Self-Made Man #27: Fool

By

The Empire State Building is visible from almost anywhere in lower Manhattan, stretched like the ghost-neck of a woman I know, the both of them arching skyward like swans.

The story starts in so many places: like everything in New York, there’s a whiff of particle physics, of past lives. Nine million of us glance off each other like so many atoms. We absorb. We explode. We met at a party.

“It’s all about chance,” my ex says. “And how you react to it.”

Chance seems less cosmic than the forcefield-feel of that first night in Brooklyn, the moment I knew I was a fool in the grand tradition of fools. Fools rush in. I’m a fool for you, holding a still place in my heart that looks like a werewolf and smells like red wine and vetiver.

Meanwhile, that skyscraper shadows me, blinking its ever-changing color code. It is my favorite of all the spectres that layer over my nights here, a reminder of a cold Wednesday night I spent surveying the ambulances and strip clubs and imagining the cockroaches hard at work below. I’d promised myself just then that I’d leap at whatever my heart compassed me toward, and of course the woman from the party was there, and yes she pulled me to her.

“We get the love we think we deserve,” I’d told her.

“Going down?” the elevator attendant asked.

“No,” we said. “Not yet.”

Star-crossed, it seems, or maybe just meeting at an eclipse. An open heart is a broken one, everybody knows that.

“Drive a car real fast about it,” my friend advises me, when she’s gone, over drinks at a dive bar in the East Village. He’s the one who told me about foxgloves, the plant with the finger-shaped flowers that can both start and stop the heart. I get it, but when he and I say goodbye at the train, I look up and there she is, still flickering messages to me into the night.

“Buck up, champ,” my ex used to joke, laying her hand on my heart.empirestate

Did I ever. Four years ago, a man held a gun to my head and then let me go. I felt myself transform as I shot off on my own two feet. Though I didn’t begin injecting testosterone for another year, I became a man that night, in a rush of fog and sweat. Point is, I’d rather my heart stop from the same poison that started it, wouldn’t you?

This town has made me believe in holy messes, long chances, love at first sight. I tell a friend I dated back in high school all about it over a drink in Greenpoint and she says, “You’ve always been the bravest fool I know.”

Maybe so. I’d rather monkeybar across this subway car than turn away from possibility. I’m the guy who took off running in Oakland and never stopped. I changed my name to Thomas, twin, because I am the same animal, with more hair and a hungrier heart. Nothing is constant but the chugging beat of it, and the one time that was almost stolen from me I realized that nothing but this body mattered, no one but me has the right to this story.

You are all just beautiful characters in it.

And some of you are stars. “We’ve known each other a long time,” she says on the phone, and even though we haven’t, she’s right.

The night of the snow storm, I tell the guy tattooing the lion on my hand in Williamsburg that I’ve come to believe that the narratives that matter the most in my life are the ones I can’t name or understand.

“Outsiders ride through life differently,” he tells me, nodding toward the occult symbols papering his walls. “Anyway, you’re one fucking tough dude,” he says, running that needle along my knuckle. “You’ll be all right.”

He bandages me like a boxer, and by the time I leave, the pain is a thick and relentless siren. You need to feel it to know you’re alive.

I catch the L into Union Square and come above ground just to look at the Empire State Building. I walk up 6th Ave trailing ghosts. Later I will let them climb into my bed and lay their shivering hands on me.

I’m not afraid of what I can’t see. I am a fool: I believe in what’s found there.

I don’t traffic in red flags. I stood above the city and promised myself to all of it. I can always fail better, I’m coming apart in the places I need to shed. I will keep turning toward you. Keep on breaking my heart.

***

Image credit.


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 →