December 1998
s m u g
by E. L. Pooser


Rite of Right Guard

When I was little, I knew that I wanted to be just like the men in my life: strong, independent, fearless. It was as though I was surrounded by the kind of potentates who knew to expect certain things from the world because of their gender. I didn't know exactly what those things were, but I expected them, too. I watched my brothers mature, carrying the aura of this masculine influence like an invisible cloak, and I awaited my turn eagerly in spite of the way that I was treated: they wouldn't take me hunting or fishing; I wasn't included on car repair forums or home improvement expeditions to buy things like dry wall; I wasn't allowed to fistfight in the backyard like they did. I had baby-faced cousins in their late teens so I knew that it would be years before I would be able to shave. Deodorant, it seemed, would have to be the great equalizer. Secretly, Right Guard would be my rite of passage.

I was too young to know what Right Guard was used for, but evidently it was an important manly tool like lots of other things that I saw in the bathroom: Magic Shaving Cream, the powder that my father mixed with water like an alchemist; Dax hair pomade, so different from the Sulfur 8 on the female side of the cabinet; and of course Hai Karate. (What single swinging guy in the 70's could leave the house without putting on some of that stuff?) To me, Right Guard was different. It was something that real men used religiously because it was the only thing that could quell the kind of bodily stench that emanates from the arrogance and surety of sheer masculinity.

The enormous bronze aluminum can with its authoritative black lettering proved itself to be a feast for my kiddy senses. It always felt like a cylindrical brick in my arms when I'd attempt to examine it. You'd have to be a real man just to pick this up, I must've thought. Audibly, it was constantly doing things to let you know that it was there. It sounded like a gigantic can of Redi-Whip whenever anyone used it, hissing its way onto each hairy armpit like some newfangled call of the wild. The smell was overwhelmingly musky - a cologne, aftershave and deodorant in one - and it lingered in the air like smog, creating a white puff when it was emitted, leaving a chalky residue on skin and clothes. A little gift and a happy reminder to let you know that Right Guard was on guard, and in control.

And then there were the other noises it would make, from the loud pop that happened when the oversized cap was removed to the thunk of its weight as it was placed on the bathroom counter. Solid. Durable. Practical. Even the name inferred a special brand of reliability and strength reserved for the strong willed iconoclast that was prepared to machete their way through the wilderness of life, whether it was a day of fly fishing or a corporate take-over. A world away from the flowery-scented pastel-labeled and curiously silent roll-on my mother used. The marketing pundits didn't have to tell me twice. I could walk into our bathroom, observe this ritualistic display of personal hygiene and know that I was a real man.

Then puberty struck.

Somewhere in the flow of blood, somewhere on my flat chest, somewhere in my inability to be what everyone seemed to think of feminine or even pretty, somewhere in my refusal to define my self-worth solely by my looks, somewhere in the lack of attraction the opposite sex had for me, somewhere in the midst of all that I knew that although I was turning into a woman, on the inside I would always be a man. I would be smart and strong and independent, and I would never apologize for it.

I don't use Right Guard, by the way. It's an icon of my 70's childhood, like the navy blue maxi-coat I outgrew when I was eight. But that big brass can is a powerful symbol for me of all those who, without realizing it, taught me how to be a man on my own terms when I was a little girl.


in the junk drawer:

and such
and such

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