Beauty industry

Getting a Scent of Myself Amid the Grief

Two years after her husband's death, the writer shops the beauty aisle at an upscale drugstore in preparation for her first date. And finds a message in a bottle that helps her move on.

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As I pull my sweater over my head one recent night, tired, distracted, and undressing for bed, I catch a faint smell of vanilla and caramel—warm sweetness—mixed with the scent of my skin and merino wool. I recognize it as singularly my own—from a perfume I’ve come to associate so deeply with myself that I had almost forgotten how it came to be.

It was 2002. Two years into widowhood, 35, with a toddler, and I was about to make my first foray into online dating. Negotiating dating was a mystery to me; I can’t even remember how it happened—did he contact me or I him? Even online, I knew he was smart. I am probably the only person in the world who has ever cared about the quality of the writing on He passed that test. We had gone on a few dates—although I can’t remember them, either—dinner maybe? He was a Marxist professor with a penchant for cashmere sweaters, older, but that had been the case with my husband, too.

I got it into my head that if I was going to do this successfully—and maybe by then “this” and “successfully” meant that I would sleep with him—I needed something both concrete and symbolic to draw a boundary between my past (cancer widow, single mother) and my present—independent woman rebuilding her life. That is how I ended up at Colonial Drug, a little store in town that was not a pharmacy at all. It was known for another class of drugs altogether, its unusual offerings of fine perfume.

I went in, one wintery afternoon to the cluttered little store, which, tucked on the edge of Harvard Square, felt much safer than the glamorous demands of the department store cosmetics counter. First I pretended to browse the European toothpastes and bath oils, then the Mason Pearson hairbrushes. I listened to the salesman talk to a man buying perfume as a gift, “Is she girly-girl, or more modern?” he asked. He seemed to be trying to match style to scent. I marveled at the idea of a man buying perfume as a lover’s gift.

Finally, I muster all my courage to approach the counter: “I’m looking for a new perfume,” I announced with bravado. “Floral, citrus, or amber?” the man behind the counter asked. He was so not my idea of a perfume salesman: bald, polyester suit, moustache straight out of 1972. I had no idea how to answer because I wasn’t buying a new perfume. I was buying perfume for the first time ever. The only other perfume I’d ever worn had been borrowed from my younger sister, circa 1986.  I didn’t know if I was floral, citrus, or amber.  I didn’t really know who I was at all.

He sprayed a range of scents on little paper sticks. I sniff and pretend I am confident. Some are too grassy or acidic. Others smell cold and remind me of metal. Standing there, I know that not only my wrists—which smell of nothing but Dove soap–but all of me is a blank slate. I leave with a bottle of something called Alchimie, made by the house of Rochas. It was warm and sweet and soft—lily of the valley, musk, and jasmine. I left knowing that buying that perfume was a deliberate choice of self-definition—I had decided not to buy a push-up bra or lacy underwear, to not put something onto myself, but to search out something that would suit me more deeply—and make me more known to myself.

The whole thing was a self-conscious exercise in aspirations and risks and trying to figure out who I was. Even the name made sense to me—alchemy—the magical, chemical transformation of lesser materials into silver and gold. That material was me.

I remember unpacking the bottle that night while my son played in the bath. The golden, embossed package represented a kind of femininity that was elusive to me. French, knowing, composed. I was none of these things. I loved shoes and lipstick but assembling an outfit undid me—it still does. I relished the simplicity of my work clothes, the dressed-up Beat girl black uniform of a college professor, which protected me from anything having to do with fashion or self-expression. Otherwise, I bought my T-shirts at the Gap and wore jeans to the park to push my son in the baby swing.

Whatever I was doing felt like physical therapy—deliberate, small movements to strengthen muscles that had atrophied. Buying perfume couldn’t be anything but a reminder that I was acting alone. I remember spraying my wrists with that eau de parfum, and knowing, by that act, that my husband was gone. At first, the perfume didn’t make me feel sexy or alluring, just vulnerable and slightly uncomfortable. But it was a way to build up my strength.

There were a few more dates with the Marxist—who regaled me with stories of watching the French Open with a former prime minister—but we never slept together. I was too vulnerable or not ready or just too something else that had nothing to do with me. In hindsight, he was too old—it was time for me to have a peer as a partner—and too complicated.

For years, I wore that perfume as if I were trying to get a Girl Scout badge in transformation and self-knowledge. Over time I came to see it as the scent of my independence. I wore it without any particular sense of desire—I wasn’t wearing it as a way of attracting men in general or to be attractive to any particular man. No one had bought my perfume for me; the scent wasn’t shaped by anyone’s idea of me except my own. I wore it to be more comfortable in my own skin, because I thought then (and I still do) that being able to care for myself, to learn to appreciate myself for who I was and am—widow, thinker, writer, mother—would have to come first before I could really put myself in a couple again. I knew I wouldn’t be the same young woman I was in my marriage, and I wanted to be deliberately different. The choice of perfume signaled my intentions to myself.

And so when the right man did come along—and he did, eventually—I was ready, not with the perfume but because of the perfume. The perfume wasn’t a tool to attract him or a symbol of my desire for him. Instead, choosing it and wearing it long before he showed up had taught me something about myself. The perfume was the sign that I’d transformed myself—not through alchemy, but by seeing myself through change and a healthy stretch of solitude—and was ready to start again.

A decade later, the bottle of Alchimie still sits on my bureau. It’s out of production, but I am a creature of habit, so I buy it on eBay. I ration it for the most important occasions, and that’s not always Saturday at the symphony. Sometimes it’s when I throw on a sweater and jeans, sweep my hair into a ponytail, and run out the door for an errand. It’s a reminder that I’m still myself, no matter who I’m with.

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