The sample was cheap and small and arrived five days after I ordered it. With no brand, no bottle, and no color, it looked like water. It was called Hg.
I had chosen the sample because I wanted something challenging and weird, because a website told me I should, because I knew nothing about perfume. Because once I saw my friend, a man, a constellation of all the traits a man like me should be drawn to, spray himself with cologne. He used it as we were getting ready for a night of drinking and dancing and finding other strange men to dance with. At first, the smell was overbearing. But it was a fleeting overstimulation that quickly decayed, leaving only the desire to emulate.
I was 5’9 and 265 pounds, and my body was a creature I was still, am still, learning to domesticate. Dieting worked until it didn’t. Creating dream books of all the clothes I was too fat to wear worked, until it didn’t. I was tired of changing, of waiting for change, of trying to find the junction of comfort and confidence, of obfuscation and suggestion.
There, in that cheap plastic vial, I knew, laid the nexus of the person I was and the person I wanted to be.
I sprayed my wrists and felt the liquid seep into the veined flesh. I inhaled.
Lemon, mandarin, aldehydes, oxyde accord, rhubarb
When I was a senior in high school, I worked on a project with the boy I had a crush on. Funny and smart and, at his core, kind. Even now, I believe he was kind. But what most compelled me was his body. Not the body itself but the way he wore it. He wasn’t fat like me, but his cheeks were fleshy, his belly just large enough to be called one. And yet even with this extra mass he carried his body with a confidence and grace I could only dream of. And I did, often, dream of his body. For months I tried to force myself into his shape. I started lifting weights. I got into fishing and off-roading. I adopted a hyper-straightness in the hopes that he would see me as similar, would overlook the attraction that bound itself to all my actions.
The project was intensive and lasted nearly half the school year. We were building a water-heating pipe system. We coiled tubes of copper and fit them in a small wooden box covered with a sheet of Plexiglas. We watched water flow down through the path we created together for hours a day, nearly every day, for five months.
Our teacher lent me a thermometer to measure the change in temperature. It was old, a small glass tube weighted by a small pearl of mercury. The only tell was the color: metallic silver instead of scarlet. Here was the faith she invested in me, her belief that I could handle something toxic.
It took less than a week for me to drop it.
I had tried to measure the water after another test and the glass slipped between my fingers. It was less than half a foot above the ground, but it was enough. The glass shattered. The mercury escaped.
When contained within a thermometer, mercury appears liquid; as the temperature rises and falls, it too expands and contracts. There is nothing to suggest the chaos of mercury released, the panic one feels when a toxic chemical does not spill but instead bounces, breaking into small beads that roll quickly away from sight.
Here we were in the boy’s garage surrounded by danger, where the only safe place to be was outside ourselves. We cautiously began the cleaning process, grabbing the globules of mercury with a wet sponge and double-bagging it in black garbage bags. We spent the rest of the day searching for and sponging up mercury. For years I wondered if, somewhere in that house, a bit of mercury had rolled into an unchecked space and sank into the house. If, even years later, I remained a part of that boy’s home in some way.
blackcurrant, geranium, violet
A perfume is made of three layered scent-types: topnotes, heartnotes, and basenotes. They evaporate in that order, from lightest to heaviest. The topnotes are what immediately grab us. The heartnotes are what resonate, what binds to our memories and emotions. Here, the slow burn of a moment, a feeling, an idea: the purest evocation of metaphor. And then the basenotes, the heaviest, weakest scents that signal the slow dissipation into memory.
When I inhaled the sample, I smelled something bright and metallic – the apex of a fever breaking. I thought it smelled nice. My mother, sister, boyfriend all thought it smelled nice. I consumed descriptions and reviews to try and delineate the niceness, to not just explain but believe that what I was wearing was not just a chemical. That the sample was, supposedly, perfume at its most avant-garde – scent as poetry. I wanted to use it and understand the heartnotes beyond the memories they educed – the thrill of hunting for mercury droplets, the shame of wanting a body I could never hold.
I rationed my sample carefully. I used it only when I felt prepared to devour it as art. Alone in my room, long after my family had gone to sleep, I would spray my wrists and inhale again and again and again, hoping to catch the scent of something more amorphous than metal. I would sit and watch the perfume evaporate, or seep into my skin, or whatever it is that perfumes do but I could not name the heartnotes or the basenotes. I could find no description more precise than “metallic” or “nice,” no emotion large enough to swallow the hatred of my body.
I used the last few drops of my sample on a night my boyfriend and I had tickets to a warehouse party. A party for men like us, or who wanted to be men like us, or wanted men like us. We built my outfit together, comparing underwear and shirts and socks and pants and gear. I needed to be seen, to be validated, to be wanted. With each new alteration I turned to my boyfriend. (“Is this sexy enough?” “Do these go together?” “Do I look like a schlub in this?” “Do I look fat in this?”)
“You’re beautiful,” he said. He took pictures of each new outfit and all I saw was a double chin, sagging tits, thunder thighs. Every time, he said, “You’re beautiful.”
It took too long to find an outfit I was happy with, for me to look at the photos my boyfriend took and to know, “Here is a body that someone else will want.” I imagined dancing with my boyfriend, our friends, their friends. Bodies dripping in sweat, battered by limp club music and cocktails, but still dancing. I imagined the convergence of these bodies, and I wanted to smell like something other than liquor and body odor; I wanted to smell nice.
I wet my wrists and neck with the final drops of perfume and breathed in that metallic smell and knew that the smell would fade by the time we would reach the party. No one would ask if I was wearing perfume, would say I smelled good, would ask about topnotes or heartnotes or basenotes. But I wouldn’t mind, because with this inscrutable liquid trapped within my body, I would dance.
patchouli, cedarwood, sandalwood, Tolu balm absolute