Two on the town.

Fresh Sake is a breathless maiko in blush pink, tabi-clad toes turned cutely inward and little-girl sleeves aswirl. At first impression, she's all smiles and silken gift wrapping, but a hidden pertness awaits to disarm the seasoned partygoer. For the first hour, she's as silent and watchful as a cat, learning by observation; then you notice how effervescent the evening has suddenly become. It's her, all her-- those impossibly tiny hands are pulling all the strings.

By contrast, Halston Eau de Parfum is the height of urbane geiko chic-- a bit raffish, a bit rakish, more than a little aloof. Hers is a tactic opposite to that of Sake: hit 'em up right away with smooth hostess patter, then lapse into a deep silence suggesting the tongue-tied travails of helpless love. By midnight you're on your knees, promising her what you cannot possibly give-- and so much more.

On the surface, this pair (one frisky, the other risky) would not appear to have much in common. But every maiko needs an ōnesan, and vice versa-- and when Sake and Halston hit the town together, their bond assumes a timeless quality, negating all generational differences. Only the irrepressible Sake can persuade Halston to smile like she means it; only the flawlessly elegant Halston can rein in her younger sister's giggly fits and teach her to comport herself like a tenured queen of the night.

If you see them together one of these nights -- traipsing along side by side en route to an engagement, drop-dead elegant in carefully contrasting kimono -- see that you hold onto your heart, or they'll have it in passing.

Scent Elements: Ginger, grapefruit, lily-of-the-valley, white peach, lotus, musk, vanilla, osmanthus, sandalwood (Sake); Tagetes, greens, spearmint, peach, bergamot, jasmine, cedar, rose, carnation, iris, ylang-ylang, oakmoss, patchouli, vetiver, frankincense, sandalwood, amber, musk (Halston)

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!
Happy New Year!

Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu!
I appreciate your support in the coming year!

Thank you so much!

Undercover angels.

They came into my life without a shred of documentation, traveling under false flags. They made my Scent Cabinet their designated safe house and quickly, quietly, assimilated. They live embedded amongst the perfume populace, shunning undue notice, pretending their best to be everyday, commonplace fragrances.

But I'm onto them.

In reality, they're covert operators-- secret scent agents on a mission. Their objective: to win me over without revealing their true identities. Whenever I get too close to the truth, their sweet, hypnotic sillage leads me conveniently off-track... but all I have to do is say the word, and their cover will be blown sky-high.

The Scout
From time to time at Ye Olde Antique Barn, a pile of sundry perfume samples appears in a bowl marked "fifty cents each". I routinely make a beeline for this dead drop and accept whatever scented communiqués I find there. This 3ml. decant of something resembling Bulgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Blanc looked harmless, innocent. I took it home with me, little suspecting that it was casing me for weak spots. I must have looked ripe for recruitment, for the signal went out... and the rest of the cabal began making its way to my door.

The Mystery Minx
This sly seducer drifted into my life like a piece of lost luggage filled with undeclared treasure. I found her at one of my customary antique haunts-- a heavy, ziggurat-shaped crystal flacon with nary a label, seal or logo, yet half-filled with a nameless, exotic concoction touched with licorice and leather. I try to put a finger on her charms (is she Youth Dew wearing head-to-toe Harley Davidson? Tabu with a tell-tale five o'clock shadow?) but end up twisting in the breeze. I'm certain I'll never make an honest citizen out of her. But since she's taken my heart hostage, I keep following... and I'll never let the trail go cold.

Miss Moneypenny
Purchased by Glynis at a local school fundraiser, this plain-Jane spray flacon with the upstanding gold cap holds an anonymous (but lovely) rose-vanilla perfume. If I didn't know better, I'd call her Tocade, but her color -- pale peach as opposed to Tocade's deep yellow-gold -- strikes me as more than mite off. And yet... a sniff from the top of a Tocade mini recently obtained by Blacknall Allen only renewed my frustration. Did some perfumery student lose their homework? Is our prim princess a discarded dupe-- or a dangerous dame? I enjoy her company so much, I'm inclined to forgive her artifice. My reaction -- if not the jus -- is genuine.

The Sleeper
This oval-shaped beauty appeared at one of my antique haunts as part of a large vintage-fume shipment. I am peripherally familiar with its former owner, a serious local collector who consigns widely throughout central Jersey. From her I have purchased divine bottles of original Replique and Cabochard, but this one threw me for a loop. Since when does she deal in unmarked assets? Regardless of its lack of credentials, the bottle contains something I'm almost entirely certain is good old Lauder Private Collection. The disguise, the accent, the alibi... all are perfect. A little TOO perfect. Is this lissome lovely just a weekend player in the spy game, or something more? Dammit, what's her story?!

Femme Fatale #51
Like 007 or Agent 99, this world-class tantalizer goes by number rather than name. At least I know which corporation she works for-- yet when I sent Givaudan a polite inquiry, they clamped their lips tightly shut. It seemed a shame for so lovely an agent to be disavowed by her handlers, so I took her into protective custody. She turned out to be a deliciously spicy leather chypre in the tradition of Imprévu, Cabochard, or Azurée-- tricky to pin down, but not entirely untraceable. When Octavian Coifan posted a photo of a familiar green-and-white presentation box on 1000Fragrances I ventured to email him. As it happens, Our Man in Paris collects them and shared most graciously the intel he had gathered. Produced as gifts for high-prestige clients, these boxed and numbered flacons date to 1978-1985 and are representative of top Givaudan formulae of the era. Mr. Coifan described the specimen pictured in his own blog post as a "floral green rose-galbanum Anais-Anais type" and suggested that mine might be a late-1970's proto-Empreinte de Courrèges or (YES!) Estée Lauder Azurée. A pulse-dab of #51 affirms his judgment. Oakmoss, birch tar, coriander, armoise, artemisia? Affirmative! Givaudan may not be talking... but if in this lifetime I ever meet Mr. Coifan face-to-face, Femme Fatale #51 may very well defect to his side.

The Honey Trap
Now, this one wears her nom de guerre front and center (hint: it matches that of a famous watchmaker from La Côte-aux-Fées). Yet so far, her identity has proven 100% elusive. No matter how diligently I search for her paper trail -- whether online or in the print resources available to me -- I can find no documentation on this sensual spectre; not even her progenitor appears willing to acknowledge her. Yet for a ghost she's quite solid, a curvaceous citrus-peel amber just ten or so spices short of full-on Arabie. She charms and disarms me; I would love to uncover the least of her secrets... but then, of course, she'd have to kill me.

Secret Obsession (Calvin Klein)

Those familiar with the balls-out blare of the original Obsession may find this quieter cousin enigmatic, as befits a Secret. But only just. For this is still a fabulously sexy, indecorous scent-- Euphoria with the plum turned down, the sandalwood turned up, and the neckline cut as low as it can go. It's just that in this incarnation of sex on two legs, the lady also wears horn-rimmed glasses.

With one glance at her supermodel gams, you might think that you've got her sussed. Those lacquered red lips nibble the push-button end of a silver Cross ballpoint as she pores over-- what? Beauty's Punishment? 50 Shades of Gray? Sorry: it's the Corpus Juris Secundum. Not very titillating, true. But it will cheer you to know that our lovely lady is deep into Volume 71: Pleading.

Which is precisely what you'll be doing if you ever underestimate her again.

Scent Elements: Plum, jasmine, Damask rose, orange blossom, tuberose, mace, burnt amber, cashmere woods, sandalwood, vanilla

Nuit de Noël Eau de Toilette (Caron)

Come Christmas, I am no damn fun. The silver tinsel of this glittering season conceals a tripwire of anxiety that invariably snags me and pulls me up short.  Is it the lights? The noise? The annual consumer crush that kicks off earlier and packs more pressure with every passing year? Is it residual trauma from time served in mall retail? Is it the desperate anxiety that I'll never find the perfect gift, or (having thought I found it) the mortification of learning that it's not what was wanted? Is it that wealth of past personal experience which tells me that holidays turn reasonable people into snarling beasts, or beloved friends into fist-happy brawlers?

Or is it the pressure (certainly not confined to only one time of the year) to do everything perfectly and never, never take one false step?

Nuit de Noël lets me off these and all other hooks. It is the most reassuring scent in the world-- a bland panna cotta of a fragrance, uniformly silken and digestible, utterly divested of all fuss or complication. It wears like the smoothest, slipperiest microfiber suede (beige, of course!) and plays like a hum of familiar background noise-- soft and undifferentiated, as if coming from very far away. And this strikes me as perfectly suited to the season-- because come Christmas, what I really want is to get away from it all.

Scent Elements: Ylang-ylang, rose, jasmine, sandalwood, oakmoss, musk, amber

Rien (État Libre d'Orange)

État Libre d'Orange's Rien is a glossy black patent leather mixed with incense and citrus, like a Shinto offering left by accident on a Harajuku street corner. It is "nothing" in exactly the same desultory sense appropriated by a woman in a stunning couture gown who drawls, "What, this old rag?"

I am happy to have lost and then regained my sample of Rien long after I reviewed several less-inspiring ELdO fragrances (such as Antihéros and Eloge du Traître). I might have begun to form the opinion (similar to that which I hold for Parfumerie Générale) that their repertoire, while very nice, is uniformly bland and not worth continued persistence. How wrong I would have been! Consider my interest -- stoked to high heaven by Like This and tickled more than a little by Cumming -- renewed.

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, rose, iris, black pepper, cumin, patchouli, oakmoss, labdanum, styrax, incense, leather

Marine Sel (Tokyo Milk)

Here by sea and sand
Nothing ever goes as planned

Come sleep on the beach
Keep within my reach
I just want to die with you near
I feel so high with you here

Let me flow into the ocean
Let me get back to the sea
Let me be stormy, let me be calm
Let the tide in and set me free

The beach is a place where a man can feel
He's the only soul in the world that's real

Only love can make it rain
The way the beach is kissed by the sea

Love, reign o'er me
Scent Elements: Mineral salt, fresh water, turned earth, white woods. (And vetiver-- lots of vetiver.)

Vanille Insensée Cologne Absolue (Atelier Cologne)

I spent the August of my seventeenth year in a senior retirement village, staving off a breakdown with a paperback copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea.

Neither locale nor literature were my choice. When our old house sold before the new one was completely built, my family had been forced to relocate in a hot hurry. My great-aunt Floss1 had recently passed away, leaving behind a fully-furnished home in Holiday City2. Dim and sour-smelling, crammed with rotting silk lampshades and dusty furniture, this ranch-style mausoleum became our default emergency headquarters for the season.

Imagine row upon row of tiny houses, identical right down to their window-boxed pink geraniums. Behind every lace curtain lurks a full-time spy spoiling for a sidewalk fight; behind every door a powder keg of neighborly resentment sizzles. Into this surreal and stultifying Peyton Place, drop a restless teenager with no car, depressive tendencies, and only one book to read3. I could not rest serenely within this place, this body, this confounded SELF. I don't exaggerate when I say that my summer sojourn in Holiday City almost cost me my mind.

In the midst of isolation and loneliness, Anne Morrow Lindbergh's calm, reasonable voice seemed a lifeline for the drowning:
The shape of my life is, of course, determined by many other things; my background and childhood, my mind and its education, my conscience and its pressures, my heart and its desires. I want to give and take... to share with friends and community, to carry out my obligations to man and the world, as a woman, as an artist, as a citizen.

But I want first of all -- in fact as an end to these other desires -- to be at peace with myself (pg. 23).
All summer long, I pored over Lindbergh's precious words of wisdom, desperate to isolate the solution, the key, the secret to ending this claustrophobic misery. She overcame it. Couldn't I?

My gift came not from the sea, but from the Board of Education. If my parents didn't want to drive miles to school twice a day, they'd have to farm me out from Seniorville. This they did, and I moved in with a friend's family just in time for the fall semester. Under a gloss of surface normality, I rejoined the flow of student life-- yet my sense of deep dissociation continued. But by then it was no good seeking relief from Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Try as I might, I could not resurrect the meaning her insights had held for me only a month earlier. Each powerful syllable now seemed woefully flimsy, as weightless and formulaic as the paper fortune inside a gumball machine prize. This time, I would have to pull myself from the quicksand and struggle toward answers of my own.

When we moved into the new house, I did not take Gifts from the Sea with me. Why should I? Life awaited me out in the world-- not within the flaking pages of a lousy old paperback.

5STARS Small

I purchased my sample of Vanille Insensée (Foolish Vanilla) in February, just before my appendix blew. Curiosity had prompted me to secure this oft-reviewed fragrance; duress caused me to forget it. I found this perfectly simple to do. I had no prior connection to Vanille Insensée, and therefore no need of it; it was a total stranger, easy and guilt-free for me to abandon.

Towards the end of the summer, when I rescued Vanille Insensée from the depths of the Scent Cabinet, it was almost by accident-- I certainly hadn't gone looking for it. No sense of purpose or urgency drove me to it; nothing within me nagged, "Today I must wear Vanille Insensée, or nothing!" And when I did wear Vanille Insensée, no inner voice demanded an encore. It struck me as bland, featureless, nice-- so nice I forgot I was wearing it while I was wearing it; so nice I forgot to wear it again for a few months more.

Holiday notwithstanding, the last week or so was a pretty bleak stretch marked by the kind of sustained tension that makes time feel as though it has stopped cold. A brainless and comforting scent sounded right up my alley, and since I had a little bit of Vanille Insensée left, I naturally went in for a couple of desultory dabs. But this time, something did nag at me-- a strange, uncomfortable echo of the past.

Was it a familiar sense of inertia, of being paralyzed by circumstance and desperate for a deus ex machina to come and break me free?

Was it the suspicion that comfort is not to be trusted, or that a platitude offers the easiest -- but not most lasting -- refuge from pain?

Or was it simply that Vanille Insensée smells exactly like a yellowed paperback crumbling away to nothing in the suffocating solitude of an old lady's house?

1Her given name was Florence, but younger siblings found this impossible to pronounce. I have always found it supremely ironic that a woman so reminiscent of cold hard steel should have ever borne a name of such gossamer lightness.

2I have requested that my husband forcibly smother me if I ever seriously propose relocating to a 55+ community. For the express purpose of carrying out this wish, he keeps a bed pillow eternally at the ready. Occasionally he says, "Now?" and I reply, "Not just yet, my sweet."

3I'm waiting for Tim Burton to make THAT movie.

Scent Elements: Lime, citron, coriander, jasmine, vetiver, oakmoss, Madagascar vanilla, oakwood, amber