Barlow’s eyes are shimmering, the light a sinuous display of something towing beneath. His smile pious-like, marked with an etiolated kindness, this precarious softness and this mark of an adulterating isolation that only those who’d experienced can recognize. A secret for the initiated. But Barlow is not a monk, he is dashing in his blacksuit — I wonder dashing is even the appropriate word as I appraise him. He is the quintessential instagram-able hunk in the flesh(he isn’t even trying) and I still can’t believe he hasn’t grown an inch since high school.
Looking at his deceptively self-effacing face, I remember the bravado and the charisma – how Barlow, despite his silence today, is an eloquent raconteur. I can still remember his hunting stories out in the woods, how he caught hedgehogs and meerkats. How he’d set traps and
shoot birds for supper. Barlow could be and do all that and still be
suave enough to be successful with the girls, ace his STEM classes instead of the typical anachronistic brute. I tasted my first hedgehog
because of Barlow, couldn’t believe how amazing they tasted, I since haven’t tasted anything that amazing.
Barlow watches as the pallbearers take his mother’s coffin to the hearse, he catches me swiping a glance over the supple cleavage of a particularly exquisitely dressed woman beside us. He whispers to me, well below the strained wailing juxtaposed on a chasm of silence, that he hasn’t had sex in two months. Barlow isn’t sad.
I wonder if it’s appropriate to be talking about sex. It’s not like parents spend time telling children how to behave at funerals, unless you were a particularly unfortunate child who had go to a lot of funerals. What you learn about funerals is what you see on TV or what you observe on the fly. In many ways funerals are like boring Sunday sermons except everyone is super sad, or they pretend to be lest they are accused of being cold, especially women, they are the ones who have that to worry about that. Men have the “luxury” of not being affected, in fact the more emotionless the better – oh [insert eye-rolling emoji] the “luxury”.
“Oh no! who’ll be left to run everything if the “men” get all hysterical?” Sexist traditionalist shit.
I hadn’t spoken to Barlow in over six years when he suddenly found me
on Facebook and inboxed me, too enthusiastically, pungent with a hunger. An overwhelming need for any human interaction. A hunger for love, understanding, support. Pungent with the kind of wounding, pernicious loneliness that robs one of what’s left of their dignity, a loneliness which was felt under his badly rehearsed bravado.
Even now, standing next to him, standing next to this happy Barlow, I sense a deep towing weight. an undertow of immense pull. But Barlow
isn’t sad, even when his smile quivers at the corners and even when they lower his mother into the ground. He simply looks up at me, a wry smile all he could manage.
“Thanks,” it’s all he says, with this odd calm voice amidst a cacophony of wailing mourners.
Barlow isn’t choking up. I even think I can’t tell him that I wish this funeral had come at a different time because I want to be in front of my TV right now, watching South Africa play Australia. Then I understand that even if Barlow knew this, he wouldn’t mind. Not because it wouldn’t bother him, but because he isn’t supposed be bothered by it. As a “man” he can’t make a big deal out of it, not openly anyway.
There is saying in Sesotho: Monna ke nku ha a lle.
It means men don’t cry. it directly translates to ‘men are sheep they don’t cry’. In many traditional rites an animal is slaughtered in Basotho culture, like in many other cultures. I have been to many of these events and watched as animals get slaughtered(I had to be there, believe me I’m not that chilled about it either).
Compared to other animals, typically the goat and the cow, when the sheep’s neck is being severed, even by the bluntest of knives, it doesn’t cry in agony. There is a powerful, almost martyr-like effect that one experiences when watching this — when watching this meek innocent creature being sacrificed and “allowing” it to happen with such “grace”. There is a certain ineffable Romantic quality to it. That is where the saying comes from, the fact that even when it dies a horrible death the sheep never cries in agony.
But why would this be seen as a strength? It beats me.
Growing up I heard that saying thrown around somewhere in the periphery, never had anything to do with me.At home I wasn’t told to stop crying because I was a boy, I was told to stop crying because, well… it’s just fucking annoying. In my high school years when I started making friends(yes, that’s not a mistake) I never had to monitor my feelings either. I felt what I felt and I expressed myself.
My closest friend’s was a boy, who I had a lot in common with in this regard, we talked freely about our feelings and together we had more female friends than we did male, and we were very choosy with our male friends always, averting the hyper-masculine boys. What defined my life then was a fluidity to be and to experience whatever I fancied with no regard for what it might mean. And that was good. I could talk about Heroes and I could also talk about Gossip Girl, I could talk about sports and also talk about my feelings. Freeee-dom!
My experience at university would be different, in an all-male residence(dorm) with the type of guys who high five each other over the latest morally questionable sexual conquest as if it is the single most important qualifier of manhood(how cliché is that?). It was me, the effeminate sensitive guy, with these hyper-masculine guys from all-boy boarding cults — sorry — all boy boarding schools. Guys who had extreme misconceptions about girls. The type of guys who read The Game like it’s gospel and thought porn was, more or less, a normal presentation of the sexual experience(no doubt many were virgins or badly inexperienced).
That is the problem with going to an all-boy school, you have little contact with the opposite sex compared to your co-ed peers. What you know about girls is misguided or utterly false. There are various ways that schools try to mitigate this but I don’t, personally speaking, think it’s enough or effective.
It was here that I learned the hard way, at the brunt of incessant bullying and ostracism, that men don’t talk about their feelings. My more feminine qualities were subject to such hostility and intolerance that I couldn’t have a healthy existence in the residence without either suppressing or shedding them. It was here that, despite having resisted a fair bit and retained some of my effeminate qualities, I was socialized into the “cult of sheep”. It was here that I became like Barlow.
For all the emotional suppression that dominated the halls and the social life at residence, these suppressed emotions showed themselves in bouts of anger, violence, alcohol abuse and drunken meltdowns. Because feelings don’t go away when you suppress them, they burst once the pressure reaches an intolerable amount, prying a small opening into gaping wound. And many of these guys came to me, the “weak one”, cried, talked and broke down only to dismiss this moment of strength as nothing more than a moment of weakness the next day.
The sad part about this new me, standing next to this happy Barlow, is that I can identify with him. And I wonder if it is a good thing, to carry this ceaseless labor of emotional asceticism among the people you should turn to for support. The new me is bundle of alexithymia and effeminate spurts and stutters. The sad part about all of this emotional self-imprisonment is that it comes out in the most undesirable ways.
I have observed coldness, passive aggressiveness, irritability(I’m guilty of this and the one preceding), substance abuse, emotional, verbal & physical abuse and the people who feel it the most are those who are more vulnerable. Perhaps these men feel an enmity to this vulnerability because it reflects that loathed sensitive, feeling boy cowering inside themselves. Or perhaps they resent that their victims are far more autonomous and courages than they are.
I’m grateful, as much as I am mournful, that a part of me is still sensitive, feeling and open. Unlike Barlow and many other men in the cult of the sheep, I can still write essays like these and cry when I hear beautiful music and not be afraid to say Gilmore Girls is one of my favorite series of all time.
The cult of sheep needs to stop.