Mouchoir de Monsieur means a “gentleman’s handkerchief,” a masculine accessory which has today atrophied into the ignoble “pocket square.” During the Belle Époque before WWI, elegant men would offer their perfumed hankies to the ladies who strolled on their arms down the boulevards of Paris. Created in 1904 by Jacques Guerlain of the fabled House of Guerlain, Mouchoir de Monsieur is still a popular fragrance today, though the formula of bergamot, lavender, and geranium over a musky base of patchouli, oak moss and orris root has been modified over the years.
To me, there is something very romantic, even erotic, about a man offering his (clean) handkerchief to a woman. Especially if it smells like him. Normally Peter Noel is always equipped with a real handkerchief of fine batiste–NOT a mere “pocket square.” But in today’s episode of Opération Séduction, he finds himself at a loss…
- Mouchoir de Monsieur
The action shifted to the living room, where everyone gathered to watch football. Eventually Song and Zhaodi said their goodbyes, and she was getting up to do the same when Peter took her aside and said, “Let’s go downstairs. I haven’t had a chance to talk with you yet.” He led her down to the basement, which was divided into two sections. An unfinished area held the washer and dryer, as well as the water heater and pegboards full of tools. In the other direction, a doorway led to the finished space, which had a seating/bedroom area, some shelving, and a small bath. On the door hung an old pasteboard clock with movable hands, of the type used to teach young children to tell time.
The doorframe held a series of pencil marks with annotations: “Petey age 3.” “Debbie 5 yrs.” “Wendy 3 years old.” “Peter 10 and a half.”
“Who’s Wendy?” she asked, pointing at the marks, which were made at heights appropriate to the ages recorded.
“That’s my other sister. She died of cancer when she was five,” said Peter.
“Oh. I’m sorry,” she replied, feeling that she had made a faux pas. So Peter’s childhood hadn’t been all fun and games. She wondered whether he had any idea, when he issued the invitation, how much would be revealed about his personal history. This Peter was so different from the suave, cultured man who flirted with her over dinner at Maxime’s. Or was he?
“After you,” he said, and motioned for her to step into the finished area. He pointed to a dart board mounted on the wall. “How about a game?”
“Okay. I think I’ve played darts twice in my life before, so there’s a chance I’ll hit your paneling instead of the board.”
He laughed. “If you look closely, you’ll see that it wouldn’t be the first time. There are even a few holes there from Debbie’s bow and arrows. Not to mention dents from my BB gun.” He took out a cassette tape from the same drawer that held the darts, and inserted it into an old boombox. The sounds of Roxy Music filled the room. She might have guessed he would be drawn to this sophisticated, pleasurable music. In adolescence, she’d had a crush on Bryan Ferry, whose darkly handsome looks resembled Peter’s.
“All right. You stand behind this” —he pointed to a line of dessicated duct tape on the carpet about eight feet from the wall— “and throw, like so.” Peter threw three darts in quick succession, each time hitting close to the center of the board. Then he retrieved the darts and handed them to Cynthia. Her first, experimental throw fell short of the board. The next one hit the outer ring, but not hard enough to cling, and it dropped to the floor. The third one hit the lower third of the board, and clung limply.
“Do-over,” said Peter, picking up the darts. He handed her one and laid the rest on a shelf. “Here. Hold it in your hand like this. And draw your arm back like this.” Standing behind her, he moved her arm into the correct position. “Now.” Again, the dart arced upward, and fell to the lower third of the board, barely clinging in place. “Your problem is, you throw like a girl,” said Peter.
“But I am a girl,” Cynthia replied.
Suddenly his arms were around her waist, and his face was against her neck. “I know,” he said. “Oh god, Cynthia, I can’t resist you. I can’t…” She stood stock-still while he held her, moving his nose and lips up and down her neck. He wasn’t kissing her, not exactly. It felt more like he was… smelling her. He took a couple of long, slow inhalations, and then several shorter, snuffling ones. It was sexy, but strange, and she was too surprised to react quickly. He lifted his head and they stood motionless together for a few seconds. Then he turned her so that she faced him.
“You’re not wearing perfume, or a fragrance of any kind? Except for shampoo?”
“And deodorant, but I like the unscented kind,” she answered, confused.
“What they call ‘unscented’ is actually a fragrance, you know,” he said. “I used to create those when I worked at IFF. They’re not the same as fragrance-free.” He pondered for a moment. “What deodorant do you use? Secret?”
“Yes,” she said, shocked once more that he could tell just by being in close proximity to her. “Why do you ask?”
“I’m trying to isolate the scent of your skin.” He looked down at her, his eyes burning. He bent and kissed her, gently at first, brushing his lips over hers and breathing in as he did so, then more firmly, opening his mouth as she responded. He pulled her against him, and the contact created a fierce glow of pleasure in the marrow of her thighs and hips. She was drowning in sensation, and forgetting everything else.
Wait. “What if someone walks by?” she asked and glanced toward the door. It was closed. “Nobody’s going to come in,” he said. “This used to be my room, and they know we’re down here. Besides, when the clock on the door says midnight, that means I want privacy.”
So this is it. He was seducing her, after all. He must have planned this. She yearned for him, and his touch was unbearably sweet. He was kissing her again, and this time he had a hand on her right breast. She felt the nipple grow taut beneath the concealing foam cup of her bra, and he must have felt it too through her sweater, because he ran his thumb over it as he tasted her mouth.
What about all his other women? Even as her body was melting, her mind abruptly changed course. There was no agreement, no commitment. For all she knew, he’d been in some other woman’s bed the night before. She was so aroused that even this barely gave her pause. But then the inner voice said, When he dumps you, like Nick did, what then? The memory of that searing pain brought her to her senses, jarringly. Somehow she had to stop this.
Peter was starting to run his hands underneath the back of her sweater when she pushed against his chest. “Peter, no. Please…” Horrified, she realized that she was beginning to weep, overwhelmed by conflicting but equally powerful emotions.
He finally pulled back, but still held her, looking into her eyes with concern. “What’s wrong, chérie? Cynthia, tell me what’s wrong? I thought you were enjoying this as much as I am.”
She drew a wavering breath. “I like it too much. Peter, I’m attracted, there’s no denying that, but I don’t want to sleep with you. Please don’t make me.” She started to cry again, and in spite of herself, buried her face in his shoulder. If he pressed his advantage, she knew she would be powerless to resist. “Please don’t make me. Please don’t,” she said, shaking her head against him.
“Hush,” he said, his arms tight around her. “Nobody’s going to make you do anything you don’t want. Even if you did like it, and I could tell,” he added impishly. “I wish I could offer you my handkerchief, but I don’t have one at the moment. Let’s get you a tissue, and then we can sit on the couch and talk.” He led her to the bathroom and waited outside while she rinsed her face in cold water and blew her nose. She groaned inwardly when she saw herself in the mirror, blotchy skinned and red-eyed. She didn’t cry pretty. Well, maybe this would put him off her.
They sat on the couch, and she said miserably, “I should go.”
“No, no. You’re not getting away that easily,” he replied lightly. “First of all, you shouldn’t go upstairs until your complexion settles down and your eyes don’t look so red.”
She glumly agreed. It would be too embarrassing for both of them if she tried to say her adieux now.
“How’s the kit of scents for your diet working out?” he asked.
“Peter, that was thoughtful of you,” she said, grateful for the change of subject. “I’ve tried several of them, and they work really well. Especially the dark, tarry-looking one, though I can’t say I really enjoy the scent.
“Yes, that’s labdanum. Even though it’s a bit musky, it’s actually a plant resin that we use as a perfume base. Once it’s mixed and diluted, you can only smell the pleasant, lingering notes. It’s a good substitute for ambergris, which they used to take from sperm whales.”
“Oh. I’m glad they don’t use that any more.”
“The best quality ambergris is washed up on the shore, so it can still be used without harming the whales. But I’ve always liked labdanum. Did any of the vials give you a sore throat?” he asked. They were sitting side by side on the couch, not touching, and he had reverted to a more professional manner. She began to feel calmer.
“Yes, a few. I think it was numbers three and seven, and nine. The odd-numbered ones.”
He looked intrigued. “Yes, those are the ones with stronger citrus elements, like bergamot. You can discard those. Were there any you particularly liked?”
She considered. “I haven’t tried them all, but I like the flowery and spicy ones. One smells like vanilla extract, and there’s another, similar one, but it isn’t vanilla.”
He smiled. “Yes, there was vanilla in the set, and tonka bean. You have a good nose. Women have a much stronger olfactory sense than men.”
“If that’s true, then why are the famous perfume designers, chefs and sommeliers all men?”
“Sexism mainly, but also because the natural difference between the sexes can be easily bridged through training. A well-trained male nose is far superior to an untrained female one. I practice every day with scent strips, and I’m always aware of every scent around me, constantly trying to identify whatever I smell.”
“That can’t always be pleasant,” she said, chuckling.
“No, but after a while, you get beyond basic feelings of disgust. You’re more interested in the scientific aspect of it and the sheer variety of molecules and their impact on the brain. Have you ever had cats?” She nodded. “Yes, I have a Persian mix.”
He paused for a couple of seconds, smiling at her as though she had said something witty, and then asked, “Did you ever notice how, when they smell something bodily, like a urine spot, they draw back their lips a bit, open their mouths and breathe in?”
“Yes!” she said. “What is that all about? It’s like they enjoy it.”
“They have a little structure called Jacobsen’s organ in the nasal cavity,” said Peter. “It’s for detecting pheromones from other members of the same species. Humans have it too, the vomeronasal organ. Now my sister Debbie will tell you that it’s only vestigial, and it has no way to communicate with the brain any more,” he said, warming to the subject, “but I disagree. I’m convinced that most people are profoundly but subconsciously affected by the scents of other people. Especially when it comes to members of the opposite sex, and mate selection.”
“What role does perfume play, then?”
“It masks the existing scent, and mimics scent features that certain people find attractive. A kind of false coloration, like makeup. Now you, for example, have a very unusual scent. I’ve never smelled anything like you before.”
“Is that good or bad?” she asked. The inflammation in her nose was subsiding now and her face felt cooler. She should leave soon.
The shadow of a smile touched his lips. “I’m not sure, but I think it might be good.”
“I’d better go now.” She got up, and he did too, taking her hands in his.
“Don’t cut me off, Cynthia. I promise that nothing will happen unless you make the first move—unless you want it as much as I do. But please let me see you again, if only just for coffee. Will you do that?” He held her gaze, and she couldn’t say no. Suppressing another bout of tears, she nodded and tried to smile, and then went upstairs.
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss
Notes: I once read a book about the sense of smell. Sadly, I have lost track of the book and cannot rediscover its title in spite of much searching online. The author hypothesized that scents are far more important than we realize, especially in our evaluations of the opposite sex, and that part of our perception of scent is unconscious. This struck home with me because I have always judged men by how they smell. In fact, one of the reasons I married the Long Suffering Husband is because his skin smelled… right. Like a pine tree, which is a very good smell.
The Thanksgiving basement setting of this story is also drawn from my life. Quite early in our acquaintance, the man who would become the LSH invited me to his house for the holiday, mentioning that his parents always had a table full of international students and faculty. But somehow it turned out that I was the only guest… and after the meal, we wandered down to the basement.
I believe that (finished) basements are emblematic of Midwestern men. The basement is a metaphor for the fundamental personality traits which are not on daily display.
I saved the pictures of Bryan Ferry for last.