SELF-MADE MAN #30: Tenderness

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My friend and I are at a fight night near Wall Street in this busted gym full of popped-collar muscle bros and their long-nailed girlfriends, guys in ties just getting off work, and a surprising assortment of Brooklyn dudes in tight jeans and glasses. Everything’s cliché: the overpriced beer, the shitty Vegas faux-Greek columns, the fighters’ Springsteen theme songs, me—but I admit that that’s why I’m here. There’s a beauty to this masculinity, my body a dream, my body passing among the cross necklaces and mustaches, my body in this chorus, all of us sweating up the air.

I might inject testosterone every Thursday, but each man here is his own snowflake mix of glory days and Hail Mary second chances. We speak our locker room language of bad breakups and late-night hard mirror stares; we buoy each other; we say without words that we get it. We’re all in it together, armored with our spray cologne and tattoos and biceps.

The fighters—the fight—is secondary; a metaphor. What matters is the cigarette sneaked out the back door by a scrawny guy with sad eyes, the dude behind me jawing about his broken heart, the fact that I’m a few beers in and thinking about the courage it takes just to hold your head up, knowing that much of the time you’re—we’re—plain outmatched.

The ring is slick and vaguely sweaty, I think, as the first two fighters emerge in their shiny shorts and warrior robes. The tension and pomp and body fluid remind me of course of sex, what else? It’s impossible to be wild and not find your way, inevitably, here—those late nights and bruised mornings in the darkest, most tender place of all.

 

My barber got his ass cheeks elaborately tattooed, a fact I know because he showed me photos on his phone. We’re close in the way men are close, in that I know about his girlfriend who is married and he gives me romantic advice that I disregard and shows me pictures of his butt. He is crass and handsome, rock and roll, and he talks about dicks a lot in that over-the-top queer way straight men do to prove how not gay they are.  

I mean he knows nothing about me, except what’s really important, like who and how I love. We are both smitten, hung up, surprised at our own hearts and we touch on that every few weeks, delicately and in tiny details, but I know that when he talks about her tattoos with dopey reverence or when I say that this girl I’m seeing makes me feel insane, like spring fever insane, we both know that the other is done for.

So we talk about pretty much everything else, but mostly sex and sleep and how our hand tattoos make us look like assholes, which we both say but don’t mean. After he shows me the photo, I ask him if he feels less vulnerable sleeping with women for the first time with so much ink on his most private parts.

“My man,” he says, running a straight razor along my jaw,  “I thought it would be like wearing clothes all the time, but when you’re naked, your naked, you know?”

When the bantamweights appear, two 19-year-old kids, they are startling under the lights, exposed animals despite their elaborate tribal tattoos and the tight ripple of their abs. It’s alarming to see so much woundable flesh, and it’s a little religious too—what is more fundamental than the body and its desires and vulnerabilities, on display? 

The boys remind me of myself. Their mouth guards are touching, so large against their teeth. They are bumbling, all elbows, just on the other side of puberty, barely men at all.

They bump gloves and for a moment, there’s silence. We watch, we wait with them, anticipation hot in our stomachs. Then they turn on each other and swing hard until the sick sound of glove on flesh becomes monotonous, until they are locked together against the ropes, holding each other in their own wounded sort of love.

 

When you’re naked, you’re naked, you know?

I met a woman with magnetic eyes around the same time as the fight this winter. We were at a strange dance party in a community gym and our conversation felt like those guys looked: a dance and a hug and a missed swing at once.

I can’t explain it. I don’t have a story for what happened next, just that one moment she was a stranger and I was strange, a person used to being watched but not seen, not the way she looked at me: with something less judging than appraisal but just as cool, a drink in her hand and then another that I bought her. I felt exposed in ways I didn’t understand, bruised and breathless. I felt held, and a little alone, like the guy who just got pummeled and has his gloves on the other dude’s shoulders and sometimes they just stand there a minute, even though it makes no sense, even though the one should let the other fall.

And I did. Now it’s summer and the light blasts us awake by 7, her head on my shoulder, my hands in her hair, the bruises no longer metaphors but maps.

“Tough and tender,” she says, all the time, and with her I’m not ashamed to be a kind man, to be the kind of man who will hit someone if it comes to it but would rather kiss your eyelids, my thumbs on your cheekbones, waiting to be lifted by the push of your smile.

“We have a thing,” I say, and I mean something sweet as bruised fruit on a fire escape and this infinity summer, these nights one long conversation, coming undone slowly like unraveling a hand wrap after a fight.

 

I tell my friend that I think a guy boxes like he fucks by which I mean he is his truest self out there. He laughs but I mean it.

He says he’s dumb but dogged, that he’d just swing and swing.

What kind of boxer am I? I ask. He says smart and that’s nice but he’s wrong.

What kind of man am I? This month, I’ll have been on testosterone for three years. I know now that I fight like I live. I’m a special kind of brutal; I’m beautiful; I’m grace and the bluest part of fire.  If I want you, I want you. I don’t lose faith on anyone else’s terms.

I go until I can’t, and even then I hold you, still.


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 →