At the beginning of summer I marvel at my offspring. Like squirrels, Nicholas and Alexander chase each other through the park down the hill from the back of the elementary school. They stop a moment to contemplate the new school year as they look up at the windows of the building.
“In a hundred days we’ll be back in there with our friends again.” Nicholas exclaims. They walk up the hill to the windows and as they peer inside at the desolate halls Nicholas tells Alexander, “You know, the first sign of being a man is going into the third grade, and that’s where I’m going.”
Alexander, going into the first grade, counters him, saying, “No its not, the first sign of being a man is having twenty dollars, and that’s what I have.” They navigate the steep hill like two drunks stumbling back down to me on the bench by the swings and plead that I agree with each of their versions. “I’m right Alex: Dad tell him I’m right.”
“No Nick, I’m right, right Dad?”
When I was 11 I watched my dad retreat from fatherhood. He pushed himself up from the recliner, and with exhausted grunts, moans, and coughing, he waddled out to his brown suburban and drove off, leaving my mom to fend for the eight of us. There were no fishing trips, no road trips, no camping trips, certainly no way for me to learn any signs of manhood.
I did eventually learn, by reading through an encyclopedia, the first signs of manhood were voice change, growth, and the presence of something called “the trail,” or what I overheard my oldest brother *Luke refer to as “the happy trail:” a line of hair that ran down from the navel to the genitals. I also learned voice change and growth weren’t signs a boy like me, being born a preemie, could look for.
When I was born, my parents brought me home to the apartment building on 1776 Castle Hill Avenue in The Bronx after a three month lodge in an artificial womb at Einstein hospital on Eastchester Road. The neighbors wrote my mother off as the crazy lady who carried around a three pound doll. One afternoon as everyone piled into the elevator from the lobby I revealed signs of life by letting out a whimper and moving my arms. There were a round of gasps and mental thinking: “Wow, she isn’t crazy after all.”
There would be no blatant milestones for me like the one my younger sister *Isabella had when she experienced her first sign of womanhood. I remember the weight of her newfound body reverberated across the floors as she jumped up and down and screamed excitedly, “Wee, wee, they’re growing!”
I needed to find this “happy trail,” and approaching my thirteenth birthday I searched like a detective for any indication of it as Luke said that’s when he got his.
Six months after I turned thirteen I used the bathroom and watched as a dull yellow stream formed bubbles in the toilet water as I relieved myself. The light illuminated my pelvic area and exposed what looked to me like peach fuzz. Was this the sign I was looking for? I used my pointer finger and thumb like tweezers and lightly pulled at the peach fuzz. Wide eyed, I bore witness to a cluster of goose bumps, confident I was a man. I did this, over and over again, triumphantly plucking at my peach fuzz like plucking at guitar strings.
“I have a happy trail,” I said to myself, even if it didn’t run prominently down the full length of my navel to my genitals.
There was a powerful grin on my face as I left the bathroom and passed my second oldest brother *Andrew on the way to my bedroom. He trailed in behind me and sat on the bed, then inched toward me and said out of the blue, “You have hair down there?”
With as much brawn as I could muster, I said, “Of course I have hair down there.”
Andrew admired my confidence. He smiled, moved even closer to me, and shot back with, “How do you know?”
I wanted to laugh at him for asking such a childish question. Smiling slyly I said, “I know, because I pluck them.”
“Oh, you pluck them, I see.” He left the room convinced, like me, that I was a man.
Surely I would be recognized for the man I was now by my younger siblings. They would congratulate me, serve me dinner, rub my feet, and bring me all sorts of sacrificial offerings.
Like a Mack truck smashing into a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour, my manhood was swiftly pulverized by the undeniable, spineless sound of my voice on a tape Andrew secretly recorded, saying, “I pluck them.” He paraded around the house rewinding the recorder over and over again. It ceased only when he stopped briefly to catch his breath from hysterically laughing, as were all my brothers and sisters. Saliva shooting out in all directions. You even heard my mother cracking up three rooms down.
Isabella mad libbed the theme song to a cartoon we watched, “Bucky O’Hare,” she sang out loud, “Captain plucky, Captain plucky your hair.” I wanted to sing out something to her, but had no comeback for, “Wee, wee, they’re growing.”
I slammed and locked my bedroom door, pushed myself into a corner, piled pillows and stuffed animals on top of me, and held my hands tightly against my ears to try and cancel out the sound of me saying, “I pluck them,” tormenting me from the recorder Andrew was now holding at the small opening underneath the door with its volume at “kill me now” decibel.
Adding insult to injury, my mom’s boyfriend, Richie wandered into the kitchen that night as I looked for a snack and thought all was forgotten, and said, “Hi plucky.”
“Why did you tell him?” I screamed out.
In-between her laughter mom said, “I told him to say, “Hi plucky, he has no idea why.”
I didn’t care to be a man anymore. I didn’t care for mothers and their puppet boyfriends or older brothers or younger siblings or recorders or signs anymore either.
Nicholas and Alexander are looking up at me, curious as to who may be right. I say, “You’re both wrong, the first sign of being a man is never calling out mercy when I do this:” I bring the two of them together back to back and squeeze them into a bear hug. I pick them up and twirl them around. Their eyes go this way and that way as they giggle, and never say “mercy.”
As I place them down I feel the unease of a full bladder.
“I need to use the bathroom.” I tell them. The closest one is at the pizzeria down the block.
“We can get a bite to eat too,” I say as we start walking.
Watching Nicholas and Alexander skip along and talk about trading Pokémon cards I realize the blatant signs of my manhood. There’s my ex-wife, my rented one bedroom apartment, and most certainly there’s my high mileage Acura that rattles and sometimes doesn’t start till I pop open the hood, say a prayer, and whack at the battery six times; three for each positive and negative contact point.
At the pizzeria I order three plain slices, seat the boys, and hurry into the bathroom. Inside, I watch a yellow stream form suds in the toilet water as I relieve myself. The light illuminates the first sign of my manhood; the now prominent, “happy trail.” I start laughing hysterically, like my brothers, sisters, and mother did so many years ago, as an old recorder plays in the back of my head, over and over again, “I pluck them.”
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.