LOOKING AT MEN
after Iliana Rocha
The world teaches us there’s nothing to see here,
only everything that matters. The world
teaches us to fear what desires us: a matter
of survival. The world’s pedagogy
has not evolved lately, all armpit hair & biceps
& bigger is better. Doesn’t matter
if a man’s wearing a three-piece that costs more
than your car or a neon vest or a prison jumpsuit,
he has a right to the space you occupy.
A memory: junior-high baseball tryouts,
this boy making fun of my name.
He was a running back & special-teams star,
fast & strong & angry all the time,
popular & dangerous; he’d die of heart failure
at forty-two but of course we didn’t know that.
On this day all that mattered was that we both knew
he would be the starting center fielder
once he’d finished shredding me. It’s how
things work. How they have always worked.
When I tried ignoring him, willing myself
invisible & mute, he dropped his glove
& jogged toward me, spitting profanity.
We were boys but he saw what it meant
to be a man: no problem aggression
can’t solve, flex & fist, cock & rock
& stomp out weakness. I did not make
the team that year, or the next.
In porn, the men are supposed to be
invisible—who wants to focus on that dangle
& flop & hairy flesh—women are the centerpiece—
& yet it is the men whose pleasure matters,
whose erection lets us know it’s time to begin,
whose ejaculation lets us know what success
looks like. This is what the world teaches us,
& I’m exempt from nothing. I love muscles
swelling under sleeves. A beer gut
means you make the rules; hairy forearms
are a ticket to all the backrooms in all the land.
Another junior-high memory: selecting
the yearbook who’s who, most likely to
& all that. Asked to vote for best-looking guy,
I picked the starting quarterback,
a dark-haired boy who treated me with contempt.
He was taller than I, stronger, a better athlete,
at ease on the planet. Once I sat behind him
in the bleachers at a high school game while he made out
with a dance-squad girl. She caught me watching,
smirked Do you have a problem? Well, sure,
who doesn’t, but of course I said nothing,
looked away, chastened & hungry. It was her
I wanted but him I envied. There is zero chance
this man remembers me, but here I am:
not being him still shapes what I think of myself.
I cannot believe how stupid I am. I cannot believe
I’m more than halfway through with this life
& still molded out of ninth-grade humiliations.
I do not dare to admit weakness. I cannot
tell the truth about want. I am not
this body. I am not this sex. I am not
strong enough to be anything else.