My hot cousins

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For years, I was drawn to his strength, his bravado, his violence. But then he forced me to come to terms with how that idea of masculinity poisoned his life — and mine. Photo illustration by Mike McQuade. By Wil S. T hree years ago, my cousin tried to kill me. We had no argument that day or any other in 40 years. We were best friends.

We spoke for hours every week, often late at night, squinting through the portal of a video chat to exchange complaints about our lives and show off household projects. I say that we had been planning for months to get together that weekend.

We organized a family reunion at his house. My son and I were staying in his guest room, while a swarm of aunts and uncles and cousins my hot cousins into a nearby hotel. I say that none of our relatives knew there was conflict between my cousin and me.

Neither did I, and neither did he. There was no of anything wrong until he tried to kill me. I know it sounds incomplete. It sounds like a story I tell myself to avoid responsibility, and maybe it is. He was standing in the doorway of the guest room with an easy smile. My son and I had just returned from the pool to get ready for the party.

The kids dried off and flopped on the bed to play video games while I straightened the room. I remember the careless way they glanced up when my cousin appeared at the door. His giant frame blocking the exit gave them no concern. I can still hear the humor in his voice as he asked their permission to speak with me.

Should that detail have alarmed me? I wonder now. And what about his kids — where my hot cousins they? Were they upstairs with their mother, as he said? Or was he alone when we returned? Did our arrival interrupt him? Did we make too much noise coming inside, or had he already vanished into rage from the whispers he heard the night? I think of my son in that moment, stretched across the bed with his cousins. I can still see the red pocket Nintendo clutched in his hands, his little fingers stabbing the keys to inflict some imaginary violence. His mother and sister were not with us.

They were miles away. We had left them in the house that I spent two years hammering together, the home I was tearing apart. I had just moved out a few weeks earlier, the marriage ending, the family in pieces. I remember the sadness in my boy as we packed our bags to leave and the way my cousin seemed to sense it.

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He leapt from his pickup at the airport to envelop us with hugs, then pulled off the highway a few miles later to buy a Nerf football at some my hot cousins beach store, stopping again to pick up a youth-size Carolina Panthers jersey. I remember thinking they would always have that in common — the easy banter of seasonal sports, the patter of team statistics — which always seemed vacuous to me until I became a father, until I began to look with envy on the touchstone of sports between generations of other men.

It was the same way I had always responded to him myself. There was something soothing in his confidence. He carried himself with the blunt authority that boys are groomed to prize. He laughed easily and often, slapping the wheel with his palms until the dashboard shook.

When he talked about football, he made casual gestures of throwing and running with the fluid motion of a man built to play. For the rest of the day, my boy wore that jersey. He wore it again the following morning. When we left for the hotel pool, he tossed it by his pillow to slip on later. I wonder now if he was still wearing the jersey that night, surrounded by relatives he barely knew on the patio of their hotel while my parents huddled beside my broken body in the surgical unit of the emergency room, praying that my ruptured organs and battered skull could be repaired.

I think of how little he understood in that moment, too young to be told what happened, and how confused he must have been with his father missing, with his mother and sister far away, with none of his grandparents in sight, with a crowd of great-aunts and second cousins showering him with cake and presents. It was his 9th birthday. He was 9 that day, and his family was shattering, and suddenly his father was gone. I had been missing all his life.

I had abandoned him. I want my boy to understand that I failed him, and for how long, and why. My hot cousins needs to know that when he becomes a man, he will be tempted to fail in the same ways. He will be encouraged to fail. I want him to know how a lifetime of failures led us to that night — to the birthday he celebrated alone, to the fracture of his family, to his father on the edge of death.

I need to tell him the difficult truth that I am still learning myself. I returned his smile. I crossed the room and stepped outside. The afternoon sun was behind the house, leaving the yard in shadows. I followed him past a wooden staircase and a tire swing hanging from chains.

When we came to the big metal door, he pulled it open and waited for me to enter. Nothing about this struck me as unusual. I thought he wanted to smoke some pot. I had no interest in smoking that day. I stepped into the garage and heard him closing the door behind me. I walked down a row of work-beaten tools that hung from the wall in perfect order. He hated plastic junk. He looked for the best secondhand equipment he could find, took it apart and restored it to service. He my hot cousins the time to maintain everything he had. He talked about this in the language of paternal duty.

A man took care of his things. He tended what was his. He filed the teeth of his chain-saw blade and oiled the return on his framing nailer. Sometimes, just to amuse ourselves, we sent each other pictures of bogus workshops in magazines — the spotless man cave with a checkerboard floor, the matching sets of low-volt gizmos that come in a zippered pouch, the wobbly miniature circular saws and flimsy drills with a quarter-inch chuck.

His equipment was heavy with steel. It hung from brackets anchored to the framing of the wall. Some of the electrical cords were spliced, the paint was chipped and the luster gone, but everything was built to last and put to work. I passed a yellow jackhammer and a shelf of four-inch sewer pipe, turning into a small room where he kept his workbench. I heard him behind me, and when I turned, I saw a blur of motion. His hands flew to my throat and cinched my trachea shut. The force was stunning. My lungs stopped. My arms shot up my hot cousins bat his away, but he was many times stronger, and he slammed my back against the wall.

His stance was perfect. He was centered, grounded, with his torso guarded — his military training at work. I tried to shout, but nothing came. I felt my chest seize for air. I hoped he could see the confusion in my eyes. His were slits of rage. He clenched his hands so tight around my neck that veins bulged at his temples, and his face was deepening red. I felt my body going numb. I was starting to black out. I thought of my wife, miles away.

Our daughter would be safe with her. Our son was in danger with me. When I look back now, I wonder how often that was true, how many times and ways they were all unsafe with me. We first met as young children when I turned up at her house for pottery lessons from her mother. We dated briefly in high school but lost contact after graduation. We finally reconnected in our late 20s at a gathering of old friends.

She was living in Austin, and I was planning a trip there for work.

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We made plans to meet for a drink. We talked into the night. We both confessed to feeling adrift on the frontier of our 30s. She was in graduate school, working two restaurant jobs that left no time for herself. I was a journalist who spent most of the year traveling and had no sense of home.

A few weeks later, I called her from Delaware.

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I was on my way to a job in Missouri. We planned to spend two days together.

My hot cousins

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