A couple of weeks ago, I remembered—and found online—a perfume that I had owned and used during a defined span of time in my early teenage years: California by Dana. I couldn’t really conjure up the smell in my memory, and wasn’t sure I would recognize it when I smelled it to be able to say whether this was indeed the one, but decided to give it a try.
With some trepidation, I opened the small package (the perfume was sold without a box) and removed the bubble wrap. The bottle was slimmer than I remembered, but the shape and feel of it in the hand was unmistakable. It had no markings or stickers except the tiny one on the bottom to identify it. How refreshing! The translucent plastic cap wasn’t quite as I’d remembered it, but the cheap-looking, serrated spray pump plunger certainly was.
Spritz again—it is a “new” bottle, after all!
It IS the one!
Familiar. Youthful. Slightly old fashioned. Delicate. “Ambery” in the way that my impressions had formed in the nineties.
Floral. Fragrantica unhelpfully lists this as “floral notes,” and the brand description includes “flowers.” My hardworking but oft misinformed nose suggests some rose, lilac, and lily-of-the-valley.
California opens with citrus, aldehyde, and lavender—sunny and welcoming. The citruses are listed as mandarin, bergamot, and lemon. At the base are “wood notes,” oakmoss, vanilla, amber, and musk. The beauty is that these notes are hard to separate, and predominate as an ambery floral with a gently reassuring hint of powderiness underneath. It’s really very well balanced and not challenging in any way, at least not on a blotter.
On my wrist, though, 2 notes stood out unexpectedly: aldehydes—very strongly, and the note seems to match my dilution of aldehyde C12 MNA—and coumarin. No coumarin or tonka is mentioned, so this is a bit odd. I’ve recently found that my wrist judges perfumes much more harshly than my neck and clothes do.
California still passes with flying colors. It’s classified as a chypre floral.
The fragrance of California, to me, conveys optimism and an aspiration to elegance. These feelings are congruous with how I was during that period of my life. Interestingly, but not too surprisingly, breathing it all in again didn’t bring back any emotions or memories that I didn’t already think of before smelling it.
In those days, I considered perfume a part of “dressing up,” so I didn’t use it on school days; I saved it for special occasions, church, and monthly outings to the local cultural center to foster a sense of “culture” in this young cretin by attending classical music performances, stage plays, musicals, etc. At the time, my idea of dressing up was wearing a long-sleeved, shiny, green velvet mock turtleneck over a pair of black trousers—and spraying on California. (Now, I have maybe one green item in my entire wardrobe, stay away from turtlenecks with a few exceptions, and just say no to any kind of velvet. I simply don’t like the texture. To each one’s own.)
As it turns out, I don’t have much emotional connection or sense of identity tied to those events in particular. School was where I did well and made friends—and none of those formative things were associated with perfume.
I did have some “firsts” within this span of time.
- I learned to use the internet for the first time. It was dial-up, with loud, robotic beeps, and slow. What was I going to do with all this access to anything in the world? Look up The X-Files, of course—I was obsessed with that show and its mumbling protagonist Fox Mulder. Not only I. Does anyone else recall the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade?! (…I thought it was hilarious, but didn’t join or anything!)
- I had to sell candy to raise money for a class project. I think it was an initiative for all of the foreign language classes, my French class included, to pitch in and fund a trip abroad or other prizes. I hated selling, though, and would drag this large plastic bag filled with candy to every class and plop it on my desk. Occasionally a classmate would point to it and ask, “Is that chocolate?” and I would say yes, it’s 75 cents (or whatever it was) and they would buy it. At the end, I made maybe 20 dollars (while most others rolled in hundreds) and got a T-shirt that said “good day” on the front and “good night” on the back, in 4 languages each.
- I also got to volunteer to help sell Christmas trees for the first time (and, so far, that was the last time). I stood outside in the cold, greeted customers, and was always so surprised when one of them wanted to buy one from me that it was kind of a thrill. Another volunteer kid brought some non-alcoholic beer, which I’d never heard of before. I don’t remember if I was curious enough to take a sip and find out it tasted pretty bad, or if he told me it was bad and I took his word for it…
I was friendly with a boy and didn’t realize he seemed to have a crush on me until he asked me in class one day if I wanted to work at Taco Bell with him. He even asked if I was at least 16 to check whether I was old enough to work, and I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t, so I gave him some noncommittal reply. The next day, he brought me an application form. (Maybe I misinterpreted his intentions; in any case, no harm done. He soon after got a girlfriend and they looked very happy together. I think she also got a job at Taco Bell.)
English class (or was it simply called Reading?) at this public high school was particularly memorable. It was held in a trailer outside of the main building. One of our assignments was to give a presentation about a book we read. Props were encouraged. I chose an X-Files spin-off novel about nuclear weapons hidden on an island or some such, and put some ash from a fireplace into a zippy bag to present as debris from an explosion described in the story. I had a blast (no pun intended). At the end, however, the only person who hadn’t gone up yet refused to present. The teacher kept trying to talk him into it, but he just wouldn’t. “You’re going to get an F if you don’t present something,” the teacher finally stated. He said, fine. “You would rather get an F than just go up there and present something, anything at all?” “Yes, I’ll take the F.” That made me quite sad, and I never understood it. I wonder how he turned out later.
We learned short story writing, as well. Mine was a paranormal sequence of events as I imagined could happen in an X-Files episode, with no rhyme or reason as to why any of those things came to be. It did not launch me a career in TV writing. The teacher shared his own work-in-progress short story with the class, too, printed in 2 columns on blue paper for us to read along. It featured a protagonist who “looked like Julia Roberts” (personal taste, or had he been watching Pretty Woman?) The prose might have been too nuanced for me to fully grasp at that age, but his own vulnerability in baring his work to a classroom full of juveniles was palpable. I admire that he did.
It was in this class that I developed my first proper crush. The classroom didn’t have enough copies of a certain textbook we were reading at the time, so some of us had to share with the person sitting next to us. The boy on my left and I scooted our tablet arm desks closer and leaned in to read the bulky tome together. I was always done faster and would wait on him to turn the page. He seemed impressed. That was enough of a meet-cute to set my feelings spiraling into new territory—so this is what it’s like to “like” someone! He was handsome, too, and always wore a short-sleeved T-shirt over a long-sleeved T-shirt in a different shade of the same color, which I thought was so clever. (Just like Sheldon Cooper, but long before The Big Bang Theory.)
One day, I brought in a slip of paper with a word on it. I don’t remember if he had first challenged me (or simply asked for the sake of knowledge) to pronounce an unusual word, or if I had come up with this bizarre idea myself: I wanted to find the longest, most convoluted word possible and see if he could pronounce it. So I perused my bottles of shampoo and conditioner and came up with—looking at them now, it must have been—methylchloroisothiazolinone. (In my mind, it was more like hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, so maybe he had brought that one in to quiz me. It’s all a bit fuzzy now.)
In any case, this method of flirtation didn’t get very far. I was only at that school for one year, and although we exchanged addresses, he never wrote back, and that was that.
(Some time later, I saw a photo of the actor Edward Burns in a magazine and was struck by how much he looked like this boy. A few years after that, I went to see Sidewalks of New York by myself—a movie written and directed by, and starring, Edward Burns. I got so frustrated by the characters and the scattered plot that I walked out of the theater before the movie finished for the first—and, so far, the last—time.)