Who Am I and What Should I Smell Like?
Credit: Photograph by Chris Buck
Amtrak took me into Manhattan's Penn Station and then a cab took me to the Nolita neighborhood, full of stubble-chinned hipsters, and dumped Rose 31–smelling me off outside Le Labo's New York home. What a nifty little store, very narrow, very stainless-steel industrial, with brown apothecary-type bottles lining the walls. It's supposed to look like a laboratory and it does; the counter girls, known as "essence assistants," wear white lab coats to gussy up the conceit, which is then made complete when one of them personally pours your choice of perfume into a bottle labeled with your name and hands it over, along with a hefty bill, $145 for 1.7 oz. I liked the place. For all the contrivances, it felt cozy. And it smelled great. And then in came one of Le Labo's founders, Fabrice Penot, a stubble-chinned hipster himself, obviously French, slender, handsome, and wearing a groovy Big Lebowski–type sweater, the T-shirt underneath kind of ratty in just the most perfectly appealing way. Nice. My kind of guy. And we got to chatting. Specifically, I wanted to know more about Rose 31.

"We wanted to do a rose for men," Penot said. "We were annoyed by the idea that a rose scent was seen as only for women. Like, what the fuck? I love the idea of a rose for men. Cumin is very important in our Rose 31. Maybe one of the most important. It smells in the drydown to me like man sweat. Once you catch it, you can't get it out of your brain. And then the cardamom, wow, it gives this spalike experience to me. And the ambrox, which is a synthetic ambergris, it smells like skin. The dirtiness is coming. You don't know if it's angel or evil."

He took a sip of his coffee and smiled at me. I smiled back. I nodded. I knew what he was talking about, and he knew that I knew. We were on the same wavelength.

This seemed as good a time as any.

"Vagina," I said. "I think it smells like vagina."

Someone guffawed in the background.

Penot took his time, rubbed his chin, looked away. "Yes, this perfume is very sexual," he said after a while. "I can't deny that. But vagina, I don't know. I don't get that."

He went silent again. The silence went on. I couldn't stand it. I began talking. I told Penot that I had evolved a theory. I told him that since so many of one's life choices are forced upon one by unresolved childhood trauma and conflict, it seems logical that one's choice of favorite perfumes might also be pinned to unresolved childhood conflicts and traumas, which are most often connected to one's mother. And that this might be particularly true in the case of a signature scent, where primacy is given to one scent above all others. Then I shut up. Because, in fact, I was speaking off the cuff, not really knowing what I was saying, making it up on the spot to fill the silence, but I suddenly sensed that I was headed someplace bad, maybe even evil, with a fragment of that New York Times quote – "the after-scent of everything you once had within your grasp and can now only long for" – and of that Pablo Neruda poem – "nothing has taken the place of my troubled beginnings" – cutting into my brain like thorns and needles. Happily, the exact childhood-memory correlate to my present-day interpretation of Rose 31's smell receded before it even appeared, but my heart pounded in my chest.

Penot actually looked alarmed.

"This is perhaps not the right place for that kind of thought," he said. "We kind of deny anything like that. You don't want to look at that."

I blanched, shivered, and my wrists ached, like somebody was holding me down, and as soon as I could, I excused myself. Next stop: the bathroom in Penn Station, where I scrubbed and scrubbed the Rose 31 off my skin. Christ, that was close, wasn't it? Penot was right. Some things you don't want to look at, or smell, ever again. Only one problem remained. I needed a new hobby. Seriously, I don't think life is worth living without a hobby or two, to help glide one through, above and beyond all of life's added-up messy and miserable sums, but it's got to be the right hobby, and you must take care.

Erik Hedegaard is a contributing editor. He profiled Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston in the October issue.