Elaine Sciolino’s riveting 2012 book La Séduction is about an aspect of French culture that in the US is mostly notable for its absence, the pleasure French people take in charming each other. The seductions are not necessarily erotic in the sexual sense. Flirtation comes in many flavors.
After reading the book, I was inspired to write one of my shorter pieces of fiction, a novella about a museum curator who encounters the full impact of la séduction in the form of a wickedly handsome parfumeur. He’s an American who apprenticed in the Provençal town of Grasse, the world’s capital of perfume.
I’ve decided to serialize the story, which has never received as much attention on Amazon as my other books. Maybe it’s because there is only one explicit sex scene, so the book could hardly be described as erotica. It has a famous literary model, Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos Laclos (1782). I’m very fond of that story, but I always thought it needed a different, happier ending. Most of all, I love the idea of serializing in a blog format, because this way I can add pictures and annotation.
Each short chapter in the book takes its title from a perfume. This time it’s Life by Aramis, a men’s fragrance that is said to smell like lime, bergamot, mint, cucumber, cardamom, leather, and cedar. Life was created by Raymond Matts, a self-described “orchestrator of olfactive poems.” All this and he’s cute too. I can’t resist showing this photo that he posted of himself on Pinterest.
New chapters of the story will appear on successive Mondays.
Opération Séduction, by Linnet Moss
Be careful, it’s my heart
It’s not my watch you’re holding, it’s my heart.
-Irving Berlin, 1942
Cynthia Gooden sat in Sarafina’s deli, a crowded but airy restaurant across the street from the Institute of Fine Arts. She was contemplating the menu, sternly admonishing herself that a Philly cheesesteak was off limits, and that she really ought to have a green salad. Her stomach grumbled uncooperatively at this thought. Glancing up and through the front window, she caught sight of Andy Elliott, black curls flying around her face in the breeze as she briskly crossed the street. Cynthia’s mood brightened. Once a month, they had lunch together at Sarafina’s. Though they saw each other every day at work, it was pleasant to step outside the heavy concrete and marble edifice of the museum.
The two women had hit it off from the minute Andy arrived at the Institute, and indeed, Cynthia had supported Andy’s hire enthusiastically. Andy held a tenured faculty appointment at Parnell State University outside of Philadelphia, and some thought this connection wasn’t prestigious enough to benefit the museum. But Andy’s scholarly work was brilliant, and she was settled in Parnell. Cynthia wanted someone willing to make a long-term commitment to the Institute, not a careerist who viewed a curatorship there as a stepping stone to a more high-profile position. She herself didn’t have a faculty appointment, having spent her career before the Institute in various museum jobs, starting with an internship at the Getty Villa in Malibu. Her specialty was Roman Art, and she’d been hired eight years ago as a Senior Curator.
“Hey girl. I’m famished,” said Andy, dropping her bag and collapsing onto the chair opposite Cynthia. She always got the same dish, a cheesesteak with Sarafina’s fries, which had delightfully crispy skin, and were very hard to resist. Cynthia viewed Andy’s figure enviously. She had noticeably large breasts, but her midriff and hips were slim. Her head of black curls fell past the shoulder and her jet eyebrows set off dark brown irises and high cheekbones. She looked exotic and sexy, and she never seemed to diet.
“How’s Max?” asked Cynthia. Max Desmond was Andy’s boyfriend, also an art historian, and his striking good looks matched hers. The two had known each other in grad school, and recently reconnected, some four years after the death of Andy’s much older husband plunged her into an emotional morass of mild depression and panic attacks.
“He’s good,” said Andy. “We took Dexter camping last weekend at Lackawanna State Park.”
“Oh? Did you have fun?” asked Cynthia. Neither woman had kids, Andy because she’d had a hysterectomy in her twenties, and Cynthia because… well, because she’d never had an opportunity. Now Andy was getting a crash course in the stepmother role, though there was no talk of marriage with Max… yet.
“The lake was gorgeous, but I can’t say much for the bathrooms,” said Andy. “We slept in a tent, all three of us together, so the sex was nonexistent.” She laughed wickedly. “I think it was even harder on Max than me. Men get really frustrated if spooning isn’t followed by forking. But it was okay,” she added philosophically. “Dexter needs time with Max, and I understand that. This weekend was about him. Besides, the kid makes a mean S’more!”
Cynthia thought longingly of S’mores, and placed her order for a salad with balsamic vinaigrette on the side.
“Why the meager lunch?” asked Andy.
“I need to lose weight,” said Cynthia. “I feel hideously unattractive, I haven’t had a boyfriend or even a real date for more than two years now, and I’m starting to hate myself.”
“You shouldn’t,” said Andy earnestly. “You’re an attractive woman.” When Cynthia waved off the remark with a skeptical look, she said, “Let me tell you something, Cyn. I’ve always been envious of your looks. When I was little, I hated being so dark and swarthy, and I wished I had flaxen blonde hair, and a peaches and cream complexion like Princess Diana. You have the most beautiful skin I’ve ever seen.”
Cynthia laughed. “You know what they say in classic English novels about unattractive girls of good birth, when they’re at a loss for a compliment? She has a lovely complexion.”
“But that’s not why I said it. You have a lot more going for you than your skin. Your face is pretty, and your body type is one that plenty of men like.”
“Well, I have boobs, but only because I’m too heavy,” said Cynthia. “If I lost some weight, they’d shrink. I know, because they were a lot smaller before I gained the pounds.” She picked disconsolately at her salad.
“When was that?” asked Andy gently. She was aware that some traumatic event lurked in Cynthia’s past, but she never pried.
Cynthia sighed and took a sip of her diet Coke. She hated diet drinks. They always had a weird aftertaste. “When I was in my early thirties,” she finally said, “I was jilted. Left at the altar in my wedding dress, holding my bouquet. I thought we were madly in love. At least I was. But I guess he got cold feet. I never learned all the details, but I heard that Nick —that was his name— Nick had a talk with his best man and confessed that he didn’t really want to be married. To me, anyway.”
“Oh Cyn,” said Andy. She looked genuinely stricken, and tears started to glisten in her lower eyelids.
“At the last minute, the best man convinced him not to show up, but somehow they didn’t think to let me or my family know,” continued Cynthia. “It was a major social embarrassment, especially for my mother.” Cynthia was from a prominent Massachusetts family of WASPs. Her father counted Revolutionary War patriots among his ancestors, and her mother’s family, the Eatons, were descended from one of the passengers on the Mayflower. The wedding had been carefully planned, with no expense spared, and her parents had been enchanted with Nicholas Preston, who possessed a similarly impeccable background and similarly old money. Until he handed the Goodens the ultimate humiliation. In their estimation, that was a far worse crime than the fact that he’d broken Cynthia’s heart.
“That’s heinous. Cyn, I’m so sorry.”
Cynthia returned her gaze, clear-eyed. “Thanks, but I’m over him now, even if my family has never recovered from the indignity. The problem is that I didn’t want anything to do with men for a long time after that. And instead of sex, I had… chocolate. I’ve eaten so much that I can tell right away whether a bar is Scharffen Berger, Valrhona, or Venchi without seeing the wrapper. All I have to do is smell it.”
“And now?” asked Andy. “You’d like to lose the chocolate and take up sex again? That sounds like a great idea.”
“Easier said than done. I’m still a bit wary of relationships, and I’m not sure I can have sex without making myself vulnerable. Besides, I’m forty now. It’s not as though men are lining up for a session in my bed.”
“It’s all about your state of mind,” said Andy. “Trust me. Now that you’re open to it, you just may find that something wonderful happens.” And she smiled the smile of a woman in love.
“All right, let’s move on to upcoming shows,” said Barbara Cardinale, Director of the Institute. Barbara was a good boss, strong and assertive, yet supportive of the curators and the other employees under her supervision. She was in her sixties, and surely gray now, but she kept her hair colored black and cut in a sophisticated asymmetrical bob with bangs. Cynthia admired her for ignoring the usual advice to women about lightening their hair color as they aged, and adopting a softer layered style. She thought Barbara looked great. “Cynthia, what have you got?”
“I want to do a show on perfumes and cosmetics in the Greco-Roman world,” said Cynthia. “We have strong holdings in Roman glass, lots of beautiful mirrors, and several incense stands. And Fergus” —she gestured toward the curator of their small Egyptian and Near Eastern holdings— “has cosmetic applicators and paintings showing the uses of perfume for embalming and in social contexts.”
“I can contribute Greek vase paintings of women holding perfume bottles, as well as miniature Corinthian perfume flasks and a few oil amphorae,” put in Andy.
Barbara nodded. “It sounds like a show that could draw well. But you’ll need some bigger objects or visual aids, something to draw attention among all those smaller items. You may need to ask for some things on loan.”
“Yes, I’m still pondering that,” said Cynthia. “I’d like to put together an advisory board of scholars and fly them in for a couple of days. We can brainstorm, narrow down the list of objects, and group them by themes.” To organize a show, a great deal of work had to be completed in a relatively short period of time. The scholars would write essays for the exhibit catalog, and she herself would write the descriptions of the objects with the help of Fergus and Andy. Once the objects were chosen, the exhibit space itself would be designed using movable partitions, lighting and props. Activities that were appealing to schoolchildren and families had to be planned, as well as a preview gala for the adult VIPs and donors, and a lecture series. Every time she began this task, the workload seemed daunting; yet this was her fifth major exhibit, and nearly all her efforts had brought enthusiastic crowds to the museum.
Barbara looked around the room. Everyone seemed to be on board. “It’s all yours, Cynthia,” she said. “We’ll plan for a Spring ‘14 opening.”
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss.
I like to re-use characters in my stories, which are mostly set in the fictional town of Parnell, Pennsylvania, home to Parnell State University. Andy Elliott is the protagonist in a short story I wrote called “Apollo’s Fire,” which tells the story of her romance with art historian Max Desmond. “Apollo’s Fire” appears in my story collection The Mind-Body Problem.