In a nation founded by Puritans, you’re hard-pressed to find someone who will talk about sex or mention their unmentionables. We can’t even handle squat toilets, afraid we might see our own shit falling between our knees. Perfumes made in this country inevitably come out smelling like candy, detergent, or Barkeeper’s Friend. If you’re lucky, you’ll get musty potpourri. Sweet, clean, and one-dimensional.
Americans have an awful penchant for orange blossom—too hygienic. No indoles, no latent shit-smell lingering in the dry down. We think it’s sexy, but it’s boring. Even the nice boy next door sweats when he mows the lawn, and that sweat doesn’t smell like soap. Believe me; I know. I’ve smelled him.
• • • •
I got into a lot of trouble before I turned eighteen. My parents weren’t the “pressing charges” kind of people, lucky for the boy next door. And the girl across the street. And her older brother, home from basic training. I think the whole town was relieved to see the back of me, when I graduated. Honestly, I was relieved to turn it on them.
Junior year, I studied abroad in London. Not Paris, like you would expect, given what came after. Paris, after all, is the capital city of sex and perfume. But Jermyn Street has Floris and Trumper, and whatever England lacks in overt sensuality, it makes up for with complexity and convolution. That year ruined me for simple florals and straightforward romanticism.
In a little shop in Spitalfields, I smelled my first Bright House scent. Trophy Kill, I think. Fig and violets in the top notes, shifting to a base of oakmoss, cedar, musk, and mildewed leather. Not as subversive as some of his famous scents, but still dark and toothy, unexpected. I couldn’t afford a full bottle, but I did buy a sample. And when that was gone, I went back for more.
The people at the shop got to know me, steered me toward other scents they thought I’d like. Men’s colognes, mostly, and some unisex; things with stone and skin and spice in them. I was even sold on some of the raunchier women’s scents. I learned to talk shop: absolutes, accords, eau de parfum, de cologne, de toilette. I learned that Trophy Kill was a fougére—a woodsy type of scent commonly worn by Victorian men.
Other things popular with Victorian men: spanking, caning, kink. This I learned from Kena, the girl who worked behind the counter most weekday afternoons, when I should have been in class.
“They were a load of dirty freaks,” she said. “Just like your Jonathan.”
She was the one who gave me my first hint about the man who ran Bright House. By this time, I was sticking pretty exclusively to his fragrances. I had a few other favorites, but Bright House was my go-to and Kena knew it.
There were rumors about Jonathan Bright. People said he had a source for genuine ambergris, for civet still scraped from the testicles of cats. He used real castoreum, they said, and hyraceum, and musk. Suspicious, animalic notes suggesting shit, cruelty, pain, and sex.
Sometimes there were suggestions—usually halfhearted, already admitting defeat—that Bright ought to be reported to the IFRA, or perhaps to the police. But no such reports were made. This, despite Bright’s rude remarks, misanthropy, and general bad attitude. No one really liked him, but he had the charisma of an enfant terrible: mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
Small and fastidious, Bright was still young, but grave and disdainful in the manner of a much older man. He loathed to be labeled “precocious,” going so far as to punch a colleague for employing the epithet. He had strategically fucked his way through an influential minority of stockists and perfumers, as well as half the board of the Fragrance Foundation, in affairs ostensibly involving ball gags, role play, and rigorous documentation. Under condition of anonymity, most of his paramours admitted that the quality of the sex had distracted them from the imprudence of allowing Bright to collect photographic and video evidence of their indiscretions.
Similarly, it was not blackmail that kept Bright in booming business and acclaim. Instead, it was one single, irrefutable fact: he was damn good at what he did. Bright was the only American who could rival—some claimed surpass—the venerable houses of Europe. Because he, unlike most Americans, wasn’t afraid to get dirty.
“You’d probably get along with him just fine,” said Kena, “If all those stories you tell are true.” Because by my fourth month in London I was prowling clubs at night, in a voluptuous leather and labdanum cologne laced with top notes of cordite and smoke. The house music was better here than it was at home. Sex was weirder. Drugs were easier to buy.
“Just trying to make the most of my year abroad,” I told her. But I thrilled a little at the thought of me and Bright together. I was in full fanatic territory. For scent, in general, and Bright, specifically. Kena told me about a night course for aspiring perfumers. I signed up—I was there on a student visa, after all—and instead of finishing the classes I’d come to London for, I ended up enrolled full-time and graduated two years later at the top of my class, with a certificate in Perfumery Art.
I flew home a week later, for a job I’d gotten on the strength of several sterling faculty references (courtesy flirtation, blackmail, natural precocity, and filthy sexual favors, though not necessarily related to one another, or in any particular order). When I say home, I don’t mean Indiana, just America. New York, specifically, for a position as Product Development Assistant at the only place I’d bothered to apply: Bright House.
• • • •
Before I started work, Bright took me out to dinner. I wasn’t expecting that kind of gesture, and I told him so.
“We’re a tiny company,” he said, holding the restaurant door for me. “Claustrophobically small. I can afford to get to know my new employees off the clock. In fact, I prefer it.”
“Because I’ll be off my guard?”
His smile slipped onto his face like oil rising through clear water, settling in a thin layer and congealing in the cool night air.
The food was good. Chic American bistro stuff, in a neighborhood where rents had gone up so rapidly you could feel the vacuum from the vacant brownstones. I didn’t know about wine then, not like I knew about perfume, but I guessed it was expensive. Jonathan didn’t keep his company so small out of financial need.
“I like to keep an eye on everyone,” he said. “And I’m very picky. About everything.” He poured an arc of cabernet into my glass. “Are you flattered to make the cut?”
“No,” I said, and sipped my wine. Over the crystal edge, I saw his face pinch slightly, doubtful. I let him sweat until I swallowed, and then added, “I know I’m good, so I’m not flattered. But I am excited.”
The smile again: distillate separating in a flask. “I can work with that.”
“I hope you can.” I snapped my menu shut. “You hired me.”
The conversation passed like that, all banter and no substance. Top notes: striking, intriguing, ephemeral. He had a cruel sense of humor, and aimed it with incredible precision at our waitress, the staff, the other diners. Experienced from the sidelines, his cutting remarks were funny, tinged with a bitter, foul note of complicating guilt. I could imagine that, made at your own expense, they might sear like ammonia. Jonathan Bright’s censure, undiluted, would be foul and overwhelming.
When the waitress whisked away our dessert menus, the tenor of the conversation changed. “You’re wearing Penhaligon,” he said.
“Not Bright House? To this dinner?”
“I’m not a brown-noser, Mr. Bright. You might be used to it, but it’s not my thing.”
“Ah.” He sipped his wine. “So you have heard the stories.”
“About you?” I laughed. “You haven’t exactly tried to keep them quiet.”
He shrugged one shoulder, a slick motion beneath navy cashmere.
“I have stories too,” I said. The waitress set a charger in the center of the table, presenting two narrow pieces of reine de sabe scaled with sliced and salted almonds. “You just don’t know them.”
His knife pressed through the cake, sharp and clean, and bit the porcelain beneath. “No,” he said, “Not yet. I wonder if they’re as bad as mine.”
“They’ll be much worse,” I said, “If you give me half a chance.”
“You’re in product development,” he said. “An assistant. You’ll be backstage, mixing. You’re not going to be at trade shows. You’re not going to take business trips, or talk to stockists.”
“Your company is claustrophobically small.” The lingering bitterness of chocolate clung to the roof of my mouth, twisting around my mockery. “Your employees need to wear multiple hats. Let me wear yours, sometimes. You know I’d look good in it.”
Behind a mask of businesslike assessment, imagination burned in Bright’s dark eyes. “You’d look good in a lot of things.”
“That’s sexual harassment, Mr. Bright.”
“Are you surprised? Offended?” He held up two careless fingers and crooked them. “Check please.”
“No,” I said. “I just want to keep you honest.”
When he signed the receipt his pen left a deep divot in the paper. He didn’t tip. “You can try.”
“Nobody else does.”
That made him laugh, and I chalked the evening up as a success.
• • • •
I didn’t sleep with him, not then. I knew better. Sex with Jonathan Bright was an indenture; you signed away something for the privilege. That is, unless you met him on an equal footing. The problem was, nobody could. He was the best at what he did, and the filthiest, dirtiest worst at everything else.
I wanted to do it. He might have been a shit, but he was handsome in the way of shorter, slender men: making up for some perceived lack with beautiful clothes and soaring arrogance. His nose was large but straight, over a wide mouth given to cynical crookedness. When his lips moved, to eat or speak or sneer, they were expressive, eloquent. His hands, too, were small and neat but so fluid in their gestures they seemed larger. Every three weeks, he had his thick, dark hair cut in the same short back and sides. He kept clean-shaven, though when he was on a tear in the lab and forgot to go home, his stubble came in reddish.
When he stayed late, so did I, even if he didn’t tell me to. We fought about it. He thought he would win. He didn’t. We worked avoiding broken glass, chary of the shards and of each other.
“I could have hired anyone,” he said, as we washed down tubes and beakers in a stinging bath of spirits. His voice was low and poisonous.
Fumes burned my tired eyes, but I didn’t rub at them; that would look like tears, and I wasn’t even close to crying. “You didn’t though. Because I’m the best for the job.”
He tore his rubber gloves away and slapped them down onto the counter. “Prove it,” he snapped, and left me standing at the sink. The door slammed shut behind him.
It took six months of shattered flasks and vicious swearing before he acquiesced to my presence during his late-night experiments. But it was worth the tumult, to watch him mix, and learn. That winter he was working on a summer scent—like fashion, we kept to a strange, accelerated schedule, and our spring line had debuted in January. It was biting cold outside, a new record low each week. Snow and ice accumulated on the curb and gathered a gray coat of city grime. But each night in the lab, the smell of tuberose mingled with licorice and musk.
“It’s got to be sweet,” he said. “I want it grossly sweet, but not artificial. Like cane sugar, not corn syrup.”
“Spicy,” I said. “Indulgent. Disgusting. Ditch the musk for hyrax, and sub jasmine for the tuberose.”
The skin around his eyes drew tight, but he nodded, once. “Fine. You try it.”
I did. And I built on it, too. Scorched muscovado and sandalwood, like incense thick in a windowless room. Cloying horehound and anise under the jasmine. The excremental, fermenting scent of the floral indoles mixed with the hyraceum, lingering underneath the smoky, candy smell. If you closed your eyes, it was like kissing a girl in bubblegum lipgloss as she exhaled smoke from a Clove cigarette; kissing her on a subway platform, on a humid summer night, the hot wind blowing her hair into your face.
It won him an award. My name was never mentioned.
I got my real chance when a boutique denim designer approached Bright House. They wanted an exclusive scent to sell in their stores, and nowhere else. Jonathan thought it was a gimmick, and refused. I offered to take the job, and he threw it to me like a rancid scrap of meat to a dog under the table. He regretted that, later. But then it was too late.
They wanted something edgy and sophisticated. I could tell what that meant: a milquetoast chypre with petitgrain or ozone. Like something you’d buy in the mall from a poorly-lit store thumping with bass, under black and white prints of nude male models. But Bright House didn’t give people what they wanted; we gave them what they craved but feared.
Raw denim connoisseurs don’t wash their jeans. Maybe soak them once or twice a year to get a good fit, a good fade. Imagine a man gone commando in the same pair of pants for six months without washing them, ass pressed against the unfinished wood of a café bench in an un-air-conditioned Brooklyn summer. That was Selvage.
The first impression was of coffee beans and hot asphalt, tobacco for those American Spirits he’d have in his back pocket. Underneath that, not too strongly, the sweated-in cotton smell of cepes mushrooms: musty, moist. When those elements evaporated, Selvage left a long-lasting base note of goat hair with a hint of salt and yeast. A warm and physical scent that stuck close to the skin. When you stood next to someone wearing dried-down Selvage, you could imagine holding them, naked, with your face pressed to the inside of their thigh.
• • • •
After that, he promoted me. He had no choice; Selvage was reselling on eBay for insane amounts of money. The designer wanted a women’s scent to match. Other houses were asking to collaborate. I was in demand, and he couldn’t tell people I was just an assistant anymore. He still owned the business, but in the laboratory, we were equals. At awards ceremonies and trade shows, people fawned on both of us. Perhaps me more so, since I didn’t have his prickly reputation.
He started, too, to make insinuations. Catty double entendres in the lab, lewd suggestions as we cleaned up for the night. He was so furious at me for stealing his limelight, he wanted to get something back with sex. Nothing I minded giving up. He couldn’t steal my notoriety or talent. I would not be signing an indenture, here.
Around this time, a high-profile client—a well-known film auteur, name redacted due to the events that followed—took us both out to a restaurant likewise best left unmentioned. Suffice to say, it was the kind of place where you’d be turned away without a tie and jacket, and there weren’t prices on the menu.
“I’m starting a line of scents,” the auteur said, “and I need someone who understands exactly what I’m going for. You’ve seen my work?”
We had. It was the kind of thing we liked: visceral, surreal, gory, pornographic. He was one of the darlings of Cannes, and working with him would garner Bright House international exposure far outside the insular world of perfume.
“I was very impressed with Selvage,” he said. “I think you’re the only people who can do my vision justice.”
Jonathan’s rage came across the table like a slap. I took it, skin flushing like he’d really struck me. “Thank you, sir,” I said. “You’re very kind.”
“Will you do it?” asked our client. He was staring straight at me.
Jonathan answered: faster than he should have, breathless. “Yes.”
“Oh, thank God,” the auteur said. “I want the first one ready in time for the premier. Six months. We’re in post-production now. I can provide you with storyboards, and soon, a rough cut of the film. What do you think?”
“Yes,” said Jonathan again. His fingers were bloodless against his lowball, pressing on the crystal. “Fine. We’ll do the job.”
The auteur finally turned his way. “Thank you, Mr. Bright. I’m thrilled.” Then, again to me, “I’m sure you’ll make a miracle.”
If I had been a modicum less confident, an asset infinitesimally less valuable, I think Bright would have strangled me on the spot. But I was self-assured—no, haughty—and important to his business, so he waited until the check was paid and the cab he hailed slipped out of traffic.
He held the door for me, a rigid imitation of chivalry, then slammed it shut and got in from the other side. He gave his address, not mine. Hearing that, my pulse jumped. When the car pulled from the curb, Bright turned to me and slid across the seat.
I let him close his fingers around my wrist, pinching the tender skin above my veins. He pushed me back against the car door, first with his hand flat against my chest, then creeping higher, toward my neck. We stopped at a red light and he leaned in, pressed the pads of his thumbs against each point of my collar bone. Breathing fast, I leaned into his touch.
The light turned. The cab jumped forward. Bright’s mouth met mine, and his whole weight fell against my throat.
I had let partners strangle me before; I had even asked them to. When Jonathan Bright closed his grip around my neck, I wasn’t sure if he wanted to make me come or kill me. I bit down on his lower lip, hard enough I tasted blood. He jerked back, tearing his own skin, and during the half-second when our eyes met I saw he was afraid.
I shoved him back with all my strength—remember, I said he was small; I had ten or twenty pounds on him at least—and he lost his balance. His head struck the window and he cursed. Straddling Bright’s hips, I pinned him to the seat.
I don’t know what I would have done to him, at my mercy in the backseat of a cab. I never found out. The driver arrived at Bright’s cross street, and he pushed me back to pay the fare.
“Get out,” he said. And though I could have held my ground, I was curious. When Jonathan grabbed a fistful of my jacket and shoved me through the door of his building, I followed the pressure of his hand.
• • • •
His loft was cold. The radiators didn’t bang or creak, and I wondered if the landlord hadn’t turned the heat on yet, or if Jonathan just kept the valves shut. Drafts crept through single pane industrial windows, glass smudgy with old factory grime no thunderstorm would wash away.
The room was almost empty, scrubbed antiseptically clean. It smelled faintly of brick dust, traces of coffee caught in the corners, but mostly it smelled of high proof spirits, the kind we used to clean equipment in the lab.
I had time to observe all of this while Jonathan locked up, hung his coat on the single hook, loosened his tie, unclasped his cufflinks. I could feel the anger in him changing as he moved through this routine. The wrath abated, replaced by purpose. Each movement was less erratic. By the time he made it to the kitchen and poured two tumblers of scotch—burnt rubber, peaty smoke, faint fishy stink of salt; in that ascetic space all scents stood out in sharp detail—he was smiling. It was not a pleasant smile, and I wanted to bite it off his face.
“Come here,” he said, tapping two fingers on the counter by the bottle. I didn’t move. His hand curled into a fist. “Come here,” he said again, in the voice you’d use to call a dog. Cat-like, I stared at him and stood my ground until he opened his mouth to speak again. Before he could, I stepped up and took my drink.
“You think this is yours,” he said.
I turned the glass, falsely contemplative; insouciant. “You wouldn’t have gotten it without me.”
He laughed at that. Like his smile, it was not nice. “And where would you be?” he asked. “Where, if not with me? Whose name are you trading on?” He snatched a handful of my hair and pulled. “Whose name is written on your successes?” He was talking against my temple now, too loud and mostly growling. “I’m in them all,” he said, and licked my ear.
Dipping my head, I sank my teeth into his neck, tasting the bitter sheen cologne left on his skin. “Ours,” I said, against the corded tendon of his throat. “They’re ours.” With my mouth, I cleaned the last traces of scent from him until all he wore was sweat and ethanol. The delicate stretch of blue-white skin beneath his jaw bruised purple-black.
There was a knife block by the sink. Bright drew a Japanese blade of silk-sharp steel and pressed the tip of the blade to the small of my back. Expert as a butcher, he drew the point swiftly through the stitches of my slacks. Cold metal passed between my buttocks and kissed the insides of my thighs. Bright flipped the blade and slammed it back into the block, then boxed me in against the counter’s edge with both his arms. I felt a rush of air as he inhaled, heard the teeth of his zipper parting. “I’m not good at sharing.”
“Neither am I.” I looked down at our hands on the counter and covered his with mine, alternating our fingers like the teeth of a closing portcullis. “But I’ll fight for my half, and more if I can get it.”
• • • •
We fucked all over that apartment, even against the cold, curtainless windows looking down on SoHo. By the time we were done, it had begun to rain. We did not trust each other enough to sleep, and so we lay side by side on his mattress and fought it. Shadow rivulets slunk across the unfinished floor, limned in sodium yellow. The lights of occasional passing cars swept across the bare boards, red and white.
Our interlocked legs stuck together with a sheen of cooling sweat. I pressed my face into the blush of broken capillaries on his neck. Taking a breath in time with his, I smelled him without perfume for the first time: unadulterated Jonathan Bright.
After sex, unshowered, slick with spit and sweat and come, he did not smell good. But ambergris comes from the guts of whales and stinks like shit. Hyraceum is piss-turned-fossil. What’s important is how they mix, how they slip beneath the scents of sweeter elements.
The auteur’s scent demanded a base note of singular sensuality: something uniquely foul, evocative of sex and pain, lust and anger. Crushed against Bright’s body and bruises and softening cock, the fragile stem of his delicate throat, I inhaled him and imagined.
“What do I smell like?” I felt his larynx vibrate as he spoke. His pulse beat fast across the bridge of my nose.
I took another breath, savoring the warmth of him, the living scent. “Potential.”
• • • •
The auteur got his perfume in four months flat, with plenty of time for feedback or slight alterations. He gave none, asked for none. “It’s flawless,” he said, smelling the inside of his wrist again. “Jesus Christ, it’s perfect.”
“I’m glad.” I bowed my head, modest and grateful.
“I meant it, really, when I said you could have more time if you needed it, with all that’s happened.”
“I know,” I said. “But honestly, focusing on this project has been very helpful. It’s kept the company on track, even without Jonathan.”
“But how are you?” he asked, and took my hand. His palm was damp and grainy. Close up, he smelled of his perfect new perfume laid over sour milk. There was muted hunger in his sympathy, like he had seen an opening and was trying to slip through, surreptitiously. “I didn’t realize, until the story broke, that you and Jonathan were . . .”
“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m doing as well as you might think.”
He patted my hand, avuncular and obscene. “Forgive me if it’s crude,” he said, “but if his . . . well, if what happened was any indication, you two were very well-suited to one another. I’m only sorry you couldn’t have had more time together. Lord knows you won’t find another like him.” The hope in his expression belied the words. I smiled, in the quavering manner of a mourner, and left him with his scent and fantasies.
There were no more paparazzi outside my apartment now, nor outside the shop. Not since the case was dropped. It had been strange, to see the country so briefly, intensely interested in perfume; in our perfume, especially, which bent or broke every rule Americans have about the way they want to smell. But sales had spiked, and remained high. I hired new staff and leased space for a larger lab. I needed the help, but I needed them out from under my feet while I distilled and mixed the auteur’s scent.
It was a masterpiece, encompassing everything Bright House aspired to be. Carnal, dark, and complex, it was difficult to approach or categorize.
The first impression was of red wine. A little bit of warm beeswax and sulfurous burnt candle wick. A table at an exclusive bistro, firelit, before the first course has arrived: the smell of anticipation. When those notes dissipated, the middle stayed strong. I made sure it had intense sillage; if someone in the room was wearing it, you knew. White flowers, myrrh, black pepper. A little benzoin snuck in underneath, to add weight and authority. Elegant. Exceptional. Impossible to ignore.
The middle notes lingered, persistent and stubborn, stuck on the skin for hours. You could spray this scent before you left for work and by five o’clock the plumeria spice and sweetness would just be starting to fade.
In the reviews I’ve read—all favorable, even a few years on—people struggle with the base. Some of them don’t like it, but wear the perfume for its long-lasting top and middle. You can always shower, wash your clothes, get rid of the unsettling stink the perfume leaves behind. Other people praise it endlessly; they have a favorite scarf that smells of it all winter, where the wool winds tight around their throat.
Whether they love or hate it, no one can agree on the exact accord. There’s no doubt that it’s animalic. It has a feral, physical stink. Some say there must be civet in it, and too much—it reeks like piss and tom cat. Others insist it’s a leather base enriched with goat or musk. Several even smell the iron-salty tang of blood. It’s like nothing else they’ve ever worn, they say. True Bright House. Only they could cook this up.
That’s not exactly true. There’s a simple trick to extracting animalic scents. You’ve probably heard of cold fat enfleurage, made famous by a somewhat sensational novel featuring scent and serial murder. It makes a striking image, but it’s impractical. Not widely practiced anymore. Besides, it isn’t the right tool for the job. Animalic elements are best extracted via tincture: prolonged soaking in high-proof alcohol.
I crushed his windpipe while we lay together, naked. You’d be surprised how many people die each year in accidents like this: embarrassing tragedies born of perverse desire. The investigation was over quickly. I wasn’t charged. He had no next of kin; I handled funeral arrangements. There was a long delay in finding him a plot—he hadn’t expected to die so young. The service, held months later, was closed-casket.
Not many people came, and no one spoke to me. Maybe out of respect, or maybe because before I left my apartment that morning, I had dabbed a single drop of absolute into the hollow of my throat. The color of dark copper, the tincture stained my skin. Undiluted it was foul, acrid, overwhelming. It made my eyes water, which looked enough like tears to satisfy.