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Vanilla, Incense, Oleander

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Perfume is like cocktails without the hangover, like chocolate without the calories, like an affair without tears, like a vacation from which you never have to come back.

—Marian Bendeth

 


 

His first love is a bottle of Chanel No. 5 sitting on his mother’s dresser, flawlessly elegant with its black-on-white letters and simple glass design half-full of chartreuse liquid. He thinks it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. His mother thinks the same.

“Can you smell the jasmine?” she asks, spraying a bit on his wrist. He can’t. He’s five years old and he’s not quite sure what jasmine smells like, and he’s not sure he likes the way the perfume smells on his wrist, either; it’s harsh, abrasive, it almost stings his nose. “Wait for it to dry first,” his mother laughs, and when it finally does, he tries again. He still can’t pick out the jasmine, but he decides he likes it better now. “It smells like home,” he says, and his mother laughs again.

He tries to pick out individual scents the way his mother can, but they get lost on his skin. He decides it’s a comforting thing, that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. No. 5 is a warm summer evening, tea with mint and honey on the balcony, the open arms of someone you love; Kuranosuke thinks it really does smell like home, and when his mother gives him the same half-used bottle on the day she leaves, he sprays it on before bed every night until the last drop is gone. He dreams of Bordeaux and Dresden, chenille and taffeta, warm hands and laughter and ham sandwiches on hard, crusty bread. He begins to pick out individual notes when he wakes up—sandalwood, neroli, the jasmine his mother had always loved, pale and disjointed, like the ghost of a half-remembered dream.

 


 

There’s a bottle of L’Air du Temps in the department store downtown that’s been whispering Kuranosuke’s name for the better part of a year. His brother tells him boys don’t wear women’s perfume, tries to steer him in the direction of a nice, age-appropriate men’s cologne instead, but Kuranosuke will hear nothing of it. “This one’s prettier,” he says, and Shu privately agrees. For months, when they go shopping, he insists on spraying it every time they pass the perfume counter. He holds his wrist to his nose and smiles, wide and warm and bright, in that nine-year-old way of his. It’s after one of these visits when Shu realizes for the first time that he’s not quite as pragmatic as he likes to think he is.

On Kuranosuke’s tenth birthday, after he’s supposed to be asleep, Shu takes a small package to his brother’s room and sits at the end of his bed. “Your birthday’s not over quite yet,” he says, and watches Kuranosuke open the box, gasp, and then fling himself at his brother in the span of about eight seconds. “Promise you’ll sleep,” he says. “You have school in the morning.” Kuranosuke promises four times and hugs him six more, and Shu decides he doesn’t particularly care if his ten-year-old brother wears women’s perfume. (At least he has good taste.)

Kuranosuke displays it proudly on top of his dresser. It’s his favorite perfume bottle yet, curved like an oil lamp with its frosted white doves locked in an eternal dance. He sprays it on his neck and both his wrists, resists the temptation to inhale it immediately and lets it develop on his skin the way he’s learned. He can pick out gardenia and iris, spicy carnation, cedar and vetiver at its very heart. It’s fiercely romantic, he realizes, simultaneously delicate and voracious. He thinks of his mother on stage, her long blonde hair, the rings on her fingers. Would she have worn L’Air du Temps? This was a perfume that took chances, that threw caution and good sense to the wind and walked along the seashore all day, scarf tied around her hair Grace Kelly-style, sipping white wine and falling in love with the sand and the stars.

The next day, after school, he puts on his stepmother’s red lipstick and fastens a string of fake pearls around his neck. He examines himself in the mirror, lifts his face up and smiles like Garbo, imagines himself with pencil-thin eyebrows and an accent like Dietrich. He sprays L’Air du Temps on his wrists, wonders where his mother is now, wonders what it might be like to fall in love.

Kuranosuke goes through quite a few bottles of L’Air du Temps with the years, but he always keeps the one his brother gave him in a dresser drawer, stuffed inside the same old yellow box.

 


 

Kuranosuke is twelve years old, and the boy has got it bad.

She’s a cute little thing who braids her hair with a purple ribbon and wears polka-dot socks to school every single day. Kuranosuke thinks she’s the prettiest girl in the entire world, and he can feel his head throbbing like a heart when tells her as much one autumn afternoon during recess.

He also tells her that she smells absolutely wonderful, and that seals the deal right then and there.

She giggles and waits for him after class, and they hold hands on their way to the bus, say their goodbyes when she gets off at her stop. It becomes routine; after two weeks of this, Kuranosuke finally works up the nerve to kiss her on the cheek; after three weeks, they go shopping together on a Saturday afternoon. They wind up at a familiar counter in Kuranosuke’s favorite department store, sampling perfume testers, and that’s when Kuranosuke sees it—Champs-Elysées. Guerlain, 1904. Mimosa, almond blossom, hibiscus, the bottle modeled in an homage to a woman’s body, all smooth glass and sharp, sharp curves. Champs-Elysées is the first perfume he buys for himself.

His friend (girlfriend, he reminds himself) says it smells old, like the pages of a worn-out library book. Champs-Elysées knows things, contains in its rose and cedar the infinite wisdom of a century-old woman, the whisper of promises on his skin.

He turns the bottle in his hands, palms on the delicate neck, the broad shoulders, narrow waist, liquid flowing like blood to the wide hips of a woman, of a wolf. Mère des vivants, très classique, mon coeur ne bat que pour toi. Kuranosuke feels himself teetering on the edge of something, something, and oh, there’s no word for this, none that he knows, just this feeling in his bones, coursing through his blood. He remembers Paris, London, Berlin and Madrid, dancing on cobblestone streets, the sway of the women’s skirts, calla lilies on the kitchen table and his mother’s hands in his hair, making a fishtail braid and teaching him how to dance.

He kisses the girl then, full on the mouth, eyes shut tight. “You look so alive,” he says, and she leans in to kiss him again, laughs against his lips.

 


 

Fourteen is difficult. Fourteen is difficult for a lot of reasons. There’s the funny looks, the cold shoulder, the disapproval his father doesn’t bother to hide; there’s the vortex of his own mind, churning, vicious, predatory. And Kuranosuke can’t quite figure out what anything means anymore. His father’s head-shaking and Shu’s gentle insistence that boys simply don’t do these things, their assertions that boys like Kuranosuke are supposed to be going to school and being prepared for office (at fourteen, fourteen!) aren’t helping much. Kuranosuke doesn’t have the slightest hint of what he wants to do, but he knows it does not involve being a blond version of Shu (with much better legs).

And when he’s fourteen, when he’s cold and lost and maybe just a little (very, very) lonely, he finds it.

Ma Griffe. My signature, my claw. It’s a serrated knife, Rue des Rosiers after a late-winter rain, clary sage and cinnamon. Crisp and cold, like a glass of champagne without even an afterthought of warmth. He wears it with his new cashmere sweater, his cabernet lipstick and heels, wears it like a warning:  I don’t let anyone touch me.

His father’s formal dinners and political machinations are an unfortunate fact of life, now that he’s old enough. Tonight, it’s some dignitary whose name escapes him, coming with his wife and son; Kuranosuke is to be on his best behavior, not ask strange questions, and lay off the lipstick for the night. If you’re lucky, he’d said, you might learn something. You’ll go into politics when you’re older, sure enough. Twenty minutes before he’s expected to make an appearance, he’s applying eyeliner and stepping into sensible heels, practicing his best low, throaty Hepburn in front of the mirror:  “Hello, Mr. Sasaki!”

When they arrive, the Koibuchi family ushers them into the dining room, and Shu calls Kuranosuke to come down.

“It’s wonderful to meet you.” Slow smile, wide eyes. He’s getting better with the voice.

“You didn’t tell me you had a daughter,” Mr. Political Dignitary says. From the corner of his eye, he can see his father cross his arms. Beside him, Shu’s jaw clenches. The politician’s son, a boy about Kuranosuke’s age, stares at him through dinner, eyes on the hollow of his throat, the coral-pink lips.

After dinner, he leans over the edge of the balcony while the sun sets and everyone else discusses Mr. So-and-So’s campaign for reelection over coffee. His son comes out to join him, stands near the table with his hands in his pockets. He’s not looking but he is; Kuranosuke can feel his eyes on the back of his legs, the curve of his spine, and when he smiles, it’s all jagged edges hard, hard eyes. “Want to know a secret?”

He doesn’t answer, but he does move a little closer. They’re just kids, just boys still unsure of their own minds, but Kuranosuke is learning to interpret that look on his face, the same thing he’s seen in other boys his age. It’s a, a, a hunger, or maybe just the same confusion Kuranosuke can’t put to words; but when the boy stands close, when he lets his hand brush Kuranosuke’s hip, he thinks he might know what this is. He might. (He might even know what to do with it.) “I’m not really a girl,” he says, crooked-mouthed, that practiced, airy tone.

“I know you’re not.” A pause, a heartbeat. “I don’t care.”

When Kuranosuke kisses him, it’s with none of the gentle fumbling and quivering fingers like it’s been with half the girls in his class. Kuranosuke digs his nails into his shoulders, opens his mouth and lets his tongue inside.

Kuranosuke is officially excused from any future dinner parties and political outings after their guests leave for the night. All things considered, it went much better than expected; he sent Mr. Big Important Politician’s son home smelling like galbanum and cold rain with ghost sensations of Kuranosuke’s teeth still playing at his lips. He turns his face up in the mirror, hangs his pearls around his neck like a prize.

 


 

In theory, his stepmother is a woman who should have spent every last cent of her patience and generosity raising a child for someone else and nurturing a husband who has always had—and will always have—his sights on something else.

In practice, she’s sitting at Kuranosuke’s desk with a smile on her face, back from a shopping trip in Tokyo. “You should have come with me,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe the sales. You’d have loved it.” She’s wearing a new jacket and a pair of flats that are almost certainly patent-leather Dior. For as long as he’s known her, she’s always had the same tiny wrinkles around her eyes when she smiles, always worn the same rosy lipstick, kept the same shoulder-length bob, and she’s always worn L’Heure Bleue on her wrists and elbows, the same calm, melancholy iris and anise that always makes him feel a little sleepy. It reminds him of Venice, watching the boats row by with his mother in the blue-black dark of sunset, the wrought-iron streetlights bending with the ripples on the water. (He almost told her this, once, but thought better of it.)

When he was younger, he sometimes wondered if she secretly hated him, counted the days until he was old enough to move out on his own; he wondered, again, when he decided politics were passé, when the crossdressing and penchant for all things pink and high fashion began to manifest, but she’s taken it all in that easy stride the way she seems to take everything. She does not budge. She never has. She’s grit her teeth and dug in her heels, weathered every storm and washed away all the debris, the way women do. She’s been the buoy that guides them all back home, back from their lying and cheating and confused, restless wandering. He can never really decide if he admires it or abhors it.

“I bought you something,” she says. On his dresser, sitting at the center of a growing collection, is a bottle of No. 19. Her lips quirk up at the corners, the way they always have, and the lines around her eyes almost break his heart.

He isn’t sure it suits him at first; it’s all leathery bergamot and green, green narcissus, a thousand memories blooming across his skin that he isn’t truly sure belong to him anymore. In the mirror, in his black skirt and heels, he can see his mother in himself; would she approve? Should he still resent her, leaving him here without a word, living a life half a world away? Or should he resent his stepmother, for refusing to shatter, for refusing to allow herself bitterness, for staying here when she could be—should be—on the streets of Venice herself, sipping blood-red merlot and starting all over just like his own mother did?

The next day, Kuranosuke buys a bottle of L’Heure Bleue from the department store downtown and finds that it’s much the same on him as No. 19:  too big, too deep, like trying on his mother’s old faux-fur coat and diamonds. He is fifteen years old, a child, and he truly feels the part.

He keeps them together, away from the rest. His two mothers, each a separate universe, each with their own crosses to bear, strong as lions, fighting every step of the way.

 


 

Shalimar hangs around his neck like a veil of Byzantine incense, myrrh and rich, smoky vanilla at its heavy heart. Shalimar, Shalimar, Temple of Love. He’s sixteen now, old enough to know what he’s after, old enough to know what most people want; how to give it to them, how not to.

The girl sitting across from him smirks and takes a drink. She’s got these incredible hazel eyes and a slight overbite, and when she slides her toes up Kuranosuke’s ankle he feigns passivity, checks his phone again. He already knows he will be going home with her.

“Don’t you want to dance?”

“Not in the mood, really.” He slides his foot back against hers. She knows his secret, has known for a while now, and simply looks out at him from over the rim of her glass, eyebrows slightly raised in something halfway between a question and a challenge. They’ve been sitting in this same spot, having this same conversation for nearly a week now, and they both know how tonight is going to play out. They’ve known from the start, even if they’ve never said it. (I know who you are, she’d said, but it hadn’t mattered at all.)

Once they’re inside her apartment, she locks the door behind them and slips her hands up his skirt. Kuranosuke laughs when she pushes him against the wall, again when they stumble into her half-closed bedroom door. “This would be easier if you’d just let me—”

“Did I ask for your opinion,” hissed into his ear, and she’s not looking for an answer; instead, she opens her mouth and lets Kuranosuke’s tongue inside. He doesn’t bother to take off his skirt, but she doesn’t want that anyway; she presses her nose to the curve of his neck and wraps a leg around his waist, asks him what perfume he’s wearing.

Later, he wakes up curled into her side like a nautilus, legs tangled, an arm thrown around her waist, unfurling slowly in the sheets. Kuranosuke wears his own skin the way he wears his silk and pearls, feeling utterly content as he looks down at the lights below from her third-story window. A bus lets some people off at the bar down the road and he stretches, a languid, luxurious thing bathed in rosy red light. He wonders if all of them are quite as they seem or if maybe there’s a liar in their midst too, someone playing both parts as well as he’s learned. He can still smell the vanilla on his skin, incense like worship, like ritual. He smiles, soft and sweet and secret, and stretches at the window, arms behind his back, man and woman lying together on his skin, chain links that cannot be uncoupled.

 


 

“Would you just open it? You’ll like it, I promise.”

“It’s nothing… weird?”

“When have I ever done anything weird?” Tsukimi just gives him that long-suffering stare that makes him feel slightly guilty and slightly something all at once. “Too weird. You know what I mean, just open it.”

She looks wary, but Tsukimi unwraps the box in her lap and pulls out a small porcelain-white bottle. Love in White, tied with a silver ribbon. Her eyes widen, the way they often do when she’s shocked or worried or happy or there happens to be a jellyfish in the vicinity; she turns it in her palms, and it makes Kuranosuke smile. “Put it on,” he pleads, doe eyes and all, and she does.

“It smells like the sea,” she says, bright-eyed, and there are about a million things Kuranosuke wants to say right now, like Everything makes me think of you and I don’t know how to stop, or I love it when you make that face, please don’t stop making that face.

“Actually, it’s orange zest and sandalwood,” he says, and wow, those eyes. “But yeah, it really does.”

And then they’re bustling around Tsukimi’s bedroom, looking for thread and strings of fake pearls and pink lace, and every so often Kuranosuke catches the smell of the sea, like warm sunshine and sand between his toes, and when did Tsukimi get so damn beautiful? When did he start thinking she was beautiful? When did everything start reminding him to think of her?

He knows what this is, knows every sign and symptom like the progression of a benign, if worrisome, disease. And he’s usually pretty good at this, playing his cards just right—cheating a bit, if he has to—and getting just what he wants, but something feels… different. Strange. When Tsukimi lifts her wrist to her nose, he flushes, when she speaks, his heart throbs double-time, and oh, when she smiles, she’s just so….

“Are you listening?”

A blink, and that withering stare. “Oh. Sorry, what?”

“I asked if you would like to go to the aquarium,” she says, and Kuranosuke—well, he tries his best not to blush and stammer and give her that moon-eyed look, but he fails pretty spectacularly. He feels like a child again, fumbling around in the dark with who-knows-what and not knowing what to do with it, but he’s pretty sure Tsukimi kind of, sort of, might possibly feel the same right now. Possibly. Maybe.

Eventually, he makes it home and goes to bed with a head full of seaweed and jellyfish, thinking of how he’ll braid Tsukimi’s hair tomorrow, of what heels he’ll wear, which perfume he’ll reach for. And halfway across town there’s a girl who smells like iris and daffodils and sun-drenched sand, whose thoughts may not be far from his own, who is waiting on him to pick out her lipstick and ride the train with her in the morning, and if Kuranosuke could bottle this, this, whatever this is, he thinks he would wear it every day like a ritual, all his own. It’s something to grow into, always a hidden note to find and learn, and as he drifts off to sleep, Kuranosuke thinks he just might never need anything else, and that thought, somehow, is more enticing than the promise of a thousand different bottles.