My clothing, how I appear to others, matters marginally. Then one day when I am almost eleven, in 1981, a new awareness flares, like a flint spark. I become part of a new grid of social meaning. I am seen by the world of the school, the world at large. Call it the end of comfort.
I turn over in bed, thinking (without precise words, cogent contextualizing thought patterns, descriptive verbal ability): How can I control how they see me? Or maybe: How can I make it so they adore me…or like me…or at least accept me?
Light filters beneath the white, plastic blinds of my bedroom. Our suburban house is new and smells sharp and chemically, like fresh paint and the synthetic green carpet on which I’ve already spilled dark soda. The walls are white and bare. This is because what you put on bedroom walls is important, defining. I’m learning this by visiting with friends, seeing their bedroom walls decorated with posters of basketball stars, handsome quarterbacks, rock bands, even centerfolds in one case. I don’t want to portray myself through sports stars. It is the rock stars I want to showcase. But who? Elton John—cool outfits—and I’m gay. U2 and I’m a self-serious moper. Judas Priest and I play records backwards for subliminal satanic messages and probably abuse animals. Who speaks a part of the story I want to tell about myself to the world? What is that story?
And every morning this strange, new problem. A mysterious tightness in the crotch, swelling, a pressure. Should I be embarrassed? Is there something wrong? (Nowadays I’d have a smart phone and more illicit, if largely incorrect, knowledge about my body and other bodies and what bodies can do to other bodies according to essentially crowdsourced fetishes from millions of male minds. But this is 1981, the personal computer is a novel idea, Reagan is the newly elected president, the “moral majority” is actually a phrase I’ve heard at our Methodist church, and the minds of middle-class children in the western world have not yet been co-opted and colonized by technology. Anxiety rates and eating disorders and suicides among kids my age at this time are a small fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what they will become when I am a parent and writing this and the world some days feels like it’s on fire and there is no turning off a visual culture of capitalist surveillance and consumerism and toxic ideologies with their scintillating, enthralling, and addictive prodding of desire and shame, fear and loathing.)
I stand up quickly in only white Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear, which my mother buys every six months or so in four packs from K-Mart and places, freshly washed, in the top drawer of the walnut-colored dresser. At a certain point—she must conclude—the careless skid marks of boyhood won’t wash out.
I walk to the door, open it a crack, and look into the short hallway. Empty and quiet.
I share a bathroom with my older and younger brothers, who each have their own room in this new house, identical to mine in size and dimension, on different sides of the hall. My older brother, fifteen, is already experiencing concerning symptoms—brief dissociation, forgetfulness, mild aural hallucinations, unprovoked mood swings—of early-onset paranoid schizophrenia, which no one will understand or diagnose for a couple of years (psychiatrists at places like Harvard are still blaming schizophrenia on concepts like the “cold mother” in the early eighties). This brother will later refuse treatment and become homeless and later still try to burn this house down with everyone in my family inside except me, away at college at the time. This brother will also go to prison for twenty years, then get out and kill himself within a year, at age forty-eight, while in a psychiatric facility. My younger brother, so dear to me as a six-year-old in 1981, a great thudding love in my life, will later struggle with his own, if less dramatic, problems, as I suppose I will, too, the three of us—American boys and then men of a certain time and place and kind—heading toward what sociologists will later refer to as potential “deaths of despair.” But those are other stories in other books. Right now, wearing my crisp, new, skid-mark-free Fruit-of-the-Loom briefs from the local K-Mart, I simply want to make sure the bathroom is open so I can get ready for school before my brothers stumble, wild-haired and also wearing white Fruit-of-the-Looms, out of their rooms to demand I hurry up through the locked door.
The bathroom is small, maybe six feet by eight feet and part of the ceiling slopes down with the roof line of the house. I stand in front of one of the two sinks, both rimmed with dried toothpaste, and stare into the large, water-spotted mirror. This obsessive looking never occurred to me only months ago. Now it is as if I’ve become two people: the one acting and the one observing and critiquing the acting.
I wash my face with bar soap from the plastic dish. The bottom of the bar is soft and wet and slippery, and I often have to pick off a snaking black pubic hair or two from my older brother’s fast-developing body. After the face wash and rinse, I wet my medium-length, sandy-blond hair and spend minutes trying to create a straight part in the middle of my head. I comb the hair down from the part and then back; it flops forward. Try again; same result. I put my older brother’s Old Spice deodorant—the scent like a Christmas tree dipped in my grandmother’s Kentucky bourbon—on my bald armpits, smell the white stick, then run it up and down my chest and stomach, like someone sloppily painting the bare wall of some other new house in our half-built neighborhood.
I obsess. I perseverate. I have recently seen snippets of the film Saturday Night Fever on cable TV, on posters, mentioned in magazines in convenience stores as an important reference, a touchstone, some shorthand in mass culture—positive or negative, historical or ironic or mocking—even though it is four years old and many of the older boys I know were not long ago into the “disco sucks” phenomenon (kids gathering in crowds to destroy makeshift disco balls; rail against the movement as gay; proclaim the superior, macho aesthetic of heavy metal). My parents won’t let me watch the movie, now available on one of the new movie channels—I see the brown cable box with black buttons on top, a thick cord mysteriously snaked into the wall—but I covet, replay mental images from, and “get” (an important verb: Do you get it? Can you get it? Get this? Got it, man, got it) its central story and message about manhood. Sex is key, the essential quest. Style is essential, too, something to get right because it is part of the sex, which is not just an act—an act I do not understand—but a larger ritual, a way of presenting oneself in the world. Hard work, understanding and performing this ritual, but it needs to seem easy, natural, simply the way the man exists. I am, in a way, in love with the images of John Travolta I have seen, or at least enthralled by them. They possess a power, a beauty, though I am not sure that is the right word, the word I’m looking for. (Later, in grad school, say, I might use a word like “signification” or “mystification,” something semiotic or Marxist, pretentious.) Anyway, a powerful force or aura or ambience starts out there, in the world, in music and fashion and magazines and TV and movies and representations of gestures and walks and expressions and speech patterns, and then it moves in here, to this mirror that holds aloft my smooth, soft, round face, my now-musky smelling and sticky ribcage and chest and nipples and armpits.
Recently, my mother bought me a yellow polyester shirt with an extra-wide collar and realistic images of large blue and purple tropical fish printed all over it. A disco shirt. A clearance sale shirt from a decade now gone, tightly packed like a wet page in an old book against other unwanted clothes on a circular rack in the back of a store. She thought I’d love it, and I do. It reminds me of John Travolta as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever. I am also a fan of the dance shows American Bandstand and Soul Train, which I watch with my mother on Saturday mornings sometimes and even dance to, unless my father and a little breeze of shame enters the TV room. This shirt would be at home in those dance studios during tapings, might even draw the attention of a camera, its light like an all-seeing eye assessing me, exalting me.
I walk back to my bedroom, into its bare look of new construction and the Elmer’s-glue smell of latex paint. I lock the door (my family’s old house didn’t have locks on inside doors, or two bathrooms, or two sinks in one bathroom, an almost absurd opulence). I open the top dresser drawer and remove the carefully folded tropical fish shirt, rough fingertip skin catching on the shiny chemical compound of the material. I fluff the bed sheets and flatten them. I unfold the shirt carefully and then arrange it on the bed in the shape of an invisible man midway through a jumping jack.
Now the pants. But what pants? Should I match the glory of this shirt or go more subdued on the bottoms to accent the top? Or is contrast the way to go?
I place a pair of jeans below the shirt. They are dark blue, stiff. They barely change shape with a person in them, bend like a thing with hinges. I stand back and look at the arrangement on the bed. Maybe. Remove the jeans and replace them with a burgundy pair of slightly bellbottomed corduroys, luxuriously soft, hand-me-downs from my brother, maybe a size too small for me this school year, but flashy, telegenic, something that both compliments and contrasts with the shirt.
I can hear my brothers now (still alive, still healthy, I haven’t a clue of the sorrows that await us)—one locked in the bathroom, one outside the bathroom door pleading to get in to pee. Let them argue. I am concentrating, coming to a decision. Pulling on the burgundy corduroys, yanking and shimmying to get them up my thickening thighs, straining to button them, I try to ignore the uncomfortable fit and focus more on the color pallet, the way they will accent the clearance-sale shirt. I turn to face the mirror. Flesh bulges above my waistband. The material strains and stretches around the hips. I am a little chubby, no doubt, which won’t do, not at all, certainly not for a fine TV-room dancer, but that can’t be fixed this morning.
I carefully pick up the shirt, the bright magisterial polyester, like some regal garment from South Asia, button it up and stare into the mirror above the dresser. Broad freckly face, dark blue eyes, hair parted in the middle and uncooperative even when, in the recent past, I have secretly tried my mother’s Sunday-school, industrial-strength hairspray. The yellow shirt with its blue and purple fish, two buttons undone. Pants squeezing but the color palette feeling right, fashion-photographic. Stylish. Sensuous, I might say, if I knew that word.
Forget, for now, the mortification that happens later at school, or how the school day becomes a collection of agonizingly slow seconds once I realize, running into some eighth-grade boys just after the first bell, the monumental mistake of these clothing choices, the fashion faux pas, the way they cast me on the wrong side of a mysterious something. Disco dick, I will be called. What baby did you steal those pants from? Nice little red sausages, those thighs of yours? I can see your cellulite! Fish? Purple fish? Are they sucking each other’s asses or French kissing or both? Was this a dare? Did your mom dress you? Did your brother see you leave the house like this?
But this hasn’t happened yet. In the mirror, in this moment, I am a super-sexy celebrity, a pop star, Tony Manero, dressed for the marveling of the masses. I’ll skip breakfast to make sure these colorful corduroys don’t get any tighter and split. Should I go with three open buttons instead of two? Perfume up with more deodorant? Plaster on more of mom’s hairspray? I wish I had a gold chain, maybe with a cross on it like one of those cool and hairy-chested New York Catholics in Saturday Night Fever. A blessing that the future is only knowable once it transforms into the past. I look forward to the day ahead.