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SELF-MADE MAN #21: Love Your Zombie

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My closet is a graveyard. The clothes that no longer fit my broadening shoulders multiply by the month. They hang there, accusing: the custom suit I was married in; the patterned dress shirts my mom bought me for a birthday; the zip-up G-Star sweater I bought recklessly with grad school loans; the chambray shirt I wore over swim trunks throughout my honeymoon, back when I was hippy and soft-skinned.

Two years into the weekly shots, the needles no longer intimidate me, their hollowness a wormhole I shoot the magic through. Genes get turned on, I’m told: we’re born with both sets of blueprints, we all have a male and a female body inside us. One cannibalizes the other, you could say. That’s not a medical fact, that’s how I feel when I see my sideburns, when I smell my own spicy skin, when I get called bro by a tollbooth worker in western Mass, and then another closer to home.

I’m being honest: beginning again is a monstrous process, a real horror show.

I’m a bro, sure. Just like my friend, a new mom, says I’m like her—a body forever changed, passing between worlds. I’m an ex who no longer exists. I’m a brother that never was, a sudden-husband, a twin—the meaning of my name, Thomas. My birth name rests right alongside it, a reminder, a refusal to forget.

And yet.

Sometimes I get this ragged wind in my chest. It’s a graveyard in there, too: instead of clothes holding my ghost shape, it’s my old self that calls out from beneath bone. Change isn’t all beauty and biceps, sometimes it’s zombie parts hurtling on alongside my heart. The zombies, baffled, can’t squeeze into my old clothes. They haven’t caught up with the truth of this body: they walk me into a gay bar and then react with dumb indifference to the men who cruise me. They don’t understand that the queer women no longer recognize me, they smile chummily and everyone looks away.

when zombies attack

At the coffee shop, I stress about how long to interact with the woman I see every week. She has taken to calling me “dude” suddenly and with strange regularity, the word like a bit of garlic, a “bro”-like periphery between us.

Maybe not, that’s the thing. Being a man in the world is often, still, alien to me. There’s the young guy at the bar beside me this weekend, in dress sneakers and too much cologne, trying to impress a date who’s clearly indifferent to him. His desperation has him speaking up an octave, exposed in his brand-new blazer and theatrical kindness, and I wish I could tell him to be gentler with himself, I wish I could say, “Bro, let it go.”

Adaptation begins with acceptance. You probably don’t know what it’s like to hold your breath in an X-Ray scanner in a suburban strip mall, the beeping machine inching closer to your pelvis, the pad covering your groin but not hiding the fact of your difference from the lady behind the glass.

But you know about exposure. You know where you are vulnerable, where you are not who they expected. You have zombies shaped like memories or loves long-gone, you have clothes in your closet that hold selves you’ll never be. Maybe you’re still waiting or maybe, like me, you’re just beginning to let it go.

“You’re the same, but different,” everyone tells me. I am a bro, an ex, a husband, a twin. I am a new mom, a toll booth worker, a hormone, a ghost. I get right with that, I give my shirts away so they can be brought back to life by new bodies.

My zombies aren’t alive but I am, and I care for them so they know the difference. It’s a real horror show, but you know—they’re just asking to be considered, like that man at the bar; like you reading this; like me in my shirt that fits, thankful for the technician that saw all of me and handed me the X-ray film, saying everything by not saying a word.  

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Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Thomas Page McBee's essays and reportage have appeared on TheAtlantic.com, VICE, BuzzFeed, Salon, and in the New York Times. MAN ALIVE, 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 forgiveness. He is the managing editor of PolicyMic, and lives in the city that is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter, @ThomasPageMcBee, or visit thomaspagemcbee.com. More from this author →