Fahrenheit by Dior was a runaway best-seller in 1988. Two of the top notes are honeysuckle and hawthorn blossom, which is described as having the scent of “a seashell path warmed by the sun.” Intriguing, isn’t it? This initial hit of floral/oystershell scent (hmmm, sounds like a Chablis) is followed by a lasting “nutmeg-violet accord,” then earthy base notes of cedar, sandalwood and patchouli. Reading the description makes me hungry. Maybe it’s the nutmeg! In any case, I thought “Fahrenheit” was a good title for today’s chapter, given the sudden burst of heat…
The advisory board for “Ancient Aromas: Fragrance and Beauty in Greece and Rome” sat around a conference table in the Institute, eating a working lunch. The group of eight were gathered in Philadelphia for a Scholars’ Day, four months in advance of the exhibit’s opening. It was right before the Christmas rush, and Cynthia was relieved that all the members of the board were available for a mid-December meeting. That morning had been devoted to the delivery of papers on perfume and cosmetics in the ancient world, and the rest of the day would be spent finalizing the organization of the exhibit. Peter was there, and Cynthia was acutely conscious of his presence. He rarely missed an opportunity to exchange a few words with her, or throw her a dazzling smile, but so far he had remained silent during the shop talk about the exhibition.
“Okay,” she said, putting down her garden sub sandwich, no mayo. She had not allowed herself a bag of chips. “The arrangement is partly chronological and partly thematic. So far, we’ve worked out that visitors entering the show will encounter a space called ‘The First Perfumers,’ with our Egyptian and Near Eastern objects displayed to illustrate the background of perfumery in the Mediterranean. Then we have two thematic rooms, ‘Hair and Makeup’ and ‘Bathing and Athletics’ which focus respectively on beauty and health for both Greeks and Romans. Then what?”
“Aphrodite,” said Trevor Benson, a professor from Colorado who specialized in ancient religion. “The Greeks connected her with perfumes. Her lover was Adonis, born from the myrrh tree, and one of the offerings she always received was incense.” Several others nodded their agreement.
Trevor kept his gaze on Cynthia. “Perfumed oil was an important accompaniment to lovemaking among the Classical Greeks. The woman was expected to anoint the man before sex.” Cynthia was no prude, and she was accustomed to explicit discussions of ancient sexuality, but for some reason she found Trevor’s manner unsettling.
“We have plenty of Aphrodite-related objects. So maybe a whole room about Aphrodite and sexuality, with a focus on myrrh?” she asked, wondering whether it might have to be toned down for the sake of the younger visitors.
“Yes, you could use the lines from Lysistrata where Myrrhine sexually teases her husband by running off to retrieve a bottle of perfumed oil—put the quote on the wall in a huge font,” said Velma Ughrin, another of the Hellenists. “Even Myrrhine’s name points to the role of myrrh in sexual relations.”
“And you can set up your bronze incense stands in the same room,” said Trevor.
They decided that they needed at least one room devoted exclusively to the Romans. “And Cleopatra,” said Velma. “Didn’t she write a book about perfumes?”
“No, that was poisons,” replied Ricardo, one of the Romanists. “She made a careful study of poisons, and conducted cruel experiments on slaves and convicts. She and Antony found them amusing. But there’s a story in Plutarch about how she sailed up the river Cydnus to meet Antony in a golden barge that wafted perfume to the banks. Maybe we could use that.”
Peter suddenly spoke up. “I’d like to see more emphasis on the materials themselves,” he said. “You should have sacks of frankincense and myrrh on display, maybe some fresh myrtle or mastic fronds, and some spices like cinnamon. And there should be something for people to smell. What if you actually put frankincense in the incense burners and used them for their original purpose?”
A babble of discussion rose in response to his comments, including shocked objections to the proposed use of the ancient bronze artifacts, and expressions of concern about patrons with colds and allergies being exposed to smoke. Most of the group agreed, however, that displaying the raw materials was a good idea.
“All right,” said Cynthia finally. “This is the kind of thing kids would love. I’ll see whether we can create an enclosed space that would let people opt into the incense experience. We could make it look like a sacred grove for Aphrodite, with an altar and lots of fruits and flowers. And we could use ceramic inserts to protect the patina on the burners, but I’ll have to check on whether that’s feasible from an insurance standpoint. Maybe we could mock up some reproductions.”
“What about recreating an ancient perfume, and letting the visitors smell it?” asked Velma, who had been casting admiring glances at Peter all morning. “There are plenty of recipes in Dioscorides.”
“There’s also the perfume that Julius Caesar mentions in a fragment of his verse,” said Ricardo. “It was called telinum, and he speaks of anointing the body with it.”
“What are the ingredients?” asked Peter.
“Fenugreek, yellow mellilot, marjoram, honey, and some other things,” answered Ricardo. “Pliny has a list. Could you make it even if he doesn’t give the proportions?”
“Yes, I could try to reconstruct it based on my knowledge as a perfumer.” They all agreed that Julius Caesar’s perfume would doubtless be the hit of the show, and a great hook for publicity. Cynthia noticed a subtle change in the others’ attitudes toward Peter after that. He was accepted as one of the group, a member who had his own expertise to contribute.
At two, when they broke for an hour, Trevor Benson approached Cynthia and said, “I’m glad to have a moment to chat with you at last.” Grey-haired, tall, and fit, he was about ten years older than she, and dressed like a typical academic in a blue oxford shirt, a striped tie, navy Dockers, and a camel-colored sport jacket with leather elbow patches.
“I’m so glad you could come,” said Cynthia. “Your idea on Aphrodite was great. I’d really like to use that.”
“I was sitting behind you all morning at the paper session,” said Trevor suddenly. “I couldn’t help but notice your hair.”
“My hair?” she asked, surprised. Her blonde hair was slightly past shoulder length, and though she usually wore it up, today she’d curled it and then used a big clip to gather it at the back of her neck.
He was staring down at her intently. “It’s very pretty. Don’t change it.”
“Umm, thanks,” said Cynthia, embarrassed by his unsubtle comment on her appearance. She looked down and her glance randomly fell on his left hand, which lacked a ring. He seemed to be interested in her. Andy had predicted that men would approach her, once she was open to a new relationship. He wasn’t particularly attractive to her, but neither was he repellent. Should she try to get to know him better?
“Cynthia.” Peter was beside her. “I’d like to talk with you about the budget for those raw materials.” He and Trevor were about the same height, and they exchanged glares over her head. Simultaneously, they both looked down at her to see which one she would answer.
“The budget, yes,” she said, and turning to Trevor, “We’ll talk more about Aphrodite at dinner.” As Peter swept her toward the door, he said in a low voice, “I don’t like the way he looks at you, and those remarks about sex. Why did you agree to talk to him at dinner?”
“That’s my job, Peter,” she answered reasonably. “I don’t want to alienate someone on the board. I’ve got some budget figures in my office. Let’s go there.” They’d had coffee a couple of times since Thanksgiving, but true to his word, he hadn’t adopted his seductive manner.
As they silently climbed the stairs to her office, she began to grow irritated at Peter’s presumption. The sexual double standard, it seemed, had not changed that much since antiquity— at least not in the minds of men like Peter.
The office space was empty; she had forgotten that it was a Monday, the day the museum was closed. “Besides,” she finally added, “you and I don’t have an understanding, so you have no business monitoring my relationships.”
“Relationships? You have a relationship with that… that chinless wonder? And you’re seeing other men too?” he said. He sounded genuinely upset.
“That’s none of your business,” she repeated. “But I could ask the same of you.”
“No, I’m not seeing any men,” he joked, though his smile quickly faded, and she knew her argument had hit home. She stepped over to the window and looked out onto the Frommer gallery below. Recalling the day she and Peter had met, she felt a wave of powerful emotion. She loved him; that was clear enough. He had only to walk into a room for her to be constantly aware of him, to want to be near him. She dreamed of him at night. She would never be able to begin a relationship with anyone else as long as she felt like this. What was the use?
He stood beside her, looking down at the gallery. “Do you remember?” he asked softly.
“Yes. You had a white daisy in your lapel that day.” Today he was dressed in the same suit, but with a yellow daisy that matched his tie, and a white shirt. She loved him. Whether she slept with him or not, he was going to break her heart sooner or later. Was she going to suffer the heartbreak without even the compensating pleasures of touching him, of feeling his skin on hers? She turned to him. “Peter?”
“Hmm?” he said. He was still looking out the window, absorbed in his own thoughts.
“I want you.”
He turned his head very slowly, and at first she wondered whether he’d heard her. Then he said, “Chérie, are you certain?”
“Yes.” He stood motionless, though his eyes were fiery, and she remembered his promise. He wouldn’t touch her, unless she made the first move. She slid closer, turned his body so that they faced each other, and put both hands on his chest. “I want you.”
“Right now?” He glanced about the office, as though scouting for a convenient horizontal surface.
She laughed. “I’m tempted, but we’d better not.”
“Tonight, then. After the dinner.” Peter’s arms were around her, and she had the pleasurable light-headed feeling that his nearness always induced. He bent his head for a kiss, and then another, running his hands over her bottom and pulling her up against him, so she could feel his desire.
Breathless, and aware that they needed to stop before it was too late, she pulled back a bit and said, “Should I come to your place, or will you come to mine? My apartment is downtown, not far from here.”
“Your place. I’m afraid that if it’s my place, you might have second thoughts and not show up. This way you can’t escape me,” he said, tightening his grip on her and then opening and closing his fingers over her ribs. She collapsed in choked laughter, trying to grab his hands. “Ticklish, are we?” he said. “Wait till I start tickling the rest of you.”
She wiped her eyes. “I’ll get you those budget figures now.”
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Julius Caesar’s perfume is real. I researched it here. The Elder Pliny, a Roman naturalist and naval commander, provides a recipe for telinum. Pliny died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius when his scientific curiosity got the better of his common sense.
Trevor Benson is based on a man who once sat behind me during a conference, and after the session told me that he had been staring at my hair the whole time and that I should not change it. It was flattering, but it didn’t feel right. It felt… weird.
Brace yourselves for the one really explicit chapter in the story, coming next week. It’s appropriately called Bandit.