Hard (An Ode to Your Cousins and Them)
Beneath the mattress in the top bunk
of the boys room was a haunting of manhood,
a world that lit up when the polaroids of naked women
and the golden-wrapped condoms were uncovered,
shining so brightly in your young face. One day
you took a piece of it for yourself, not thinking
to take one of the pictures for inspiration
when you try one on in the bathroom, drawing
the slimy film of latex onto your flaccid penis.
You’re hanging there, your dick hangs there with
a second skin, both falling limp, and you realize that
you don’t know how the shit works. Later you
learn that you had to become hard, that
you then were too soft to discover the hype
of what your cousin meant when he bragged
about breaking a bed with Felicia; you were into logistics,
wanting to ask if auntie was mad that she had to get
another one. Too soft to finish that season of
football after getting hit hard by a padded boy—
too uninterested to persevere through that pain,
to become hard against it, pretending it wasn’t there.
At the sleepover when a girl tried
to touch your dick, you wanted her to stop,
ran for miles in that small house— too uninterested
to get hard or to know that was an option.
At the Walmart your father points out a woman
wearing short shorts and says don’t get a girl
like that, as if that wasn’t the type of woman that got him
hard, as if he knew that woman—false hype.
But this is an ode to him or rather your cousins
who did not say “faggot” to you or throw “sissy”
in your face when you cried about the small things
and when, for instance, you sang and danced to Tina Turner
in your soft little black boy sort of way
while they threw their hard bodies and voices
around the block, becoming harder with other boys.
Perhaps this is an ode to your uncle and all of them
among you that laughed at the faggots and sissies,
not daring to think that among them, one shined
and shimmied with the glittered gold of another
manhood unexplainable at the time, a soft working
into a tough spirit of resistance. While you became hard
thinking about other boys you tried to think who among them
did the same and dare not speak it: which ones of the
middle school football players found pleasure in the
façade of night like you did lying on the bottom
bunk in the boys room, becoming harder with the wrong
thoughts—becoming hard enough to hide the inside part?
I wanted to play. He came
into the playground, ready for the game.
I said these are the conditions before us,
a trust past: how to play with queer
black boys, their bodies. I see, he said.
We played game after game: I pushed him,
I said throw sand in my face. He did.
He smiled, it was sinister. But this
was desire playing freely, him over me,
then me on top—no winners. I thought.
I played on the monkey bars, swinging
and flipping and bending my body
as he watched. I was at ease, I said,
this is what it’s like to be free in a game,
at last. He said, I’m leaving. I said no,
I’m still on the swing. Didn’t you want
to swing? He said, I did but not anymore.
I said, the conditions. I gave you a trust
pass to enter, to play with me. He said,
a trust pass to stay? I thought it was
a trespass, to go through here. I said no.
He said, don’t control me. I said, this isn’t
about power, trying to continue to swing.
The conditions. He stopped pushing.
Come with me, he said. I said, no.
I can only play here. He said, I’m leaving.
Don’t, I said. He said, don’t control me.
I said, but I let you control me. He said,
you’re making that up. This is terrible,
I don’t need it in my life. I stood. I stared
as he left, cradling the terrible things
I could not leave behind, that are my life.
Malcolm Tariq is from Savannah, Georgia. He is a Cave Canem fellow and is currently a PhD candidate in English at the University of Michigan. His work has appeared in Red Truck Review, Kinfolks: a journal of black expression, and CURA: A Literary Magazine of Art and Action. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where he stay black.