At the Co-op I pinched an Ancho chili with my fingers. There weren’t any tongs--only metal tablespoons caked in spelt flour and paprika. It didn’t feel right to touch a whole dried chili with a dusty tablespoon, so I stuck my index finger in the jar, and nicked a seed or two with my nail. Seconds later, I could already feel the heat coming on as I shuffled the smushed black bulb into it’s clear plastic baggy. Afterwards, everything I touched in the dairy case was met with a light burn. I poked at my cheekbones in line at the register, hoping a suggestive blush might appear there. No one seemed to notice my modest smoldering.
Leaving checkout, I imagined running my contaminated chili hands over the saran-wrapped muffins and stacks of newspapers at the exit, leaving an invisible scent like I’ve read that virulent cougars do. Instead of a vaporized mating call, I’d leave just a dash of human horniness. A swipe of pure temperature to singe others with when they grabbed a sweet on their coffee break, or reached for the news the next day.
It was in high school that “spicy” plants - poison ivy to begin - first equated themselves with sexual desire. Although I was the victim of the plant rash, I was not the first to match smut with Toxicodendron radicans. My parents taught me that analogy when I came home for Thanksgiving bearing an infected and leaky right shin. They had no sympathy for my affliction, but they did have giggles and bright conspirator’s eyes for one another. Apparently, there was no other way to get poison ivy (in their minds) than through woodsy canoodling. And even though I had indeed been out with someone amidst the toxic twigs, I disliked being presumed guilty, and I had enough dignity then to protest their first conclusions. Several well-tempered explanations for the rash offered themselves: My boarding school had running trails in THE WOODS, and we often walked through TALL GRASS to put the boats down after crew. This did nothing.
When I finally consented to their joking, I realized with some fascination that it didn’t matter who I had been with, or in what heady capacity (first, second, or third). Those details, the ones my young friends had pruned me for, were all secondary, all collateral, all incidentals to them. The poison ivy and its revelatory scandal were all that mattered. The poison ivy was both the plot and the point of the story all together.
And what a material story it was: The plantation on my skin had first appeared as a single red lump. The move from red lump to a Stonehenge of lumps took only twelve hours. Then, the original lump, now in the center of this formation, started oozing.
Now you may be imagining my right shin red, raised, and dripping oil… but not quite. This infection wasn’t a runny one like that. Instead, the excretions from my red lump came through slowly like polyps emerging from a coral ventricle. The head of one would breach the sorry pore chosen for the oozing and it would pause there, collected in a bead, before popping out of the ring and sliding slowly and greasily down the sharp ledge of my shin.
As miserable as all this was, there was also something sickly self-indulgent to it. Think for a second on the common treatments for poison ivy or poison oak. The patient must gob the enflamed area with quarts of a pink liquid that starts off viscous and then becomes chalk. Patting my shin with calamine lotion night after night, blowing on the layers to hasten their transition towards calcium, felt like dousing out a small and sacred fire with toothpaste. I was hurtling prescription cream at a rash to slake the burn. I imagined the treatment was punishment for excessive desire. Twice a day I was patting pink cotton balls against my leg to hush the itch, to slow the excretory flow, to repent for where my longings had lead me. And though I repented, I wasn’t sorry. I simply had to put on this curative show. One cannot admit to enjoying illnesses, afflictions, and other states no matter how much they might relish them.
Years later, I can see that the poison ivy was indeed the only sexy part to any of that. The only thing worth giggling over, and the only entertaining element of my painfully apparent teenage sexuality. To my parents, my suspicious rash was a good sign. It meant I was alive and well enough to be out before curfew in some thicket. It meant I wasn’t a total wane! I was moved enough by some personal vigor to step into dark brush piles, and to stomp through leafy verges dragging the damp hand of some complacent male. And yet, before we even go anywhere near that, we must remember what my parents so successfully taught me, that of course the male is not important. The man matters none. It might as well have been just me and the plants out there. Just me, twitching a little as I rocked slowly back and forth in a bed of detritus. Just a lone girl of seventeen, lying on her back behind a baseball field, cozied up in a thick leafy patch that the mower missed. Getting sexy with herself in an interstice.
Truth be told, I’ve never reacted quite like this to any other erotic encounters. People write and talk like they want to be marked by something, like they can’t wait to come away with scars. But they want other people to enact it, or the wildness of other places to. I’m not immune to wanting the same, but I will say that I harbor a quiet satisfaction deep down in my belly about having been lust-scarred already. At least I can check that one off the ever-growing life list.
Sierra Dickey is the managing editor of The Hopper and likes to experiment with the nature essay form. Her 2013 essay "The Lives of Plovers," was published after receiving honorable mention in Sage Magazine's annual environmental essay contest. She can be found tweeting salacious fragments @dierrasickey.