I have a thing for fragrances.
I don’t specifically mean perfume, which I rarely buy or wear—although I do subscribe to what is ostensibly a perfume newsletter, and when I travel by plane, I read every description of every fragrance in the in-flight shopping magazine before takeoff (but then, I am the type of person who will generally read any printed material within my line of sight, particularly when trapped on a plane).
What I mean is fragrances in the broadest sense: the artificial smells of soaps and lotions, candles and room sprays, and the natural, ambient smells of everything from the spice cabinet in my kitchen (one of the best smells in the world) to warm concrete on a rainy day (also one of the best smells in the world). I am fixated on certain scents, and I search relentlessly for ways to surround myself with them.
I had a fragrance epiphany in Hong Kong airport a few years ago. After washing my hands in the airline lounge, I absent-mindedly pumped out some of the hand lotion mounted in a bracket next to the soap, and when its scent hit me, I blurted out “oh my god!” (luckily I was alone in the bathroom). There was soft, citrusy mandarin, resinous rosemary and—joy of joys, one of my favorite smells—the unexpected fragrance of warm cedar. When I rejoined Jeremy, I still had my hands pressed to my face and had to explain that I’d just used the best-smelling hand soap IN THE WORLD. I was instantly smitten.
The products turned out to be from Aesop, and I soon learned that I was very much not alone in my adoration of the brand. I subsequently dragged Jeremy to the Aesop shop in Sydney, where I found out just how much that fancy soap cost and instead bought a small but still eye-wateringly expensive tube of the marvelous hand lotion (sorry, I mean ~Resurrection Aromatique Hand Balm~), which I meted out in tiny dabs on my hands each night until the tube was empty. And then I bought another. And another. It is my little moment of olfactory hedonism before sleep: to squeeze out a speck of that lotion and sniff the backs of my hands until the scent starts to fade.
For two years I limited myself to that moderate luxury and resolutely refused to drop almost 30 quid (or 40 bucks) on a single bottle of the soap, because that is patently ludicrous. But in this as in so many things, the pandemic finally wore me down, and for my birthday this summer I treated myself to the precious soap and an even more stupidly expensive bottle of cedar-scented room spray—my reasoning being that my life for the foreseeable future will consist of sitting at home and washing my hands, so I might as well make that prospect as pleasant as possible. And I have no regrets. The soap delights me every time I use it, and I keep the room spray on my desk and often just pick it up and sniff the cap without even spraying it, although the label on the bottle advises me to “spritz as often as desired to recalibrate the spirit”—which, I knooow, it’s totally ridiculous. But also? It actually does recalibrate my spirit. So.
Smell isn’t really the thing here, though. Smell is the thing that gets you to thing. And the thing, in this case, is memory. I have vague childhood memories of opening a cedar chest and breathing in the piney aroma, and I have more recent memories of a cedar soaking tub in a traditional inn in Kyoto, and I suspect both of these recollections play a part in my obsession with cedar-scented Aesop products. And the smell of the Aesop soap has, in turn, become its own memory, one that recalls the thrill of being on an exciting trip and the precise moment when I washed my hands in a fancy airport lounge and was enveloped by pure aromatic bliss.
But the one smell I most long to recapture is the one that continually eludes me. It is, inevitably, a smell from my childhood, but it doesn’t just live in my memory. It is very real and I get to relive it every time I visit northern Florida and stay in the house that once belonged to my grandparents and is now a second home for my parents and a spiritual home for me, the sole geographical constant in my itinerant life. It’s the smell I always eagerly anticipate on the drive down from Jacksonville airport, the salt air that whooshes into the car at night as soon as we reach St. Augustine Beach and my dad rolls down the window. It’s the woodsy fragrance of the old beach house with its low ceilings and creaking steps leading up to an attic full of wonders, a dark and cozy house locked in a quiet battle with humidity and corrosion, sand and wind (and, these days, the construction of condos and mini-mansions all around it). It’s the heavy air that fills my nostrils as I cross the boardwalk that winds past the sea oats and beach pennywort on the dunes and deposits me on the beach itself, where my feet sink into the powder-soft, too-hot sand, and the sunbaked dune smell gives way to the briny ocean. It’s a scent that’s warm and cool, damp and dry, weighty and invigorating, laden with nostalgia but refreshed every time I experience it anew.
I’ve sometimes encountered facets of the fragrance in the most unlikely places: a restaurant in Spain, a supermarket in Germany, even in our own shower when the hot steam meets the cool air, and the watery molecules flip some switch in my limbic system. But the true scent defies confinement to a bottle. I can’t count the number of candles and diffusers and room sprays I’ve bought with names like Sea Salt, Ocean Breeze, Boardwalk, Driftwood. And none of them are right. They almost always have floral overtones, or something vanilla-sweet, or they lean in the other direction with musky hints that resemble men’s cologne. There’s definitely a vegetal note to my beach smell, something green drying in the sun, but it’s not flowery. There’s also no coconut in my beach smell, and no citrus, though I like both of those scents—particularly sharp citrus, which recalls childhood breakfasts of cut grapefruit eaten on the porch of the beach house, or the serene lobby of a hotel we stayed at in Bangkok, suffused with the fragrance of lemongrass and lime leaves, such a contrast to the hot, pungent city outside. My beach smell is not tropical or sugary; it is both brighter and darker than that, with a bracing marine edge and undercurrents of seaweed and sulfur.
My beach smell is water, wood and sand, maddeningly vague and utterly specific, a product of its place and everything I’ve brought to that place and all the ways that place has shaped me. It’s the clatter of palm trees and rustle of seagrass, the sun glinting on the ocean at dawn and lines of pelicans threading the sky, the taste of boiled shrimp and sweet mango, the feeling of damp sheets tangled around my legs on a humid morning and cold condensation on a glass of iced tea. My beach smell is water, wood, sand and memory.