I am not a “man.”
My dad is a man. People over 30 are men. People who have graying facial hair or hair on their chests are men. Being a “man” means being older and stronger and hairier. I am not a man.
I am a 27-year-old male. I am a 27-year-old guy, a young man, an aging boy even, but not a “man.”
“Man” is what you see in the crime section of the newspaper: Police are seeking a 35-year-old man for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon.
It’s also okay to use “man” to describe guys under 30 as long as they’re straight, straight-acting, or otherwise self-identify as being a “man.”
But then, at Lund’s on Hennepin:
I’m walking through the hot bar toward Breads and Cheeses. I’m having friends over for dinner, which really means copious amounts of wine and cheese. I see an older woman standing at the pasta bar; she’s struggling to scoop potato salad into a to-go plate. I stop.
“Would you like some help?”
“That would be wonderful,” she says. “Three scoops please.”
“No, thank you. You’re a sweet man. You must be a charm around the house.”
The floor falls out from under me.
A sweet what?
She didn’t say young man. She said man.
Rude realities start spilling over my mind’s proverbial dam of denial. The present flashes across my vision: friends hanging curtains and televisions in my house because I don’t know how; nieces and nephews crying—and I cringing—because I don’t know how to respond; standing in the emergency lane of a highway, waiting for a tow truck because I can’t change a tire.
Friends tease me because I’m helpless. I ignore them. Being handy and knowing how to do things like hang curtains have always been “grown-up” chores, always years away. Now I feel the heat from an increasing number of candles on my birthday cake. Around me stand people staring at me like a man-boy circus freak.
I realize I’m a guy nobody wants: a faux boy—immature, conceited, lazy, foolhardy and naive, still playing the “young and cute” card. But it’s past due. “Years-away” has vanished. “Boy” has expired.
Later I’m home baking frozen pizza (because I eat only frozen food), listening to NPR’s Robert Siegel deliver a story on social media. I find this amusing because it’s likely he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Then I hear words I haven’t heard before. Names of new social media companies. Twitter slang that leaves me guessing. How don’t I know what “MCM” means? I still live in an “LOL” world. I remember when PCs cost $5,000 and the Internet was called the Information Superhighway.
I’m in my late twenties. I’m supposed to know where I want to take my life. This is the time a writer publishes his first book; I lose attention after 700 words. Now is when I should be house hunting; I live in an overpriced 800 sq. ft. apartment.
I don’t have Instagram or Snapchat and I don’t watch Real Housewives of Wherever (is that still a thing?) or own a television. I’m in limbo between being an adult and owning the traits of a good Millennial, in a gray space that my peers all seem to have sorted out. I’m uncool and immature. You can’t be both, right?
NPR reaches me on waves of pepperoni and it all hits all too hard: I am not a “man” not because “man” indicates age or masculinity, but because I equate the word with “adult.” “Man” comprises things I don’t want to face: life’s demands, the sobriety of grown-up-hood. I’m hung over from an addiction to youth, what’s slowly been slipping out of my hands for years.
I look around my apartment, at my uncomfortable, over-priced, trendy furniture, and I see it for what it’ll be in five years: nothing. My apartment is sexily furnished to impress boys and friends, but it shows no sign of me. I didn’t even decorate the place.
That’s not to say my apartment’s décor is litmus for maturity, but that it’s the signature of someone who’s absent, at least in my case and in some measure, of self-realization. I pride myself on being myself, and I’ve left this charge unassailed, but maybe who I am is nothing more than a boy’s dream come to life, that’s outgrown its welcome, that’s cast a shadow over the person—the man, to be politically incorrect but completely honest—that I want to be.
Is it a curse of the Pre-Thirties to feel this way? Is this feeling a common but secret third-life crisis? Or am I scooping potato salad too late?
I don’t know, but I’m not waiting for hair on my chest anymore.