SELF-MADE MAN #8: What Makes a Man


I cock my arm and send another heavy stone into the Atlantic.

“What makes a man,” I say, and, in the closing mouth of the ocean, it’s not a question anymore.

My wife launches her own rock. “Who I wanted us to be,” she says, and then that, too, is gone. We take turns, watching the arc and splash of each mistakes and assumption. We’re at it until our arms are the best kind of tired, until the fog rolls in.

We are in Provincetown but the wet bank of air clouds visibility just like it did most evenings in our other life in San Francisco. My brain calls up a reel of memories, Tulum and Mendocino, the Santa Cruz Mountains, the woods of New Hampshire: each place we’ve gone to let things go. I am grateful for the montage, for moments like this, when I feel my multiplicity blend into one life, despite the squaring of my face.

When there’s dissonance between past and present, I falter. Like the time at that movie theater in Somerville when the audience laughed at a joke about how narcoleptic women can fall asleep at orgasm. “I like to call that, ‘being a man,’ ” the actor said, eyebrows wiggling, and the audience guffawed knowingly. Oh, I thought. I felt myself levitate, a loosed balloon, leaving my unicorn body below.

Fuck you, I thought darkly, in the general direction of everyone.


“You’re like a teen,” my wife says. She means I’m spindly and raw, hormonal and a little lost. She also means I’m growing: a patch of beard, a new perspective, a sense of myself, embodied.

What makes a man? I’ll tell you. It is a wet night on the Cape and I am throwing a rock of my own expectations and watching it explode the surface on a salty body I will never understand, and it’s because I heard that laughter and decided not to let anyone answer that question but me.

I know it’s not a matter of construction, as I first envisioned, seeing the guy waiting for me in the mirror.  Sticking myself with a needle every Thursday, I thought it was just about bridging the gap between where I started and where I wanted to be. Now I know better as I wipe the bright red blossom off my thigh with a cotton pad and push my used needles into the plastic bio-waste container. I dump the pads and band-aids in the trash: my blood and the occasional oily excess of testosterone mixed, sent to scatter back to the earth. I am returned; I am everywhere.

So I throw the question into the water and let it sink. Because someone said we’re always meditating on something, but we get to choose what. Because bodies and the stories they tell fall apart, like a wave folding in on itself. You have to let life rise up and meet you.

If you can see that, you can see anything.

“This is my father,” I say, hurling one last stone, the biggest I can find. The fog bank is thick; I can only hear the water accept its weight. I take it on faith, just as I picture the way the ocean will worry away the stone’s last cracks. Then it will be spat back out on the shore, born again.

“Done?” she asks, turning to me.  I nod. There are people up ahead building a bonfire, huddled into themselves. They are ghostly and without gender; they could be us on Baker Beach, seven years ago, our lives together new and damp with fog, limitless.

She grabs my hand and it is right now but there’s that same feeling. The ocean has disappeared into the sky. “What’s next?” she asks.

It is so beautiful here, I think. I see the figures in the distance; I smell the smoke and hear the gulls divebombing the sea. I know we will find our way back. We’ve got nothing but time.


Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.

Thomas Page McBee’s Lambda award-winning memoir, Man Alive, was named a best book of 2014 by NPR Books, BuzzFeed, Kirkus, and Publisher's Weekly. His new book, Amateur, a reported memoir about learning how to box in order to understand masculinity’s tie to violence, was published in August to wide acclaim. Thomas was the first transgender man to box in Madison Square Garden, a “masculinity expert” for VICE, and the author of the columns “Self-Made Man” for The Rumpus and “The American Man” for Pacific Standard. His current column, "Amateur," is for Condé Nast's Them. A former senior editor at Quartz, his essays and reportage have appeared in the New York Times, Playboy, and Glamour. More from this author →