Fathers Finding Friends

Photo by Ryan Song on Unsplash

My son’s friend reaches down, rummages through his backpack, pulls out a can of Phoenix AXE body spray. He blasts part of his skinny neck, and most of my living room—hands the can to my son. My son, as if he’s trying to smother a flame with a fire extinguisher, gives himself a full-body hosedown.

A horn honks in our driveway.

“Be safe,” I say as the two boys pile out the door.

“We will,” I hear my son say through the screen.

The harsh chemical scent of the AXE reminds me of a long ago Halloween in Madison. After the bars let out, there were throngs of unruly college students on State Street. Tear gas was deployed by the police. I can still remember how sobriety spread through the crowd like wildfire; the animal panic that followed. I was in the thick of it, wearing a full-bodied cow costume. The eye holes in the heavy cotton slunk down to my neck forcing me to blindly hoof it down the street. The udders hung between my legs like a deflated basketball and made a fap fap fap sound as they slapped against my knees.

It was a good time. It was so long ago.

“What are you thinking about,” my wife asks, walking into the room. She places her overnight bag on the floor and looks at herself in the mirror.

“Not much,” I say.

She turns around and looks down at me on the couch.

“You know,” she hesitates. “You should call one of your friends."

“I have plans. Don’t worry about me.” I start lacing up my trainers.

“Good. I don’t want you sitting here all weekend alone.”

“I’m not,” I say. I stand up from the couch. “I have plans.”

“Good. I worry about you.”

I hand my wife her overnight bag. “Go. Have fun. Tell the girls I said ‘hi.’”

“I will. Do me a favor, just call someone.”

“OK.” I say. We hug.

I give her a thumbs up as she’s backing down our driveway.

I make my way back to the couch and sink down. She’s right—I know she is. But still, who could I call? Kevin moved to Minnesota years ago. Tony lives too far away. Jared’s still in town, but he’s got a family of his own. His kids are in about a million different sports, so he’s probably sitting on a gym bleacher somewhere. The last time I actually invited someone to do something, it must have been over a year ago. I asked a coworker if he wanted to stop by sometime to give me a hand digging a fire pit in my backyard. He just looked at me and laughed, thinking it was a joke, so I laughed too.

There was a stretch when I attended these get-togethers for dads, Fox Cities Fathers Finding Friends. We’d meet at Buffalo Wild Wings, drink IPAs, share pictures of our kids.

It was pathetic.

When was the last time I actually hung out with someone? Not including family reunions or going out to dinner with another couple. Since we had children, there’s not a single instance that I can think of. Not a game night, or to watch football, or whatever it is that grown men do when they hang out. Is poker still popular? I have no idea.

Relax, I tell myself. I push the thought of calling someone away and back in clomps the memory of the cow costume. I think I still own it. There’s a cedar chest with a bunch of costumes in the basement. I pull myself off the couch and make my way down there. The chest is tucked in a corner, past the weight machine full of damp clothes. On my knees, I take out the costumes one by one. It’s a big chest, and the kid’s costumes are small, so there’s a lot of them.

There it is on the bottom. It’s still in good shape, all things considered. It’s a bit dirty, there’s a cigarette burn on the shoulder, and for some reason, there’s a little hole down by the udders; I sort of remember that, but in a way, I don’t remember it at all. I shrug and put the costume on. It’s a bit snug now, but it still fits.

Heading upstairs, I stop and take a look in the hallway mirror. My suspicions are confirmed—I’m having a midlife crisis. Some old men buy a convertible to relive their glory days, some dress as a heifer. It feels like a dream. In the same way that it’s OK to do whatever you want in a dream, I reassure myself that as long as I realize that I’m having a midlife crisis, I can do whatever I want. It’s only embarrassing if you delude yourself; if you actually think you look cool in a convertible. I’m anything but unaware, I tell myself, pulling a rubber udder and letting it snap back with a twack. I realize that I look ridiculous, and that, that makes all the difference.

For the first time I notice the costume not only has udders, but flappy felt bull horns right above the eye holes.

I need a drink.

As I grab the front door handle, it occurs to me that it’s not too late. I could take off the costume. But it also occurs to me that I have a certain amount of momentum going. I open the door, and press on.

It’s a fine spring day. My neighbor Ted’s chopper sits in his driveway next to a bucket of soapy water and a garden hose. His buddies' massive trucks form a convoy up and down both sides of our street, but I don’t see anyone. The truck nearest to my driveway, a jacked-up Ford with a matte black paint job, has something dangling off its tailgate—a metallic chrome that catches and scatters the sunshine like a little disco ball. The meat of it is at once intimately familiar, yet in this context, completely alien. I walk a little closer to look. I can’t figure out what they are. I reach out my hand, then snatch it back.

They’re truck testicles.

I look behind me. Ted and his friends are fanned out now in a line in his driveway. Like a firing squad, they regard me with a mixture of pity and scorn. I wave to them. One of the guys uncrosses his arms, and gives a half-wave—he stops when he realizes the others aren’t waving. I make my way straight to my Prius and climb in. The pedals are hard to reach and I slide the seat up a bit. Ted and his friends watch while I slowly and silently back out of the driveway.

I drive to Woodman’s liquor store. When I get there, the parking lot is packed. The costume doesn’t give the wearer much in the way of peripheral vision and I try not to get hit by any cars.

“A cow!” a woman shouts as she exits the store. She’s pushing a cart with a mound of booze in it.

“We need a picture!” the woman behind her says, clapping her hands.

“Is COW on the BINGO card?” another asks. She’s wearing a bride’s veil and there’s colorful lollipops duct-taped to her chest. More women burst from the building in a bubbly cascade.

Christ, it’s a bachelorette party.

There’s a whole group of them. Jostling around me. One starts pulling on my udders. Another is organizing a group photo. They’re all laughing. They all seem so tall. Like they’re basketball players or something.

An older lady puts a bony arm around my neck. She pulls me down, wrangles me into a headlock to pose for the picture. “You smell good,” she says.

“It’s AXE fallout,” I say. My voice is muffled underneath the cotton.

She pulls me closer. “Come with us. These gals will rip you apart.”

“I can’t,” I tell her. “I’m meeting my friends.”

“Like hell you are,” she says and laughs. She lets me go and someone slaps my ass. The women scatter across the parking lot. I adjust my eyeholes, and continue on.

When I enter the liquor store, the young cashier looks up from his phone. He’s got a poodle poof of curly hair on top of his head, with the sides shorn short. I raise my hoof up to wave, but by the time I do, his head is down. I wave to the top of his head.

For fear of knocking over a priceless bottle of scotch or something, I stick to the middle of the aisles. I’m not looking for anything in particular, but I’m looking for something.

It’s busy. There’s groups of men everywhere. I know it’s just a frequency illusion. Like the time my friend and I learned the local dump would pay for scrap metal. Afterwards, we couldn’t help but notice scrap metal everywhere we looked. We thought we had won the lottery. We spent an entire day smiling and scooping junk metal from the side of the road. When his father’s pickup truck was full and we delivered all those lawn chairs, siding, and wire racks, we found out that after all that hard work, we only had enough money for a pack of Camel Lights. Later, each time we lit one, we’d laugh as we sat scheming and smoking, spending the night debating on how best to take advantage of our newfound knowledge that the dump not only accepted aluminum cans; they paid better by the pound for them, too.

So it’s probably something like that, a frequency illusion. But still, I can’t help noticing all these groups of guys, so many friends. Some of them are college kids buying supplies for this weekend’s party. But a lot of the men are my age. With their baseball caps, sweatpants, and bum knee swagger, they remind me of the kids in high school who I didn’t like—the kids that didn’t like me.

All these guys look tall, too. Which is odd, because normally, I’m one of the tallest people in a room; the guy who has to hunch during concerts. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m shrinking. I reassure myself that it’s probably part of the transition, part of the midlife crisis journey.

I catch my reflection on the door of the craft beer cooler. I am shrinking. Literally getting smaller. I’m about the size of a calf.

Unfucking believable.

Someone opens the cooler. A gust of cold hits me, seeps through the thin cotton of my costume—I shiver. I head towards the middle of the building to find warmth. Being so short, it’s disorienting. The aisles are a cavernous maze. By the time I make it to the import wine section, I feel even smaller. I am even smaller. A colossal bottle of Bordeaux rises in front of me like a water tower.

I can feel panic swelling.

But wait. I catch a whiff of something—AXE! I look up; a group of men are approaching. Their full cart rumbles overhead like an elevated train. Bottles of beer are clanging into each other. One of the guys looks down at me—his smile stretches on and on and on. There’s so much of him, and so much distance between us. He bends down, reaches out, plucks me from the floor like a loose cigarette. He places me gently into their cart. I’m nestled between a bottle of bourbon, and a sixer of Budweiser. The cart begins to pick up speed as we careen through the aisles and hit the parking lot.

I hold on tight.

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