Before I invested in a car one of the most harrowing experiences I had to submit to daily was the rush-hour bus or metro. It wasn’t the waiting in line, the hideous crush of humanity, the standing for what seemed like hours that particularly distressed me, it was the smell. There is nothing quite so devastating as the stench of coagulating deodorants. People smelled like rancid chocolate. I especially remember the cumulative shock wave of Old Spice which made my nostrils crumple like newspaper. But that was only the men. The women were in another olfactory dimension entirely. The odor of wilted gardenia was omnipresent. I would stand beside pretty young women who stank like urinal pucks of rosewater, sandalwood and antiseptic. Others smelled like perambulating lemons, acrid, with a hint of Windex lingering about their persons. It was worse in the early mornings when people reeked like corpses doused with the failed discretion of embalming fluid. Now and then there would rise in the air a suspicion of fart fledged with the ethereal plumage of Chanel or Fabergé. That was how I knew these slumped unmoving forms were still alive.
I wonder what it is we are ashamed of. Is Old Spice the child of the New Testament? Is Lady Speed Stick the lineal descendant of Pauline theology? Do all these gels and applications confess to a secret contempt for the flesh as being somehow too primitive, too pagan, too animal, too unruly, too present? We enjoy our bodies too much to give them up. A passionate fling, a pneumatic eiderdown, coffee and oranges in a sunny chair (to quote Wallace Stevens), the long, easy, meditative, peristaltic flex of the bowels—who can deny such experiences are inherently pleasurable? Yet hundreds of years of Presbyterianism are not flung aside with a Belmondo shrug. When everything has been factored out by historical analysis, there remains the guilt. The old resentment of the body continues to rankle and fester but the intransigent love of the body persists with countervailing strength. From this tension, this conflict, the cosmetics industry has always profited.
Today we need no longer splash perfumes about indiscriminately to make up for the lack of sanitary facilities. Everybody in the civilized world can enjoy at least a simple ablution at almost any moment of the day or night. One might think if there ever were a time in which deodorants should appeal to nobody but perverts, it would be right now. Yet the opposite is the case. Could the reason be that as the manifold delights of the flesh become more and more available, the endocrinology of guilt abides with us even more tenaciously. Thus the deodorant explosion. We have bodies but we don’t have bodies. We become our own fragrant Gardens of Eden. We are the resurrected flesh promised by the Book of Revelation and the Koran.
The scented minipad, however, is a unique symbol of our existential condition. One can scarcely turn on the TV these days without seeing some nubile ballerina in mid-splits expatiating on the virtues of the latest in yoniwear. It reposes invisibly beneath her tutu like a hospital tuck, clean and decisive. It permits her to solve the occupational hazard of being a woman and to quell the monthly tremors of the professional ballet dancer. Not only can she perform the most strenuous of cabrioles without bleeding like a stuck pig but she even smells sweetly afterwards. Now she can be a man and a flower at the same time.
The scented minipad—to widen the conjecture—derives not only from our inheritance of guilt before the unassimilable mortification of the flesh—Original Skin, as it were—but from the apologetic dis-ease women feel before their own raw femininity. The minipad betokens the compound transgression of having not just a body but, O mater Dolorosa! a female body. Sweat, feces and menarche are difficult enough for any sensitive being to put up with, but discharge too! And so women run about in a state of aromatic nether purdah whose eventual disclosure leads to the most unfortunate of after-effects. I know of men who, following acts of glossal intimacy, have been reduced to repeated and obsessive gargling to recover the use of their taste buds. Any man who has managed to hang on to his senses would rather part an honest patch of pubic hair than enter a grove of synthetic pomegranates or visit a well-kept cemetery redolent of the ghosts of departed minipads.
There is, of course, a practical side to the scented minipad—apart from the soothing of catamenial despairs—which is more than an expression of ancestral guilt. It is also a way of disguising a more immediate one. The scented minipad is the latest flower of sin. As sex becomes less confined to the prudence of the night and grows increasingly diurnal, women must not only keep themselves on red alert but come home smelling of inoffensive lilac. They are cleansed not only of having flesh but of using it. But this is a mere quotidian advantage that does not disguise a deeper hankering for salvation.
The TV commercials reveal what it is we really long for. The verbal gush coupled with the vaginal stanch are no different in principle from the manly reticence cloaked in English Leather commanding the velocity flow of a black RX-7. This is how it will manifestly be in Heaven where we shall all enjoy the paradisiacal disembarrassment of our natural awkwardness. We shall be in total control of our fears and secretions, acting with the assurance of disembodiment. Meanwhile the Great Panegyric is flourishing as never before and the whited sepulchre, as is only proper in this day of rampant miniaturization, has become portable and ubiquitous.