I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth and the deep cave inside my father on earth, the space in his naval cavity hollowed out where the tumor once grew. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, like I was born to my mother. Inside of her, love grew quick like the kudzu that covers the zinc mines of the town where I am born, mines where she thinks my younger sister lives, the stillborn our mother dreamed of for years until they paved over the mines on the edge of town (though by then we’d moved away) because of the obvious public safety hazard. I believe in Jesus Christ, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead, and I know I used to pray that my brother would kill himself after he whipped me, after he licked clean my wounds with his tongue rough against the bright glint of his teeth. And when he did kill himself, I prayed Jesus wouldn’t send me to hell. I believe on the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead, and since I’m the reason he’s dead, well, God only knows. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the sister at the bottom of a zinc mine and her body covered in thick kudzu, the communion of saints, the conversation my dead brother has with our father’s tumor, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, my body, oh boy, in the arms of my mother who wishes, just maybe, that I was a girl, and in the life everlasting. Amen.
I am seventeen and a member of the Pat Jones YMCA, a large fitness center on the south side of Springfield, Missouri. I am still fat, though trying to become less so. I do not feel at home here at the gym, among the weights and basketball courts, the treadmills and rowing machines, as I suspect so many young men do. Today I have tried to swim laps, though in reality I dogpaddle the length of the pool five, maybe six times and give up. With trepidation, I retire to the locker room.
The locker room. Every boy in America has a story there, or many stories, most likely. Today I decide to try the steam room. As a child, I visited the gym regularly with my father. We would sit in the steam room with other older men until I couldn’t stand the strangling heat any longer, until Dad would remove us from that mysterious space. To enter the steam by myself though, almost an adult and wrapped only in a bristled, white gym towel, is an intoxication I will come to know well.
I sit alone in the gray tiled room, a dim light is in one corner and the only sound is a faint drip as the ceiling tiles perspire. Soon a man enters, a white towel also around his waist and a bottle in one hand. He sits a few feet away from me, and I notice his red hair; his beard of the same color; his hairy chest and lithe, but athletic body. He begins to talk, tells me he is in town on business and after a long day of meetings, nothing beats a steam bath. The scene is not unlike any number of those in the Philip Roth novels I will read in college in the years to come. I nod, uncomfortable to speak in this place. He senses this discomfort and quiets himself. After some time, he takes the bottle, squeezes some of its contents—What is that, lotion?—into his palm and rubs it on his shoulders, chest, and legs. He notices that I notice.
“It’s eucalyptus oil, great for the skin. Want some?”
“Uh, sure,” I answer.
He squirts some into my hand. I rub the oil on my own shoulders, chest, and legs. A few minutes pass. The steam is almost unbearable.
He speaks. “It feels really good, you know, down there.” He removes his towel, spreads some of the oil onto his penis and testicles, massaging them and closing his eyes. He stops, opens his eyes, closes the towel. “Want to try it?” he asks. I nod but am confused by what he wants.
He squeezes the oil into my palm again and, nervously, I open my towel. My penis is already hard and with only a few of strokes with the warm oil, I cum onto my round belly and meaty thighs. He has watched, though not touching himself and with an air of indifference. Maybe this is a defense, his compromise. He nods, stands, and leaves.
The writer of James claims, “you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow” because “you are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” That man in the steam room, his indifference and quick departure. My shrinking cock in my hand, the sticky ghost of something across my belly. All are signs of the unknown tomorrow. But for a moment again, I am alone, a dim light in one corner and the only sound a faint drip as the ceiling tiles perspire.