Jun 06 ● BY Tanya Žilinskas
Lauren was at work, questioning whether fragaphile13’s review needed to be removed for saying Nuit Extraordinaire smelled like “a prostitute douched with insecticide,” when her phone pinged with a low-resolution photo of a penis.
The 707 number it came from wasn’t saved on her phone. The penis wasn’t familiar either, and the lighting in the photo was poor. It was more a suggestion of a penis than anything else. It wasn’t until midmorning, when she was getting ready to head to Vernal Cafe to grab a coffee, that she received another text.
And another, after she finished up her second quarter planning meeting with Jill.
Or are you riding something else these days
I’m sorry, she started to text back, but stopped herself. She was trying to train herself out of apologizing for things she was not really sorry for. I don’t think this is meant for me.
The phone vibrated in her hand before she even set it down.
The fuck it’s not
It’s for you and you want it
Lauren was employee number four at Essentially. There were few startups headquartered in Miwok Valley, but one of the founding partners lived in the Valley and the rent in the old shipyard district was inexpensive. Essentially’s office was only two blocks from the waterfront and had an industrial aesthetic of deliberate cool. The founders had the metal siding of the office painted white and installed living plant walls and custom neon signs that said “fucking gorgeous” in fifteen languages other than English, since the English word may have offended investors. It was a magnet for entry-level millennials commuting from the city. The floor plan was open concept and there was no real privacy and that was the point, a sort of panopticon to keep the employees in check.
Essentially and its users reviewed all things beauty—lipsticks, face masks, moisturizers and exfoliators, nail polishes, fragrances—the site making its money through advertising and affiliate links. When Lauren was hired, her title was Content Manager, but this became Head Content Extractor, reflecting, as management said, “the significant consumer-driven changes to the website.”
Frank, her husband, couldn’t say her title with a straight face, but the twenty-something-year-old employees at Essentially said it seriously, reverently even. Lauren was somewhere between the two; she understood how her job sounded silly to older men like Frank who dealt only in pragmatic things. But Lauren liked her work at Essentially, and thought the pragmatism of Frank’s stocks and bonds could be debated.
About six months after Essentially’s launch, something happened with the perfume reviews. They got longer. They became stories complete with conflicts, characters, and plot arcs. People started coming to the site just to read the reviews, and Essentially doubled its advertising rates overnight. The other beauty products remained, but the fragrance section became its own animal that needed to be tended to, minded.
The fragrance reviewers used certain words repeatedly, and Lauren wondered if they even knew what the words meant, or if they had created their own language. Words like “indolic” and “sillage” made sense, but perfumes were also diffident, coy, laconic, alluring. Sometimes, it was difficult to tell if the reviewers were angry with the scents or in love with them. Lauren didn’t know how it was possible for so many people to experience perfume in such a vivid way. She once called them “scent savants” during a company meeting and everyone laughed.
There were some users with hundreds of reviews, which meant they had sampled and/or purchased hundreds of perfumes. The reviewers knew the history of the fragrance houses, the individual nose of each scent, which molecules had been invented when. Their fanaticism didn’t make sense to Lauren until she realized they were describing perfume in words they hoped also described them.
One time, walking with Frank around their neighborhood, Lauren had almost stepped in a pile of dog shit. Someone had covered the shit in a loose-petaled magnolia that had fallen to the ground, and the smell that wafted up was both beautiful and disgusting. Lauren had thought of that magnolia-concealed dog shit often since joining Essentially—she could imagine it as a modern fragrance. This was what people were looking for these days—the degradation of pleasantries—at least as far as she could tell from the reviewers, and they drove the perfumers to make strange creations in bulk. People used to want to smell like flowers, like spices, like a forest, like their grandmother cooking in the kitchen. Now they wanted to smell like undefined synthetic things, things that paired something delicate with something revolting. They wanted to smell like sex, not a chaste insinuation of sex, but actual stained sheets and semen. They wanted to offend; they wanted to horrify. They wanted to smell like refrigerator coolant and public bathrooms and Play Doh and a meat processing plant at midnight. The tiger enclosure at the zoo after the tigers pissed in it all day. People wanted to be debased. They wanted to debase others, their scent lingering as they walked by.
Lauren had her own thoughts about what would make a good perfume, a sexy perfume. She had even come close to writing her own reviews using a burner account, but it was against company policy, and she hadn’t found a specific perfume to attach her feelings to. The appeal of sex was its illicitness, the thoughts and desires that existed in the obscure recesses of a person. This was what perfume should be: the hint of things that were deep and hidden.
The reviews had also created a necessity for more assistants. Lauren was not much older than the assistants, really, but there was a distinct generational line that divided her from them. Cassidy had a side business as a cam girl that everybody knew about but no one could openly discuss. Mikayla’s lease was up, so she and her boyfriend bought a yurt and set it up on a Miwok Valley divorcee’s lawn for $400 a month. Cassady-with-an-A made her overnight oats every day before she left the office, leaving them in the communal fridge despite numerous company memos instructing her not to.
When Lauren told Frank about the sorts of things the assistants were up to, it was as though she were describing life on a foreign planet. He just shook his head; modern twenty-year-old women were beyond his comprehension. Telling him these things was exploratory in its own way. She wanted to see something of herself in the assistants. She was fascinated by them; they did things without the sense of shame or restriction that had been ground into her generation. They weren’t trying to fit into neat, acceptable boxes. She wondered what she would have done with such power
Instead, Lauren was stuck with Jill, Essentially’s Chief Merchandising Officer and employee number three. Jill was around Lauren’s age, so their inter-office friendship was assumed, at least by Jill, who liked to bring up her scant seniority in a joking manner. In the early days of Essentially, they had taken their meals together often enough that their standing lunch date had been cemented. Lauren found herself chafing under this continued assumption.
Jill often asked after Frank, who sometimes came by the office to take Lauren to lunch. It was Jill’s running gag to act vaguely scandalized about Lauren and Frank’s age difference, but she could never stop talking about him. Frank was irresistible to most people. He was objectively attractive—symmetrical, broad-shouldered, full-headed—but there was something else, some invisible, magnetic pheromone. Lauren had been pulled into its thrall like everybody else.
“It’s just I can’t imagine being with someone so much older than me,” Jill would say, adding, “Frank. It’s like a cowboy name.”
The assistants barely clocked Frank whenever he stopped by the Essentially office. The age difference didn’t seem to register with them at all. They were like children in this regard, lumping everyone at least ten years older than them into the same category of indistinct decrepitude.
I shouldn’t have sent that
It was the day after she received the texts from the mystery 707 number. Lauren had typed no problem, but then deleted it. She meant to block the caller, but had instead continued to return to the photo. Zooming in did not yield new clues; the image was low lit and pixelated.
Even if the texts weren’t meant for her, something about them felt portentous. Lauren had been having this feeling for weeks now: a restless, brimming feeling. She came to work that day exceptionally overdressed, in a patterned wrap dress and faux fur vest. She had even splashed on some Fracas, one of the first gifts Frank had bought for her, which she normally wore only on special occasions. The Essentially reviewers were divided on Robert Piguet’s Fracas; it was classic, refined, heady, fresh, visceral, narcotic, feminine, unsophisticated, screechy. It was an aspirational gift, maybe for the person Frank thought she was or could be, but it was not something she would have selected for herself. Jill raised an eyebrow at her clothing, but said nothing. The assistants cooed at her, as though she were an elderly woman with a mohawk, and her deflation was complete.
The person on the other side must have seen her typing. Her phone pinged again.
I said I’m sorry, you don’t have to be such a bitch about it
Lauren couldn’t remember the last time someone called her a bitch. There was something thrilling about it. The assistants used to call each other bitches, openly and in good humor, until Jill scolded them for unprofessional workplace language. Lauren had been dying to be called a bitch.
The goings on at the office were adding to her restless feeling. Essentially’s business model was shifting, and stacks of case studies and engagement reports had taken over Lauren’s days. The perfume reviews were steering the future of the company, and the CEO and CFO were determined to harness this effect to lure more users to the site. They wanted to expand, to branch into related businesses. There was talk of Essentially’s own beauty and fragrance lines.
Lauren understood the necessity of this on a business level, but she disliked it. The current reviewers might be strange and obsessed, but they were discriminating. They would not be ridden into some mediocre offshoot business. They lived and breathed perfume, they knew the history of the houses and the trends and they thought deeply about what a scent smelled like in the air versus on the body versus on a silk dress the day after it was worn. They had created their own world, and its further construction belonged to nobody but them.
When she returned home from work later that evening and pulled into the carport, she saw someone had dumped a rug on the curb next to their trash bins.
The street Frank lived on—Frank and Lauren lived on—was half houses and half condominiums. Frank complained about the condominiums the way older people complained about change, though the condo buildings had been there at least as long as the houses. His objections were vague but centered on what it meant for the neighborhood: what kind of cars were parked on the street and how many, the people who moved in and out, the impact on traffic.
The rug was filthy and garish, pink and polka dotted, rolled up and trussed into a cylinder by a pair of ropes. It strained against its bindings suggestively, its shape oddly feminine. This was the sort of thing that drove Frank nuts. The garbage truck was also at the curb, and the garbage man was out of the truck and surveying the rug.
“Someone left this out and thinks I’m going to pick it up,” he called to her, in a way that suggested he thought she might be the one who did such a thing.
She had seen this man before, picking up the trash on Wednesdays. He bore a striking resemblance to the sea captain from Tintin. The sea captain from Tintin was incredibly sexy.
“That’s terrible,” she called back. “It’s not ours. I have no idea who put it there.”
“I wish I could be there when they returned home and saw it wasn’t picked up,” he said. He was still looking at her as though she knew more than she was letting on. She was embarrassed to be thought of as the owner of such a rug. He was wearing a striped Henley shirt and dark jeans, and she suddenly felt overdressed in a way that only a thirty-something-year-old woman could be overdressed. She wondered what kind of girls this man took home. They were probably Kaitlyns and Taylors, clad in black, tattooed, and vulnerable.
Frank wasn’t home when Lauren unlocked the front door, but the house always held something of him. He had lived there for twenty years, through the last throes of his first marriage and the entirety of his second, and when he and Lauren got married, she hadn’t asked to move because the house was too nice and the property taxes were too low. Frank had hired a professional decorator and the interior was modern and sophisticated, forbidding in its austerity. The only measurable things she had added to the house were the things she subtracted: mementos from his previous marriage, photos of his second wife, throw pillows with beaded tassels that looked like they belonged to another woman.
They had been married for seven years. It was an inconsequential amount of time for Frank, but Lauren had passed through at least one major life phase. She had given up something of her youth for him, and now she was older and felt counterfeit in some distinct but difficult way. She didn’t know how she could extract herself from herself.
A couple of years ago, someone left an anonymous note on Frank’s car that said “I would fuck you dead.” Frank had balled up the note and threw it with cold anger into the trash. Back then, Lauren spent so much time thinking about who left it, if they actually knew Frank, if he really was fucking them, if they had intended for her to see it, if this was the beginning of some end for their marriage. Now it thrilled her: the ability to leave such a note, to give voice and propulsion to one’s desire and throw it like a bomb at the unsuspecting.
Lauren hadn’t received a text from the 707 number for over a week. She also hadn’t seen Tintin’s sea captain driving the garbage truck,—only the friendly garbage man with the shaved head, and the younger one who picked up the compost. Her brimming feeling had reached its edge.
Hello she texted the number before she left the house. Got any pics, she sent when she was settled in at work.
Two hours passed and there was still no answer.
Essentially had recently been featured in a prominent international fashion magazine, and there had been an influx of new perfume reviewers. The assistants were doing a first read on reviews, throwing out any obvious cases of spam or abuse. Two assistants hadn’t shown up for work, and Lauren was sick of case studies, so she said she would also take a cursory look at the new reviews. Essentially’s CEO wanted everything “tightened up.” He was convinced they were on the verge of acquisition, and even minute things had taken on an increased importance.
But the new reviews weren’t filthy. They were basic and tiresome—a boyfriend or fiancé or husband bought this bottle, and scents were described with shrieking enthusiasm or disgust. There was no context as to who made the fragrance, what its history was, what it smelled like, how it had transformed its wearer.
Lauren found this mediocrity depressing until she opened a review from a new user, ringaling7, which described Petit Xenomorph’s Corpse Flower as “decomposing raccoon doused in an overly soapy combination of rose and heliotrope, filtered through a torn trash bag.” This pushed the line of Essentially’s narrowing stance on graphic reviews. But Corpse Flower and its fetid mix of rubber, civet musk, and synthetic florals provoked reactions that bordered on violence. After all the reviews she had pored through that morning, Lauren found ringaling7’s inappropriateness refreshing. She approved it.
Essentially was blunting its edges, but she didn’t have to be a passive witness to it. She didn’t have to be a passive witness to anything. So much of her life had revolved around avoiding discomfort, but discomfort was a feeling that came with growth. Lauren created one burner account, then another, and another, and left reviews on popular and neglected scents alike. Corybella said Sixth Symphony was “cloying, like the annoying older coworker who doesn’t know when to leave.” lillian98 said Grotesqueries was “the intentional mistake we make when we want to be deliciously demoralized.” Lauren’s inbox pinged with friend requests from other Essentially reviewers, and a notification that one of her reviews had been flagged.
At noon, Jill came to collect her so they could walk to the market and grab salads. When they returned, Emma, Cassady, and Cassidy were eating lunch on one of the office patio’s picnic tables, engaged in an energetic conversation. Their voices lowered as Lauren and Jill approached. Lauren didn’t want to eat at her desk. She didn’t want to talk to Jill about whatever dramedy she was watching or re-hash the usual stuff about Frank. She wanted to hear this thing they were talking about. She veered to their table and stopped at its head.
“Is there room for me?” Lauren asked.
They exchanged a look but smiled at her, scooting together to make space. Jill stood where she was for a moment, but put her salad down on the table as well. Lauren could feel the atmosphere wilt and wished Jill had continued inside.
“So, a lot of new reviews, right?” Cassidy said, taking a delicate bite from her spring roll. The spring roll’s colorful insides were exposed, and she took a photo of it with her phone.
“It’s great,” Jill said, her jaw working around her kale salad. “This is the kind of engagement we need to get acquired. Get that Instagram money, right ladies?”
The assistants tittered politely.
“I’m ready to get acquired,” Emma said.
“Let’s get acquired, baby,” Cassady said.
“I’m ready to change my life,” Lauren said.
“Exactly. Acquisition. Life-changing. We’re headed in that direction.” The girls whooped and clinked their kombucha bottles.
“No, I mean, I’m really ready to change my life. I’m ready to be a different person,” Lauren said. Her throat had gone dry, and the words sounded less flippant than she intended. It was so easy for these girls to be who they were. Lauren had been cemented into someone else’s idea of her.
“You don’t need to change,” Cassidy said. “You’re awesome. I wish my parents were as cool as you.”
“I’m not the same age as your parents.”
Cassidy reddened. “Oh no, I didn’t mean that. I just meant, you’re cool as you are.”
“How do you know?”
Jill cleared her throat. “That’s what the reviewers keep telling us, right? Just a few sprays of something and we can be different people. Those scent savants are onto something. I love that term you came up with, Lauren. So brilliant.”
“Who knows what I would be up to if I were your age, Cassidy. I could be living on a boat. I could be fucking a guy who looks like a cartoon sea captain, catching fish and running a ceviche pop-up. That’s what you would do, right? I could do that.”
“Lauren,” Jill said.
“Look at the perfume reviewers,” Lauren said. Her voice was still shaky, but she felt exhilarated talking this way. She just had to push past that discomfort, grow into herself. “They’ve made Essentially what it is. Nobody told them how to do it, they just did it. We’re taking this magic and turning it into something stupid and corporate. And now we have these new users rolling in and writing their amateur reviews. But don’t worry, girls. I’m handling it. Just because everything has to be monetized doesn’t mean we have to lose touch completely. I’m adding some reviews that will make our OGs proud.” She looked to the assistants, ready for another clink of the kombuchas. But their eyes were downcast and they were looking sideways at Jill, who put her fork down.
“I think I’m done with my lunch,” Cassidy said. She was shredding her napkin on the remains of her overnight oats. “I should get back to work. Lots of reviews to read and whatever.” She stood up, and the other assistants followed suit.
Lauren thought if she could just say more, she could make them understand. She wasn’t old enough to be any of their mothers.
Essentially’s open layout didn’t allow for private conversations, so Jill pulled Lauren into the CFO’s glass office. The assistants on the floor were studiously involved with their work.
“The way you were speaking—” Jill said. “You can’t talk to them like that. Anything about sex could turn into sexual harassment. And I hope you were joking about writing fake reviews. It would sink our credibility with investors. You were so—”
“No. Lauren. You were inappropriate. You’re being inappropriate. You need to go home. Sort yourself out and we’ll talk tomorrow. And if you really did write reviews, forward them so I can do some damage control. We’re so close to being acquired. Don’t fuck this up for us.”
Lauren’s nerves were jangled as she drove home, but it wasn’t unpleasant. What was inappropriate? If she were a perfume, she would be animalic, bold, whimsical, unconventional. She was on the verge of finding out what she was capable of. She was approaching her base note, the thing that would linger after everything else.
The big yellow garbage truck was chugging up the hill as she pulled into the driveway. It was her garbage man: Tintin’s sea captain. Captain Haddock, she remembered this now. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, a button up that seemed a little too formal for his job, and he had tattoos running up and down his arms. She couldn’t believe it. He bordered on cliché.
She was wearing a peasant blouse, and she undid the string at the bust. She was ready to let something new happen to her.
“Did you ever get that rug?” she called to him from the carport. The garbage truck’s arm was lifting a trash can to its mouth, and the hydraulics drowned out the sound of her voice. She walked closer to him, and rested a hand on one of his tattooed arms. He yelped.
“Jesus!” Captain Haddock said. “You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.”
“I’m sorry. I was just wondering if you ever got that rug.”
“What rug?” He was looking back at the truck, pressing a button to heave the liquid trash sticking to the bottom of the can.
“You know,” she said, faltering, “the rug that was left out here. The dirty pink one.”
“Do you need us to pick up a rug? You have to schedule a pickup for that. You can do it on our website. Just search for Miwok Valley Refuse.”
“Okay,” Lauren said. “I’m sorry I scared you.” She was trying to meet his eyes, but he was glancing backward at his awaiting truck.
“No problem, ma’am. You have a nice night.”
“Hello?” Lauren said. “Hello? Hello?”
She was drinking wine on the couch and the unknown number was not picking up. She had meant to order dinner but she hadn’t, and now she was drunk.
She tried calling again, but when the phone rang it had a strange echo, as though the ringing were in a small room and bouncing off the walls. She hung up and dialed once more. The ringing stopped and she held her breath, trying to imagine the person on the other side of the phone. The shadow person attached to the shadow penis.
She heard a key turning in the front door.
“Hello?” Lauren said. “Are you there?”
“I’m here,” Frank said from the hallway. He came to the couch and stood over her, and she ended the call. There was something to him from this angle, towering over her, backlit by the ceiling light like an icon.
“What’s going on over here?”
“Thinking and drinking.”
“I’ll get a glass and join you.”
The wine was dulling the edges of all the things she had been feeling. The knowledge that seemed on the tip of her understanding all week was out of reach, barely lingering, even as a memory.
“You look nice,” Frank said as he rejoined her on the couch. “That top is very alluring, loosened up like that. What’s the occasion?”
Lauren pulled herself up and onto his lap.
“I’m trying to be a new person.”
“Do you want to be a new person with me?”
“Pretend you’re a garbageman.”
“Okay. I’m a garbageman.”
She hiked up her skirt and ground her ass on his lap. If he stayed behind her, he could be anyone. The arms encircling her could have tattoos of mermaids and sea dragons and words in Gothic letters.
Her phone rang from the side table; it was the unknown number. She reached over to decline the call but fumbled and the phone picked up as it fell to the floor. She could hear a voice, faint and disembodied, coming through the receiver. Hello it said. Hello hello hello. The voice was remote, disappearing into the night. It was as far away and as close as anything else.