outwait outrun outwit


an archive of pleasures, wounds, sublimations
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Mom posted me a bottle of perfume, along with mascara and lip gloss, the things she sends in lieu of being together in the same place. It smells like the first time I smelled it, in 1995, on the cusp of adulthood, a heady and strange intermingling, of flowers and crushed peppercorns. Soon I'd take my first trip without my parents, to Seattle, and move away to study at Berkeley. The scent hinted at the world beyond my parents' house in hilly, suburban San Diego, where I lived in a state analogous to Rapunzel's, with books rather than long tresses for temporary escape routes into the other, not-familial, unfamiliar world.


No 5 by Chanel: worn by Mom when she was young, all long black hair and silver dresses. But that might be an invented memory, the dream of a girl with a pale wide face like the moon and red lips and black hair, the chubby-cheeked bride with her wrists bound in red cord to her husband's for a Khmer wedding custom I eschewed when I eloped years ago. I think I understand my parents better, now - the desires denied, the decisions made, such as, for example, not living in Seattle, because the husband always lives with the wife's family. I understand them because of my own desires denied, the decisions I made for love or duty or pride.


The first time I left Jim (although I hadn't realized it at the time, as I thought I was on a long trip to visit my friends in the States), I got an unexpected chance to see my parents for the first time in years, thanks to the generosity of my friend Shilpa, spurred by an email from Dad, asking if I would come home to see them. We had lost contact because Mom didn't want to speak to me, and I was stubborn, and then I had moved to Ireland. On the night I was to leave my parents - after reunion and reconciliation - Mom gave me a bottle of perfume, Envy by Gucci. Nevermind the name, its scent compelled me to envision a femininity that was strong and assertive, something I was not at the time, and I would wear it on the days I needed strength, the days I felt brave, the days I wore bright red lipstick and a stiff belted black coat like armor.


Contradiction by Calvin Klein: worn by Cassandra, roommate, ex-soldier, and graphic designer who loved Ayn Rand and described herself as "high yeller" and once made a failed pass at me one summer night. Philia, eros, amor, agape... these distinctions are necessary, or so I thought years ago, when I couldn't get my head around my feelings, all mushed up together, with no crowbar to separate them. Cassandra died in a car accident somewhere in the South, a few years after she had abruptly moved out of our apartment in Berkeley. "Don't take it personally," her best friend had said when she disappeared overnight. "That's just the way she is." Itinerant and restless and not one for goodbyes, I suppose. I still have the bottle of perfume she left behind in our flat, with its few drops encased in a long cylinder of opaque metal and clear glass; the sole tangible remnant of a dear friend. But, over the years, even after her death, I gradually forgot its existence, until one winter in the Burren, the bottle, with its minute residue of scent, arrived in a box packed by my then-father-in-law. Bemused, I spritzed it into the chilly air; the floral and woody tones, the tang of eucalyptus, conjured my friend, tall, gangly, laughing, with that gap between her two front teeth.


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