Pssst, this is a work of fiction. If the events, or characters seem familiar, it’s simply a coincidence. Thanks for reading! And please let me know what you thought.
Last revised: 2/10/18
Just Like A Man
By Billy Saefong
I tried to see what my father saw. I always thought about the way men looked at women, and how it’s like a reflex.
“One day, you’ll have a son,” he said as his legs stuck out from beneath the truck. “You have to do this by yourself. You think you can do it?”
I watched him once from the door that connected the house and garage. He took a few sips of tea, painting a white mug black with finger prints before setting it on top of the car battery to his left. His breath smoked out, and he stood there a little while, his silhouette framed by the open garage door. There’s a photo album we kept, and in it are pictures of my dad and his buddies, a bunch of gruff men. He looked a bit dirty in most of his photos, as if he had just built something with his hands. Eventually there were photos of him and me as a baby. I wondered if he was satisfied with the things he had done.
With my father’s blessing, and confidence, my buddy, Javier and I took the little pickup truck he fixed and set out to Los Angeles a week after graduation.
“What’s Cindy doing this summer?” I clicked the blinker to change lanes.
“Going to her grandparents in Tahoe or something. What about you? What happened with Christina?”
I ignored the strange sensation of tiny hairs rising on my cheeks. “Christina? What about her?”
“She was all over you at prom, bro, don’t tell me you couldn’t get it in that night!” Javier sat up in his seat. The sunglasses made him look like a bug.
I noticed a clunker speed by, weaving in and out of lanes, causing another driver to honk his horn. It gave off the smell of burning gasoline. Sometimes it was a nice sweet smell, but this time it wasn’t. I shook my head.
“Aw, dude, come on, you didn’t? You really didn’t?”
“Fuck I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but,” I gripped the wheel a bit harder. “Don’t fucking tell anyone, okay? Anyway, we were making out, but I don’t know if it was just the vodka from my dad’s cabinet, or what, but I just couldn’t do it.”
I still remember Javier’s face, he was laughing his ass off, his thick eyebrows arched over his sunglasses. My face grew hot, but after a moment, I laughed too.
“Aw shit, bro, don’t even worry about it, for real, my first time with Cindy, like for real though, was crazy. She a little white girl, but she a freak, you know what I’m sayin’.”
“Yeah, and you last like a minute or what?” I grinned.
“Hey, at least I got some bro, you can’t even get it up!”
“I was drunk!”
“So was I!”
We were dumbass kids laughing at everything we knew nothing about.
I thought of Christina a lot during that trip.
Christina and I went on a couple of dates before she asked me to prom. It was a bit of a relief she asked me. I said yes because it was nice knowing someone actually enjoyed my company. I had never had that experience before her, and though it boosted my confidence, I found myself more confused.
“What are you thinking about in there?” her voice echoed somewhere behind my eyes. Her auburn hair fell around a pair of safety goggles. I remember her as a very intense, and focused student sitting in lab class. Her face was often warped by the vials and flasks.
“Do you really like me?” On prom night she had more sips from my dad’s bottle than I did. I had none. After a little bit of touching and wandering about the bedroom, she kissed me and pulled me in closer. After a moment she stopped and looked at me. I didn’t know what to do, or how I should have felt. Half of Christina’s left pinky was missing and I felt the stub on the back of my hand. I played my part, and she played hers. “Never mind, you don’t have to,” she said.
“I’m surprised you don’t have a girlfriend, bro,” Javier reclined in the passenger seat. He was quiet for a moment, and only the hum of the car was audible. “College is going to be crazy, man.”
“Hm, maybe,” I went to a university near my dad’s place.
“You’re lucky, bro, I can’t afford that shit.”
“Maybe you should get a job?” I half regretted saying it in such a casual tone.
“You get a job!” Javier clicked the recliner back to a normal sitting position. “Anyway, what you majoring in?”
“Not really sure,” I said.
“For real though, everybody talks about what I should do, what I gotta do after school’s over, get a job, all that. It’s like whatever man. I’m gonna do me. If they don’t like that, then fuck em! Right? Man you and I, I think we’re homies because we from the same background, you know?”
“What the fuck are you even saying?” I started to laugh.
“No, no, check it out. I’m Mexican. You’re Asian, you’re family’s Chinese right?”
“We’re Thai, you dick.”
“Thai, right, regardless. Everybody thinks they know what’s best for us, but as long as we do what we wanna do, be who we wanna be, then it’s all good. My grandpa was telling me about when he grew up in Guadalajara, and how he ‘became a man’ and shit, and I was tellin’ him like it’s different now, we got Facebook!” The shit Javier said cracked me up, and looking back now, he turned out to be absolutely right. He continued. “I’m thinking about majoring in business, make the big bucks. I wanna be like the guy that made Google. Damn, she was fine.”
“Girl in the Honda that just passed us.”
We were halfway to LA when the old truck decided it was done for the day. Luckily, we weren’t far from a gas station with a yellow sign out front, so we pushed it. I popped the hood and looked around, but couldn’t find any particular faults. I made a call to my dad, but he was too far to do anything. We didn’t want to turn back, either. Javier insisted that we make it to LA. He had a cousin there that expected us.
“I’m not giving up,” he began kicking the tires of the truck. I had never seen him like that before. “I knew we should have asked my mom for her car, fuck!”
Other patrons at the gas station turned and looked at us. I crawled back into the grey interior of the truck. I looked around for something, anything. I pulled open the glove box, and noticed Javier talking to an older man. He wore a cowboy hat, and had a white button up shirt tucked into his jeans. Javier came over to me and told me what was going to happen.
“This guy offered to tow us with his big ass truck, back to his place.”
“What the fuck?” I wasn’t too comfortable with the idea of following some random person out to some random house in a random part of the state. I was pretty sure we were going to be chopped into bits or be held in a dungeon or something.
“We have to fucking do this,” Javier said.
“Are you serious? Let’s just call the insurance, have them pick us up, and we can figure it out there.”
“No, dude, this guy can give us a lift,” Javier was determined. I didn’t want to live out the rest of my days in some cowboy’s sex dungeon, and looking back on it now, we should not have gone but we did.
“Are you serious?” I thought the old guy probably lived in a little cabin in the woods. Maybe he had a shotgun for shooting birds, and a little shed in the back that was locked up, that made eerie noises at night.
“Trust me, if he tries anything, between you and me, we can probably fuck him up. But we gotta do this man, come on. Everybody’s gonna talk shit if we go back now, I don’t wanna hear that.” Nobody was going to talk shit. Nobody cared.
The old man hooked up our little truck to his, and we drove. The plan was for Javier to sit in the back because he was smaller than me. And if anything happened, I was bigger and could handle the old guy, while Javier could get him from behind. That was our strategy.
“My name’s Mike,” He took off his hat and placed it in the middle of the dashboard. I noticed his eyes on me, and I began to sweat a little. I took his calloused hand, and shook it. The truck was a big, shiny Ford, and everything was black, and leather and clean. “Where yall headed?”
I felt Javier look at me without me having to even look at him. “L.A” I said.
“Ah, that’s great, have a daughter that goes to school down there.” Mike must have been in his late 40’s, I wasn’t sure, but he didn’t look old. He had a square jawline, and striking blue eyes. He smelled a little like gasoline and his eyes had a youthfulness about them. I couldn’t help but try to imagine him younger.
“So I hear the truck is yours?” Mike rolled up his sleeves, and switched on the air conditioner. “Hot as hell in here, apologies.”
“Yeah, my dad and I worked on it for a really long time,” I said. There were a number of rolling hills, all were yellow at that time of the year. I remember the sky being the bluest I’ve ever seen, and my eyes followed the telephone poles as Mike drove.
On our drive to his ranch, he told us about his life. He was in the Army when he was younger, and after he got out, he married his high school sweetheart. She died after having their daughter. He’s lived alone ever since.
Mike owned a very large piece of land in the middle of California. I had no idea where we were, and I still can’t remember exactly what the town was called. I just remember a big house, and an even bigger shed with an airplane in it.
“You boys can head on inside,” Mike unlocked the door and flicked on a light. “I’ll just be a minute, going to move your truck closer to the garage where I got my tools. Feel free to wash up, if you want. Water’s in the fridge.”
Mike’s home was large. Everything was a dark, cherry-stained wood, and the photos on the wall were framed in worn gold. Javier and I looked around the living room, daring not to venture further into the house. Our steps creaked the old floors, and we marveled at the gigantic television in the middle of the living room.
“Damn, I want this,” Javier said touching the TV. “This guy’s a baller.”
I noticed the books stacked up on the shelf, and a girl in the picture frames. There was one of the same girl, but in that particular picture she was much older, and smiling.
“His daughter’s hot, right?”
“Shut up,” there was a staircase that led up, and I saw Mike walking towards the front door. “Let’s just fix the car and get out of here.”
“You guys look tired, did you find the water?” Mike led us to the kitchen where everything was silver, and black. He opened the fridge. “Or would you like a beer?”
That was the first time I was ever offered beer. Javier took one. I looked at Javier, and he looked at me. I saw Javier drink before, and as far as I knew, he started drinking in elementary school.
“Don’t tell nobody,” When Mike smiled, his eyes did too. He had graying hair, and looked like he could have been an actor, the type moms would have fallen in love with. “Looks like the battery might be malfunctioning in your truck. Which is the easiest problem to fix if you had a spare battery lying about, but we don’t. We’re going to have to wait to tomorrow, and I’ll run to my buddy’s shop and pick up some things for your car. Might be an alternator issue too.”
I told Mike I knew how to tackle all of these problems, but I never thought that I would need the tools. My father was always there with the tools. It must have been one or two in the afternoon, on a Sunday and the auto store was closed.
Mike showed us around his land, which, besides the house and the shed, consisted of empty yellow fields, some dirt tracks, and a little mail box near the road. Mike inherited all of this from his father. The most interesting part, however was the plane.
“Fuck that, bro, I’m not going in up there,” Javier crossed his arms, a bottle of Budlight in one hand. “Humans are land mammals. Land. Mammals.”
“Well?” Mike looked at me, and his hair blew in the wind. I looked at the red and white plane.
Fuck it, I told him, and Mike handed me a helmet. I sat next to him and strapped in.
“Don’t go grabbing anymore of my beer. You only get one.” Mike said to Javier from the pilot’s seat.
Mike flipped a few switches, checked some gauges, suddenly the plane began to move. Within the last four hours or so, I was the furthest I’d ever been from home, and for the first time, I was also in an airplane, with a complete stranger. Logic and everything I ever heard about what’s right and wrong, and what to be worried about ran through my head, but I knew my heart wanted this experience. The sudden jolt of the aircraft made my heart jump. I thought about all the times in the movies when characters would say “Don’t look down,” and then they’d still look down. That was me. I looked at the ground as we took off. Javier became smaller and smaller in my vision, until he was just a little speck in the yellow dirt.
“How you feelin? Pretty cool right?”
It was heart-pounding, and the smell of gasoline from the engines reminded me of home. I held the microphone on my headset close to my mouth and spoke. “This is amazing,” I yelled, and Mike shook his head.
“You don’t have to speak so loud, that’s why we have microphones on.”
“Oh right,” I still yelled. I asked him how long he had been flying.
“Oh, this was my father’s plane. After he passed away, I had it fixed up. I’ve been flying this thing since I was about your age. Everybody loved it.”
Mike liked to give people rides in the plane, he even told me he taught his daughter how to fly.
“Up here, you’re able to see everything, how little we really are in comparison to the entire world,” he said. “I used to be afraid of flying with my father but the older I got, I’ve grown to appreciate it. It’s peaceful. You can be yourself up here and it’s okay to be a little afraid of it all.”
“It is a little scary,” I said.
“I can show you, if you want,” he gestured toward the machine’s controls and switches. “You won’t be afraid once you know how it all works. And when you do, you’re in control, and you can do whatever you want, it’s freedom.”
“Sounds nice,” the sky above the horizon was gray and below it was green. The plane rumbled and for a moment I thought something terrible might happen. I calmed myself by assuming that there were always stutters in these situations that gave even the best men doubt. “Better if I don’t know for now.”
“Ignorance is bliss, hmm? Anyway, get ready,” he turned and looked at me. I saw his blue eyes glimmering behind the flight goggles. He smiled at me. My heart and stomach jumped out the window. Mike did a barrel roll that turned the plane upside down before coming back right side up. It happened so fast I almost didn’t feel it. And then Mike did it again, laughing. He was able to navigate the instability of it all, he flipped the world upside down, flew through it like it was his and his alone. All the way up in the sky where everyone could have seen us, all of our faults and flipped desires, he handled the machine with calculated confidence. We both laughed on the way back down, and he squeezed my shoulder. I had never felt that way in my life.
Mike set a room for us after dinner. All night I couldn’t sleep. Javier on the other hand fell asleep instantly.
The buzz of the airplane still crept into my ears, and the window let a blue glow into the room. I got up, and made my way to the bathroom. After I finished, I noticed the living room was flickering from the television. I walked over and saw Mike drinking a beer, typing something on his laptop.
“You guys never told me why you were headed to LA,” Mike kept his attention to his computer screen.
I wasn’t really sure why either of us did it. We understood that going to SoCal wasn’t a big deal. “I think we just wanted to kind of get away,” I joined him on the couch.
“Where you guys from anyway?”
“Yeah, around Davis, Yolo County you know. Not much there.”
“Oh yeah, yeah I know the place. I used to work up around there. My family’s from there, near Dunnigan, really, which is a bit further up. We used to always go to Woodland because that was the closest place that had anything.”
“Your friend, Javier, I think had too many drinks. I was making dinner and I thought, wait a minute, I just bought a six pack, and now I’m down to two.”
I tried not to laugh when he said that. He smiled to himself for a moment before his eyes lost a bit of life, as if he thought of something sad. Mike looked at me, and I felt him searching for something in my face. It was a similar feeling I had when I was with Christina at prom.
“Hear, have the last one.” I took it. I sipped it. It tasted bitter, and smelled worse up close. I drank it like a soda, and tried my best to take large gulps.
“Slow down, champ,” Mike shut his laptop and grabbed the remote. He switched a couple of channels before coming up on the late night news. The audio was turned down. “What are you running from, son? What are you boys really doing all the way out here?”
“Nothing, we just, you know, it gets boring sometimes. What else is there after school, and jobs and family and growing old?” I wanted to stop but I couldn’t stop talking. I wanted to be back on that airplane. Before I knew it, the beer was all gone and I felt his blue eyes penetrate my body.
“There’s nothing wrong with that, besides, you’re young, handsome, and you have the rest of your life to worry about that. I wish I had that.” His voice was quieter and he took a deep breath before continuing. “Greta, she used to run this place. Sometimes I catch myself not thinking about her. She was my wife, how does that even happen, forgetting about someone you loved?”
The flickering images on the screen cast shadows on Mike’s face. I wished I saw him more clearly when he spoke. I didn’t realize it at the time but I stared at him for what must have been longer than I should have. It was like a reflex.
“Running from a broken heart? I know that look,” Mike said.
I didn’t say anything, and I watched the television. I was running out of breath. There was footage of a large crowd of people dressed in black, holding onto baseball bats, screaming and yelling. After a moment, the news anchor switched to another story about a celebrity who was in the middle of a gender transition. Mike muted the television completely and the closed captioning turned on.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” the caption said. There was another shot of people showing peace signs, and multi-colored flags. I watched the television with the knowledge of Mike’s eyes on me. I took a deep breath but tried to do it so it wasn’t noticeable. I turned to look at him and he was growing bigger in my vision. My heart was racing like it was about to jump out of my chest. I was frozen heat. It’s like that feeling you get when you’re slowly climbing to the top of a roller coaster. The climb is the scariest part and you don’t want to look down, but you do, and you would do anything to be on the ground again. I was stuck in some sunken place, strapped into a plastic seat, waiting for the drop. I felt his fingers reach my belt, and it was undone, and I fell off the ride, a rush of air roared through my head. He squeezed my shoulder on the plane. I remembered my hand stumble up Christina’s dress.
“You don’t have to,” Christina told me. She held my head, and stroked my hair as we lied in bed. I played with the materials of her dress. Red flooded my vision that night.
I closed my eyes, and saw the shapes move in darkness. I heard the buzz of the plane’s engine and the light scent of gasoline filled me. The light from Mike’s television flickered beyond my eyelids. He moved closer to me on the couch and I lost control and then I heard him chuckle. I got up and walked as fast as I could to the bathroom. I didn’t know what happened. I didn’t know what to feel. My heart exploded. I barely slept that night.
The next day, Javier and I woke up around noon, and couldn’t find Mike anywhere. He left a note on the fridge that said he had to “work early,” and that the car was “good to go.” I packed up my shit as quickly as possible, and I tried not to look at Javier in the eyes because I was afraid. I think he knew something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure. I just remember my hands shaking, and I wanted to shower, but I didn’t want to shower there..
I don’t even remember throwing our bags into the truck, but I drove as fast as I could. I didn’t say a word in the car for a long time.
“Yo, bro, you good man, want me to drive?”
We made another pit stop and I let Javier drive the remaining distance. I told him “I was just fucking tired.”
As Javier drove, we listened to the radio, and I stared out of the window. I fell in and out of sleep with the rocking of the truck. I dreamed about Christina and in the dream she told me she wouldn’t tell anyone about prom, she promised.
“It’s our secret,” she kissed my forehead.
Occasionally, I opened my eyes and caught a glimpse of the mountains in the distance, and the small towns we passed. We got closer to Los Angeles, and I saw an airplane fly above us. My stomach churned and my heart raced. Then my father called.
“Sorry,” I told him my phone was dead. I told him about how we got the truck fixed with the help of a “local.” He kept asking me if we were okay, he didn’t sound pleased that we stayed at a stranger’s home. And I assured him we were fine, and we were less than an hour away from Javier’s cousin’s place.
“So, tell me again,” My father said on the phone. “Who was the man that helped you?”