Old Spice mixed with stinky hockey gear tells me I am safe. “Welcome, Jonny.” He says. “Make sure to put away all your clothes in Daniel’s dresser. You two can share his bed for the night. Remember that bedtime is 9:30.” Looking at him is like staring up at a skyscraper when right beside it. Heavy. Tall. My friend’s dad. “Be sure to clean up after yourselves and follow the rules.” Sweat drips from his thick head, and I can smell B.O. He breathes hard as he looks around. But for what? I want to know, because I like the feel of him telling me what I can and cannot do. “Listen, boys, if you don’t behave, you won’t like the consequences.” Why would he say this to me? And why do I want him to?
Back when I was twelve, I did all I could to get permission from my mom to stay at my friend Daniel’s house. It was there, at that sleepover, when I felt a rush of fresh air and newfound freedom in my own skin, such that I had the power to make mistakes well-knowing the consequences could involve another trip over his dad’s lap, just like last time I stayed—another lesson from his wood paddle that hit my pale skin so hard it felt good. Today, I have no shortage of tools to look back and reason as to why I felt this way. Readings about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder still lead me to consider that perhaps my own dad, a Vietnam Vet and significantly older than Daniel’s dad, never hit much less disciplined me due to the violence of war, or maybe the violence he experienced as a child.
But now, on the pool deck in the backyard, where we run after our meeting with Larry and his warning, Daniel tears off his shirt. He wraps his arm around my neck and drags me under water until I can no longer breathe. I rub chlorine from my eyes to rid that burning sensation, like old contacts that peel at you. He tackles me again with the kind of muscles that just don’t compare to mine. We wrestle and hit the side of the pool, laughing.
At 8 p.m., time to shower, Daniel and I race to the basement. There, in a half-remodeled bathroom, Daniel takes off his trunks and throws them into the washer across the hall. I do the same, yet keep my towel on, as cold air conditioning seeps up my legs from the floor vent.
Daniel yells, “Come on, man! Get in the bathroom and just take your towel off!” Why would he want me to get in the shower with him? I never showered with another guy, not even my own dad.
I take my towel off and stand there. “Let’s just shower together quick before my dad calls for us,” Daniel says. “And let’s be fast.” Joining him under the now warm water, my goosebumps fade. My bare butt presses against the tile on the innermost wall, as Daniel’s thick shoulders stretch to reach hot water. To clean all our parts, we fumble, rubbing sides against one another in a four-by-six-foot stall encased by semi-translucent glass doors. Shampoo and conditioner bottles fall to the ground, and I slip, looking to find the bottle but touching his barely hairy legs. He grunts as he raises his arms, moving like fighting boys unconcerned they might break fragile glass around them.
The steam rises above the shower walls, as we talk about plans to stay up all night. We go on until our privates inevitably touch, and we laugh at the same time. For me, however, this is a nervous laugh, and I jump away. Until now, I have never seen a male friend’s penis much less touched one with my own before. I’ve only seen my brother’s, and, of course, the boners beneath my classmate’s tighty whities in the locker room.
When I accidentally touch what he has down below, I jump back like I do when shocked by that scalding-hot-bath-water feeling in the tub. In my head, the whole moment moves too quickly, which makes my mind want more. Just his body next to mine is warm. Soapy. But why does it feel good? I think I’ve done something wrong. It’s as if my parents caught me in a lie, and the harder I try to look innocent, the guiltier I become.
“Are you alright?” Daniel says, turning off the water, grabbing both my shoulders like football players in a huddle, looking me in the eye. “We are both guys, right?”
“Right, we are.”
When I look back I can read this guilt in the shower as the moment when masculinity became an act I had to follow just right. Judith Butler theorizes these moments as performances—as processes of repeating the kinds of behaviors, like farting and flexing muscles, we might expect twelve-year old boys to do.
Back in the shower, though, I take a deep breath, and as the steam fades, Daniel’s blond hair becomes hat hair—thick and golden, yet soft. I want to reach out and touch it in the gentlest way I can. It must be cleaner now, as the smell of conditioner clears our muddy sweat. I’m excited by just this image of his blond hair. And his eyes—dark green, with thick eyebrows, tell me something. A look. A feeling that he sees something in me that I see in him, until he turns around and throws me a hot towel from the dryer.
We laugh as I slip to catch it. As it hits me, the cotton shocks my chest.
“Ouch, you asshole!” I scream.
“Come on, bud! Let’s go upstairs!” Trying to keep up, I lose track of Daniel. I hear his footprints and yell for him to come back, but he doesn’t answer. And so, I weave my own way through the barely finished basement, full of 2x4 boards. The only lights are bare bulbs that I struggle to turn on. Here, time passes like it does when grounded to my room, shut off from every activity. I’m lost. And I’m afraid. I shake and rub around, shivering on rough, hard cement. Where is Daniel? Why has he left me here? These questions stick to me like glue, because I just want to talk to him. But all I have now is the feel of course wood, touching my way through darkness, until I reach the stairs. I expect ten minutes has passed, and I wonder what they will think. The family. And his dad.
After finally making my way to the top of the stairs that meet the kitchen, the first thing I see is Daniel standing there. His eyes are red and, with his hand, he wipes away what I expect are remaining tears and snot.
“Go to your room and park your butt in the corner!” I hear from the kitchen. Without looking, I know the voice is Larry’s. Daniel runs away, but before I can catch him, Larry steps in front of me. I dead-end into his chest, hitting his firm right pec, blocked like an airbag.
“And just where do you think you’re going?” he asks, peering down at my beat red face.
“I was going to go put my pajamas on and brush my teeth. Is that alright?”
“You can. And you will do that. But we need talk about your behavior first. I warned both of you about running in this house.”
I stare at Larry as if he’s become my dad, and for some reason I smile and say, “Are you serious?”
“Do you hear me, kid?” Larry says more loudly, embarrassing me now. “You earned yourself a spanking. I just gave Daniel one, and now it’s your turn.”
I duck beneath him and bolt for the stairs until I’m scooped up with one arm and carried into the kitchen. I tighten my stomach, squinting my eyes to stay tough.
Soaring out of the kitchen and into the hallway, I glimpse Larry grabbing a small wooden paddle from a drawer. As we turn the corner, my body in his grasp, I see Daniel’s parents’ room for the first time.
In the center of the room, Larry lets me down on soft carpet, but then points to a firm, four post bed.
“Sit,” he barks. Still damp from the shower, I cling to the side of the bed in undies, which he’s told me to put on.
“When I tell you not to run, I expect you to listen. I told your mother what would happen if you acted up.” All I can do is sit there, shocked and cold.
Turning his back to me, Larry scrapes the paddle off the dresser and looks at me with serious eyes.
Following his order, I become transfixed now on the paddle.
Like a wrestler pivoting to take an opponent down, he adjusts to grip my back, pushing me over his knees. His thighs are muscular—thick and wide—as he adjusts my stomach so it lays flat, feet mid-air, nowhere near the ground.
“Stay put. You keep your butt still!”
He hits me five times on both cheeks together. These are whacks I’m sure the neighbor boys running outside the window not far from us can hear. It’s like he’s practiced. A seasoned pro.
“You will get your age,” he makes clear, and I know this means seven more, which worries me because he hits hard. Not knowing when he will start again, I put my hand back to shield my now bare butt. But he pushes my hand out of the way to my upper back. In the same motion, he picks up his right thigh, swinging it over both my legs, like a head lock but it’s my legs.
The next two hits come harder, and they miss the mark, striking my upper thighs that I begin to kick. Somewhere in the middle, around stroke seven or eight, I begin to cry because I do not have the power to stop what is happening. I am his prisoner.
When the spanking is over, his dad takes me off his knee, leaving me curled up on the bed. The room becomes its own, and I forget life outside. As I take another breath of air and gulp down saliva, he reaches for me, and I quiver, jolting back.
“It’s over,” he says in almost a whisper, reaching to touch my shoulder again, but this time I don’t back away. I lean forward, tilting my head into his arm as he adjusts to sit next to me, pulling me into a full hug, to his fat stomach.
In homes throughout this country, children are physically abused and left to the cold day in and day out. As a queer scholar, their pain is my pain, especially when I hear stories of youth sleeping in shelters and under bridges, even here in the relentless winter winds of Wisconsin. And so, the sort of safety I felt in this moment, when my friend’s dad comforted me, is neither to deny such abuse nor condone corporal punishment.
I can speak only from my own memories, only from my flesh—because as I’m led upstairs to sit alongside Daniel in our “time out” chairs, my bottom burns, but I do not hate my friends’ dad for what he’s done. I don’t even feel embarrassed it has happened. But in thinking this, I know I am wrong because the experience of resting on his lap, unable to move because he is so strong, excites something inside me.
I spent the rest of the night in Daniel’s room overthinking it all. Begging for forgiveness, later learning that I wasn’t alone in undertaking such a practice in the aftermath of pain and pleasure. Michel Foucault, too, writes of confession, of our inability to escape that which tells us we are moral and immoral, decent and indecent.
Or so the story has gone for me. But I still yearn to feel my body as it did back then—back in that uncensored, rebellious, deserving-of-punishment twelve-year-old self.
Perhaps, when I go back in my mind to make sense of it all, I do not need to re-enter my friend’s house right away. I could stop sooner, to dwell longer in the landscape and social mentality that this home, and Larry’s paddle, rests. After all, Larry himself epitomizes what has come to define the upper Midwest and its norms around masculinity—those hard-working, beer-drinking, deer-hunting, beard-wearing kinds of guys. As a boy, I understood these attitudes about men: that they should be tough, firm, and not afraid reach for the belt that stings the most when struck across their children’s backsides. They should work hard and come home with dirt between their fingers and matted hair beneath sweat-stained baseball caps. They should coach hockey, wrestling, and football, and make it clear that their sons follow suit.
Yet back in Daniel’s room, when “time out” ended, we got ready for bed. But boys will only be good for so long. There, in my friend’s bed, I see his tears fade. Beside me, he is the same warm, sweaty and smelly boy who called me into the shower, who held my shoulders in the most assuring way a friend can. He leans over, and we lock eyes, smiling and laughing in a way we know we might get in trouble again but don’t care. Perhaps because of his dad, I look at Daniel in a new way, seeing his bulky growing body for the way in which it turns me on, even if I don’t want it to.
“Before we go to bed, do you want to fight?” Daniel says, and I don’t hesitate.
Together, we both take our shirts off, leaving us kneeling on the bed, poised to start round one in just our basketball shorts.
“Oh, you think you can take me?” he says in a way that I’m led to believe he’s half joking.
“Damn right, I can.”
As we begin to wrestle, I sense I can show him who is boss. But then, beyond my control, Daniel jumps in the air, pouncing back down on my chest, holding me there like a bulldozer. I can’t move, not even a muscle, though I’m ok with this. I feel safe, even if all I can see is his sticky skin and all I can feel is his first chest hairs.
In that moment of defeat which doesn’t feel like defeat at all, something changes beyond my control. My parts stiffen beneath Daniel’s stomach. I can’t control it, and I don’t have the words to explain to my friend what is happening.
Thankfully, Daniel rolls off, which leads me to think that this match is over, as much as I don’t want it to end. But then, like the empty-pit-feeling in your stomach that a roller coaster mid fall will make you feel, Daniel tackles me again, taking the wind out of my stomach. When I land, my head hits the thick wooden headboard behind us. I want to cry but bite my lip instead. It’s a loud crash, and I sense that Larry in his office must have heard. I expect him to charge in at any moment, to lay down the law, and to show us those consequences again. I wait for his footsteps but never hear them. Instead, I look back to Daniel who is now fuming, almost foaming at the mouth.
“I will kick your ass every time you fucking faggot!”
I try to reply, but I can only stutter and close my eyes. When I reopen them, I see his dad, standing firm in the doorway, hands on his hips. I expect, almost want him to pull that paddle out of his back pocket. Surely, he will. He doesn’t put up with this type of behavior. Yet, this time is different. Knowing full well that he has found two boys wrestling, he laughs.
“Who won?” he asks.
“I did, dad.”
“That’s my boy. Now go to bed!”
This is how boys become men.