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sillage 

By Josephine Whittock 

 

My first girlfriend loved to wear lemongrass perfume. It was what caught my attention when we first met; such an unusual note, fresh lemon accentuated by spicy, herbal undertones. It was so evocative of her, her energy and temperament. I later learned that she collected multiple perfumes that featured that lemongrass scent, one of which she had made herself. In that way, she was also my introduction to my new favorite hobby. 

 

Our relationship didn’t last forever, ending in an exchange more explosive than either of us were expecting, but it lasted long enough for her to get me fully hooked on homemade perfume. She’d walked me through every step, uncharacteristically patient; sterilizing the bottles, adding in the fragrance oil note by note, leaving it to mature for a day or two in a dark cupboard. She told me she’d even tried making her own infused oils once; leaving the stalks in a jar filled with coconut oil for two entire months. It hadn’t been as strong as the commercially available packs she’d bought, but it was hers. She’d managed to preserve something she loved, and now she could take it with her everywhere. That was what mattered. I'd been enraptured from the very beginning, watching her hands as they measured out drop after drop, careful as anything. It was one of the last happy memories I had of being with her. 

I liked the idea of keeping something like that. Holding it to my chest, letting it linger on my skin, a snapshot of joy and comfort. My first attempt was sloppy, to be sure; I’d overdone it on the heart note, smothering the rest. I just couldn’t resist adding that lemongrass oil, capturing what I’d loved about my girlfriend in a bottle. The final product felt one-dimensional, lacking somehow. But it was okay, because next time I’d do better. 

My next lover favored warm, cozy scents; amber and resin and musk. I liked this about them, because amber notes were most often synthetic and could easily be purchased online. They always laughed when I rambled to them about the troubles with my new hobby, clumsy puppy-like attempts to try new things that faltered due to my lack of experience. I didn’t like that about them, when I really think about it. They laughed a little too easily, a little too condescending to convince me I wasn’t the true butt of the joke. But whenever I buried my nose into the crook of their neck to hide the tears pricking up at the corners of my eyes, I could always smell those delicious amber notes. Maple syrup. Pine tar. It was comfort in and of itself; it made their embrace feel inviting and warm, even if their whispered commentary into my ears said otherwise. I’m allowed to like that memory about them, at least. Savor that, even if every other recollection is stained. 

I’m just grateful they got bored of me first. It was to be expected, the way they acted near the end. And the beginning. Throughout it all, really. It didn’t matter. I had my amber accords to remember them by. That was enough, even if it wasn’t perfect. 

 

If you asked me whether I intentionally looked for someone whose scent was as far away from amber as you could get, I would deny it. But it certainly was a fortunate coincidence that the next man I fell into bed with liked green notes, coriander and patchouli. I always hated green notes. They were just too bitter, near-acrid; those sharp, herbal scents always smelled artificial to me. But I thought maybe this time I should try something new, expand out of my comfort zone. My own hobby was coming along leaps and bounds. I’d been using grain alcohol as my carrier for the longest time, the cheapest grocery-store vodka I could get my hands on. But as I sunk my fingers deeper and deeper into this new interest, I invested in real perfumer’s alcohol. Fancier bottles for the final product. Coconut oil and mason jars. 

I fell out of love with my boyfriend as I fell further in love with my craft. When he gently chided me for forgetting to eat, I invited him into my workspace to see how my newest blend reacted with his skin. When he asked why I insisted on sleeping so close to him at night, I reminded him about love languages and skin hunger and obligation. As any good partner should, really. And as our recent nightly tradition of raised voices and harsh words came to a close, I would sequester myself away and research the pros and cons of artificial musks. Every new suggestion on my part of experimenting with something fresh, or spicy, or warm, he would always return with that sickening coriander scent daubed on his wrists, as if to spite me. It didn’t suit him. Sometimes I’d imagine some other scent clinging to his clothes, his skin, and the thought warmed me more than his actual embrace did. The faux-memory was always so much more appealing than the real thing. 

 

I didn’t bother with green notes after the first few attempts. They never came out right. It was easier to focus on what I knew, that familiarity and comfort I’d been seeking. Wasn’t that justified? It felt that way to me, at least. It didn’t matter if they weren’t the ones he liked. Why should I concern myself with the opinions of someone who didn’t even care enough to stay? At least I bothered to remember him at all, and in a better way than he ever deserved. 

 

Nobody ever seemed to be the perfect fit. With every failure, every bitter and angry parting, my projects evolved, more daring with every attempt. I attempted gourmands, rich vanilla and sugar, after a girlfriend complained about a lack of personal space. Cedar and rosewood came with a partner who accepted a fifth gift of perfume much less graciously than the four that came before it. Ungrateful. I even tried working with stranger smells, gasoline and blood and smoke, after a partner suggested trying something weirder, stranger. They chickened out in the end, weren’t that serious about it, but it’s the thought that counts. 

 

I packed flower petals and blackberry leaves into mason jars, let them sit for months to truly make their scents my own, something comforting and familiar. Every blend was a piece of the people who left my life, the best parts of them that I could take with me. It was so easy to focus on the good parts, pick and choose the scents I wanted and leave the rest behind. Why would I focus on what had gone wrong, when I could remember all the nice things instead? The comfort of amber on the skin, the sweetness of vanilla behind the ears, what could have been fresh, clean notes on his wrists if he had just listened. All the unpleasantness strained out, their memory relegated to each of my pulse points. 

 

It was just a better method of preservation. It hurt less, to be certain. That awful, gut-wrenching feeling of loneliness, of wrongdoing, could be kept at bay. They were never quite perfect, but that was alright, wasn’t it? No matter my efforts, I remain a self-taught amateur (professional classes bored me to tears; I dislike being bossed around when I know what I’m doing), and I was trying my best. I would keep trying, again and again, even if it killed me. I experimented with different materials; carrier oils, different suppliers, plastic versus glass versus ceramic. Left the blends for different lengths, different proportions, different ratios. 

 

Even my most complex blends felt hollow. Saccharine. Flat. Like something vital had been scooped cleanly from inside them, leaving nothing but empty space where it had been.

 

It couldn’t be anything I was doing. It just couldn’t. I’d put so much effort into getting it right, mastering my craft, perfecting that memory until it didn’t hurt to think about anymore. Sleep was an obstacle and regular meals more of a bother than anything else; everything that got in the way of my work could be pushed aside until I figured out what was missing, what was lacking. Isn’t that a sign of highest devotion? I distilled my love until everything that made me feel cold, sterile, unloved dissipated, until only the best parts remained, the parts that didn’t hurt to think about. But nothing ever felt correct, nothing fully captured the essence of what I’d had. What was I forgetting? What was I doing wrong? 

 

It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault. 

It took me weeks before I came to my final conclusion. It was honestly laughable, how simple it all seemed once the pieces fell into place. I couldn’t stop laughing for hours afterwards. 

 

I’d never interrogated my ingredients. If all else fails, one looks to the source, right? Commercial fragrance oils are all well and good, but there’s something about raw material that’s just so much more authentic. True to life. Maybe that could give me the depth I’d been lacking, the insight into the memories I’d tried my best to replicate. Maybe it could give me an answer. 

 

It wasn’t anything I’ve been leaving out, of course not. It was what I hadn’t been adding in. 

 

Hair is close enough to fur, when you really think about it, and isn’t that common enough? And leather makes for a good base as well. Musk is already called a skin scent, and I’ve worked with that thousands of times. It’ll be a good, stable foundation to build on. I think I could use that more than anything. 

 

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. It will, of course, take a while to execute properly, but I have nothing but time now. Time to spend planning, learning, preparing. It’ll take effort, but anything like this is worth putting effort into, right? I’ll put the work in. I’ll make sure I’m doing things right this time. With this, the next one has to be better. 

 

And the one after that, and the one after that. 

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