The Financial Adviser came for the “new employee” one-on-one. I imagined he was a robot with a cage under his shirt: his eye contact was too prolonged but not in a probing way, in a programmed way, and he spoke the word “emotional.” I tried to ask broad questions about money as a conceptual force but his robot shoes were magnetized to the track.
At first I tried to get a read on him but quickly became distracted by the idea of getting rich by giving three hundred of my barely-earned dollars to Philip Morris.
“Look at my shirt,” I tried to say, with my eye contact. “It’s from Goodwill.”
I was a twenty-five year old secretary wearing expired lipstick and dirty white sneakers. There is a baby grand piano in my parents’ house but besides that I expected to live in the backseat of an automobile for most of my 30’s, like Paul Simon sang about.
Vetiver and Spice
I met a woman at a Berkeley gallery who smelled like pine trees and longing. Essence of vetiver, she told me. The smell Proust hates, I said. That was more or less the end of our conversation. I turned to look at one of the gallery walls, which at the time were covered in baskets made out of dried tubes of seaweed.
Vetiver is the smell that reminds the narrator of dragging himself to bed at night, ritual devastation to be separated from his beloved mother. Incense burning in his darkened bedroom, he hated to be wrenched from reality into sleep.
Last week the co-op was featuring a new organic deodorant for sale. Vetiver and Spice, it was called. I opened the bottle and breathed in. It smelled like pine trees and old wood floors and opening the oven to see if the pie is done. It cost nine dollars. I put it back on the shelf. I picked it up again. I put it back. I, too, am trying to be more in touch with reality. The reality of my bank account is in direct conflict with the reality of my desires, however, so I picked it up again.
Upon closer inspection, the label on the deodorant revealed that it is manufactured in Cambridge, NY. If I wrote a book about my own childhood, Cambridge would be my Combray, in a way. It is the former home of my eldest aunt, the location of our family Christmases, a wedding, a funeral. There is the wooden house where I tasted my first glass of wine, where I learned to use ammonia to clean the windows, where I rested from sunburn on the Oriental rug.
The sticker was a sign. I would be forced to purchase it. I could unify my whole personal history into my present identity with this significant co-op purchase. Vetiver and Spice and Olivia Dunn. My own body heat would become a machine of nostalgia. Perhaps I would even be stopped by another admiring woman, wondering about my striking scent.
Nine dollars plus tax and one blistering skin rash later, I’m back to my old unscented Liquid Rock roller ball. When I do write my memoirs I will associate the smell of vetiver with the odd shape of seaweed baskets and the hot feeling of two sore armpits. And when I am older maybe I will get over the idea that buying things is any kind of real action towards the solidification of identity, that longing for something past or future is perhaps not any way to be in touch with reality.
Living alone means I am sitting here wondering how much longer until the early-early Midwest edition of the Sunday Times gets dropped off on the sidewalk in front of this apartment building. There is something unhealthy about craving the bright connection of a morning when it is only yet this late Saturday evening. It feels depraved, sneaking out into the damp night in one’s pajamas, scooping up the baby-shaped delivery, running upstairs and relieving it, gently, of its bright blue bunting.
(Living alone means there will be no one to watch as I strip away each gray layer in a deliberate and guilty hunt for the Vows section.)
Living alone means I will read something fantastic just before bed and then I will dream about it. In the dream I will tell someone It’s so real, this essay is so fucking real! When I wake up I will remember saying it but not who to. Oh, it was no one. It could only be no one.
Though I don’t sleep alone: every night, the stack of books at the foot of my bed grows higher. We crawl in together, gleeful, ambitious, and while the lights are on we can be comfortable lovers. When the room is dark and I am asleep at last, they grow jealous and head for the edges. I startle awake to the vengeful sound of their spines cracking as they hit the floor.
The weather here was designed for the human body, even if these cutoff shorts were not. Sun alternates shade down the side street, providing alternating and equally pleasant cooling and warming air vectors. Trees and leaves drip down, resting, but not exhausted. Rust climbs happily along these old parked VWs, in no real hurry to decompose. Vines full of unnecessary flowers unfurl at their own damn leisure. The woman at the food co-op accepts my joke about no-coffee-not-awake-yet, as though it is a new and delightful concept. The men here look at me un-carnally, romantically, even, as if to wish I might soon cook them a healthful breakfast. Today and yesterday and tomorrow’s weather will all be the kind of day you only get one or two of in New York, the scarcity of which drives me into a small hysteria of shoulds, a tight longing that cancels out the deep calm of a life-affirming 71 degrees Fahrenheit.
Olivia Dunn is a Visiting Assistant Professor of writing at Skidmore College and holds an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her work has appeared recently in The Pinch Journal, SHANTIH Journal, Tinker Street, River Teeth, and McSweeney’s.