This fragrance was the first by Callisté (the company drew its name from the Greek kallistos, “most beautiful.”) It was introduced in 1925 and is no longer made, but the fascinating black glass bottle is a pricey collector’s item. I can find no information on what Mon Studio smelled like. It remains a mystery. In today’s chapter, Cynthia gets a closer look at Peter’s… studio.
21. Mon Studio
On Monday, the museum was closed again, and Cynthia took Tuesday and Wednesday off in order to get away from the constant attention she was receiving because of Peter’s antics. On Tuesday at noon she got a call from Andy.
“Sorry to bother you at home, but Peter had Sarafina’s send over eight peanut-butter and pickle sandwiches, and they won’t take them back. Is it okay if we eat them?” She agreed that it was okay. No use wasting good food.
On Thursday she arrived at work to find a box of nine 9×12 Strathmore sketchbooks and nine Derwent sketching pencils. Then a bouquet of ten white roses and ten white lilies, arranged with white sweetpeas, baby’s breath and ferns, was delivered. “It looks like a giant bridal bouquet!” crowed Shanae.
“Barbara’s asking if you could come upstairs for a minute,” reported Julie. Cynthia was expecting this. She stepped into Barbara’s elegant office, with its large windows and its pristine glass-topped desk, which held only a laptop and an inlaid Regency tea caddy in polished walnut and birdseye maple. Barbara used it to hold all the little bits and pieces that otherwise would have made her desk untidy.
“If this is about Peter’s gifts, I’m sorry,” she began.
Barbara motioned for her to close the door and sit down. “I had a call from the Inquirer,” she said. “One of their social reporters got wind of this and wanted to know if it was a publicity stunt.”
Cynthia put her head in her hand and rubbed her temples. “I’m so sorry. I’ll talk to him. I thought he would get the message when I kept sending everything back, but clearly he hasn’t.” She dreaded the thought of having to confront Peter and suffer through a discussion about what he was doing.
“It’s not my business, I know,” said Barbara, “but I’ve been acquainted with Peter for several years, and this behavior is very uncharacteristic of him. He’s in his forties and a lot of women have tried to get him to the altar without the slightest sign of progress.”
“I can’t take his proposal seriously,” said Cynthia. She haltingly confided what Peter had done, the role Leslie had played, and her conclusion that the gifts were just another stage in their cruel prank.
“I don’t think so,” said Barbara, shaking her head. “I suspect that Leslie planned this from the start, but now he’s realized that he was being used. What you may not know is that Leslie was up for your curator’s job, back in ’05. You were both finalists, but I decided that your specialization in Republican and early Imperial sculpture was a better fit for us.” Cynthia nodded. Leslie focused on Gallo-Roman art, and the Institute owned only a few such pieces. “So you think she’s nursed a grudge all this time?” she asked. “And she has some kind of hold over Peter?”
“Perhaps. Peter certainly has to take responsibility for his role,” said Barbara. “But it looks like he’s trying to make amends. In any case, we can’t have more of this hoopla in the museum. Go tell him he’s got your attention now. If you don’t want to marry him, that’s understandable, Cynthia…” Barbara paused here, then continued with a shrug, “… though I see no reason you shouldn’t enjoy his company a little longer, now that he’s learned his lesson. But have him send the gifts to your apartment.”
“I’ll go today on my lunch break,” she said, hanging her head. She should have put a stop to this sooner. It was her own pride that had clouded her judgement. That, and her fear that seeing Peter again would weaken her resolve.
When Cynthia finally found a parking spot near Rittenhouse Square, it was too far from Peter’s shop to carry the unwieldly flower arrangement, so she left it in her car and settled for bringing back the box of sketch pads and pencils, which were stowed in an Institute shopping bag. As she approached, she looked up at the sign: Essence Parfums of Philadelphia. She took a deep breath and stepped in the door.
The space was lined with narrow glass shelves lighted from behind to show off the colors of the bottles and their contents. A sleek white cabinet displayed antique perfume flasks, and a contemporary chandelier hung from the ceiling. The general effect was that of a jewelbox filled with glittering, colorful gems on a background of white and platinum.
At the counter stood a woman of about sixty, dressed in a Chanel suit, her silver hair elegantly pinned back, while a young, dark-headed man restocked the shelves. Cynthia was surprised. She had pictured Peter’s shop assistants as long-tressed, willowy beauties who were all too eager to sleep with him. The elegant woman turned to her with a friendly expression. “May I help you?”
“My name is Cynthia Gooden,” she said. “I’m here to see Mr. Noel, if he’s free.”
The woman nodded, her expression changing as though she recognized Cynthia’s name. “I’ll let him know you’re here.” She disappeared through an unobtrusive door towards the back of the shop. Cynthia continued to look about her, exchanging a brief smile and nod with the young man. She felt extremely nervous, but her attention was arrested by something unusual: built into one wall of the shop was a small semicircular space with row upon row of tiered shelves. Each shelf held a plethora of tiny flasks and bottles. At the lowest tier was a workspace, and a seat, rather like a piano bench, stood ready. Nearby were a couple of chairs and a small coffee table, all upholstered in white.
“Cynthia! I’m very glad to see you.” It was Peter. He held out his hand and when she automatically extended hers, he raised it to his lips for a gentle kiss. “This is my store manager Sylvie,”—he nodded toward the older woman—“and this is our assistant, Jérôme. Let’s go back to my office where we can talk.”
After acknowledging his co-workers, she picked up her shopping bag and followed him. As they passed the semicircle filled with tiny bottles, she asked, “What’s that? It looks interesting.”
“That’s a perfume organ,” he replied. “A bit reminiscent of the musical instrument, isn’t it? An organ is the traditional workspace for a parfumeur, but this one is mostly for show. I have a more functional version in my lab.” They walked through a small stockroom and into what she assumed was Peter’s office. It was completely different from the faceted-glass showroom, more comfortable and eclectic. He had a big, masculine walnut desk, Tiffany-style lamps, a large Persian rug, some laden bookshelves, and a seating area that included a sleigh-shaped Biedermeier daybed with wine-colored upholstery. A vase of white rosebuds sat on the desk.
She handed him the shopping bag and he hefted it in his hand. “I presume this is the sketchbooks?” he asked genially. “Pussycat, I wish you’d keep them. I had so much fun picking them out for you. I know you like Strathmore,” he explained. He must have seen the brand when he tore the sheet from her sketchbook, the morning after his… midnight visit. He was nothing if not observant.
“Peter, you have to stop this,” she said. “It’s causing a lot of disruption at work, and my boss just gave me a warning. Will you stop?”
“Please, sit down,” he said, motioning toward the daybed. She sat, and then realized she had made a tactical error. She should have taken one of the armchairs. Now he was able to sit beside her, uncomfortably close.
“I still have all your swag, Pussycat,” he said conspiratorially. “I kept all of it, hoping you’d change your mind.”
“Don’t call me that! And please answer my question. Will you stop sending the gifts?”
“On one condition,” he said, and her eyes widened in outrage. How dare he make a condition? “I’ll stop if you go to the perfume gala with me.”
“I thought you already had a date with Leslie,” she said, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice.
“If she told you that, it was a lie,” he said, taking her hand. She tried to pull it away, but he held on firmly. “Cynthia. I never had any intention of going with her. None. And I’ve broken off my friendship with her. Permanently.”
“Why did you do it, Peter?” she said, beginning to tremble with suppressed emotion. “How could you do that to someone?”
“I’ve been asking myself that for weeks now,” he answered. “The experience of meeting you changed me. I saw myself through your eyes,” he said, raising her hand to his lips again. “And I didn’t like what I saw.”
“Has anything you ever said to me been the truth?”
He looked surprised. “Cynthia, I’ve been less than a gentleman towards you, but I’m not a liar. Everything I’ve ever said to you has been the truth. Every single thing,” he said, leaning closer and holding her motionless for a moment with his dark eyes.
Looking down at his hand, she thought of the things he’d said to her. I can’t resist you. You have the prettiest tits I’ve ever seen. You look beautiful like that… I love you. Did he remember his drunken declaration? His touch made her feel odd, as though time was slowing down, and suspending itself, here and now, with Peter holding her hand. To clear her head, she asked, “Do you really believe that every woman is beautiful?”
He nodded earnestly. “Oh yes. Not every woman has a beautiful face, though that aspect of beauty is culturally determined. What they find beautiful in Africa or Asia is not the same as in the West. Still, humans prefer symmetry in a face. If a woman’s face lacks beauty, she may have beautiful hands, or legs, or breasts. She may have a beautiful walk, or a voice that gives great pleasure.”
Cynthia was beginning to weaken. The more time she spent in his presence, the more she felt an urge to touch him, to give in, to open herself up to more pain. Even now, she was imagining what it would feel like if he kissed her, and pushed her back on the daybed, burying his nose in her neck the way he liked to do…
“Now you, chérie, are something special,” Peter was saying. “Your beauty is a combination of all these things. I love the shape of your body— though you’ve definitely lost weight,” he added disapprovingly. “I love your plump little ass and the way it wiggles when you walk.” She turned her head away, embarrassed, and he extended a finger to touch her cheek. “I love your flawless skin and the way you blush. I love your puffy, sensitive nipples,” he whispered. “But most of all, I love your scent.” He stood up, resting his hands on her shoulders to keep her seated. “I can see you want to leave. Stay right there just a minute, and then I’ll let you go.”
He disappeared into another room, and quickly returned with a small glass flask. Seating himself beside her again, he opened the flask and dabbed some liquid onto his finger, then pulled back her hair and applied it to her neck. “I’ve been working on this since Thanksgiving,” he said. “It’s a fragrance designed to amplify and echo your natural scent, but I need to test it on you.”
“You made a perfume for me?” she said, surprised. She could smell the scent now. It was slightly spicy, with floral topnotes.
“I’m in the process, but it takes many hours of work, and I’ve never attempted one like this before. I often make custom perfumes,” he explained. “That’s what the scent kit I gave you is for. A person tests the individual vials and tells me which ones he or she prefers, and I create a perfume based on the feedback. But with you, I’m actually keying it to your body chemistry.”
“Are you a scientist, like Debbie?” she asked, curious about his education.
“Yes and no. I majored in chemistry at Penn— with a minor in comparative literature.” Ah. So that’s how you learned about Propertius, she thought. “Creating perfumes is as much an art as it is a science,” he went on. “You can learn the science on the job. I used my technical skills more at IFF, but in the shop, it’s a matter of salesmanship, empathy, and artistic skill—plus a good nose.”
“Do you ever sleep with your clients?” she asked, looking him in the eye. He returned her gaze evenly. “Never. It’s a strict rule of mine. In fact, I’ve had to break off dating certain women when they decided they’d rather have my perfume than my… company. But this is different. This is a unique situation.” He touched the spot on her neck with a finger. “It should be ready now.” And before she could protest, he took her in his arms and brought his face close to her neck, breathing in deeply. She allowed him to hold her. His lips didn’t touch her neck, but she could feel his warm breath just under her ear. Finally, he pulled back. “It’s not quite right yet, but that helped. I know what to do next. Tell me if you feel any symptoms of a sore throat later today, after wearing this.”
“What happens if I don’t agree to go to the gala with you?” she asked.
Peter’s eyes lit up with the gleam of deviltry. “Then the next time you go to work at the Institute, you can expect eleven pipers piping, and the day after, twelve drummers drumming. After that, thirteen strolling Mariachi players, and if you’re still resisting, I’ll call in fourteen Chippendales to dance in the atrium,” he threatened.
“All right, I give up,” she said hastily. She would have to see Peter at the gala anyway, and it was a couple of months off. “But you’re no gentleman.”
“Now, that I’ve never claimed to be,” he said, walking her to the door. “But I’m open to some private lessons.”
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss
Notes: I think sketchbooks and pencils are a perfect gift. I can spend inordinate amounts of time just wandering through the aisles of places that sell art supplies, stationery, even office supplies (pens! glue! folders!).