Alfred Brown IV
I just moved.
New side of town.
This is one way I solve problems.
Monday last, in a show of genuine camaraderie that often affixes itself to move-in days, my new roommate, a friend of a friend of a colleague of a friend, offered me, amidst the endless predicament of half-emptied cardboard boxes and newspaper-wrapped dishware, an eight-ounce tube of recently purchased, scarcely used, but now decidedly unwanted cruelty-free body lotion.
"Here," she said, placing the thick tube into my palm. "Lotion."
The first few weeks spent in a new apartment with a new roommate are engulfed in just this sort of hazy cloud of reciprocal goodwill and overt thoughtfulness which, months later, seem like a regrettably short-lived oasis of communal harmony long since lost in a desert of un-vacuumed carpet, sauce-covered silverware, locked bedroom doors, and toilet paper hoarding. But in the infant romance of new roommatehood, there transpires an atmosphere of best-foot-forward that brings with it pizza dinners shared Indian-style on the laminate floor, and furniture assembly parties that last well into the night, a batch of gluten-free chocolate chip cookies popping the oven's cherry. Stubborn, clear packing tape is yanked off box after box, and haphazardly packed items are unplumbed like self-gifted Christmas presents from a week-old former self then covered in beads of receding hairline sweat, hurried by the bleat of an idling U-Haul's horn. Up from the depths of these boxes parade shoehorns, cracked compact discs, chopping blocks, a lifelike rubber replica of the Junkyard Dog, two broken surge protectors, a mostly-empty travel-sized box of Q-tips, one inherited lava lamp, and, inevitably, a steady stream of preemptive Trojan-horse olive branches meant to ameliorate future faux pas: upcycled tchotchkes passed from one new roommate to the other which take the form of superfluous hangers, still-in-box AM/FM clock radios, and eight-ounce tubes of cruelty-free body lotion, each item unwanted by its rightful owner, but deemed too pristine for the garbage bin, thus warmly gifted to the new roommate as though it were a treasure obviously more fitting of the other.
"Thanks," I said, admiring the heft of the tube as I jostled it in my hand.
"Smell it first," said my new roommate, sheepishly. She had once, I had been told, starred in a Soundgarden music video as a child. "You might not want it."
I popped the cap. Put my nostril up to the spigot and took a deep breath in through my nose.
"Thanks," I said again, smiling.
"You sure?" she said. "Don't feel obligated."
"Saves me a trip." I mock-toasted her with the tube.
These gifts, sweet-smelling or otherwise, are difficult to turn down. They are an integral element of the getting-to-know-you process, a firm handshake extended across the aisle of probational cohabitation, and demurring such offerings does little to create the type of warm-blooded rapport that is so helpful in easing the awkward woes of wall-sharing with a stranger. But the lotion did not, as my new roommate's apprehension might suggest, smell good. This was, of course, why she was gifting it to me. Had she worn it—lathered it onto her freckled skin and gone out into public—it may very well have had a detrimental effect on her oft-stated desire to find a mate worthy of reproduction. The lotion did not smell good, and, for that matter, it did not smell even alright. It smelled, more or less, bad. Like week-old yogurt, left at the bottom of a plastic bowl, tossed aimlessly into the sink, suffering from days of direct and catalytic sunlight, invisible microorganisms fucking themselves into aggressive wafts of odor. Valiantly, the tube of lotion did a wonderful job of masking its putrid contents. It was decorated with ferns and floral patterns, a bright yellow hibiscus curled around the lush white meat of a gracefully-split coconut. It suggested something regal and tropical all at once, like a Tahitian palace, and amongst other equally-impressive feats, the packaging declared that the product was food for healthy skin, a deeply nourishing, 100% natural, USDA-certified organic, sustainably made, vitamin-rich, fair trade, chemical-, concern-, and cruelty-free coconut and argan body lotion. I took another sniff, just to be sure, squeezing a bubble of the thick paste out through the hole. It was sweeter this time, but purposefully so, and behind the attempt at pleasantry, hiding, was a deeper, more sinister odor, like the thin veil of a lit match struck hopefully in a friend's fouled ½ bath.
"What's argan?" I asked as my roommate traversed the obstacle course back to her fledgling attempt at a bedroom.
"Argan." I tried a different pronunciation. "Argán?"
"Argan? I don't know. What's argan? Argán? Where's it say argán?"
I had never before heard of argan. Not once. In all of my life. Which, though not as long or illustrious a life as some, had certainly splayed itself out well enough to have included a thing like argan. Argán? Ärgan? Anyway. That it—argan, or argán, or whatever it was—along with my beloved coconut, a fruit I had long held in great admiration, was shouldering the vast brunt of this fancy lotion's reputation was enough to give me pause. To make me wonder. Had I missed something? Had I been looking the other way as argan strode sexily onto the scene of topical lotions? Had I heard of argan before—at work, at the dentist, in an in-flight magazine, perhaps—but since forgot what argan was? Was it possible that I had, in high school, read past argan in some chemistry book's caption? Some history book's index? Were wars fought over argan? Did argan run rampant on the black market? Had it infiltrated the Dark Web? Had I ever played argan during a heated summer Scrabble battle with my cousin Sascha at Lake Nacimiento? Was there some argan-oriented truth well-hidden in the deteriorating myelin sheaths of my synapses that, once recovered, would out argan as the culprit responsible for souring the lotion? (Coconut, of course, could not be to blame.) Where did argan come from? Was argan expensive? Who was responsible for producing argan? Had a collective of argan farmers hired a marketing team to slowly, but persistently, nudge argan further and further into the spotlight of human collective consciousness? Like chipotle peppers. Or chia seeds. Or quinoa. Or was argan something non-farmable? Was it stuck in a mine? Sliced off a tree? Dug up from the nutrient-rich dirt of a sub-equatorial mountain range?
What did it look like, raw?
Was it edible?
How did it smell?
My roommate belched. "I think argan's a root," she said, hollering over the hiss of our sink. I was becoming well-acquainted with her penchant for co-mingling conversations with her teeth-brushing routine. "Or a salt. Like a crystal or something."
I turned the tube over in my hand. Scanned the label for a hint. An elucidation. Nothing. Our advanced, non-greasy, argan-infused formula is clinically proven to deeply nourish and soften skin. Apply, it said, liberally. Do not ingest.
I was incredulous. As a child, I had been taught that a proper post-bathing technique should never let lotion sit idly by, unapplied. My skin had always erred on the dry side. But my forays into lotion purchase were utilitarian. My selections had always been influenced primarily by economic efficiency. Generic 30-ounce monsters could last more than a year and came in at half the price of the more botique-y varieties. And though I was by no means a diligent connoisseur of skincare products, I had spent enough time in the fluorescent aisles of many local pharmacies—waiting for my mother, waiting for my sister, waiting for my former girlfriends—to know, with decent certainty, that argan was not some integral component of the typical lotion formula. Lipids were important. Emulsifiers. Colloids. Aloes for sunburn. Oatmeal for chicken pox. Shea butters seemed popular for darker skin. And ubiquitous was a thing called soy lecithin, which I knew mainly because my sister was chronically allergic to it. People could get younger with lotions. Could reverse the signs of aging with lotions. Could restore their skin to its prime. Block out the sun. Smooth over wrinkles. Masturbate. And lotions were all the time reinventing themselves. Rebranding. Repackaging. Making bolder claims. Proffering new, exciting, seasonally-oriented odors. Peppermints for the winter. Key Lime for the summer. Lotions had begun to adhere to the surge of greater environmental accountability that had come to overtake all consumer goods, lump sum. Mom and pops made small-batch lotions the way their peers made ice creams, coffees, and ales. And there were storefronts, apothecaries, and mall carts all over the world dedicated to peddling lotions made with curious, illegal-esque ingredients: saffron, flake of obsidian, Thai black currant, Alaskan cod liver oil, placenta.
But argan was new. A new thing. Not just a thing I had never known to be incorporated into a list of cruelty-free lotion ingredients, but a thing I had never known. Period. A thing I had never imagined. Dreamed of. Cursed. Desired. Loved. Knew how to pronounce. Argan was familiar, in some sense, because it suffered from a close proximity to other words not argan. Argon, for one, which is, I believe (but do not know for sure) a noble gas. At some point in my life, knowledge of both argon and all of the noble gasses had been of utmost importance (a quiz in 8th grade science class, a question at a the Grunion's Bar and Grill trivia night with a free pitcher of beer up for grabs), but I would be hard-pressed now to profess certainty about either. Aragon is a region in Spain, which I knew not because I have been there, but because I had twice been assigned the chivalric Green Knight of the Aragonian Kingdom during awkward birthday gatherings at Medieval Times attempting that insufferable brand of tongue-in-cheek kitsch that so commonly afflicts the twenty-something. Argonaut seemed related. So, too, argyle, argue, arrogant. And persisted the possible linked etymology of o-words as well: organ, organic, orgullo, which an Aragon might use instead of arrogant. And yet, none of these are argan. None of these argans, exactly. I could not picture argan. I could not shut my eyelids and see it in the center of my mind's eye. I could not pick argan out of a police lineup or describe it for a sketch artist. And the offhanded, casual manner in which argan was presented by this gift-horsed lotion made me self-conscious. Made me fiercely aware of the narrow limits of my knowledge.
"Maybe it's a mineral?" I said.
My roommate was mid-gargle. "A what?"
"It sounds like a mineral." I said. "Like talc. Like gypsum."
"What's talc?" she said, spitting.
If I did not know about argan, I thought, what else was I in the dark about? What other argans were there skulking in the periphery of my comprehension? How many other argans were there that I would never slather onto my skin? How many other argans were there that I would never drag up through my nostrils? And what about other other argans? Other argans I'd fail, regrettably, to suck deep into my bronchial filagree or plunge down into the hollow of my veins? Were there other argans that I would never, say, mush teams of sledding dogs across? Other argans I'd never hitch a ride with? Other argans that I would never eskimo kiss, or flash-fry, or spelunk, or leave at an altar? What kind of argans might be lurking in outer space? Frozen stiff into a glacier's swollen heart? Lying dormant amidst my twist of genes? If this argan had gone so long without me ever once considering it, ever once being concerned with its existence, its ability to cruellessly, yet rancidly, replenish and rehydrate my body's largest organ, what other argans was I missing out on? In need of? Harboring? Neglecting? Before I split my lip in the Christmas tussle with my sister's husband's drunk father, mucoceles were an argan. And before my father fainted into a ball of immune deficiency on the floor of a San Franciscan convention center, C. diff was an argan—to him and to me. The walk-off I hit in the ninth grade had been an argan, and Uncle Zack offering me beer from a paper bag at the Put-Put when I was twelve was an argan, and that those Brownstones of "Mr. Brownstone" fame were located in the frozen tundra of Purdue University was an argan before Taylor Greenwood invited me to visit, and Sarah Rizenstein's bellybutton ring was an argan, and Lisa Glenbock's imbalanced breasts for at least those four months in Simi Valley before the catheter, and my from-the-package Topps Thurman Thomas rookie card, and wet dreams, and—at one point—the magic of double knots, and the pain of pink bellies, and Wet Willys, and Osgood-Schlatter, and the punchline of 52 Card Pickup, and the movie theater habits of PeeWee Herman, and the miracle of Crystal Clear Pepsi. Argans, all, broadly speaking, like the inverse root of a phantom limb. Argans lurch out at us, unexpectedly, some like bared teeth and some like the oxygen masks on plummeting 747. Mechanized flight was an argan, certainly. Nuclear physics, too. As were both hamburgers and french fries. The drive-thru. The Fosbury flop, the Heimlich maneuver, Hadrian's wall, Adam's apple, Pythagoras's theorem. Language was, at one point, many years ago, an argan. Fire. The taste of ripe citrus. Violence. Love, to a certain extent, sometimes. Or its end. Argans, all of them—argans, argàns, ärgans—at one point or another creeping just beyond our taste buds, our rods and cones, our goosepimples, our frontal lobes, hovering in the distance, biding their time, twiddling their thumbs, laughing, lying, in wait.
I placed the tube of lotion on the counter of our shared bathroom.
My roommate was agape, yanking floss between bicuspids.
She said something, but I could not understand her, and so she quit her flossing, closed her mouth, and tried again.
"Want me to look it up?" she asked.
I stared at her through the mirror.
"You brush first, then floss?" I said.
"Sometimes," she said. Flecks of plaque dappled her reflection in the mirror. "I've got a dictionary somewhere."
I bit my lip. Breathed through my nose. Flipped the cap on the lotion.
"No," I said. "Don't worry about it."
I put a rotten dab on my palm.
Smoothed it into the grooves of my hand.
Nourish Organic Body Lotion retails for $9.99 at finer Target retailers. It is "clinically proven to improve skin elasticity" and is one of that store's 69 items which feature Moroccan Argan Oil as a main ingredient. As advertised, Moroccan Argan Oil is packed with restorative omega fatty acids, and intensely hydrates and replenishes skin. In Morocco, argan oil, which is extracted from the kernels of the argan tree, is used as a dipping sauce for bread or as a sauce for couscous or pasta. [link]