White Shoulders is a favorite perfume of mine, very feminine and old-fashioned. It smells like gardenia, lily-of-the-valley, lilac, and tuberose. My mother wears it. I have bought it a couple of times, but my perfume allergy always kicks in if I use it.
White Shoulders was introduced in the early 40s by Evyan. It was an American-made perfume, an attempt by the U.S. industry to compete with the French. It has since become a classic fragrance, much-loved by American women of all ages. I chose it for today’s chapter of Opération Séduction, in which Cynthia has a sensuous experience in the privacy of her boudoir…
10. White Shoulders
“How was it?” said Andy, as soon as Cynthia came in on Monday morning.
“It was perfect. I stayed on my diet, we flirted a little, and then I paid for the meal without his realizing it. You should have seen his face when he asked for the check!”
“An utter triumph,” laughed Andy. “Do you think he’ll concede defeat now, or redouble his efforts?”
“I don’t know. He invited me for Thanksgiving at his parents’ house.”
“Are you kidding? You’re meeting his parents this soon? I think you’re the one who’s seducing him.”
“No, it’s not like that,” said Cynthia, though she wasn’t quite sure what to make of the invitation. “There’s an international student coming to the dinner who wants to go to grad school in Classics, and he thought I could help.”
“Hmmm. That sounds convenient. I wonder if he invited the student just to get you there.”
“Andy! You’re so cynical!” said Cynthia. This possibility hadn’t even occurred to her.
“And you’re very innocent, Grasshopper,” said Andy.
One of their interns came in with a package for Cynthia. She opened it to reveal a little felt case with twenty tiny, numbered bottles, each containing about a half-teaspoon of fluid. The enclosed note, written in Peter’s elegant hand, read: For your dietary régime. Try each of these and keep some notes on what you enjoy. Let me know if any of them causes a sore throat. And remember the other advice I gave.
Andy was intrigued by the miniature bottles, and enthusiastic when Cynthia explained their purpose. “But what’s the other advice?”
“Oh, just to be diligent about keeping them nearby in case I have a food craving,” she lied.
That night, she sniffed one of the tiny flasks in lieu of dessert. It was dark in color, almost like tar, and smelled rich and musky. She didn’t find the scent particularly pleasant, but on the other hand, it vanquished her craving for chocolate with surprising speed. She rubbed a tiny dot of the liquid onto her hand, in case the urge returned, and took her sketch pad to the bedroom.
On the bureau lay her first drawing of herself, made the previous night, and she picked it up to examine it more closely. The experience of sketching her own body had been fascinating. At first, she felt awkward and self-conscious, standing nude in front of the big full-length mirror, but after a while, the image in the mirror became her subject, and she grew absorbed in the task of depicting it accurately. It was as though she was in an art class, watching a life model who stood in three-quarter view with her weight on one hip, undraped and unabashed. The model had delicate, porcelain shoulders and ample breasts. Her nipples were difficult to draw because they weren’t flush with the line of the breast, but jutted out as though swollen. Her belly was rounded and too generous. Her waist was high and narrow, her hips very full, and her thighs were fat enough to rub together slightly when she walked.
Now she removed her clothes, catching a renewed whiff of the dark, musky liquid, and stood before the mirror again, trying to remember what her body had looked like before she gained the weight. Her thighs had been more sleek, and her belly flatter. She sucked in her stomach, testing the effect. She noticed that her pubic hair was getting a little too full, and needed trimming. Nick had always complimented her on her hair “down there” because, he maintained, it proved she was a natural blonde. He said it was softer and finer than other women’s hair. What would Peter think, if he saw it? He probably had plenty of comparative data.
Shaking her head a little, she redirected her thoughts to the task at hand. Her breasts had been smaller before, and the nipples more prominent. She wouldn’t mind going down a cup size if it also meant she was thinner. Ever since puberty, she had worn bras with a thick layer of fabric on the cups, to prevent her nipples from being visible. Her mother had reacted to Cynthia’s breasts as though they were shameful, and insisted that she wear a bra any time she was outside her bedroom, in order to conceal the offending nipples. They were very sensitive, too… She raised her hands over her head, thinking that this might duplicate the effect of weight loss, and then absently weighed her left breast in one hand, wondering how much of her body mass it represented. She realized that she was becoming aroused, and she began to run her hands over her body, fantasizing about Peter looking at her breasts, touching them, taking a nipple gently into his mouth. Still gazing into the mirror, she lay back on the bed.
“Lovely, aren’t they?” said Barbara Cardinale. She was standing beside Cynthia and they were facing a drawing of the Muses of Comedy and Tragedy by Maria Cosway, the eighteenth-century painter and engraver who enjoyed a dalliance with Jefferson while he was in Paris. The gallery was Barbara’s favorite, for it contained works by women artists of the period she studied: Cosway, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux.
“Oh yes,” said Cynthia. “I heard there’s a Vallayer-Coster coming on the market. Think we have a shot at it?” , painter of extraordinary still-lifes, had been admitted to the French Académie Royale at the tender age of twenty-six.
“Perhaps,” replied Barbara. The Institute housed an eclectic assortment of objects, formed around the original collections of one Herbert Allan Walker, a doctor and entrepreneur who had made his fortune in patent medicines, dying a very rich man in 1923. Before the war, Walker had traveled Europe, buying antiquities, paintings, and books; his predilection for women painters was unusual in a gentleman of the day. The Philadelphia Institute of Fine Arts was his legacy to the city, and its custodians were charged with building on the collection’s areas of strength. While it was becoming increasingly difficult to obtain antiquities with legally acceptable provenances, the market for European paintings, drawings and engravings was a different matter.
“I’m going to retire in eighteen months,” said Barbara suddenly, “and I’m considering recommending to the Board of Trustees that you be my successor.”
Cynthia blinked as this news sank in. “You are? That’s… that’s a high compliment. I hadn’t thought of it.”
Barbara smiled. “But you knew I’ve been pondering retirement. Whom did you imagine would be on the short list to take over?”
“Well, surely Andy—”
“Andy’s top notch as a scholar, but she doesn’t have your experience in facilities management and programming. She doesn’t know the Institute’s collections like you do. Whenever you’re not at your desk, I know I can track you down in one of the galleries or storerooms. The other curators don’t always appreciate your enthusiasm, you know,” she laughed.
Her face flushed a little, and she asked, “Am I ready, Barbara?”
Barbara didn’t answer immediately. She turned back to the Cosway drawing, and then said, “How come you never told me that you had a family connection to the Institute?”
Now it was Cynthia’s turn to pause. “I thought it would be crass to trade on it at my interview,” she finally said. “And after I got the job, it didn’t seem to have significance for anyone but me.”
“I met your parents at a fundraiser for the MFA in Boston. Your father had a great deal to say about the longtime connection between the Walkers and the Goodens. He was surprised that I didn’t know.”
Cynthia sighed. “I hope he didn’t bore you too badly. He dilates upon the subject of Gooden genealogy whenever and wherever he gets a chance.” Herbert Allan Walker’s mother had been born a Gooden, and his daughter Francine had married another member of the Gooden clan.
“When I learned that bit of information, I finally understood why you have such a connection to this place. It’s almost like your second home.”
“I do love it. I love it here,” she said. “It’s the best job in the world.”
“You asked if you’re ready to be Director,” replied Barbara. “Almost, but not quite yet, I think. You need to grow your self-confidence. With every exhibition, I see you becoming more assertive and polished. This perfume show is a big one for you. We’ll see how it goes.”
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss
Notes: The “Grasshopper” reference is an allusion to the old 70’s television show Kung Fu, in which Master Po, Caine’s mentor in his training as a Shaolin monk, addresses his young and naïve apprentice as “grasshopper.” I sometimes wonder if Master Po was the inspiration for Yoda.
I am fond of human figure studies, and especially nudes. One of my favorite art books is Kenneth Clark’s classic, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1951). I ran across Tracey Padron’s work online and loved it. I chose her self-portrait to illustrate Cynthia’s story because her body type is similar to Cynthia’s, if quite a bit slimmer.
Maria Cosway’s “Muses of Comedy and Tragedy” sold at Bonham’s in 2004 for $5714.