999 Words

After Hours

On my way to a recent event, I found myself in a car being driven by a professional driver. It was a man, a guy, a bro, a Quebecois fella, middle aged, kind, professional.

The car was quiet for some time. Then, as we hit an open stretch of road, as if he were skating on eggshells, he broke the silence and said, “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way. I don’t know you, you don’t know me, and I don’t mean anything by this, but you smell great.”

It was one of those awkward moments where two dudes chat nonchalantly in a car about beautiful things. Like perfume. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Perfumes have consumed me lately and I have been trying to find my own exact right scent that consists of a few pre-existing perfumes mixed together. Apparently, I concocted alchemy this time because this man exclaimed, “that scent is you!”

It turned out that he was seriously fascinated with perfumes, too, and we talked for the remainder of the journey about his history in the scent world. He told me that he had been searching obsessively for a fragrance that he’d smelled at an after-hours club in his youth. What I was wearing was as close as he’d come since, he said.

I told him about a few choice places in the city that carry unbelievable scents: Maison Margan, an upstart boutique at Place Royale in Old Montreal that makes perfumed body oils; and Etiket, the little-known cosmetics shop west of Guy on Sherbrooke. I told him about the rare, small-batch scents they specialize in, many of which are unavailable anywhere else.

Of course anyone can go to SSENSE or Holts and find something that smells wonderful. But Etiket is where they bring in the best, strangest, and most niche scents — perfumes I have never seen nor heard of (not to mention smelled) anywhere else. He asked me what happens if he finds the perfect scent and it’s discontinued. I suggested that he be grateful to have smelled it once.

I arrived at my destination, a private residence in Pierrefonds to which I was invited for a piano recital: or, the fanciest house show on the island. Two pianists would perform dualling concertos on two grand pianos set up side-by-side in the home’s drawing room. I’d attended two of these concerts last summer and they were the most memorable musical performances of my year.

The events were conceived during the pandemic to recreate the spirit of pre-20th century musical salons in which musicians played privately for interested audiences. In a time before the ubiquity of recorded music, hearing musicians perform with their instruments would have been the only way to hear music. Listening to musicians play live is one of the most simultaneously banal and extraordinary experiences. Like a sunset — something everyone has seen a million times, but never ceases to inspire awe and persuade a pensive mood.

At this event, I had the dubious honour of being the first to arrive and was given a reusable plastic wine glass by a hostess with the number one on it. I sipped San Pellegrino all evening from my number one tumbler and hoped that there might be someone in attendance — a single lady, let’s say — who might also be impressed with my perfume, possibly even with the person wearing it. But no such luck. The event was small and although I greatly enjoyed meeting and conversing with every guest, and they quite possibly enjoyed me, I left as I had arrived, alone.

On the way home, a different professional driver drove me silently back into the city. He was listening to music on the car stereo, and after a few AM radio hits, the song “One” by Harry Nilsson popped on.

“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do / Two can be as bad as one / It’s the loneliest number since the number one.”

Arriving back at my apartment, I decided not to go inside right away. I was still all dressed up and my perfume had dissipated pleasantly. I walked through Place d’armes square and watched as travellers milled around in the warm summer air.

A busker sang soft covers of folk songs. Folks huddled together smiling and snapping selfies in front of the Basilica. A war could have been raging somewhere but you would never have guessed it from the carefree ease of the evening.

I ventured up St. Paul Street and stopped into a café for a cup of tea. It was nearly 11 and I was surprised by how busy it was — as busy as a typical lunch rush. The lineup was three people deep. A woman in front of me bought strawberry ice cream and madeleines, and I took my tea to go, walking toward Pointe-à-Callière. I thought there might be the possibility of meeting someone there.

I stood and sipped hot tea and watched folks come and go. The skeleton of the charred edifice that had burned only months prior kept watch over Place d’Youville. I prayed for the seven souls who lost their lives there and could not enjoy a cup of tea on a muggy summer night.

At that moment, a beautiful girl in her mid-20s and her mother sat down right next to me. The girl was wearing blue jeans torn at the knees and a black t-shirt. On a white paper plate she had a slice of pizza. Her mother sat in an armchair and smoked a cigarette while her daughter wolfed down her pizza wedge.

I could see that the girl saw me, too. She might have smelled me. When she finished her meal, she walked through my airspace, discarding her paper plate into a trash can. As quickly as they’d arrived, they were gone.

We didn’t speak to each other. Nevertheless, I have no choice now but to be grateful to have seen her even once.◼︎