I lay on my right side, in his boxers and T-shirt, tracing his facial contours in the late evening darkness, only his closet light shooting a beam across his eyes. Tears roll in straight lines down his cheeks, apprehensively. He tells me he fooled around once with a guy from high school. He looks away—shame. It’s okay I say. And he looks back to check that my words match my expression. I stroke his face where his cheek and neck meet, and hold his hand, as he shows me his struggles and emotions.
His six foot, 260-pound frame takes up half the couch, a kitchen towel across his lap to catch the watermelon juice he’ll inevitably drip all over himself. The Pistons game is on, muted. I watch his shoulders shrug up and down, up and down as his chest heaves, like his heart is literally breaking in half. Eyes bulge to twice their normal size, red and puffy almost instantly. We’re talking about my sister struggling as a child, and I can feel his pain and anger, as violently as if I’m the blood racing through his clogged arteries.
It’s Sunday at 8 a.m., and I’m enjoying an unusual morning, still in bed snuggling with my cat. He texts, asking if he can come over, and a few minutes later he walks into my studio apartment. He climbs in, all 6’2”, in sweatpants and a worn shirt, smelling of cigarettes and booze from two consecutive days of partying. He asks how I do it, how don’t I drink, how does he stop partying so much. He feels embarrassed about it, angry with himself, fed up. Here, right now, he isn’t the guy everyone else sees—in the nicest designer clothes, dropping the most at clubs, supplying all the drugs, acting like a big shot. Instead, he’s just himself, my friend, not putting on a front.
I sit on the bed, in a summer dress, my hands on my kneecaps, observing his 6’3″ frame, his face scruffy, his head freshly buzzed. I see his body faintly shaking with fear, looking at the ground, toward the window, anywhere but at me. He tells me how he struggled as a child, how his dad ignored it, how he feels less than, how he has social anxiety because what if someone hears it when he fumbles on his words. I hug him and kiss him and say I had absolutely never noticed anything, that he is so smart and so capable, that even the speech impediment I had as a child creeps in sometimes. There is nothing to be ashamed of, I repeat. I feel his body melt into the acceptance.
These are my male role models. Men who physically are strong and impenetrable, yet emotional.
Men who sometimes may be a bit hesitant to share their deepest secrets and fears, but still do. Just like women, they crave transparency. To have approval. To be heard. To feel the rush of comfort that takes over when you expose yourself and don’t have to hide anymore.
“Be a man.”
“Don’t be a sissy.”
That’s what we teach little boys. Anything less is less. But in the real world, when it comes to the language of love and connection, being tough doesn’t really work.
I’ve witnessed all these men mentioned above, all whom I love(d), be temperamental, explosive, especially my father. To many who worked for him, my dad came off as an asshole, easily aggravated, yelling and barking and throwing fits. And while that is definitely part of who he is, it’s not all of him. The man I love and adore cries in every movie, says, “I love you, honey,” every time he hangs up the phone, always switches the TV to the channel I want after demanding I just go in the other room. He’s tender, has a softness, teddy-bear-like qualities.
Being a man isn’t synonymous with being unemotionally tough. Instead of hiding it, instead of stuffing emotions deeper and deeper, I wish more men invited them in. I wish we taught boys that emotions are powerful and empowering. You can be supportive and a protector while still being transparent.
Nothing is as beautiful as seeing someone at his most vulnerable state—that many may consider his weakest, but I think really is his strongest.
It’s then, in these moments, we truly connect and understand one another more profoundly.