SELF-MADE MAN #28: The Lion, the Lamb, and the Grown Man


This is for you.

It’s birthday season. I spent the beginning of the month over at Three Kings in Williamsburg, getting tattooed by a burly, metal-head mystic. The lion swirls across the top of my right hand; the lamb is lit up in miracle-purple over my left. If we were ever in a fistfight, you’d see them the way I do: graceful, brutal, intricate, capable of great paradox.

Maybe then you’d understand the question I keep like a swollen secret in my chest: How to be the man who’s grown territorial about my shadow side—its perimeter mapped out in epic, animal nights—knowing that all the jaw-clenching, needle-on-knuckle pain won’t harden the light of this lamb, shining tenderly over whatever wildness I get into?

The tattoo’s still fresh, so the lamb has been molting all week. On the subway I think I could fall for anyone in this train car but I chose you. Anyway, healing is ugly and so are broken hearts but I don’t mind. I know I said we should have left it at the top of the Empire State Building but we both know I didn’t mean it.

When’s the last time you felt integrity in your body? My shrink asked and I cited that night because we were so much higher than the rest of New York, little kids grown into gods. I’d already decided on you and your wolves’ teeth but I knew it wasn’t possible and I said so. Underneath, the lion beckoned: Fuck it. The heart wants what the heart wants.

I was right, I told my therapist. That’s the integrity.

About which part? He asked.

Both, I said.


I talk to my ex who is also my best friend. She says I’m a grown man. She says: Don’t forget you’re strong in ways that other people can’t fathom. She also tells me that my heart needs to learn a little discrimination.

But she knows that she was a chance I took once, too.

Still, she tells me that my greatest strength is my greatest weakness: I’ll see the good in you despite your fallacies, and I won’t let it go. I guess some things never change, like I suck at trimming my cat’s nails and the lamb will never get the same credit as the lion, and if I love you I won’t stop. Don’t believe me if I run into you and say otherwise, but allow me my pride and pretend you do.

So here I am, passing at this straight bar, talking to a vacant-eyed woman I don’t care about, biding time. The Buddhist teacher in Williamsburg said we will only ever experience the world through our own minds. I want to love myself, I really do. I should say that I’m scared, that I drank a fifth of whiskey the other night and wandered through the East Village in the snow and then sat through a movie I didn’t really watch just to not have to think. I don’t always know myself so well anymore, grown man that I am. But I’ve got this lamb and this lion and this brutal city I adore just like a beautiful, broken woman who can’t love me back.


Of course, the story of the lion and the lamb is itself a blur, as illusory as these hands bare-knuckling a speed bag, faster and faster until all you see is blood and ink so bright it glows.

I only found out once I was bandaged and tender, ink leaking onto Saran wrap in hot, painful waves. The lion never lies with the lamb in Isaiah 11:6. The wolf does:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,

and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,

and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;

and a little child shall lead them.

But that doesn’t make the heart of it any less true—in fact, maybe it’s truer still. The mystery, the paradox, holds more reality than the narrative. I can say that you changed my life and mean we were like two fighting lions. I needed that edge to see where I was soft. I wanted both truths to hold, just like they did that night at the top of the Empire State Building when the porter barked,

Going down?

                                    Going down?  

                                                            Going down?

                                                                         And it felt like a challenge, I’ll admit it.

Just like you. I bought you that book on physics because we know about wormholes. Anyone with a shitty childhood grows up shuttling between them. The other side of that truth is that some moments are perfect, and we can live whole lives within them. Above it all that night, I saw an apartment filled with plants and trips to Paris and Cuba and then a cabin upstate with backyard chickens and a one-eyed, arthritic cat. It all came through, your head on my chest. Maybe in the end that’s enough.

The last time I saw you I stood, poetically, in the same kitchen at the same house where we’d first met. We locked eyes across the room and just like that I knew we were lost to each other like strangers, yet another mystery to integrate.

But this is also true: the day before, as we crossed Avenue A, half-drunk and light on our feet, you almost died. You charged right into traffic like the world belonged to you, lion, and I followed you clear through to the yellow line before I realized what I’d done. As that cab sped toward us I felt in myself an impossible strength and I reached out my beast right hand and lifted you up, lamb. I felt the life in your soft skin and wicked nails and was so glad for you.

Thank you for saving my life, you said, once we were halfway through the park. I looked to see if you were serious, and you smiled that slow smile. I mumbled something about it being nothing, but it wasn’t. It was every moment that led up to it. It was time suspended and a choice. It was an alternative too dark to consider.  It was integration: pure as pure gets, my animal body met my sweet and believing heart.

If you don’t believe in fate, my tattoo artist agreed, when I told him about you, you better believe in something.

Oh, I told him, I do.

What? He asked.

People, I said, and he shook his head and smiled, like everyone always does. But I’ve never been wrong, grown man that I am. Not once.


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 →