Chanel’s Égoïste is the fragrance I used in Opération Séduction to introduce heartbreaker Peter Noel, the toast of the female half of Philadelphia’s population. All you need do is watch the famous commercial for Égoïste to get a sense of his impact.
Peter is a Very Bad Boy, and his closest friend is the villainess of the piece, Leslie Favreau, whose character is based on the deliciously evil Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. When I wrote this, I’d been reading a raft of books about the cultural differences between Americans and “the French” (read: a certain group of disdainful Parisians). Leslie therefore is a bit of a caricature, and yet I gave her a few sympathetic qualities too. This was the first time I tried to write from the perspective of the villain. It turned out to be great fun.
Six months later
Contemplating Peter’s profile with approval as they met outside the restaurant, Leslie Favreau reluctantly acknowledged to herself that he was aging better than she. Peter had the kind of masculine beauty that comes into its own around age forty. He lacked the element of androgyny that could make a star of a young Brad Pitt or Jude Law. Instead, on first sight his face appeared rugged and almost menacing, with prominent cheekbones and deep grooves from the sides of his nose to the corners of his mouth. His eyes were dark hazel and thrillingly intense. On the rare occasions he went unshaven, his beard showed some gray. His hair, on the other hand, was abundant and still jet black; he wore it slick and combed straight back, or parted in the middle, with flyaway strands resting on his forehead. His lips were just full enough to be sensuous. If his face had a flaw, it was the hint of crookedness about his large nose, the slope of which was slightly convex. She had always appreciated Peter’s nose, and not just because he had a great olfactory gift. The nose made her feel that he was, somehow, French. Ordinarily she never indulged in silly pet names with her lovers, but sometimes, when she was particularly pleased with him, she called him M. Le Nez.
They had met fourteen years ago when both were in their early thirties and Leslie was married to her first husband, Georges. Peter was working at Galimard in the great perfume manufacturing town of Grasse when Georges took her there to buy something special.
They first laid eyes on each other in a café after Georges abruptly returned to the hotel room, complaining of the bouillabaisse from lunch. Looking up from her espresso, Leslie was treated to the sight of Peter in a leather jacket with the collar standing up, his hair combed straight back, an unlighted cigarette hanging loosely from his lips.
He gave her le regard, an unmistakable invitation in his eyes. She returned the look coolly. When she left the café, he was waiting outside. He threw down his cigarette and raised an eyebrow ever so slightly, gesturing with his head in the direction of a block of apartments. Together they climbed the stairs to his rooms. When they were alone, he leaned toward her, putting his face delicately to her hair. Still not touching her, he breathed in deeply and they stood unmoving as she allowed him to taste her scent. Without warning, he seized her and crushed her against him, his mouth seeking hers.
Afterward, she was surprised to learn that he was American. His French was fluent, but with a distinct American accent— one he had not to this day bothered to correct, though he could easily have done so. It was one of his peculiarities. They arranged to meet again, and their sporadic liaisons continued through Leslie’s first and second marriages. Her second, to an American businessman of substance based in Denver, ended well, resulting in a generous financial settlement; she had easily detected Jacob’s infidelities while ensuring that he remained utterly unaware of hers. When she was offered the job in Parnell State’s Art History department, she decided to stay in the US, despite a certain disappointment in Parnell’s provincial setting. She would have preferred to work in New York. Still, it was superior to her opportunities in France; there, only the brightest or best-connected had access to even the lesser university posts. Peter, meanwhile, did a stint at International Flavors and Fragrances, but eventually quit. Or was he fired? She had never known for certain; he often withheld information from her, just as she did from him. He decided to start his own business, and she felt certain that he must have chosen Philadelphia because she was nearby— until she learned that his family lived in Rimini, a short drive away.
Sometimes they quarreled, and for months she refused to sleep with him. These periods of abstinence were quite useful in maintaining his interest; men, even Peter, were so easy to manipulate when it came to sex. They regularly dined together, and he never knew whether the fromage would be followed by dessert. Truth be told, she had always preferred his conversation to his lovemaking. They delighted in exchanging gossip about their circle of mutual friends in Philadelphia, most particularly when it came to sexual secrets. Special precautions had to be taken when Mrs. X had a flareup of herpes simplex, while Ms. Y’s saline breast implants had recently sprung a leak… In this way, the inevitable encroachment of boredom was made tolerable. She savored a vicarious pleasure, receiving the details of Peter’s conquests from his own lips. How piquant it had been, to hear of his seduction of a freshman at Penn, a sweet young marketing major who was interested in perfumery. She had sought Peter out, and he had been unable to resist the temptation to exercise his powers of fascination on the girl.
Leslie exhaled slowly and ran her tongue lightly over her upper lip, remembering Peter’s deep, honeyed voice describing how he unbuttoned the girl’s blouse to reveal a virginal but lacy white bra, scented with the lavender sprigs grown by her grandmother —this part had delighted him the most— and how he had unhooked the bra, releasing her firm young breasts, like peaches just before the peak of ripeness…
Of course Peter grew bored with the girl in a month or two. Once he had achieved the jouissance, her youthful breasts could not make up for her insipid conversation.
In certain cases, when Leslie was able to guess the identity of the women Peter described, the information had proved useful to her, a fact of which he was unaware. Peter was selective, however, in what he shared with her, and he never gave her information about his clients, only about the women he met socially. He looked good in a dinner jacket, and as an attractive bachelor, he was always in demand at dinners and parties among the city’s wealthy matrons.
Leslie was untroubled by fears that he might marry. It was not in Peter’s nature. No, she was his true soulmate. In fourteen years, no other woman had rivaled her in his affections. In fact, she rather enjoyed dropping a casual word about this or that woman in town, to stimulate his interest, and watching him begin the pursuit. More than once, she had punished women she disliked by offhandedly describing their charms to Peter, who usually took the bait. To a woman, they fell in love with him, but he tired of them quickly, and always returned to her. American women were lamentably fat, ugly and stupid. They deserved whatever they got.
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Ciarán Hinds was in his late twenties when he posed for the cover photo of Philip Davidson’s The Book-Thief’s Heartbeat (1981). It’s one of my favorite pictures of him. For some reason, I picture Leslie as looking much like the late, beautiful Natasha Richardson.