The cool waters off the coast of Fiji lap at my knees as I survey the wreck. The sun is at its peak, threatening me with heat of its mid-day fury, but my skin remains cool to the touch. A slight breeze tickles my nose with tropical scents carried from the island, and I imagine a beautiful tan island maiden fresh from a waterfall shower meeting me on the beach, coconut drink in one hand, a fresh pineapple in the other.
I am shipwrecked and alone, but a firm confidence in my ability to stay clean, fresh, and alive settles over me. I smell so good…
“Waddya think, Phillip, is this the one your mother was asking for?”
The sudden appearance to my left of a lady wearing a plain purple pocket tee-shirt tucked into whitewashed hip-hugging jeans hitched up to her sagging bosoms jolts me back to the deodorant aisle of the local Walmart.
“What flavor does it say on the label?” Her shopping companion, apparently named Phillip, asks.
Flavor? She doesn’t eat deodorant, this mother of yours, does she?
I look to my right; Phillip is wearing a timeworn fly-fishing excursion tee-shirt, jeans that are far too short for his canoe-bowed legs, and a striped train conductor’s hat that has seen a lot of rail.
“Lavender.” Comes the reply.
“That’s the one she likes; it reminds her of springtime,” Phillip states by way of duty and explanation, without a hint of nostalgia.
I put the stick of Fiji scented deodorant on the shelf and take a step back so I can keep an interested eye on Phillip and his shopping companion while at the same time trying to choose a new deodorant.
Deodorant has always been a part of my life. The spicy odor of a colonial clipper ship on a hard tack likely entered my nose on the wind of my very first breath, as my father leaned in under the heat lamps and welcomed me into this world. That old and spicy wooden scent led me through childhood as I followed my father around, trying my best to mimic his manliness.
No wonder then, that when I began to offend my family with the pungent odor of my budding puberty and was asked to take measures, I chose the same reliable spicy scent for my own armpits. While my friends guarded theirs with the right choice for young and active teenagers, I did my best to smell like a weathered sailor fresh from a whaling trip.
Why is Phillip looking at disposable razors and shave cream? His beard is full and bushy…maybe his lavender-loving mother shaves her upper lip…
As a teenager I used deodorant in excess, hoping to smell fresh, clean, and romantically appealing to any member of the fairer sex that happened to cross my path within breathing distance. It didn’t work; my eager deodorant application seemed to have the opposite effect, chasing girls away like mosquitos from a pool of DDT.
I owned a single pair of Levi’s jeans in high school, and that was a problem, because I felt that no other pair of pants could better hide my scrawny white legs. Wearing them five days a week was admittedly gross, but wear them five days a week I did. In today’s world dingy denim seems to demonstrate a willful indifference to etiquette that wins hearts, but thirty years ago it demonstrated a careless aversion to popularity that won solitude and insecurity. I had on more than one occasion tried to sneak them into a secret wash cycle on their own, but my mother guarded her laundry machines with unmatched vigilance and getting caught with my hand in her detergent had proven to be punishable by angry and humiliating lectures. I took to showering in my jeans whenever they got really bad, but they never dried fast enough in the humid Connecticut climate to wear the next day without chaffing. I spent many days trying to walk casually from my locker to my next class as though my inner thighs weren’t greenhorn-in-the-saddle raw and painfully swollen.
On one particular morning, facing a day in dark brown corduroys, I employed deodorant to my cause, applying it liberally to the fabric of my dirty jeans. I was hoping the powerful anti-bacterial ingredients and sea-going smell would mask the odors that my hormonal and junk-food consuming teenage body emitted into my pants on a daily basis. I didn’t think about my body’s metabolic warmth, and the fact that it would soon melt the deodorant into a greasy film, darkening the denim and making it appear as though I had emptied a full bladder into my beloved Levi’s. It didn’t smell like I’d pissed my pants, but I did walk the halls of peer pressure with an extra measure of self-loathing that day, followed around by an eye-tearing potpourri cloud formed by the blending odors of strong chemical clean and slowly developing puberty.
Why are there so many choices, and why are they so poorly named? Legend? What the hell does legend smell like? Urban? Commanding man? Dark Temptation? Who named these? Will they make me take a manhood test at the register before they’ll let me buy any of these? Will I have to demonstrate hand-to-hand combat skills or build a fence without using tools? Will I have to break-dance, grab my crotch, and spit on the floor?
As young children we rode many summers in the back of whichever van Dad happened to be driving at the time, making our way across the country to visit relatives we hardly knew for a few unforgettable days of genetically obligated awkward interaction. The summer sun stared down at us through any window our mother hadn’t coated with aluminum foil, doing his damned best to burn and broil us where we lay reading, napping, or playing. On one such trip I watched my older sister, who was physically mature enough to use deodorant, coat the backs of her knees with it, presumably to stop them from sweating. A few days later, under the assumption that the practice was something only women did for some feminine reason or another, I snuck into the bathroom and applied some of that same stick to the backs of my own knees. The initial cooling sensation gave way to an oily patina, which was soon followed by a dry chemical film that smelled like my sister and took a few frantic moments spent with soap and warm water to remove. I firmly believed that had my father discovered me there in the bathroom, the backs of my knees coated in feminine product, he would have spanked me silly and committed me to hard, manual, masculine labor in order to chase any interest in behaving like a girl from within me.
What the hell is oud wood? Is that a misprint, did they mean old wood? Who wants to smell like old wood dipped in dark vanilla?
I dry-shaved my armpits one year at summer camp, probably on a dare, but definitely under circumstances better left forgotten. The following morning I rubbed deodorant into that smooth, freshly scraped skin, and my screams woke the entire camp and anyone else within a four-mile radius. It was that same year that I retired the old standby deodorant with the clipper ship label and called up a new and modern scent made for a younger generation of upcoming men. At the time I wasn’t aware that there were stark differences between deodorant and antiperspirant, and so I didn’t know that I had begun clogging my pores each morning, stuffing metal and other chemicals into them with reckless and ignorant abandon.
Why are women allowed to smell like actual things? Coconut, Citrus, Flowers, these are things I can get my head and nose around. Wait, Macaroon scented? Isn’t that a kind of cookie? Hey, I want to smell like a cookie, why can’t they have chocolate chip deodorant for men? Or brownies, yeah brownies would be good.
Several years ago I decided that when I was in my sixties, I wanted to be able to remember not only my name and address, but my wife’s as well. I didn’t want my kids to feel they had to sew “If Found Call…” labels into my clothes, or tattoo my personal details onto my forearms. In the hope of preventing that from happening, I started using a more natural, less harsh, metal-free, and non pore-clogging version of underarm protection. As my armpit pores began to perform their normal sweating function once again after years of disuse, I hoped that no one would notice and then mention that I smelled different, and prayed that no one would notice and then say that I smelled worse. Self conscious, I walked around sniffing myself every few minutes, pulling at my layers of clothes and wondering if anyone would go home and thank their spouse for not smelling like the odiferous man they had been mis-fortuned enough to stand next to on the street that day.
Oh, deodorant, you are so much like prayer to me: on mornings that I remember to, I spin your dial, lift my arms, and coat my pits with your protective glaze, all the while wondering if your power over my bad odor will last the day.
And so passed several years of my life, with my insecurities reminding me to keep my arms pinned to my sides as much as possible and my brain reminding me that I was sacrificing olfactory confidence for its future sake. It didn’t help that I lived in New Hampshire, where the humidity in summer turns the best smelling armpits into cesspools filled with sweaty bacterial sludge.
The move to a drier climate in Utah helped, at least it did until a few weeks ago, when I must have hit some sort of man-o-pausal milestone. I suddenly couldn’t go ten minutes without wanting a shower and a clean shirt. I began sweating like I surely will on judgment day, and wondered if perhaps God had suddenly felt the need for a running start to his opening arguments against me.
I am tired of smelling like a sweaty patch of lemon grass that has been watered with the drippings squeezed from a Guatemalan factory worker’s tee shirt.
Phillip and his companion wander off down the aisle and out of sight. I am alone to face the many choices before me. I begin to wonder if there are deodorant sommeliers, experts on which brands and scents best fit with certain personalities or clothes. I picture a man dressed to the nines standing in the deodorant section of Walmart, his hair greased and parted tightly over his scalp, a pencil moustache under his long and upturned nose. Would anyone dare ask such a man for underarm advice?
A mother pushes her cart into the aisle. She crosses in front of me with a polite smile, delaying my decision for a moment longer. Her cart is loaded to the rim with food, and a happy baby drools in the seat. Three or four, or is it five kids follow behind her in a long line of chatty happiness. I watch as the woman reaches up and without breaking stride grabs a stick of deodorant, presumably for her husband, who has apparently summited Everest. She keeps on walking, her genetic train following close behind, and I am alone again.
Screw it; I’m going to Fiji.