Tea tree oil: the more nuanced alternative to patchouli. I actually hadn’t realized patchouli was patchouli until my mid-twenties. I was outdoors with my date and a person walked by, to which I excitedly whispered to my friend, “that person smelled like Stinkor!” This wasn’t an insult. I loved Stinkor, the muscular, orange-armored, skunk man from He-Man action figures of the early 80’s. He had been gifted upon me when I was around four, and I lost my marbles over that guy. Apparently Mattel™ made sure his stink drove away moths and ensued as the villainous pied piper of hippies. My lover of the moment, who loved me in the most blasé but charming of ways, drank me in and responded, “You’re the second person I’ve ever met that has said that.”
Several months and a couple lovers later I sit in my apartment, which isn’t really an apartment but a duplex. The entire top part of an old converted farm-styled house in Seattle’s Central District. It was in this magical space I housed the wayward people that would enter and exit my life. Some terrible entitled shits, some that tangled up my guts and made me want to listen to Edith Piaf, drink wine, and weep with laughter until sleep was the only option. Sometimes a former lover who sought refuge from a wilted and painful relationship.
So there she sits, my ex –love, one of my most beloved friends, seeking and finding sanctuary in my home for a couple weeks. She suspects her boyfriend of a serious alcohol problem and needs some space to reflect. Sobbing and rubbing tea tree oil over her long limbs as she verbally pours her emotional hurt out to me and my, lingering awkwardly in the background, current boyfriend. Tea tree oil began to stink up the small abode, which when applied in modest quantities can be wonderfully aromatic, yet heavy, decadent smears of the stuff rubbed over a 5’8 stretch of human body proved a bit much. It permeated the entire 550 square feet of space, masking the cigarette smoke with a naturopathic clinic scent. It’s pretty good for about ten minutes and then windows need to be opened, February or not. A part of me longs for Stinkor…
She didn’t know where it came from, but prior to the temporary leave of her relationship, her and her boyfriend had contracted scabies. Scabies…the microscopic parasites that live just beneath your skin, pooping and snacking away, burrowing to the warm spots. Their poop is what makes you itch, and when you itch you scab, thus scabies. Fascinating creatures, just fascinating.
Now enter the tea tree oil, which indeed does soothe the itching, but it does not, repeat, does not kill the parasites. Her naturopath misinformed her that tea tree oil cures scabies, adding that perhaps her itching was her “itching to get out of” her current relationship. The itching…the red bumps…I wavered between sympathy and horror. My awkwardly set back boyfriend livened up, remembering his past experience with scabies. His doctor had been a friend as well as naturopath, which is where he derived the golden knowledge that the only way to rid oneself of scabies was through a heavily chemical-filled paste you applied over every inch of your body, an antidote called Permethrin. Sprayed over crops as an insecticide, and soon to be used our very own epidermises.
At the time I worked, as did my scabies addled friend, and my current lover, at a peep show in downtown Seattle. The intimate and compromised working environment meant communication was essential, as did communication to my neighbors below in the duplex. Myself, my boyfriend, and another friend who had close scabies contact all shared an evening of comradery whilst we polluted the polluters. The movie to spice up the night? Alien.
As we smeared the cream over our naked bodies my friend looked up at me, a glob of pesticide in hand, “Do we put in on our labia?”
“I don’t know…let me ask (boyfriend).”
I poke my head out of the bathroom and ask him if he had put it on his balls. “I put it everywhere.”
Three months later and still with the same boyfriend. Still recovering from the trauma and distress of being possible host to microscopic fecal-depositing parasites. The establishment we both worked at, and loved, was informed it would be closing its doors come the start of summer. I had worked there nearly 8 years; he had worked there for a few more than that. It was our community, and I loved him because he was part of that community.
Beg bugs were the next plague I would encounter. Through this I would watch my beautiful, thick bed flounder pathetically thirty feet down into a garbage pit. The one piece of furniture I truly loved, but nonetheless, a piece of furniture. Earlier that month I had been informed by my partner that he had beg bugs, their origination a great mystery. He had even seen a bug crawl across my face while I had slept, but just figured it some random bug. Spiders crawl in your nose and orifices while you sleep, so what’s one bug across the face right? Well it’s the start of the second plague, is what it is. So they stayed on me and came on over to my home, slumbered beneath my bed, and feasted on yours truly as I slept.
They were difficult to find, but ultimately found hiding in the tight threading of my mattress. Once you saw one, you saw many, creeping around, fingernail sized and engorged in blood, my blood. If you squeezed one it would splat out a bright red. My red. Rhythmic tingles shook my body and my breathing became shallow. Scabies were one thing, but this…this was highly unpleasant to absorb. Again, tell the neighbors. Again, call work. “Haven’t we already gone through this?” “Umm…that was scabies…”
I paid an exterminator to come. Chemicals surrounded me; from labia to walk-in closet…I couldn’t escape them. If only tea tree oil could be the one, true answer. I’d even rub a Stinkor over me if it had worked. The anxiety pumped through my body, shook my voice, and my own thoughts clawed at whatever would speed the loss of the beady, scuttling little monsters; concurrently trying to slam the breaks on the inevitable closure of my work and the inevitable demise of my relationship. The relationship wasn’t that important ultimately, but it was my own parasitic latching on that was. It was important I Permethrined my own self from it. Again, find me tea tree oil. Find me Stinkor. I needed a remedy.
After paying an exterminator to treat my home, my boyfriend took me to the Laundromat. Beforehand we had quickly dumped each of my dresser drawers into garbage bags, emptying the closet as well. He took several bags, I took several others, and together we arrived at the fluorescent light-accented rows of washers, stacked dryers, and discarded magazines even the most bored of patrons toss aside.
We set to work, cleaning and drying, making sure all clothes and machines were left unaffected by bugs and no survivors remained. He, among the opposite rows of dryers, hard at work, accidentally fumbled a bag full of one of my drawers. As a sex worker at the time, I had a small arsenal of sex toys, one of which was a large, floppy, veined, violet dildo, which bounced out of the bag he had been struggling with to get in the washing machine and at the feet of a large, half-slumbering man, sitting alone. The man jostled uncomfortably, “harrumphed!”, and averted his eyes. Perhaps I was really reaching here, but this incident really tightened up my latching, invigorating my hope…we could both together laugh at the situation. It was a hoot! Right…right?
C’mon girl. One dildo wouldn’t fix this dilapidated relationship.
Anxiety, loss of money and furniture, and shame that I was a product of dubious hygiene habits aside, I felt adventurous. Perhaps this loss was bringing me close to my distant lover, my lover who only wanted to talk about motorcycles, mechanics, being a “crusty punk kid”, and silenced immediately when emotions beyond any not associated with said topics were brought up. We had laughed, we had gone through an experience together. This is what creates long lasting relationships… Yes, I was in full parasitic form, attempting to thrive off a relationship based on a shared experience than face a relationship alone, experience loss alone, and revel in my aloneness.
He had yet to treat his home, and had no intention of paying someone. He thought the pesticide companies had released bed bugs upon the city, so as to perk up business. That was his choice; it was fine, as long as we made every precaution to not re-transmit anything back to my home. He wanted a beer, he wanted to rest. He took me to his home instead against my objections.
I begged and pleaded, shame becoming what I embraced, and out the door I eventually went. Upon my back a wrinkled black trash bag full of newly cleaned clothes, and dildos. Like a shiny bug, or a very sad looking Santa Clause, I began my long trek home, on foot, through central Seattle at night. He let me go, and later I still went back to him. Somewhere at that moment I came to terms with loss. I had lost loved ones, I had lost friends, and I had gone through breakups. It was a new sort of loss, each form of loss one that I had to learn to manage as I communally experienced the loss of a great job, the much desired loss of bloodsucking parasites, and the much needed loss of an absent lover.
Even if the absolute end of that particular relationship didn’t come then, I knew it was coming, just as I knew my favorite, most beloved place of work would soon be shuttered, the end was existing before I ever acknowledged the loss. I am no more a connoisseur at relationships now than I was then, and loss still hurts and is uncomfortable, full of shame and anxiety and blood. I have a better, and mildly funny, reference to look back at that I didn’t have before, to remind myself that I can indeed process loss, not to be confused with grief, but something else. Something joined with the absurd and the real.