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Erogenous Zones: Scent language

H Felix Chau Bradley

July 8th, 2024

H Felix Chau Bradley on flirtation and connection through scent.

Recently, a cute barista at a café I frequent remarked that I smelled good. “Is it jasmine?” they asked. I flushed—with the pleasure of my perfume being noticed, but even more with the thrill of getting to talk about it with a stranger. “No, it’s not jasmine,” I told them, “but it’s got a hefty dose of tuberose in it, so it makes sense that you’d get confused, because tuberose and jasmine are both white florals, both indolic, which means that they are flowery with overripe, animalic undertones, which sounds gross but is actually really compelling to a lot of people—” Only then did I realize I was rambling, and that the barista had, after nodding politely, turned away to serve someone else. I flushed again, this time with embarrassment. Why couldn’t I have acted normally, given a regular, brief “thank you,” and gone on my way? 

Even though I’ve (mostly, and with some caution) returned to my social ways, after the long period of pandemic lockdowns and curfews in my city, I still can’t shake the worry that I don’t know how to interact with people anymore. Did I ever know how? Perfume has become a facilitator of connection for me. I love fragrances, and smells in general. I love the sensual excitement of odours—and I also, maybe most of all, love to talk about smelling with other people. This is how I flirt now. I mean flirting in the widest sense—making myself charming in an attempt to connect to other people, potential friends, or lovers, or artistic collaborators, or just strangers briefly encountered. It has energized me, after the lockdowns, to share a renewed curiosity about the sensual world, a childlike excitement about earthly materials, amidst the continuing onslaught of bad news.

Someone I dated during the early lockdowns was scent-obsessed, and, inevitably, they shared their library of essences and absolutes with me. Unable to go anywhere, we sat on their couch, unscrewing caps, huffing tagetes (marigold) and birch tar and vetiver and orris root (iris root), spraying their collected perfumes, until we thrummed with overstimulation, connecting smells and memories, concocting a miasma of nostalgia, traveling through time and space, all within the confines of their apartment. They told me about the dykey history of some of the most famous classic perfumes. I felt closer to them because of it, like they had let me in on a secret, like I was being invited to understand something about them—and possibly about myself. Previously, I had associated perfume with the stuffy, gender-separated floors of department stores, or with heteronormative notions of seduction. Now, I was discovering that I liked smoky leathers and vegetal, aromatic greens, that roses didn’t have to smell dusty, that there was an aroma chemical called geosmin that smelled like raw beets in the rain. It was like learning a new language, something I was also doing in that period—I was hellbent on making the restricted and confining world feel new, in any way possible. 

I haven’t been in touch with that date in a long time now, but since that first heady introduction, my scent obsession has ripened, steadily, with time. Now that I have more words for odours, now that I am more actively aware of smells, being out in the world has an added layer of novelty. In warm weather, I lean into strangers’ flower beds and fruit trees, I huff the smell of air conditioning in the library, I appreciate the fragrant nuances of my neighbors’ cooking more than I used to. Figs have a lactonic, milky quality to them, I now know; fresh airy smells can be reproduced with aldehydes; foody fragrances are called gourmands. 

I have become a purveyor of scents, too. I acquire perfume samples in frantic, excited bursts, and share them with anyone who visits my apartment and who is willing to undergo a smelling tour with me. Last year, I formed a perfume-smelling club with two other scent nerds, neither of whom I knew well—we now have a friendship that is centered on our fascination with weird fragrances. I recently met up with another writer in another city, someone I’d never met in person before, exclusively to share perfume samples. I’ve curated sets of samples for friends, based on what I think they’d like to smell. It’s typical now for me to show up to a friend’s house, or my partner’s house, with new vials in my bag, samples I insist we smell together before doing anything else. Now that I know the new language, I want to share it with others. The fascination, I find, is often contagious.

It’s not just the language, though; I want to smell different perfumes on other people’s skin, too. My partner’s skin runs hot and dry, unlike mine. I affectionately refer to them as “my furnace.” Certain rich perfumes that get lost on me smell mesmerizing on them—spicy ambers, oudhs, warm scents that open up on their skin, that flower at the crook of their neck. Some friends are perfectly suited to sweet, plasticky scents (Barbiecore!) that I dislike on myself but enjoy in another’s aura. After the recent years of physical distancing, it’s a delight now to lean in and smell a friend’s wrist, or behind their ear. For a long while, breathing in the company of others was dangerous. This is still a consideration, but I’m grateful to be able to come closer again, to brush nose against skin, to marinate in the fragrant embodiment of people I love.

Green and aromatic perfumes were my first fragrance loves, and they’re still my favorites, even though I’ve since branched out to leathers, chypres, woods, oudhs, musks, and even certain florals—the indolic ones. Below are five green perfumes that I swear by, all from independent perfume houses—one for each season, and a bonus. If we were together in person, I’d have you sniff a vial of each, I’d ask you to tell me what they remind you of, I’d have us dab them in the crooks of our elbows, on the soft skin of our forearms, or even in the dips of our clavicles, so that we could discover how, on each of us, they smell a little bit different.

WINTER: Snowy Owl by Zoologist

An owl swoops out from a musty barn, flies low over sunlit snow, searching for the telltale scamper of prey. Perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz manages an unlikely snow accord using mint, coconut, and calone, an aroma chemical that approximates the smell of watermelon. Best worn on a winter walk, working up a sweat in the cold.

SPRING: Green Spell by Eris

Antoine Lie conjures the immediacy, the spicy, almost sneezy odour of new leaves—tomato, fig, bitter galbanum—that smell that emerges when you rub them in your winter-parched fingers. Next come the tart blackcurrants, the zingy mandarin, the cool violet leaf. Green Spell, the first green perfume I ever fell for, is a sharp breath of air after a long winter. It’s time to plant, the summer is nearly here. This one is a little fleeting, but then, so is springtime.

SUMMER: Neon Graffiti by Jazmin Saraï 

I first tried this one in winter, and it landed flat, but when I sprayed it on in the warmth of summer, it opened up immediately, like flowers do in the right weather. Perfumer Dana El Masri gives us a juicy, zesty floral, with a dry woody backbone and a little bit of concrete, like oceanside greenery in a city somewhere in the Mediterranean or California. Wear it in the heat, let it bloom on your skin.

FALL: Coven by Andrea Maack 

Now the light is waning and the plants are wilting, and there is a browning, aromatic mulch underfoot. Icelandic visual artist Andrea Maack creates a mysterious, moss-witch effect that still manages to be warm, thanks to the whisky base note. Lean into its comforting bitterness at dusk, as the nights grow longer. 

BONUS: Nuit de Bakélite by Naomi Goodsir

I haven’t decided which season I like this one best for. It smells somehow both like an android—smooth and plasticky and seductive in a calculated way—and like a blooming garden at night, grown a little wild and riotous in the dark.