Smell Memory #2: Roses

I never used to think very much of roses. As a teenager, I haughtily rejected their Valentine's Day ubiquity, their banal romance, their special place in that pesky patriarchal mega-structure I had started to notice everywhere. They smelled nice enough, I had to admit, when they smelled at all, and their petal structure was really quite lovely.

Really loving roses, though, was an oppressively calculated mandate from FTD, identical to the mandate from DeBeers to love diamonds, or the mandate from romantic comedies to love Matthew McConaughey, or the mandate from bridal catalogs to love poofy dresses, head-shrouds, and driving your bridesmaids crazy. In fact, roses smelled like how I imagined a wedding dress might smell: stuffy, overfluffed, and snooty.

Roses were especially perplexing because other flowers are simply so exciting! The bombshell tigerlily, the floppy, fragrant gardenia, or even the demure, mysterious honeysuckle - they all have such character! Tulips, with their fleshy petals, are so cartoonishly sexy they're practically in drag. And some orchid varieties are so witchy and intimidating, they don't need thorns. (I mean, thorns? Please. How obvious.) What's a rose's personality anyway? Back when I was a teenager, apologetic dudes at grocery stores had their choice between roses and carnations, and at least the carnations have that spunky, peppery fragrance that compensates for their mediocre looks. But roses? Ho hum.

So reasoned my teenage mind. Though, in the end, all the flowers came from florists, just like all the jewelery came from jewelers. I vowed to only appreciate wildflowers and fruit stolen from random roadside plants.

By the time I had finally decided that you couldn't separate a sincere gift from the evils of Kapitalizm, I was firmly established as a wallflower (see what I did there?), so bouquets weren't really an issue. The problem was that I loved flowers, even roses, even then. I just didn't want to get any stupid roses from any stupid boys.

Fate has since heeded this early antipathy. I've only gotten three bouquets in my lifetime, from three different boys. The first was a vase of beautiful tulips from a creepily persistent suitor when I was 19, after I finally gave in and got naked with him, after which he turned into a creepily controlling boyfriend. My feelings about the flowers, like my feelings about the dude, were mixed. The second bouquet was a glamorous, fragrant lily, when I was about 24, upon my arrival at a different beau's home (we lived in different cities). I think I cried; I don't remember. He had failed to meet me, physically and emotionally, at the airport, but he had been waiting at home with a beautiful flower I couldn't help resenting.

But the last bouquet was different. I've never really celebrated Valentine's Day, even while dating. But on VD 2008, my boyfriend gave me three red roses in a cellophane wrapper from the ornery florist down the street. In retrospect, maybe they were a little bruised, maybe they had less fragrance than a box of Cheerios, and maybe they could have used some baby's breath to keep them company.

But I tell you what.

The cold, cold cockles of my cold, cold heart immediately melted right off. I saw those flowers and loved them unconditionally, unreservedly. I saw no masked doom, no unseemly intentions, no looming heartbreak. Just a lovely spot of scarlet on my desk, swaddled in a glowing halo of thoughfulness. I didn't want to do anything all day except gaze at them and feel my soul swell with happiness. I couldn't help touching the soft, soft petals, or smelling the blooms, even though I knew they had no smell. I wondered if this was a small-scale version of how new mothers felt about their infant babies. Just stare, stare, stare, and touch and smell and stare.

I found myself interpolated into a hetero-normative ritual and loving every moment of it.

Is this how patriarchy was going to get me? With three stupid weeds on the 2nd most misogynist day of the year (the 1st being, of course, Mother's Day, and the 3rd being Secretaries' Day)?

In a giggly word: yeah.

And now I can't fight it. The smell of roses is suddenly heaven, and I have started buying rosewater to put in my bath. When I got around to sampling Annike Goutal's Rose Absolue, I thought I had stumbled upon romance itself. What had seemed stale was now nostalgic; what had been restrictive was now baroque and beautiful, like an antique corset. A tool of the patriarchy was suddenly the loveliest loveliness. Roses smell like an aging prima ballerina before her last performance, after which she will recede into the velvety embrace of decorative aristocracy. Roses smell like Miss Havisham in the years immediately after she is jilted, before age robs her living death of its spectacular beauty. Roses smell like Galatea just before she comes to life. Roses smell like regret, like love, like the crushed dreams of billions of little girls who dream of their weddings, then grow up and get married. And sometimes they smell like nothing at all, not even the green plant-smell of other odorless flowers. They're just blank, as empty as a fresh piece of monogrammed stationery.

People will say I'm in love.

Now my sister is getting married. I hate wedding ceremonies. I find them boring and ugly, and the vows are often offensive and depressing. Wedding traditions are usually misogynist, I don't like being in church, and bridemaids' dresses are a scourge sent by God himself to make unmarried women feel both ugly and ornamental.

But maybe this one will get to me.