Love ’s Baby Soft
Undertones of baby powder hint at innocence, for the time between Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers in bubble gum, a taste as pink as Hubba Bubba and real color. Later, the shades turn from bubble-pop to L’Oreal gloss in wine colors, as forbidden as men in ties, mom’s vodka, or her Virginia Slims. Maybe she filches them anyway. For now, her adulthood’s slung low like baggy pants on her slender hipbones, legs pegged, old chucks. She makes a habit of running with boys slightly older than her, every third named Mike. She yearns for their lips and the brush of their sandpapery hands, to run her fingers in their scruffy tufts of hair. They don’t see her that way, don’t notice the bubble gum, don’t smell her love, baby soft or not. The token Brian in the pack knows better, tells her that in a few years, they’ll devour her. Her response: she cracks her gum.
Bottle tall and fluted like a vessel for champagne, but at seven, when she first sprays it on herself it isn’t glamorous like she’s seen her mother do, neck craned, eyes half closed. Instead, she presses hard, nearly misting her eyes. The scent is pungent to her young, button nose. She doesn’t recognize it as the way her mother smells. Still, the bottle feels beautiful like potion when she strokes the glass in her hands, as if cut crystal from a palace someplace far away and very pretty.
Her mother’s vanity holds secrets she can’t fathom, a bit of something better than the cracker box house in the aging subdivision that was once so full of hope that the names of streets evoke pastoral scenes: Everwood, Green Glade Drive. They are starter homes, fixer-uppers. On theirs the paint is starting to peel, flowerboxes barely tended. Inside, her mother’s vanity is smooth, deep cherry wood, the one thing kept polished and clean. The matching bench upholstered in velvet makes her feel princess-like, important. Her mother goes on many dates, wears lacey slips and perfume and make-up. She is still too young to understand her mother’s ways. The men, she does not know, are not princes.
She smears pink across her lips, the cool, golden bulled clutched in her fist. This must be the way to her mother’s beauty, if she could only figure out how. The pink is uneven and sticky on her small, pursed lips. She doesn’t feel beautiful or older or wiser. The alcohol smell of the perfume hangs heavy around her. She imagines the pressed powder being ground from pearls, imagines the silky wand of mascara that disappoints in clumps and smudges.
Downstairs, the babysitter wears Jean Naté body splash and blasts the television while making out with her boyfriend.
The cherished words of The Great Aunt, the one who purchases her first atomizer with hopes of making her a lady. The Great Aunt’s smooth skin and severe nose make her one who can wear China Red glaze on lips and fingertips. She’s the same Great Aunt who buys clothes and perfume on the Left Bank, always matches her handbag and shoes, and has never worn a pair of sneakers. The Great Aunt nags her about the jeans and the nail biting and to put her shoulders back.
The Great Aunt has no children. Instead, she has collected six engagement rings and when she has had enough cognac, which is not much, she will model all six together on her slender fingers. One golden setting cradles a ruby so giant it looks fake, like a hard candy she could pop in her mouth, suck all the sweetness out.
When she is not tipsy, the advice is dispensed. A proper young lady, The Great Aunt says, learns to talk and to walk. She goes to the theatre and sings in the choir, wears always a simple strand of good pearls. A proper young lady, according to The Great Aunt, dabs her fragrance behind her ears, and, when the time comes, where she hopes to be kissed. The Great Aunt calls it fragrance, not perfume.
There is a boyfriend, not a Mike or a Brian, but a young man with some good looks, a bit of charm. The Great Aunt does not approve of this boyfriend any more than she would the Mikes and Brians. The Mikes and Brians are, at least, who they are, but The Great Aunt feels the boyfriend lacks a sense of self. He keeps his bangs too shaggy, finds himself important for reading worn paperbacks about drifters and time-travelers. But his shoes, The Great Aunt points out, are not scuffed enough for a real wanderer.
In turn, the boyfriend doesn’t appreciate Chanel. He tells her she smells like an old lady. She refuses to let him nuzzle her neck the rest of the night. Afterwards, the atomizer sits virtually unused, nearly full, alone and tall and regal on top of the dresser, showing it’s interlocking C’s, its contents evaporating.
A simple stand of good pearls drape over her collarbone. The voice coach smells heavy like the change of autumn into winter, or like a woman who wears a mink coat. She doesn’t own one, but she could. The office is cold and a little cramped but full of tiny treasures. She knows she shouldn’t spy, but she does. The voice coach has traveled and had lovers, their notes sometimes carelessly tossed on the top of her desk, as if she wants the students to see.
The voice coach chooses her luxuries, drinks cheap Lipton tea in a thrift-store cup that looks, from a distance, like better china than it is. But, her perfume is lush and velvety like her voice.
The voice coach instructs her to practice more. She will never get better without practice. They both wear strands of pearls.
One of her favorite memories from childhood: clean Ivory soap, ninety-nine cents a bar. In college she has little extra, so the soap will have to do. It lathers white on her pink skin, and she uses it both to bathe and shave. The other smells of her small apartment: ramen noodles and instant coffee.
The boyfriend drops out and starts a band. He doesn’t notice her high marks and instructor encouragement. He loves the smell of soap left on her skin.
She remembers the ditty, something about bringing home the bacon, frying it up in a pan. Even though The Great Aunt died years ago, she still would not approve. The inexpensive glass cylinder’s encased in tough plastic, hanging from a rack at the drug store. She contemplates it, then passes it over. She’ll purchase Q-tips and Crest, toilet paper and aspirin. She’s found a job but it doesn’t pay well. No bacon, barely a pan. The boyfriend moved in months ago but is on the road and never seems to have money. She doesn’t go to many of his shows, only sometimes on the weekend, because she works and is studying for the GRE and GMAT and the LSAT trying to figure out what’s next.
Her mother wore Charlie to work with Liz Claiborne suits she saved up for, tailoring and hemming them herself. She bought them in black and navy, always stylish cuts, and changed the look with bright scarves. The Great Aunt never approved, but her mom made ends meet and went out with decent men who were never exciting enough to keep around very long. It was enough until it wasn’t. Then there was senior year shuttling between school and home and trying not to lose sight of what was important, not that she really ever knew.
When she sees the Charlie she starts to cry. She ducks into the drugstore bathroom and splashes her face with cool water and takes deep breaths until it only looks like she’s tired. The boyfriend is in Duluth or Dubuque or Des Moines, somewhere out in the big flat landscape playing the same dingy dark bar that exists everywhere there are young men and guitars and girls in torn mesh tights, wearing one cross earing. The same girls that nibble his ear, leaving their deep plum lipstick stains on his neck and shirt. The shirt she washes and bleaches anyway.
Adulthood feels fake. She’s sure everyone shops at The GAP and wears khakis that are basically the same, terrible pleated fronts and matching pocket tees. The idea that androgyny is sexy confuses her. Thoughtless times, carefully culling the sense that differences live inside each person. Advertising, she thinks, is a racket. Excitement resides elsewhere. Still, she fingers the bottle, lightly frosted. It reminds her of cheap liquor. The sample spray wafts citrus-clean mist and doesn’t evoke man or woman. It’s confusing. It’s so light that one can literally bathe in it, but someone else needs to be close to even notice it.
If you wear a scent and nobody smells it, is it wearing a scent?
She buys it anyway, and can smell only herself. She says she will kick the boyfriend out, but he only moves as far as the couch, the one from IKEA that was supposed to be easy to assemble. It ended up being a royal pain because they didn’t own real tools and the instructions were all but unreadable.
She wears her hair in ponytails again, with a blazer and sometimes the pearls The Great Aunt gave her years ago. He says she looks like a commercial, an airbrushed version of herself. Or a girl who dates boys in tweed sport coats. She tells him she might like tweed. She drinks Lipton tea and imagines their love notes littering her desk.
Before the blazer, the pony tail, she’s alone, naked, still damp from her shower, and she sprays her whole body in luxuriously long strokes. It’s floral and preppy, a mix so toxic to him she might as well be poison ivy. He is itching to go but still stays. The couch smells like sweat, cigarettes and Old Style. His band books fewer gigs, still he is out every night. She applies for fellowships and law school and MBAs. He continues to make fun of the preppy boys she’s yet to meet. Nolans or Colinses, or Blaines. Boys, she figures, that could pay their share of the rent and groceries.
When she sprays it, it’s not quite The Great Aunt, not quite her mother. Her nose, attuned, identifies all the flora: butterfly violets, mandarin, desert jasmine, camellia flowers, tangerine, black current flowers, Cherokee rose. When she gets accepted to almost every program, surprise sits on her shoulder. What is out there that is not here? A decision needs to be made. She coats the couch with all the contents of the half-full bottle, takes it to the dumpster and burns it down to ash.
The sales girl wears a lab coat and also recommends an acne scrub. Citrus and flowers and a tall clear cylinder with bright orange lettering. She feels hopeful. She buys the scrub, too. Neither will make her feel lousy.
It unfolded like sweaters pulled from the bottom drawer. She simply swept out the apartment and her car, packed with skill and efficiency. In the new place she arranged her CDs and books the way she had them in the days before him. She even threw away a half pack of Marlboros, the descendants of pilfered Virginia Slims, believing this time she’ll really quit.
In the store the overhead lights produce glare on the polished floor as if reflecting a memory that’s not hers, as the receipt prints to the background groove of Coldplay Muzak. The lab-coated sales girl wraps the box in bright-white tissue, gingerly places the purchase in a paper sack with slender handles. Happy, in the bag.
At her new apartment, she places the new acquisition on a silver tray on her bureau. It doesn’t need dusting. The bedroom is spotless, the bureau’s wood smooth as she remembers his skin, but smells clean and lemony in a way he never could.
She only hints at the bluebells. It’s supposed to usher in a lush time of life, but indulgence, real indulgence, alludes her. She admires routine, and also fresh vegetables from the farmer’s market where she occasionally flirts with the young-ish dairy farmer with the rosy cheeks and reddish blond hair. Her favorite is Gouda but she purchases his cheddar anyway, to eat on unsalted wafers. Paired with moderately-priced wine. She also buys radish and lettuce and blackberry jam. She likes to ride her bike to market or stay in her jammies on Sundays, reading the paper followed by a newish hardback from the library. She’s off the vodka and the cigarettes, likes cold coffee. Her china is mismatched to her liking, but her handbags are never shabby.
There is Bamboo. White Rose. Cedarwood. Deeper than the name suggests, but she doesn’t really think about it. What she cares about it that it makes her feel like an adult, like when she bought the washer and dryer, no more stack of quarters and schlepping the contents of her hamper. There is Amber. Musk. She cranes her neck before she sprays, eyes half closed. She kept the scarves her mother used to wear and sometimes pairs them with her own well-cut suits. She carefully fingers the fabric before choosing, wondering if her mother was lonely.
Sometimes, The Great Aunt too. She looks up the old Mikes and Brian on the internet, but never contacts them. They have families or they don’t, survived dot com crashes and car wrecks and thyroid cancer. Occasionally she considers getting the old ruby ring out of the safety deposit box but doesn’t. She’d never wear it. The great lump of stone still like candy reminds her of all the women she will never be. Waiting, however, suits her. Quiet but not morose. The days are a smudge of gray on gray, the cold rain not blue but clear.
On her birthday, the new boyfriend surprises her with the classic-cut bottle, like an old-time apothecary, the full-on perfume, not eau de toilette. Something beautiful for someone beautiful. His script in dark blue ink on heavy cream cardstock. She knows who approves.