NaCL: An Essay

Nonfiction - May 18

In the book of Genesis, things did not end well for Lot’s wife (and yes, I realize that that a bunch of godless humanist lit mag readers might not be the most receptive audience for this, but hear me out). Fleeing God’s destruction of Sodom, an infamously oversexed city near the Dead Sea, she made the mistake of turning to look when she heard the sounds of chaos and mayhem. God had warned against doing this, and to punish her disobedience, he turned her into a pillar of salt. So, measured on that scale, I suppose I got off easy.

It all started one morning when I asked my daughter how summer day-camp at the Jewish Community Center was going. “It’s fun,” she said, although she qualified it by adding, “but a lot of people haven’t been going swimming because of that virus they’re talking about on the radio.” I had no idea what she meant. She was six at the time, and to my knowledge, didn’t listen to the radio, but I couldn’t help but think that she was setting me up for the first plot-point in a horror movie or foreshadowing the outbreak of an Old Testament-style plague. I was distracted enough to forget her backpack when I dropped her off at the bus to camp.

Certainly, this was a minor bump along an otherwise un-pandemic-infected road, but I was still pretty annoyed at having to take it across town to her. Granted, this was day-camp and not the Siberian tundra, and she probably would have been fine, but still, the backpack had a change of clothes, her water-bottle, sunscreen and her swimsuit, which would be good to have if the whole waterborne pathogen thing got resolved.

Since I was so rarely on that side of town, I decided to stop by the mall for a few minutes. I don’t even remember what it was I was looking for, because what I ended up getting was seduced.

The woman was gorgeous. Talia was her name. She was Israeli, with an olive complexion, green eyes, and hennaed highlights in her hair. Her accent was a little hard to understand; when I tell this story out loud, she sounds like the Baroness from the 1980’s G.I. Joe cartoon, mainly because my imitation of an Israeli accent is terrible, but also because, given the number of formative sexual fantasies I had about the Baroness in my youth, it seems appropriate. But any language barrier was irrelevant, because she did most of the talking with her fingers, if you know what I mean.

And you probably don’t, because I’m actually referring to the Dead Sea salt stuff she was trying to sell me and was rubbing into my skin. It’s all kind of blurry just how I ended up in the Dead Sea skin-care kiosk.

I could see from a distance how aggressive the employees were (there’s actually a U.S. State Department cable on Wikileaks about this very thing), so I gave them a wide berth, far beyond what I would consider a mall kiosk’s standard orbit. But, clearly, I didn’t account for the gravitational pull of Talia. She said something to me and I turned around and before I knew it I couldn’t go anywhere and my hand was between hers and she kept looking deep into my soul and ohmygodyouguys for like five minutes I would have killed a man for her.

“Is there special woman in your life?” she asked. “Wife? Girlfriend?”

“Uh, yes?” I answered.

“Well, which is it? Wife? Girlfriend?”

“Uh, wife.”

“Would not your wife love this?” she asked, with just a slight raise of her eyebrow.  I had to assume she was not talking about the fact that she was sensuously rubbing my hand and speaking to me in dulcet tones (something my wife would, in fact, probably not like) but rather, she meant the cream that she was massaging into my hand. Which, I dunno, smelled fine I guess.

“Have you heard of Dead Sea?” she asked.

And, of course, I had. I actually have photos of myself with my face covered in black Dead Sea mud: photos that, if taken in any other context, would find me justifiably shamed on social media. Rich in silicon dioxide and calcium oxide, it was supposed to be good for my skin, but it really just left me feeling crusty, greasy, and kind of disgusting. So, a lot like a day old french fry. Anyway, I told her I’d been there.

“Ah,” she said. “Did you…” she trailed off, looking hesitant. She turned to confer in Hebrew with a coworker, a man with the most grotesquely swollen lower lip I’ve ever seen. I was briefly frightened by the possibility that this was an allergic reaction to the products they were selling before I realized he just always looked that way. He mumbled something to Talia.

“Did you…float?” she asked me.

In fact, the dense, super salty Dead Sea is the only place I’ve ever been able to easily float. I told her that in most water, my feet immediately start to dip and within a few seconds the rest of me is on the way to the bottom. She feigned concern for my buoyancy dysfunction for a quick moment before continuing with her pitch.

“And do you know why is it called Dead Sea?”

I answered that the Dead Sea’s high salinity prevents macroscopic aquatic organisms from living in it.  Of course, I didn’t actually phrase it that artfully; I just lifted most of that sentence from Wikipedia for the purposes of this essay, but still, she seemed impressed.

“You are so smart!” she said. I nodded modestly.

I would say that I’m easily suckered by flattery, but really, she already had me well before this point. Looking back, I’ve gone over how it all unfolded and wondered why I fell so easily. I’m sure there’s some sort of quantifiable law of sexual attraction that would explain it, but while I can throw in a few random scientific factoids about the Dead Sea, I don’t really have a good handle on the science behind sex. And I’m not alone in this: just recently, know-it-all lab-partner to the internet, Neil Degrasse Tyson, got yelled at by nerds from all over the web when he tweeted some inaccurate info about sex in the animal world. So, I’m sure there’s, I dunno, an evolutionary reason I’m vulnerable to getting bamboozled by Israelis in leather pants peddling potions and pseudo-scientific skincare woo. But, as far as it impacts my day-to-day life, sex stuff is just sorcery. Frequently awkward, often complicated, occasionally weird, but mostly great sorcery.

And speaking of sorcery, at some point while I was trying to ingratiate myself to her by compulsively yammering on about the Dead Sea, I realized that Talia had been brushing some sort of appliance against my thumbnail. For how long, I’m not sure. But, holy shit, my thumbnail! She had buffed it to an astonishing luster. It glowed like a goddamn candle. It was amazing.

Discussing this with a female acquaintance sometime later clued me into the fact that this is just what happens to your nails when you rub them with a buffer. But I didn’t know that; I’d never had my nails done. I just assumed it had something to do with the Dead Sea goop she was using, so I said, “Yes,” to answer your question, Foxy Israeli Lady. “Yes, my wife would really like this.”

In a flash, the guy with the puffy lip stepped in to ring me up, because as soon as I said okay, Talia was off, back into the pathways of the mall to persuade a new customer/suitor/victim. By the time Puffy was handing me my receipt, Talia had already lured another guy in. He was also pretty captivated by her, so I couldn’t catch his eye to mouth the word, ”Run.” Although, I was also kind of tempted to go with, “Fuck off. She loves me.”

I looked at the bottom of the receipt and saw “No returns exchanges within 14 days,” and thought, “That’s weird. Why do you have to wait 14 days to return or exchange?” before realizing that it was missing punctuation, and I was stuck with this expensive, non-returnable decision forever.

“Don’t worry. She’ll love it.” Puffy handed me a bag with my purchases and gave me what I assumed was supposed to be a reassuring smile. I wandered off, somewhat dazed, in the direction I’d been heading to begin with.

Near the Dead Sea today, there is a distinct geological feature: a tall salt formation said to be Lot’s wife, a natural part of that unique landscape reinterpreted through the lens of tradition as an ominous metaphor for regrettable decisions. In much the same way, the box of nail stuff I bought at the mall kiosk still sits on top of my wife’s dresser, almost two years later, unopened: a stinging reminder that, sometimes, no matter what you hear, it’s best to not look back, and to just keep walking.endcap

Jack Walsh has, fortunately, never had to hawk specious lotions from a mall kiosk, but he did spend one summer in a tiny booth duplicating and selling cassette recordings of Methodist sermons. These days, he's a writer, storyteller, and Emmy-winning public television producer living in Decatur, Georgia.

  1. Tom McGowan

    19 May


    As a chemical engineer, you had me right at the title.


  2. John O'Reagan

    26 May

    This was insightful, humorous, and entertaining. Well done, Jack!!

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