was on a mission to remove the death stink from his area. I snuck off to the bathroom and tried to scrub away the olfactory evidence with a wad of paper towels, then dabbed over it with an inoffensive aquatic sample I thought smelled like dish soap. When I returned to my desk, he was quiet, but it didn't matter. I was the death smeller, and everyone knew it.

Corpse Flower in bloom.
That was the moment I knew. Like the people who travel to experience the amorphophallus titanum bloom, those of us in the olfactory know become far more adventurous with our noses than any 'normal' person can really imagine. The Corpse Flower, as Titan Arum is more commonly known, is losing its natural habitat. For a flower the can go more than a decade between blooms, things don't look good on the survival front. And yet, I suspect few people will mourn the loss of a flower that has been described as smelling like rotting meat. But I will.

The truth is that the world is as full of smells as it is sights and sounds and tastes and touches. Like all those other senses, scent is evocative. Scent is illuminating. Scent is revolutionary. And that requires all kinds of scents and scent experiences, even challenging ones. We need to have our preconceptions of what someone should look like or sound like or, yes, even smell like, challenged. We need to be open to the possibility of something new, something different, and yes, even something 'bad.' And if that makes me a woman that smells like a Corpse Flower on occasion, then so be it. Let the zombie decay comparisons begin.

And for the record? I love my dirty perfume. I still have it. And my partner doesn't seem to think it smells like death at all.

License for Titan Arum in close up - some rights reserved by massmarrier
License for Corpse Flower in Bloom - some rights reserved by ingridtaylar.


Beautiful Things said...

Ha, ha! That did make me laugh. Clearly those people had no appreciation of fine perfume! I bet I'd have liked your 'corpse flower' perfume. x

Anonymous said...

Oh my word.

There was a Titan Arum that was looking set to bloom in Edinburgh's Botanic Gardens but it didn't get enough sunlight; I think such an unusual spectacle as one in full bloom here would have drawn a big crowd, me included, but I don't think many people would seek out that scent otherwise.

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh