My boys are naked every chance they get and this morning is perfect for it. The light is clear and hot, unmuddled by rain or fog. And they have an excuse — they’ve just eaten ice cream and so made a mess of their clothes. I am here, but I am not seeing them, stupefied by the warmth that comes so rarely this far north. My mind wanders and trips down alleyways of my past, looking for trouble or regret. When my wife left for work this morning, she gave me a look. Truth be told, she’s getting a little tired of me.
By the time I notice what they are doing, the older one, who is four, is already stripped. The younger one is only two and still unable to get his shirt over a head that is much larger than his body would seem to be able to support. He shrieks like he does any time he is met by a problem–from skinned knee to stubborn pistachio nut. The older one comes to help, a good big brother or a torturer, or both, pulling the shirt up in ruthless heave-hos. The younger one is lost inside it, crying all the harder, from pain or darkness, who can tell. Only he stops the very instant he is free.
This did not used to be a problem, the nudity. In fact most of any day that was hot enough, and plenty that weren’t, my boys spent naked. However, the old backyard fence that was there when we moved in had come down in the winter months. Eight feet high at least, gray, rain-loved, and blooming moss and lichen. I noticed it listing to the side one morning as I brought out a bag of trash. I pressed upon it with my palms and it kissed off from the side of the garage, rusted nails letting go, and stooped over the yard. Then I kicked it, partly because I had a vision, sudden and clear, of what we might do with a more open space, and partly because I wanted to see what violence from the end of my foot might look like. The fence fell down and immediately our yard opened up like lungs which had been waiting to take a full breath.
The line of where the fence had stood remained for a few weeks. A strip of thin, pale grass like the first skin after a wound. Soon, though, weeds took over. The thin, leggy kind with delicate, pink flowers.
Having no fence created a problem I hadn’t, in my rush, considered. Our yard, which abutted a narrow lane that led to the back parkinglot of an apartment complex, was now exposed to anyone from that building walking by. Dog walkers, couples, kids on bikes, a pale, young smoker with a collection of animal onesies she wore baggy and ironically. My wife was concerned that without the fence, thieves would relieve us of our tricycles and tomato starts. Perverts would haunt our back windows.
“The fence was rotten,” I told her. “If the perverts wanted to get in, it wasn’t stopping them.”
“The fence did more than we probably know,” she said. “Just the idea of it.”
“OK, but it came down,” I said. “So, what was I supposed to do?”
“Listen,” I told my boys now. “Those bodies aren’t for everyone.”
Their bowed little legs, plump bellies, uncircumsized penises with the tiny, fleshy bit at the end.
“It’s only OK for our family, so let’s put on our undies at least.”
“Every day, all the time?” the older one said. “We used to be naked in our yard. It’s our bodies! It’s our choice if we want to be naked!”
“Yeah,” the younger one chimed, the sycophant, the pugilist. “If you don’t let us be naked, you’re outta here!”
His scrunched up face, eyelids half-closed, voice pitched downward but unable to hang onto lower registers — it was all, I knew, an imitation of me. And I found it incredibly endearing, fucking cute to be clear, though a little frightening, to think that my face screwed up like an ogre’s in moments of anger. In any event, I relented. One, because they were playing with each other without needing a thing from me, and so giving me a little peace; two because my wife had pointed out recently that I had become stricter the longer I stayed home with the boys; and three, because my mind had turned a corner in its wanderings and met with a thing from my past, fully formed and wriggle-wet. A memory I felt compelled to tangle with.
I had studied abroad in Chile the first half of my senior year of college. I wasn’t a leader, never in my life, but somehow, when I got there, the others looked to me. It was probably because I was the oldest one in the program. I felt the responsibility of it like balancing a broom upright on the tip of my finger. If I put in enough legwork, I could keep it afloat. I practiced the clench of appearing, always, to not care. I didn’t linger, I affected independence, I floated ideas about which bars to go to next, I sang karaoke. It was exhilarating, exhausting. I got better at it.
In any case, two weeks after arriving, my school went on a break. I was going to use the time to head up north, see the Atacama Desert, check off the first item on a list I planned to complete in my time there. My big study abroad. To my surprise, a small group of who I considered to be the coolest in the program rallied around my plan and came with me. Quite by accident, it took on the aura of exclusivity, with me at the center. One guy, Tom, even asked my permission, as if I had it to give, to invite along another student, Howard. Howard lived with a host family next to Tom’s and was brash and often ridiculous. Meaning drunk. Howard had already managed to turn off many in the program with his antics. Only Tom, universally liked, who attended his same college in Washington, still stood with him. I said of course Howard could come along, struck to be considered an authority, and I came off as being quite magnanimous. “You’re a good guy,” Tom said and I said nothing, only nodding, thrilled and protective over what I felt he’d given me.
We spent a night in an apartment in a town I can’t remember now. Only that it looked more beautiful in the guide book than by our eyes. At Howard’s suggestion, we played something called the Elephant Game. Tom knew it. It involved clapping in a rhythm, each assigned an animal, and when your turn came, you had to make the sign of the animal in the space of a clap, and then the sign for someone else’s animal within the next. The lowest animal in the game was the naked mole rat. The sign you did as the mole rat was to grip yourself and shiver. I got to know the action very well as I was constantly stuck in the role. It seemed like a wire sparked and lost the information it carried whenever I tried to remember an animal other than the mole rat. So there I was, shivering the whole night through.
But the game succeeded in getting us all very drunk; and in endearing Howard, to some extent, into the group, which seemed to thrill Tom.
A night later and we were staying in an apartment in a beautiful city by the sea. It had poems graffitied on the walls. If you knew where to look, you could eat a good meal for a few dollars and drink for a few more. We played the Elephant Game until the owner of the apartment pounded on the door and told us to stop; the clapping was too loud.
So we went for a walk. Through streets romantically lit, alongside a marina with boats we had seen earlier, each of us taking pictures in front of their colorful hulls. Now everything was gray and wet. But it was thrilling to be kicked out, to be drunk, to be so far away from our normal lives. This feeling, I believe, led Charlie, a woman with a narrow face and sleepy eyes, to decide that we should all strip down and swim in the water. The idea caught, and first Howard, with his goose-honk laugh, stripped down, and then everyone but me joined in. The group picked their way over large, angular boulders and down to the oily, black water. They screamed; they laughed. I stayed behind, and Charlie, covering her small breasts with her arm, asked me why.
The truth was that I didn’t want to be naked. I was too skinny, I had a scar by my belly button, and moles, like they were an infestation of the animal, dug up all across my chest. And also, I was ashamed of how my penis would look. Uncircumsized, canted-to-the-left. Would it shrink in the cold?
“I just don’t feel comfortable,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, and in her eyes I saw the broom tumble, smack the floor. So I sat on the rocks for a while, uncomfortable with watching the others, a barrier between clothed and not. I walked home alone, counting how many of the streetlights were broken, bulbs gaping mouths with uneven fangs.
Still later and we were in the desert and I had nosebleeds most nights. Howard was desperate to pick up a girl and somehow the entire group, even Charlie, became invested in his quest. But none of the local women were interested in him and finally he insisted that he didn’t care.
“It’s their faces,” he said. “Being in the sun so much kind of fucks up their faces.”
“Jesus, are you an asshole,” Charlie said.
I didn’t agree with Howard. Or, probably, the me at that time knew enough not to admit that I agreed with Howard, but I could see what he was saying. It was an intense, constant glare in the Atacama and I was young. Too young to read codes.
“Maybe he’s just saying what other people really think, deep down,” I said. “But he just doesn’t have a filter. Doesn’t dress it up in what he’s supposed to say.”
Charlie looked at me and shook her head. “It’s racist to say a whole group of people aren’t attractive.”
I stayed quiet, as did everyone else, even Howard, which was so rare as to be eerie. Tom clapped his hands and said we should all check out the Cueca; they were performing soon.
We went to the town square and bought beers. Dancers shuffled around in a big tent waving handkerchiefs in the air. It was admirable and disciplined. My nose began bleeding and I raided the napkin dispenser to staunch the flow, trying to laugh it off, but nobody else seemed to be able to look at me and the mess of my face. It just kept coming. Howard plucked a fresh napkin and tried to join the dance. His arm in the air, fluttering the paper up and down, he approached the dancers who all stayed, tight-lipped, on their steps. My group laughed, even as they ignored me, even as they traded knowing looks of what a dumbass Howard was. Tom yelled in a hoarse voice for him to get the fuck back to the table.
Howard is a kindergarten teacher now, I think. Tom might do something with insurance. Charlie writes for a magazine and lives in Denver.
The older son wants to know if I think it is hot enough for them to fill up the pool and I tell them, yes, sure, nodding my head, reminding myself to be present. Be present — too much is spent outside of this. When I got laid off, I decided to see it as a blessing, as a time to be present with my kids when they are so young. And yet, it’s a constant struggle. So much easier to slide backward into myself, looking for something, I don’t know what. A path out? A choice to a different future?
I go inside and I start to make lunch. Macaroni and cheese. Cut up apples. Peanut butter and celery sticks. My second cup of coffee, what I cling to for the later half of the day, instant. Cherish this, my wife often tells me. What you’re feeling is society’s pressure on you as a male. A breadwinner. You are doing the most important work. The. Most. I have made a mistake, I sometimes find myself thinking when my guard is down. I am stuck in a muddy mistake.
Then I hear the younger one talking in that adorable way he has. Half in this world, half in the other, imagining as he goes, sputtering sound effects, little clippings of phrases, sayings. He is happiest when he is inside his imagination. They are constantly demanding I join in, and I do, sometimes, when I can’t find a way out of it. To me, the practice is exhausting. Pretending to be a raccoon or a T-Rex. I joke with my wife about it. I call it my beautiful sacrifice. If it were up to my boys, we’d never stop pretending we were something else.
I go out on the back porch and see Cal, the man who lives in the apartment complex and survives on god knows what and also cans. He collects them, a huffing, rotund machine with thick eyeglasses and a rubber grin. When he remembers me, he likes to talk to me. He tells me his theories on why the conservatives are having a moment, or how the homeless are lazy and that’s why he gets most of what he wants. His competition, he sneers, would rather sleep. Other times I’ve said hello as we passed, asked him how it was going, and he has looked at me as if frightened, and hustled on.
Cal’s laughing now at something my older son is doing. I remember when they were even younger and we stripped them in parks, on benches, anywhere, to change their diapers. When you are so young, your body is public. It is unformed, unclaimed by even yourself, and so free. The child feels no shame. That changes somewhere along the way. My sons don’t have it yet. And I know I will have to give it to them. Which is also taking something away.
I rush out, my hands still wet, they smell of garlic, and find that my boy is juggling his penis. He finds it hilarious, we all do in my house. Hand over hand, it really does look like juggling. But it shouldn’t be here, it shouldn’t be now.
“Hey,” I say. “You need to get over here and get dressed, both of you.”
“I will throw you in a tree!” the younger one says.
“I don’t like your serious voice,” the older says.
I smile at Cal. I don’t want this to be weird even though I know that later on I’ll fantasize about the terrible things he was trying to elicit from my boys and scheme ways I’d hurt him. An ugly purpose, but a purpose all the same. It’s in line with how sometimes, I’ll read horrible news stories about a recent shooting and imagine myself into the scene, charging the shooter, taking him down, being lauded the hero. For now, though, I don’t want to be rude. Because we see each other all the time and I do believe, deep down, he’s harmless. Maybe he has some kind of condition. On the spectrum. His big, threadbare t-shirts are mostly clean. His glasses are constantly fogging up. My wife gave him my old winter gloves last December. He was just talking, after all, laughing, it was funny, and there is no fence there anymore. What was he supposed to do?
“You need clothes, I keep telling you,” I say once I get the boys inside.
“But we were in our own yard,” the older one says. “And you say it’s our body.”
“It is your body,” I say. “And it’s only for you.”
“No,” I say, definitely breaking through into Serious Voice territory, into something like yelling. “You put your clothes on or you don’t go outside, do you understand me? I’m trying to keep you safe.”
“You always ruin my day,” the older says.
“You’re being disresponsible!” The younger says.
Cal is striding off, his huge t-shirt tucked into basketball shorts, Ikea bags in each hand.
I have never been in a fight. Not a real one. But there was once, back in Chile, near the end of my time abroad, when I was leaving a bar and two men plucked my hat from off my head. I asked for it back and they laughed at me. One of them pretended like he had a gun, reaching into his coat, so I turned and walked the other way. But they followed me, kicking me and punching me as I went. I was much taller than them, and sloshing drunk, so I hardly felt the blows. Still, they kept adding up inside of me until finally, in an instinct that was quicker than any thought, I reached back, grabbed a foot as it kicked me and pulled up. The man lost his feet, fell onto the sidewalk, the back of his head into the cement like a watermelon dropped in the supermarket. I ran as fast as I could, turning at random streets to lose these men who may or may not have been about to shoot me. When I came across a phone booth, I called Howard, who was dating Charlie by then. He’d often told me of the fights he’d gotten into in the small, spread-wide desert town he’d grown up in, how he didn’t mind them, in fact liked them, was good at them. He answered on the third ring and I told him where I was, what had happened, how I needed his help. I wanted to find those men and fight them. Get my hat back. Beat the shit out of them. But he was sleepy, this was very late, and he asked me if I was alone now. If I was safe. I was, the men were nowhere in sight.
“Then just go to bed,” he told me.
When I got home, I undressed in my bedroom and looked at my body in the mirror. I had purple and green bruises up and down my legs. They would be worse in the morning.
Maybe I will tell my wife about this later, when she is home from the real world, and maybe it will hold her attention better than my stories about the boys refusing to put on their clothes, or making a mess of things, or the tiny, fierce joy of taking a nap, my arm under each of their necks, heavy and breathing in the same rhythm.
But when she gets home, I don’t tell her any of it because by then, the story seems meaningless, just like most of these days. Instead, she has her life to tell me about, the one she enters daily, leaving us behind. A world of real push and pull. Boss and coworkers. Drama. And I tell her my opinions, strategies, thoughts on what she should do out there.
A few weeks later, I go for a walk, leaving the boys practicing magic tricks with my wife. They are disappearing crayons, quarters, stuffed rabbits. They are pulling gauzy scarves from empty tubes, toothpicks from empty palms. I was having a hard time acting shocked by their antics. My wife said I should leave, take some time to myself.
It is a beautiful day again and I am trying to take my mind off the spinning, gentle haunt of a life lived any kind of way. I circle the block, and then the next. I know all of these places and yet, even after three years here, I notice new things just put up or invisible to me before. A slackline between two dying trees. A small fairy kingdom built in the hollow of an enormous oak that has released its pollen and bulged my eyes. A doll dressed half as a devil, half an angel, nailed onto the pillar of someone’s porch.
On my way home, I see a man in the courtyard of the apartments, lying with his shirt off and his pants down, close to his knees. He is having a hard time breathing. Each intake whistles and stuffs. I am afraid, seeing this, and I look around, but there is nobody else here. Then I recognize him. It’s Cal, having some kind of emergency.
“Cal?” I say.
“Are you OK?” I edge nearer.
“Can you hear me?”
I call 911. I hear ambulances far off. I’ve checked his pulse, I’ve elevated his head. And then, though it is hard and takes all the grip I can manage in my fingers, I push his shorts back up, over his pale, pocked, yogurt-pour flesh. His crisp, white underpants. The shy stub of his penis almost lost in a wiry nest of hair.
“Let me just get you situated, man,” I say.
Cal is breathing, and maybe he sees me, and maybe he’s already gone. Soon there is a collection of busy men and women applying devices and counts and hands to his failing body. But then I see from the way the activities of the workers, paramedics and firepeople suddenly slacken, that he is dead now, and his body doesn’t matter one bit to him anymore.
And I think, a small complete thing formed instantly in the front of my brain: I have a broken heart.
I go home and hold this all within until the boys are in bed. Then I tell my wife. She doesn’t remember, at first, who Cal is. But after I describe him, his trundling walk, his cans, his cold, naked hands in the winter, the gloves she gave him, she remembers and is sad in a new way. She is crying.
I tell her of the time I was walking and the boys were ahead of me, tiny blurs on those three-wheel scooters, and he came out from his apartment and told them to stop, to wait for me. When I got to him, I apologized.
“I have sons of my own,” he said. “The instinct never goes away, to protect them, just like the day they were born.”