Friday, March 07, 2014
To Bay Rum Or Not To Bay Rum
When I was writing my first NaNoWriMo project, I sought a detail to attach to a character, something that would be recognizable as his throughout the rest of the story, and what I ended up with was the scent of bay rum aftershave. It seemed evocative enough, a distinctive masculine touch with a bit of name cachet. Everyone's heard of bay rum, right? Not everyone, as it turned out -- my dad, giving me a few notes on the finished product, said it made him think that the character had been drinking.
There was one hitch in my use of bay rum as a stand-in for a manly sort of man thing: I actually had no idea how it smelled. I'd never encountered it myself. I just knew the name. It sounded nice, so I went with it.
On a lark, Darwin recently acquired some bay rum aftershave, and we all gathered around to sniff at it. And then, taken aback, sniff again. It's... it's sweet. It smells like cloves and allspice, like pumpkin pie minus the good warm pumpkin part. I don't know much about top notes and hearts and bases, but no matter how the scent changed, it was still weirdly sweet. The cloves were too clove-y.
I turn out to be one of those people who don't know much about scent, but I know what I like. I wish I knew what Chanel No. 5 smelled like, or the original Eau de Cologne. The names sound so elegant and delicious, but then, so did bay rum. In the wired world, fragrance is a throwback to a more physical model of commerce. No amount of description really does a scent justice. There's just no substitute for holding a bottle to your nose and taking a sniff.
When I was a teenager, there used to a be a shop in the mall that carried all sorts of essential oils that could be blended into custom fragrances. It was a bit too rich for my limited income, but it was a lovely place to browse, sampling this essence and that: lavender, sandalwood, vanilla, orange blossom, cherry blossom, and my all-time favorite, tea rose. Little slips of paper allowed you to take home sample drops of each scent, and for weeks afterwards while rummaging in your purse, you'd stir up the faint exotic blend of paper and the parfumerie.
Bay rum is not destined to be among my favorite scent memories, though. I can't like it. If I ever get around to editing my NaNo novel, I'm going to have to put something else in, but what sounds quite as classic as bay rum? Old Spice? Do I know the smell of Old Spice? I can't even rummage through Darwin's medicine cabinet; we are a remarkably fragrance-free family, not from preference but from lack of precedent. His father never used aftershave; my mother rarely wore perfume. For a time in college I had one of those Bath and Body Works sprays that smelled like apple, but once it ran out I never replaced it; ever after it smelled too freshman. Having a signature scent seems like such a wonderfully literary character choice, but I'm fresh out of opportunities to browse the counters at the mall, and it's not exactly something one wants to chance without sampling, or one ends up with a blue glass bottle full of rejected bay rum.