IT'S 2: 30 P.M., two days before Christmas and I am in the last place a man wants to be as the holiday shopping season reaches a crescendo: the women's fragrance counter at a major department store.
Nearby, two willowy women in black outfits smile eerily as they offer to spray customers with perfume.
"Would you like to try Allure?" one asks in hushed tones.
"Tommy Girl?" asks another, and soon she is in deep, serious conversation with a riveted customer, as if the two were discussing an upper GI test.
Overhead, from an unseen speaker system, a swing version of "Frosty the Snowman" plays, the effect strangely jangling on the nerves.
But I must allow none of this to distract me.
My mission: buy a bottle of Eternity by Calvin Klein.
Naturally, I've been given the specifics.
Size: 0.25 fluid ounces.
Price: around 40 bucks.
Fine. I can handle this.
As I circle the brightly lit carousel, with its bottles of Obsession, Donna Karan, Contradiction by Calvin Klein, Coolwater by Davidoff and Sunwater by Lancaster gleaming like jewelry in a display case, I think: So it's come to this.
After 20 years of marriage, it's come to this.
"Get me perfume," she had said this morning, as I left for work.
But it's better this way, isn't it? In the past, whatever I bought her for Christmas, she returned.
Sweaters, blazers, scarves, pocketbooks -- they all went back.
Gloves, blouses, nightgowns, earrings, necklaces -- she opened each gift, oohed and aahed appropriately, beamed, said thank you, it's just what I wanted.
Didn't matter. A day later, maybe two, they were returned secretly. And then a few weeks later, when I mentioned casually, "How come you never wear that sweater with the ducks I got you for Christmas?" there would be this awkward silence.
And I knew.
Oh, I knew.
So this year, fed-up, burned-out, I delivered an ultimatum.
"It will be a dark, empty Christmas for you," I said, "unless you tell me what you want."
"Get me perfume," she said.
Now you're talking.
"You know what kind I wear?" she asked.
"Of course I know what kind you wear," I said. Then later, to the 13-year-old daughter: "What kind of perfume does Mommy wear?"
The answer, in an instant: Eternity.
Point two five fluid ounces.
Set you back about 40 bucks.
Piece of cake.
Except ... except as I step now into the white-hot glow of the women's fragrance counter, my anxiety level is red-lining.
A new British study reports that men experience stress levels while Christmas shopping comparable to those experienced by fighter pilots in combat, or police officers in life-threatening situations.
OK, I'll buy that.
But if you really want to see stress, strap a heart monitor on a man and send him to the women's fragrance counter, with the professional sprayers power-hosing Allure into the air and Wynton Marsalis or whoever it is strangling "Frosty" over the sound system.
Then stand back, baby, and watch the needle on that monitor jump.
At the moment, what's stressing me out is the sales clerk behind the counter, a woman with frosted hair and no-nonsense demeanor who is eyeing me intently.
Am I one of these male perfume voyeurs just cruising the counter for kicks? she wants to know. Or am I ready to plunk down some cold, hard cash for a present for my wife?
I also sense the professional sprayers edging closer, and this, too, makes me jittery. At the men's fragrance counter, my philosophy on the sprayers is simple: Don't make eye contact.
Look down at your shoes. Stare up at the ceiling. Make eye contact, and they zero in on you like a heat-seeking missile.
"Polo, sir?" they'll say, and the next thing you know, a fine mist with a cloying smell has been sprayed on the back of your hand and they stand there grinning at you, waiting for a reaction.
No eye contact is the same philosophy that should be employed with those people in malls who stand there with clipboards and ask you to take some goofy survey that "will only take a few minutes."
The only time I bend from the no-eye-contact rule is in the supermarket, when they ask me to try a new cheese-and-pimento spread, or smoked sausage.
Look, if someone asks me to try food, I'm there, OK?
But not fragrances. Because frankly, I am not all that concerned about my "scent."
If I walked into an elevator and seven people passed out, then, yes, I would care about my scent.
Right now, though, it's time for action, not idle meditations on one's personal aroma.
"Eternity," I bark to the woman behind the counter. "Point two five fluid ounces."
"We have a gift set right here," she says, smiling. "All wrapped, with a bow on top."
"This," I tell her, "is a great, great country.'
Pub Date: 12/24/98