Not even the most loving father can protect his son from the playgrounds, bars, and parking lots where bullies lurk, where soft emotions are hunted down and targeted, where fear becomes rage, and rage becomes violence.
Why would a man hope for a daughter over a son? Steve Almond—one of the Good Men Project book contributors—answers that question in this week’s installment of the GMP book excerpt series. (To read more like this, you can check out the book here.)
Here’s the Bad News, Son
By Steve Almond
I’m in the library of a small college in Salt Lake City when my cell phone rings. It’s my wife calling from our home in Boston. She’s just visited her ob-gyn. We’ve been waiting for the results of various prenatal tests. I walk to the bathroom, lock the door, and flip the phone open.
My wife sounds happy, a little out of breath. “Everything went great. No problems.” She pauses. “They did another ultrasound.”
By this she means, I know the gender of the child. This is a touchy subject, because both of us have been forthright about our desire for female offspring. When my wife told me, two years ago, that our first child was a daughter, I flushed with joy.
“Do you want to know?” my wife asks.
She’s in such a buoyant mood. We must be having another girl.
“Sure,” I say.
“It’s a boy,” she says.
I close my eyes. My forehead thuds softly against the mirror over the sink. It’s my job now to say something, rather quickly, about how great this is, how excited I am to be having a son, a bouncing baby boy, an heir to carry on our silly family name. But when I open my eyes, the light inside the bathroom is a sickly yellow and my chest is hammering with panic.
My older brother Dave and I are fighting in the TV room. It’s a boy fight: hurled fists and grunting. Our dad is seated on the piano bench, watching this awkward spectacle. He believes we need to “get our aggression out,” and that there’s no other way to do it. He’s even sort of rooting me on, because Dave is bigger and I need to stand up for myself.
Dave grabs my hair and pulls down until I’m jackknifed at the waist, my head trapped below his chest. “Calm down,” he says. “I’m not going to let you up until you quit spazzing out.”
“You fucking pulled my hair!”
I’m appealing, I guess, to our dad. But he’s no longer in the room.
I finally agree to calm down.
The moment Dave lets me up, I swing for his jaw and land a glancing blow. Later, after we’ve retreated to our rooms, our father comes to check on me. I’m lying on the blue rug, crying. He tells me Dave has a broken hand, from when he hit the coffee table. He’d been aiming for my skull.
Around this time, I become convinced that Peter Guerrero wants to kick my ass. I have no idea how this notion has taken root, but I spend every lunch period obsessing over it. Peter is a pudgy kid with a rash that makes the skin on his arms red and flaky. I am constantly thinking about where he is, where I can and cannot walk, what to say if he approaches me.
This is how I understand masculinity to operate: Either you are a bully or you are bullied. You find a weaker boy to absorb your humiliation, or you are that boy.
A few years later, the bully is a kid named Sean Linden, who organizes a posse of his friends to antagonize me. For months, they call me names and issue threats. Linden never gives any indication of why he has targeted me, and I never ask. All we know is that because I’m too frightened to fight back, I’ve consented to this arrangement.
The only arena in which I enjoy some measure of physical pride is the soccer field, where I’m small but quick, a star. One year, I lead my team all the way to the city championship game. I score a goal early and assist on a second, which puts us up 2-0 at halftime. Then a teammate tells me that the toughest kid on the other team is going to beat me up after the game. I spend the second half in a silent panic. We lose the game 3-2. I’m convinced my cowardice is to blame.
I work hard in college to convince the world I’ve outgrown savagery. I quit the soccer team. I rally for nuclear disarmament. I adopt the prevailing feminist spellings (“women” becomes “womyn”). But when my girlfriend makes an offhand joke questioning my manhood, I punch a hole in her bedroom wall.
I’m in Miami Beach, working for another newspaper. I make a right turn onto a main road, and within a few hundred yards a gold sports coupe cuts me off. I honk at the driver because I’m not going to let some dick do that to me. The driver responds by slamming on his brakes so that I’m forced to slam on my brakes. Then he does it again.
When we come to a red light, the guy glares at me in his rearview mirror, and I glare back. Then he gets out of his car—we’re in the middle of a busy street—and marches back to my car. He’s screaming about how I cut him off, evidently before he cut me off. I roll down my window, meaning to tell him, basically, Okay, calm down. I apologize. But before I can say anything, the world swings out of focus, and then I’m staring at my car’s grubby carpet beneath the passenger seat, where, curiously, my glasses are lying. It takes a second to dawn on me: I’ve just been punched. Hard.
The guy hurries back to his car, jumps in, and burns rubber around the corner. Blood is tickling my cheek, from where the rim of my glasses cut into my skin. I pull up at the nearest shop, a pharmacy, and ask if they have ice. The girl at the register stares at me with her mouth open. I am bleeding onto the floor. “This guy sucker punched me,” I say. “Right in the middle of traffic. Can you believe that?”
I tell my friends that the cut on my face is from basketball. But I know the truth. I’m lucky the guy didn’t drag me out of my car, didn’t have a weapon, didn’t turn me into the sort of violent headline I might read about in the Metro section while imagining the victim as a pathetic wimp.
My wife is downstairs with our daughter. I can hear them playing with the new paint set. I’m upstairs working on my novel. Except half the time, I’m not writing at all. I’m trolling YouTube for old boxing matches, street brawls, ultimate fighting—the pornography of the bullied. I watch these scenes with a scalding, masturbatory shame. My fists twitch and flex. I’m like a Catholic kid frisking myself for that forbidden rush of adrenaline.
Or maybe I’m in my car, immersed in the molten wrath of Boston traffic. This is where I indulge my other secret vice: talk radio. Limbaugh. Hannity. Savage—our maestros of rage, each a Joe McCarthy Mini-Me. Grievance is their siren’s call. “You are all victims!” they sing. “Are you going to let these [fill in the blank] kick us around? Fight back!”
These guys represent everything I despise. They’re vampires of the soul, feeding on the psychic damage of their congregations. And yet listening to them is a kind of seduction. It’s like tuning in to an emotional oldies station. The louder they wail, the deeper I descend into that primordial realm where nobody ever admits he’s wrong or uncertain or frightened, where sadism is the chosen means of eradicating shame. Welcome to masculinity stunted at age five.
So now you know why I feared having a son, and why, when I gaze down at my newborn boy sleeping—he is three days old as I write this—I am sometimes filled with dread. I offer no happy ending here, no eleventh-hour homily about the rescuing powers of forgiveness. A quick look at the state of the world should dispel such mush. All I can say is that I’ll do my best with the love I have. I’ll hope my boy becomes someone different from his father, braver in the right ways, less frightened. This, it seems to me, is the only reasonable hope fathers can offer their sons.
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