Like anyone who has dated, I’ve felt compelled, at some point not too far into the courting, to come clean to my partner about certain things, lest their eventual revelation cause him to judge—or bolt. The fact that my dog sleeps on my bed. That I brush my teeth far more frequently than the average human being. That I like to eat lemon slices straight. And that I am hopelessly, obsessively addicted to the healing ointment known as Aquaphor.
I know I had a tube of Aquaphor in my nightstand growing up, but I’m not sure when things got out of control. All I know is that, by the age of 35, I’ve developed the habit of applying Aquaphor to my lips at minimum every half-hour. In Brooklyn, where I was living when the pandemic hit, I had five tubes going at once: one in my backpack, one in each of my two handbags, one in my nightstand, and one by the front door. In an attempt to be dainty, I once got a tiny tube, one that is comparable in size to a normal container of lip balm, but there was no point: I need access to a big, honking, 3-ounce tube at all times.
Sometime in childhood, watching both of my parents have their coffee each morning and their drink each night, I developed a moral objection to reliance on any substance at all. I would never drink coffee. I would never drink alcohol. Dependency frightened me, probably because I had no faith in my capacity to regulate. Once you got hooked on something, even something as benign as coffee, would it ever stop? Better not to need anything, maybe even anyone.
These pledges would eventually disintegrate. I put off drinking until the end of my freshman year of college; since then, my relationship with alcohol has been … more intimate. I put off coffee until after college entirely; I’m now so addicted that I’ve routinized setting up the coffee maker the day before. (God forbid I waste a precious second in the morning scooping.) But the irony is that, long before any of this—and in the very years I was forswearing coffee and alcohol—I was dependent on so many other things, and in far more destructive ways. My capacity to regulate was poor, it turned out: Long before I knew what I was doing, I developed an eating disorder, buffeted by a rigid adherence to perfectionistic ideals. I was dependent on food as comfort, dependent on control, dependent on rules. I was dependent on external validation, on achieving success in culturally sanctioned ways, on being thin, on being admired, on being “the best.”
I don’t want to create a moral hierarchy here, to suggest that “using” coffee is morally superior to “using” ice cream or straight A’s. But I find intriguing my young self’s arbitrary designation of certain dependencies as more repellant than others. Why would I never drink, but I would easily obsess about getting zero grades below an A throughout my entire high school career? In hindsight, it seems less a matter of morality, though that’s how it was coded in my mind, than of consciousness and of separation. My parents drank coffee and alcohol every day, not me—so I could have perspective. Moreover, I wanted to be different from them. The substances and habits I relied upon, though, were not only different; they were also invisible to me, because they were of me. They were defenses, designed to protect me. For a time, I’m sure they did. And then they didn’t.
Over the past decade, I’ve given up so many of these practices that supposedly insulated me from the world: the eating disorder; the binge drinking (for the most part); intense and all-consuming perfectionism (sometimes). But I worry that I’ve gone so far in my rigorous and constant self-examination that I’m edging back to my original, absolutist conviction that depending on any substance at all is to be interrogated out of existence. Why else would I feel the need to “admit” my “addiction” to Aquaphor, this most innocuous barrier between my raw, unadulterated self and the overwhelming world?
Let me pause here a minute to put on some Aquaphor.
Now let me pause again to describe just what Aquaphor is. Its full name is Aquaphor Healing Ointment and, indeed, it is a thick-as-fuck, clear ointment with no discernible smell. It’s 41 percent petrolatum, with a bunch of other ingredients mixed in whose names also mean nothing to me. It’s billed as a “solution for many skincare needs,” from cracked skin and cuticles to burns to new tattoos, but I apply it exclusively to my lips, which are apparently chapped 100 percent of the time.
The tubes I carry around have an unwieldy, medicinal vibe that is decidedly unsexy, definitely unfeminine. This seems, logically, the reason I was always embarrassed to whip it out on dates—and yet this lean toward androgyny seems in fact central to my loyalty. All throughout childhood, as my mother applied makeup daily, I refused; I wanted to be natural. I’ll wear makeup now (or, at least, I did before COVID), but lipstick has always made me uncomfortable; it feels so try-hard. Aquaphor ends up looking good because it’s shiny, just like lip gloss, but the container and the “ointment” vibe mask any sense that one cares, maybe a lot, about one’s appearance. How could anyone possibly think I’m vain when I wear Aquaphor?
(I am vain.)
Was I embarrassed about applying Aquaphor because it unavoidably called the chappedness of my lips (potentially unappealing) to mind? Or because it suggested weakness not only in the sense of emotional dependency, but also in the sense of physicality? Are my lips really … that dry? (Yes.) Or was it because reaching into my bag to apply Aquaphor interrupted the social exchange in a way that felt only slightly less egregious than checking my phone?
But perhaps it’s this ritual of retrieving and applying Aquaphor that, even more than the substance itself, and more than its aesthetic value, offers protection. It’s a multistep process: There’s the fishing out of the tube, the opening of it, the squeezing of the ointment onto the finger, the application, the replacement of the tube in the bag, the satisfying rubbing-together of the newly Aquaphor-ed lips. There is comfort in this ritual, and in the time it takes. It’s a way of connecting to and comforting myself.
And there is, despite the disruption, a socially connective element to it, too. In the Before Time, every time I put on Aquaphor in the company of a friend or a date, I proffered the tube: “Want some?” Usually, the answer was no, but sometimes it was yes, and no matter what, we usually laughed. So in addition to comforting me, the ointment acted as some kind of bridge.
I’m thinking back now to my first date with Matt, two Decembers ago, sitting across from each other at a restaurant in Manhattan for so many hours. I remember reaching into my purse for my Aquaphor; I remember apologizing for it with some degree of self-consciousness. I needed it—it was the beginning of winter—but I wonder if revealing Aquaphor Me wasn’t really a form of purposeful, modulated exposure. My “addiction” is a tiny weakness, a tiny sign of vulnerability. Pointing attention to it, then, could be a way of saying: I’m an imperfect human. A human with lips that are sometimes dry. A human with quirks. And, most scarily—by which I mean most wonderfully—a human who needs. Would it maybe, one day, be OK for me to need you?
In March, after the pandemic hit, Matt and I hunkered down in his apartment together in West Texas, where I stored Aquaphor on the coffee table, Aquaphor on the bookshelf a couple of yards away, Aquaphor in the nightstand, Aquaphor in the backpack, Aquaphor in the bathroom. In the summer, we moved into a house together here, where I’ve only increased my ointment overload: By current count, there are eight tubes of Aquaphor strategically dispersed throughout the house. When I slather it on—my lips are even more needful in West Texas—I usually hold out the tube, and Matt usually declines, but that’s not the part that matters.
It’s OK to need him, it turns out.