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Excerpt from PERFUME & PAIN photo

The following is an excerpt from Anna Dorn's third novel Perfume & Pain, out May 21. 


Before Ivy asked me my zodiac sign, my haphazard return to my Zoom writing group hadn’t sparked much joy. It’s sad, because the initial group—named the Lez Brat Pack because we genuinely believed we were the lesbian literary brat pack—was the highlight of my mid-twenties. I had just dropped out of law school and compulsory heterosexuality, and Lez Brat Pack promised a bright future of lesbianism and literary success. We had the vigor and delusion of youth and were convinced we were about to crack open the publishing world.

But at a certain point, the group began to lose steam, feel less cohesive. Writers came and went. Writers fucked each other, nearly ruined each other’s lives, got published and cocky, or stopped writing entirely, started working at Google, developed fine lines and cynical attitudes. I’ve fallen into a few of these categories. Zoom highlights my triangle of sadness, the wrinkles between my brows caused by excessive frowning, and I had a romantic dalliance with Sophie, another founding member and a UCSB PhD student, once the Jay McInerney to my Bret Easton Ellis. Also, I’ve published three books since the group’s founding. The first is essentially dyke fanfic about Kendall Jenner, the second is about a lawyer who wants to be a rapper, and the third is the cynical internet astrologer. Once I started publishing, I felt less need for the writing group. I suppose I was one of the ones who got cocky and disappeared. But I was busy! Writing, revising, and nurturing a light drug problem.

While I was gone, Lez Brat Pack changed its name to Sapphic Scribes. Apparently some of the newer members found the original name “misogynistic,” “infantilizing,” and “exclusive.” They all seem at least ten years younger than me, around the age I was when I joined, too young to realize that Sapphic Scribes is equally infantilizing and that exclusivity is not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s not that I have anything against Sappho; obviously, I stan a girl-crazy lesbian poet. And I understand the appeal of sapphic as a vaguely chic euphemism for lesbian. But recently words like sapphic and queer feel a bit corporate and TikTok-y. I don’t use TikTok because it makes me feel like I’m having a seizure, but suddenly I can’t open Instagram without being bombarded by some “sapphic bookstagrammer” or “queer radical sex therapist.” And, I don’t know, maybe I miss when homosexuality was a little less corny? I prefer the word lesbian because it conjures a less cringe, more libidinous past.

Anyway, I returned to the group because I was bored, am bored, because I am taking a break from my former extracurriculars—going out, blacking out, doing shit I regret, feeling ill for days. For most of my twenties and early thirties, I got by with the help of a magic cocktail I came to call “the Patricia Highsmith.” Alcohol, sativa, Adderall, cigarettes. On the Patricia Highsmith, I could do anything. I published three books, optioned two. I had an active social life; some even called me a “party girl.” I dated half of Los Angeles, fell in love more times than any one person has a right to in a lifetime. But like most coping mechanisms, the Patricia Highsmith turned on me. I did some stupid things we don’t have to get into, then became what my psychologist called “suicidal.” But luckily I’m not in therapy anymore. That lady always had very negative things to say.

The problem is: without the Patricia Highsmith, I haven’t exactly been able to write. I’m financially okay for a bit because my astrology novel was recently optioned for a fat sum. The money won’t last forever, but the more pressing problem is existential. Without writing books, I have no idea who I am. I’m half dead.

So currently—it’s so hard to say this, but: Sapphic Scribes (and more specifically Ivy)—is the emotional focal point of my life, a way to shape my weeks. The time between meetings moves at a glacial pace, especially without the Patricia Highsmith to keep me euphoric. I try to stay busy in the ways I’ve tried to stay busy since I committed to “getting healthy” at the suggestion of myself and various licensed professionals. I take long walks. I do yoga in my yard. I lie on my bed and listen to audiobooks downloaded for free from the public library app. I FaceTime with Zev, my only friend who is a “good influence.” We went to college together, my fag hag years, when I was afraid to be near anyone I wanted to fuck or who wanted to fuck me. Fine, I guess I’m still like that a little bit. Fear is desire’s cousin.


The night before the next meeting, I can’t sleep at all. I toss and turn and listen to an entire audiobook, a thriller a reviewer called “The Talented Mr. Ripoff.” The diss is not a diss to me. I worship Patricia Highsmith, obviously, and a book that rips her off is probably better than 99 percent of books, which tend to be very boring.

Growing up, I didn’t read much. I preferred television and talking to myself. But when I started trying to write books, I figured I had to read them if I wanted to be good. And I didn’t just want to be good: I wanted to be the best. Once I started reading, I realized I liked books about angry, quick-witted women with major interpersonal issues, a genre known on Goodreads as “she’s not doing okay at all.” I also enjoy deception, glamour, à la Ripley. And anything that compares itself to Single White Female. I love a stalker, even when I’m the victim—it’s flattering! The group doesn’t meet until 3:00 p.m. and until then my body pulses with nervous energy. I make coffee and tend to my Google alerts, which include notifications for my name, Twitter handle, and book titles. When my last book was released, my publisher suggested setting up Google alerts to keep an eye out for promotional opportunities. But recently it’s a lot, all the alerts, and now my heart is racing, and not in a fun way. I click Delete All. I don’t want to get into it, but I promise you: there are no promotional opportunities.

Afterward, I walk seven miles to kill adrenaline. I eat a big salad and watch Kim and Kourtney eat big salads on a ten-year-old episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I skim the pages we’re workshopping today, written by a self-proclaimed sapiosexual named Pia, a Lez Brat Pack OG who tried to kick me out of the group because I hadn’t read—I kid you not—Stone Butch Blues. She lives in the Bay Area and has that morally superior and covertly filthy rich attitude that constitutes one of the primary reasons I escaped my hometown of San Francisco. Currently she’s writing a “cli-fi” novel, a term I just learned, which means speculative fiction about the horrors of climate change. I ask Zev if he knows the term and he says of course and I should be ashamed for not knowing it, especially as an “authoress.” Zev is obsessed with the dwindling health of the planet. I never think about her, Mother Earth. Sometimes I feel bad for not thinking about her, and try to read science news, and then I become bored and depressed and think—what did I gain from that? I recycle. I hardly ever fly because planes scare me. Driving on the freeway scares me too. I do my part. I don’t need to know all the gory details.

I spend nearly an hour getting ready for Zoom. I try on five different shirts. They’re all black and look pretty much the same, but they each do slightly different things to my neckline. I don’t have much in the way of breasts, but sometimes on Zoom with the right shirt and proper lighting, I can create the illusion of cleavage. Real movie magic.

My green amethyst necklace draws attention to my fake cleavage. Amethyst is my birthstone, and the name apparently comes from the Ancient Greek word for “intoxicated.” Ancient wearers believed the gemstone protected them from drunkenness, which historically I need help with. Except I hate the color purple. It just feels too literal and tragic for a lesbian to wear purple. But then I found a green amethyst, which is made from artificially heating the stone, and is also supposed to protect against negative energy and toxic vibrations, which feels ideal for getting healthy. Mine hangs on a sterling silver cable chain, and it’s one of the more expensive things I own.

I consider eyeliner, then decide against it. I don’t want to look like I’m trying. Also, eyeliner is risky. My other college friend Otto said I don’t have the fine motor skills for eye makeup, and he’s probably right. He also said I should stop wearing so much black. “It ages you,” he said. “The global You, I mean.” He said this when I turned thirty, and I dismissed him as insane. But looking in the mirror now, I think he might be right.

When did I start looking older than twenty-five?

I spritz my forearm and neck with a British cult perfume named for a lab-created molecule, Iso E Super. I’ve gotten really into perfume since I stopped feeling twenty-five, when I didn’t have to do much to feel sexy, when my skin was smooth and taut and I somehow had abs despite never doing a crunch and drinking twelve PBRs a night. At thirty-five, I’m beginning to feel a bit dusty. I don’t want to get Botox like all my fags, and when Otto was in town a while ago, we wandered into a niche perfume store and smelled everything, and I got a sample of a French perfume translated as “queen of night” and described as spellbinding and sensual. I went through the sample quickly and enjoyed how it made me feel, like I was gliding around with this obliquely sexy aura.

Otto said perfume is all about “being someone else,” and I write fiction for a reason. So, I began spending a lot of time ordering decants and samples online. This one site has a service where you tell them how you want to smell and they send you a custom sampler pack. I’ve ordered a bunch because I can’t commit to one scent, which is probably a metaphor, but anyway I’ve told them I want to smell like a Parisian It Girl and sequoia trees at dusk, like Kate Moss in the ’90s and a Malibu cloud. I’m dying to find a signature scent, one that transforms me into the perfect version of myself, a scent that people come to associate with me, the new me: who is healthy and lucid and doesn’t black out large portions of the evening on a regular basis. It’s bizarre to put on perfume for Zoom, where no one can smell me, but Iso E Super does wonders for my mood, eliciting a mild euphoria.

I pour an IPA into a coffee mug and move my laptop to various places in my apartment to test how I look. I pick a spot in the yard, under a big tree, which floods my face in dramatic light, blurring my imperfections. I picked this house in part for the yard. For my first ten years in Los Angeles, I lived in apartments near freeways. Whenever I opened the windows, the surfaces would almost immediately coat in a film of gray exhaust.

Now I live on the top of a hill in Eagle Rock, far from the freeway and surrounded by trees, and when I open the windows, I breathe fresh air. And in the afternoons, I read in the yard or just listen to the birds. This wooded bungalow is crucial to my path to health.

I take a big sip of my beer and click the Sapphic Scribes Zoom link.