Man Versus Water
With a B.A. in hand, passably attractive Leo McRae headed for a cosmetically-converted former tenement in the Village. Overjoyed with the prospect of making it in the city in which making it is a prerequisite for residency, Leo had overlooked a trivial detail. He had no idea what he would like to make, let alone a clue as to how to go about making it. Undaunted, Leo donned his gray Bargain Warehouse graduation suit and looked to Downtown.
A former roommate's older cousin's friend had passed Leo's resume on to Grover & Harp, the sexiest brokerage house in town. A few days later, a Ms. Lucinda Jones phoned him with the offer of an interview.
While sitting in Ms. Jones' brushed-steel and white leather waiting room, Leo felt nauseous with anticipation, yes, but more importantly he felt his future beginning. In those scant moments, Leo knew, just knew, that his life was about to change forever. He was home. The careful, cold office, the secretaries in their fuck-me heels clip-clopping their way from desk to copy machine to phone, the Rolex watches clamped to the wrist of every be-suited man. All of it. It was enough to make him gush.
Which, when he felt the cold trickle working its way through the privacy of his groin, is what he thought had happened. "Did I cum?" he wondered, terrified. He was hard. No doubt about it. But usually he was fairly aware of whether he was pre-orgasm or post-. Confused as to what was going on in his own crotch, Leo was ill-prepared when twenty-four-year-old, pretty Ms. Jones emerged, hand extended, from the inner sanctum of the House of Money.
"You must be Leo. Sorry to keep you waiting. Please come right this way."
As he rose to meet Ms. Jones, rose to what five minutes earlier he had been sure was his future, Leo figured out what the problem was. He was absolutely, noticeably, sopping wet. Everywhere. Every nook and cranny of his body. Moist. Somehow, sitting on that couch, lulled by the promise of promise, he had failed to notice that something was going on with his glandular system.
There was no hiding it. He was sweaty. Leo noticed Ms. Jones trying to overlook the damp bullseye that framed his crotch and thighs. Determined still, he plunged ahead with every intention of ignoring the rising cesspools in his armpits, pretending there was nothing going on.
But, when Leo reached out to shake Ms. Jones' hand, a stream of salty spray flew off his palm and onto the just-waxed upper lip of his interviewer. With the sting of salt on her raw skin, Ms. Jones let out a small yelp, folded her eyebrows and barked, "Is something wrong with you?"
Mortified to an inconceivable degree, Leo bumbled, "Sorry. Yes. I think. I'm sick? I dunno. I have to go home." And as he reached back to retrieve his for-show-only briefcase, both he and Jones simultaneously gasped at the sight of the dark, threatening ass print on the fine white leather sofa.
Leo went home and curled himself up in bed, hoping to forget the whole, wet episode. But when the new day rose and he was still churning out enough liquid so as to serve as the headwaters of the St. Lawrence, he got himself to a doctor. Stat.
Diaphoresis. Hyperhydrosis. Excessive Perspiration. It is a condition of no known etiology; why it starts or where it comes from is a mystery. But Leo had it. Big time. And thus began his tango with the healthcare system. From internist to dermatologist to endocrinologist. And at the end of each day, as Leo slid off the rubber sheet atop his now befouled mattress, he grew more and more certain that he was destined to a future that was...unacceptable.
His mother's reaction, as always, was, "Come home. We'll take you to Doctor Schwartz."
"Ma. Doctor Schwartz is a pediatrician. And I'm not going back to Boston no matter how many times you ask." And he hung up the phone. He saw no reason to comfort her when he was the one suffering. His brother, the stupid lawyer. His father. His mother. They all meant well. All cared. And were all completely fucking annoying.
Treatments for hyperhydrosis? There are treatments. And Leo tried them all. First came the tests—the scans, the examinations, then the needles and the probes—all to make sure there was nothing seriously wrong.
"Seriously wrong?!" Leo screamed at Dr. Magawani, who at all of five feet four inches with a brown, deeply-lined face and an aura of serenity, reminded him not so much of a medical professional but of some late-night, infomercial yogi. "Of course there's something seriously wrong. I can't get dry. I can't go out. I scare children on the subway. All of my clothes have rotted. I can't find work. There's something seriously wrong!"
And after the tests concluded there was nothing particularly, physically wrong, no thyroid condition, no diabetes, no abscesses lurking in his nether regions, no hormonal changes. Nothing. Dr. Magawani began treatment.
First came aluminum tetrachloride. A sort of super-antiperspirant that Leo had to rub all over his body. It left a white residue that turned his skin to scales and which, as he sweated through it, stained his clothes, his couch and his towels a particularly unstylish fluorescent yellow. Next was aluminum chloride hexahydrate. An even more powerful antiperspirant, which bit Leo's skin into enormous welts upon application. And there were scads and scads of pills, all of which left his mouth a desert and his urethra completely unable to operate.
Work was impossible to find. Any white-collar job was out—potential employers pegged him for a crazy the second he sloshed through the door. And blue-collar jobs, well, he had thought of everything. Food service industry was, for sanitary reasons, out. He landed a job as a telemarketer, but after short-circuiting the telephone wires on his second day, he was fired. And so on and so on until Leo found himself and his new college diploma moving from his converted tenement in the Village to an unconverted tenement in an old world section of Brooklyn.
Magawani kindly cleared some papers from atop a plastic folding chair and directed Leo away from the couch. He then creaked his bones into a chair opposite. "How are you, Leo?"
Leo shivered from the intense, damp cold pricking its way along his spine. Magawani motioned to a wool blanket under his desk, and Leo promptly, thankfully, wrapped himself in it. "What's next? What treatment? Nothing's worked."
Magawani let out another long sigh. "There are other options..." Magawani touched his index finger to a straggly, gray hair protruding from his nostril. "But we should...hmmm."
Magawani shifted in his seat. "How are you supporting yourself, Leo?"
"I'm not. I use. I have credit cards. And, and I,..." he paused to clear some moisture from his lips. "...my parents give me a little but their store is in, is bad and I go grocery shopping for an old lady down the hall and she cooks me some food so I eat and..." So grateful was Leo to be talking to another human being that he didn't notice Magawani reach across his desk for a stack of papers. "...and my brother gave me some old clothes because mine are ruined and so I guess, I dunno, I eat and I, um, have clothes, so..."
Magawani smiled. He stood up, pulled a ziplock bag out of his desk drawer, and slipped the papers into it. Then he faced his young charge. "It is time to get aggressive, son." He handed the plastic shrouded papers to Leo.
"Good. Yes. Let's get aggressive!"
"These papers. Take them to the social security office. We've got to get you on disability."
Magawani laid it on the line. "You are a disabled adult. Hyperhydrosis is a medical condition. It is a functionally and socially disabling problem that is causing, in you, Leo, severe psychological, medical and occupational difficulties. That means, by the standards of our social security system, that you are a disabled adult."
With visions of wheelchairs and handicapped parking spaces dancing in his head, Leo began to cry.
Magawani, handing him a tissue, cooed, "No. No. It's a good thing. Disability. For you."
A violent stream of tears and perspiration and phlegm and saliva choked at Leo as he croaked, "Why? Is it? Good?"
"Because we are going to get aggressive. And aggressive costs money." A somewhat alarmingly eager smile took hold of Magawani's face as he considered the possibilities—of publication, of fame—that this most unusual of cases presented. "But Medicare," he poked at his nose hairs, "Medicare, in your case, will cover aggressive."
Aggressive, Magawani suggested, meant treating the problem, the sweating, holistically. "Body and mind, Leo. Body and mind." And so, as a card-carrying disabled person, Leo went home to Brooklyn, to the hallways reeking of onions and death, and he got aggressive.
There are many theories as to the root cause of hyperhydrosis. As Leo's case was of indeterminate origin, Magawani opted to attack from every available angle simultaneously. He began with Over Stimulation, Emotional. And so Leo gave up watching his beloved pornography, which had dutifully kept him company during these lonely months. He swore off sporting events, movies. And talking to his family. He ignored the messages that his friends left. He turned off the DSL. He cancelled his newspaper subscription. He shunned everything that might give rise to an emotion.
Next on Magawani's list was Over Stimulation, Physical. Medicare bought him a large motorized scooter, a Swifty it was called, so that he wouldn't have the exertion of walking. Leo cut out caffeine and sugar, but soon did away with all solid foods because what if it was the effort of digestion that was causing the stinking, sodden problem? A team of experts was brought in to his apartment to hermetically seal the windows against pollutants, to purify the air against allergens, and to guarantee the thermostat would maintain a perfect, un-stimulating sixty-eight degrees.
After two months, Leo found himself unstimulated, yes, but he was also now an isolated, depressed, insomniac with gastric upset and a distinct lack of muscle tone. And still, the sweat came with ferocity. From his hands, his face, his armpits, his crotch, his stomach, his ass, his feet.
Magawani suggested a perspiration journal, whereby Leo would write down the details of every drop of sweat. What was he thinking when he sweated? What did the sweat feel like? What time of day was it? What had he done immediately before? Immediately after? For how long did he sweat? Leo was exacting. He found that he was articulate in ways he had never been before. He described each molecule of moisture with such care, such accuracy, such vividness. If it crossed his consciousness and it had to do with sweat, Leo wrote it down.
Finally, Magawani implemented Treatment, Medical. Round-the-clock medical attention. A home health aide moved in with Leo. Bea was a large woman from St. Johns, and in this, her thirty-eighth year, she had immigrated to New York in hopes of escaping the noisy hands of her husband Earl. She required little from her employ with Leo. A thin cot in the living room, a small stipend for food, and quiet. Lots of it. Leo's unexcitable, medically dictated mausoleum suited Bea fine.
And Leo, well, Leo was thrilled to have Bea's company. To hear her fixing food, humming softly to herself, peeing. All of it let Leo know that there was another human being in his presence. And Bea seemed to take no mind of the moisture that she was forced to sop up several times each day from his bed, his floor, his body. It was nothing for her, a little sweat.
Magawani had instructed that Leo be hooked up to an iv tube so that fluids and electrolytes could be continually administered. The doctor surmised, rightly so, that the months of perspiration, treatment, and subsequent dehydration were wreaking havoc on Leo's organs. If he was going to be a sweaty mess, Leo might as well be a properly hydrated, sweaty mess.
The good doctor also prescribed iontophoresis, electrical therapy. "No, not for your mind," Magawani assured over the phone, "for your glands."
And so every day Bea would fill the bathtub with water. Then, and this was his favorite part, Leo would take off his clothes and she would attach electrodes to him wherever a sweat gland might lurk. The brush of her fingers against his skin, the touch, the touch of a person, a woman, it was lusciously, wholly erotic. And in his monk-like state, it was enough inspiration to keep Leo happy for a good twenty-four hours, until he got to do it all over again.
After Bea had attached the electrodes, to his feet, his hands, his chest, his genitals, his face, Leo would get in the bathtub. Bea would hook the electrodes up to a special generator, loaned by a Medicare subcontractor, and a current of twenty milliamps would rip through his body. In theory, after a week of this treatment, Leo's eccrine glands should have been fried into paralysis for at least a month.
Leo got out of the bathtub after the final treatment and did what for the previous six months had been nearly impossible. He dried himself off. He held his breath as he padded through the apartment, a trip that previously would have caused rivulets of funk to trail behind him. But, when he got to his bedroom, nothing. Bone dry.
Slowly, Leo stood in front of his full-length mirror, letting the towel fall from around his hips. Red kisses shone from the areas to which the electrodes had been applied. He stared at his naked self, waiting, barely breathing, not daring to move. Finally after a full fifteen minutes of dryness had passed, he sank to his knees. A moan, the likes of which Leo had never created, the likes of which Bea had only heard emitted from the caribou that roamed her island, that kind of moan made its way out of Leo.
Bea rushed in. "What's the matter with you?" She covered him in the towel.
Leo, who had made it a point to be stoic around Bea, as any good employer should, leaned into her bosom and let the tears flow.
She let him, for a moment, weep for himself. But just for a moment. "Stop it. Stop it now. All you want is to be dry and here you go and make yourself wet of your own choosing."
He sniffled to a stop, using the towel to dry his face. Then he began to giggle. He sprang up and danced nakedly, wildly around the room. Bea, who had never seen any good come from happily bouncing male genitalia, heaved to her feet and left the bedroom to prepare lunch.
Flush with excitement, and still bone dry, Leo threw open the doors of his closet. He had one outfit, one good outfit left. It was just a pair of jeans and a beige sweater, nothing special to the uninitiated, but to Leo they were an important set. The clothes he had been wearing when he first banged Sandy Rivash his sophomore year of college. It was not that he had been a virgin. Hell, no. He had taken care of that on a picnic table at Wachusett Mountain the winter he was sixteen. Sandy Rivash was the girl who had shown him what sex could be. That it could be more than a means to an end, that the whole damn thing, the negotiating, the coaxing, the stroking, all of it could be downright fun.
Leo stepped into the Sandy Rivash outfit and checked himself out in the mirror. He had lost a bit of weight, but looking at himself in that mirror, dry as leather, he knew he still had it. He sauntered out to the living room and proudly pranced around, waiting for a compliment from Bea. When none came, he flopped onto the couch, and for the first time in months, turned on the tv.
Moments later, with a bowl of room temperature soup that sang with the flavor of the Indies and—luck of all lucks—a Red Sox game on the tube, Leo found himself happier than he had been since leaving college. So happy in fact that he decided to call his parents.
He dropped his bowl in the sink, grabbed the cordless phone, sat back down on the couch, and was about to dial when something, some look on Bea's face made him stop. "What?"
"Nothing." She gathered up the folds of her stomach and went into the kitchen.
Then, Leo felt it. The tiny bead of disaster moving down his forehead.
Dr. Magawani closed the cover on Leo's perspiration journal and wrapped it in its plastic sleeve. "You're a beautiful writer. I've never seen a perspiration journal with such panache."
"Unfortunately, Leo..." and here Magawani paused. He had come to think of Leo as more than another in a long line of wet patients; he saw him as something approximating a son. So he was reluctant to say the next words, the words he knew would end the relationship.
Leo felt the finger of despair in his throat.
"Leo, my friend, I have nothing more to offer you."
"But what am I supposed to do? Just, just live like this?" Leo had spent the past year as a recluse. Save Bea, his only social venture consisted of his once a month visit to this, Dr. Magawani's sterile office. A paper smock and this kindly, old, useless, Indian were the excitements around which Leo planned his life.
"Well, Leo," the old man sighed, "you perspire when you're active, you perspire when you're inactive. You perspire when you're amongst society, you perspire when you're isolated. Stimulation or not, you sweat. Medicated, treated, you...phhht..." He trailed off in a shrug of hopelessness.
"There's nothing else? To try?"
"Oh, Leo, Leo..."
Magawani, afraid of the riot raging in Leo's eyes, felt compelled to continue, "This may not be the life you had planned for yourself. But it can still be a good one, my friend."
Leo felt the floor slip beneath his bare feet. He stepped into his underpants.
Magawani placed a kind hand on his shoulder. "You can choose to be happy."
Leo grabbed his journal off Magawani's desk and looked the old Indian dead in the eye, "What the fuck are you talking about?"
And. He left.
Leo spent the next hours suspended in an aspic of rage. On the subway he sat alone, toward the front end of the car. The only person joining him in his section was a filthy heap of a homeless man, who was presently occupied fighting the demons in his sleep. The other passengers, having mentally grouped dank Leo and this homeless man in the collective category of Wacko, were sticking well to the other end of the car.
Suddenly, one of his senses kicked in; his sense of smell, to be specific. An earthly, rotting, humanly odor crept up his nostrils and permeated his shroud of self-examination. He looked around for the source of this otherworldly stink, this stench of all stenches. And he watched as the smell washed over his fellow passengers, as they frantically grasped for scarves, collars, anything to block this offensive reek from their sensitive shnozzes.
That's when Leo noticed it: The dark, damp stain oozing its way across the sleeping buttocks of the pants worn by the homeless man. At first, so conscious of dark stains himself, Leo wondered if he had found a kindred spirit, a fellow perspirer. Then he connected this stain, more viscous than his own, to the stench. It could only be one thing: diarrhea.
Leo tucked the perspiration journal under his arm, stood up, and began moving toward the other passengers, away from the source. But as he approached, a teenage Dominican girl cradling a mewling infant inched away from him. From Leo! As if he was the culprit! Why, because he was fervently, unabashedly sweating? Therefore he was equivalent to a public-diarrhea-maker? With growing ire, Leo moved past the girl and on toward the center of the car.
Leo soon found his path blocked by a burly, uniformed man. Maybe forty, wearing a jumpsuit across which Department of Sanitation was emblazoned, this man clearly knew a bad odor when he smelled one. "Hey, buddy, give us a break. Go take a shower." The crowd snickered.
It was then that Leo's mother spoke to him. Try as he might, Leo often wrestled with her nagging, berating admonishments as they careened, without warning, from the crevices of his brain. Here, standing in this permeating stink, with this insult being levied upon him by a garbage man, Leo heard his mother chide, "Do the right thing, Leo."
Leo knew the right thing at this moment would be to kindly explain to the sanitation worker that no, the odor was not coming from him, but rather from the poor, pitiable homeless gentleman in the corner. Then, his mother suggested, Leo should awaken the homeless man and try to lend him some assistance. Get him to a shelter, a social service group. Cook him some soup.
Instead, Leo decked the guy, the garbage man. Square in his meaty jaw. Knocked him flat on his ass. The subway doors opened; Leo hopped out onto the platform.
It was then that Leo decided to become a dick.
They wouldn't hire him because he was sweaty? Fuck them. They wouldn't talk to him because he was wet? Fuck them. They wouldn't look at him? Be near him? Fuck him? Fuck them. When Leo emerged from that diarrhea-laden train, he emerged with a clear directive: fuck everyone.
If Bea had learned anything from her days in St. John, it was this: whenever a man sports a charming, new attitude, it's time to hit the road. By the end of the day she was packed. Her meager possessions tucked snuggly into her red Marlboro duffle bag, Bea faced her employer one last time. She scrutinized his scrawny shoulders, his moist clothing, and she sniffed, "Don't try too hard at being a man. Okay?"
"Okay," promised Leo, having no idea what her dictate meant.
"Okay, then. Bye." And with a sloppy pat on the shoulder, she was gone.
In the now empty apartment, Leo's ego deflated slightly. How could he be a dick when there was no one to be a dick to? Then it struck him: he didn't have to stay at home anymore. He could go out and about, disgusting the populace at will.
Leo walked the unfamiliar streets of his neighborhood, kicking over trashcans every few blocks to prove that he didn't give a shit about the world. He imagined that years from now, he would be one of those odd locals to whom children give mean names. Old Salty. The Sheepshead Shweater. Wet Willy. Mister Slick.
As he turned onto Emmons Avenue, several blocks from his apartment, he found himself staring at the neon sign of a shabby beauty parlor. In retrospect, it would be nice, convenient even, to say that bells went off in his head or that he heard archangels singing. That the arms of the Almighty reached out and took him by the shoulders and telepathically showed him the golden road to Nirvana. But in reality, it was simple. Leo got an idea.
He walked into the shop. There, Tatyana, a nubile, Clairol- #9-blond Moldovan, laid him down on a table in the back and proceeded to slather sticky sweet wax on his chest. With quick precision, she tore at his hair, willing it, demanding it to be gone. Moments later, he peered down at his shiny slick body.
The hair on his chest had been irritating. When mixed with the constant dripping, it rubbed against his skin, causing abrasions and tearing at every shirt he wore. He had thought, merely, of comfort when he had asked Tatyana to do away with it. But he realized now, with this Moldovan fireball staring at his exposed nipples, that a clean, moist chest could be a very sexy thing indeed. And, apparently, from the glimmer in her icy blue Eastern bloc eyes, Tatyana agreed.
Moments later, as he plunged himself into Tatyana for what must have been his fiftieth thrust, Leo became aware of a valuable point: Perspiration is an excellent lubricant. In fact, with his body damp with excitement from head to toe, he found himself sliding along Tatyana's curves with a strain of erotic exactitude that he had never before possessed. The benchmark of Sandy Rivash was no more.
When he was finished, Tatyana quietly oozed out from under him and requested the $15 for the waxing. He complied, adding on a generous tip. Then, with her back turned so that he could pull up his pants with some modesty, she whispered with a voice full of wonderment, "The hair vill grow fast. You vill have to return soon."
As Leo stepped out of the salon, the cold air ripped through his clothes and danced across his bare skin. Relaxed, confident in spite of the fact that an icicle was forming from his earlobe, Leo assessed the amazing Tatyana and the succulent lay she had just given him. He yearned to turn around and run back into her salon and do it all again. Except this time he would ask her questions about Moldova and about the moon-shaped scar on her shoulder. But he knew that if he were to do just that, he would not be a dick. And Leo had resolved to be a dick. He would play it cool.
So each week Leo made his way to Tatyana's Salon, where she proceeded to yank the hair out of every inch of his body, saving for a small, sculpted tuft on his crotch and two wispy patches in his armpits.
When she was finished, he would fuck her. Then, pay her. Then, without saying a word, he would leave. Leo got to be a dick; he felt better about himself.
And every week, she accepted the money, for the waxing.
Until thirteen weeks later, post coitus, both naked, both glistening in the sweat of a man in love, she decided she would no longer take his money.
Leo sat up. No, it was not the future he had imagined. But he realized, as the clouds of fur settled on the linoleum, that he now had several paths before him.
A recluse. A weirdo. A dick. Or, a Moldovan's lover.
He had choices, options. And really, knowing that he was in control, that the future was his for the taking. That was all Leo ever really needed.
And so Leo decided he would have it all. He would be a dick and a lover and sometimes a weirdo. He dressed quickly and opened the door. As an Arctic chill swept through the salon, he insistently pressed the money into her palm and, in spite of the genuine love he felt for her, made no promise to return (though they both knew he would).
He headed out into the cool winter night. He would buy pornography. He would eat a curry. And he would delight in the choices before him.