Three Alternate Realties of Your Masculinity
Cole Bubenik

I. The One in Which You Are Strong Like Mountains of Thick Red Clay

You are big and seeping strength, like your father was before he died. You have inherited his hands: rough and wide, cracked and bleeding, great tan mountains of rubbed-raw skin crushing down upon soft flesh with unwavering and cherishing perseverance. This is what your pre-dead father would call "perfect manhood": mounds of muscle and fits of strength, peaks of sweat and dry valleys of dead skin and rough hair—coarse and black as iron. This is what your pre-dead father would call "honorable" and altogether "right." This is the opposite of "that sissy stuff," which your pre-dead father would, with deadpan eyes and straight lips, denounce.

You are watching them watch you: shirt off and without a care, muscles straining, cut strong and sharp—nothing flabby. You are not what you were before your father died. You have worked hard to rid yourself of the silent shame of the five-letter word which trickles from your father's tongue and lingers in your body like a plague. You, seeking strength and pushing hard, chomping protein, eating right, sweating, swearing, straining, building, bursting forth like great rock from hollow earth, red clay and bushy green, are perfect, sculpted, right.

Once, in the before time, when fathers did not linger like ghosts, you were sitting and stewing: sweat pouring down your sagging body and noodle arms, contemplating. You were wondering if it was possible to let it go, to escape the echo of five-letters and become something more, an anti-sissy. This is your more. This is your new self. You are pressed and pushed and never faltering. You are tearing through, up-heaving, destroying, digesting. And you are not afraid, no longer shadowed by hands so big they could block the sun. You do not, late at night, whisper those letters deep into your pigeon-chest like a sinister mantra. Instead you build cages, of muscle and polished iron, around those five letters, which haunt you, but now cannot be loosed.

II. The One in Which You Are Bursting Forth Like Disco

You are a faggot and burn bright like wild branches in the sun. You are not butch; you are femme and fine and small and so thin that sometimes you worry you might break. When your mother dies you inherent her sensibility: pursing your lips, pushing back your shoulders, upright and always proper. This is how you were taught to live. This is how you were taught to thrive: never cry in public, never raise your voice, always turn the other cheek, never stay stationary, always change, rotate and reflect, distorted like bright light bouncing off thick disco balls.

You are watching them watching you. Hands up and without a care, you are singing pain and soaking it all in. This is stereotypical; this is cliché. This is what it means to be on fire, to be flaming, to burn from the core bright hot and straight on out. Underneath the spotlights you can feel your body melting, your skin charring, your hair smoldering into thin strips of ashen gray. You are worried that your wig could catch fire, that your caked-on makeup will start to run, that your arms will sweat, your dress will burn black and quick and leave your thin body bare and naked and vulnerable in the light.

Once, in the before time, when mothers did not inhabit bodies like frenzied spirits, you were throwing away high heels, flexing to the mirror, and contemplating. You were wondering what it takes to grow big and strong, to be bold and bright and full of fury so sharp it cuts straight to envy. But here, now, in the time of frenzied spirits, you are not ashamed or contemplative. Here, you know that boldness is not pre-packaged but bends like light, that muscle is not solid but fractured, that physicality is trumped by spiritual intensity which refuses to stay still, which bobs and bursts and sits and spins and returns again, back to its point of origin. You take a bow and give a wave, blow a kiss and linger in the spotlight—just for a little bit longer. You are giving them what they want. You are giving them what they need. You are giving them what they crave.

III. The One in Which You Are Sinking Fast and Almost Shattered

You are calm and wholly focused, like your partner will be before he leaves. You have inherited his way of talking and moving: arms creased, mouth a straight line, hollow eyes piercing through chests and slow draw, steady and thick like syrup. You are desperate and craving flesh. This is how you are supposed to feel; this is what you are supposed to do. In the after-time of memory, when ebb and flow have dissolved and nothing is solid except for the resolve to forget, you are escaping.

You are watching bodies flicker across your screen like drops of rain or fireflies in late spring: quick, innocuous, and full of wonder. You are refreshing, letting the numbers pile up: white box counting up the open numerals, 28 new messages received. It makes you feel giddy. It makes you feel sane. You will message one of them, and then another. You will go out, meet at his house early in the morning, when no one is around. Cardboard boxes will be piled around the room and those brown, once-empty things now full of somethings will make you sick and nauseous, hot and jealous. You will wish you could tip them over. You will wish you could set them on fire. You will wish you could shred them, ripping top to bottom and scattering the contents. You will wish you could take those things and throw them over the balcony, watching as the objects sink and shatter, creating tiny patterns, constellations of domestic longing, on bright gray pavement. And then it will happen. He is always first. A kiss, a hand that glides and falls and traces, and then, this is familiar, this is routine.

Once, in the during-time when partners did not leave or shatter but loitered in silent monotony, you would have contemplated staying. But now, you, sweat-stained and bloated with remorse, are tensing up your throat, swallowing the shame that has coated your body in an aroma of regret. He is already gone: two steps ahead of you; wiping, cleaning, ridding himself of the faint traces of you and smiling. You wonder what it is like to be present in the moment: concrete and full of power. You wonder what it is like to take and not be taken, to fall and not shatter but bounce back, rise up, or sit still like a dud. You want to beat him to it: no kissing, no talk, that was fun, but I have to go. You want to let him know that you understand, that you "get it" that you can be, no strings attached. But you are wondering where the strings come from and how thick or thin they are and whether or not they wrap or coil or dangle, and above all else, you are wondering how hard you must pull to free them from your chest.

Cole Bubenik is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He serves as Managing Editor for Feminine Inquiry and has work appearing in the Hothouse Literary Journal, Aviary Review, and TIDE Vol 9. He writes things that are domestic, apocalyptic, fantastic, romantic, and at all times queer.