He was perhaps 30 years old, lean and muscular. Over six feet, tall for a Vietnamese, his long, direct strides took him quickly from the outdoor shower to the deep end of the pool. I was resting at the far end and naturally, he dove into my lane. Powerful strokes took him across the pool far faster than mine do.
“He’d better clear out of my way,” I thought, as I launched from the shallow end. Sure enough, he swerved to avoid me, but came close enough to send a message, and a kick that could have killed an ox came within a few inches of my face.
“If he does that again,” I thought grimly, I’m going to grab his foot and …” A long movie reel began that did not end until I left the pool six laps later. Even walking home, bits and pieces of a battle — ending with his head underwater and me dragging him up by the hair — continued.
Triumphantly pointing at the next lane and, finding a way to make my demand understood in English, I ordered him away. He meekly changed lanes and steered well clear of me after that. Others had seen and gave me a wide berth as well.
Later, crossing a crowded Saigon street, the motorbikes so close together they were almost a unit, a fellow pulled up on the sidewalk just in front of the spot where I was walking. That is not unusual here, but it would be cause for battle back home. Through the surgical mask they all wear here, I could see that the fellow was young, probably in his twenties. He too was strongly built and athletic, though on the standard small Vietnamese frame.
“Asshole,” I muttered in English, loud enough for him to hear over the engines. He probably spoke only Vietnamese, yet I began calculating the space between us. “If he does X, I’m going to do Y,” I imagined, with a fight scene playing out in slo-mo across my skull as I walked into the street to round his scooter. In my head I clothes-lined him as he tried to drive away, while catching the moving bike in stride, grabbing the keys to kill the engine, and tossing them onto a rooftop across the street. The bewildered young man, humiliated and scared, staggered to his feet and dusted himself off as I let his bike drop and swaggered down the block.
Some version of this, some violent scenario, runs in my head many times a day, and has for as long as I can remember. As a man, I am forever mentally locking horns with this or that young buck, and rising, victorious, as the movie ends. The fact that I’ve almost never carried it through has not informed this reaction. It never fails.
Here’s the problem. I am still a MAN but I am now an old man. I am sixty.
I am thirty pounds overweight and soft in the middle.
I swim every day because doctors have told me I must in order to control my blood pressure and my swelling legs and feet.
I am five-foot-seven, an inch shorter than I used to be.
While I still have strength in my arms, both shoulders have bone spurs and it’s painful to raise my arms above my head. I can do the breast stroke but the crawl is a excruciating.
There is often tingling in my forearms and my hands get numb.
My fingers are still strong, but tendons in my thumbs are damaged and I can’t grip the way I used to. It’s hard to open jars and pick up heavy objects.
My knees aren’t what they used to be and my feet, as I have mentioned, are swollen in the tropical heat and feel as though they are encased in thick gloves.
I now need glasses for close work and can’t see distances as clearly as I used. I can barely see in low light at all.
While my lust has not diminished an iota, I must often resort to those little blue pills to maintain an erection on the far-more-rare occasions when my young wife and I make love.
I take naps frequently, because I need them.
I have two small children, but the actuaries grimace and jack up their rates when they hear I’m in the market for life insurance. I may live to see my kids graduate from high school, but the odds aren’t great.
I was never a fighter anyway, and I have very little experience besting anyone. The last time I deliberately punched someone I was eleven, and a friend’s parents gave him boxing gloves for his birthday — a hideous mistake. Of course, we put them on, and of course I knocked him out and sent him to the hospital. After that I wasn’t much into hitting. So, I don’t have the cunning and dirty tricks and street-fighting chops needed to outfox and outfight a younger, quicker, more powerful MAN.
Realistically, there is no scenario under which I could hope to rise at all, let alone victorious, after tangling with that man in the pool, and the same is likely true with any of the others I have mentally mangled. And yet my brain, the part of it that runs my fight-or-flight and gets ahead of rational thought, does not seem to know this.
And while those same young MEN do not have my breadth of experience, my years of learning, my long perspective, blah blah blah, does that matter? Does it matter in the clinches? Does it matter to my image of myself?
Just how much of being a MAN is wrapped up in the belief that, when push comes to shove, I can whip everyone from Sonny Liston to Bruce Lee — both contemporaries of mine, both long gone — if I have to?
I discussed this with my wife recently, an odd conversation at best. She listened carefully and said in her cute Vietnamese accent, “Stop it. No fighting. Why you wan’ to think dat way?” But can I stop? Do I want to stop it? What happens to me as a MAN if that streak of violence, that belief in my own sinews and endurance, is lost?
In the end, is this what makes me a MAN? At the core, is this it? The rev-rev of the testosterone engines, the thrill of adrenaline, the battle plans and the belief in my own invincibility. The idea that any one of the ridiculously hot Asian women cavorting in the pool — full disclosure, health is not the only reason I go there — would acquiesce if I were free and if I snapped my fingers.
Years ago, I saw an old, old man shuffle into a store, bent low over his walker. I chuckled as I saw his head slowly swivel to watch a lovely young woman passing him. He stayed frozen there until her round and sexy bottom slid into a car seat and drove off. I winked at him when he turned back around, and his answering smile seemed to say. “Listen, young feller, even at my advanced age and state of decrepitude, my gonads are still in full control. And don’t get in my way or I’ll wrestle you two falls out of three, got it?”
Does he still believe, in his fore-brain, that he can top a woman like that? That somehow, he can woo and win her and get it up again? Or that he can whup any young whippersnapper who dares to infringe on his space, question his sovereignty, offend his dignity?
Would he ever want that to stop?
I still believe it, apparently, and it seems to me to be what makes me a MAN. However unrealistic it may be, and however it may get me pounded into dust at the hand of some youngster who still has the muscle and speed to back it up, that’s how I want it to stay until I’m on equal terms with that old, old man.
I may be sixty and fat and injured and slow, and maybe I can’t see very well, but in my head and in my balls I’ve put all the young bucks, and all the young women too, on notice to stay the fuck out of my way if they don’t want to get pounded.