I was in middle school the first time my mom told my dad to be a man. She slurred it across the table, her glass full of Chardonnay, little bottles she’d later hide behind dishes, under shelves, in the bottom of her purse. I egged her on, energized her as if she were a playground bully, me her sidekick. She hit herself in the cheek with a forkful of macaroni and cheese, repeated the demand and tried again, chewed, swallowed. A smear of orange stuck to her lip like a skin tag.
Dad’s task was to be a man in response to my brother and me daring the fat kid down the street to jump from our house to our shed, which he did but lodged himself knee-deep through the roof in the process. Mom didn’t clarify how being a man would solve this or what it entailed, but I implored her to continue. Dad put his head down and finished his dinner, let the words go over and around him. He set his dirty plate in the sink and went to bed without ever responding.
In the ninth grade, Sean Fischer called me a faggot for listening to Yellowcard at lunch. In the tenth grade, I joined the football team to prove him wrong. Coach made me an offensive lineman, said it was a good place for big boys like me, like Sean who sat two spots above me on the depth chart. Sean came up to me in the locker room after practice one day, late summer, my skin so slick from the sweat of two-a-days that my pads fell off as soon as I pulled free the Velcro, unclasped the buckles. He had a towel wrapped around his waist, a loose knot on the right side that showed a sliver of his hip, pale and smooth like honeydew melon. He whipped his fingertips across my chest, asked me if I brought my violin to practice. I bit my tongue against the sting of his fingernail scratching my nipple as he sneered, told me I had tits so big he could fuck them if he wanted. He grabbed a bottle of baby powder, unscrewed the lid and dumped it on my head, told me to soften up. I pulled off the rest of my pads, stuffed them into my locker and got dressed, walked home.
Mom never told me to be a man. Even when Dad had a seizure out of nowhere, cracked his head through the drywall in the middle of the night and laid limp in its aftermath, sweat-soaked in only his briefs, she kept me at arm’s length, insisted on picking him up even though I could have done it faster. I couldn’t mow the lawn enough, couldn’t fix the fence or the shed or the shitty lock on the front door enough, to necessitate being anything other than her cutie patootie. She’d call me this while bragging to my uncles about me—steelworkers, truck drivers, men who couldn’t care less whether their nephew lettered in music theatre, studied English. They snickered every time.
A police officer pulled me over for running a stoplight my senior year of college, asked for my ID and handed it straight back to me, said he wanted mine, not my girlfriend’s. I never paid the ticket.
AJ Spencer came up to me in the break room as I stuffed the last forkful of my second piece of cake into the side of my mouth. He slapped me on the shoulder, tousled my hair and told me I’ll be a great #girldad. He said it this way, hashtag girldad, as if our break room conversations could trend or matter to anyone else. I asked what he meant and he said you’ll just be good at it, you know, the hair and the emotions of it all, as if a son of mine would be born with a bowling ball smooth head, stoic, his face a quiet portrait even in hunger, in distress, in shitting himself. An infant Mona Lisa to be lifted on high. I told him I didn’t want a boy, that I’d been one, seen how shitty they can be. I licked the frosting off my fork and waited for a response, threw it in recycling and walked away when none came.
Jared Hamilton asked me in the locker room after a beer league hockey game why I never let anyone see my dick. My buddy Luke slapped my ass at a soccer game, asked me why I wore tight jeans if I didn’t want to be touched. I asked Jared why he was looking for it, Luke why he worried about my jeans when he wore gym shorts in public. Neither of them answered.
The last time I remember my mom telling my dad to be a man, she was drunk and couldn’t get off the ground. She’d fallen while getting out of her porch swing, landed on the concrete of the patio. Dad muttered a “god damnit” and asked me to help him. I’d come to town to talk about my kid on the way, show them pictures of the nursery-in-progress, grey walls with white furniture. We each got an arm under hers and lifted her up, loosened our grips as she put one foot in front of the other until she got to her recliner inside, the one she’d hide wine coolers in the crevices of, fall asleep in most nights. She thanked my dad, asked him for a cigarette, and he got one for her, lit it and everything while I sat on the far side of the couch. We watched an episode of Shark Tank in which an entrepreneur tried to sell a squirrel-proof bird feeder, one that uses electricity to keep the birds’ food safe. The sharks didn’t make an offer. Mr. Wonderful threatened to shock him with his own product.
Jared eventually kicked me off his hockey team. Not because I didn’t let anyone see my dick, but because I “just didn’t fit in with the locker room.” Mom died a few weeks later, so I decided to hold off on finding a new one.
I didn’t cry at Mom’s funeral. I tried because you’re supposed to cry at funerals, squeezed my eyes and clenched my jaw and waited for one to come, just a single tear, but I couldn’t do it. Dad sobbed against the casket, blubbered a “why did you leave us?” into the dress we’d picked out for her, and I wondered what she’d think of that, whether it even mattered.
Another beer league team picked me up a couple months later, same league and all. We played against Jared’s a few weeks into the season, and I scored the game-tying goal, shouted “fuck yeah” and punched the air as if I played for the Chicago Blackhawks and not for a Zoolander-themed squad called Blue Steel. The defenseman, a new guy they’d brought in, asked me if I talked to my mom like that, and the tears came, thick and fast as if I’d been slapped in the face. I pictured Dad crying against the casket, wondered why I couldn’t have blubbered with him then. I coughed up a sob and looked at the defenseman, ran the back of my hand across my face shield to rub my nose even though I couldn’t reach it. Sniffled instead. He lifted his hands for a second as if to fling off his gloves, maybe drop them, and I told him my mom was dead. He tilted his head, grabbed me by the shoulder of my jersey and pulled me into a hug, said he was sorry for my loss. I gurgled some snot back into my nose before it could run onto his jersey, swallowed it and said thanks, skated to the bench.
Adam Shaw lives with his wife and daughter in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of the novel The Jackals and the memoir Sportsman’s Paradise, and his work can be found in Taco Bell Quarterly, The Daily Drunk, Sledgehammer Lit, and elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @adamshaw502.