Gods and Mortals
You see them sitting on the patios of the restaurants that adorn 17th Street here in Dupont Circle, strewn in masses of muscle and cologne. Even tonight as I scan this newspaper they are there in the advertisements, sporting buff bodies, even when all they are selling is breakfast cereal. These are the gods among us, idolized by the men here in this gay Mecca.
Take the man at the table across from me in this overcrowded café where I came to hide from the bustling and ordinary world outside. After all, the unnoticeable become more unnoticeable en masse. Yet among the quiet non-gods, humbled by our own bodily failures and misfortunes, sits a stranger. A most holy stranger. Everything about him is not only perfect, but immortal. His skin so beautifully black it is almost blue, like a precious ink that sparkles when he smiles. He looks at me briefly while I worship him and lie stricken with a religious awe, as if I were a child in Portugal and he were my vision at Fátima.
Like many gods, he does not acknowledge his worshiper and looks away. He does not know that at this moment, I am writing his Gospel.
There is another god just half a block down. He is standing on the corner with shiny locks of hair and a mastiff by his side. His tresses fall wavy in rivulets, chestnut brown against bronzed skin. He wears no shirt, just a pair of shorts as he stands almost naked, only to remind us that gods have always been known to take on human form. It is a type of mockery, a game played with the rules never fully explained. We cannot be them, but they can be us. But this Samson-like god is unlike the others around him, because on this street most of the gods are bald, parading their domes proudly like sailors returning home. There is something about the lack of hair that calls attention to the gods. Something that baldness demands. A friend of mine once said, I like a man who doesn’t waste his hormones growing hair. And scientists say that androgen, the male sex hormone, must be present for baldness to develop, thus reinforcing the folk wisdom that baldness and virility go hand in hand. Perhaps these gods are walking vials of androgen, Divine Masculinity among us.
Yet we ask, because we must, exactly where did these gods come from? Did the heavens unfold and drop them like seeds in a garden? Did they happen into this world through some unnamed intervention, an immaculate conception more commonplace than we ever imagined, with holy water their embryonic fluid? Or were they like the saints, born mere mortals and sanctified somewhere along their path? We must know.
My guess is they were born of perfect genes. They ate well-balanced meals three times a day and excelled in physical prowess. They were never born asthmatic, because a child with asthma has difficulty breathing after the slightest exercise, so his heart and arms and legs hardly get the opportunity to develop to a human status, never mind a godly one. A child with asthma remains as mortal as a corpse. Asthma is not the thing gods are made of, yet, like asthma, they can take our breath and hold it in the palm of their hand and release it only when they are ready.
Me, despite my attempts to think otherwise, I am an ordinary and perishable being. I turn no heads when I walk into a room, and deification is not even within my realm of fantasy. My body is fallible, made of flesh and bone, a vessel of oxygen and carbon dioxide that one day will cease to function. And I am not alone in my mortality.
And as I leave this Dupont Circle café my eye catches a glimpse of a small, flickering light. It is tiny and green and barely noticeable. I follow it for half a block when I realize it is a firefly. An insect full of wonder and luminescence. I am hypnotized while it leads me to a man limping as if his feet have betrayed him. Not a god, I tell myself. Gods are more graceful than limps.
Are you in pain? I ask the man. That is what he is, after all, a man, and it seems the humanly, if not comradely, thing to do. He smiles and says, I am okay. I just hurt my foot on the…how you call in English?…ah, yes, the curb. His accent is Italian. I am not sure, but I venture to say that gods do not have accents. He smiles and his face is not godly at all. There is a beauty, but it is not a balanced beauty. Not like a Michelangelo, more like a Picasso, where splendor lies asymmetric.
I observe him the way a cartographer observes a map. My eyes trace the landscape of his face, the streams of sweat from a humid summer evening. The hills above his eyebrows that lead to the path that stretches along the nape of his neck. And on his arm, a valley of scars. Not just one, but dozens, stretching like tributaries from his armpit to his elbow. They frighten me, these deep grooves that spread out like fingers on a hand. Chemotherapy for my leukemia, he says, noticing my stare. But that was many years ago.
Time takes on a different meaning for me, and for a moment I picture him as a small child. This scarred man. L’uomo sfregiato.
Do you live here in D.C.? He asks. I tell him no, that I just arrived in town, and that I am taking part in a study with the National Institutes of Health. What a coincidence, he smiles, I work there, as a research physician.
I once read that the Japanese have a word for it — wabi. Wabi is poverty. Imbalance. Asymmetry. Imperfection. Wabi is the aesthetic quality given to a particular flaw. It is the beauty one finds in the cracked plate, or in the chipped teacup. Wabi tells us that each fallacy is beautiful, even divine, because the small yet significant moment when the perfect became imperfect — that brief, special moment — is separated from all other moments in time. Wabi is the disease of the patient enrolled in a study to hopefully find a cure for the illness he has had for five years. Wabi is the scar on the physician who researches the very thing that nearly killed him.
The scars are beautiful, I think to myself. I am no longer afraid.
The firefly glows one last time like a halo behind the scarred man’s head. Suddenly, as if I were losing my religion, the gods seem superficial and fade away.
© 2012 John Medeiros. All rights reserved.
song for the living
of whatever it is that is left
when love no longer breathes.
who loves a man
is neither a man