Who Am I and What Should I Smell Like?
Credit: Photograph by Chris Buck
Coromandel, by Chanel; Jicky, by Guerlain; Yatagan, by Caron; Nightscape, by Ulrich Lang; Shaal-Nur, by Etro; Têtu, by JoAnne Bassett; Carnal Flower, by Frédéric Malle; L'Air du Désert Marocain, by Andy Tauer; Ambre Sultan, by Serge Lutens; Bodhi Sativa, by Parfums des Beaux Arts; Breath of God, by Lush; S-ex, by Christophe Laudamiel – all of these ridiculously expensive scents came to me in a week's time via eBay, manufacturer-begging, the Basenotes classifieds section, and sites like Theperfumedcourt.com, which decants bottles of perfume into smaller bottles, making sampling easier.

Basically, anything that any of the Basenotes guys said smelled like a winner – i.e., that reeked of swagger, style, panache, and, above all else, hardcore, sui-generis-type individuality that might set one apart from the common Joop!-wearing ruck – I went after. Soon I had 97 bottles of the stuff. I hate to say the total retail value. It makes me ill to think about. I won't even tell my girlfriend. Some things are just better off kept to oneself and, in fact, better still, hidden from oneself, which is how I made many of my buys: Just hit the PayPal button, don't even look, don't ask why, just do. Or else I'd puff myself up with patriotism à la Andy Warhol – "Buying is much more American than thinking, and I'm as American as they come," he once said – and justify the expense that way.

I piled all my perfumes on an old ping-pong table in the basement and covered them with a sheet, so my girlfriend wouldn't have to see them every time she came down to do the wash. Around midday, I'd toodle down with my first cup of coffee, whisk the sheet off, and decide on the day's trials. My method was always the same, as prescribed by my online betters. I'd take a strip of paper known as a fragrance blotter and spray the tip with, for instance, a little Bornéo 1834, by Serge Lutens, $140 for a tiny 50ml bottle. I'd shut my eyes to block out visual distractions, and then hold the strip about an inch from my nose and take short, shallow inhalations, sniff, sniff, sniff, trying to form an initial impression. Next, I'd bring the blotter to my lips and breathe in, adding taste sensation to the package, and exhale back up through my throat and out my nose. After that, I'd label the blotter and write down my thoughts – "Bornéo 1834, dirty chocolate and patchouli, fucking great" – and store it away for future reference. After that, I'd whiff some coffee beans to clear my olfactory palate and move on to the next scent. Sometimes I tested six perfumes in a day. But then I began sneezing all the time, blowing clouds of tissue-paper confetti into the air. It reminded me of my model-airplane-building hobby, when overexposure to cyanoacrylate glue led to an emergency-room visit and the end of my days as a hotshot balsa-wood flyboy.

So I started taking long breaks between sessions, during which I would look deeply into Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez's 384-page encyclopedic opus 'Perfumes: The A-Z Guide,' the bible for all scentaholics, with some 1,800 perfumes reviewed. "Ravishingly entertaining," John Lanchester wrote in the New Yorker, and he wasn't kidding. Velocity, by Mary Kay: "Functional citrus/white-floral thing, very nearly good enough for a window cleaner." Carthusia Uomo, by Carthusia: "Supposedly based on an old monastery formula and released in 1948 but could have been slapped together last Thursday." The reviews are just so damned droll, they're tiny bits of literature. "Listen to this one," I shouted to my girlfriend one morning. "It's for L'Air de Rien, by Miller Harris. 'It smells of boozy kisses, stale joss sticks, rising damp, and soiled underwear. I love it.' Isn't that great? You're expecting a put-down, but it ends in love. How great is that?" Silence. "Funny, right?" Silence. "You there?" Guess not.

Seven weeks in, I cracked open a flagon of Bond No. 9 Harrods Swarovski Limited Edition, $625 for 100ml with crystal bejeweled bottle, $330 without jewels, which is what I (uncharacteristically) was smart enough to get. Spritz, sniff, spritz, sniff. I tossed the blotter strip on the floor and sprayed the stuff all over me. Scuttling upstairs to the kitchen, I started shouting, "Smell, smell, smell!"

My girlfriend leaned into me and recoiled as if stung. "Yetch. It smells like plastic. What is that? Dirty old Band-Aid?"

I bobbed my head, happily. "Just so," I said. "It smells like the entire Space Age wrapped up in one. It's the one part of my childhood I can really remember. It's got Sputnik and monkeys in it. It's atomic. It's baseball. It's the Bay of Pigs. It's Eames. It's Naugahyde. God, it's just so perfect." I sniffed my forearm. "What do I detect? Amber, yes. Pepper, yes. Myrrh, yes. And oud. Just tons of oud."

"I know I'm going to regret this, but what's oud?"

I gave her a look. "Seriously? Oh, well, it's derived in its natural form from resin contained within a tropical evergreen called the agar tree. But here's the cool thing: The tree has to be infected with a particular fungus – Phialophora parasitica, if you must know – in order to produce the resin. It's among the most expensive oils in the world. Now whether this is real oud or a synthetic oud, I couldn't say, of course. If synthetic and produced by Firmenich, the Swiss aroma-chemicals monolith – well, scuttlebutt is its oud may irritate some users and get it in trouble with the International Fragrance Association, which, as you probably don't know, has gone overboard trying to protect the public from even the smallest chance of allergic upset by banning suspect synthetics and naturals in an entirely heavy-handed manner and. . . . Well, oud. I love it. And this stuff has it in spades. Oh, my God, I smell good. In fact, I've never smelled anything like me. I'm a new me!"

"I very much doubt it," she said. "You're just trying to be . . . perverse. And that stuff is just making you smell weird." She took a deep breath – as did I, because I knew what was coming next, some larger statement, one that had nothing to do with the fragrance at hand. She steadied herself on the sink. "I've about had it with all of this, and I'm thinking of moving out. I need you to stop it. And I need you to stop it now."

I smiled at her. "Babe," I said. "Good news. The hunt for my signature scent is over. I've found it. I need look no further." I opened my arms to her.

"Great," she said, and went back to the dishes.

A few hours later, though, she showed up in my study, where I was furrowed-brow busy trying to understand my attraction to the scent, as per something I'd read in the 'New York Times': "The search for the right perfume may be nothing less than the search for the essence of nostalgia, the after-scent of everything you once had within your grasp and can now only long for." That proved a little taxing, so I moved on to marveling at the superheated prose Bond uses in its sales literature: "Three years in the making, Bond No. 9 Harrods Limited Edition contains as its key ingredient not an oud approximation but the real thing, which has been accented and dressed with a cunning selection of like-minded rich and dense tree resins and spices that enhance its seductive essence. How better to capture both the cosmopolitanism of today's Arabian Peninsula and the magic of the 1,001 Arabian Nights?"

How cunning, and how better, indeed, I was thinking, when my girlfriend coughed to get my attention.

"Oh, hey, hon," I said. "Question answered: The oud in this frag is real!"

It was then that I noticed the slim volume she had in hand. She said, "I want you to listen to this and really hear what it's saying. It's by Pablo Neruda." She flipped open the book and began reading: "From every one of these days black as old iron/and opened up by the sun like big red oxen/and barely kept alive by air and by dreams/and suddenly and irremediably vanished/nothing has taken the place of my troubled beginnings/and the unequal measures pumping through my heart/are forged there day and night, all by themselves/adding up to messy and miserable sums."

I just stared at her. I drew a blank. I really had no idea what she was talking about. I loved how I smelled.