Sunday, 18 September 2011

Straight from the Chest: Is Your Lover Bad Medicine?

Last winter, a friend of ours used our place as a crash pad for a few weeks while he attempted to iron out difficulties with his girlfriend. It was an unusual experience – for him as well as for us, I should imagine; there is something rather Gen-X about getting jilted the week before Christmas and being tossed out on your ass with nothing but some clothes and your computer, and at our age (early 40s) our Gen-X years are well behind us. In any case, our friend – let’s call him Brett – didn’t stay with us long; negotiations with the girlfriend failed abysmally and Brett decided to surf from our spare room to his mother’s sofa while contemplating his next move. For the record, we were sorry to see him go; unlike most Gen-Xers we had known in our earlier years, Brett was the ideal roommate, often cooking dinner for us or taking the initiative to shovel the driveway if he arrived home before we did. Furthermore, he was very likeable and we enjoyed having him around. Clearly that girlfriend had no idea what a gem she was throwing away, and I felt very badly for him. During his stay with us, Brett tried to be as unobtrusive as possible: he slept on an air mattress in our spare room, set up a makeshift computer station at one end of our couch, and stored most of his personal effects and toiletries in our little-used basement shower nook.

Not long after his departure, I went downstairs to clean the shower stall and found that Brett had left behind several toiletry items that he had either forgotten to take with him or had decided were easier to replace than pack up. Among these items were soap, toothpaste, and several hair and body care products. Looking them over, I was struck with even stronger feelings of sympathy for Brett than I’d had previously; the abandoned articles somehow made me feel extremely sorry for him, and it wasn’t too hard to see why. Brett’s toothpaste was designed for sensitive teeth (he had painful dental problems he couldn’t afford to fix); his hair products were all branded as ‘gentle,’ which no doubt reflected his often-mentioned desire to keep his receding hairline at bay; the blurb on his bottle of body wash promised to promote and maintain elasticity of the skin and his moisturizer had firming and anti-aging properties. I certainly see nothing wrong with men buying and using these products, of course, but in this particular situation it all seemed especially depressing to me. Each item screamed vulnerability, insecurity, or flat-out fear: the fear of a 40-something man who, in addition to the already-intimidating prospects of middle age, is also dealing with emotional and financial loss.

Behind these depressing feelings, however, was a nagging sensation of déjà vu that I couldn’t shake off. What was resonating with me so vividly about pawing through Brett’s cosmetic products? It was while I was storing those leftover toiletries in the bathroom upstairs that I finally resolved it: back in my own Gen-X/post Gen-X days, I was a relentless and unrepentant bathroom snooper.

In those days – we’ll call them my dating days, which covered the ages of about 28 to 34 as I was a really late bloomer – I had a tendency to avoid getting too “friendly,” shall we say, with anyone who actually lived in my city. I never quite shook off the small-town horror of having everyone who knew you know everything about you; this is never more uncomfortable than in situations where relationships go bad and the entire community gets to discuss it. In addition to this factor, I spent most of my adult life alone – I liked living in my own space and was reluctant to share it with roommates, pets, relatives or even short-term visitors – so having distance relationships was a nice way to balance out a love life with my hunger to maintain my own space. The difficulty with that type of situation, however, was that I generally had very little background information on my romantic partners other than what they told me themselves: the usual conduits of mutual friends or business associates were limited or non-existent. The Internet, too, was not the invasive beast that it is today where you can Google boyfriends present, past and future and learn all kinds of fun or disturbing facts about someone before you even agree to meet up at Starbucks for an overpriced hot beverage; and, in any case, I had no computer back then (now I have three…what the hell???) so that avenue was also a dead end for me.

There is a female character in one of Ira Levin’s novels who has a small, well-appointed apartment to which no male visitor has ever been invited; however, she dreams of the day she will meet Mr. Right and allow him to come into her abode. Once a week she cleans her apartment meticulously, spending most of her time dusting and arranging the books on her shelves because she feels that books are the most accurate index of ones personality, and that when someday Mr. Right walks in and looks at her bookshelf, all her best qualities will be on display. I fully agree with this character’s assessment, and would like to add that if you want an accurate index of someone’s insecurities, you can bypass their diary, their shrink, or their mother and head straight for their bathroom cabinets.

 I don’t recall when I formulated this theory, although it may have started when I witnessed a friend of mine surreptitiously flipping through the wallet of a new male acquaintance when he left the room for a few moments. “Oooh, a gold AMEX card,” she said approvingly. I personally felt that was a little out of line – admittedly it was a good way for her to get some kind of a bead on what this guy’s financial situation was like: gold AMEX equals good credit equals reliability, dependability, and so on; however, any guy will likely grossly misunderstand your motives if he happens to catch you at it. I did, however, wonder if she was on to something, and at some point in my considerations I came to realize that it would be more valuable to know what someone’s weak points were than what their strong points were. After all, it’s natural to have a good reaction to someone with gold AMEX status, but what if he also has prescriptions for anti-psychotic medication and scrotal itch ointment? You see my reasoning.

Thus began my forays into the shower caddies, vanity cupboards, and yes, even the medicine chests of my potential romantic partners. As I noted earlier, these were usually people who were in town either for the short term or sporadically, so sometimes I had to raid travel cases or shaving kits in search of valuable clues to their inner selves. I regarded this as nothing less than self-preservation. Not only could I avoid serious potential hazards (such as psychotic episodes or contagious rashes), I could also arm myself with useful tools with which to navigate the relationship. For example: gentle hair treatment products equal anxiety about thinning hair, whether or not any hair loss is actually evident. Strategy: compliment partner’s hair regardless of what it looks like, and try to work in subtle references to hairless celebrities you find attractive. Another example: acne treatment products equal anxiety about complexion, whether or not any skin problems are actually evident. Strategy: ignore any breakouts if and when they erupt; or, if he is actually comfortable enough around you to moan about a stray zit on his chin, bolster his confidence by saying how lucky he is that his skin is so youthful at his age. Results: partner feels at ease around you and better about himself; eventually, he will come to equate these feelings directly with your presence and will want to spend more such enjoyable moments in your zone. Of course, if you are so shallow that a receding hairline or some zits would put you off a potential partner, you can abandon ship at this point and leave the poor fellow free to seek less particular company.

These efforts steered me well during the dating years, and on more than one occasion I thought morosely how my rare experiences prior to employing the bathroom search method – which were unilaterally disastrous – could have been avoided if I had been using this strategy all along. (One memorable example from my past was the hopeless specimen who had a long twig hidden behind the toilet cistern, which I eventually learned was used to get rid of unexpected clogs; his bathroom cupboards, which I unfortunately didn’t examine until after I moved in, contained absolutely nothing – a portent more dire than the most disturbing medications could ever have been.) I confided my snooping strategy to a friend at one point, and she was completely horrified. “People put that stuff behind a door for a reason!” she exclaimed. “Yes, exactly!” I agreed, pleased that she had caught on so well. Call it product research, if you will: occasionally I would taste-test a new brand of mouthwash or sniff an unfamiliar aftershave to determine whether I should encourage someone to use it around me more often.

I even let a couple of my dates know that I had been scoping their Scope and poking through their pills. On one occasion, I had met an intern who was in town for a few months, and we were about to execute the third movement of the dating minuet (the preceding movements being First Date, followed at some point by First Meal at My Place). The third movement is known as First Visit to the Guy’s Place, and it was during this phase that I would typically find weak spots and potential hazards. My experiences with this fellow up to this point had been satisfactory to an almost unbelievable extreme: he was articulate, amusing, cultured, handsome, fun-loving and courteous; he phoned at least twice a day, and brought soup and juice to my place when I came down with a cold a few days after we’d met. In my experience this was literally too good to be true and I was waiting for the demon to emerge and declare itself. No doubt he would have dismal decorating sense, or a closet full of sexual torture devices, or an incontinent pet ferret. As soon as I walked through his apartment door, however, I was impressed. Either he had cleaned like a fanatic prior to my arrival or he was fanatically clean all the time, and I was determined to find out which. As he led me through the apartment, which was simply yet elegantly maintained, I said many honest and complimentary things; inside, however, I was becoming almost irritated at how precise and perfect everything was and I became determined to undo this flawless façade as soon as I had the chance to dive into the cupboard under his bathroom sink.

We had been sipping an excellent wine and talking on his designer sofa for just a few minutes when I excused myself to use the facilities. Under cover of flushing and running water, I carefully tossed the small premises: the cabinet under the sink contained only cleaning products and rolls of bathroom tissue; a black leather shaving kit on the shelf contained only razors, hairbrush, toothbrush and clippers (all immaculate and matching); and finally, the mirrored medicine chest opened up to reveal a small bottle of mouthwash (wintergreen, my favourite), a tube of toothpaste (also wintergreen – no problems there), another hairbrush (possibly indicative of a vain preoccupation with hair but, as his hair was stunning, justified in his case), and a bottle of men’s cologne (Hemisphere – a scent that, to this day, I identify with elegance, stolen moments, and a delight underpinned with the tension that accompanies something fragile and temporary). To the last detail, the room was spotless, well organized, and – as befits someone who has a permanent residence elsewhere – ready to pack up and go at a moment’s notice. More importantly, it was devoid of secrets: as a pedigree, this bathroom was blue ribbon but as a reconnaissance mission it was a total failure. I marched out to the living room to confront him.

He looked up as I entered. “You know where every single thing is in this place, don’t you!” I said accusingly. He was quick to defend himself. “I’m not gay! I’m just really well-organized,” he said. He hesitated a little before adding, “I think I forgot to flush. Does that help?” I kicked myself silently for not noticing. “Yes, and yes,” I lied, before loftily walking into the kitchen to stick my head in the freezer for a few calming minutes.

Today I share a home with someone who actually lives in the same town as I do (although he moved 1000 miles to do so). We have two bathrooms and all the cabinets are full, partly with my stuff but a lot of it’s his… guys can be even girlier than girls, much of the time, as I discovered when I traveled 1000 miles to visit his house for a forensic analysis of his bathroom’s contents. And what happens when I apply the bathroom psychoanalysis method to myself? If our bathroom cabinets at home are any indication, my id is a Pandora’s Box of 40-something insecurities and failing vitality: ointments and sprays to treat unmentionable conditions vie for space with firming masques, eye-bag bleach, Robaxacet and heating pads. In brief, if I were in the dating scene today, I know I’d still be sniffing through medicine chests and raiding shaving kits…but not before purchasing a lock and key for my own. 

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