“If he had learned anything in manhood, it was that it didn’t matter what other people thought of him—even the ones he respected. In the end, he would patch together a life, with its sorry errors and its triumphs, just as they had.” – Conn Iggulden
When I was younger, we played a lot in the streets and parks. The “little park” had a tall, metal, fire-engine red and McDonald’s yellow slide that was about ten feet tall. It looked dangerous and fun. It also had two sets of swings that were also tall and long like you could swing up to heaven.
The swing set and slide had probably been many colors before those two, but when the handy man got bored, he changed it. Red and yellow must have been his favorite because it’s the only colors I remember them being. At the “little park,” we did things we knew we shouldn’t: sliding down the slide backwards, jumping high off of the swings, playing hide-go-seek-and-freak.
For example, one day I pissed another boy off and as I was climbing up the slide, he kicked me square in the chest and I fell off, landing right on my back. The wind was knocked out of me and I felt like I’d died. I gasped what felt like my last breaths to the soundtrack of his laughter.
Staring at the clouds, I thought about the end until someone yelled, “Getcha ass up! I’m tryna go up the slide and you in my way.” So I did. Quietly. My head eternally facing down, choking back what others would dare to call tears. I went to the “big park” where they couldn’t see me….
The concept of the games at the playground was riddled with contradiction like our existence; we played with danger to feel safe because when we felt safe we were in danger.
The “big park” was something hideous, until we got a fancy, plastic playground from the city government and something we’d never seen before: woodchips. When the group of white workers first came, they dumped a mountain of woodchips in the center, and promised they’d come back after suggesting we shouldn’t touch it. But we didn’t listen. No one did.
Instead, all of the kids in the neighborhood and the young adults took turns frolicking and running up and over this newly created mountain the whole weekend. We even had a big cookout just so people could play in it as the older men laughed holding their bellies and the women hackled, flashing decorative talons that were the colors of the rainbow.
That weekend, we had what felt like the Olympic games, consisting of: jungle gym chicken matches, acrobat contests on the big swings, and the main event, the merry-go-round, where men tested the manliness of little boys.
With the merry-go-round in their grasp, and the boys who were pre-teens and younger clustered in the center, older men and the “big boys” from nearby high schools would spin it as hard and fast as they could until you’d fall off crying, eat dirt, or both.
The concept of the games at the playground was riddled with contradictions like our existence; we played with danger to feel safe because when we felt safe we were in danger.
One time, I was the last one to fall off the merry-go-round; it took four men with muscles to spin it so fast that when I hit the ground, I tasted blood and dirt, after crashing into one of the guys, knocking him down by accident. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. The pain lasted over an hour. And then I got back on the merry-go-round. We all did.
Although I was small and looked fragile, I had a mouth that could kill and a will that I knew would outlive me. But that didn’t mean I could take a punch any better than I could throw one. So when a boy threatened to “beat me to sleep,” I asked if we could make a deal.
Instead of a knock-down-drag-out fight that I knew I would lose, I suggested we test who was tougher through a chicken run where we would run in the same direction and see who was left standing after we collide, if neither of us punked out. He was nearly twice my size, so he agreed faster than I wanted him to.
I would never relent to being labeled a punk. It was a fate worse than death. Or more like a fate worse than life when you looked forward to death. So, I ran as fast and as hard as I could to intimidate him.
We walked nearly 50 yards away from one another and ran toward each other at full speed. No matter what people said about me, or what they did, I would never relent to being labeled a punk. It was a fate worse than death. Or more like a fate worse than life when you looked forward to death. So, I ran as fast and as hard as I could to intimidate him.
My size made me fast and lethal like a bullet. As we got closer, he started to yell and scream, but my eyes stayed fixed on the center of his chest where I planned to run through him. The yards turned into feet and then into steps where our toes barely touched the ground. And when we were close enough to be afraid of one another, I realized he had just as much to lose as I did, and that’s when it happened: CRAAASSSSHHHHH.
We collided with such force that we were both flung in opposite directions. We lay contorted nearly crying in pain. I tasted blood and my bottom two teeth felt like someone had lit my gums on fire. I tasted the grains of enamel, and tried not to think about the damage. We looked at each other. He staggered to his feet, fuming. He said I was fucked up and crazy. He was right. And I never had to worry about him again.
But that wouldn’t be the last time I’d have to pay in blood, sweat, and tears–or in this case, pieces of my teeth–to prove I was a boy worthy of growing into a man. That was the case for all of us: boys whose fathers were bold enough to be gone, so we strutted bird-chests-and-all in their place, proud to be their offspring.
We constructed seemingly invincible boy-built masculinities that were secretly fragile. The blind leading the blind, we followed the loudest one who claimed to have (in)sight. The one who could fit into the impossible definition of manhood before us. Who had mastered only a little bit, but enough to make us feel less than, which meant it had to be true. Only when we got older–when some of us died while others lived–did we learn the truth: we never knew what we were doing. Nobody did.
We still search [for the answer of what it means to be a man]–chipped teeth and all. Secretly praying for permission to listen to the voice in our hearts whispering, “It’s okay to be who you want to be. You’re enough, already.”