SELF-MADE MAN #7: Translator

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Em and I were both poets in high school, though she is the last one standing, her body of work forming into something beautiful as the son in her belly. Back then I liked her because she never fell for my tough guy act, my cigarettes and silly strut. She was quiet, watchful. You’re a translator, she said senior year, up on her roof in Shadyside. It was just the kind of thing she’d say, but I remember feeling seen and useful. Then she held my eyes and told me that the neighborhood kids had taken to jumping from roof to roof, and I knew even then that she could make anything a metaphor. Aren’t they scared? I said, or maybe I just thought it, but that wasn’t the point so she didn’t answer.

Translator, I’ve thought, a filter to see the world through a way to make sense. I’m not part of any flock, but I’ve come to believe that belonging happens in windows of time, not cross-identified bodies. I am the red-faced, bull dog man at work who never smiles at me, I am the long-haired, nerdy barista who gave me a free coffee just because, I am the friends I can talk to and the ones I can’t. I am not a trans man, or a man, or a writer, even: not when it comes down to it. Not when it really matters.

I’d tried to think this way as a practice, back when my shirtless body was dissonant and drawing the stares of beachcombers. I looked for the one sunburned woman who’d meet my gaze, knowing the seagulls sounded the same to both of us.

Sometimes I still find overlap in unexpected places: like the sad eyes of the last guy in a man-wall of Sox fans who, stringing themselves across my path, muscled me off the sidewalk because they were drunk or maybe just because they could.

What I mean is that the words that defined me collapsed with that first shot of testosterone. Lately I’ve seen myself in the bespectacled muscleheads on YouTube who explain patiently, over and over, the best form for a hanging leg raise. Their encouragement gives me a settled feeling. I love seeing the theorists rail passionately about Atkins being bullshit and fuck Crossfit, all you need are some free weights and a little common sense. They are almost always trainers-for-hire, but they post video after video explaining how to work out without them.

Sometimes I read their bios, and the best ones reveal in plain language the story of a childhood bully or just an invisible, pimply adolescence, and then a hero’s journey from duckling to swan. There are long nights in parents’ garages, just a guy and a sandbag, a jump rope and a Rocky poster. These are the guys that make the case for sprints and dead lifts over shaky cameras and lo-fi soundtracks, editing their videos on home computers; anonymous crusaders reminding us that our muscle fibers must be broken down in order to be built up.

I think of Em, and how connection now feels like cans on string, like throwing my metal telephone through the closest open window. I can relate to anyone, I guess I’m different that way. When the woman upstairs got pregnant soon after I started testosterone, we would compare notes about our blossoming bodies. I could tell she was reluctant to see our commonality at first, but I pressed on because I was lonely. Eventually we’d sit in the backyard and I’d ask about “baby brain” and she’d tell me my neck looked thicker. She went to mommy yoga and I’d go inside and work on my core, quivering through a 90 second plank because the YouTube trainers said you need to stabilize your base.

That was last summer, and the weather’s turned warm again. Em called a couple weeks ago and we talked about how to choose a name for a person you didn’t know. What about you? She asked. How did you pick Thomas? We are each others’ translators, I realized. On Newbury Street, there were women in their practical post-work sneakers streaming by me, and in the back of my mind was that evening on the rooftop when I’d told Em a secret: that every night when I got home I’d look up and find a familiar constellation, that it felt like everything would be alright as long as the stars saw me. Maybe she got that metaphor too, the one about needing a witness.

In our distance, her voice was familiar even if her body was beyond my imaginings. I realized that she’d probably say the same for me. I sat on the same sidewalk I’d stumbled drunkenly down in college and she was in her newly purchased house in our hometown, her baby growing lungs inside her.

I feel like I’m on a giant precipice, she’d said. I told her I knew that edge, it looked like the minutes before the first needle slid through my skin, when I sat in a doctor’s office and glanced over the side like a neighborhood kid with shaky knees. The moment presents itself, though, it opens like a window, and then you just leap.


Thomas Page McBee's essays and reportage have appeared on TheAtlantic.com, VICE, BuzzFeed, Salon, and in the New York Times. Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man, his memoir about violence and what makes a man, is forthcoming this fall from City Lights/Sister Spit, and he is now at work on a book about masculinity. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter, @ThomasPageMcBee, or visit thomaspagemcbee.com. More from this author →