Two autumns ago, the autumn I would have given birth, I went to London and spent days wandering, working my sadness to sweat in the chilly gray rain. On my first aimless morning I walked from Notting Hill to Hyde Park and on to Brompton Oratory, in whose dark turrets candle smoke hung like clouds and at whose Sacred Heart altar I found a novena leaflet that read like a chain letter.
I considered the leaflet’s bald promise that in fourteen days of novenas and leaflet-ing, my dreams would come true. I pocketed it, knelt at the dim Mary Magdalene altar, and wrote my child’s name in the register of prayers.
Then I continued down the cobblestones and sidewalk to Harrod’s, where I walked straight to the parfumerie. I had just turned thirty. I was a woman. I needed a scent to follow me.
The Chanel counter struck me as a good place to start, but that first day I leaned awkwardly into its gold and glass buffet. I had never purchased a perfume before.
No. 19 was the scent I wanted first—grassy, rainy, like the damp greens I had crossed.
No. 5 fascinated me: it was very bodily, and years later, walking the streets of Vienna, I would pass the sweaty, doe-eyed horses of a hansom cab and recognize in the musk of their bodies and the tannins of their bridles some memory of that rich perfume.
But both scents were so foreign to the floral and vanilla fragrances that had always stood, in my mind, as feminine perfumes. A patient saleswoman noticed my worry and suggested that I spritz No. 19 on my neck, walk the city for a day, and see how it wore on my skin. If I liked it, I could come back and buy a bottle—and if I didn’t, I could try Coco or No. 5.
I took her up on the offer and returned every morning that week, wending my way back through Hyde Park and the dim Oratory to the bright Chanel counter. Each time, I decanted and mulled over all the perfumes and their beautiful bottles, and then I chose the one I would wear that day. Some perfumes pooled at my skin, sweet and rare but glassy, inert. Others clung awkwardly, catching and tugging at my own scent like the stitches of an unraveling scarf.
I couldn’t tell you which notes spoiled on my skin—neroli, mayrose, muguet. I knew and still know almost nothing about the essences and elixirs that compose modern perfumes. But I knew that while walking the fog and chill of that city, the grapefruit-tinged citron of Chance Eau Fraiche caramelized on my skin and made my body smell as if it had bloomed of its own accord.
That was what I longed for: to bloom, magically, despite death and fear and the shame of being a grave. Perhaps it was unwise of me to spend so much money on a small bottle of the leaf-green perfume, but I did it. And I did not regret it.
I still don’t regret it, especially in this new season of grief. A good friend recently asked me how I was making it through, and without a moment’s thought I said: “Chanel, lingerie, and anti-depressants.” “A formidable trifecta,” he said, and we both laughed, but not because it wasn’t true. Every day I have to do the frivolous work of reminding myself I am a body. If I don’t, I won’t make it through alive.
In the mornings I spray a cloud of the leaf-green perfume in the sunlight of my room and I walk through it slowly. The scent falls on my skin and hair, lingers for a bit, and then rises again, changed with my heat, and I know I still living, still breathing, still hazy and pink and alive with the maze of my own warm blood.