All of this happened last year before I spent those three weeks in Guadalajara. It was around the time that I mailed her the package with the stuffed animal and all of those pictures of our old life. We were nearly 18 months out of it, and I was only starting to get my sea legs. Still, I was pretty sure that when she got the parcel it would elicit some kind of emotional reaction. Our kids’ birthdays were in there. Time spent in foreign hotels. The dinner with the porn star after we won the raffle. That kind of thing. The package was forwarded to a new address but she never called or acknowledged that she received it. I was disappointed, but not really surprised. All of that old sentimental shit I was still feeling wasn’t much when measured against the weight of whatever new relationship of hers was now in full bloom.
I had just spent the day in jail visiting a bank robber client, Billy, from West Hollywood. When his family found out, his mother said, “You and your brother are huge disappointments to me. You are a bank robber and he is Mormon.” Billy was on his way to prison for a very long time. His boyfriend, Steve, would leave long sad messages on my office answering machine asking what he could do to get him out on probation, but there wasn’t really anything I could do for either of them. They caught Billy dead to rights. Steve was distraught. He had been raised in a super Catholic household and Billy kind of lifted him up out of that guilt and now he felt like he was alone and waiting to be judged for whatever acts of sodomy they had committed together.
There was the thing with the recently separated TV reporter that ended with me splitting with her the next morning between when we slept together and while she was picking up her kid from daycare. I just called and said I couldn’t do it anymore. There was Octomom who wouldn’t eat anything with colored eyes and Picky Girl who wouldn’t eat foods made of more than five ingredients. It was the same with all of them. I wanted nothing to last. I was no good to anyone. I always had my excuses at the ready, but they were just that. Just the very thought of going through that again, of voluntarily limiting my own freedom in any way, left me so terrified that I always ended it first and quickly. People were constantly coming into focus and then blurring into non-recognition.
Eventually, I had decided to go it alone for a while. I kept hurting people and knew it would have to stop. I could barely make it into work or court. Things would appear to start going well and then some small thing, some misstep, would leave me feeling as if I were floating in space. It frustrated me how much I still missed her. Let me be clear. There is no worse feeling in the world than unrequited love directed toward someone who you are pretty sure that in all likelihood blames you for everything that ever went wrong in their life. And even if that wasn’t the case, I knew that she had cast me as some kind of monster to her new social circle in such a way that she could never come back even if she wanted. It changed nothing, though. I felt as strongly as ever that she was my one true love and that this was just something that I’d have to accept.
I tried self improvement. I built a decent wardrobe, took up competitive running and strangely got into men’s fragrances. It was something about being able to have a sensual experience that wasn’t linked to a woman that appealed to me. The first person I slept with after we divorced, I just stared at the ceiling and wanted her so badly to leave me with my thoughts. What should have been beautiful was a punishment and a realization that I had ruined everything. It was the same with all of them. The perfume must have been a substitute for stuff sublimated I didn’t want to scratch too deep to face . Eventually, one bottle turned into 40 and I had read three books on the subject. Luca Turin was a favorite writer. He was kind of an angry catty fellow who could tie a narrative on the Peloponnesian War into a bitter missive about how Yves Saint Laurent spent 1979 betraying all American men by reformulating an eau de toilette that played well in Studio 54. It was all such nonsense, but it was nonsense that kept me from digging too deeply.
With all of the disposable income of a semi-successful criminal defense attorney, I was able to build a very respectable fragrance wardrobe. The powerhouse Chanels were the hardest to find. You had to order from Paris to get those. I also got into Guerlain and Caron. It was real old school stuff with roots that went back to the 1920s when flappers smelled like cigarettes and weed and men smelled like lime water. Kouros was of a fragrance reminiscent a filthy men’s restroom where you fucked someone you were just getting to know. Habit Rouge, which was a leathery lemon-vanilla bomb, was huge in 1965. Wearing it transported me to a place where surf and turf, chateaubriand for two, piano bar tunes and tableside caesar salad still were king. I took bubble baths too. I was trying to repair myself, I think, but couldn’t tell if it was working. For that brief spot in time, I became a walking encyclopedia on men’s perfume. I could name every year Christian Dior released a new fragrance and describe the basenotes for each brand. I could tell you what was an innovation and what was subject to criticism.
All of this leads to an experience I had, again just before I flew to Mexico, which is the point of this story. I was at a shopping mall in Boise and was picking up a bottle of Dior Fahrenheit for myself. It was right across the street from the county jail. I would kill time there if I wasn’t feeling like I wanted to return to work or was trying to emotionally shore myself up from the drain of having to spend time with a bunch of men and women who were on their way to prison. Today, I was avoiding another tearful afternoon with Billy who would undoubtedly lament about what he thought his doctor boyfriend was doing in West Hollywood while he was stuck waiting for the world to begin again. So there I was at the fragrance counter. In front of me, a shopgirl was arguing with a woman in her 80s. The woman sounded like she was from Eastern Europe and was wearing a fox fur thing that must have been quite fashionable in a long gone era. She was with an American woman in her 60s. Both women had the same upturned noses and the same wrinkles in the same places, so I presumed they were related.
“Ma’am,” the twenty-something salesgirl said, “I can assure you this is it. There is only one Sauvage.”
The old woman said, “No. You see, I have smelled this before. Many times. It is impossible. This is not it. I don’t see how this could be it. There is no hedione. I know this from before. How could I have forgotten?”
The American woman took the old woman’s arm, “Mom. It’s fine. People forget. Memories change. I can’t even tell you what dessert we had for Thanksgiving and that was a month ago.”
The old woman turned to her daughter, “Let’s just get it then. I’m tired.” She looked resigned. A little discouraged.
I turned to the old woman, “Were you looking for Eau Sauvage?”
“Yes. Yes. Sauvage.”
I looked at the shopgirl, “I think she wants Eau Sauvage. It’s a men’s cologne from the 1950s. The product you are trying to sell her, Sauvage, literally has no relationship to the former. Sauvage smells like soap. Eau Sauvage smells like citrus and oakmoss. Eau Sauvage is very hard to find outside of mail order although it is popular to this day in France. I quite enjoy it. Sauvage is one of those college kid fragrances.”
The salesgirl said, “Oh! Eau Sauvage. That just was released this year. We don’t have that one, but Sauvage, which we do have, is the original and is much stronger.”
I corrected her again. “Eau Sauvage is the original by over half a century. Weren’t you listening?”
The old woman then said, “Eau Sauvage. That’s it. I remember it from Paris. And what you are selling, Missy, smells nothing like it. I was correct and you were wrong.” She then turned on her heel and walked in the opposite direction back into the mall.
The salesgirl then turned to me, “I lost a sale. Gross. Thanks for the history lesson.”
I walked off too. My intervening left another two women no better off than when they met me. As I was getting into my car to go back to the jail, someone stopped me. It was the old lady’s American daughter.
She said, “I want you to know something. Our father died a few years ago. My mother wasn’t buying that cologne to wear herself. She was buying it so she could remember how Dad smelled. We got rid of a lot of things when he went into hospice including his clothes and his cologne. She wanted to smell him one last time, I guess. When you encountered us, Mom was starting to get really distressed. That cologne they were trying to sell her smelled nothing like dad, but she was starting to think maybe she was wrong; that she couldn’t remember that anymore. That he really did smell just like that. Do you understand what I am saying? That, outside of some old pictures, that everything else about him was truly gone. I realize this might not make sense to you now because you are still vital, but losing the last memory. For someone her age, it’s horrible. It was true love. They never left each other’s side.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to all of that, but leaned in to half hug her. We both said a quick goodbye and got into our respective vehicles. Her mother gave me an odd little wave as she drove off. I realized I never asked the old woman where she was from, but felt exiled and stateless from that place nonetheless.
Maybe a month or two before, I had written a long poem about the last one and I called it “Women and Men.” It was a bitter, nasty thing and I am ashamed of it. The only person that will ever read it is me, but I’m still ashamed. The first line was, “Is this what love is?” and then it was was my usual way of doing it. All her faults magnified against the backdrop of my long suffering and very public self-righteousness. Writing stuff like that only seemed to fuel my own sorrow and self-loathing, but it was much easier than passing a death sentence against myself. We tried to stay friends, but I cut things off with her about a year after our divorce. I couldn’t always remember her face except inside of the haze of dreams and I knew exactly what that meant.
She wore Chanel No. 19 and kept a bottle of Chanel No. 5 on the bathroom counter, but didn’t like it very much. I gave her tiny vintage samples of Tabac Blonde and Acqua di Parma one Christmas. She liked the idea behind Acqua di Parma more than she liked the perfume because Ava Gardner wore it and Ava had a troubled history with men too.
The way I am made kept it from lasting. A snake is coiled around the base of my skull and my face is filled with cotton. A wounded thing lives inside of my soul and I let her see it too often, but I still can’t smell Chanel No. 19 without getting a little sad.
The best parts of the life we led will always be with me. I will not describe them here because that wounded thing which resides within protects those memories and keeps them safe. Not knowing what comes next, I cannot say I will have these things forever, but I like to think so for it would be a shame for death to take those good things from this world. Not too much longer after that, I got on an airplane and left the country for a little while.
Jay Kiiha lives in Nampa, Idaho. He is currently working on a book of short stories and a novel.