Who Am I and What Should I Smell Like?
Credit: Photograph by Chris Buck
The way I see it, almost every guy who's ever amounted to anything has had a signature scent and worn it without being paid to wear it. Among the living, Brad Pitt is known for wearing Lorenzo Villoresi Musk; Dale Earnhardt Jr., Drakkar Noir; Elton John, Zents Fig; George Bush, Gendarme; Mike Tyson, Gianni Vive Sulman Parfum VI; Prince Harry, Cool Water; and Pope Benedict XVI, since earlier this year, a Vatican-billions-depleting, one-of-a-kind scent from Silvana Casoli. Me, I've got nothing. I spend my days reading old messages on the forum. I've been especially enthralled by the ones discussing perfumes that have animalic, fecal edges to them, and I find myself oddly thrilled to learn the sources from which such scents are derived: "When a fragrance smells 'animalic'," wrote someone named Shamu1, "basically it means that it smells like it contains oils that come from animals, such as civet (from the anal glands of a civet cat), musks (testicles or scrotum of a deer), or castoreum (scrotum of a beaver, I think?). These scents tend to have a 'sweaty' or somewhat 'dirty' smell underlying them." Fascinating. And thus enlightened, I made a mental note to make beaver scrotum a talking point at my next social engagement. Then I set about ordering all the animalic perfumes I could, led by the acknowledged king of the fantastically fecal, Serge Lutens' Muscs Koublaï Khän, and a week later had them arrayed in front of me.

In the event, I found all of them gorgeous and frightening in equal measure, the logic of which was explained to me in yet another post, this one from a dude going by the name Scentemental: "The ambivalence we feel over the animalic notes is to a large extent caused by the tension these notes create in us as we try to process them olfactorily. Do I like this fecal/animalic smell? Yes I do, but, wait, maybe I don't, but then again, yes, I do, and before you know it, this vacillation has kept one engaged at a deep olfactory level. No other type of note creates this kind of tension. It's a 'troubling' attraction."

Indeed it is, but none proved more troubling and complicatedly compelling than a scent from a niche perfumery called Le Labo. The scent's name: Rose 31. The first time I wore it, I had nightmares. The second time, I tripped on a sidewalk crack and fractured my right pinkie toe. The third time, I swooned after my second postprandial cocktail, which I don't normally do until after my fifth. The fourth time, I was overcome with a weird, sunset longing for Georg Jensen's Mitra stainless-steel silverware, the place settings of my childhood. The fifth, I'm not saying. The sixth, a splitting headache. And so on: Each time, a new, unsettling occurrence somehow connected to the frag. I took to spritzing myself and then, for safety's sake, planting myself in a lounge chair, where I'd stay for the duration of the scent's lasting, with my eyeballs mostly rolled back in their sockets.

I couldn't even say what the fragrance was. I knew the ingredients – cumin, pepper, clove, nutmeg, olibanum, cedar, amber, oud, cistus, vetiver, and lots of rose – but what they amounted to in my mind, I couldn't quite get. It was always tumbling away from me, the way scents do, until the day I woke from a deep, troubled sleep and it came to me unbidden and out of the blue. Rose 31 smells like vagina. Without a doubt.

I scurried over to my computer and started a new Basenotes thread: "Rose 31 = Vagina?" First responses were tame, like, "Seriously?" and "Nope, not even close." From there, they slanted more toward the sophomoric, like, "Hold on. I'll have to go do a side-by-side comparison," to which another poster responded, "Is your sister visiting again?" Then came a few somewhat more considered posts, like, "It is not unheard of for women to perfume the area around the vagina. I think this is far more likely than any random scent capturing a note that is universal vagina." Then they started to get personal: "Send me your girlfriend so I can get a better understanding of what exactly you've been smelling." About 40 posts into the discussion, the admin jumped in, axed a good number of responses for being "too offensive even for this offensive thread," and locked it from further contribution. I sat back in my chair, stunned. My girlfriend swept by. I stopped her and told her everything that had happened. I was really kind of pissed. "I mean, what am I supposed to do, censor my nose?"

"Vagina? You think that stuff smells like vagina?"

"Well, don't you?"

She bent down, got right in my face. "How would I know?" she hissed. And then she left.

So what I did was, a week later, I packed up my bags and decided to take a trip to New York. It'd been a pretty crummy past couple of days. We'd gone to a dinner party where I'd stumbled around asking friends what they thought of my fragrance and what did it remind them of and didn't it remind them of vagina and, no, no, no, I'm serious, and please take the time to think about it and, well, OK, fair enough, and afterward, I had to listen to an angry voice saying, "What are you thinking? Did you see how our friends looked at you? First you tell them it smells like vagina, then you come out with the fact that you've deemed it your signature scent, the one that says you like no other. Don't you get how freaky-strange that is?" and not long after that, I started folding clothes into my suitcase. It was time to get out of this crummy small-minded nowheresville town.