Style Observer

The Scent of Love

Sharon Leach

Sunday, April 07, 2019

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In Al Pacino's film Scent of a Woman , his character, Slade, a bitter blind army officer, goes on a trip to New York and tasks a young prep school assistant, played by Chris O'Donnell, to help him, among other things, pick out beautiful women on whom to work his charms before he commits a final act of suicide. But the assistant is young, not fully formed or surrendered to the world, so the older, more experienced Slade knows he must depend on his own heightened sense of smell to help him decide on the character of the women based on the fragrances they are wearing. Not such a fool's errand, those of us who are older will appreciate, because of a little something called pheromones, which fragrances have the power to highlight.

For me, my scent of a man moment came during my UWI days with my first real boyfriend. He was older; he'd been around the block a time or two. That was fine; I always gravitated toward older men. I don't know, daddy issues, perhaps? He was fluent in Spanish, French and German, and was looking forward to a career with the United Nations. Who didn't admire a man with the propensity for foreign languages? Personally, my forte was English, even though I was studying French Literature at the time. Still, I was enamoured.

But he was also incredibly flawed: loud, opinionated and pushy. Through the prism of infatuation, however, I read this as self-possessed, intelligent and bold. Physically, he was slight but whenever he opened his mouth to speak dammit, a lion's roar came out. I felt that roar would be able to protect me, should I ever need protecting. Protection from what, though? (Why are those bad, old days referred to as halcyon? There is so much we don't know while we are still unformed, isn't there?) But he chose me. I was 19 and completely lacking in self-regard. In other words, I was not yet the fly me I've come to be.

He quickly became mi familia. The sun, the moon, the stars. He wore Grey Flannel, and that was the smell of love, to me. To this day, I can't smell Grey Flannel without feeling nostalgic. Such a clean, subtle, grown-up-man's classic scent that stood out in an era when the more forceful, self-announcing Drakkar Noir was killing it with boys in my age group.

The affair of course did not withstand an entire term. How could it? He was a controlling bully who, among other things, strenuously objected to my friendship with gay boys. I had been perfectly willing to remain in denial about what this told me about him and the prospects for a long-term relationship between us. But then he threw down the gauntlet one day and demanded that I choose between him and La Cage Aux Folles. Looking back at it now, it was probably just his way of extricating himself from the relationship. He knew there was no way I would have given in to such a crass ultimatum.

Shockingly, the smell of Grey Flannel lingered. One would have thought I would have developed a deep aversion for that scent. But weirdly, I didn't. I think the cologne became associated not with the heartbreak but rather with the blush of first love and deep affection and the sense of rightness with the world I experienced with him in the early days. So when the next Significant Other, the one I still think of as the Love of My Life, appeared not long after, I don't know that I was terribly surprised that he, too, wore Grey Flannel.

This lover, too, was even older. I'd just finished university and he'd long been in a job, with a mortgage and a kid on the way. Although I didn't know that last part at the time. He was, on the surface, as different as could be from my first boyfriend. Gentler, kinder, sweeter, he was a musician with the presence of mind to hold down a nine-to-five, rather than become a cliché of the poor, starving artist. We were together for about two years and became closer than I ever imagined two people could be.

But there were problems. Of course there were. He was unfocused, disorganised and — weren't the men of my youth always? — sexist. But he was terribly cute and charming and a slick talker. Besides, his musicality was intoxicating. He would gently beat a rhythm on my naked body with his drum sticks and tell me about his future plans, the tweed smell of his Grey Flannel wafting out and filling the space between us. And though I don't seem to recall me ever figuring prominently in those plans, I still somehow managed to become blanketed in the warmth and well-being his Grey Flannel communicated, instead of questioning just how I fit into these plans. What was it about Grey Flannel that seemed to make me surrender myself in this way? Was it the cologne that made me do it?

“Women are the essence of life,” Al Pacino told Chris O'Donnell in The Scent of a Woman, but I'd flip the phrase around to say that men are. They're mine at least. Despite the pain of those relationships gone amok, in hindsight, there's no bitterness; they helped mould the person I've become, and I thank them (and their Grey Flannel) for being instrumental in the process.

It's been many years since I finally got the Grey Flannel monkey off my back. It's become something of an anachronism, this scent by Geoffrey Beene. More modern scents have mostly eclipsed it. Nowadays, it's all about high-end fragrances that exude sensuality, leather, cinnamon, animal magnetism, and what not. Your Dior Hommes, your Yves Saint Laurents, your Armanis, your Dolce and Gabbanas, your Bvlgaris. In the intervening years I've gone out with men who don't use Grey Flannel, some who don't use cologne at all. And in those cases, I've found myself snuggling up to them, sniffing their deodorant, their soap, any smell that will remind me of when I most felt love. And every now and then, I'll be somewhere, a brunch maybe, where there are older gentlemen present, and I'll catch a whiff of that smell I fell in love to, and in love with, and for a moment I'm transported back to good times.

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