Jude is a precocious 3 year old. The son of friends of mine, he is perhaps the most articulate child I have ever met. Moreover, his view of the world is all at once prescient, pragmatic and absolutely hysterical. To hear a child speak the way that he does- carefully enunciating each syllable and stringing together sentences that would challenge the average seven year old- is shocking, impressive and, at the risk of repeating myself, absolutely hysterical. He is a professor in miniature form, lecturing on dogs. A diminutive linguist, holding forth about dirt and peanut butter.
Needless to say, I really like this kid.
Recently, Jude, his sister, Ani and his mother were looking through a catalogue for Easter clothes. Seeing a checkered pink collared dress shirt, he pointed to it and asked his mother for it. Being herself effortlessly chic and fashionable, she was pleased by her son’s good taste and obliged him.
Once purchased though, he immediately worried about it.
“Do boys wear pink?” Jude asked his mother.
“Of course, Jude,” she answered.
“Are you sure?”
“I think Mr. Cyle has one.”
I received a text message from Jude’s mother that day. Jude would like to know if you would wear your pink shirt to church this week. As I said, I really like this kid and so my answer was easy. She effused her appreciation.
Apparently, the line of questioning had gone on for a while.
Jude and I fist-bumped each other that Sunday. So overwhelmed was he by my not only having a pink shirt, but wearing the pink shirt for him, that he was momentarily rendered silent, his normally articulate and insightful words failing him.
“You two are looking good,” his mother said to us as we stood next to each other. Jude’s face was immediately overwhelmed by his smile and he looked up at me, his sandy blonde hair shrouding his big, blue eyes made iridescent by the crisp new pink and white checkered shirt. A fashion model in miniature. A pint-sized sartort.
“Of course we do,” I said, giving Jude the thumbs up. His impossibly large smile grew another two inches, threatening to overrun any face within a ten foot radius. He returned the thumbs up and jumped in the air in excitement.
I left church that morning with a smile at least as big as Jude’s, my own crisp pink and white striped and tailored shirt shining in the spring sun. I stopped by Home Depot on my way home to pick up a few things I needed for various projects- a chair that needed to be fixed and reglued, a garden bed that needed a new fence door and a hinge that needed replacing.
The automatic doors of the store pulled back and a comfortable breeze hit me in the face. I strode into the store, my pink shirt tucked neatly into dark jeans at my slim waist. The long, tailored inseam meeting- meticulously, I might add- the tops of my leather oxfords whose heels tapped lightly on the concrete floor. Each step exposed an inch or two of my argyle socks.
Sunday afternoon at Home Depot sees a wide swath of people- contractors preparing for the workweek, gardeners enjoying their weekend, hobbyists wide-eyed at the variety of choices, tool aficionados in their toy store, husbands with “honey-do” lists and children trailing- all of whom were present and accounted for.
And me, completely unaware of what awaited.
It began innocuously. So innocuously that I barely noticed the two men at the opposite end of the aisle chuckling as I perused the hinges, looking for the right size. One of them made a comment to the other and the chuckling turned to stifled laughter. A moment passed and stifled laughter turned to a quick blast of a foghorn- the sort of laughter reserved for big, barrel chested men.
Slightly startled by the sound, I looked over at the two men who suddenly found the floor very, very interesting.
They stood next to a four-wheeled dolly loaded high with bags of concrete, 2×4’s and fence posts. Big men. Bearded men. Manly men. One of them glanced up at me and when he realized that I was looking their direction, quickly returned his gaze to the floor.
Fantastic. I thought, returning my attention to the rack in front of me. This again.
Another comment, another laugh- this one bolder than the last. The sort of laugh that was almost begging for a comment or a “Is there a problem?” This laugh begged for confrontation. My temples began to pulse faintly. I felt the vein on my forehead raise and my blood slowly begin to divert toward my brain. This sort of thing never fails to make my blood boil a bit and this time was no different than any of the other times that people (both men and women, it should be said) have mistaken “well dressed” for “homosexual”.
I haphazardly chose two hinges, giving myself a fifty-fifty shot and began my long, cold walk toward the men and the front of the aisle. My hands now full with hinges, sandpaper, wood glue, a file and tin snips. My gaze steeled. The stride that carried me into the store would be the same I would pass these men with. Unaffected, unconcerned and without the time to attend to their narrow minds.
“That’s an aw-fully nice pink shirt ya got there, boy,” the taller of the two said as I approached.
“Thanks,” I said diffidently, already bored with the exchange. He chuckled. The hate was mutual and palpable.
“Find everything you need there, sweetheart?”
“Excuse me?” I was stunned. This man was not only narrow minded, but galling. His friend was trying to keep his composure, but did nothing to stop the man from speaking his peace. It occurred to me that this was a premeditated line. I assumed that one of them “triple dog dared” the other and perhaps had added a cherry to the top to sweeten the deal.
“Looks like yer hands are mah-ghty full. Where’s your boyfriend? Idn’t he supposed to help ya?”
“You’re kidding me right now. My boyfriend?” One eyebrow raised high above the other.
“Where is he, eh? Eh?!” he elbowed his friend in the ribs. They laughed. The taller one leaned forward against his dolly, folding his brawny arms one over the other on the railing and put one steel-toed boot on a bag of concrete. He smirked. He was daring me to do something. To say something.
Clearly, a nonverbal “fuck you”.
I wish that I could tell you that I said something. I wish that I could tell you that I did what I would usually do in this scenario- that I gathered my extensive vocabulary, adopted my professorial, demeaning tone, took a deep breath and verbally disembowled him. A very articulate, very verbal “fuck you”- albeit one that didn’t need to use such a low slang term to get its meaning across. I’m good at this sort of thing. I can make a person feel positively minuscule in four words or less- on a bad day.
On a good day? Two, tops.
But I did not say anything. In that moment, I could not help but think of Jude- of his precocity, his intelligence, his prescient view of the world- and of how nervous he was to wear his own pink shirt. I shrugged, I sighed. I shook my head and walked past them.
“Oh man! You really got him, Blake! You nailed that fag!” the friend said as I turned the corner.
I waited until I was out of earshot to laugh at the irony.
Later that same evening, my stepsister, Jessie and I were talking about a moment we shared two years ago. A moment in which she told me that she had never noticed that I “walk like a dude” before. We had a laugh about it. She was embarrassed by it.
“It’s just that, you know, you’re all artsy and music-y and normally, you don’t really associate those kinds of things with masculinity,” she said. “It’s usually the really big guys or the football players. Like the construction workers at Home Depot or something.”
I allowed myself to laugh at the irony immediately this time, though I did not say anything about my earlier encounter.
Jude has been in the back of my head the last few days. It strikes me that he was so nervous to wear his pink shirt. That, as a three year old, he is aware that a man wearing a pink shirt is a dangerous proposition that could be easily misconstrued.
It strikes me, and it saddens me. So much so, that I’d like to step on my soapbox and rebuke everything football, biceps, fast cars and Bruce Willis.
But I won’t. It would be equally asinine of me to assume that my version of masculinity is the correct one. As ever, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sometimes a man walks softly and sometimes he must carry a big stick. Sometimes a man wears Carhartts and flannels and sometimes, a man puts on a suit and tie and dances. Sometimes a man walks away from antagonists and sometimes, he must stand up for himself and fight.
What ties all of these things together though, is what Jude has already got- prescience and pragmatism.
Like I said, I really like this kid.