Self-Made Man #24: Love Your Emergency

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I’m told that in An Affair to Remember, a man waits at the top of the Empire State Building for a lover who never comes.

I’m also told that it ends well. I don’t want to watch it to find out; I just want life to happen to me on a first-frost weeknight, shivering from that hero’s romantic post, miles above Manhattan. I was last here with an ex at the same strange, empty hour, many years before I became a man. As I look toward the East River and my teenage summers, I sometimes see my old body continuing on without me, living the slow-and-steady life I’d planned for so carefully and not this spectacular mess I’ve come, I think, to prefer.

Maybe I’ve got that heartbreak glow: I’m open to every subway crier and the sweaty press of whoever’s dancing body wants to hold me up. I’ve got that three-Negroni-cocktail shuffle, that back-of-the-cab, empty-headed rush, that phone number, that endless weekend, that vortex, that clarity of self that comes when there’s nothing but headphones on the subway and home-alone head colds to cocoon your reality from anyone else’s. There’s no avoiding the stink and money and hope of it, no mistaking these parts of me forming a mosaic darker than expected, albeit more complete.

***

It’s at the top of the Empire State Building that I first think you can never really be above it all, but you can get a little perspective: Orion hangdog in a clear sky, each body alone among the sex clubs and big-screen sports bars and drug deals, the elevator man inquiring in a clipped, unplaceable accent, “Anybody going down?” over and over,

as if we all

aren’t

eventually.

The body of this city is blurred as my own from a distance: the twinkling red-and-white emergencies, delicate as death in Midtown, Chelsea, Union Square. I think of the ways I’ve engineered myself, how I’ve worked my pecs hard as armor but I’ll never control the dose of testosterone exactly, never stick that needle in and not find myself little bloody after, sesame oil messy on the tips of my fingers, the occasional site infection, the potential cancer, the life I choose and its side effects.

Since testosterone, my body and I have had to get right with each other. I know when I need to row thirty hard minutes midday, to dance, to dress so I cut like a knife through a room. I still can’t get the temperature right. I’m furrier, warmer. You’re on fire, my friend says, like it’s a good thing.

I am always among strangers and near-strangers, and I am a stranger to everyone. I make space for insecurity at the bar, for break-up fights in the street. I’m no better than anyone.

At a friend’s house in Brooklyn, I am aware of my body after a seven-mile bike ride on the last warm night of the year. I feel sturdy in even my softest places, conscious of all my paradoxes. I meet a woman who asks if I think we can ever be more than our reactions. I say yes because I know what she means: we carry a separate body beneath the ones we show, one full of tender spangles that we fight or flight or flee rather than face, the animals that we are. I know like attracts like, and lately I’ve quit being startled by the spooky regularity with which I repeat this conversation: with my buddy one night in Chinatown who says he’s still learning to be present in bed, with my friend who texts me from San Francisco to ask if she’ll ever learn to stop being in the same relationship with different people.

Can we be more than our reactions? A cold, greasy slide in my chest can be fear or the first streak of attraction. I can’t stop the mix-up, only get forensic in the interpretation.

That night, on top of the Empire State Building, my old body crossed over this one just like time folded when I walked by the skyscraper the next day on my way to work. It was morning and everything felt different, brighter, the guys hustling tours in sunglasses, the people in line less mysterious than my midnight compatriots, less ready somehow for what could be found way up there.

I wish I’d told the woman in Brooklyn that we can only hold the muscle of what we most love about ourselves alongside the little terrors that haunt us, but nothing is ever erased. We’re just bodies stamped with time, moving through space, coming together, coming undone. Those red-and-white emergencies sparkle with their own terrible beauty, but you have to stay up late, you have to ignore the call of the elevator operator, you have to wait long enough and love it all hard enough to really, really see.


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 →