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Can You Find True Love By Sniffing a T-Shirt?

At L.A.'s hottest new party, singles hook up by sniffing slept-in T-shirts. Is it science or speed dating?

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“You are pretty hot,” I interjected. My flirt mechanism only has one setting: Forward.

“Don’t encourage me! Don’t call me hot if I’m bragging about it. What’s the matter with you?”

I went into this party wondering what kind of guys I’d be attracted to just on the basis of pheromone smell. Could I clear away all the flotsam in my heart – the fetishes for big noses and curly hair that I’ve had since high school, or my habit of falling for cocky artists and writers? What if I could reset and recalibrate my attraction patterns and strip them down to pure physical science? It would be like a blind taste test for coffee. Without being preconditioned for brand recognition, I’d be able to go only on what my senses were telling me. Maybe I’d find that my animal instincts really wanted a broomstick-thin MGMT fan with a pedo mustache. Maybe all this time my heart’s been searching for a  Norwegian, a massive wall of a man, instead of the compact, kind-eyed Jewish boys I always (always!) fall in love with.

But as I jostled through the pack of absinthe-soaked singles and made my way, time and again, to the shirt-sniffing table, it became hard to disentangle the physical from the mental and emotional. I didn’t know what I was looking for, err, smelling for, as I opened random bags taped with blue numbered Post-it notes. Some bags smelled clean and almost floral. Others smelled like plastic. Others, like cotton. The aromas ranged from pungent to sweet, sweaty to metallic to chemical, spicy to yeasty. But none of my judgments on which bags smelled pleasant were based on smell alone. Did I like this shirt because its delicate pheromones were sending signals to my adrenal system? Or was it the sweet scent of Downy April Fresh that reminded me of the lazy Saturday mornings of my childhood? Was my norepinephrine working the magic here, or was it just my limbic-based memory? Cartesian duality, don’t fail me now! And then there was the bag whose scent gave me a twinge of nostalgia for an old flame. Should I pick it up because I’d been attracted to him? Or should I put it down because it didn’t work out? And was I actually getting excited about specific pheromones here, or only the generic and intoxicating odor of organic cotton mingling with male sweat, which I’d been physically primed and socially conditioned to feel thrilled by ever since girlhood?

I spotted a cute guy who had posed with my shirt and tapped him on the shoulder. He was skinny and wore a flannel shirt. “Hi,” I said. “I saw you holding my shirt. I’m Lauren. I’m No. 630.”

“Oh wow, you’re No. 630? You were a hit with my whole group of friends. Yeah, everyone at our table liked you. Hey, John!” he said, calling his friend over. “This is No. 630.”

“Hi, I’m Lauren,” I said, offering my hand.

“You’re No. 630?! Oh cool!”

I felt like a celebrity. I asked the guys what it was exactly that had made my shirt a such a hit. Out of writer’s curiosity of course.

“It smelled like girl,” they chorused.

“Well,” elaborated my flannel suitor, “It smelled like waking up in the morning, you know, comfortable, but excited too … and roses.”

“So … what does it mean that you liked my shirt? Like, when you sniff these shirts, what are you looking for? And what do you conclude when you find one that you like?”

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