Editor Paul Hagen Wonders: Does the Cologne Make the Man?

Written by | Columnists and Letters

Paul Hagen, Editor of Metrosource

Paul Hagen

The year is 1999. I’m at home in New Jersey after my freshman year of college, and having gotten a taste of the freedom and excitement of living in NYC, I’m climbing the walls. I talk to a man in an internet chat room and hesitantly agree to meet him a few blocks from my house. As I wait nervously, I repeat a mantra I shared with my then-best friend Melody: “I’d rather regret what I did than what I didn’t do.” He pulls up, and I open his car door, blown back by the fragrance of his freshly applied Ralph Lauren Polo for Men. I’ll never again catch the scent without being transported to that moment.

It seems odd to me now, after so many years of never leaving the house without a spritz or a dab of some fragrance, that there was a time when it seemed like an exotic thing. Just after high school, I had a huge crush on my friend Zac (who was straight but didn’t mind me being so hopelessly smitten). I remember the day he excitedly pulled from his glove compartment a bottle of something called “Raw Vanilla.” He insisted it was the best men’s fragrance he’d ever found, and in short order we resolved to find me a bottle as well. I didn’t so much wear it out as put it on and think of him. But it was that collision of him and what was likely little more than vanilla extract that forever connected my budding attraction to men with their scent.

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It was actually not a man, but Melody who introduced me to what was for many years my signature fragrance. Melody was a curator of olfactory delights and wore a variety of distinct women’s fragrances. One evening she had me sniff a bottle from which wafted a whiff of something intoxicating and citrusy. “If it weren’t a men’s fragrance,” she declared, “it’s what I’d wear, so I decided to buy it for you.” For more than a decade, not a day went by that I did not have a bottle of Dolce & Gabbana Pour Homme at the ready. I liked the idea that it would become part of my identity — perhaps enough that someday a guy would catch its zing in the air and think of me, the way vanilla made me swoon over Zac.

In college, my handsome roommate Chris had a thing for Calvin Klein Eternity for Men. He also had a thing for hanging around our common area in his boxer briefs — enjoying the way his lean, muscled physique drove my to distraction. I still associate that scent with a unique blend of being incredibly turned on and immensely frustrated.

My first long-term boyfriend Jon was not much for cologne, but believed there could be some deleterious effect to wearing chemical antiperspirants and deodorants. So he found a natural alternative — a pine spray meant to keep one feeling as fresh as anything from a pharmacy. I came to associate pine with him so completely that memories of our time can be triggered by a walk past an evergreen or through a room freshly mopped with Pine-Sol®.

My fiancé Justin is not one for fragrance either, but he appreciates my love of it. Every once in a while, he’ll borrow a hoodie I’ve worn and send me a little text about the comforting way its smells reminds him of me. When we travel abroad, we’ll while away time in duty-free shops, seeking fragrances that might fit. I remember falling for one at Reykjavik’s famed Blue Lagoon spa: a unique, herbaceous scent called Landi. It always reminds me of snuggling with Justin on the flight home.

When I was a kid, fragrance was very much the domain of women. It was the fabulous cloud that accompanied my Aunt Kathy or Aunt Barbara into a room, the halo around my Gram’s perfectly-set coiffure. Having never smelled of anything other than soap, I envied the way they wore it like an invisible tiara. It was something I wanted but also was ashamed for wanting because it was “for girls.”If I could go back, I might tell my younger self that someday fragrance will become a part of how I present myself to the world -— a part of the way I’ll remember the men I’ve desired (once I get over my fear of desiring men), and a way others will recognize me. It may not be a rainbow flag, but it’s a part of my identity I’ll come to flaunt just as proudly. It’s part of who I am, as the La Cage number suggests: my own special creation.   

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Last modified: May 15, 2018