Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere
There is another fragrance, a woman’s perfume. No one I know has ever worn it. So there is no one to associate it with.
I discovered it one fall evening on my way home after a graduate seminar. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, there is a highend drugstore on Brattle Street, and sometimes, perhaps to dawdle and not head home sooner than I had to, I’d take the long way and stop inside. I liked Brattle Street around Harvard Square, especially in the early evening when the shops were all aglow and people were coming back from work, running last-minute errands, some with children in tow, the bustling traffic of people giving the sidewalks a heady feel I grew to love, if only because it seemed rife with prospects for the evening I already knew were false. The sidewalk was the only place I felt at home in this otherwise cold, anonymous part of town where I wasted so much time and so many years alone, and where everyone I knew always seemed so very busy doing such small things. I missed home, missed people, hated being alone, missed having tea, had tea alone to invoke the presence of someone over tea.
On such evenings the Café Algiers was always crowded. It was good to drink tea with strangers, even if one didn’t talk to them. A ziggurat of Twinings tins stood on a cluttered counter behind the cash register. I would eventually try each tea, from Darjeeling to Formosaoolong to Lapsang souchong and gunpowder green. I liked the idea of tea more than the flavors themselves, the way I liked the idea of tobacco more than of smoking, of people more than of friendship, of home more than my apartment on Craigie Street.
The pharmacy stood at the end of a stretch of stores near the corner of Church Street. It was the last spot before I’d turn and head home. I stepped in one evening. Inside, I discovered an entirely different world from the one I’d imagined. The tiny pharmacy was filled with luxury beauty products, luxury perfumes, shampoos of all nations, Old World soaps, balms, lotions, striped toothbrushes, badgers, old-empire shaving creams. I liked it in there. The antique cabinets, the ancient wares, the whole obsolescence of the shop, down to its outdated razors and aging, Central European owners, all seemed welcoming, solicitous. So I asked—because you couldn’t loiter without buying something—for an aftershave I thought they wouldn’t have, only to find that they not only carried it but also sold its many companion products. So I was obliged to buy something I had stopped using a decade earlier.
A few days later I was back, not just because the pharmacy helped put off my unavoidable walk home, or because I wished to repeat the experience of opening a door and lighting upon a universe of bygone toiletries, but because the store had itself become a last stop in an imaginary Old World, before that world turned into what it really was: Cambridge.
I came again early one evening after seeing a French film at the Brattle Theater. During the showing, it had started to snow outside, and the snow, fast piling on Cambridge, gave every sign of turning into a blizzard that night. A luminous halo hung over Brattle Street just outside the theater, as it had in the small town of Clermont-Ferrand in the movie. In the near-total absence of traffic, some neighborhood children had gathered outside the Casablanca restaurant with their sleds and were about to head down toward the Charles River. I envied them.
I did not want to go home. Instead, I decided to trundle over to my pharmacy. It seemed as good a destination as any. I pushed in the glass door as fast as I could, stamping my feet outside before taking shelter within. A young blond woman with a boy of about four was standing inside, holding a handkerchief to her son’s nose. The boy made an effort to blow but wasn’t successful. The mother smiled at him, at the salesgirl, at me, almost by way of apology, then folded the handkerchief and applied it to his nose again. “Noch einmal,” she added. The boy, sticking his head out of a red hood, blew. “Noch einmal,” she repeated with a tone of gentle entreaty, which reminded me of my own mother when she implored me to do things that were good for me, her voice filled with so vast a store of patience that it suddenly reminded me of how distant I’d grown from the love of others. Within moments, a cold whiff of air blew into the store. The mother had opened the door and, with her child bundled up, walked out into the snow.
Only the salesgirl and I were left. Perhaps because she was no longer in the mood for business on such a spellbound evening, or because it was almost closing time, the salesgirl, who knew me by then, said she would let me smell something really special, and named a perfume.
Had I heard of it? I thought I had— on second thought, I wasn’t sure. She ignored my attempted fib, and proceeded to open a tiny vial. Having moistened the glass stopper with the perfume, she dabbed it on her skin and in a gesture that made me think she was about to caress me on the cheek— which wouldn’t have surprised me, because I’d always felt she had a weakness for me, which was also why I’d come back— she brought an exposed smooth wrist gently to my lips, which I would have kissed on impulse if I hadn’t already seen the gesture performed at perfume counters.
No fragrance I’d ever known before smelled anything remotely similar to this. I was at once in Thailand and in France and on a vessel bound for the Bosporus with women who wore furs in the summer and spoke of Webern’s Langsamer Satz as they turned to me and whispered “Noch einmal?” It eclipsed every fragrance I’d known. It had lavender, but lavender derealized, deferred, dissembled, which is why I asked her to let me smell her wrist again, but she’d seen through my request, and wasn’t sure, as I wasn’t sure, that it was limited to perfume alone. Instead, she dabbed the bottle stopper on a scent strip, which she snapped out of a tiny wad filled with other strips, waved the paper ever so lightly in the air to let it dry, and then handed it to me, with a look of complicity that suggested she wasn’t about to be fooled by my curiosity and had already guessed that there were at least two women in my life who’d want nothing more than to see the scent strip I’d bring home that evening turn into a gift vial within days. That look flattered me no end.
I came back two evenings later, and then again, not for the store now, not for the snow, or for the elusive luster that hovered over Brattle Street in the evening, but for the revelation in that perfume bottle, for the women in furs who smoked Balkans aboard a yacht while watching the Hellespont drift in the distance. I did not even know whether the perfume was my reason for being in there or whether it had become an excuse, the mask behind the mask, because if it was the salesgirl I was after, or the women that the flicker in her eyes had invoked, I also felt that behind her was the image of another woman, my mother, in another perfume store, though I sensed that she too, perhaps, was nothing more than a mask, behind which was my father, years and years ago now, as he stood by the mirror, pleased to be the man he was when he dabbed lavender water on his cheeks after shaving. He too, like all the others now, reduced to a threadbare mask for the love and the happiness I was trying to find and despaired I’d never know. The scent summoned me like a numinous mirage from across a divide so difficult to cross that I thought it might not have anything to do with love either, for love couldn’t be the source of so much hardship, and therefore perhaps that love itself was a mask, and that if it wasn’t love I was after, then the very tip of this vortex around which I’d been circling had to do with me—just me—but a me that was squandered on so many spaces, and on so many layers, that it shifted like mercury the moment I touched it, or hid away like lanthanides, or flared up only to turn into the dullest substance a moment later.
The perfume was so expensive that all I could take with me, after coming up with more excuses, which seemed to prove to the salesgirl that there were other women in my life, was a sprinkle on a paper strip. I kept the strip with me, as if it belonged to someone who had gone away for a while and wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t sniff it each day.
About a week later, after seeing the same film, I rushed out of the theater and headed toward the pharmacy, only to find that it had already closed. I stayed around for a few minutes, thinking back to the evening when I’d seen the mother and son there, remembering her blond hair bundled under her hat and her eyes that had roamed around the store and lingered on mine while she urged her son on, sensing I both wanted and envied her. Had she overplayed her maternal gaze to forestall any attempt at conversation? Had the salesgirl intercepted my glance?
Now I pictured mother and son coming out of the store, the mother struggling to open her umbrella on Church Street as they headed toward the Cambridge Common, plodding across the empty field with their colored boots sinking deep into the snow, their backs forever turned to me. It felt so real, and they seemed to disappear with such haste as the wind gusted at their backs that I caught an impulse to cry out with the only words I knew: “Frau Noch Einmal . . . Frau Noch Einmal . . .”
At the time I thought they were an imaginary wife and an imaginary son, the ones I so desperately wished might be mine one day. Me coming back from work and getting off at Harvard Square, she on a last-minute errand before dinner, buying him a toy at the drugstore because she’d promised him one that morning—So what if we spoiled him a bit! Just fancy, running into each other in the snow, on this day of all days. But now, through the distance of years, I think she may have been my mother, and the little boy, me. Or perhaps all this is, as ever, a mask. I was both me and my father, me as a student who’d gone to the movies instead of the library, me as the boy’s better father, who’d probably have let him savor childhood a bit longer, me in the future giving the boy vague tips about things to come, all of it reminding me that the crib notes we sneak through time are written in invisible ink.
The boy from the pharmacy is thirty years old today—five years older than I was on the day I felt old enough to be his father. Yet, if I am younger still today than he is at thirty, I was on that day in the snow far older than either of us is today.
From time to time I revisit that perfume, especially when I wade through the cosmetics counters on the first floor of large department stores. Invariably I play dumb—“What’s this?” I ask, playing the hapless husband trying to buy a last- minute gift. And they tell me, and they spray it for me, and they give me sample strips, which I stick in my coat pocket, and take them out, and put them back in, dreaming back to those days when I dreamt of a life I’m no longer sure I lived.
Perhaps fragrance is the ultimate mask, the mask between me and the world, between me and me, the other me, the shadow me I trail and get hints of but cannot know, sensing all along that talk of another me is itself the most insidious mask of all. But then perhaps fragrance is nothing more than a meta phor for the “no” I brought to everything I saw when I could so easily have said “yes”— to myself, to my father, to life— perhaps because I never loved any of the things of the world well enough and hoped to hide this fact from myself by thinking I could do better by looking elsewhere, or because I loved and wanted each fragrance and couldn’t determine which to settle for, and therefore stored the very best till a second life rolled in. As irony would have it, the one perfume I want is the one I never purchased. It is also the one every woman I’ve known has cunningly refused to wear. So there is no one to remember it by. The perfume conjures an imagined life, it conjures no one.