The Sweet Smell of Success


Our Daily Correspondent

Perfume ad, ca. 1920.

It all started about a month ago. A close friend was celebrating a big birthday, and I planned to buy her a set of nice lotions and potions in a pricey scent I knew she loved. So I looked up the address of the shop, walked across the park, headed uptown, and entered its ritzy, expensively perfumed confines. The man standing inside didn’t look up.

“Hello,” I said.

He ignored me for an uncomfortably long moment, then looked up and said, “Did you want something?”  

“Yeah,” I said, taken aback. “Yes. Can I see your gift sets?”

“We don’t do that. Sorry,” he said. And returned to whatever he was doing on the computer.

I was so put off by this exchange that I turned around and walked out.

A week later, with the birthday approaching, I decided to try again. I was full of confidence and optimism this time. Maybe the guy had been having a bad day. Maybe he wouldn’t even be working! Anyway, I’d donned my best rich-person drag just in case. (Said drag consisted mostly of sunglasses, but still.)

When I first went in, no one was behind the counter, so I started to busy myself sniffing different perfumes.

“If you want to smell something, just ask,” came a sharp voice. And I looked up to see the same guy regarding me with hostility. Then the phone rang and he started guffawing with whoever was on the other end, and this went on so long that, once again, I stormed out.

Time was now running short. Of course I could have just gotten her something else. But I was angry at myself for being defeated by a single, unpleasant individual. It seemed my duty to myself, as a self-respecting adult, either to address the situation head-on or to get over it. And since the latter was obviously impossible, I’d have to go back.

This time I was angry and resolute. When I strode in, it was with an air of hauteur. I marched toward the display table without so much as a nod of acknowledgment and deliberately sprayed myself from one of the bottles without asking permission. The fact that I’d managed to spray myself in the face with room freshener didn’t exactly send the message I had hoped, but I wiped my face with dignity and turned to him with what I fancied was an air of amused command. 

“I’d like to put together a gift set,” I said firmly. “I know you don’t do gift sets, but I’d like to box several items together, as a gift. I would like the body wash and lotion in red currant. And is there a scent you recommend that layers nicely with those?”

“They’re all fine,” he said dismissively. “Are these for you? Or do you want them wrapped?”

“No, they’re a gift,” I said. 

He looked very put out at having to wrap them, but grimly set about doing something with tissue paper and a piece of wired ribbon. I stood and watched. 

“Did you have a question or something?” he snapped. 

Suddenly, I was really over this guy’s attitude. What was his problem? What had I done that was so terrible, besides not being obviously influential? What was I supposed—

Stop it, I told myself sharply. You and I need to have a little talk. Enough with this guy. Maybe he’s just a jerk. Maybe he’s going through a rough time. Why do you care? Why do you need to be liked? If his behavior bothers you, don’t come here. Say something. Or better yet, don’t waste your energy worrying about a stranger who you never need to see again and who’s probably equally rude to everyone. This was ending: now. Or, just as soon as he was finished with his sullen wrapping.

A B-52s song was playing and, filled with a new sense of freedom, I started to hum along.

The guy looked up, delighted. “Nobody knows this song!” he said. “I love them! I’ve seen them like twenty times. I’m from Athens!”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, they’re great. I saw them tour when I was in high school and they were amazing live.”

“You have to go to their holiday show!” he said. “I go every year! Here, I carry my ticket, you can see where it is.” He pulled a battered slip of paper out of his wallet and handed it to me.

“Wow,” I said. “I’d love to check that out. Thank you so much!” 

“They do, like, Christmas versions of all their songs. You’d love it.”

“You’ll definitely be seeing me there!” I said eagerly, even though I knew I wouldn’t go. 

We parted with everyone liking everyone else and nothing much resolved. 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.