Read Aimee Bender's exclusive short story for Stylist, inspired by Osmanthus Blossom Cologne, £38, Jo Malone.
Few things arouse the imagination or evoke memories like scent. Stylist sent four critically acclaimed authors the latest summer scents and asked them to pen an exclusive short story based on how the perfume made them feel.
Words: Aimee Bender
It’s early March and we’re going to the park. The first sunny day in I don’t know how long. Not even bright sun either—watery sunlight that looks like it got rained on too, rain in the rays, but still light, still clear-ish skies and change and more change to come. Last night before I fell asleep, I heard frogs croaking from my window in my city apartment—I heard them underneath cars and honking and the subtle clicking of street lights. Tiny frogs, bleating. Come to the park, they were telling me. Come visit.
I dragged John out of bed at his place to go with me because he is depressed due to the break-up he sort of expected from Diane but also he didn’t expect it enough—he had this thought that maybe it was a phase of badness and they’d be together forever. Anyone who ever saw them together knew she was dragging her feet—the way she’d look at him at a party, like she forgot they came together? Like she didn’t quite recognize him? Was not a good sign. He brought her flowers too bloomed, flowers that in a day would turn, but he did not know. He thought it was best to bring the flowers that were the most gorgeous at the store, the roses spilling over, the wholly opened tulips. He was no bud-bringer. Poor John. Such good intentions. But it was the stamp and sign of their relationship: that she had the best flower for one day and a pile of petals on a table the next.
It took some doing to get him up; it was Saturday morning after all. I had a hangover from a gathering with work friends where I had one more beer than usual which shouldn’t have been a problem but was partially due to the cold I felt ringing near my ears, perhaps the true basis for the frogs? I called him four times, and despite his complaints, each time he was at a new stage of rising: “I’m going to the shower,” he protested. “I’m eating my cereal,” he said. When I knocked on his door, he opened and was dressed and washed and even looked somewhat put together, except for the deep creases of sadness in his cheeks.
“Park,” I said. “Renewal.”
We both needed the walk and the air was clear and some flowers had come out in bushes, so suddenly new pink in the eyes, new yellows. Sky on and off grayish but nothing pressing yet. We had checked our phones and it seemed we could get away with walking until noon when the next downpour would begin.
“So, how goes the missing,” I said.
“It’s bad,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s real bad.”
We turned a corner and entered the iron gates. Newly green, this park. A spring green, the kind that only happens in March. Lighter. Brighter. Brief. Soon the sturdier blades would push in and they were a darker firmer green—also beautiful but less immediate, less fresh. A few blooming flowers on bushes that were John’s favorite, and sure enough, he stopped to stick his nose in an obscene-looking ivory rose.
“How could she?” he said, his voice muffled by the layers.
I stood by and patted his shoulder, then guided him away, toward the pond.
A few elderly couples wrapped in scarves passed us, smiled at us. At youth, up early on a Saturday in a park. They assumed us a couple. I always had liked John, been interested in John, but I was too even for him; I had met every woman he had dated in the last five years and to a person every single one of them was mad at him within the hour of our meeting.
The pond loomed. Greenish and ovate. Dry benches surrounding.
“Come, sit,” I said.
I couldn’t hear the sounds from here either. The faint frog talking I’d heard from my bed, calling me out. Asking me to do something new. John sat close, because he liked to be comforted, and I picked up his hand.
“Frogs,” I called. “Little froggies. Come out.”
“You really heard them?”
“I did,” I said. “Yesterday and today. So sweet sounding. Just like they say they sound. Little bells of frogs.”
We waited. The pond rippled. The bright orange back of a fish rose close to the edge of water and sank bank down again.
“I loved her,” he sighed, squeezing my hand.
“I’m sure she did too, in her way.”
He shrugged. “Or not.”
“John?” I said.
“Mmm.” He leaned a head on my shoulder.
I watched the few people out and about. Pushing strollers. Leashes with dogs.
A little boy in an orange puffy jacket ran up to the pond and started throwing rocks in it. His mother hustled up behind him and sat on a bench opposite ours. “Small rocks only,” she said. “Gerald?”
“Pow pow,” he said. He looked like he was trying to skip stones but had no idea how to do it.
After a few tries, his hand slipped and a rock came flying over to us. It struck my knee. It didn’t really hurt but it startled me, so I jumped. “Gerald!” said the mom, outraged, and she grabbed his elbow. He started crying.
“I’m so sorry!” she yelled. “You okay?”
“Fine,” I called back.
She tugged him off. “Sorry!” I heard him yell after a minute or so.
“You sure you’re okay?” John asked.
“No,” I said. “There’s blood pouring down my knee.”
“Really?” he said, eyes widening, and then I laughed.
“Kidding,” I said. “I’m fine.”
We stayed for an hour, watching the pond. He was always the one with the broken heart. Every time. Right then I found it irritating, like he’d cornered the market. It wasn’t his market, but I didn’t know how to muscle myself in. Didn’t know how to undo the fineness I was so used to delivering. After a while, we got up, stopped to get coffees, said bye. “You sure you’re okay,” he said, and I nodded. What was I supposed to tell him? It was cowardice but a familiar kind. The streets were full of people now and smelled of bustle. He would find a new woman to dislike him in a matter of days.
I heard frogs in my ear all the way home. Croaking and bellowing, just like in the books. Little and hoppy and unfound.
Osmanthus Blossom Cologne, £38, Jo Malone
Notes: peach, apricot and leather
US-born Bender's debut short-story collection The Girl In The Flammable Skirt (1998) was a New York Times Notable Book and spent seven weeks on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. Her novels An Invisible Sign Of My Own (2000) and The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake (2010) were both published to great acclaim. When she's not writing, Bender, 43, teaches creative writing at UCLA and the University of Southern California.
The Color Master by Aimee Bender is out 15 August (£12.99, Hutchinson)