“Some men treat every handshake as a gladiator’s death-match, a test of strength, a test of will.”
In this poem, Guante explores masculinity through the symbol of the handshake. The handshake however opens a conversation about other symbols of masculinity, from SportsCenter to Axe Body Spray, which ultimately illustrates the problem with male dominance and patriarchy in society.
The craziest thing about having your hand crushed, is that the pair of eyes across from yours never stops smiling. As knuckles are compressed, as the skin is all but torn off the top of your hand, he always has this stupid grin on his face. Even as the vein bulges from his neck he smiles, until you grudgingly mumble, “that’s quite a handshake” and he releases you.
As a young man, I was taught that one’s masculinity, is tied directly to one’s handshake. That when meeting another man for the first time, no sin was more unforgivable than placing a limp fish in his hand, the dead husk of a greeting. Your grip, must be firm, like the way you hold your briefcase as you walk to work, or the way you hold the handle while standing up on the bus.
Some men, however, prefer a grip like a battle axe mid swing, like the safety bar after the airlock blows, like ripping the head off an antelope by tugging on the antlers. Some men treat every handshake as a gladiator’s death-match, a test of strength, a test of will.
And when I meet these men, as I often do, their tectonic plate handshakes never fail to illuminate my… myriad inadequacies. Frozen there with purple fingertips, I am reminded that I cannot stand the taste of beer. That cars confuse and frighten me. That when faced with a barbeque and a pair of tongs, I will overcook the meat every time. These men attempt to squeeze the testosterone from my body. Maybe I’m just insecure.
But studying his smirk more closely, I think maybe, that would make two of us. Because as he wrings the color from my fingers I find myself wanting to ask him:
Do you ever feel trapped?
In the mornings, when you’re watching Sportscenter and happily downing that protein shake made from raw eggs, liquefied steak and Axe Body Spray, do you ever crush the glass between your fingers? Do you ever get tired of the voice in your head, you know the one that sounds like Dennis Leary, telling you to constantly reaffirm that you’re a “man” by catcalling women, eating enormous hamburgers and squeezing everything really, really hard? How on earth do you pleasure yourself without castrating yourself?
I find myself wanting to ask him: do you hold your wife’s arm like this when you’re angry with her? Is there a teddy bear, somewhere in your memory, being ripped away from a pair of hands that just aren’t strong enough? Do you remember the first time your father wouldn’t let you hold his hand when crossing the street? Do you remember the way he looked at you? Do you remember being handed your first-born son and not knowing how to hold him? Do you remember squeezing his shoulders like this the first time he disappointed you? Do you remember what it was you were trying to hold on to?
And I know, that there is so much space between us, as men, that some of us feel compelled to cram as much contact as we physically can into every touch. I know. We’ve become so comfortable with crushing, so hypnotized by our own strength we forget, how incredible it can feel, to let go.
This space is reserved for any comments the author of the piece may have about the points they were trying to get across and the background of why they wrote the poem.