I’m fifth in line. The man in front of me, with thinning, shoulder-length hair and a faded denim-blue shirt, has two fingers looped through the plastic rings of a six-pack of Budweiser. An instrumental version of an old Michael Jackson song plays over the speakers. I hum along. A woman wearing slippers and hot pink pajama pants stands at the register with an oversized jug of Tide. The cashier frowns, holding a coupon that won’t scan. There’s a pile of change and crumpled bills on the counter.
The man shifts the six-pack to his other hand. In front of him, an olive-skinned teenager with blonde hair and dark roots holds a bottle of diet Coke. She stands sideways watching a video on her phone. I can see that the man is leaning forward to watch it.
I look away. I notice a wall of perfumes behind the counter on the shelves that used to hold cigarettes. They say scent is the strongest trigger of memory, but I don’t need to open the boxes to be transported.
Two matriarchs sit in the top left corner: Shalimar and Opium. Shalimar, a tasteful blue box with sophisticated gold lettering, is my grandmother. In my memories, she smells of Spritz cookies and Swiss Miss hot cocoa packets. Shalimar is the vanilla incense scent of speakeasies, of women in gloves and men in fedoras, and of grandmothers when they were young and pretty. My grandmother was once young and pretty, so I know it’s her. Opium, a burgundy box with gold bamboo leaves, is the spicy scent of my mother going out in lipstick, spaghetti straps, and large gold hoop earrings during my childhood. At the end of the night, the Opium spritzed onto her neck blended into the scent of cigarettes in her hair, and rosé on her lips.
Sometimes back then, my mother tied her hair up in rag curlers and unwound them hours later to reveal miles of soft, brown waves. Years later, I’d see the lead singer of Twisted Sister with long, wild hair like unraveled curls. I wondered if he bent at the waist like my mother and ran his fingers through his hair, a pile of discarded fabric strips on the dresser before him.
I scrutinize the rows of perfumes and realize it’s not a display of pretty boxes for sale. It’s a roadmap of my past.
Giorgio, in a yellow and white striped box on the shelf below Opium, is my mother when I was in eighth grade.
Giorgio smells like an ending: bright bursts of domestic violence that could no longer be contained.
Giorgio smells like a beginning: juvenile detention, social workers, and foster care.
My sister stayed and became an only child. I wasn’t allowed to have perfume in the system.
I have the letters I wrote to my mother during those years. At first, I begged her to move away from her boyfriend so I could come home. In some, I bargained. In others, I reasoned, using the big words of a precocious twelve-year-old who wanted to be a writer. In one, I wrote that she could try me out and give me back whenever she wanted.
I aged out of the system, letters unanswered.
My fingers grip the box of Benadryl I’ve come here to get for my husband. I rarely come to CVS at this time of night. Sometimes at nine o’clock, we’re wrapping up a photo shoot. I help the model out of the costume I’ve designed and sewn for her. I hold out my hand as she peels off the long press-on nails I’ve painted to match the wardrobe. I catch them as she drops them, one by one, into my palm with the sticky adhesive still attached.
My husband nestles his large, heavy camera into its case with care, and I hope he’ll want to go get a drink when the studio empties. At the bar, we’ll talk about which fashion magazines to submit the photos to, about my designs for our next shoot, or about his clients.
The instrumental has changed to a song I remember from high school. I once heard that if you enjoy the music piped into a store while you’re shopping, you’re their target market. My fingers tap to the beat on the box of Benadryl. They make a tiny, hollow sound.
Sunflowers sits near Giorgio, another yellow and white box. I turned twenty-one that year, working as a hostess at a steakhouse in the fancy mall across town from my cramped apartment.
I was bound for larceny, a week in the county jail, drugs and raves in Baltimore, and totaling my car when I shouldn’t have been driving it. I took the bus to work at the mall after that.
In jail, the first thing new girls ask is, “What did you do?” I learned that there is etiquette in jail, and this question is bad manners. Hardened women in forest green canvas scrubs and slip-on shoes with thin, slick plastic soles, many staring down weeks and months before their going-home day, don’t want to share what they did. It’s not like in the movies.
I glance at the woman in slippers at the register. She’s gesturing and the cashier is frowning. The line hasn’t moved. “Can you just try it one more time?” the woman asks.
I search the shelves and see the waypoints of my past embodied in scents and decorative boxes. My eyes prick with tears. I’m in line for my husband, not for this. I’m miles and decades beyond these boxes. But they’re here. I’m here. They’re me.
I look toward the lower shelves for the men’s cologne I wore two decades ago, Le Male by Jean-Paul Gaultier. I’m certain I’ll find it among the boxes and I do. The bottle is shaped like a headless, armless male torso in turquoise stripes. Instead of a box, it comes in a shiny, silver cylinder, a ribbed tin can.
The cashier utters, “Next, please,” and I look up to see the woman in slippers walking toward the exit, fingers circled through the detergent jug’s handle. I shuffle forward as the line moves. It would be easy to say Le Male was a dark time, but which time before this cologne was any lighter?
Le Male is the scent of Georgetown Spa with its table showers, massages, groping hands, and happy endings.
I was Lily, then Stephanie. One of my regulars went to Disney and brought me a Mickey Mouse keychain in the shape of an S. My name begins with a T.
I wore a push-up bra one size too large, and evenly tucked the folded bills into the cups with the twenties on the outside. There was no other place but my bra to put the money, so much of it most days that I could have thrown it out the window on the way home and still paid the rent. I didn’t think much about a savings account back then.
Sometimes at home, I washed my hands in scalding water and wept. Handsoap can only clean so much.
Decades later, I still recoil at the scent of baby oil.
My roommate did outcall with a burner cell phone, going to men’s houses. We both tried to quit, and we ate peanut butter and jelly on stale saltines together. We could not pay the rent.
I went back to the spa, and he went back to his burner.
The line moves again. I get a better view of the nicotine gum and patches behind the counter than the perfume. An attractive, twenty-something couple walks through the automatic sliding doors. The woman giggles and hugs the man’s arm for support, visibly tipsy. He holds a small red, white, and green pinata in his other hand, and I know they’ve just come from a birthday dinner at the Mexican restaurant at the end of the strip mall. Sometimes, my husband and I go there for margaritas. A few moments later, the woman shouts, “It’s down this aisle.” The man with the six-pack looks away from the teenager’s video toward the sound of her voice.
I turn to look back at the shelves for Hanae Mori. I can picture the shape of the bottle, square with a cap that resembles a pouf of tulle, but I cannot remember if the box has butterflies or flowers on it. I’m too far away to read the print on the boxes on the lower shelves, or the price tags below each box.
Hanae Mori was a gift from another regular, a respite from baby oil. He was young and nervous, only looking for someone to talk to. (A massage parlor is an expensive place to seek companionship.)
Many afternoons, we lay like spoons, fully dressed on the massage table. “This is what having a girlfriend feels like,” he said to me.
He gave me a pair of earrings with a nest of diamonds too large and heavy for my ears.
It was breaking the rules, but I went with him to my first afternoon tea at The Ritz. He introduced me to lapsang souchong, a flavor like drinking a campfire.
These days when I go to afternoon tea, I order lapsang souchong if it’s on the menu. The smoky, woodsy taste is exquisite, but not nostalgic. I’m not the same person who was Lily, or Stephanie, or laid like a spoon or a girlfriend for money.
I’m glad when the line moves again. I look at the Benadryl in my hand. I look at the brown, carpeted floor. The man in front of me is wearing work boots with a crust of red clay soil on the edge of the left heel. I think of looking back once more to scan the shelves for Hanae Mori.
I picture my husband at home with a sudden recurrence of childhood allergies, a man who has been sick only three times in our nine years, waiting for this Benadryl. He’s heard every story from Opium to Hanae Mori, plus other stories the universe was not kind enough to provide a pretty glass bottle of fragrance for.
He’s never judged me; he has stories of his own.
I exhale. It’s a small but welcome moment of comfort to think that although my husband doesn’t know it, we’ve been waiting together for the line to move.
The cashier calls out, “Next in line.” The man with the boots steps from the carpet onto the scuffed, white tiles in front of the register.
I’m next. I face the front of the store and I don’t turn around. I no longer need to know if Hanae Mori is there.