“What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay . . .”
I was in Grade 9 when I was introduced to Maya Angelou and her writing. In particular, we read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book made a lot of impressions on me as a young child, ones that continue to linger in the mind even today, working away at my perception of this world. I remember reading and re-reading that book. For my academic study, I hoped to be able to quote the book verbatim, and I think most of us got there – with quotes we took to.
As I sit down to write this, all I can think about is how Angelou references Vaseline. In the prologue, when describing her thoughts reciting poetry at Church, she describes the image of her body, with her skinny legs greased with blue seal Vaseline. In introducing her daily routine under her grandmother’s care, she tells us about applying cold, stiff Vaseline as moisturizer. In showing, rather than telling us about heat, she describes how the sun had baked oil out of her mother’s skin and melted the Vaseline in her hair.
I was born in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and spent ten years of my life there. As the impact of global warming was felt, peak summer temperatures rose well beyond the 42-43 degrees Celsius threshold I experienced as a younger child. I have no memory of wearing lip balm at the time. Despite hot temperatures, I can’t remember having chapped lips. If I look far into the pits of my memory though, I can recall some instances of my mother wearing lip-balm – apart from all the times I messed up the tipped shape of her lipstick by pressing the lid shut when it was fully open. I can also vividly remember a big jar of Vaseline at home, available for use.
My first brush with any lip moisturizing products was in Grade 6. We had this History project where we had to bury some objects in the sand pit near Primary School, and then, as we excavated them, write their descriptions and imagine their possible uses for early cavemen. My contribution to this was an old lip balm casing my mother had. It looked archaeological enough, so we thought, why not? That episode was also when I learned the word chapstick, which was another sign of the Americanisms I was picking up. I had never heard the word till that point.
My lips started to chap frequently after. At least once a year. We’d invest in the blue labello lip-balm roller, we tried out the Himalaya lip-balm, but with the chapping of the lips, I never felt like I could prevent it. I could only treat it. On regular days, with unchapped lips, I never moisturized them in particular, nor did I wear lip-balm or lip-protection of any kind. I didn’t care too much about my lips being chapped – except when they burned as I ate hot food. It also made me crave water. As such, I drink a large quantity of water. This increased that volume.
University is where the entire lip-chapping business really took off, and that’s where this story begins.
Gujarat is not a moderate clime. In summers, there’s a dry heat that captures Gandhinagar. It’s enough for soil to crack; and for turning cricket pitches to develop wherever a strip of lawn goes unmowed. It’s enough for you to see the heat, enough to be described as sweltering. In winters, the breeze turned frigid. The open architecture of the hostel and my broken window didn’t help, and I felt the cold to my bone, every bit of it. The hostel is where I really got into thermalwear and sweaters.
Every January, and every April, my lips would chap. They would take a week to heal. In that week I’d purchase a new lip-balm, lose it, and then rely on regular Vaseline moisturizer to get me through the week. I’d increase my water intake, avoid spicy or hot foods, and eventually, as these things do – they’d heal, returning to their soft texture and pink shade.
They’d never chap in Dubai, or in Bengaluru. Just when I was in Gandhinagar.
This one time it got so bad that I woke up and I couldn’t open my lips. It felt as if I had some skin growth on the lips themselves. That was winter 2016, my second year – and it was a scary time because Gandhinagar still felt super new to me. I called my mom several times to understand what was happening, and my friends helped a lot too – introducing me to branded lip-balm, for example. Something you paid a lot more for, but got better value out of. I really got into the lip-balm thing for a bit, exploring all these wonderful tastes they had. As someone who really enjoyed the chocolate-scented moisturizer that Vaseline put out, some of them caught my attention, and I gifted one of my friends Coca-Cola flavoured lip-balm too.
In April 2018 I took a trip to Washington, D.C. for a competition. It was cold there, far colder than anything I had experienced. Thankfully for most of the competition, I was in a suit, which made the cold bearable. After it ended, my friend and I went to Boston to see my school friends, and then onto New York, exploring Universities and the city itself. We were in New York for four days, living in Jersey City and taking the bus through the Holland Tunnel straight into Lower Manhattan and to Times Square. On our second morning there, I woke up with chapped lips, and before we got onto the bus, we took a detour to a drugstore so I could buy myself lip-balm.
Everything at the store looked way too expensive. I was only willing to buy something I wouldn’t lose immediately, so I decided to buy myself a portable Vaseline jar. Not that small round box, mind you – I knew that’d slip out somewhere. I picked up a proper jar, and shoved it with my power bank into my pocket. I was wearing large jeans to accommodate my expanding belly (given everything I ate in America), and pocket depth was not a concern at all. Over the course of our day, I must’ve scrubbed the petroleum jelly across my mouth maybe 6 times? After every meal for sure, and once in between. By the next morning, my lips had healed.
I remember thinking to myself that this would cure me every time I had chapped lips in the future. It’s not that other products hadn’t worked for me – it’s just that this did the job without making me feel like my chapped lips were a burden, and it did the job quick. Real quick. Alongside that, and without me asking – it healed the dry skin at the periphery of my lips that usually came with them being chapped, something I had taken for granted.
That Vaseline jar has been with me since 2018 April. Every trip, everywhere I go. It’s a part of my toiletry kit, and I never take it out unless I’m using it. It’s worked, every single time. Like some magic cream. I’ve been floored in the best possible way.
I’ve never been cognizant of it’s waning power, or it’s expiry date. I remember reading that petroleum jelly just begins to become less effective after three years or something. As if on cue, in December 2020, as my lips began to chap for the winter cycle, I noticed that my jar of Vaseline was at it’s last mile. There was very little petroleum jelly it had to offer. As if to prove a point – that it was getting close to three years, it stopped being as effective. My lips have been chapping off and on since December – healing for a week, recovering for half a week, and chapping once more. I’ve been hoping every week that the jar would serve me well, praying that it would succeed as an effective remedy for my lips. Unfortunately, this was to no avail. With the last sliver of jelly I could get, I tried once again, but yesterday, I saw I had extracted maximum use out of it.
And that was that. This jar, my traveling memory of a trip that made me fall in love with the world, with the subject I study, and the people I was with – now, emptied. When skin cracks, it mends, it heals, rarely leaving behind a trace of the crack. Vaseline helped that process, and today, I’m left with a fragmented piece of my soul that no jar of jelly can cure. Even where it mends, I will be left with scar tissue that carries forth this experience of loss.
I’m reminded of how much I want to take care of my lips; to prevent chapping, to prevent this horrible cycle I put myself through each time it happens – and yet, as this jar sits empty, I wonder if, when I buy a replacement product, I will remember to care.
I think about this rhetorical question, searching around for answers, and all I am faced with is my now-empty, lifeless Vaseline jar, which, with it’s lid, open from last use seems to mock me, as if to say,
“What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay “
Thank you for your service. My lips & I are eternally grateful.