Tabac Blond was created in 1919 by the House of Caron as a fragrance for the newly liberated flappers who were discovering the pleasures of tobacco, short hair and short skirts.
It is a deliberately androgynous perfume, with leather and floral notes over a base of amber and musk. I chose it for today’s chapter about Cynthia Gooden’s early family life, in which androgyny and female liberation were not encouraged. There’s also a wicked little joke involving tobacco…
- Tabac Blond
The next Thursday, Cynthia took the train to New York to consult with a friend at the Metropolitan Museum about the perfume show. She was hoping for the loan of a few life-size statues of Roman ladies with elaborate hairdos, and perhaps some vase paintings of athletes bathing and anointing themselves with oil.
On the train, she began to think about Thanksgiving at Peter’s house, and what it would be like. His parents lived in Rimini, which was a small town outside of Philadelphia. A very small town; she’d been there once, shopping for antiques. The downtown was charming, but many of the storefronts were empty. There were no good restaurants, and except for the grand but dilapidated Victorian century houses, the homes were relatively modest.
Her thoughts drifted back to last year’s Thanksgiving at her parents’ lakefront home in Framingham, Massachusetts. Her father had been disgruntled by the re-election of Barack Obama; he had traveled to nearby Boston for Mitt Romney’s victory party, only to be profoundly shocked when Romney was handily defeated. The minute she stepped in the door that Thursday, she knew he was in a terrible mood. He was on his third Manhattan, and bitterly ranting to her brother David about the way the nation’s few and precious job-creators were being devoured by the majority, whom he visualized as a school of piranhas. “They’re gnawing our bones,” he warned darkly. “This is the death-knell of the United States of America.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said David, casually scratching his head of blond curls. He was long inured to this type of rant. “You can still rely on all those teabaggers of yours to keep Congress on the straight and narrow.” David was an investment banker and by nature conservative, but he was also gay, and year by year, his politics were moving increasingly closer to Cynthia’s own moderate liberalism. When at home, he liked to make sly references to “teabagging,” since his father was unaware of the term’s sexual meaning. Reginald had actually attended the Republican convention wearing a hat with teabags stapled to it.
For as long as she could remember, her family had existed in a sort of ice age, where feelings were never expressed except by her father, who alone had the right to be angry. During her childhood, family dinners were de rigueur, and both children were expected to display impeccable manners, clean their plates, and not leave the table until excused. On the other hand, the meals were conducted in silence for the most part, unless her father was on a rant. He often engaged in harsh criticisms of his progeny’s failures, and if they achieved a success, his only response was a grudging, “We expect no less from a Gooden.” Cynthia’s mother Marian, although wielding considerable influence behind the scenes, never contradicted Reginald before other people— especially the children. Thus it was that Cynthia grew up with an atrophied sense of self-esteem, and a paralyzing fear of confrontation. It had taken her years to cultivate the confidence and poise she needed in order to succeed in her profession, and this process began only once she left home for Bryn Mawr, where domineering males did not have free rein. In the supportive atmosphere of a women’s college, she had slowly learned to assert her own ideas and opinions, but at home, she automatically reverted back to her former timid self.
Her brother, on the other hand, had always delighted in baiting “the old man,” and his escapades were many. At the age of eleven, he took down Reginald’s rack of curved meerschaum pipes, and stuffed one into his briefs to give himself a more impressive “package.” With his crotch bulging outrageously, he then proceeded to chase a terrified Cynthia from room to room until he grew bored with the game, and drew the pipe from his underpants, carefully replacing it on the rack. After that, the exercise was often repeated. Whenever she smelled pipe smoke coming from her father’s study, Cynthia cringed, but David laughed like a maniac.
Now they seated themselves at the holiday table, which had a centerpiece of oddly-shaped winter squashes and was carefully laid with Lenox china and antique Waterford crystal. Dressed in black and white for the occasion, her parents’ maid Consuelo set the massive, 20-pound turkey beside her father and silently retreated to the kitchen. Cynthia wondered why on earth they needed such a large bird, when there were only the four of them. Perhaps her mother would give Consuelo the leftovers.
At the head of the table, Reginald cast a baleful eye over his family. “This is pathetic,” he said, as though speaking to himself. “My daughter is an aging spinster and my son is light in the loafers. The country’s going down the tubes and the Gooden line isn’t far behind.” Marian looked pained at this breach of dinner-table decorum, but said nothing.
“Even if Cynthia had a kid, it wouldn’t be a Gooden,” pointed out David. “And you’re forgetting that I still have plenty of time to get married and become a father.” David was a year older than Cynthia, and she felt envious of the fact that his window for parenthood would not close in a few more years, as hers would. She had resigned herself to a life without children, but she hoped David would marry —gay marriage had been legal in Massachusetts since 2004— and start a family. She pictured herself as a fond, indulgent aunt, taking a niece or nephew to see the elephants at the zoo, or perhaps a Disney movie.
“You’d really do it, wouldn’t you?” said their father. “You would expose an innocent child to your twisted home life?”
“Sure,” said David, offhandedly. “After all, it couldn’t be any worse than what Cyn and I lived through.” Cynthia glared at him. He didn’t need to drag her into it.
Both parents studiously ignored this remark, which was too outrageous to acknowledge. David loved to tweak authority figures, and he’d always been a smartass. Cynthia remembered one episode in particular, when he was in middle school and it was time to turn in books at the end of the year. A friend in his class told Cynthia that when David presented his Language Arts textbook to the teacher, she pointed out some water damage, the unhappy result of his attempt to do homework while in the tub, and said that he would have to pay a fine.
“That’s not damage,” said David. “This is damage.” He took his compass and jabbed the pointed end into the cover of the book, making a deep gouge. Mrs. Axt, an unsmiling woman with a face of granite, was having none of it. She’d been engaged in a struggle of wills with David all year.
“You’ve just doubled your fine. That will be eight dollars, please.”
David smiled sarcastically and pulled from his pocket a hundred-dollar bill that he often carried in order to impress his classmates.
“I can’t accept that,” said Mrs. Axt, as the other children waiting in line began to snigger.
“Why not? It’s the smallest bill I have,” said David coolly.
“We don’t have change for that. Put it away and bring something smaller tomorrow.”
The next day, David had brought a coffee can full of eight dollars in pennies and ceremoniously presented the cash at the main office, insisting on a receipt.
As Cynthia chewed her way through turkey, stuffing, green beans and mashed potatoes at the silent table, she used the same strategy she did when visiting the dentist. She tried to empty her mind of all thoughts, as though meditating.
Finally, Reginald reverted to his favorite topics of business and politics, complaining that Obama’s policies had failed to boost the economy. Obama’s poor leadership was to blame for the parlous condition of various companies Reginald controlled.
“Bad luck, Pop,” said David. “Maybe you need a capital infusion. Want me to give you a loan?”
As Reginald glared at his son, David said under his breath, but just loudly enough for Cynthia to hear, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Cynthia’s brother David is based on a real acquaintance, a childhood friend of the Long-Suffering Husband. He really did damage his book with a compass (that long-vanished, sharp-pointed item of school paraphernalia), then try to pay for the damage with a hundred-dollar bill. He also brought the can of pennies to school. David’s antics with the pipe are also true-life adventures, but from a different person.
The “teabag” references allude to Reginald’s enthusiasm for the “Tea Party,” a right-wing American political group whose fondest dream in life is tax evasion. Usually I stay away from politics in my stories, but in this case, the politics of Cynthia’s father Reginald are closely wrapped up with his rigid, domineering personality, and with Cynthia’s upbringing. I have known a number of women who had very harsh fathers. As a result they either become timid and lacking in self-confidence, or they develop a wisecracking, brassy personality as a means of self-defense… Cynthia belongs to the former group, though she has slowly become more assertive over the years.
I first learned that “teabag” had a sexual meaning from watching Sex and the City.