My Three-Leaved Nemesis
family in North Carolina before heading back to England and, should I find myself down that way, she'd love to see me again. Punch-drunk on hormones, I began planning the trip that very night. Where in the intervening weeks I'd come in contact with poison ivy I can only guess (we rarely know the exact time or place). But by the time I sat in the parlor of that stately home, listening to that mellifluous accent entwine with those of the southern belle cousins, I was deep in the spell of my three-leaved nemesis. Perhaps the awkwardness of the reunion was due in part to my preoccupation with my wretched feet, now encased in leather ovens. I smiled bravely through gritted teeth, but I can't have been much fun that evening. More likely Ann and her cousins ignored me so completely because, well, that's what attractive 16-year olds do after they've stirred up your hormones. At any rate, the pain of rejection was mitigated somewhat by the overwhelming sensation coming from my throbbing feet. It wasn't until I'd hobbled back down to my sister's car (she'd agreed to pick me up after two hours) that I finally broke my stoic silence. Then, as my feet were disinterred from their cowhide tombs, a muffled shriek pierced the evening air. Back in New York the doctor took one look at my feet and sent me straight to the hospital. What followed was a month of cortisone injections and nightly soaks in a noxious substance that turned my toenails black and left my skin looking like a purple tie-dye t-shirt.
I tell that story to people who say, “Poison ivy? Put a little calamine on it.” We don't all suffer equally, you see. I have no idea why my body reacts so much more violently to the plant than, say, my wife's. But it does. Trust me, I'm not rolling in the stuff, people like me know to avoid direct contact. But that doesn't prevent exposure through indirect sources: pets, shoes, the spray of a lawn mower, the muzzle of a horse. So every summer it's the same routine, a rash appears and I try to keep it at bay with Diprolene (a prescription cream) and a little counter-intuitive trick I picked up from a fellow sufferer: blast the rash with a hot blow dryer and the itchiness subsides for a few hours. No matter what I do, though, I'm still in for two weeks of sleeplessness and irritability.
If you were hoping I had some homeopathic remedy, forget it. I've tried them all, they don't work. Nor do vaccines, as far as I can tell. That's because you don't build up a tolerance to urushiol (poison ivy's active ingredient), you become sensitized to it, meaning, with each exposure it gets worse, not better. That sort of diabolical defense mechanism is one reason I don't see poison ivy as a plant so much as an evil conspiracy, out there plotting my itchy demise (“Okay, he's onto the cat thing, let's try getting to him through the wife”). And much as I'd like to think there's a team of physicians at Johns Hopkins saying, “We must rid the world of this terrible itch,” I know there isn't. No one cares.
So, sorry, no happy ending to this story.
It's been thirty years since my nemesis stole a march on me and left me as thoroughly defeated as it did that summer in North Carolina. Since then we've fought a mostly cold war, with minor skirmishes every summer. Anytime I find myself up against a case I can't keep in check with Diprolene and the blow dryer (like two years ago, when my eyes started swelling shut), I run to the doctor for the big guns: steroids. Not a substance I like exposing my body to on a regular basis, but still preferable to two weeks of agony. If I learned anything from that trip to North Caroline it's this: a broken heart mends itself pretty quickly, but itchy feet stay with you forever.
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