Self-Made Man #22: Second Person


The part I don’t really get is when the guy in the mask changes his mind. I don’t know much about dream theory but once a friend said to another at a party, “What did the dream want?” and everyone stopped, mid-drink.

What did the dream want? Is there any surer way to your heart than that?

He’d told us all to stay down, heads on the floor of the diner, his mask the type that freaked me out at my grandparents’ house as a kid: see-through, a painted face with rouged cheeks, so that his features were obscured but present.

My cheek’s pressed to dirty, black and white linoleum. I can see Michael, my wife, and a woman behind her, hair dyed and frizzy. In the dream I’m reminded of the real-life mugging on 41st Street back in Oakland, my view of the gun from my knees, my far-away sense that I would die. But I didn’t die. In the dream I comfort myself with the reality of my waking life, but then the masked man changes his mind.

He shoots the dyed-hair lady, the beer-gut man, the sorority girl. Who are these people? The going theory is that each person in your dreams represents a part of yourself.

The man turns to Michael; I watch it happen. She slumps and I rise like a lion. I rush the man and, even though she is dead and I will die, I’m surprised at my valor. I see the gun and the man’s terrible, blurry face. I leap even though I don’t believe I am the kind of person who leaps. I guess that’s what the dream wants: for me to know that the worst kind of man, the man I was scared of becoming, doesn’t frighten me any more.


Today I stuck myself with a needle. I’m jangly with testosterone. Later I’ll go swim it off. I’ll make my body straight as the line on the floor of the pool. In the locker room, men will wander bare-assed past me, unselfconscious and beautiful, all of them. I will wait until they aren’t looking to pull off my shorts, or will change behind the curtained shower stall, even though I’m beautiful, too.

A secret I kept, even from myself: I quit soccer, basketball, and the swim team because I couldn’t regulate my breath. I’d quietly panic, raise my head to a cheering crowd, but could only see my father, a specter, watching like the man with the mask. My fear was shallow in my chest; it gathered there and I couldn’t keep my core strong enough to draw myself down.

“Focus,” one coach after another would yell. I ran a mile around the rubber track, ignoring my own tunnel vision, until I hyperventilated. Without breath, we are fight or flight.

It’s funny to put on goggles now and dive right in. Stroke, stroke, breath. I can’t escape all that’s stored in these ballooning muscles. The dream, maybe, was about how I’d had the wrong idea all along.


Michael says I picked the perfect name for myself: Thomas, Aramaic for twin. I think of the apostle Thomas, doubting Thomas. They say he didn’t believe that Christ was resurrected until he could see the wounds himself.

Faith, as we all know, is nothing without the shadow of doubt that highlights it. I was nearly certain that I couldn’t be the man I’ve become. I am a better person than I thought, even if I am still, sometimes in a foggy mirror, a stranger to myself.


The students in my short fiction class this spring were fascinated with second person. The biology majors, especially, liked the idea of a narrator that was instructive and universal, the reader and the author at once.

“You” could do what “I” couldn’t, they told me. Their yous told semi-fictions about souring romances and abusive parents. “You” learned you couldn’t go home again, and you are right.

You stick yourself in the thigh, strangely comforted by the sight of your blood. You like the fact of yourself, the hair inching over the tops of your hands.

You taste like chlorine; you lose a swim meet in a girl’s suit and raise your head to a quiet gym in perfect, red trunks. You dream yourself into being; you, your own twin—you come as you are: the second person and the first one, too.


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 →