Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Giorgio, my sister and the sad scent of her happiness

This week I am wearing Giorgio Beverly Hills. It is a brash white floral, rather out of style these days. The general preference nowadays seems to be for perfumes that make you smell like disgustingly sweet, high calorie cupcakes. I think there's a correlation between the craving for fragrances that are good enough to eat (read: pig out on) and the collective revulsion towards fat. There is a correlation, too, between the hyper-feminine, pre-pubescent bottles -- sprouting pink organza bows or slung with delicate chains -- and the pressure to shed clothes, show off muscle, cam-whore for the internet.
Well, Giorgio was built for an entirely different era, the 80s, a time when everything had to be larger than life. This was the era of shoulder pads, big hair, and images of belligerent women. This was the era that gave us the summer action(-comedy) genre, Terminator and Beverly Hills Cop and Robocop, where the guns talked even louder than Eddie Murphy, and seemed to be overshadow the main players, achieving the status of characters in their own right. The fact that everyone smoked seemed to be a factor in the construction of such a floral powerhouse: people had severely compromised their sense of smell.

A lot of people profess to hate Giorgio today, but it has only positive associations for me. It was my late sister's signature scent in the 80s and early 90s. I know she must have saved up every penny to buy those bottles, as they were not cheap. To me, this is the fragrance of giddy joy, of unbounded creativity, of possibility. Because we were so young and (in hindsight) innocent in those days, I would even call this a youthful, raw and spontaneous fragrance, despite the endless string of iterations during its now-legendary construction process.

On me, it opens with a bitter punch of oakmoss and mashed flowers, and in this (comparatively) restrained stage, you must resist the urge to respray. Within 10-15 minutes Giorgio morphs into the lush, sensual scent bomb that people complain about. Magnificent sillage too. Longevity as well -- it stays on your skin even after a shower, and sticks to your hair and shirts and scarves. It seems that as one layer of Giorgio turns tacky and sloughs off, another billows forward, renewed like skin. I have to wear it as far from my face as I can, because it gives me eye migraines. Although composed of pushy white florals (tuberose, gardenia, jasmine and orange blossom -- killer scents that I like to refer to as "The Gang of Four") I'll always associate this frag with the color yellow: exuberant, singing, and slightly hysterical. Really, this perfume should have been called "Gioia."

So now I'm wearing it, and I know that, because I made the mistake of getting some on the neckline of my coat, I probably will be wearing it the whole week. That is fine, because this is the week of my sister's birthday. She would have been 47 on the 19th of April, but died of metastasized breast cancer six years ago. When she died, she was blind, frightened, in great pain, run ragged and very poor -- not just from the monumental hospital bills accumulated over her three year battle with the disease, but from the stress of being the sole breadwinner of the family, and from having to deal with a sneering, criticism-spewing husband who had been that way since the first months of their relationship, which began one dawn twenty years before, and was heralded by her stumbling home half-dazed and throwing up what must have been the contents of an entire bottle of gin on our bedroom floor.

Over those twenty years she changed -- her life became one long struggle to pay the bills, keep her husband, and maintain some form of inner self-respect, while all the time projecting a tough and competent exterior. Her perfume, such a major component of her life from childhood, when our parents bought us our first Avons, became quieter and increasingly apologetic. Devolving from the lushness of Giorgio, to the pseudo-fresh aquatic watermelon of Ralph Lauren Polo Sport Woman, to the pretty lilac and lily-of-thevalley of Elizabeth Arden 5th Avenue, her signature scent, in the final year of her illness, became a 5-dollar copy of the rather insipid, shower-fresh skinscent Glow by J. Lo. She loved fragrance, and she liked Jennifer Lopez's golden skin and street-savvy sexiness -- the kind of woman that in our childhood she had fantasized she would become. We used to draw a lot as children, and to construct stories, influenced by the comic books that, before the internet, were the only way to marry story and image, and keep everything static and eternally ready to be referenced. We made our own comic books, and to one character she gave her name, and in the inescapable images of Lopez from the decade of 00’s, I recognized the girl she drew.

Well, my sister died of cancer, which unfortunately was not diagnosed until Stage 3B, and by then the lump was the size of a hen's egg. She had felt the pangs for nearly a year, but was afraid of going to a doctor, afraid of what might be found, afraid of the disruption and the cost it would entail. This is the week of her birthday. She is fading into anonymity, she was here and gone again before internet presence became the ridiculous measure of our existence as people. When I google her name, I see only the blogpost I made shortly after her funeral, and the eulogy rendered by our father. That, and a few short words of praise, in Tagalog, by one of the women in her cancer support group, saying how much she would be missed, mentioning her courage and optimism. How hard it had been, for my sister, to keep it all afloat.

I write these words, though it has been difficult, because it is the beginning of remembering, of accepting that to block out the memories will never work. I write in commemoration, not of her public image, but of the person I privately knew. (She had the knack of blending, through mimicry, into whatever group she was in, so that people were always perplexed to discover she was a much more complex person than they had given her credit for. Count me in this crowd.) I began this blog post with a rather impersonal, life-style journalist comment about the times and trends, and ended somewhere else entirely. I've been hard, will continue to be, on those whom she trustingly admitted into her happiness, and whom she allowed to wreck it. At some point our roles reversed themselves, and while in our childhood, she encouraged my creativity and taught me to be tough, towards the very end it was I who found myself protecting her.

I wear Giorgio because this week of her birthday, it reminds me powerfully of her, of her best days, when she was bold, young, unapologetic. When life promised possibility, when there were no bad men, only rakish heroes with a motivation one could actually point to on the printed page. When she could have been anyone she chose to become.

In those days of the late '80s, I think she was truly having fun.