When I was younger and wore clothes that were far too big, my Dad, in a number of unspoken manners, told me that someday I would be the comfortable one. Someday, I would effortlessly wear a shirt, not too tight and not too loose, because I would have reached the experience level of proper shirt wearing.
At 13, my family hosted parties and I wanted to be one of the adults — my shirt tucked out just right, not too much or too little; my pants lying perfectly on my shoes — not too long or too short. It was impossible. I never achieved the right look, and all evening my eyes would scan the room to see the right look on every adult. There were normal people having conversations and milling about and laughing and perfecting the art of blending in, with appropriate highlights of character, and then there was me. Discomfort seeped out of my eyeballs, through my sweat, and from my mouth. I tripped over my clothes and my words. My sleeves dwarfed my already tiny arms, my shirt puffed out at my middle, and once again I looked and sounded like a sloppy kid.
I would spend 30 minutes on my hair so it wouldn’t look too done or too undone. I’d spend all this time finding the right balance, and in the end no one noticed, cared or saw it the way I did. And at the end of each evening, I would look in the mirror again, accepting the fact that I’d missed yet another opportunity to be something no one expected.
A 13-year-old boy needs to feel the promise of being a man, and to feel this promise he needs to know that somewhere inside him is the ability to surprise people.
“Nick must have the girls lined up out the door.”
“He’s strong for his age!”
“Quite a man already, that Nick. He’s got a lot of great ideas.”
Oh! The ideas. At the beginning of every night, I’d imagine what it would be like to have real ideas: Mid-conversation, to remember a statistic or an anecdote from my young life that would not only offer perspective but also humor, and perhaps even a little unintended hubris.
Oh! The folly of youth and its unintended hubris.
Between the ages of 13 and 17, almost every weekend found a way to judge me — to spotlight my ineptitude. Every weekend was the talent show and every weekend I stepped through the proscenium without a talent. Where had it gone? I suppose it was lost inside some inaccessible organ. Its extraction would mean instant death. My body would simply not stand for my success.
Now I sit at 31 and to some, I am successful. To some, I have skills and I have lived long enough to tell success stories. To some, I have a proper business title and I know how to use a fork and knife in just the right way. Have you seen me present my business card? Have you seen me introduce someone from a podium? And you must admit that my seamless incorporation of disgusting pleasantries is tediously impressive.
I’d say my wardrobe now fits me well, having been promoted to Director-level in shirt wearing. Besides those two kids in the backseat, this could very well be my biggest accomplishment. I find myself now exactly what I always wanted to be. Sure, there’s crying and depression and expectations. Sure, there’s a career and the way it bends the light so that you miss the closest stars. But at cocktail parties, I now offer the very basic requirements of functioning adulthood. I have made it big, in not-too-big oxfords and casual long-sleeves.
This is a victory that I have savored. But like all victories, it’s bound to be challenged from time to time.
Sunday night’s party was over. All of the guests had gone home, and I was one of them. But now it was 20 minutes later and I was the only one forced to return to the strange family’s mansion. I dreaded ringing the doorbell on a Sunday night, like a beggar or a salesman (what’s the difference?). It was harsh and barren outside, but my glimpse inside reflected the very opposite. It took two doorbell rings, then two knocks, and still the only way I was able to alert the unsuspecting family of my presence was when my hand, waving boyishly, caught the eye of a passerby. The passerby was what you might call the Man of the House, walking purposefully from his homey kitchen to his gigantic dining room. Sheepishly, I introduced myself and shook hands with the wealthy patriarch.
An inherently less successful man always recognizes the handshake of an inherently more successful man, and vice versa. As soon as contact is made, they both know where they stand. I supplied a handshake, and he supplied an upper handshake. He was 15 years older with a touch of the right kind of gray hair, and was far more put together. Condescendence permeated the chestnut-scented air, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure condescendence was not intended.
Pleasantries quickly evaporated and rose into the chandeliers above, and I explained that my daughter was at the party that night and left several of her belongings behind. I explained that I needed to search through the house to find those belongings. I had a hard time maintaining eye contact during this exchange.
It was his daughter Lulu’s party, and the first place to look, he said, “would be Lulu’s room.” We went from one hallway to the next, each with its own character and warm, dark wood. We passed other rooms I knew I would never explore, along a distinct layout I envied.
“They were playing in here, and…yeah…she has a lot of work ahead of her, because as you can see, it’s a mess,” said the Man of the House.
I let out one of those polite laughs that fills the time perfectly but means nothing.
Lulu’s room was like Wendy Darling’s; beautiful crown molding, soaring ceilings, fanciful curtains, classically high-toned wallpaper, and a large window — a dream room for an aristocratic child.
I had to remind the Man of the House that a “secret passage” was mentioned to me, and as soon as I saw the light go on in his head, he revealed a dark storage space in the wall behind the door of the closet. It could have led to Narnia or Wonderland.
I peered into the space, its entrance at my knees. He and I both knew that someone was going to have to crawl in and look around, and he and I both knew that someone was me. I was younger, they were my daughter’s belongings, and I was the uninvited guest. I was happy to do it. But I felt very much like a child in my unquestioning agreement to explore this altogether childish area.
In the second before I acquiesced, I thought, “If he was in my house, I’d just crawl in there, collect the things, then show him and see if they belong to his daughter.” But the next second, I knew no such thought would occur to him. I knew he was thinking something more along the lines of, “Good luck.” This was my responsibility, and he wasn’t going to crawl in there wearing nice jeans and a blazer on a Sunday evening. I also imagined that he had a certain professional standing and a certain income level that precluded him from doing such things.
With one swipe and one touch, I illuminated my iPhone flashlight and, as adult-like as I could, crawled low into the secret passage. There was no way around my feeling vulnerable, and honestly, like a failure for not parenting effectively enough to prevent this predicament.
I crawled into the darkness, the whole time thinking about how I’m the type of father that gets into things like this, and how he’s the type that doesn’t.
It was the vulnerability that brought me back to my days of loose clothing and puffy shirts and awkward hair. I felt like that boy again in every way. The boy who wanted to be a man, but couldn’t because he wasn’t with the men, on their feet outside of small, dark spaces. The men didn’t have to go into unexpected places or satisfy unexpected people. Circumstances did not force the men into tight spaces — the men designed their own spaces. I could see all of my male elders standing in Lulu’s closet, waiting for me to return from that dark space.
Luckily, I found exactly what I was looking for. Every single item was there. I took a deep breath before I nudged my way out, and as I stood up, I felt energized knowing that I had spent a minimal amount of time inconveniencing the Man of the House. And perhaps even more so, I felt energized by this very simple act of fatherly responsibility.
I think every man decides, at some point in his 20s or 30s, whether he will be the kind to stand outside or the kind to crawl inside. The Man of the House stands. My Dad decided very long ago that he would crawl, and I too decided, long before this night, that I would crawl.
My Dad was right. I did eventually grow into my clothes and I did eventually surprise people. Still, every now and then, my shirts don’t fit again and the awkwardness sets in.
It’s because I’ve chosen to crawl. In empathy, in sympathy, in love, and in learning, I will forever fade into the darkness of unknown places.
Originally published at nickmurosky.tumblr.com.