In the summer of 2008, I felt beautiful. It was the first time since childhood when I’d felt confident in a brash, unselfconscious sort of way. I was the queen of my high school, strutting down the hallways like runways each day, dressed in femme finery. Teachers adored me, I was making new friends left and right, and I was acing all my classes. Strolling through life in my signature beat-up black cowboy boots, I felt effortlessly powerful. Unstoppable.
It helped that a tall, gangly girl with rainbow hair was in love with me. It was the first time anyone had ever been in love with me. In a way I deeply regret in retrospect but that felt acceptable at the time, I let her fawn over me – encouraged it, even. She was a close friend and I always made it clear to her that friends were all we’d ever be, but I also liked the way she looked at me. I liked the love letters she wrote me in Facebook messages and Honesty Box missives. I liked the casual cuddling on couches, the dates-that-were-not-dates at coffee shops and art galleries, the endless compliments and harmless flirtation. I liked it all.
The smell of that summer, in my memory, is Kate by Kate Moss perfume. Designer fragrances were out of the realm of acquirability for me, with a meager allowance from my parents being my only income – but I fell in love with the Kate Moss scent one day in a drugstore and resolved to buy it. After saving for months, I finally scraped up enough cash to buy the smallest bottle. I spritzed some on my neck as I left the perfume shop, and carried the precious pink fluid home as carefully as I could, my life already feeling revolutionized and beautified by this scent.
Simultaneously spicy and floral, “Kate” embodied the ballsy femininity I prided myself on at age sixteen (and still do now, when I’m at my best). I wore it that summer, in parks, on rooftops, in alleys, on grassy hilltops beneath big starry skies. I wore it on pseudo-dates with my ladylove-who-I-did-not-love. I was probably wearing it the night I lost my virginity to her, whispering giggly secrets in my tiny twin bed.
When I ponder the notion of “signature scents,” Kate by Kate Moss is the first one I think of for myself – and not just because of the name. It captures a moment in my personal history that I wish I could cling onto forever: a liberated sassiness, a pink dress hitched up to reveal white cotton panties, a gingery kick of joy right in your gut. The perfume’s been discontinued, so I can’t bring myself to use up the remaining dregs in that pink bottle that still sits on my dresser. I just lift it to my nose from time to time, inhale deeply, and think of that girl I used to be.
“Pleasant scents” and “pleasant men” have always been linked in my mind – dating back, I suppose, all the way to breathing in my dad’s Irish Spring and aftershave when I sat on his lap as a youngin’. But the first time I remember there being desire mixed into that feeling, it was focused on my high school philosophy teacher.
Dorky, charismatic, and paternalistic, he was utterly my type. I’d watch him enthuse about Kierkegaard or Sartre, wildly waving his arms and pointing passionately at a Powerpoint, and I’d melt into my hard wooden Toronto District School Board chair. How could any person be so perfect?
If you found yourself in the enviable position of walking behind him in one of our school’s tight stairwells, you’d get a definite whiff of something. A clean-hot-man type of scent. I don’t know what it was – cologne, aftershave, shampoo, maybe just soap. It was intoxicating, like everything else about him.
I once overheard some other girls discussing this experience – the walking behind him in the hall, the deep lungfuls of Attractive Man – and I felt strangely infringed upon, like they had stolen some moments that were supposed to be mine and mine alone. At the time, my own fragrance of choice was Lust by Lush, a jasmine-heavy and aggressively sexy scent that I soon had to stop wearing because it made my best friend sneeze incessantly every time I got near her. This, coupled with my hopeless crush on a married and unattainable grown-up, was utterly emblematic of how awkward and unsexy I felt at the time. Teenage Kate would pile on the jasmine in an effort to be half as bewitching as her philosophy teacher, but she never quite got there.
My first serious boyfriend just smelled right. He wore no cologne; it was the smell of his skin itself that I picked up on when I pressed my nose to his chest during long, lazy lie-ins. I was content to silently inhale him for minutes at a time, in that way you get when you’re obnoxiously in love.
The scent reminded me of vanilla or fresh-baked bread. It didn’t actually resemble those aromas, but it felt like them; it held the same deep sense of comfort and rightness that bread and vanilla do. My contentment, when my nose was squished against his warm body in bed, was akin to when you’re six years old and your mom is baking sugar cookies. That uncomplicated, expectant joy. All you have to do right now – your only responsibility in the whole world – is to play, and have fun, and wait for the cookies to be done.
My mental illnesses can sometimes make me do, well, “crazy” things. Like stand in the deodorant aisle of the drugstore and sniff every variety of Old Spice until I find the right one, and then buy it, never really intending to wear it.
I did this one October afternoon because a boy had not texted me back. I could not believe he hadn’t texted me back. It felt like the most important thing in the world. We’d cuddled, and talked for hours, and had sex. There had been intimacy. It had felt real. Why wasn’t he texting me back?
The answer, I see now, is: our arrangement was casual from the get-go, never intended to be more than that. But at the time I was inexperienced with such things, and the magical closeness of orgasms and pillow-talk had cast a spell on me. I wanted him in a deeper-than-just-sex kind of way and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want me that way, too.
Hence: standing in an aggressively fluorescent Shoppers Drugmart, huffing Old Spice. I knew that was what he wore; he’d mentioned it offhandedly on our date when I told him he smelled good. There were many different Old Spice products on offer, and I sniffed each one: Krakengard, Steel Courage, Desperado. While the latter had a name that fit my mood, it wasn’t the right scent. It didn’t ping my nostrils with familiarity, or dampen my panties with Pavlovian associations.
When I found the right one, I looked at the label: it was called Swagger. How apt, for a boy who had swaggered nonchalantly into my life and then, just as nonchalantly, swaggered right back out of it again. I bought the deodorant, for reasons I still can’t quite articulate, and it’s still in my closet, never worn but often sniffed.
In the summer of 2015 I had just started a new job which required me to wake up at 4:40AM and take a 5AM bus to get to a 6AM shift. Most of the time, I hated it. But on one particular morning in August, I didn’t hate it quite as much, because there was a handsome man with me.
A long-time internet crush of mine, he’d taken me out for Thai food the night before, after which we’d meandered back to my place for Scrabble and (eventually) sex. Though I should’ve slept when we were through, I was so elated by the good sex and good conversations that I wanted to stay up all night. We went to a 24-hour diner, and then to a 24-hour coffee shop, and then it was time for me to get on the bus that would take me to work.
He waited at the bus stop with me, making idle chatter laced with dorky jokes. I half-feigned exhaustion, as an excuse to lay my head on his shoulder, in a gesture of intimacy that exceeded what he wanted from me but that I couldn’t help craving. “You smell good,” I commented, and he replied sheepishly, “It’s on purpose,” as if that somehow discounted what I had said.
I don’t think either of us knew, then, that we’d end up steady fuckbuddies for over a year and counting. That cologne he wore – Acqua di Gio, I later learned – became entrenched in my memory with good goofy sex and aimless late nights, like we’d shared that first time. Acqua di Gio has its fair share of haters; its mainstream popularity lends it a reputation as an Eau de Fuckboy of sorts. But that clean, oceanic scent just makes me think of this man I adore(d) and how much he didn’t adore me in quite the same way.
Over a year after that first night together, he came to a party at my house after we’d been apart for a while. Minutes before his arrival, I’d been wondering, Will we have sex tonight? but the moment I opened my front door to him, I knew the answer. He was wearing that cologne. He was trying – “on purpose,” he’d said – to smell good for me. I was gettin’ laaaid that night. And indeed, I did, the smell of oceans and unrequited love filling my nose.
“So what’s going on with you?” my aromatherapist friend Tynan asked me attentively, notebook and pen in hand. I promptly burst into tears.
Tynan had made me an aromatherapy blend before, so I knew the process. You outline your top three current complaints, whether mental or physical, and she ideally finds three essential oils which each address all three issues. Then she blends them together in a little vial, and when you wear a drop on the collar of your shirt, the scents infiltrate your brain through your nose and – through some kind of psychological aromatherapeutic alchemy – create change in your life.
The trouble was, the thing I most wanted to change in my life felt impossible to change – and I was hesitant to let it go. “I’m in love with someone who doesn’t love me back,” I admitted through a veil of tears. “I feel stuck. No one else is good enough. I swipe through dudes on Tinder and think, ‘Well, they’re not as smart/funny/perfect as he is, so what’s the point?’ I want to move on. I want to like someone who actually likes me back.” With that tirade off my chest, I progressed to the other issues bugging me: a sense of demotivation about my search for a new dayjob, and constantly chilly hands and feet from bad circulation.
“It sounds like all three of these issues relate to feeling ‘stuck’ and paralyzed,” Tynan said. “We need to get your energy moving again.” She flipped through an aromatherapy reference book, read me some passages, and had me sniff some oils. The mix we settled on was a particular ratio of key lime, palmarosa, and ginger – a blend designed to be uplifting and motivational. Tynan mixed the oils together in a small bottle and carefully inked the name of the blend onto the label: “Kick in the Pants for Kate.”
The finished blend is punchy and bold. I put it on first thing in the morning and feel enlivened, energized, ready to face the day. And I do think, in a weird sort of way, it helped me fall out of love with that man who was crushing my heart. My unrequited infatuations often stem from a feeling of powerlessness – the belief that I’m not good enough on my own, and have to rely on this idealized other person for all the humor, joy, and brightness in my life. Tynan’s powerful “Kick in the Pants” blend smells like strength to me. The more I wear it, the stronger I feel.
It drowns out the Acqua di Gio still haunting my heart. My own strength, it turns out, is bigger than that ocean of tears I once cried. Recently someone told me I smelled good, and I smiled at them and said: “It’s on purpose.”