Essay

Lust

Words by Denise Hamilton ’81
Illustration by Jason Holley

 

Biography

L.A.-based mystery novelist, Fulbright Scholar and former Los Angeles Times reporter Denise Hamilton writes about crime and perfume at www.denisehamilton.com. Her books have been finalists for the Edgar Allan Poe and the WILLA Literary Awards, and she is also the editor of the bestselling “Los Angeles Noir 1” and “Los Angeles Noir 2” short story anthologies.

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Also see Exit Lighting
By Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch

Return to Virtue Reality

Late at night while my family sleeps, I slip out of bed, tingling with anticipation, and fire up the computer.

In the flickering green light, I pass through electronic portals and am transported to a dream world where those like me gather to share our secret sensual obsession. Holding a vial to my nose,
I inhale deeply, then sag blissfully in my chair.

I’m a secret perfumista.

I lust after perfume.

Smell is probably the most overlooked of our five scenes, yet it’s extremely powerful in triggering memories, emotions and, yes, lust. One whiff of the old-school men’s cologne Aramis is enough to plunge me back into my 16-year-old self, awash in shivery longing for the boy whose skin bore its faint traces as we parked on a nighttime hillside in his red Trans-Am.

Today, Aramis is among the hundreds of perfumes I own, each bottle an alchemical portal into ecstasy or melancholy, to conjure departed loved ones, energize me for writing or relax me into languorous sleep. Especially with classic scents, lifting the glass stopper is like liberating a beautiful genie from her bottle and watching her spring full-blown into life.

So here I sit long after midnight, surrounded by bottles and sample vials, bidding on obscure vintages like Caron En Avion or Jean Patou Moment Supreme, swapping niche fragrances with perfume nuts from Singapore to Latvia, researching ambergris and castoreum, and dropping words like animalic, sillage and indolic into everyday conversation.

It’s painful to confess this irrational obsession with something so materialistic and banal. I don’t splurge on designer purses, shoes, motorcycles or single malt scotches, nor do I have enough disposable income to indulge my vice, er, hobby, to the hilt.

And yet as any collector knows, I feel lust in my heart for the object of my affection. And as soon as I procure one, I’m off chasing the next temptation. This causes me no end of soul-searching, because I consider it at odds with my Jesuit education. So as all clever Jesuitically trained people do, I’ve constructed syllogisms to defend this obsession that has taken root and, ahem, flowered.

Like all those engaged in illicit affairs of the heart, I create boundaries and hide expenditures. I buy in antique shops and seek out eBay bargains instead of haunting retail counters. I trade bottles I no longer use for ones I want to try. I buy samples first. And I’ve monetized my obsession as a onetime perfume columnist for Los Angeles Times Magazine.

I’ve also embraced the “I love her for her mind” argument. For me, perfume isn’t a frippery, it’s an artisanal art form on par with wine or cheese or bread-making. It takes skill and experience and a poetic soul. It’s a mixture of chemistry and art. Guerlain’s classic L’Heure Bleue or L’Artisan’s newish Seville A L’Aube jolt me with the same yesyesyes I felt upon seeing Monet’s “Water Lilies” for the first time.

It’s equally true that perfume has always made me giddy and dizzy with pleasure, sparking tiny olfactory orgasms long before
I could spell that word, much less understand it.

My mother was French and White Russian, you see, and some of my earliest memories are of dabbing on Madame Rochas, Rive Gauche, Chanel No. 5, Bellodgia and Je Reviens while striking poses in the mirror.

I wore scent all through LMU: Halston, Anais Anais, Estee Lauder Private Collection, Chanel Cristalle and Tatiana. For my mother and I, monogamy with a signature scent was silly when there were so many beauties to enjoy. We were perfume-promiscuous.

But my tumble down the rabbit hole into true obsession came when I happened upon a bottle of Donna Karan Chaos at a thrift store and was seduced by its musky, smoky, spicy, incense, oud and herbal notes. Researching it, I discovered a vibrant perfume community online that chatted 24/7 about perfume. It’s my “safe space” where we indulge the mutual lust whose name we dare not speak in the real world.

I lurk there still.