THE LAST TIME I put on Axe was to light myself on fire. I was making friends.
We sprayed half a can on each leg, Andrew probably used more. This was a month before I went straight edge for the next four years and two months into my first year of high school. Levi had already hit me in the face with a bottle of Olde English by accident, while he was pointing to something up in the tree line. It connected with my chin, sharp and round at the same time, but I couldn’t really feel it. Connor got his lighter. We all took a gulp of malt liquor. The fire was like a spray of flowers, ones that bloomed early in the season, ones you didn’t notice until you rode your bike again two hours later. There, in the clearing by Andrew’s house, a momentary garden was blazing off our legs. We rolled on the dark wet grass. It might have been dew. It might have been the Olde English. We laughed, hoping the night wouldn’t carry our laughter. It might wake up the neighbors. They were half a mile away, but still.
Three years before this I had moved from Scotts Valley to Aptos, nearly across the county but still deep in the same mountain range. I managed to stay at my same middle school through interdistrict haggling but would transfer for high school. Summers of Capitola Junior Lifeguards had built friendships with folks on this side of town, and a benefit of having older siblings is inherited acquaintances with their fellow siblings.
I was staying over at a new friend’s place. Some say it’s on the East Side, others say it’s Midtown. If you look at a map, the East Side is West and the West Side is North; actual direction doesn’t matter when you colloquially carve up hometowns. It depends on what you see and we all say. We were up Soquel Creek, veering off into the forest. We were deep enough for it to get dark quick but not so far that you couldn’t walk to the liquor store. We were draining 40s bought by someone’s brother. Four of us had the house to ourselves. We got drunk and lit ourselves on fire. What else do young men do?
Later we walked to the hill behind our high school. A few of us ran cross country. We had to scramble up that hill in the heat over and over again. At night we could take to the slope at our pace. We knew the trails by muscle memory — counting our steps and feeling the learned grooves underfoot. The tall grass arched further than our wide drunk stumbles.
By the top we were almost dry, done sloshing out philosophies — a lot of questioning of perception and existence. I am glad to have forgotten most of these conversations and too embarrassed to tell any I remember. It makes more sense under the influence of malt liquor and the stars. What else do young men do? Instead of talking, we nearly fell asleep at the top of the hill. Our sweat mingled with the dirt, and our backs were quietly gathering in dun and duff. We had to have been there for hours. That was the first night I realized the way alcohol distorts your perception of time.
Throughout high school, I hated the scent of Axe. Axe smells like desperation. It’s a spray-on deodorant, essentially made for teenage boys who don’t understand pheromones but want to smell like an accepted form of manhood. Axe’s ads promise you access to feminine bodies — quiet until they chirp out their approval of your look, ravenous for your formidable cock. Axe could give you a lean body and a sneer, a playful sneer, a sneer that seduced and let you roll with whatever your average hyper-sexy-stud- but-still-approachable dude had to deal with. Like homework and bitches. You can see how much of a focus on bitches there was for young men — not quite fully realized women, bitches.
Axe is a pussy magnet in aerosol, carefully disheveled sex appeal for those who winced quietly or laughed when the cross section of female genitalia went up on the overhead in Health class. Even for boys who didn’t think that hard about it, it was just what you wore at that age.
When I was in shape I was never toned, and for later admitted reasons, I could not relate to wanting women to lust after me. I was never an Axe man. I couldn’t stand it. The thick and iridescent fog of it choked me when I went into the locker room for gym or weight training. Most varieties of it smelled simultaneously rich, dry, and sweet — like when your throat wells up with saliva before you vomit or like battery acid and posturing.
Odor aside, Axe stood for the masculinity I resented, the body and way of life I hated, while still desperately trying to prove my normativity. I wanted everyone to see my straightness — my value. But I didn’t want to be the guy who sprayed a can of it on his weed-infused flannel before he got home late. I didn’t want to be the guy who Xd himself with it throughout the day as if he thought it made his body a treasure map for the ladies.
I also didn’t want to be the faggot. I didn’t want to be set up with the only other out guy at the school. I didn’t want to live with the expectations I saw him living with, beset with the mantel of Gossip Queen, Abercrombie clad, BFF for a tight triangle of girls who were pretty and nice enough — but not to be fucked with.
I needed something in what I saw as the middle that helped me maintain my burgeoning self-awareness. I tried using a deeper voice, stayed away from anything that could record it so that I would never have to feel the jagged pain of hearing how high it still was. I ratcheted my hips and made them as straightforward as possible while I walked. I tried to starve out or force out any fat that collected along those hips that might feminize me even more. I sweated out my sins on the track, on the soccer field and on the trails, punishing my body. I undernourished it, overfed it out of guilt to the point of bursting, ran it off and cut it off, all to sweat it off again. I held so tightly to the concept of letting it all go, an irony lost in my frantic lurching toward an ideal. I could do all that to myself, but I couldn’t let one particle of spray deodorant touch me. Principles forged by youth are often misshapen.
I have worked a series of hospitality jobs over the years. Hospitality is a fancy way of saying “service industry” — “food service” to be exact. I was the solitary baker covered in sweat, smoke, and flour; a crunchy vegan cook for an expensive juice bar; and a busser-cook-runner-dishwasher for a short while in a small but frightening café.
I have gravitated towards the front of the house, slowly. Though my hair is wild, my personal style reckless and my humor crass, I have an amiable face and disposition, one that’s potentially comely. I show a dash of cool under pressure and am a small-talk genius. This is what a host should be. I clean up nice.
My years in the closet have taught me the importance of perception, but my work is still teaching me how and when to employ it. Yes, I can scrub up — but when, how and what polish is needed sometimes require direction. My current job is the first position I have had where I would be asked to leave for the day if I showed up in jeans. I wore jeans torn through the taint patched and re-patched ten times at some jobs, as long as I wasn’t seen by guests.
I have been working at a Michigan Avenue restaurant: high volume, part-bar part-fine dining, great for private events or after work drinks, serving American Classics with global influences. Try the grilled cheese, with pork belly, a slice of heirloom tomato, and a fried egg. It’s the perfect kind of decadent — best with a crisp lager. Imagine hearing all that in my “Hospitality Voice.” It’s the same one I use when I meet friends’ parents. As a host, as your hear from interview onward, I am the first thing a guest sees. If I am not presentable, I am not doing my job. Strangely enough, I love it. Something about being up front, amongst the people, even if it’s snippets of generic conversation with guests, is worth an often long and late shift on my feet.
A few weeks into my time there, I clocked in and was rifling through drawers behind our host counter. I think I was looking for pens; everyone steals pens. There was a canister of Axe in one drawer, right next to the perfume. I worked amongst a rank of tougher-than-they-look waifs with dark hair, amazons with mid-back length extensions and a simply chic short black outfit for every shift. In the dank air of eyebrow-raising sass, that makes the rich chuckle and slip you a tip, my wide-shouldered frame is masculine to their shades of femme. They are, to the tee, who they know they need to be. The Axe was for me.
That might seem rude to some people, like offering a mint to someone who is failing to cover up their halitosis. To me, it’s a sign that my co-workers want me to step up. This says that they like me here and that I can stay if I am willing to work for my keep. This is the type of man you have to be — with slacks and shoes that compliment your belt but in a subtle way. You’re a man who wears pressed shirts, hair combed into a style. The gesture is insurance against any hint of over-ripening — providing easy access can of spray-on deodorizing cologne. You are not the portrait of Axe; you are living as a man in an industry that doesn’t accept “off” or less than polished.
There is a place and a time, where and when you compromise the smaller preferences or notions for a larger well-being. Outrage seems to come easier when you’re young, at least it did for me. When rent and bills and groceries and clothing and your entertainment become something your pocket feels, you often grow a new perspective. By that time, you hope that you’re bigger than that. Not everything requires a fight, you save a fight for a real attack on identity or on your community. You have developed a deeper sense of self.
Changing your appearance for a few short hours shouldn’t cut the core like it used to. You can view it as choosing what you allow people to perceive of you — the surface. They see what you let them, but you ultimately are something beyond what they see. The outward appearance of your selfhood can manifest at your will. These are easily forgotten facts. It’s the choice you’ve been making since high school, probably younger. I hope that with age I get better at it.
Every time I spray myself with Axe, I light myself on fire again. I redraw a character, from my skin and my heart. I am The Host, hospitality incarnate — but with some lovably rough edges. The heel of my thrift store shoes click, and I haven’t had enough of a day off from any of my jobs to go down to the Marshall Fields building to get another pair with the gift card my Mom gave me for my birthday. I work hard, and I smile for you no matter what. I smile because I know I’m good at it.
It’s me and it’s not. It’s an amplification yet still understated — cinched in at the waist while carrying two tubs of silverware on one hand and shoulder. It’s strong because someone can scream in my face, dig their finger into my chest and I won’t even blink. I will tell them that I am sorry for the miscommunication.
It wears Axe. I’m used to it.