9 Men I’ve Loved
"That’s what keeps me going. If he could do it, I can too."
My fist strikes his shoulder. Again. Again. I’m beating my brother until he can’t feel his arm, until he cries. It’s what he deserves. He called me something, everything. Anything he could think of. So I’m punching him. I keep punching him. We’re 11 years old. Later, when we’re grown, when we’re best friends, I’ll apologise for the fists and he’ll apologise for the words, for the bruises both left. But right now I’m blind with rage and deaf to his pain. I love him. I know he loves me. One day we’ll stop taking it out on each other.
The warm buzz of the electric razor rolls over my chin. It tickles. I laugh. Grandpa laughs. We’re shaving. We do this every morning when we stay with him and Nana. My brother and I stand, chins high, poised, watching him scrape the stubble from his face, waiting for our turn. We’re 4. There’s nothing for the razor to remove, save for the soft fluff of small bodies. This is before we grow tall, narrow shoulders made square. Before we shave our own stubble. This is before his stroke. Before he leaves us. He puts down the razor and reaches for a green bottle, splashes us with the same Brut he wears. We slap our cheeks, laughing, playing at being men with the first man who showed us how.
We’re building something, me and Dad. He’s my stepdad, technically. But he’s just Dad, has been since we moved in with him. I’m 8 years old. I like to help him with DIY. My job varies. Sometimes I stand on the board, hold it in place while he saws. Sometimes I have to mark the cut in pencil with a set square. Score it with a Stanley knife. Measure twice, he likes to say. Cut once. Sometimes I get to nail things together. We start at opposite ends, work our way to the middle. I have my own tool box, my own tools. I hold the bitter metal nails between my lips, the way he does. We work together like this whenever there’s a job needs doing. Later, when I’m in my own home, working on my own projects with his old tools, I’ll repeat his words. Measure twice, I’ll say. Cut once.
I play basketball. I’m not that tall, not yet, but I don't let that stop me. I’m 13. I carry a ball to school every day, practise for an hour before class, at least an hour after. At Christmas I get a set of Michael Jordan videos. I watch them the night before a game, studying his plays, learning his moves. I don’t get to watch live NBA games – we don’t have satellite TV – and besides, this is when he was retired. I’ve missed Michael Jordan. But these films – half-hour highlight reels of one of the greatest men to ever play the game – make me feel like I was there. Like I know him. Like our struggles are similar. When it’s cold out, when bed is warm and sleep is calling, when I’m walking to school in the dark, that’s what keeps me going. If he could do it, so can I.
When S and I meet in our first dance class, we are friends from the first minute, sized up and sounded out in a single, silent nod. As two of only three men in a group of 30, we are both tall, broad, strong. I’m 19. It’s the first week of university, and the dance class is a mandatory elective. We spend much of the next hour talking, much of the next week going to orientations and parties together. This is how it will be for the next three years. We lunch together, work out together. On Fridays, we dance. Later, once uni winds down and we find our own paths, find we have fewer things in common, we’ll talk less frequently. Once a year, once every other year. I’ll wonder how much of our friendship was circumstance. How much was survival. For now, we leave the class energised, no rush to make concrete plans. We just exchange a nod. One that says catch you tomorrow.
We’re driving to France for our summer holiday. The car is hot, stuffy, and my legs, unstretched in hours, ache terribly. I’m clutching my cassette Walkman, listening to Bon Jovi’s Cross Road through cheap headphones. I’m 12. I’ve had this album on repeat for the entire 15-hour drive. When a side ends, I flip it over, keep going. I love the way Jon Bon Jovi sings, I love the lyrics, the soaring guitars, the drums. More than that, I’ve started to thread a single narrative through the songs. My heart feels full, swelled with ideas and possibility. Later I’ll recognise this as the feeling I get when I need to sit down and write. But here in the car, watching endless miles of tarmac roll by, I sit in the moment, creating a cinema of songs that I think would make the best film I’ve ever seen, looking at a picture of a man on an album cover, aching to be that cool.
Rob and I are staying with our dad for the weekend. Our biological dad. He doesn’t live far away, a town in the same county. We have bikes at his house. Dad suggests a ride along the canal. We follow the towpath for miles, stopping only to open locks for barges. At the end of the route, there’s a steep downhill slope. Dad’s already at the bottom, Rob’s in front of me. He tries to streamline, lifts his bum off the back of the seat the way the pros do, but he slips, can’t reach the brakes, can’t stop. He’s flying down at a fair clip, shouting, crying. Dad looks up, watches Rob speed toward him, toward the canal. Then he steps in front of the bike, spreads his arms wide. Rob hits Dad hard. They both land in a heap on the towpath, Rob’s bike inches from the water. Rob is fine, shaken, a few scrapes, but fine. Dad says he’s okay too, but he’s wearing a sling when he drives us home. His arm is fractured. He doesn’t complain. As we drive I think about that moment, wonder if I’d have done the same. I hope I would.
It's the Christmas break, and I'm watching Parks and Recreation for the first time. I've been meaning to for ages. People often tell me I’m like Ron Swanson, and now I see what they mean. I can be brief, brash, stubborn. I like to drink whisky and build things, and though I have nothing against government, I dislike fuss and enjoy solitude. But as I binge my way through each season, it dawns on me that maybe, hopefully, somewhere inside, I’m actually like Andy Dwyer. I respect Ron. I respect the way people respect him. I mean, he's Ron Goddamn Swanson. But Andy is who I want to be. He’s the me that sometimes, in the right moods, with the right people, I know I can be. Light, goofy, self-deprecating. Always caring. Always laughing. I’m 33. I guess it's not too late to be more Andy.
It's my final year of high school, a couple of weeks after picture day. The teacher hands us all a packet containing our headshots. I open the envelope and immediately shut it again. I suffer from pretty bad acne, and I've been dreading this. It's worse than I'd imagined. My skin is greasy, dotted with whiteheads, red blotches. My hair is over-gelled, my face twisted in a laugh. I'm not composed, the way everyone else is. The photographer told me a joke, captured my reaction, my contorted gurn. I'm devastated. I tuck the packet into my bag, slip out of the classroom. It's years before I let anyone else take my picture. Later, when I reflect on those days, I'll love myself for trying. For just leaving the house. For being scared and awkward and so deeply insecure. I'll love myself then, because right now, at 16, in tears because I feel so ugly, I can't imagine why anyone would.