A few years ago, my cousin tried to kill me. When people ask why, I don't know what to say. Usually I mumble that he didn't have a reason, I say that he didn't even think he had a reason. We had no argument that day or any other in 40 years. I say that we didn't think of each other merely as cousins, we were best friends. We spoke for hours every week, often late at night, squinting through the portal of a video chat to exchange complaints about our lives and show off household projects.
I say that we had been planning for months to get together that weekend, we'd organized a family reunion at his house. My son and I were staying in his guest room while a swarm of aunts and uncles and cousins spilled into a nearby hotel. I had spent the day with them watching our kids play in the hotel pool, but everyone was planning to gather back at my cousin's house for a party that evening. I say that none of our relatives knew there was conflict between my cousin and me.
Neither did I and neither did he. There was no sign of anything wrong. Until he tried to kill me, when I say this, I know it doesn't make sense, I know it sounds incomplete. It sounds like a story, I tell myself, to avoid responsibility, and maybe it is. This is Man to man published in the New York Times magazine, written and read by Wil Hylton. Boys, he said, can I talk with Liam's daddy?
That was how it began. He was standing in the doorway of the guest room with an easy smile. My son and I had just returned from the pool to get ready for the party, we brought along my sister's son and another cousin's daughter. The kids dried off and flopped on the bed to play video games while I straighten the room. I remember the careless way they glanced up when my cousin appeared at the door. His massive frame blocking the exit gave them no concern.
I can still hear the humor in his voice as he asked their permission to speak with me. I remember that he called them boys, even though one was not. Should that detail of alarmed me, I wonder now. And what about his kids? Where were they? Were they upstairs with their mother, as he said, or was he alone when we returned? Did our arrival interrupt him? Did we make too much noise coming inside or had he already vanished into rage from the whispers he heard the previous night?
I think of my son in that moment stretched across the bed with his cousins. I can still see the red pocket Nintendo clutched in his hands, his little fingers stabbing the keys to inflict some imaginary violence. His mother and sister were not with us, they were five hundred miles away. We had left them in the house that I spent two years hammering together. The home I was tearing apart. I had just moved out a few weeks earlier, the marriage ending the family and pieces, I remember the sadness and my boys, we packed our bags to leave and the way my cousin seemed to sense it.
He lived from his pickup at the airport to envelop us with hugs, then pulled off the highway a few miles later to buy a Nerf football, some gaudy beach store, stopping again a few miles later to pick up a youth sized Carolina Panthers jersey. I watched my son's gloomy face light up as he tried to jersey on chattering with my cousin about Cam Newton.
I remember thinking they would always have that in common, the easy banter of seasonal sports, the patter of team statistics which always seemed vacuous to me until I became a father, until I began to look with envy on the touchstone of sports between generations of other men.
I remember how my son reacted to my cousin's presence in the truck that day. It was the same way I had always responded to him myself. There was something soothing in his confidence. He carried himself with the blunt authority that boys are groomed to prize. He laughed easily and often slapping the wheel with his palms until the dashboard shook. When he talked about football, he made casual gestures of throwing and running with the fluid motion of a man built to play.
As we pulled into the driveway, he stepped to the pavement and told my son to go long, ducking his head back into the cab while my boy raced across the yard, then taking a step backward and lofting the ball skyward to land in my son's open arms. For the rest of the day, my boy wore that jersey, he wore it again the following morning. When we left for the hotel pool, he tossed it by his pillow to slip on later.
I wonder now if he was still wearing the jersey that night, surrounded by relatives he barely knew on the patio of their hotel, while my parents huddled beside my broken body in a surgical unit of the emergency room, praying that my ruptured organs and battered skull could be repaired. I think of how little my boy understood in that moment, too young to be told what happened and how confused he must have been with his father missing, with his mother and sister far away, with none of his grandparents in sight, with a crowd of great aunts and second cousins showering him with cake and presents, it was his ninth birthday.
He was nine that day and his family was shattering and suddenly his father was gone, what I've come to understand is that my absence wasn't sudden at all. I had been missing all his life. I had abandoned him. I want my boy to understand that I failed him and for how long and why? He needs to know that when he becomes a man, he will be tempted to fail in the same ways he'll be encouraged to fail. He'll be told these things aren't failures.
I want him to know how a lifetime of failures led us to that night. To the birthday, he celebrated alone with a fracture of his family to his father on the edge of death.
I need to tell him the difficult truth that I'm still learning myself. Boys, can I talk with Liam's daddy? I looked up and saw him in the doorway. I returned his smile, I told the children I wouldn't be long. Across the room and stepped outside. The afternoon sun was behind the house, leaving the yard and shadows. My cousin said, let's talk in the shop. He began walking toward his garage. I followed him past a wooden staircase and a tire swing hanging from chains.
When we came to the big metal door, he pulled it open and waited for me to enter. Nothing about this struck me as unusual. I thought he wanted to smoke some pot. He always wanted to smoke a bowl and he didn't care if I smoked with him. I had no interest in smoking that day, I couldn't handle the party stoned. But I always enjoyed sitting with him on the metal stools in his workshop, surrounded by jigsaw blades and stainless steel fasteners and coils of red and blue PEX tubing, while he crumpled a bud into a pipe, growing more calm with each city took more like the version of him that I liked best.
I stepped into the garage and heard him closing the door behind me. I walked down a row of work, beaten tools that hung from the wall in perfect order. I liked my cousin's attitude about tools. He hated plastic junk. He looked for the best second hand equipment he could find, took it apart and restored it to service. He found the time to maintain everything he had. He talked about this in the language of paternal duty. A man took care of his things, he tended what was his he filed the teeth of his chainsaw blade and oil, the return on his framing nailer.
Sometimes just to amuse ourselves. We sent each other pictures of bogus workshops in magazines, The Spotless Man Cave with a checkerboard floor, the matching sets of Lovo gizmos that come in a zippered pouch, the wobbly miniature circular saws and flimsy drills with a quarter inch chuck. His equipment was heavy with steel, it hung from Brackett's anchored to the framing of the wall. Some of the electrical cords were spliced, the paint was chipped and the luster gone. But everything was built to last and put to work.
I passed the yellow jackhammer and a shelf of four inch sewer pipe turning into a small room where he kept his workbench. I heard him behind me, and when I turned, I saw a blur of motion. His hands flew to my throat and cinched my trachea shut. The force was stunning, my lungs stopped. My arms shot up to bat his away, but he was many times stronger and he slammed my back against the wall. His stance was perfect, he was centered, grounded with his torso, guarded his military training at work.
I tried to shout, but nothing came. I felt my chest sees for air. I hoped you could see the confusion in my eyes, his wristlets of rage, he clenched his hands so tight around my neck that veins bulge that his temples and his face was deepening red. I wondered if I had accidentally broken something in the house or if he was playing a joke and didn't realize his own strength. I felt my body going numb. I was starting to black out.
He tightened his grip and pressed his face close to mine and hissed, What does I'm all out mean? I thought of my wife five hundred miles away, was glad she wasn't with me, our daughter would be safe with her and our son was in danger with me.
When I look back now, I wonder how often that was true, how many times in ways they were all on safe with me. My wife and I had been married for 12 years, but we'd known each other much longer. We first met as young children when I turned up at her house for pottery lessons from her mother. We dated briefly in high school, but lost contact after graduation. We finally reconnected in our late 20s at a gathering of old friends.
She was living in Austin and I was planning a trip there for work. We made plans to meet for a drink. We talked into the night. We both confessed to feeling adrift on the frontier of our thirty's. She was in graduate school working two restaurant jobs that left no time for herself. I was a journalist who spent most of the year traveling and had no sense of home. A few weeks later, I called her from Delaware, I was on my way to a job in Missouri.
I asked if I could see her again before I returned to the house I was renting in New Mexico. We plan to spend two days together. On the second morning, I changed my flight. Three days later, I bumped it again. Eventually, I canceled the ticket. The life that we began in Texas was a torrent of activity. Each morning we went for a run downtown, had breakfast and cycled to work. Then we met for swim practice at noon and spent the evening paddling across Town Lake in kayaks.
We split the bills and the chores we shared, the cooking and cleaning and things we did separately, we did for a reason, I was more likely to stitch the seam of a coat because I like to sew. She kept track of auto service because I suck at cars. If she was sick, I made stock for soup, and if I was, then she did. We married the next summer in a small ceremony at her father's community garden.
Afterward, we flew to Italy and visited her grandmother in Liguria and we drove to the Alps and trekked for a week on the French border. In the fall, we took a road trip from Texas to New Mexico, camping under a full moon at White Sands National Monument. We climbed Sandy Peak and slept in the ruins of an old lodge on the summit. We spent a few days on a patch of land that I owned in the Sunni mountains, building the foundation of a small cabin.
In the spring, we hold our bikes to Florida and rode 3000 miles up the coast to Canada as we crossed Virginia with gawped at the mist on the Blue Ridge Mountains and decided to move their. Back in Texas, we searched online for a property and settled on a little Grey House near Shenandoah National Park. It was perched at the top of a long dirt road with views across the Piedmont. We imagined ourselves hiking and cycling, raising a vegetable garden and a handful of kids, we packed our lives into a twenty six foot moving van and made the fourteen hundred mile drive, pulling around the last hairpin turn on a snowy December night.
Many times since then, I've tried to remember how we expected this to work. Parents of small children do not spend their days cruising down mountain roads on marathon runs and century rides without any friends or relatives in the area with only one neighbor for miles around. We wouldn't have a minute of support when we had children. The nearest city was almost an hour away. We had no plan for work, I would be able to write from home, but her career depended on human contact.
In Texas, she had finished the coursework for a doctorate in art history and held a university job with benefits, there would be no faculty appointment in the wilderness or even a restaurant for picking up shifts. We would have to get by on my income, but our mortgage was twice the rent in Texas, health insurance cost eight hundred dollars a month, and with kids, our expenses would only rise. It seems to me that we spent no time considering these issues or where they might lead us, the isolation, the financial pressure.
The fatigue of raising children. The erasure of her professional identity and the lingering conflict in mine, a lifelong struggle with male identity, but I had never fully resolved. The walls of my cousin's workshop spun his grip on my throat was a noose, I heard him saying, what is I'm all out mean, kept asking again and again. I had no breath to answer him, but I couldn't have answered if I did.
The words meant nothing to me.
I couldn't imagine why he thought they would. All I knew was that he wanted to kill me. I can see that in his eyes it was more than anger. It was impatience kept his grip around my neck and watched me squirm, waiting for my body to give out.
His violence had never surprised me before, it was essential to who he was. He grew up in the steel towns of Pennsylvania and learned to handle himself in a fight. By middle school, he towered over kids our age, he was drowning in hormonal rage. He hated school, hated teachers, hated the cops and made sure they knew it. When he was old enough to drive, he got a silver car and plastered the windshield with letters that spelled out criminal.
He walked down the sidewalk, bellowing, laughter and honking Luckies on the street. Anyone who saw him could tell at a glance that it was a bad idea to press him just in case he carried a knife. Eventually he got a gun. I never saw him shoot it, but he said it was real and I believed him. When his family visited mine, we disappeared into my room, tugging on a bottle of stolen booze and examining his latest weapons.
I was from a different world, we lived in Baltimore City. While other white families raced to the suburbs after the 1968 riot, plunging the population by one hundred and nineteen thousand residents in the space of a decade, my parents loved the city and doubled down.
They bought an old row house, volunteered in health clinics, marched for gun control. My mother took a job as a social worker at the Lawrence G.P.A., one school for pregnant teenagers. My father left a white shoe law firm to hang a shingle of his own downtown. On nights and weekends, he often returned to work coming home after my mother had put us to bed. She did most of the cooking and cleaning his job, paid most of the bills.
Neither of them seemed to mind this division. There was a tenor of equity between them. Even now, they spend hours at dinner each night debating the events of the day and the world. My own relationship with my father was more turbulent. I lived in fear of his temper. He aspired to a model of masculine reserve that he saw in cowboy movies. I mean, this literally with our first VCR came mandatory screenings of Stagecoach, High Noon and Searcher's.
Right. So he said, don't let them kill me because I'm going to kill you.
Each one followed by an impromptu disquisition on the virtue of restrained power.
Every time you turn around and expect to see this one time, you'll turn around and I'll be there with time.
I came to understand this as a reaction to the volcanic forces in himself.
You call me father, you can call me a dirty son of a bitch. But if you ever call me daddy again, I'll finish this fight with.
My sister and I were little and our mother was out. He would fumble to hit a can of ravioli and set the table, growing frustrated and furious when I complained that dinner was too hot or too cold, too spicy or not enough, I enjoyed the fleeting power it gave me to provoke him, even as I dreaded the moment he would blow.
The worst was not the physical sting of his hand across my face. It was the sound of his footsteps chasing behind me when I bolted from the table, racing up the front stairs and down the back, until at last he caught up and pinned me to a wall, his expression tangled in fury, hurling epithets with his crimson face inches from mine. It would take years of therapy individually and together to forge a lasting peace. Middle school brought its own torment.
I was an abysmal student who learned to read. Two years later than my classmates who never studied or completed homework. But in public schools evacuated by white families, administrators pampered those of us who remained year after year, I tracked into the highest tier of gifted classes with grades on the verge of failing, passing among a slender minority of white students and a system of glaring racial apartheid.
Discrimination fosters blowback, and I got more than my share. Maybe it was my stringy blonde hair whipped into an OPIS tangle. Or maybe it was just bad luck that I was beat up more than most. That wasn't true in my neighborhood, where I had inexplicable fortune, I think I was the only boy in a three block radius who was never bloodied in a street fight. One of my friends was stomped to the ground and brutally beaten by teenagers in the alley behind my house when he was about 12.
But my good luck at home did not extend to middle school. While most of my friends got along fine, trouble seemed to find me. I remember the sound of wooden hall passes connecting with my skull as I stood at the urinal. I remember being tossed around the playground at recess by older girls. I remember coming back from a visit to the bathroom one afternoon when a kid saw me through the door of his classroom and leapt from his seat shouting nerd and rushing into the hall to stand in my way.
After a few head fakes to see if I would flinch, he hauled off with the real thing, landing half a dozen blows on my left eye before my friend Dontae materialized to stop him. I continued to class with ringing ears and my eyes swelling shut when a man from the asbestos removal crew looked down from his ladder and said, Next time, swing first.
That night, I stole a bottle of concealer from my mother's bathroom. I spent the next week painting away the dark circles under my eye. I don't know how much of this I told my cousin, it seemed I never had to. He preyed on fear and other boys, but he never preyed on me. When he visited my house, he would regale me with stories of his own recent fights, making a point to emphasize that even he took beatings.
He showed me cuts on his hands and complained that his midsection hurt. But it was clear to me that he relished combat. Whether he won or lost. He seemed immune to the insecurities that I couldn't escape. He showed me how to carry myself in a way that suggested confidence I didn't have. He repeated the man on the latter's advice to swing first and showed me how. Most of my friends despised my cousin. They avoided me when he was in town.
If we stopped by their houses, he found the liquor and downed it, he would smash a neighbor's window or tear the antenna off a parked car to swing like a whip. One of my friends reminded me recently of a beating he gave to a kid in a parking lot throwing her fragile body to the ground while the rest of us stood aghast. I had forgotten that night. His violence was ambient, it was endemic. But I knew it wouldn't turn on me.
We could walk through the city anywhere at any hour. And there would be no trouble he couldn't manage. I loved the shelter of his violence. It gave him the power to make wrong, right? It made no difference that he never did. Only that he could. I loved that when he came to a party, people made room for us to pass. I loved when he told me about breaking a pool cue in half and beating two guys with the fat end.
I loved him even when I hated his violence, even when it hurt me. I remember a night in the last year of high school when we picked up some of my friends on the way to a party. My cousin sat in the back with a boy who was dating the girl I liked. I was pulling around a curve in the road when he ordered the boy to break up with her. I glanced in the mirror and saw that my cousin had put a gun to the kid's head.
I wasn't sure what kind of gun it was, whether it was loaded or even real, but I swerved to the shoulder and told him to put it away. He did unphased. It meant nothing to him. We dropped the other kids at the party but didn't go in ourselves. By Monday, all my friends were furious. Some stopped speaking to me. I was furious with my cousin, but I knew what he intended. I love that he loved me enough to make everyone hate us both.
Experience New York Times reporting with exceptional closeness in collaboration with Facebook, augmented reality journalism from The New York Times can help you explore complex topics in an interactive way. New Instagram Effect's lets you visualize air pollution become a suffragette in honor of the one hundredth anniversary of women's right to vote and more. Check out our R journalism by visiting the effects tab on The New York Times, his Instagram page. When I left for college that fall, my cousin ditched his own campus and spent a month crashing in my dorm.
We raged all night, I skipped every class. We broke into buildings for anything we could steal. We lugged a container of gasoline to the woods and torched piles of brush. When a kid in the dining hall complained that we were smoking, we stubbed out cigarettes in his food. In November, my cousin left campus to join the army. I continued the rampage without him. By January, I was buried in administrative charges. They ranged from a trivial complaint that I was running a gambling ring to the serious accusation that I had set a dormitory carpet on fire.
That wasn't true, but school administrators had plenty of good reasons to expel me. And in February, they did. When I called home to give my parents the news, I heard anguish in my mother's voice. My father came on the line and asked me to let them know when I landed somewhere else. Ashamed, humiliated, with nowhere to go, I packed a bag and climbed on a bus. I spent a few months surfing couches and overstaying my welcome with friends.
My cousin finished training and deployed to Europe, where he fell in love with a German woman. When he brought her back to Pennsylvania, I made my way to his father's house for their wedding reception. Halfway through the evening, someone approached me to whisper that my cousin was spinning out. He believed that a relative was flirting with his new wife and flew into a rage.
After a noisy confrontation outside, a neighbor called the police, I went to the backyard and found my uncle bathed in flashing light, trying to convince a throng of cops that everything was fine.
I remember thinking the time had come to leave my cousin behind. There was no way to reconcile the man he was with, the one I wanted to become. I still wasn't sure who I wanted to become, but something in me felt wrong. In a general way, it seemed that I had surrendered my identity to my fears. I knew that my relationship with my cousin was built on a lifetime of insecurities. I didn't want to be the kind of person who took refuge in his brute power.
I didn't want to be someone who trashed a campus just to feel more powerful himself. Anyone could see these compensatory gestures for what they were, I was modeling myself on the noxious behavior that I found most threatening and reassuring and others. I climbed aboard a Greyhound bus with an open pass and no destination, I remember staring through the window on my way across the Great Plains wondering if I had grown up somewhere quiet where I might feel more quiet inside. The desiccated landscape of New Mexico appeared as an empty canvas in the garish weirdness of the desert, where beaming hippies dotted the horizon, banging on drums and piling up ramshackle homes from straw bales and tires, it seemed possible to find another sense of myself.
I picked up a job in Albuquerque, sweeping floors at a pizza place and rented an apartment with a co-worker near the city center, one of our neighbors ran a Tibetan store and I stopped in one day to see him. He was on the phone, but raised a finger to signal that he wouldn't be long. I spent a few minutes looking around. The shelves were lined with oils and candles, incense and folded fabrics.
I pulled a batik sarong from a stack and shook it open, it was muted orange with intricate swirls and floral designs. When my friend hung up, I asked him how to tie it around my waist. I left the store with it on. For the next two years, I worked constantly. I went to parties hiking in the mountains and ambling down city streets, I know it was only a piece of clothing, but it felt like a step away from my past and towards something unfamiliar.
I grew my hair long, hide it in braids, adorned it with beads and feathers, I looked as cartoonish as you're probably imagining, but that was the point. It came as a revelation that you could walk through town barefoot and shirtless in a wraparounds skirt with silver crosses dangling from pierced nipples with Byzantine tattoos, with your beads and feathers swaying like a headdress. And no one even shrugged. I knew that my cousin would have laughed if he'd seen me.
A year earlier, I would have laughed at myself. After a hiking trip in northern Mexico, I returned with food borne hepatitis that spiraled into debilitating fatigue. I spent a week in the hospital, then slumped back to my parents house in Baltimore for a long recovery.
My mother insisted that my father and I began therapy to heal the wounds of childhood, and once a week we sank into the cushions of our social workers office downtown, dredging up and sifting through memories of a broken dynamic. To kill the rest of my time, I volunteered at a local magazine where one of the editors was a minor celebrity. She was nearly a decade older, perpetually draped in scarves and jewelry with a wondrous frizz of auburn hair. We became friends then more.
She took me to movie premieres, balls and galas at snooty museums, some of her friends didn't approve jailbait. They said cradle robber. She snapped that no one would notice if she were a man. At parties, we sometimes bumped into a tall, lean artist with dreadlocks and deep brown skin. I would notice myself watching him across the room. I had never been interested in a man before, but it was easy to believe that someone could reach the age of 22 without discovering his inclinations.
When my relationship with the older woman fizzled out, I ran into the artist one night at a club. I found myself in the center of the dance floor with my head tipped back as he kissed me. I was intrigued by his interest and gave him my number when he invited me to dinner. I accepted. I don't know if we saw enough of each other in the next few weeks to call it dating. We met up a handful of times, but we never really clicked.
I moved to New York and began writing freelance articles for magazines. And when an assignment took me back to New Mexico, I decided to stay. Over the next two years, I fell into a close relationship with an older man. Each time I returned from a reporting trip, he would scoop me up from the airport, dropping my bags at the house I was renting and driving us to dinner. We traveled together visiting friends in the mountains and taking vacations overseas.
We stayed up late cooking elaborate meals and watching Iranian films. We joked that our relationship was a septuagenarian marriage, but we knew that for each of us, it was a placeholder for someone yet to come.
By the time I reconnected with the woman from high school, I had come to a maddeningly simple conclusion.
I believed that the conventions of male identity were toxic but ultimately toothless, the crusty archetypes of my father's cowboy movies and a thousand cultural narratives, the expectations for how a man should live and feel we could love and in what ways they could all be thrown aside.
A man was free to be as he was. He defined the terms of masculinity for himself. He could love other men and welcome intimate relationships in whatever form they came. Finding a more fluid gender identity was as simple as choosing to. This is what I believed. The rage in my cousin disappeared for an instant. I don't know how much time it passed by then I was flitting in and out of consciousness and everything was warped. What I remember is a sudden shift in his expression from fury to confusion.
His eyes grew wide. His right hand loosened at my neck, but his left hand kept its grip. He seemed to be trapped between two instincts and struggling to choose one. He pressed his right form into my neck for a moment, then let go again and took a step back without his grip to hold me up, I could barely stay on my feet. He watched me teetering in silence. I wondered if he would let me go. Then the real beating began.
How can I describe the way he brutalized me then I've spent the past few years trying not to let it haunt me. It seemed as if he wanted to punish me for his own moment of uncertainty. He lunged forward, grabbing my shirt with both hands and flung me to the side like a rag doll. My body smacked against the wall and I began sliding toward the floor, but he rushed over to lift me up and hurled me against the doorframe and bounced off and he threw me again.
He tossed me from one side of the room to the other. Each time I made contact with the wall, his tools dug into my body. Each time I slumped forward, he pummeled his fists into my gut. I heard him shout, what does I'm all out mean? I sputtered that I didn't know. He screamed, Are you fucking my wife or are you selling drugs in my house? I pleaded that I wasn't, but I wouldn't. I told them that I didn't understand what was happening.
I tried to raise my arms to block the punches, but they wouldn't move. He battered every inch of my body from the shoulders to the hip. I shrieked that he was going to kill me. He didn't answer. He kept pitching me around the room. Pounding me with his hands. And when my body sailed into the main part of the garage, he followed and looked down as I curled into a ball. He crouched beside me, lobbing a fist into my head.
I heard him grunt from the effort. I felt my skull ricochet off the concrete. He punched again and again, bouncing my head off the pavement like a ball, he was wearing himself out. The blows grew further apart, finally. They stopped. He stood and I watched him walk back to his workshop. He took a seat on the metal stool and began rubbing his palm against his forehead. I believe you, he said quietly, I can tell you're not lying.
There was a long pause, then he muttered. I think I'm losing it. I tried to pry myself from the floor, my skull was throbbing and my insides felt like liquid. When I managed to stand, I braced for him to charge at me, he didn't move. He was hunched forward on the stool like a child. He said, again, I'm losing it. I felt a surge of anger run through me. I lurched into the workshop after him cursing and spitting blood on the floor.
He was still rubbing his palm against his head. It looked as if he were trying to peel the skin off.
I touched my own head and felt a lunar landscape of welts, my hand returned sticky with blood. I stumbled to the mop sink and turned on the faucet.
I dipped my head into the stream and watched blood swirl in the drain. When I turned around, he was still on the stool murmuring to himself, I wanted to shout. Instead, I waited.
He glanced at me and back at the floor and said, I heard your voice on the recording. I didn't hear my cousin's voice for several years after the party at his father's house, there wasn't any conflict between us or even an acknowledgement that we'd stop talking. I just wanted to keep my distance. And I guess he wanted the same. I bumped into him once or twice at family events and got occasional updates on his life from relatives, one of them showed me a picture of him in Germany glowering at the camera in his army uniform with a black beret.
I heard that he served in the ranger regiment of the Special Operations Command and that the army threw him out, though the circumstances were never clear. He and his wife stayed in Europe for a while, then returned to the United States. I knew that they lived in Pennsylvania for a couple of years, then moved to South Carolina. Other than that, I didn't know much about his life or want to. My wife was clearly relieved by this. She remembered his reputation from high school.
Some of her friends still held me responsible for the time he pulled the gun on that kid in my car. She wanted no part of men like that. She hated violence and she recognized the attendant danger of men who valorized it. In our first months together, I felt her watching for signs of that instinct in me. When we bicycled up the East Coast together, we stopped by his house, he was drinking heavily, weaving around with no shirt and the word rage tattooed across his stomach in three inch Gothic letters.
Every few minutes, he would emerge from a back room with some new shotgun or a rifle or laser sighted pistol. My wife was repelled. I wasn't surprised. As we continued north, I promised myself not to entangle our lives with his. By the time we settled in the mountains of Virginia, another year had passed. We had a sense of the life we were making and saw no reason to think it would change. The change was instant. It was obliterating nothing about our lives, converted to the mountains.
My wife couldn't work, I had to double my income to support us and we adapted. And the only way that seemed to make sense. I spent each day at a desk in the spare bedroom trying to generate writing assignments while she took on the household responsibilities. We conceived our son a few months later and decided that it would be good for him to have his mother close at hand. I converted my office into a nursery and built a studio on the far side of the property for my work.
I would leave the house after breakfast to spend the day there if I was running late. I left a plate in the sink asking my wife to add it to her dishes from lunch. She never objected. And eventually I stopped asking. By the time I got home in the evening, she had dinner ready. Afterward, she did the dishes while I returned to the studio for another hour or two of work. The conventional roles of breadwinner and homemaker felt alien, yet familiar.
I began to joke that in our house it was 1953. Our son was not an easy child and none of us were sleeping. We spent hours rocking him to sleep at night. Only to hear him crying as we shut the door. Exhaustion, emptiness. It followed anywhere we went. When we drove to town for groceries, my wife sat in the back with our son and when his cries tapered off, I would see her slumped over his seat in spontaneous slumber.
Sometimes I fell asleep at stoplights, waking to blaring horns. By the time we got home hours later, we were too tired to unpack our bags, we threw them on the counter and began the ordeal of getting the baby to sleep. Later, we stood at the stove in silence, choking down forkful of pasta directly from the pot. When six months passed and he still wasn't sleeping, we understood that he had some kind of colic. He wouldn't take a bottle or touch a pacifier, he would only settle at his mother's breast.
Our isolation made this worse, spending all day with just one parent, he grew increasingly dependent. He began to see me as the stranger who appeared at night to remove him from his mother's arms. He would cry at the sight of me entering a room, terrified that she might leave. I knew it was wrong to be hurt by this. He was an infant and would outgrow it. I knew that. But I aked. I began to dread the walk home at night.
I often came in near midnight, I was falling behind at work, my brain lagging from lack of sleep. And I was consumed by the fear of working too slowly to pay our bills. My wife and I began to clash, we had never fought before. We argued over time and money and the best way to care for our son. We argued over what to do when it was four a.m. and he was crying for the seventh hour. I said that we should leave him in his crib to cry it out and self soothe.
I had no reason to believe those things. I'm not even sure I did. I spouted jargon from tough love parenting manuals that gave me an excuse to stay in bed. When I pulled the blanket over my head to muffle the sound of his crying, my wife would hoist herself upright and return to his room alone.
Our life was a vault. Each day we sank deeper into the roles of housebound mother and work obsessed father. In a world of our choosing, this division might have seemed indefensible and incoherent. We may have recognized how untenable it was to saddle each other with separate burdens to carry alone. But in the world, we knew and had always known it was easy to accept that division as normal. It was the same divide we had seen in our parents and grandparents on screen and in countless novels, one that echoed the marriages of most of our friends, we tried to accept the new roles we inhabited even as we presented them in ourselves and in each other.
My wife had been working all her life. She began selling daffodil bulbs to her neighbors when she was 11. She worked her way through college and then graduate school, she built a professional life. She was mortified to depend on my income and determined to manage as much as she could. I would like to say that I offered more support to her than I did, I was drowning in my own frustration at the responsibilities on me. I was angry that she didn't monitor the cascade of bills for the mortgage, utilities and phone, that she didn't keep track of how much money we had in our accounts or when my next paycheck might arrive.
We rarely voiced these frustrations. Mostly, we drifted apart, neither of us had the energy to bridge the yawning chasm between us.
When I look back now, I can still furnish the same excuses I made then. There was always a way to explain our division of labor as an adjustment to life in the mountains. But I was a father who spent no time at home. Who was already estranged from his son? Who expected his wife to perform all the functions of domestic life? One night, I awoke with a pounding in my head. My skin was burning and I couldn't move.
I lay in bed for an hour in excruciating pain. And it faded and I fell back to sleep. It happened again at my desk the next week. A bolt of pain shot through me and I crumpled to the floor of my studio groaning in agony until it subsided. My wife's father, a doctor, explained that these were the symptoms of panic attacks, the first of my life. I did nothing to address them or examine their causes instead. I disappeared.
I love to leave our house in the mountains. I gave the excuse of work. I would plan for each reporting assignment as if it were a private honeymoon, winging off to spend a week in Los Angeles or Bermuda, reporting an article for some glossy magazine. Usually about a powerful man at the peak of a celebrated life. I wrote about a special forces team invading Afghanistan, about one of the principal architects of the Iraq war. About the long friendship between Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and about the betrayal of Colin Powell.
I interviewed presidents, secretaries of state and defense, business tycoons and attorneys general. I gave no thought to the comfort I felt with these men or the invisible support that they, too, enjoyed at home.
I remember a frozen morning in our son's first year when I left home to begin work on a book about military archaeologists who were searching for the remains of missing soldiers in the Pacific Islands. My wife stood on the porch with the baby in her arms as I threw a suitcase in my pickup.
I promised to miss her, I kissed them goodbye, I barreled down the long dirt road with irrepressible delight.
I flew to California and to Hawaii. And then the tropics of Palau, I was gone for a month each night, I would return to the quilted blankets of my hotel room, flipping on the television and ordering room service and waiting as long as possible to call home. When I finally did, I would listen for the sound of my son crying in the background if I didn't hear his cries, I told myself that it was lucky I wasn't there. At the end of the trip, I drove at a crawl up the long road home, already missing the unfettered life of the man I had left behind.
When I reached my doorstep, William Carlos Williams wrote. I am greeted by the happy shrieks of my children and my heart sinks.
I am crushed. One day at my desk later that year, I sent an email to my cousin. I hadn't planned to contact him, but I didn't question why I did. I just fired off a note asking how he was and we traded a few messages about our lives. He was still in South Carolina with his wife. He worked as a contractor and was planning to start a family. I asked if he wanted to chat on Skype, and we made plans to connect that evening.
After dinner, I returned to my studio and we opened a door that I had promised myself to shut. I've searched myself to understand why I wrote my cousin that day, I still don't have a perfect answer, but I know some things are true. I know that love can be vestigial. It lingers without cause. Even after a decade apart, I still loved my cousin. But love is not the only thing that drew me back to him. What I began to miss in the mountains was the reassurance he once gave me.
I had allowed myself to embody the conventions of male privilege and paternal absence. And I clung to a subconscious hope that his brash, masculine persona would permit my own. The first thing I noticed in our conversation was his dubious Southern accent. It seemed to come and go, and I guess that he found it easier to sustain with strangers than with me. I was also surprised by his size. He had always been several inches taller than me, but now he filled out his frame and loomed on screen.
I assumed that we would have to search for things to talk about. Within a few minutes, we were chattering about endless trivia. We discussed the renovations we made to various homes. We debated the pros and cons of framing walls with two by six lumbar. We laughed about the annoyance of removing groud Hayes from rough surface tile. We remember learning to use tools as children and our grandfather's shop. I told him about my land in New Mexico where the pinyon trees caught fire each summer.
He had a degree in forestry management and told me about the fire adaptations of Southern Pines. We spoke for nearly three hours that night. We agreed to chat again soon. Before long, we were speaking once or twice a week. We played LP's through the video link, found a website for online chess and drew up plans for household projects. When his wife became pregnant, she would pop on screen every few weeks to show me her expanding abdomen. After she delivered, I made a small website for them to upload photos on Father's Day.
My cousin wrote me. I'm glad to be a member of the daddy club with you. Certain things about him still disturbed me. He talked about getting into scraps and roughing people up. He spouted noxious political opinions and used the term rebel flag to my vehement objection. But I found him willing to listen to my perspective and reconsider his own. I took a condescending pleasure in trying to open his mind, even as I saw it, his silent approval for the man I had become.
Mostly, we avoided serious topics. We roll joints and smoked them, mugging for the camera and laughing about arbitrary things. Hanging up, he always said, I love you, brother. My wife was distressed by the conversations with my cousin. Each time I left the house to call him from my studio, she would scrunch up her face and an expression that I understood to mean him again. When I announced plans to visit him for the weekend and help install twelve hundred square feet of hardwood flooring, she stared in disbelief.
When he returned the favor a few months later, driving to our house with a truckload of supplies to repair the heating system, she gave him an obligatory hug at the door and disappeared for the rest of the week. I would look up from the project coated with sweat, grime, and spot her on the far side of the property, picking vegetables from the garden with our son strapped to her back. She ate alone, leaving plates of dinner on the counter for us.
Her birthday came and went that week. I gave her a gift and a hug and returned to work. Each night, my cousin and I retreated to a terrorist behind the house, tending a fire as I drank a few beers and he pounded a case of cance. That's when he began telling stories from the decade we spent apart. He described his army experience in ways that sounded unlikely at best. I had seen the photo of him in uniform. But I didn't believe him when he told me that he deployed to Bosnia, that he qualified as an expert marksman and trained Green Berets.
The story of his discharge also seemed to change with each telling I knew that he had been caught up in an investigation of soldiers selling hashish on base. I didn't buy his claims of innocence. But when he said that he refused to rat on his friends, I had no trouble believing that. Late one night beside the fire, he recalled a traumatic evening in Europe when he was the victim of a savage and humiliating attack by another soldier. That was the only story I never doubted.
For a man like my cousin, it was devastating to admit such a thing, let alone invent it. Just telling the story, he seemed less angry than ashamed. I listened quietly, but didn't ask questions, we never discussed it again. When we finished the project, he drove home and we resumed our video chats three or four times a week. He was planning to build a new house, and we spent hours going over the design. We studied the layout of the ground floor with his workshop at one end and a guest suite on the other.
We talked about how much fun it would be to bring my family there for visits. A few months after he moved in, he sent me a string of bewildering emails. Which is the first appeared at six 12 on a Tuesday evening. There was no subject line or message, just a small attachment. When I clicked, I heard a short recording of a room with a football game playing on television in the background over the next 14 minutes, he sent 16 more emails.
Finally, he added a message. I'm sorry to bother you with this. But it's like I said. These are recordings taken from my iPad sitting on the kitchen island, we were all at a movie until coming home at 18 14. This was last October. I didn't understand. We hadn't discussed any recordings. Wait, what are these? I wrote back, did you tell me about this before? On a record while out to the movies, he replied.
Listen for a man's voice, real quiet. Do you know how I played the recordings again, but the only voice I heard was the football announcers. It's the TV, isn't it? I wrote he asked me to replay two of the recordings. I did and responded, Nope, don't hear it. He wrote back. OK, thanks. We never discussed the recordings again, just as we never discussed his assault in the Army. The reason we never talked about those things was that I never asked.
He had tried to raise them, that I wouldn't engage. I didn't want to look under the rocks in his life. I refused to see the vulnerability in him. Our relationship was built on the confidence he projected and the need that filled in me. My wife and I had to leave the wilderness, the isolation was unbearable. We decided to return to our families in Baltimore and bought half a duplex on the edge of the city. The bathroom floors were rotting and the kitchen was a musty mess.
So we rented a small apartment while I completed a renovation. The first week of construction, I opened a second floor water line and discovered that it was rusted solid. I cracked open a wall to replace the pipe and found a tangle of exposed wire. The renovation expanded as renovations do. Over the next six months, I worked on the House seven days a week. The cost of the project crippled our savings and paying for the apartment in addition to our mortgage only made it worse.
By the time we moved in, I had been renovating the house for half a year without pause. I hadn't spent more than a few hours with my family and I was so far behind on my book that it seemed impossible to catch up. I shifted my focus from construction to writing, but kept the same schedule, I rented a small office and spent six days a week there while my wife continued cooking and cleaning, doing the laundry and everything else.
When our daughter was born, we agreed to sleep in separate rooms. I stayed with the baby from 8:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. and brought her to my wife's bedroom for the second shift. I don I made coffee and left the house, usually returning in time for dinner. At night, we retreated to our rooms, reading alone or watching films with headphones on. Once or twice a week, I would slip into the basement for a call with my cousin.
Panning the camera around the dingy space as we made elaborate plans. We hashed out the designs for a laundry room, a media center and wood shop, all the work I wanted to do on everything except myself. His voice was faint and he stared at the floor as he tried to explain the attack. I stood by the mop sink, holding the rim for balance, struggling to make sense of what he said. He told me that he was still recording his house.
He did it at night in secret. He hadn't told his wife. But he was convinced that someone was breaking in and sneaking around.
He didn't know who they were or what they wanted, but he could hear them on the recordings, they shuffled around opening drawers and rifling through cabinets, sometimes he heard them whispering.
He said it was hard to understand what they said, but when he played the recordings over and over, he could usually pick out the words. The night before, while my son and I slept in the guest room. My cousin was recording the kitchen one floor above us. He reviewed the tape while we were at the pool and heard a voice whispering at four thirty a.m..
After playing it several times, he made out the phrase, I'm all out. He wasn't sure what that meant, but he knew I had been in his house, he decided the voice was mine. I was the culprit all along. My head was swimming and the pain in my gut was swelling. I tried to focus on what he was saying. A thousand questions came to mind. Did he really believe that I drove 10 hours to invade his house every night?
Or was I just the latest intruder in a larger conspiracy to investigate his kitchen drawers? And why did he think the words I'm all out were nefarious? They sounded harmless to me. I had been fast asleep all night, but if I'd been in the kitchen at four thirty a.m., wasn't it possible that I was muttering to myself about an empty glass of water? I didn't bother asking these questions, it was beyond reason and he knew it. He kept telling me that he knew it sounded crazy and that he hoped he wasn't.
My thoughts drifted to the children. I wondered how much of the commotion they had heard. I pictured them huddled inside the guest room, watching the door in terror. I said to my cousin, I don't feel safe. I told him I have to leave. He said nothing. And I started for the door. I expected him to stop me, but he let me pass through the workshop and into the garage, down the wall of old tools, out the door into daylight.
I followed the walkway back to the guest room. I saw my son inside. He was still on the bed with his cousins, their heads down playing their games. I wanted to collapse and cry. I opened the door and announced that my cousin's children were sick and we had to move my son's party to the hotel. The children didn't bother looking up. The rapture of technology can be a blessing. I shuffled to my suitcase, grabbed a bandana and tied it loosely around the wounds on my head.
My phone was on the nightstand and I ordered a car service, then shoved our clothes inside the suitcase. I bussel the kids outside and piled them into the car, slumping beside the driver and pulling the phone from my pocket. I wrote to my sister that our cousin just went crazy and physically assaulted me. I said that I was taking the kids to the hotel, but needed help when we arrived. I am pretty beaten up, I wrote, I'll need some time in the room to nurse my wounds and preferably someone's company or someone else watches the kids and gets them some lunch.
Finally, can you help arrange all this discreetly until I've had a chance to deal? My sister wrote back instantly. Coming down to meet you, she said. She would find a relative to watch the children and take me up to a hotel room. Arrested the phone in my lap, leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes. I listened to the children babbling in the back. I felt pressure in my gut and wondered why. I suspected that I had a concussion, but I still wasn't sure how much other damage he'd done.
I didn't know that my organs were carpeted with damage, that a piece of my left kidney had broken off, but I was bleeding internally and was unlikely to survive without emergency treatment. I was floating on adrenaline as my body went into shock. The end begins like any day, our marriage ended on a winter morning, I was passing through the door from our living room to the dining room when I heard my wife behind me. What's going on with you?
She asked, You always seem angry. I turned around and heard myself say, I'm not angry, a miserable. I said that I thought she was miserable to leaving the mountains, changed nothing between us, she had found a job teaching a few college classes in Baltimore, but the pay was meager. And I was still spending all my time at work while she raised the kids and managed the home. I said that it wasn't a relationship, it felt like a business arrangement.
I told her that I didn't think we loved each other, but I was no longer sure when we had, I could barely remember a time when the black cloud of resentment was not between us. I said that I didn't want to be in the marriage we had, and I thought it was too late to change it. It seems to me that we began speaking honestly that morning, over the next few days, we talked in detail about what a separation would mean and how to manage it.
A friend down the street was preparing to move, and my wife suggested that I rent the house. I would be close enough that children to move freely between us and smooth the transition. We drew up an agreement on three sheets of white paper. We didn't have to sign it. We decided that I would take nothing but my clothes to avoid disrupting the children's space. We agreed that our financial accounts would stay exactly as they have been. We promise to remain cordial no matter what.
To preserve the holidays as they are. And we agreed on a preliminary schedule for custody of the kids. A few nights later, we sat them down to explain that we were having a hard time being married. And that I would be living down the street for a while, but that they would see us both every day. Our daughter was three that year and our son's ninth birthday was coming up. We had been planning to celebrate with the extended family at my cousin's house.
We decided that my son and I would make that trip while my wife and daughter stayed home. I remember sitting on a borrowed sofa at night in my first week at the new house writing a message to my cousin about the birthday plans. Given all the change in his life right now and the fact that he'll be apart from his sister and mom on his official bidet, I'd like to make it feel special for him. I wrote, maybe we could have a little party at the hotel before we all leave for dinner.
We will make it special at our house. My cousin responded, we have decorations and banners and can get a cake at Food Lion. There's also a Toys R US in the city. I will definitely sing fun, perhaps a few fireworks.
Now, I wonder what happened to my cousin after the fireworks in his house that day. I know that his father arrived for my son's party, but left when he learned from another relative what happened. I know that my sister looked at my bleeding skull, my hands clutched around my midsection and ordered my parents to drive me to the hospital. I know that by the time we arrived, I was immobilized with pain. A gaggle of medics rushed to the car, hoisting me onto a stretcher and rushing me into the surgical unit.
I know that doctors assessed the damage as level one trauma. They examined my body with a CT scan and I heard one say there's a fair bit of blood. The scan revealed a fracture in my left kidney and a large left PEMRA renal hematoma, along with the bleeding, cuts and contusions that were visible on my head and chest. I know that a doctor punctured an artery in my groin and threaded a catheter through my aorta to stanch the bleeding in my kidney.
I spent the next three days in the hospital where medical staff cloaked my name on the registry in case my cousin tried to find me. I know that when the police arrived to take a report and I explained what happened, they sneered with certainty that no one gets beaten half to death for no reason. I know that when they questioned my cousin, he confessed to everything he told them about the secret recordings, hearing a voice whisper, I'm all out and attacking me for no other reason.
He told them he was wrong and guilty, they took him to jail and he bonded out. I know he was charged with a felony first degree assault and battery and that he spent nearly two years in pretrial hearings before he finally pleaded guilty to second degree assault.
The judge released him on probation, but imposed a lifetime restraining order to protect me. I know that he entered counseling, yet he has no diagnosis of mental illness. My cousin is not schizophrenic. He wasn't hearing voices, the best explanation that anyone has given me is that he simply snapped. My cousin says that he had no idea he would attack me until he did. He says the rage came over him in the workshop like an animal impulse. But I have learned a few things that may have played a role as well.
He later told my sister that he was upset by something I said to him at dinner the night before. Apparently, I noticed that he didn't clear his plate and I teased him saying if you were really a man, you'd finish your dinner. He found it inexcusable to question his manhood in front of our family. I've also learned that he was taking supplements of testosterone to help with a back injury. How much of a factor that was, I don't claim to know.
To blame the male hormone for a violent assault seems far too easy, but I remember that when my father was fighting an illness a few years ago, he began taking medication to suppress testosterone.
And while our relationship has improved immeasurably through the years, I found it easier to get along with him during that period than at any other time in my life. Or maybe none of these things played a role. Maybe my cousin did just snap. All I know for sure is that the last time I saw him is the last time I ever will. Whatever he did later that evening while I was in the emergency room and our family celebrated, my son's birthday will remain as unknown to me as the details of his life on every night to come.
But when I look back on the crisis of my own life that year, the explosion of our friendship and the implosion of my marriage. I see a common thread. My attraction to my cousin and my detachment as a husband both reside in the pantheon of male tropes. Masculinity is a religion. Is a compendium of saints. The vaunted patriarch, the taciturn cowboy. The errant night, reluctant hero, gentle, giant and omniscient father. Like scripture, each contains a story of implicit values.
Fraternity dominance, Adam, certitude these are the commandments of male identity. Maybe in society's deep through history, those qualities helped organize a world of chaos. But the antediluvian constructs of masculinity are easily weaponized in modern life. The virtue of strength invites abuse. Adama's enables intransigents. Restraint devolves to disengagement and fraternity yields exclusion. The veneration of those traits is poison to young men. It offers an easy escape from the necessary struggle of self reflection and replaces the work of interior discovery with a menu of prefabricated identities.
As a teenager, I gravitated toward an archetype embodied by my cousin. I envied the power that he seemed to command and the fear he didn't possess. But my effort to renounce that persona in my 20s left many others to face. Conventional models of male identity are everywhere around us. They linger in the air, we breathe, they infuse our politics and our culture. As a father and husband, I slipped into the antiquated role of provider, protector, patriarch, assuming the position and entitlements of another male archetype.
What I see now is that I haven't fully escaped from either the challenge is not to believe that I have. It's not to imagine that I will is to watch for the dogmas of masculinity taking root in myself each day to acknowledge whatever virtues they contain and disavow the rest.
It is to seek and find again and again what does and ought to guide me. I think of this every Wednesday afternoon when my children walk down the street from their mother's house, I think of it when I hang their coats, when we read and play board games, when I find myself distracted or feel my temper flare at misbehavior.
I wonder if I can give them another model of what it is to be a man, one free of the corrosive impulses within us and the expectations around us. I know that my children aren't ready to understand my own crisis and failures yet. I'm just beginning to face some of these things myself. But I want my daughter to see a model of what she can expect and demand. And my boy needs, as all boys need, to begin thinking about how men fail.
He needs to know what it means and does not mean to be a man, what the world will tell him it means and why he can't believe it. Better help the convenient and affordable online counseling service will match you with a licensed professional with whom you can start communicating in under 48 hours, talk with your counselor in a private online environment. If you are struggling with anxiety or depression or stress right now, you are not alone. Join the one million plus people taking charge of their mental health with the help of an experienced better health counselor, the daily listeners get 10 percent off your first month at better health outcomes.
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