Monday, September 8, 2008

Bring Out Your Dead: Natural High, Garden Botanika

When I said I was going to start this series with a beloved unknown, I wasn’t kidding. I think I might be the only person in the world who still owns any Natural High. It dates from the days when Garden Botanika had lots of storefronts in upscale malls. I don’t think GB even has any brick-and-mortar stores anymore, though it is still sold online and through Ulta. Natural High was a limited edition scent, issued just before the empire went more or less belly up, so there can’t be more than a handful of bottles out there.

I bought mine at the Galleria in Houston, a mecca of high-end consumerism if there ever was one. The Galleria is the kind of place where a fender bender in the parking lot is guaranteed to involve a large Mercedes, and the stores are full of expensively dressed women with frozen faces. At least, that’s how it was in 2000 when I wandered in one dreary November afternoon.

Dave had taken an apartment in Houston, partly because he had a big client there, and partly because we were contemplating divorce. He was coming home maybe one weekend out of six, and I had gone down there to see him and hash over the things people hash over during such times.

Dave calls Houston the land of perpetual cataclysm because there’s always some epic environmental unpleasantness going on: tropical storms, floods, plagues of insects, refinery fires. The dank air is reminiscent of New Orleans, but a Houston breeze carries the acrid odor of petrochemicals instead of the sweet scent of tea olive. Whenever I’m in Houston, at some point I always catch myself trying not to breathe. The city is built on unstable soil, which means most of the neighborhoods have buckled sidewalks, and a lot of the older houses are visibly twisted on their foundations. There was a rather nice old home near Dave’s apartment that had nearly cracked in two.

Somehow all that makes the place seem a little ominous, even on a sunny day. The gray chill of late fall and our marital slough made it seem especially grim, so I went to the Galleria to blow some money and cheer myself up. I was drawn to the Garden Botanika, not so much for the sniffing, but because it was as colorful and brightly lit as a candy store. I remember sampling the scads of fragrances on offer and thinking, How on earth do they come up with this insipid stuff. Ugh!

There was a little display of scents touted as mood enhancers. Such gimmicks usually repel me, but I was desperate to find something I liked, so I sniffed. They turned out to be as crappy as everything else in the store, except for one. It opened with a rush of orange followed by something like fresh cut grass. It was sweet, but without any hint of cloying vanilla, or any of the other foodie mess that seems to infect every sweet fragrance of the past 20 years. The orange was brilliant but not overwhelming, and it faded gently into the bittersweet green note without leaving that stale residue that citrus notes sometimes do. The dry down offered a hint of fresh coconut, one of my favorite smells.

I looked at the label: “Natural High.” That was almost a deal breaker. If I’d been happy it wouldn’t really have bothered me, but since I was in fact depressed, buying it seemed too much like being suckered. Still, I loved it and couldn’t resist.

I wore it that night when we went out to dinner at a Japanese restaurant with a friend of Dave’s. As it happened, it was election night: Bush v. Gore, round one—-before the tie-breaker, or the coup, depending on your point of view. And there we were, smack dab in middle of the Bush family breeding ground. The restaurant’s owner had turned on a TV set so we could watch the returns. Phil, Dave’s friend, is a white native Texan, but he speaks Japanese well enough to make his living as an translator. He was alternately yakking with the wait staff in Japanese, and leading our table in noisy insults toward Bush. The two sleek couples at the next table-—Bush lovers by birth, you could tell—-were shooting us dirty looks, which only encouraged us. (The guys, as I recall, were drinking a lot of sake. I don’t have an excuse.)

We ran the Bushies off, and hung around a while hoping the political contest would resolve. The guys drank more. I sat there sniffing my wrist, feeling, I must admit, kinda cheered up by the scent. Eventually we gave up on the election and went home to Dave’s grungy little bachelor pad. As I curled up with my pillow I was still getting whiffs of sweet orange and hay.

Of course, you know how the story turned out. Dave and I stayed married, and George Bush got to play war with real soldiers. And I have this little bottle of a happy scent to remind me of a sad time. There are maybe 20 spritzes left. I ration them carefully.

Photo of nude woman with an opium pipe by Jean Agélou, circa 1910, from Wikimedia Commons.


Bozo said...

The usual excellent post.

Ann said...

I look forward to your posts in the same way I uncork a tiny new sample vial - anticipating a whiff of something ineffable, delicious, evocative. Rarely if ever disappointed.


Arhianrad said...

Yep, am agreeing with bozo here, another excellent post that would be cheapened by the usual praise. Dang, M, it's always so...deep. <3

Mary said...

I've read this post at least 4 times now. You need to start thinking about a book of essays.

Whodat said...

I dearly love a "slice of life" post, especially one involving perfume. *sigh of happiness*

BitterGrace said...

I guess the one good thing about getting older is that there's more life to slice--as long as the memory holds out, of course.

Thanks so much for reading, guys, and all the kind words. I love writing for you.

chayaruchama said...

Sweet times, with fewer problems.

Retrovision is a guilty pleasure, and very beautifully rendered, my love.

Perfumeshrine said...

What a beautiful post.....intimate yet not like snooping.

BitterGrace said...

Thank you, E. That's what I was shooting for ;-)