Photo: © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation
It begins, always, in the groove of flesh just above my upper lip—what the Greeks named the philtrum. Tiny beads of moisture collect there, like morning dew on a leaf. More stipples appear under the awning of my lower lip, then above my brow. At this point, I start mopping my forehead preemptively with whatever's at hand—a tissue, a cocktail napkin, a sleeve—but a few rivulets usually manage to trace a brief course along my hairline before I can catch them. There isn't much I can do about the thin, cold streams trickling down my spine, pooling in the sway of my lower back.
I take precautions. I wear lots of black. No silk. Never mascara.
I have a repertoire of camouflaging gestures—secret wiping maneuvers. I'll raise a hand to my mouth, as if for a dainty clearing of the throat. I'll duck my head and do a meditative forehead rub. I'll cup my lips with thumb and forefinger while nodding sagely at the floor—my version (or so I imagine) of Rodin's Thinker.
I find that people are exquisitely nice. The couple I met at a birthday celebration last summer were adorable, their faces softening with bemused concern as the temperature settings rose on my internal sauna. Later, peering into the ladies' room mirror, I understood their bewilderment: I looked literally wrung out. Last autumn, at a bustling event for a friend's new book, I chatted with a college classmate who, after perhaps 10 minutes of catching up, reached back to take a paper towel off the drinks table. She gave it to me without comment—I'm not sure she even broke eye contact—and with matter-of-fact graciousness, as if she were handing her business card to a prospective client.
Which is all to say: I sweat a lot at parties.
Thankfully, it's not a smelly sweat; it's diluted and benign. And, unlikely as this sounds, the sweating is not a manifestation of churning dread and anxiety—not directly, anyway. I like parties! I like people, and music, and free drinks! But somewhere, somehow, my nervous system seems to have put itself on red alert for any large social gathering, because my fight-or-flight mechanism kicks into overdrive at the first hint of crowds nibbling canapés. I'm left drenched, sheepish, and cursing my neurotransmitters for being such drama queens (but also relieved that they're so well-behaved when I'm consciously nervous—oddly enough, I don't perspire if I'm, say, interviewing for a job or speaking in front of a group).
After the Paper Towel Incident, I resolve to do all I can to dehydrate the party experience. I see an herbalist in New York City's Chinatown who gives me a small paper bag of huang qi (each piece resembles an oversize, misshapen emery board) and another of bai zhu (which looks like jigsaw pieces carved out of ginger). I cook the herbs into a tasteless soup, guzzling cup after cup of the stuff before I head over to a magazine launch party on a freezing winter night. The venue turns out to be a converted public bathhouse under renovation; the roof isn't completely installed yet, and the space is dotted with heating lamps. The guests keep their coats on. And yet, despite the herbs and the chill, in midconversation I find myself striking that modified Thinker pose so I can dab furtively at my mustache of sweat.