Nowadays, if I skip my morning ritual of showering, tooth-brushing and gargling, I feel utterly disgusting. There are those relatively rare occasions where I skip one or all of them, however. Sometimes on weekends, if I’m not going anywhere, I’ll get too wound up in my head and put off doing it forever. Very rarely I’ll be late to work and skip the shower in my frantic race to engage in my wage-slave duties. In any case, I regret it. I just don’t feel prepared to do anything beyond the apartment door or deal directly with any other human. In many ways, it’s become as vital a component to the process of waking up as coffee.
In reflecting back upon how I used to be, though, this seems most amazing and strange.
I had fairly good hygiene throughout elementary school and middle school, and then had a brief fixation on being clean in seventh or eighth grade, one that was actually just part of a much broader fixation on my appearance in general. I’d have my mother trim my hair constantly in my efforts to get it perfect. I would use hairspray, moose and gel. Self-conscious about being weak and skinny, I got weights. Near the end of that swift phase, I began doing relaxation exercises taught to me by those guided hypnosis tapes my mother had gotten for me when I was younger, determined to exercise my mind and keep it healthy as well.
I was slowly transitioning out of that external fixation into my new internal one around freshmen year of high school and had crossed that bridge entirely my sophomore year. After my flashbacks or whatever they were, after all the strange things began happening in my life, I became more fixated on the internal than I had previously been focused on the external.
Anxiety was also at an all-time high. I resisted sleep. With no commercial break for consciousness, it all just felt like just one, long, entirely fucked up day. We always showered before bed or after waking up when we were younger, typically at the same times, and that pattern was suddenly out the window. There were no set transitions to mark the passage of time except school-time.
Anyway, hygiene was not on my to-do list. It was, in fact, the furthest thing from my mind. I simply didn’t care much about my body in general. I gave up haircuts completely and hung up my moose, gel and hairspray forever. I hid it all under a black hat. I hardly ever brushed my teeth. Sometimes I would rub the area on the ribbed underside my shirt collar against my two front teeth to scrape away the slime cocooning them because it got so irritating to feel it with my tongue. I would feel disgusted with myself over the long, smeared line comprised of a months-worth of tiny leftovers from my primary diet of Pepsi, coffee and Ritz crackers, but I certainly wasn’t revolted to the degree that it ever inspired me to actually do something about it.
It helped that I preferred my hair unwashed for a certain time, as otherwise it would poof up, which looked ridiculous with my hat off and — my true concern — it felt uncomfortable with my hat on, which it almost always was. Eventually it got far too naturally greasy, at which time I would wash my hair in the laundry room sink — not in the shower, of course.
In the group of friends I became a part of around that time was a particularly sexy and somewhat aggressive girl I’ll call Kelly. For some reason, she always insisted that I “wasn’t naked,” which was something she said to me often and seemed to believe quite strongly, though I never got her to clearly articulate what it was that she meant, exactly. In retrospect, though, it was true enough. I hardly ever took off all my clothes. At the time I suppose I did feel vulnerable naked and felt that it was best to be wrapped in a cocoon of sweat, jeans and flannel at all times. Showering took more effort than I could invest, and just thinking about going through the motions seemed exhausting. I could hardly keep my eyes open.
When I could no longer remain awake and would literally crash into unconsciousness on my mattress, I slept clothed, of course, often with both my backward ball cap on as well as both my shoes.
Those kids who tie their laces loose or fail to tie them at all just so they can leisurely slip in and out of them without having to lean down and engage in that tedious, torturous, tying and untying process — you think they’re lazy? Hold my coffee.
Since I never showered, I just changed clothes when it suited me, and when it happened it was rarely all articles. I often wonder how horrible I must have smelled back then, but there were surprisingly few comments, and those I remembered were only in one case necessarily negative. One girl I knew said I smelled like broccoli; another girl claimed I smelled like Fruit Loops. Both were odd odors, not necessarily unpleasant.
Then there was one occasion in the summer of 1999 when I slept on a cot in a small room at a friends house and for some reason decided to take off my shoes before doing so. When a good friend of mine opened the door to wake me up, it must have been like the feet stink just punched him in the face. Between laughter and gagging, he told me that my feet smelled horrible.
For all I know, there may have been much talk behind my back about the poor hygiene and what had to be an unpleasant smell, however. Some time ago I considered two stories I’d heard that has gnawed at me for years, one told by Mark Vonnegut in his book, The Eden Express, and the other by neuroscientist James Fallon in a host of lectures and interviews. In both cases they exhibited behavior that everyone around them accepted as evidence of a mental disorder — schizophrenia for Vonnegut, psychopathy for Fallon — and yet they did not discover this about themselves until far later in life. More importantly, it was only upon questioning those closest to them that they learned how it had been clear to them all along.
Both were victims of an Unspoken Conspiracy of Silence.
It took some time, probably only a few years back, for me to realize that I may very well be involved in such a conspiracy myself. A former coworker of mine, Gus, is forever filthy. Quite often, the odor is so bad it’s painful. It is clear to everyone at work that he almost never showers. His skin has that lizard-like, leathery look to it, and we often joked that his arms up to his shoulders were the cleanest parts if his body given his short stature and the fact that he always cleaned dishes in the deep-bellied sink in the stock room. Even so, when you are unfortunate enough to have his arm hair brush against your own, the follicles feel like stiff wires scraping against your skin.
When he takes off his hat, he looks like the Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt. You bear witness to the long, oily, stringy locks of hair sprouting from random areas on and dispersed across his otherwise barren scalp. They are plastered to his grisly gourd in a twisting, serpentine style with sweat and fast food cooking oil. Though I’ve never seen them myself, I’ve heard horror stories about how pitch black his feet are when he takes off his shoes.
It struck me one day that on top of the possibility that he simply can’t smell his own odor because he’s too accustomed to it, none of us want to tell him about it for fear of hurting his feelings — yet we’re all comfortable enough making fun of him about it behind his back, of course. And if he doesn’t know it himself and we don’t tell him, it may never show up on his mental radar at all. Like those that Vonnegut and Fallon were closest to, what is obvious to us about Gus he may be entirely blind to himself. This also may have very well have been the case with me and my horrible
hygiene back in the day.
I also understand how he might be able to push the occasional shaft of light illuminating the terrible truth back into the darkness of his mind, as I’d had a few cases of that myself. My pattern was to get offended or embarrassed by these revelations before promptly pushing them out of my mind.
At one point, I believe it was during high school, I got bothered by this thick, slimy film that had come to coat the upper portion of my tongue and my parents made an appointment. They gave me a prescription for drops to put on my tongue, and while the doctor never said what was wrong, he asked me if I brushed my tongue when I brushed my teeth. Well, I didn’t brush my teeth often and I had never brushed my tongue. He suggested I do do. Once I did, instant cure. Ever since, I’ve brushed my tongue.
It was either during or just after high school that I had become increasingly bothered by this black streak that began just below my chin and extended down my neck, to my Adam’s apple. When it didn’t go away, I feared it was a rash or mold or skin cancer and my parents finally relented and took me to the doctors. In the office, a hot nurse had come in to ask me several questions, one of which I distinctly remember referred to any sexual activities it might be engaging in. She then examined what she described as a “strange pigment.” Eventually, she took some rubbing alcohol and applied it to the area and discovered that in doing so she was smearing it, erasing it. Washing it off.
It was difficult to cover my shame. In the midst of drinking coffee some must have dribbled down my chin and neck. One of my father’s friends heard the story and for a time referred to me as “pigment boy.”
At one point when I had run out of money and had to move back in with my parents. I had only just gotten out of the car after they brought me home when mom started barking about how they were only letting me move back home with certain stipulations. Her trying to push a curfew on me despite the fact that I was going to be paying rent pissed me off enough, but when she added that I had shower, it hit me like a fist to the gut. I was so angry at her and ashamed of being gross that I can’t even remember how I responded.
One last embarrassing incident involved an attractive manager I was working with at the time. In the midst of the conversation, she said that if she were single she would go out with me — on the condition that I showered. I was very hurt and defensive about it.
She should have gone with Katie’s technique. It all changed with Katie. This was a beautiful California girl who had recently moved to Ohio. I had met her at work and by some stroke of luck she became my girlfriend for a short but intense stretch of time. After sex, we would take a shower together in the upstairs restroom, and I broke into the habit at once.
Ah, the power of conditioning.
Though I presently am not and never again wish to be as fixated on the external as I was for that brief period in middle school, I now regularly shower, gargle, and brush my tan teeth. I even shampoo my facial hair and my shaven, peach-fuzz scalp. My body has no lasting damage from my once-poor hygiene, but I cannot say the same regarding the years of neglect that has left me with my coffee-stained, not-so-pearly whites.
And next time I get a body, I’m planning on taking better care of that precious flesh-vessel from day fucking one.