Content Note: Racial Slurs and Racist Violence
That first video of the flying man goes viral on social media and gets featured on the news. No jet pack. No hang glider. Just him, unaided, soaring over the cable-stayed bridge that leads into the city. The video looks like it was shot on a cellphone from a distance. It’s shaky, zoomed in, and not always in focus. He is slaloming back and forth, doing barrel rolls, and turning flips like an aerial martial artist practicing his forms. Except aerial martial arts isn’t a thing.
The video has to be part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for some upcoming movie. If so, they’re taking their time coming clean about it. Instead of an actual movie trailer, there’s a new cellphone video every few days or so.
The flying man is a Tom of Finland drawing rendered exquisitely in flesh and blood, but cranked up another notch or seven. Either his costume is giving him a lot of help or the body is flat out motion captured and computer generated with a breathtaking but heightened realism. He is shrink-wrapped in a black, short-sleeve compression-fit shirt, dark gray jeans that stretch across the thighs but need to be belted around the waist, and a pair of black, tactical boots. His muscles bulge, popping off his frame. His wide shoulders, big chest, and thick back taper to a trim waist. Broad sweeping thighs balance off his oversized torso. The effect is a body that’s both exaggerated and aesthetically perfect.
He looks like he can snap the cables with a flick of his fingers. Instead, he weaves in and out of them with grace.
I’m sitting on a weight bench, resting before my next set. The gym has TVs mounted just below the ceiling. The latest Tom of Finland Guy video is playing on all of them. I don’t notice anyone trying to get my attention until she taps me on the shoulder. We’re both 5AM regulars. She is the one with the white ponytail.
“Can you please help me?” White Ponytail points to the other end of the weight room. “There’s an EZ curl bar that I need help moving.”
I walk over with her and, sure enough, there is a fixed-weight EZ curl bar resting on a stand. Someone couldn’t be bothered re-racking the bar when they were done. The rack where the other fixed-weight EZ curl bars are resting is literally two steps away.
White Ponytail picks up an EZ curl bar from the rack. She eyes me expectantly. I grip the bar on the stand, take a deep breath, then heft it up with everything I’ve got.
The bar shoots up over my head. I stumble backwards and almost fall on my ass. The bar is way lighter than I’d expected. Of course, fixed-weight EZ curl bars are marked with their weight. I could have just looked.
“Wow, you really lifted that weight.” She smirks as she sets her bar on the stand.
I don’t even mumble a response. The handful of people in the gym are all, I’m sure, staring at me. I set the bar in its proper place on the rack and flee to my bench before I melt into a puddle of embarrassment.
On the way back, it sinks in that no one noticed. Well, except maybe Sweatshirt Guy. The color of the day is forest green. One sweatshirt or another is always failing to hide his muscles. His sweatshirts all bulge and contort in ways they never do over a typical body. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Why anyone ever asks me for help when he’s right there is beyond me. Maybe no one else sees it. They see what they expect to see, some generically big guy in a sweatshirt and sweatpants. He grins when my gaze meets his. I may have inadvertently attracted the attention of a god.
The cellphone video pans across the front lawn from two movers standing to an upright piano sitting on a furniture dolly and, finally, to a crane. In fast forward, the movers wrap blankets around the piano. The video slows down to real time when they put the piano in a harness, sliding its straps beneath the dolly. They hook the harness to the crane.
Two more movers are inside the house, standing just inside an open window on the third floor. The two sets of movers give each other thumbs’ ups.
The crane’s cable snaps taut. The piano lurches. One of the movers on the lawn shouts something, waving his hands over his head. The crane flings the piano into the air. A plume of smoke rises from the crane. The piano arcs into the sky, tumbling end over end.
A black streak blurs across the sky. It resolves into Tom of Finland Guy. He catches the piano and presses it over his head. It’s rock steady, perfectly balanced between his hands. He lands and gently sets the piano on the grass.
The movers stare at him, frozen and silent. Tom of Finland Guy, on the other hand, is the epitome of nonchalance. He’s not much taller than the movers, but way more substantial. He seems to tower over them.
“Where would you like the piano?” Tom of Finland Guy’s voice is gruff, faux deep.
Neither mover speaks. One of them manages to point at the open third floor window.
Tom of Finland Guy nods. He unhooks the harness from the crane, tilts the piano forward, then smoothly presses it overhead. The piano has weight and heft. It’s not like when actors play a scene with a Styrofoam cup and you can tell there’s nothing in the cup. He doesn’t seem to notice the weight, though.
He flies it up the three floors. When he slides the piano through the window, it takes the movers several seconds before they remember they have a job to do. They wheel the piano into place. He hovers in front of the window, not letting go of the piano until they have it safely in hand.
Tom of Finland Guy waves to both sets of movers. The camera pans up to catch him zooming away, shrinking in the vast expanse of sky.
“Tell me you got all that on your cellphone,” one of the movers says.
The usual suspects are slouched in folding chairs that ring the waiting room, their sheet music, resumés, and headshots clutched in their hands. We all go up for the same shows. In this case, it’s a critically acclaimed regional theater’s production of 42nd Street. My sixteen bars, as always, is from “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” from The New Moon. Silly lyrics, but I get to show off my hard fought for, conservatory-trained high C.
I say hi to Linda at the desk. This isn’t my first audition here. She takes my headshot and resumé. I fill out the paperwork then wait for my slot.
Brian gestures me over. We’ve both played Ito in multiple productions of Mame, and have been cast as the brothers in Thoroughly Modern Millie and the “converts” in Anything Goes. All of this would be fine, I guess, if we both got also cast in non-Asian roles and looked even vaguely related. He’s impossibly tall and thin. Next to him, I look squat. You would think no one could possibly confuse the two of us. And yet.
“What’s up?” I take a seat next to him.
“What sort of technical wizardry did it take to make that look like it was done in one take?” Brian points to his phone. “You didn’t actually shoulder press an upright piano, did you? That would be a lot, even for you.”
It takes me a moment before I realize what he’s talking about. He thinks I’m Tom of Finland Guy.
“Oh, no, that’s not me.”
“Really?” He shows me the phone’s screen. “You can’t make out the face, but, otherwise, he could be you.”
“You think I look like that?”
All of the videos look like home videos. None of them have a good shot of his face. There’s no mistaking that body for anyone else’s though.
“With help from the costume? Sure.” He looks at me like I’m nuts for even asking. “I’ve seen you at dance calls.”
“I wish I’d booked the gig.” I slouch in my chair. “But I didn’t even know about the audition.”
Linda calls for Brian. I wish him luck, but not in those words, of course. We are a superstitious lot and that would be tempting fate. For the same reason, you do not say “Break a leg!” to a dancer. Yes, this is not a dance call. He’s still a dancer. Instead, you say:
The next video to go viral is a montage. Every piece looks like a cellphone video shot by a bystander from a safe distance. Maybe that’s what they actually are. Tom of Finland Guy breaks up fights. Tom of Finland Guy extracts small backpacks and other bags from muggers and returns them to their owners. Tom of Finland Guy literally rescues a cat from a tree.
He always fights as though his only hope is to win on points. That doesn’t matter so much. One time, someone lands a lucky punch and breaks his hand on Tom of Finland Guy’s body. The guy’s face is flushed. He winces and howls in pain. Everyone backs away from him then runs away. The punch itself doesn’t even register on Tom of Finland Guy. He just stares at his midsection.
Watching these Tom of Finland Guy videos in the rest between sets is the latest version of a bad habit that I should break. They’re not just showing the videos on the news. Reporters interview the people in the videos and bystanders. Maybe there actually is someone flying around the city picking up heavy things and letting low-level criminals break themselves against him. Or this is an alternate reality game or a guerrilla campaign for a movie that’s about to turn into a public-relations fiasco. Either way, these videos are my latest excuse for resting too long between sets.
“Excuse me.” The light baritone voice comes right behind the bench I’m sitting on.
It’s Sweatshirt Guy. The color of the day is a deep blue. Our paths have never really crossed. He’s always been the big, if unusually shaped, guy in the distance.
Up close, I’m sure he’s not just a competitive bodybuilder but one in peak contest shape. He must have a show coming up. Or maybe he’s just won one.
No one gets this lean and this dehydrated just for fun. It’s certainly not for their health. Up close, his “death face” is obvious. The severe dehydration and dangerously low levels of body fat makes his face gaunt. His features are all flat planes and hard angles, as though they’ve been chipped out of stone. It adds an edge to his smile and I’m convinced I must have done something profane and am about to be struck down by the local gym god.
“Hi.” Sweatshirt Guy gestures towards a bench press rack. “May I please ask you for a spot?”
In theory, this is when I answer him. In practice, I may have forgotten how to speak. Up close, I can’t not make out the details of his body, implied by how his sweatshirt warps around him. When a god reveals himself to you, stunned is not an unreasonable reaction. Yes, he is not literally the best bodybuilder on the planet. Probably not. In the moment, it’s astonishing how little that matters. Between competitions, when he’s carrying a healthy amount of fat and properly hydrated, he must be glorious.
He purses his lips, looks awkward for a moment, then repeats himself, this time in Mandarin. Just as he sounds like an American newsreader in English, he sounds like a Taiwanese newsreader in Mandarin. Maybe it’s tinged with American. Then again, so is my Mandarin. There was a diaspora from Taiwan. A bunch of their children and their children’s children, me included and undoubtedly him, have been pressed into impromptu translation duty for them.
His words include an apology, a please, and the formal you. The construction is in such a formal register that it snaps me out of my mental fugue.
“Oh, that’s way too polite. Sorry, I understood you the first time.” I stand up. Despite how he looms, he’s maybe an inch taller than me. “Sure.”
His bar has enough weight on it that I’m pointedly not calculating how much. I’m just reminding myself that in the extremely unlikely event he hits failure, he’s maybe ten pounds shy of the force he needs to exert. The most I have to do is supply those ten pounds.
Sweatshirt guy lies down on the bench. He notes the expression on my face and smiles again. It’s both slightly embarrassed and the warmest, kindest smile that a death face can manage.
His form is strict and beautiful. Every rep is slow, steady, and covers a full range of motion. Just like you’re supposed to, on the concentric phase, he explicitly squeezes the muscle being worked. His sweatshirt swells and ebbs as the bar rises and falls. It isn’t until rep fourteen or whatever that he starts to struggle. I’m paying so much attention to the artistry that I’ve lost count. The bar slows to a stop on the way up but his arms lock out the instant I place my hands between him and the bar. Lifting is as much a mind game as anything else. It’s amazing how much stronger you become when it looks like someone is helping you. When he quits a few reps later, there is no struggle. The bar is gently settled, not plopped, onto the rack.
He does three sets. I do my remaining sets of dumbbell bench presses during his rests. He spots me in turn. His calm, patient gaze weighs me down more than the dumbbells.
We make quick work of unloading the bar and re-racking the plates. He nods approvingly at me when we’re done.
“Good lifting with you.” He claps me gently on my shoulder. “See you tomorrow, buddy.”
With that, he walks away. My gaze follows him out of the gym.
He does three sets and he’s done. Maybe when a bodybuilder is in contest shape, he takes it easy. Some definition of easy, that is, that involves lifting more weight than anyone else here is using by some margin.
As for me, I haven’t done dumbbell presses this satisfying in a while. Today, I was either lifting or spotting. He wasn’t going to let me rest too long between sets. I have definitely attracted the attention of a god.
The shooting gets covered on the news. An autistic man is sitting in a parking lot. His therapist is crouched next to him. The cellphone taking the video is too far away to capture what he’s saying. Two policemen are pointing their guns at them and shouting orders. Their words overlap and it’s impossible to tell what they’re saying. The therapist lies down puts his hand in the air. They start shooting anyway. He’s an African American man. Those policemen never cared where he put his hands.
Tom of Finland Guy lands, putting himself between the two men and the police. Their bullets shatter harmlessly against his chest. The police stop shooting. For the moment, the only sound is the whisper of the therapist to the autistic man. The policemen look shocked at the bullet fragments on the ground. Tom of Finland Guy’s expression is somewhere between amazed and disbelieving.
He crouches down. As he talks to the therapist, the police bark an order and start shooting again. Tom of Finland Guy pays no attention to them, letting their bullets break against his back. Carefully, he gathers up both men and he flies them away.
Reporters interview the therapist. No one thinks the videos are some sort of guerrilla marketing campaign anymore. Social media and the news instantly dub the flying, bulletproof man The Great Wall. Because calling him that is not racist at all.
I lift four days a week. Sweatshirt Guy always asks me to spot him and I do. Then he spots me and eyes me critically when I finish a set. He always looks like he’s going to comment but then doesn’t.
Leg day with him is a bit scary, at least for me. A lot of plates have been piled on that bar. He’s squatting in a power rack. It’ll catch the bar if he goes too low. I stand behind him, my arms in place under his, ready to wrap around his chest, to help him back up. He never needs the help.
It’s been a week and we’re back to chest again. The color of the day is a dark blue. After his last set of bench presses, he holds up his hand before I can start unloading the bar.
“Why don’t you give it a try?” Sweatshirt Guy pats the bar before he sits up on the bench. “You realize those 90-pound dumbbells are too light for you, right?”
That is a sentence that has never been said seriously before in the history of the English language. I fold my arms across my chest. Finally, a chance to eye him critically back.
“This is at least my one rep max,” I gesture at the bar.
Honestly, I’m guessing. The lovely thing about dumbbell bench presses is that you can do them by yourself. You don’t absolutely have to have a spotter. So I never do barbell bench presses.
“You’ll be fine.” Sweatshirt Guy removes a slim 5-pound plate off each side of the bar. He looks satisfied, as though those missing ten pounds will make all the difference. “We’ll try for ten reps.”
Sweatshirt Guy slides the 5-pound plates onto a weight tree. One dumbbell in each hand, he walks the 90-pound dumbbells back to their rack in long, smooth strides. Whether or not they are too light for me, they’re clearly too light for him.
“Sure.” I lie down on the bench.
Whether he intends it or not, a suggestion from anyone built like him carries an implied promise. Sure, it’s one that takes years if not decades of relentless grind to fulfill. I’ve been lifting since high school, though. I’ve already signed up for that. Refusing a god is hard.
He has the crooning voice of a ‘40s band singer. His gentle, quiet words between each rep buoy me. Somewhere between “Come on, you can do it,” “It’s all you,” and “Don’t worry. I’m right here and I’ve got you.” I crank out six reps before I rack the bar.
“Nope, you can do at least three more.” His voice hits that seam between reassuring and demanding. “Don’t worry. I’ve got you.”
On the press of that third rep, I battle the bar to a standstill. It’s shaking but not actually moving. For a moment, I know my strength will give out I’m going to be that asshole who traps himself because his eyes are bigger than his muscles. Sweatshirt Guy’s hands reach for the bar and my arms reflexively straighten and lock out. That might have been under my own power. I can’t tell. Either way, he grabs the bar and guides it back on the rack.
I sit up. My pecs burn. They’re sore and they strain against my T-shirt. My heart pounds and I’m trying to slow my breath. It feels wonderful. I’ve missed this.
“One rep max?” His tone is tinged with sarcasm, but his smile is as warm as his face allows. “What do you do next? Flyes?”
He does the flappy seal thing a few times, his arms out to the side then straight in front of him. On anyone else, the gesture would look silly. On him, his pecs visibly push against the sweatshirt and it is a literal, if unintentional, flex.
“Yeah, cable flyes.” I manage to croak out the words with only the slightest of pauses.
“Good. I was going to do some anyway. You’re welcome to join me.”
He heads off to the cable machine, leaving it up to me to follow. I can stop this right now. Not even a god can gang someone into being his lifting partner. But he keeps me on track. My workouts haven’t felt this good in years. Not only have I attracted the attention of a god, but he seems to have adopted me.
Some Guy, pale but flushed, attacks a Chinese grandma on the street for no good reason. The video starts with him shouting “—don’t belong here, Asian” and beating her. It takes a second or five for everything to come into focus and into frame. Her face is bruised. Blood dribbles from her nose.
Scattered strangers are starting to gather. They shout at him to leave her alone.
She starts hitting him back, shouting insults in Mandarin. Her fists pound against his face, shoulders, whatever she can reach. Some Guy cowers, hiding his face behind his forearms.
Tom of Finland Guy lands. He steps up to Some Guy and taps him away. Some Guy stumbles back a few steps before he falls on his back. Grandma lurches after him, but Tom of Finland Guy gently guides her away.
He asks her how she is, whether she needs to go to the hospital, in the most respectful Mandarin. Tom of Finland Guy is obviously some Chinese grandma’s good grandson, if not this grandma’s. She, of course, insists that she is perfectly fine, does not need any help, and can take care of herself. The bruises and bleeding are still obvious on her face.
Two policemen arrive. One immediately crouches down next to Some Guy, checks for a concussion, then radios for an ambulance. Meanwhile, the other one levels his gun at Tom of Finland Guy. One of the scattered strangers explains what’s actually happening to the police. It doesn’t matter. The policeman shouts for Tom of Finland Guy to step away from the grandma then starts shooting.
Tom of Finland Guy says something to the grandma, who nods. He cradles her in his arms and lifts into the sky. The policeman continues to shoot. Bullets chase Tom of Finland Guy but they don’t reach him. Who knows where they fall.
Sweatshirt Guy and I finish our back and bi workout with some ab work. The gym has a separate workout room with mats for this sort of thing. No one uses it this time of day.
I was teetering on the edge before. Sweat drenches my T-shirt. The rest between sets is just enough for my breathing to steady. After the ab workout, I’m collapsed on a mat, which is where I live now. Sweatshirt Guy, naturally, hasn’t even broken into a sweat. He stands over me, looking vaguely alarmed.
This is basically how all our workouts end. It catches him off-guard every time, as though a body adapts in the span of minutes or hours rather than months or years. As though he hasn’t been nudging up the intensity by increments too small to measure from one workout to the next.
I, of course, have been complicit in this. There’s a quiet joy in the slow, steady, repetitive pushing or pulling a weight. Nothing else exists while I’m lifting. Nothing else feels like the stretching and contracting of muscle. A rep, when it’s done well, feels good.
There’s also a contentment, a quiet satisfaction in being spent. A dull, pleasant ache burns through my muscles. I can’t help but be relaxed and, honestly, this will be the most focused I will be until my next workout. I spend my life trying to stretch out this feeling until I can create it again.
I used to think working out with me was just his warm up and he came back later in the day for his real workout. It’s not so far-fetched. At any point in the day, a professional bodybuilder is doing only ever one of three things: eating, resting, or lifting.
After a couple months, however, I now think he’s Tom of Finland Guy. It’s not just the facial similarity. He also still has the death face. His proportions are still highly exaggerated. I can make out his muscles through the sweatshirt as well now as when he first asked me for a spot. An actual bodybuilder would have either softened his body back to a sustainable shape by now or be dead.
He’s both genuinely friendly and scary as fuck. I’ve been hoping to see him transform into someone not so physically austere and forbidding. That transformation is clearly never going to happen.
“I need a favor.” Sweatshirt Guy sits down, cross-legged, next to me.
I sit up. This had to happen sooner or later. A god has blessed me with his favor and the moment of reckoning has arrived. It’s time for him to exact his price.
“Sure. What would you need?”
“New apartment. Big couch. Needs support on both ends to move. You’re the strongest guy I know.”
Honestly, I don’t know what I expected, but this isn’t it. He can stand the couch on end and carry it by himself. No one else can, though. That, I suppose, is the problem.
“Absolutely, I can help you move.” It even sounds like I believe he needs the help. I’m a working actor, after all.
“Pick you up with the moving trunk?” He looks dubious.
If I get to know where he lives, he might as well know where I live. I give him my address.
“Thanks.” He starts to offer his hand but ends up lightly patting my back. “Carl.”
My hand misses when I pat his back. His slide out of the way looks unintentional, a coincidental turn as he leaves. It isn’t until he’s gone that I realize an invulnerable man who is keeping it a secret probably doesn’t want to shake hands or be clapped on the back while in disguise. It would give him away.
Tom of Finland Guy only has cameos in his next viral video. At the end of the day, it isn’t even about him.
The video is snippets of one news report after another, peppered with cellphone video or surveillance cameras video, a summary of the past few months. A white man pushed a Vietnamese American woman onto the subway tracks, killing her. Someone else followed a Chinese American woman back to her apartment and stabbed her to death. Yet another man barged into a massage parlor and killed the Korean American women working there. A shrine in Chinatown to the murdered women was trashed. A Japanese American actor was beaten and bruised on his way to a performance. A Korean American man slashed twice in the face just because. A man with curly blond hair and a backpack went on a two-hour spree assaulting one Asian woman after another. The reports go on and on.
Tom of Finland Guy is seen fleetingly in one or two snippets. Mostly, it is one grim newsreader after another.
The cuts between reports get faster and faster. The images become unrecognizable flashes of light. Audio from reports collide and overlap. They pile on top of each other in an increasing cacophony until all anyone can make out is noise.
A translucent image of Tom of Finland Guy emerges from the chaos. Text in a lurid red covers him word by word: “Where is he?” This is followed by: “Why does he let this happen?”
Somewhere lost in all this is the notion that maybe the real problem is the racists. They can simply choose not to murder people or beat them until they are purple with bruises. It’s not that no one is saying this on social media. It’s just buried in the noise.
In the end, what will defeat me is not the big couch. Both on the way down to the truck and on the way back up again to the new apartment, Carl places himself at the bottom of the stairs. It’s not that I can’t feel the weight. The thing has to weigh at least five hundred pounds. It’s that I’m unconvinced I’m doing any of the heavy lifting.
What will defeat me is the sheer number of large boxes of books. The man does not live in an apartment. He lives in a library with a bed, bathroom, and kitchen and is moving to a different library with a bed, bathroom, and kitchen.
The other boxes are all light enough. They go into the new apartment in stacks. We both move the boxes of books one at a time. Me, because I’m only human. Him, because he’s committing to the bit where he’s merely a consistent ten to twenty pounds stronger than me.
I realize I’m being stupid. There’s a still warm sausage and onion pizza sitting on a counter in his new apartment’s kitchen. Carl seems perfectly content to have me eat pizza while I watch him move his library into his new apartment. Even though I know he can leave me in the dust whenever he wants, I can’t help but try to keep up. It’s taking longer because I’m helping.
The boxes are all meticulously labeled. At least I get to find out something about him during the slog. The conversation we had on the drive from my apartment to his old apartment was very tight-lipped. He allowed that he competed in weightlifting and cheer through to the end of his undergrad degree. He forgets to be laconic, though, when I mention his books.
He read Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs because he wanted to, not for a class. It’s not the only piece of heavy reading he did for pleasure. Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place inspires a cautious discussion where I hold my own about propaganda and media presentations determining the viewer’s experience. A reference to Stephen Banfield’s Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals turns him on like a spigot.
The boxes feel lighter while we’re chatting. As I keep reminding myself, lifting is as much a mind game as a matter of strength. From “I Remember That,” we drift to “I Remember It Well,” the one Alan Jay Lerner wrote with Kurt Weill, not Frederick Loewe. From there, he brings up The Firebrand of Florence. I can’t believe he’s even heard of the operetta until he sings the hangman’s opening quatrain. He’s even in the right key.
In the moment, what I want is to grab him by the shoulders and kiss him full on the lips. We don’t have that sort of relationship, though. Maybe it’s better that we don’t. He’s probably more interested in sex than I am. Most people are. Instead of kissing him, I stumble over a box out the way out of his new apartment.
I latch the rear door of the moving trunk. We’re all done, which is good because I don’t think I’m physically capable of lifting a penny at the moment. I’ve already told Carl not to expect me at the gym on Monday.
Carl is still upstairs locking up. I’m waiting for him to drive me home when a detective and a beat cop come up to me. The detective flashes his badge. Their unmarked car is parked behind them, blocking the apartment complex’s driving lane.
“Carl Tsai.” The detective shows me his phone. There’s a screen shot of Carl as Tom of Finland Guy. “Do you know why we’re here?”
He thinks I’m Carl. As if there is only one Asian on the planet. There’s a spree of violence against Asian Americans and Carl is who they decide to investigate. I decide not to disabuse them.
“No, why are you here?”
“We have reason to believe you’re The Great Wall.” He swipes his screen. A video I’ve never seen before starts playing. Carl’s face is clearly visible. “Where were you yesterday around 3PM?”
“I’m not discussing my day with you.”
“Look, a cop died.” He flips the phone so I can’t see the rest of the video. “Maybe it was an accident. What were you doing yesterday afternoon?”
I don’t believe for an instant that Carl killed a cop, even by accident. That’s the sort of thing that makes the news instantly and not at all Carl’s modus operandi. He is careful to a fault. The detective’s lying to provoke some sort of reaction.
“You are detaining me, or am I free to go?”
“I’m detaining you.”
The other cop approaches me with handcuffs. I don’t think they’ve thought this through. Anyone who they can restrain with handcuffs is clearly not who they’re looking for.
“Let him go. You’re looking for me and he’s clearly not me.” Carl floats above us in his Tom of Finland Guy outfit. His voice is a gravelly bass-baritone again. “And that cop tried to shoot me and killed his partner instead. You know that.”
Both cops draw their guns on him. They and I realize at the same time that I’m a much easier target. They pivot and aim their guns at me. Nice guys, both of them. Maybe it’s because I’m so tired, but I have no reaction. My heart doesn’t even pound.
“Look, Great Wall, just come with us.” The detective’s gaze is aimed at me, but, obviously, he’s talking to Carl floating behind him. “No one needs to get hurt.”
This is the first time I’ve seen Carl as Tom of Finland Guy right in front of me. In person, it’s impossible to miss the fullness and roundedness of each and every muscle. They are all beautifully separated from each other and popping off his frame. The overall shape is so aesthetically pleasing and perfectly proportioned, it’s hard to imagine any sculptor doing better. A sweatshirt does hide him somewhat, it turns out. He is a masterpiece of art or a wonder of the world. If this sight is my last before I die, I could have picked worse.
Carl stares at me, then he stares at the cops. I imagine death rays or whatever shooting from his eyes. The cops sway and yawn. Their aim wavers and they holster their guns. Their heads bobble, seemingly too heavy for their necks. They blink and, finally, shut their eyes before they crumple to the ground. Their chests slowly rise and fall. Their faces are calm and placid.
I, on the other hand, seem to have caught my second wind. These two events, I suspect, are not unconnected. My back and legs aren’t sore anymore. I’m no longer overheated and sweating. My body is telling me that it’s ready to move another apartment and it can’t possibly be right.
Carl looks stunned. He levels a critical gaze at me.
“I’m sorry. That worked a little too well.” He’s keeping up the rough and tumble Tom of Finland Guy voice. “You were more tired than I expected.”
He gathers up the cops. I don’t get a chance to ask whether he needs help before he has strapped them into their car. He lifts the car by the front bumper and speeds off, pulling the car behind him, as if he were a human-shaped high-speed tow truck. Supporting a car only by a single point probably isn’t good for it.
Carl comes out of the apartment building. The color of the day is still tan. He spots me by the moving truck. Nothing in his expression admits to what just happened. He is his usual crisp self, not that I expected any different.
“Ready to go?” His voice is back to its light, crooning baritone.
The conversation on the drive home is tight. Carl doesn’t want to out himself to me. I’m not going out him to himself. He doesn’t want to admit to me or isn’t ready to admit to me what is pretty clear that I already know. I can’t do anything about it besides wait. What he can do about it is stop lifting with me. That would break me.
The hate is more pointed in some of the other videos. It’s also more pathetic.
They wrap him in the red flag with five stars, insisting this is a sighting in his new costume. The CGI is awful. The flag is a red splotch that covers his body but it doesn’t move the way he moves. It purports to be both skintight and fail to ripple as his muscles tense and relax. The stars hover next to his body.
In actual footage, people shout at him, their pale faces flush with rage. In a few cases, they are literally shaking their fist at the sky. They’re not very creative. It’s generally some version of “Go back where you came from!” They never say just exactly where that is. Sometimes, it’s variations on “You don’t belong here.” Only dirtier.
Some people say these things to his face. A few of them try to break their bones against his body and he gently guides their fists away. He doesn’t look angry or hurt. Mostly, he just looks tired.
Unlike Carl, I do not have a couch. Even after Saturday, I don’t need one to sprawl on. Instead of sore, I feel fine, just a little guilty for skipping my workout. It’s unsettling for my body to recover this quickly. Those two policemen are undoubtedly still sore as hell. I try to feel bad about this but I can’t.
Hollow ottomans that double as book storage are scattered around a coffee table. Books are stacked underneath. The requisite electronic keyboard rests on a stand in the corner next to the folding chair. Books are stacked on the floor there, too. The sheet music for “Suddenly Salad,” the song I still have to learn for the elementary school assembly gig I booked, sits on the music stand attached to the keyboard.
I sight read the sheet music, accompanying myself on the keyboard. The tune is a pastiche of a much better song. The lyrics are about as good as they can be considering I am a giant head of romaine telling a bunch of grade school kids that “romaine’s their friend.” I can’t but think that “We’re in a Salad” from Christopher Durang’s A History of the American Film is right there smirking at this.
“We’re in a Salad” is, of course, a loving pastiche of “We’re in the Money.” Going from “We’re in a Salad” to 42nd Street, where I booked a gig in the ensemble, would be more fitting. I’m one of the four boys flanking Billy Lawlor at the start of “Dames” and, even better, I’m understudying Billy. In theory, there is a potential All About Steve situation here. In practice, no, of course not.
Either way, I’m singing “Suddenly, salad is plated beside you” when there is a knock at the door. Dignity, what is paramount in this profession is dignity.
I open the door. It’s Carl, the man who can hear a mouse scratch the dirt on the other side of the world and we both pretend he didn’t just hear “Suddenly Salad.” The color of the day is dark gray. For the first time since we’ve met, he has a bearing that doesn’t seem like either a military “at ease” or a bodybuilder “relaxed” pose.
“Are we OK?” Carl has that dubious look on his face again.
“Yes?” I stare back at him, puzzled. “Are we fighting?”
I invite him in and close the door behind him. His gaze sweeps the room.
“You need a couch.” He is dead serious, or maybe it’s just hard for that face to hold many other expressions. “Sorry, that’s not why I’m here. You weren’t at the gym. Are we OK?”
“I told you I was skipping today.” I gesture at an ottoman and sit down on its neighbor. “You own a lot of books.”
“But your body isn’t s— Oh, this is stupid. I hated being closeted and hiding this is no better.” In a blur, he becomes Tom of Finland Guy. “How long have you known?”
His sweatshirt and sweatpants lie in a pile next to him. His voice is still much more the crooning light baritone of Sweatshirt Guy than the gruff bass-baritone of Tom of Finland Guy.
I pick up his sweatpants. They’re tearaway. A row of snaps lines each leg. They’re disguised to look like a seam. The illusion of typical sweatpants is convincing enough, I guess, if you don’t look too closely.
“You know, I have friends who can design quick change sweatpants that hide the tearaway better.” I can’t resist redoing the snaps before I set the sweatpants down. “Otherwise, regular tearaways would be less suspicious.”
“You figured me out from my sweatpants?” He looks incredulous. “So, from the moment I asked you to spot me?”
We’ve both clearly had plenty of prior experience being closeted and outing ourselves. I know. He knows I know. I know he knows I know. And, now, in a thrilling anti-climax, we finally both know that we both know. I swear a big chunk of the experience of being closeted is the bookkeeping.
“It took about a couple months. You can win any bodybuilding contest you want, but any bodybuilder would be dead if they tried to stay in the shape you’re in for that long.” I’m trying my level best to stay casual but it’s like talking to a god who has revealed himself in his full glory right now. “I haven’t told anyone.”
“I didn’t think you did.” He puts his sweatshirt and sweatpants back on. “I mean, you didn’t even tell me.”
“I assumed you knew.”
A smile spreads across his death face. It’s not so intimidating now that I understand it for what it is. Once again, what I want is to throw my arms around him and plant my lips on his. I mean, he thought my stupid joke was funny or at least he’s humoring the attempt.
“I’m sorry.” He pushes an ottoman next to mine then sits on it. “I didn’t mean to get you or anyone else involved.”
“You didn’t. All you did was ask me to spot you.” I stifle my hand before it can pat his thigh to reassure him. “Actually, why do you lift? You can’t be getting anything out of it.”
“I get asked about my workout routine. A lot. You know how it is.” He gestures pointedly at my arms and chest. “I don’t want to lie and the only way I don’t attract attention in the gym is if I use lots of weight and some big, buff guy is spotting me. And there you are, being sweet and kind to everyone who interrupts your workout.”
“That’s a lot time spent to avoid a little white lie.”
He rolls his eyes at me. His face then shifts in a way that’s hard to read. He could just be annoyed but I’m guessing wistful.
“The last time I felt even a little tired was maybe a year ago. I haven’t been able to get wrecked like you get on a really good workout in years.” He purses his lips. “I’m trying to remember what it’s like vicariously. Otherwise, I might forget what it’s like to be human.”
We both get something out of it. That, weirdly, makes me feel better about working out with him.
“Years? The videos only started show up a month or so ago.”
“It takes time to teach yourself how to fly. I started getting too strong, too fast during my post-doc.” He chuckles. “Maybe I was bitten by a radioactive bodybuilder.”
“Are you into getting bitten?” I smirk. “Because nothing’s penetrating your skin.”
The instant those words leave my mouth, I want to stuff them back in. There’s committing to the bit and there’s wandering into places I don’t belong. I sputter. The panic and guilt must be obvious on my face because he holds a hand to shut me up. His gaze is oddly soft.
“Yes. No. I mean, yes, I’m well-nigh invulnerable by now. No, I’m not really into anything sexual, which is handy, I guess. All I’ve ever wanted is a hug or a kiss every once in a while. But even that still gives me away.”
His brow furrows for a moment. His jaw drops. He perks up, stands, and points a finger at me. I half-expect to disintegrate or something. No idea whether that’s even a thing he can do. As far as I can tell, though, he’s just pointing at me.
“What are you doing, Carl?”
“You’re not off-limits anymore. I can finally ask you out on a date.” He notices he’s stabbing his index finger at me and drops his hand. “I’ve always wanted to show someone this. Watch.”
He walks up an imaginary set of stairs. It’s mime from someone who can hover in midair. The thing is, it’s really good. He’s spent a lot of time on this. The man whose body can do anything he trains it to do has spent his time on mime he never expected to show anyone. This either makes me love him more or hate his guts for how easy he’s making it look. Both, actually.
His weight shifts convincingly from foot to foot. Each step is exactly the same size as the next. How he moves creates the illusion of smooth, hard, level surfaces beneath his feet. The effect is so ordinary, anyone watching a video of this would think he’s just climbing a transparent staircase.
Carl flips into a handstand and his hands walk back down the steps. His body is perfectly taut to the pointed toes. There’s a slight teeter from one side to the other as he shifts his weight from one hand to the other. His sweatshirt wrinkles and swells as he tenses and relaxes each muscle. The slight teeter is actually harder to do intentionally than by accident. Most people trying this on a real staircase would just fall over. But people who blow your minds when they walk down stairs on their hands look just like this. Only he’s doing it without the stairs.
Once on the ground, he pushes off and flips to a stand. The landing is impossibly soft and silent. His toes touch the floor and his knees bend to take the momentum as his heel rolls onto the floor. None of my furniture shifts, much less clatter. He takes a slight bow, one arm bent in front of his waist, the other behind. I give him a standing ovation.
As I applaud, what he said—what he’s trying to distract me from—replays in my head. The delayed reaction hits me and I sit back down.
“Wait. Are you asking me out?” I take a deep breath and hope for the best. “Because my nights are basically free for the next couple of weeks, until tech for 42nd Street starts.”
He looks at me and he wears his reactions like costumes, switching from one to the next before he finally settles on one. Tom of Finland Guy meets my gaze with an impervious confidence. He only really has just the one choice. The crooning Sweatshirt Guy from the gym has a dubious expression on his face, wondering if he’s just broken our relationship. Carl, however, just looks vulnerable. A bullet can’t penetrate his chest but a question, apparently, can.
“It’s been so long.” His brow is furrowed. “Yes.”
“Are you free Saturday night?”
“I can be.” His words are slow and cautious. “Yes, I am.”
“Great, it’s a date.” I stand and open my arms for a hug. “We can figure out what we’re doing later. It’s not like we don’t see each other four days a week.”
He wraps his arms around me. I wrap mine around him. His grasp is pointedly delicate, trying too hard to cocoon the soap bubble that is me. Hugging him is like hugging a warm, intricately wrought bronze statue wrapped in a thin sheath of cotton. His body has no give. My fingers feel the separation between muscle fibers despite themselves.
“See you at the gym tomorrow. I should get going.” He claps my back one last time before he lets go. “Leave you to rehearse your song about salad. Remember, you can be silly, but, whatever they’re paying you, don’t be radicchio.”
The pun hangs in the air. It sounds so earnest and his face refuses to admit the joke. His expression screams its sincerity. I suppose it is also that.
He sees himself out. I just stand there, taking in what he made of “Suddenly Salad.” At least we’re on the same wavelength.
The crowd at City Hall Plaza is peaceful. All the videos agree. It doesn’t matter whether it’s from cellphones in the crowd, from news cameras on the helicopters overhead, or from the cameras on the cops in riot gear sprinkled around the perimeter. The crowd, people of every gender and ethnicity, fill the space backstopped by a sparse row of trees and the street. People are just waving signs and chanting, protesting violence against Asian Americans, particularly women. Even with the cops goading them, the protesters are peaceful.
A truck screeches down the street. It plows into the plaza. Screams and shouts of “Truck!” fill the air. The crowd breaks up, rushing towards the brick paths out of the plaza.
The police take the chaos as their excuse to make a move. Reinforcements arrive. Military-grade drones fly in and place concrete jersey barriers on the brick paths.
Tom of Finland Guy lands in front of the truck as it races towards the crowd. He picks it up by the front bumper. Slowly, he rises into the air, lifting the bumper as he goes.
The driver rolls down his window. As the car goes vertical, he’s shouting racial slurs and threatening to sue if Tom of Finland Guy so much as scratches his truck.
The truck slowly flips over. The man screams. Tom of Finland Guy, still holding on to the front bumper, lowers it, bit by bit, until the truck is upside down on the ground. The man, wisely, stays in the truck.
A team of four cops run toward the truck. They look a little giddy and punch drunk. One of them huffs and puffs harder than the others. There’s a big gun mounted on his shoulder. Without a word, he shoots.
A hum fills the air. A thin, bright beam whizzes past Tom of Finland Guy. It vaporizes a tree on its way across the street.
Tom of Finland Guy shifts to block the beam. It burns a tiny hole in his shirt, but doesn’t do anything to him. He strolls towards the team. The shooter twists a dial on gun. The beam grows brighter and louder. It doesn’t matter. Tom of Finland Guy just keeps walking towards them until he and the gunman are face to face. With a flick of his finger and a smile, he disables the gun.
The rest of the team fiddles with their remote controls. The drones swarm over Tom of Finland Guy. Each of them shoots a cable that lassos him. The cables cinch around his arms and chest. His muscles tense and strain but the cables don’t budge.
They push the stick forward on their remotes, directing the drones up. The drones buzz and whir, dragging up Tom of Finland Guy with them. The cables snap taut. His body shakes in mid-air as he holds the tug-of-war to a stalemate.
The cops lean forward so hard on their remote controls that one of them almost falls over. The whirring grows louder and higher pitched. Tom of Finland Guy doesn’t so much vibrate as blur in place, still writhing against the cables around his chest and arms.
The stalemate lasts for what seems like minutes. The crowd cheers him on. The cops, grins wide on their faces, high five each other. They taunt him, shouting that maybe he’s not so strong after all.
Tom of Finland Guy lands. If that takes any effort, it doesn’t show. He drags the drones down with him. Their whirring squeaks into the ultrasonic before they spark and smoke. Their propellers stop and they tumble towards the ground. He wasn’t struggling to stay in place. They were struggling to move him. He was just overloading them waiting for them to burn out.
He darts back up as the drones fall. The cables snap taut again. The drones dangle below him. He sets them on the ground before he lands again. The cables surrounding him break with a shrug. That struggle was a fake out, too.
The smiles are long gone from the cops’ faces. They bolt, the one with the gun on his shoulder slightly behind everyone else.
The rest of the police, however, are already arresting protestors, taking them away to be processed. Tom of Finland Guy surveys the scene, glaring at the police. Of the cops keeping the protestors penned in, a couple of the cops yawn, a few are unsteady on their feet, but none are so tired that they can’t stay awake.
Tom of Finland Guy flies into the crowd and airlifts anyone who wants to leave, one by one. He can’t stop them from arresting protestors. They can’t stop him from freeing them.
The color of the day is violet. Lifting with Carl is both exactly like and nothing like lifting with Sweatshirt Guy. In the weight room, he’s still that crooning light baritone. He’s still whispering encouragement in my ear with each rep.
Now, though, he’s not so much of a sentient tax form when I rest between sets. He cracks the occasional joke. His sentences use as many as two more words than absolutely necessary. We feel each other out about what to do on our date. My rest breaks fly by and, before I realize it, he’s reminding me “Here and now.” Sometimes, it’s with a warm tap on the shoulder.
We don’t talk about the rally. Even at 5AM, there are too many people around. Neither of us are too rusty with the bookkeeping of being closeted.
In the separate workout room, his demeanor shifts. He’s not as mannered when no one else is around. It’s the most relaxed I’ve seen him. His voice, still smooth, drops a few semitones. His body is not always carefully positioned just so. Ironically, he presents like just a big lug in a sweatshirt when he’s not trying to.
He’s chatty, compared to Sweatshirt Guy. The short breaks in our ab workout are not deathly silent. He’s using maybe four more words than absolutely necessary. It’s mostly a one-way conversation because I’m busy dying. The ab exercises look very simple and easy when he does them.
He limits himself to only oblique references to the rally. Once, he makes a cryptic comment about wanting to save everyone. I manage one right back in between gasps. Unjust systems require systemic change. No one is powerful enough to do it by themself, not even him.
When we’re done, I’m splayed on the mat, trying desperately to keep air in my lungs. He looks at me with this expression of intense want and need on his face. It can’t be for me. We haven’t even gone on our date yet. It’s this weekend. The look on his face doesn’t make sense until I remember what he’s getting out of our workouts.
“You can remove the fatigue from my body, right?”
The desire on his face becomes worry. He crouches next to me.
“I thought you enjoyed feeling wrecked. We can ease off a bit next time.”
“No, no, I do. If our workouts ever get to be too much, believe me, I’ll let you know.” I push myself up to a sit. “I mean, instead of giving my fatigue to someone else, can you give it to yourself?”
“I don’t know.” His brow furrows. “I’ve never tried.”
“Do you want to try?”
He takes a beat. His gaze defocuses through me to some distant place deep beneath the floor. For all I know, that may be literal or maybe he’s just not paying attention to where his gaze wanders. His expression is pensive until it isn’t and his gaze snaps back to me.
He stares at me and I get my second wind. It’s an odd sensation, recovering instantly like this. My breath goes from rough to smooth before I realize. Endorphins are an electric current coursing through me. My body does not want to stay still. This time, however, he’s left me the residue of my fatigue. My body doesn’t insist that I absolutely have to go back and hit the weights again right away.
As for Carl, his brow wrinkles for a moment. I thought he might deflate a bit, but he is very much his bulging, if austere, self.
“Interesting.” He nods slowly. “Are you ok?”
“Yeah, considering the workout I had, I feel great.” I’m upright. I don’t remember standing. “Probably a little too great. Do you feel tired at all?”
“No.” He frowns. “Well, maybe for an instant.”
I go to squeeze his shoulder and he lets me. The sweatshirt compresses, but, of course, his shoulder doesn’t.
“No, it’s good. It’s enough to remind me what it was like.”
He claps my back. It looks casual and affectionate but feels careful and simulated. An actual casual clap from him and I’d keel over onto the mat.
“The offer’s still open if you’d like to try again someday.”
“Mess with your body chemistry? You shouldn’t make offers like that so lightly.” His tone is serious and I remember again that I’m talking to a god. “But I’ll think about it.”
We walk out of the workout room. As he passes through this door, he is subtly stiffer, his posture more formal.
Someone comes up to us. He has brown, curly hair and about a head shorter than either of us. His T-shirt isn’t oversized. It just looks like it is. His gaze sweeps past Carl and locks onto me.
“Hi, can you help me?” He points off towards the weight machines. “The knob that adjusts the position of the leg pad for the leg curl machine is jammed.”
Once again, someone looks at the two of us and decides that I’m the one for the job. Behold the difference between his sweatshirt and my T-shirt, I suppose.
Carl and I wave our goodbyes to each other. He heads off toward the exit. I head off toward leg curl machine. People need to learn that they don’t need to crank the adjustment knob. You’re just making trouble for no good reason.
(Editors’ Note: “If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 47B.)
© 2022 John Chu