SELF-MADE MAN #31: Tenderness, Too


This summer, three years into my life as a man, it finally fully feels like my body is flowering into the truth of it. It’s scruffier, sweatier, more embodied. It’s melted gum on the subway platform, hair curling against pomade’s mushy muscle, sloshy late-night Pimm’s Cups on my dusky rooftop, the sweat of held hands and damp beds and watery iced coffee cups blurred into photos I scroll through to try to pinpoint exactly when everything changed.

There’s not been a tipping point, more a collection of knife’s-edge moments. I gather them and build them into this house, with its shimmering morning summer sun blasting us awake after last night’s baffling fight and the choice we made on waking to turn toward each other and kiss clear through to the other side of it.

“Tough and tender,” she says, my beard scratchy in her hands. I’ve never been a guy falling in love, but I have asked for years what makes a man and here she is, with my answer.

I wake at dawn most days. I stay still and watch sunrise shadows move across my curtains and think, I paid for this life: not just the $60 a month and the weekly, oily ritual—the alcohol swabs and the gauze and the shot in the leg. I traded a body and a careful plan for fire escape views of this super moon, this city and all its jigsawed bodies, this soft animal beside me, one in nine million—the math of our meeting impossible and yet here we are. I traded hours on the rowing machine for this hard chest and the rough pillow it makes for this woman, who’s fallen for my cat, both of them belly-up and exposed in the shifting light, all three of us shepherding each other through into this glorious morning.

She runs hot, she says, and she’s right. She’s also, like me, rough and honest. A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with her in Bryant Park, having the kind of intimate whisper fight that’s many-tentacled and mysteriously metaphorical, about each other but also a wormhole, all of our past lives and their bad spells zombie-rising. I hung up the phone and sat and mangled a coffee cup in a shitty café on Sixth Avenue, adrenaline metal in my mouth.

Do you still want me to come over? She texted.

Of course, I wrote back.

I didn’t know what to say that night when she showed up at my door, so I asked her if she’d trim my beard. It made a different kind of sense: Let’s try this again; here’s my throat and a sharp thing. She sat on the counter and pulled my jaw to her and I kept my eyes closed, letting myself go. I thought what is life but this turn, this edge, this moment already slipping by, already gone.

We need these edges, and we need to push through them. Without the boxing gloves, without the spangle of nerves lighting up when I hear a guy threaten his girlfriend, without the mirror me I see each morning, the startle of the stranger I’ve become, I’d not have the moments that fall into place on the other side: the hot breath, the fist connecting to the bag, the fraternity of the guy on the train platform, laughing with me about the weight of my luggage.

The truth is, like you, I’ve got nothing but time. Like you, I’m nothing if not a house of cards and a shifting relationship to my own vulnerability. My body is expensive, violent, priceless. I paid in rough exchanges with meatheads and friends who fell quietly away and blood tests and shots and shots and shots to wake up a shirtless pillow on this hot July morning on the Lower East Side.

What changed was that I wanted more than anything to be alive and this summer I see that I’m nothing less.

To live is to expose your body to risk, like crosswalks and anesthesia and a woman who sees through you and tells you so. It’s train tracks and trust and words like knives across telephone lines and then those same mouths in real time, the jump-cut of new beginnings alongside bodies like mine, jagged with scars and holding sharp things to each others’ throats—all of it, every second of it, a tenderness, too.

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 →