I fucking love fake. I mean it. You can keep your Pivoine Flora and Wisteria Eau de Toilette, your flower extracts and essence oils. I crave the fakest of scents, floorwash tropical, pink hair lotion in the bubblegum-colored bottle with the purple cap. Smells like oil and tears and shiny shiny curls, neck bent backwards over the kitchen sink because you’re still not old enough to wash your own hair. Cherry flavored lip gloss, coconut scented hand lotion, mango fragrance body wash. Named after all my grandmothers’ favorite fruits, exported right from their soil to your front door. Want to know what I desire? Saturdays in Bath and Body Works at Atlantic Mall, kids screaming at weary mothers, trying on every tester there is in sight. I want to douse myself in testers, close my eyes and drown in white tea and hawaiian mist and cinnamon candy, exotic names like they always thought I was. I want to throw my head back and smile like the lady in the store ad because glitter and carcinogens make everything better. I want to believe that the tropics is every day, except my parents are both from islands and I’m brown enough to know palm trees don’t solve anything.
Brown sugar tropical moon japanese cherry blossom. Sometimes I finger the labels of department store body spray and wonder if these are the names they called us late at night. Casting one last glance as they pulled on their army boots or buttoned their jackets, as they slipped money or promises into our hands. As they readied the planes that would echo through the bones of our ancestors. As they planted seeds into the dark dark soil, leaving behind pretty lightskin children or freakish halfwhite children or phantom children in the imagined wombs of their American dreams. As they breathed in the scent of our island nights and mentally composed letters to the ones back home. There’s this girl- well, not a girl really, a woman almost. You’d like her I think. She’s like no one I’ve ever met. golden dawn sweet honey. passion fruit mango burst. Are these the things they called us, in the dark?
Now they turn our names into trademarks, curves bottled into scent. They create us in their boardrooms, remember us on their vision boards like colonial wet dreams from long ago, and only then, only then may we exist. But I still spray anyway. It’s the sweetness, maybe. It’s the unyielding sweetness that calms me, that promises to cover even the sharpest pangs of uncertainty and loss. It’s the outrageous fruitiness that keeps me coming back for more, the lie that is so brash and unashamed that it tips over into oblivion. The promise that no matter how far I stray from home, I can always come back here, to the beauty shop on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway. Here, to the store in the Atlantic Mall full of screaming children. Here, to stand among these women who made me as they hold bags of Popeyes and McDonalds and scream after boyfriends and babies and pretty butch girls yet still remember what it is to smell bold, to stand on lines with aching feet and surrender to the oblivion of someone else’s tropics. Here, to stand among these mothers whose accents and glances and humor and despair taught me who I should be. It’s the brightness and and saccharin of it all, I think. The promise that no matter how much I squeeze and mold myself to fit into small black lines on white paper, no matter how much I bury the sadness of history under the tiled floors of a classroom, I can always come back here. It is the promise of forgetting, the promise that I will always have a past to hold me. It is a promise that has already begun to be broken.
There’s a popular, high-end body care and perfume company with locations throughout Manhattan that offers detailed tours of the Provence fields where their factories are located. You can visit their production lines or even take a hot-air balloon tour over the fields of lavender. The company even has an online magazine about the “cultural brand”—the fine dining, spas, and views– of the town where their headquarters are located. The machinery of production obscured by sun-dappled fields, capitalism prettified by a fairy tale. I think I understand the appeal of this kind of genealogy, the thrill that comes from being able to see the fields where the plants once grew, magically transmuted into the $50 bottle of perfume in your hands. It is a fairy tale that does not include the inconvenient messiness of human labor, only the enduring sweetness of endless sunny days. I scroll through photos and am momentarily transfixed.
But the truth is that I don’t know what to do with this kind of traceability. It always feels foreign and cold in my hands. I once dated someone who could trace their ancestry back, all the way across the ocean, to villages in Scotland and Sicily, through decades and centuries and names and wars. We sat on the floor of their grandmother’s farmhouse once and looked through family wedding albums, and I had a vision of myself being subsumed into this line of unbroken New England wholesomeness, the jagged pieces of my diaspora transformed into the innocent gold of Massachusetts maple syrup. A smooth path from Europe to the stolen new world land, like the perfect bottles of Provence perfume. My bloodline is stretched out in dreams that lie at the bottom of the Atlantic. Rupture is my birthright. Families fanned out in in all directions like the fingers of a splayed hand. And so I prefer the troubled generic of a bottle of beauty store body spray or Bath and Body Works perfume, the cheerfully suspicious names and unbelievable colors and vague warehouse addresses. The promise that you do not need to be real, do not need to locate your history on a map, in order to exist. You can keep your natural fragrances, because I was never real anyway. I was always constructed from someone else’s borders.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if there was a scent made just for each of us, out of all the desires and fragments of our lives. Mine would start off sugary, I think. Turon saba and polvoron, black cake with rum and ice cold sorrel. There would be saltwater and moonlight, and just a hint of blood. My dad’s cocoa butter lotion and an aspirational hint of leather, and softness maybe, enough to carry us through this night at least, to hold all of our islands and all of our selves, whole.
But until then, we use the scents we have and we spray and spray until they become our own. So this is for them, spritzing glitter into the hopeless air of high school bathrooms. And this is for them, smelling so fine they turn every head in the subway car. And this is for us, and the way we walk through the halls of your empires with bodies that shine in the dark.