The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
— Edgar, “King Lear” (1623 Folio), Act 5, Scene 3
It is the first Friday in December of my freshman year. My writing class has been invited to dinner at our professor’s Morningside Heights brownstone. There is a cute girl here I like. There is a tactless South African boy here I don’t like but who finds me funny. There is a lot of maneuvering through stilted conversation and heirloom furniture, and I am wondering how long it will be until I need to excuse myself to check the sweat stains on my underwear.
The girl I like is named Emily. She is blonde and petite. I am brown-haired and oversized. Pound for pound, I am nearly 2.5 Emilys. She and I pet a cat together, and for a second, I forget the difference between our respective gravitational fields. Then, I remember it has been three hours since I last bathed, two-and-a-half since I last applied deodorant and put on fresh jeans and only five minutes since I last inconspicuously patted the denim tucked into my ass crack. It was still dry.
Once the meal begins, I am forced into a hardwood chair. I feel a pool of moisture accumulating at the top of my ass where the cheeks meet, so I shift my weight to air out. The reading of our humor essays commences, I go first and people laugh — including Emily. Soon after, the South African boy I don’t like reads his essay. He is satirizing overweight Black Friday shoppers, and though he is not American, the obese are, and though I am not obese, my internist says that I will be. I feel consolidated into his bowling ball metaphor: Black Friday Shoppers are slabs of adipose tissue, all mindless momentum propelled only by the unwieldy kinesis of their own weight. I get up to go to the bathroom.
Examining the briefs around my ankles, I ponder the stain. It runs from the elastic band down into the supportive crotch fabric and has the approximate shape and shade of a Rorschach blot. Wafting up is my smell. Fecal matter mostly, dissolved in sweat, hot-pressed by flesh. It rises in my nostrils and gathers in my throat. I wait to gag but have lost any aversion to the flavor, my flavor. Distantly, I hear Emily reading her essay over the careful chewing of our classmates. I strain my ears to hear her but cannot, and I have already forgotten why it is I’m laughing.
Later on the train home, everyone is seated but me. I am standing, leaning on the automatic door, keeping my distance. Stamford, Bridgeport, Milford roll by. I pat the backside of my jeans — wet. I run my fingers under my nose as I peek at Emily’s bobbing reflection, and I wonder if she can smell me. When she dozes off, my gaze wanders, and I catch the South African boy I don’t like watching me. I eye his nostrils. Involuntarily, they begin to flare.
* * *
It is three months before the dinner, and I am sitting in the waiting room of a New Haven dermatologist’s third-floor office. The walls are painted a dull orange-beige-yellow. Not exactly piss, not exactly sunlight.
The doctor will see me now, and I discover he is only a resident. We share a silence, and then I tell him I have ass sweats. There is no other word for it — he agrees. I tell him that they started in the summer but now they are worse. People smell me before they see me. I bathe two or three times a day and, after lunch, return to my room to change into new underwear. I maybe smoke a little too much and eat a little too much and weigh a little too much, I admit — he asks how much I weigh. 235 pounds. He makes a face — I stop telling him things. He asks me to lie down, and, together, we brace ourselves for the part of this we are both unprepared for. I take off my pants.
Soon, he is looking into my ass. The heat is billowing up from my flesh like baked pavement with the exact scent of me. I wonder what that could possibly look like and then am glad I do not know. Twenty seconds pass, and he musters a conclusion. Looks … pretty normal. But definitely an above average amount of sweat.
* * *
It is any day of the week that fall, and I have just taken my morning shower. I lock the door to my bedroom and draw the curtains of my third-floor window. There has been no diagnosis for the ass sweats or their smell, only a medical advisement to drop the weight. On a cotton ball, I blot the consolatory zinc-aluminum-something-ide antiperspirant the dermatologist prescribed. One hand holds my ass open as the other blindly swabs the interior, trembling like a plow tilling rocky soil.
After, I toss the cotton balls into a steel-mesh trash can beside my bed, and finally, I fan dry my ass with the birthday card my grandmother sent me this past July. My whole body is half-prostrate, pitched over the chemistry psets on my desk. I try to correct my math, but it is too hard to concentrate: This is the time of day I am cleanest and driest and without an odor. I want to savor it. I inhale and hold my breath. If I can hold it for long enough, maybe the scent of right now will be metabolized into a memory, into something I might want, into something I might want to remember: burnt weed and laundry detergent; graphite and ink; antiseptic; shampoo; an autumn wind buffeting the curtains. And no trace of me. None at all.