The t-shirt I pulled out of the free pile was soft and faded black and once belonged to what must have been the best smelling human on Earth. It threw up a cloud of dust as I shook it out on the sunlit porch and stopped. I suddenly understood why dogs have a compulsion to roll in something very pungent and very dead. I wanted the scent of this shirt to be all over me, to cover me, to follow me, to stain and to stay.
The scent held a hint of powder, like chalk or stone. It smelled like a saddle pulled from a sweating horse. Like a fox fur coat hung in a mahogany armoire. It smelled like the marble statue of some pagan god had come to life, fucked a goddess atop a pile of pelts and moss, and their pheromone-soaked love nest had been wrung out into a Scotch bottle and aged for a century.
I would’ve snorted lines of this shirt if I could.
I wore the shirt for weeks without washing it, terrified the scent would fade despite its lingering insistence to the contrary. I started wearing it only to bed. I wouldn’t wear it around my boyfriend, afraid his own smell would mingle with or even overpower it. I felt more than a little guilty about my olfactory obsession. Was I becoming one of those people that fetishize inanimate objects like that poor guy that fell in love with the Eiffel Tower? This shirt’s scent and my relationship to it became a furtive joy.
My obsession came to an abrupt halt one spring morning as I was sitting outside my camper, sipping coffee and slyly relishing the odor of my own sleepy body funneling up through the neck of the shirt.
“Oh! So that’s where my shirt went!”
It was my neighbor, Josh, who folks called “Crazy Josh” to differentiate him from the other Josh at the commune who was just as crazy.
“It’s you?!?” I blurted.
“Um…can I have it back?” he asked.
Turned out, Josh himself didn’t smell very good at all, as I learned later that night when I knocked on the door of his patchouli-fogged school bus and asked just what the hell was up with that shirt. Josh then told me the story of his experimental re-creation of Aleister Crowley’s infamous “sex unguent” that Crowley had named “Ruthvah: The Perfume of Immortality”. It was one part ambergris, two parts musk, and three parts civet. So, the perfume that Crowley claimed made anyone within a mile radius consumed with lust for its wearer was comprised of whale bile that had been puked up and floated around the ocean for a few years and the secretions from a deer’s groin and a cat’s anus. I can’t imagine what that must’ve smelled like when Josh first combined them and promptly spilled half the bottle onto that shirt nine years before I found it.