This Will Make a Man out of You – Gwen Hilton

Early recollections can’t be trusted. Early recollections speak to the themes in your life. Memory is like VCR tape. Every time you remember, the tape warps and distorts. Your first memory. Well, you don’t talk about that. You’re not sure it’s your first. You were too young to remember something like that, but you know what to tell the counselor because of how it felt to sit on the couch and watch again. Under Siege will probably be the last thing you see in your brain before you leave this mortal coil. Look. Look. Your father’s singular tick. Do you remember the screen scanning? A man who you’ve never seen the face of told you what that means. Are you just repainting a watercolor?

A naval officer jumps out of a cake in a hiked-up black thong. She rips off her captain’s hat, and a tussle of blonde curls falls around her angular face. She pops open her peacoat and starts to move her hips when two perfect pointed tits gaze at you. Fixed on her chest facing opposite directions across millions of screens until the last sap of electricity burns out. Snap cut. Extreme close-up of an MP5 submachine gun aimed at the back of her head. Two screams ring out at the same time. What the fuck are you showing him?

It’s a sunny day in the midwest, and you need to catch some rays before the sun goes down. You’ve only got one trip around. You lose focus of the screen moments after pulling off a clean headshot from across the map. This is a first. Sharp bones collide into you as you tumble off the bed and crash into the old olive drab rug on the floor. You can’t tell what position he’s smothering from until he says, stop squirming, or I’ll fart in your mouth. Your body tenses. There’s raucous laughter in the corner of the room. You shift and open the eye that isn’t pressed into the fabric and see that snow is still falling as the split-screen CRT TV frames a blocky Mosin-Nagant pointed over a bridge and an MP40 floating out over the horizon. Before you knew the value of a dollar, friends paid for realistic depictions of guns in games. 

Volcanic wind stings your eyeballs as the digested smell of 80% lean ground chuck and grocery store American singles singe your nostrils. War is about action. He has a pull-up bar in his doorframe. He laughed when you asked what it was. Is it worse because of how hot the room is? Senses blur, and the Playstation 2 fan becomes deafeningly loud. You wonder if any more fart is getting blown in your nose with each fan whine. The fatback CRT TV towers above you and everything else in the room. One rough shake of the earth, and grey matter will spill. The pressure starts to lift off your skull, and you hear plastic fumbling. Next time there’s a heel at your jaw, it won’t feel so foreign. Next time you know you’re there, it’s their game or your action.

The fermented smell of unwashed clothes and never opened windows registers for the first time. Your avatar gets shot in the back of the head. I’m teabagging you. You feel his laughter on your body. Not everyone is so lucky to know agony and ecstasy so young. You feel your hip grinding into a hard floor, and a hand makes you look at yourself being stalked and hunted. The convex screen distorts your dying like the frescoes up close on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. You see one hand skipping the respawn period on the controller you lost. You still can’t get up. When you push onto your elbow, a body slams back onto your chest. Finally, you yelp. No parents hear you. They’re outside gardening. The man who cleans guns in his boxers doesn’t want you to ask for help either. Growing boys need to learn to be independent. You’re a man. You’re 9 years old. It’s 4th grade. Time to toughen up.

Early recollections can’t be trusted. Early recollections speak to the themes in your life. Which life did you choose? You’re laying on the off-white rough carpeting in a bedroom. The texture is fun to bristle against. It’s not so bad to brush against something coarse. It’s not the room you call your own. You’re peeking through a cracked door. You’re a sea turtle. You’re laying dozens of eggs praying a single child survives. You swallowed a watermelon seed. What if it’s just like that cartoon? What if it grows in you?

Why is there a television running in every one of your memories? Do you think people remember you saying you could only track recent dates by film and album releases? You’re a precocious child. Was it really a thunderstorm when he came home in the beige trenchcoat? You had already ruined the carpet with brown soda. How far was that from the Project Runway event? How many times did you ruin the carpet? How many seasons did you watch? Did he hit you the same time he left the dog shit in that coat for two days? 

Your professor saw something in you when you said you watched Body Heat a lot with your dad as a kid. Why do you want to fuck rough men who think they’re private eyes? You learned about ravishment fantasy in college. She took you all the way to a conference on a wing and a prayer. You killed your momentum. Someone on the internet figured out the exact day Ice Cube wrote “Today Was a Good Day” about. You could check the weather against the airdate. 

DVR existed when that episode of Project Runway aired. Maybe that was when people predominantly said Tivo. Do people say Tivo now? Did you know Kleenex hates the word Kleenex being universalized for tissues? Can you name another brand? Why are you showing our son this? Are you trying to make him a faggot? He likes it. Fierce. Christian Siriano still works today. Christian Siriano would probably make a dress for Kleenex. You can’t say why you draw those logic lines. Most things come down to competition. You don’t have an audience with the time. You know they only want the dirty bit to confirm their bias.

A hand reaches under the toilet seat toward your thigh, and you stomp at it. A harmless joke you’re overreacting to. A fist connects with your arm; you lash out and hit a nose. Another overreaction. Boys are just a little rougher. Be a man. Learn your limits. Limit yourself. There’s a social contract; do you think before you act? Don’t let people fuck with you. Don’t overreact.

Getting kicked in the nuts is funny. You’ve seen the YouTube video. You can’t punch while coming back up. Why’d you kick me in the nuts? Who do you think you are? Getting kicked in the nuts is funny. You’ve seen the YouTube video. In the movies, people put steaks on their black eyes. If your mom saw you with meat on your eyes, she’d beat you worse than he did. Do you know how fucking hard I worked for this house and life and food? Chubby, and you still find a way to play with the food? Every single one of you men expects it all from me and can’t fathom for a moment what I do to hold this household together. It’s a lot more than every Sunday that you’re being told to turn the other cheek now. Kids are being used to find landmines in war zones, and you think it’s fun to fight at school. These boys will be nicer when they’re older. It can’t be so bad. Are you doing something to make them do this? Someone told their mom you had a knife. They didn’t say what forced you to pull it out. If you keep this up, you’ll get expelled. 

You’re two sizes too big for the seat in the back of the room. A thick pink cotton button-down clings to your back as you push your elbows around a desk. The walls are a pale blue painted brick. Heat rises. Class is on the fourth floor. You should’ve known. You had to walk all those steps. Kids say there’s something haunted behind the door in the back left corner. The secret fifth floor. Scares are cool freshman year of high school. 

A hastily thrown together PowerPoint on Morality is flickering against a pull-down screen. Mom always said Catholic education scares you for life, but there’s no other way to prepare for college. Zac Efron is seen in two photos with blonde women. Everyone looks like a burn victim ghost projected against that disgusting taupe fabric. It’s a hybrid of paparazzi shots and promotion. The word straight in tall black lettering is hanging above the photos. Click. Gay. Jack Nicholson, in his old age, is seen climbing out of a gentle foaming sea onto a yacht. What’s wrong with wanting to spend a few nights on a yacht? The breeze is different atop the ocean.

A ripple of laughter begins to infect the room, and the eyes turn in on you. Your chicken hoagie sub lunch is a boulder in your gut. Someone has to die, them or me. Hell will never be this hot. You know how red your face is, and you know you look stupid. You know you look stupid because it’s what they always said before they beat you up. You’re in public school two weeks later. 

You don’t leave your room. Bisexual men don’t exist. There is a chain wrapped around your bed frame, duct-taped to a double-sided dildo tied and taped to a coat-hanger taped to the always-down pull chain on your light so it can never be turned on. You pulled a chair upstairs to tape any light sources shut. If you let him put a TV in his room, he’ll never leave. How’d he get that thing up there? It’s bigger than him. Maybe you didn’t get your first lumbar strain at a manual labor job. You know you can’t dwell on what you’ll never know the answer to. You’re so strong for your size. It’s never a compliment. You won an award. You don’t leave the room for 30 days. You go to great lengths to test if no child will be left behind. 

Every action has an opposite reaction. One day you will tell people you went camping for 47 days. No one asks questions. You have bigger accomplishments than their hobby dreams by surviving your life. They resent you because you don’t care. You don’t look like someone who camps that long. You don’t camp anymore.

You are sitting at a Viking-style table in a Japanese-style home in the American West’s vast expanses. The walls are white. Everything is neat. This is a teachable moment. The floor plan accommodates the rough geography of a red rock hillside. His lawn is green like the movies. Green like that doesn’t exist in your life usually. It’s been a long time since you could breathe this well. The air is crisp, and dry heat isn’t bad. You hope you’ll see a vulture. There are stairs out of both exits of this dining area that lead to a corkscrew of staircases with access to the various parts of this modified suburban family home. 

There are very few chairs except for a traditional living room around a television. It’s an old CRT with a DVD player and a Wii. Don’t break the sensor bar. Wear your wrist strap to protect the screen. In the living room, there are two large swords on the wall. You already know the story because you’ve heard it a million times. This one never changes. You don’t know how to handle yourself in the face of convictions rooted to the core. I gave those swords to every one of the men who served with me. Those men are closer than brothers. Those men share bonds that not even my wife can know. In the bread aisle at a grocery store, he asks you if you’ve ever had a bagel. You’ve had many. I haven’t had a bagel in the first 50 years of my life, and it’s like sucking dick; if I did it now and found out I liked it, I’d have to kill myself. She’s my wife because she’s smart enough to know she doesn’t know. I gave these men swords when they achieved the rank of Chief Petty Officer, and when I did, no one returned the favor. 

Did you know the Mormons ask special codewords to see if you’re part of the tribe? What do you mean? They ask special questions that people in the know can answer appropriately and use those practices to keep non-Mormons out of the better communities. That doesn’t seem fair. Do you know how many drownings there are in the first 50 pages of The Book of Mormon? The hotel says it’s free to take, but it appears in the surcharges. You tell people it’s a great read, and you should not judge before you pick it up. People always ask if you’re Mormon after that. It’s a fair question. You’re just curious. You do the same thing with Dianetics. 

Did you know I used to stalk these Freemasons when I was in the Navy? I used to listen to their conversations at the bowling alley, and they always had a special word. Boaz. Say it. They’ll go running. Your family is known for its guffaw. Tragically you wound up closer to a hyena than someone with a welcoming boom. Sailors have such charm when they tell you their stories from the entire globe. All these tattoos mean I crossed a meridian or did something in the Navy. Do you know any? Longitude, latitude, the equator. I was getting shot at once, and I had to swim over the Marianas trench. If you look down at that, you’ll never feel big again.

Some pirates caught us by surprise. You imagine swarthy effeminate men on tight rigging. You imagine ships so tall in the sea they’d suck you under the bow. It’s silly. You’ve never seen a galleon, and piracy evolves with anything else. Don’t forget he’s known for tall tales. And they’re shooting at us. Most of these guys don’t put up a fight. I’m on the deck, and I jump off and start swimming. Bullets whiz over me. You close your eyes, and the spilled intestines of screaming children in Hollywood Normandy depictions flood your brain. Eat your greens, especially broccoli. I look down, and absolutely nothing stares back at me. Cold in the summer off the coast of Japan. I know it just goes down. Did you know when you’re underwater, and every direction looks the same, you have to watch the bubbles you release and follow their direction? Your stomach lurches. You’ve never swum with open eyes. I’m never going to feel that small again in my life. Anglerfish, mermaids, and megalodon swim in the corners of your hazy imagination. First-hand accounts of the abyss are rare. You didn’t ask if he swam all the way across. 

You are staring at the Viking table. He says it’s mahogany. You can’t stretch your arms to either end. You can’t understand how it ever fit in the house. A highway will bulldoze any history of these moments, and a brand new residential area will be developed in perpetuities where you are. Little boxes on the hillside. Dwarfed by the table and all of life, you can’t predict the future. You’re thinking about dinner. Fried chicken, watermelon, grape soda. 

Do you know why we’re eating this dinner? No. Why? Well, it was invented by black people, and it’s amazing. We can’t let them keep it from the white man. Is anyone trying to keep it away? Do you know why I got this Viking table? No. Why? It’s fucking huge. What’s in your tone? I need a room dedicated entirely to fit it in. It’s so big it wouldn’t fit in other homes. I fucking earned it. I bought it with my own money, and I love massive Viking wood. You bite your cheek. What makes it Viking? Shut up. Why are you so insolent? You want to know what we’d do to pirates when we raided their ships? Of course, I do. 

You did. Did you know that pirates had thriving queer communities and were frequently an outlet for a criminalized lifestyle many gender-nonconforming people and specifically gay men could lead freely? Every single time we got on these ships, the pirates would argue with us. Yelling like there was a negotiation to be had. You wanna know what we did? Push one over. Once a brother is over the side, everyone stops pretending. I don’t believe you. Come with me. 

You’re being taken to the computer room. You walk down the stairs past the living room, and your uncle looks up at the swords on the wall. You watched Battle Royale under the swords. Japanese movies got banned on vacation. Your cousin owns Battlefield 2142. Maybe it’s your uncle’s game. Your cousin isn’t allowed to play video games often. They’ll corrupt you to your core. The neighbors play Nazi zombies, but they can’t swear and don’t like it when you do. Their parents fight quietly. The kids turn down the sound of the killing just enough to ask if their parents still wind up at the same star in the afterlife, even if they divorce. You look around the computer room and see various paperwork, military trinkets, and an oak cabinet with a stained white CRT monitored computer. The computer flickers on, and the screen is blue in the dark. You’re so close you think you can see the blackness between each pixel. Your uncle puts in his credentials.

Barack Obama is in medical scrubs reviving the corpse of Karl Marx. He chuckles. Pretty funny. You don’t get it. You will when you make sense of this. He clicks into a folder and then a subfolder. A media player video opens. He clicks play, and you see night footage from a plane. It’s at a distance in a grainy black and white. You can’t make sense of what you’re looking at. His fingers begin to guide your eyes. After some adjustment, you recognize that it’s a boat. It’s a boat like any other. A small freighter. You didn’t have the language to say you’re nostalgic for a time you didn’t live in when the disappointment of the boat hits you. Little white dots populate the screen. More little white dots start to move, and his finger picks one out. This isn’t his first rodeo. Before you know it, you’re looking past a dirty fingernail at one white dot, thrusting the other white dot into the inky black chopping sea. You believe him. 

Early recollections can’t be trusted. Early recollections speak to themes in your life. You’re on a carnival ride with the boy who showed you Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man. You see the white business blouse shift in the TV that can swallow you whole. The screen is flat, and he lives in the part of town where businessmen move for two years. Buttons slowly peel apart. Every TV in your life is that big now. Don’t you have other things that impress you in your memory? A tit begins to jostle in thin air. You gasp and look at your friend. Fuzz. 

The sun is hot. You don’t drink water. Lexapro, Lithium, Wellbutrin, Risperdal gives you tits, Abilify; something has to work. You’re flat on your ass while the concrete cooks you through cargo shorts. Years after you throw those shorts away, you’ll pass by them over and over in screenshots of screenshots of Microsoft paint photos. The sun torches your exposed flesh under your fresh high and tight at high noon. Redneck is too literal for your taste. You’re thinking about the movie your uncle picked recently. Mr. Shhhh said I am Godzilla, and you are Japan. A beautiful man blasts a thin one with a small gun with a twisted grin.A clean-cut lawn leads to a clean home and a clean life.

At BYU, they don’t walk on the grass because you can’t cut corners in life. Why aren’t you working? Do you know how slow you work? His voice is deafening. You shut your eyes, and every man who’s ever hurt you flashes behind your eyelids. He walks away. You’re scared, so you step off his property into the roadway. When he drove 45 minutes to the pizza place with just his knees, he told a story about living in a Castle state. 

One time my wife called, and these guys were working on my lawn without my permission. I call the lead guy because I say no work when I’m not around. He says we don’t got all day. I say I am coming with a gun, and you better be off my property by the time I get there. I park in the street, and I come out with my gun and finally, they realize I’m serious.

He comes out with a pistol. The first time you saw these guns, he told you they were for hunting Burning Man Faggots. You’ve never felt metal on your forehead. You can’t see his face. You can’t remember much of it anymore. On the internet, a stranger will say the perfect gray man is in New Balance, white gym shoes, jorts, and a polo shirt. 

Time stops, and you don’t move. Nothing happens except your awareness centering on the steel between your brows. Your fivehead provides ample room to rest the gun. You could never act and make a choice. When you tell people about it, you tell them all you can see is the gun finally being pulled down. You tell them it’s one of the greatest moments of your life. No one believes you. You called your mom and hid in the bushes. The first thing you say is you know where the other guns are. He acts out. He used to be a soldier. What did you do? This isn’t the last time you’ll be blamed for a soldier’s actions. You’re on a plane out the same day. He drives you to the airport and asks you to forgive him. He says you of all people should know that people make mistakes. Family reunions are on his side of the Mississippi. After all, the most incredible thing a man can give you is your whole life back.