I’m standing one foot in front of the other with my knees slightly bent, my left hand to the front of me and my right hand at my side. My body is slightly hunched over like how I learned the one year I took taekwondo. He looks into my eyes and screams, “I’m a ninja!”
My nephew lunges out and aims for my chest, but my left arm sweeps his hand away, leaving him open. I tap him with my right arm and say, “Gotcha!” Then he grabs my arm and feels the hair through his fingers. He asks, “Why does your arm have so much hair?”
I’m 19 years old when I first shave my legs. I’m sitting on the floor of my room where I bring the same razor that I use to shave my face. I start at my ankle and move upward like they do in the commercials. “It’s a fucking jungle in here,” I tell myself as I’m at LEAST one hour into it with little progress made. However, a jungle would probably be easier to navigate than my wavy, jet-black hair. And the thickness—not a year goes by without someone telling me how much I’m saving on mascara. Turns out it’s a lot. Thinking about the hypothetical mascara is fun until the pile on the floor starts looking like I’m actually shaving a gorilla instead, but my now-smooth calves say otherwise. My mom says I should blame my grandma since it’s not coming from my dad’s side of the family. By the time I get to mid-thigh, I stop. Both of my legs are burning red from the razor in between the large swatches of hair I somehow missed and the occasional bleeding. Still, no amount of blood could stop everything my legs touch from feeling like sticking my legs through a vat of powdered sugar. The following week, my legs are red again from itching. I should have known shaving against the grain also meant ingrown hairs, and that it’d all grow back right away anyway.
I’m 14 years old when I start high school at Lane Tech. We start PE with the usual suspects: soccer, basketball, and dodge ball. Then we get to the swimming unit. “You can still wear a shirt as long as it’s white,” Mr. Stavrakas says. “But for the men, absolutely no speedos!” I don’t know how to swim and I never cared to learn either. For me, water means drowning, and the thought of me facedown in the pool wearing nothing but a speedo is worse than splashing in the shallow end. “I could live without stepping foot on a boat,” I rationalize. “And people pee in the pools at water parks, and scuba diving is for rich people anyway.”
On the first day in the pool, I settle for getting in the water, but with my shirt on. The water is cold and my shirt sticks to my body. With my hands on the kickboard and my feet on the rim of the pool, I lunge forward, hoping all my past drowning scares were just flukes. Instead, my shirt feels like excess skin that someone is pulling to keep me from moving forward. I try again, mimicking what everyone else is doing with their legs, but I never get past that first lunge. I finally give up and realize the only other person still wearing his shirt is my friend Omar, who is much shorter and skinnier than me.
When we get back to the locker room and people start taking off their swim caps, I realize it’s impossible to tell who is who while everyone’s face was pulled back. My towel only manages to cover below my waist, so I have to take my shirt off anyway. I might as well have been wearing those speedos.
I’m 13 years old when the Rufino Tamayo Tigers are holding second place in basketball in the UNO Charter School Network. I’ve had a mustache on my face since the sixth grade when I joined the team. Even though I need to wear husky pants, I’m pretty quick on my feet. If anything, I play a mean defense. And even if I didn’t, my hairy legs alone could keep me on as the mascot.
Practicing a sport after school helps me spend time away from home when I can’t play outside. We learn our strengths and weaknesses by playing against each other. To delineate teams, one half of the team usually wears the gross jerseys from the closet, and then we scrimmage. We do this up until one particular practice session in eighth grade when the new coach makes us play shirts vs. skins instead. This isn’t much of an issue until I end up on the skins team. I do not want to take my shirt off. Everyone else, in my mind, seems exponentially fit compared to me, who I imagine must look like a soft pretzel in a bag of the crunchy kind. I end up taking my shirt off anyway as soon as the first person takes his off. Something about him, despite his lanky and pathetic body, looks so confident. It’s like this isn’t a weird thing for him. I watch him as he dribbles the ball for a layup—only for him to miss and try again. I start to feel better about my body.
Then Luis, who plays on every sports team, takes one look at me, particularly the hair on my lower back, and just says, “Damn.“ All of my flesh feels like dough as the excess skin hangs off my bones. When I cross my arms, my hair feels like it could wrap around me and I’d be stuck trying to escape a straightjacket. The coach notices, stops his address to the team, and points at me. He shakes his head and motions for me to uncross my arms. “Don’t do that again,” he says. I take a deep breath before doing as I’m told. The entire time we play, I am distracted by how my body must look like. Every time I jump to block a shot, I feel like how a water balloon looks before it pops, and every time I bend over to dribble the ball, I imagine a fuzzy chewed up piece of gum. I can’t wait for practice to be over.
I’m 10 years old when I meet a boy who I’ll call Nate. I had just transferred to St. Gall Catholic Elementary School in the middle of the school year and I needed to make new friends. When the teacher introduces me, they all seem happy and someone even hugs me. They are nothing like my old classmates at Nightingale. Being in the same desk clump, Nate and I get along well. So well, apparently, one day Nate comes up to me and tells me proudly, “I got hair downtown.” I imagine Nate sitting at a barbershop in the loop, with his black, curly hair falling to the ground. I reply, “Ah that’s pretty cool, I guess,” picturing a ball of fuzz sitting on the barbershop floor, and then we go back to studying our capitals. Even if I understood what Nate was trying to tell me (or why he was telling me for that matter), I wouldn’t’ve known how to reply. I wouldn’t’ve said, “Hell yeah, me too, my guy,” because, well, I didn’t even know if I did at the time.
I’m 21 years old and my 5-year old nephew runs his hand through my arm hair. He asks, “Why does your arm have so much hair?” I point my elbows out and scratch my belly saying, “O-o-o, I’m a gorilla!”