The Smell of Manhood



I am young. My toothbrush isn’t yet a full sized one, and my head is barely taller than the bathroom sink. I am standing next to my father as he gets ready. His face is covered in foam. He drags a yellow tipped Bic razor through it, pausing after every swipe to dip it into the plugged sink of water to clean it off.

He finishes shaving, rinses off his face, and opens the cabinet for a green bottle of Afta After Shave. He empties some into his hands and rubs them together before spreading the green stuff over his face and neck. It is the finishing touch on his newly smooth face. It is the last step in the first stage of my father’s day.

Now, over 20 years later, I keep a bottle of green Afta After shave in my medicine cabinet. I don’t smell it often, and my father hasn’t worn it in over a decade. But the scent of it is inextricably tied to manhood and masculinity, two things my father has always embodied. Two things that I have become obsessed with.

My father is tall. At his tallest he was a half inch taller than I will ever be, with big soft hands that are great for a head scratch or chasing an itch around your back. He has thin red hair, freckles, fair skin and has never weighed more than a shade over 200 pounds.

He is also a man of simple tastes. He wore a watch for years but stopped when he started carrying a cell phone. He used to wear his wedding ring but stopped after it got smashed onto his finger in an accident.

He has no wallet. He wraps his cash around his credit cards and slips it in his pocket. He has the minimum amount of keys necessary on his key ring.
The things that define him most are his love of golf, the side part in his hair which has existed, unchanged, since before my birth, and his face, which has been clean shaven nearly every single day of my life.

But for all these simplicities he has always been the most competent of men. He does everything like he has done it a million times before. There is never any trepidation, or worry. He contemplates, examines the pros and cons of a situation, and then acts.

Maybe this is strictly for the benefit of his family, as in taking on the mantle of strength for strength’s sake. But I am not as interested in the why. What amazed me, and continues to amaze me to this very day, was the way he always operated at the height of confidence.

When I think about the impression I want to give, the way I want others to see me, the kind of man I want to be, I think about the way I looked at my father when I was a child.

I am not so sure how manhood became the aspiration in my life that I have placed above all others. I have been thinking about it for a while now, 10 years at least. But I don’t know how this made it to the top of the list. I am not sure what happened that made being a man so fascinating to me.

I can’t be sure if this goal or my ruminations on my father would be as impressive to others. Maybe it has to do with my own insecurities from childhood, the ones that I shrink wrapped in a shiny plastic of loud extroversion for so many years. Those insecurities that resulted from those punks on the playground calling me stupid names that shouldn’t have mattered. Those kids who never gave a second thought to their own existence but somehow made me question every particle of mine.

Maybe it is those feelings, those half remembered emotions held up in comparison to my view of my father that make his masculinity even more impressive.

Maybe I am self aggrandizing my own supposed torment. Freud might find it to be fascinating while Dr. Phil might call it bullshit. At this point in time I am still not sure what is the actual seed of truth that grew into this tree of significance.

What I do know is that I have always placed too much value on the things other people say or do. And it seems despite my best efforts, part of me is still seeking vengeance for the person I once was afraid to be.

At this point in my life surely I have accomplished enough professionally, seen enough of the world, and functioned successfully on my own to affirm that yes, I am in fact, a man.

But somehow those things have not done for my masculinity what I thought they would. My father has never, ever, talked about a single woman except for my mother. He has never bragged about the money he makes, the car he drives, or the house that he owns.

I am starting to worry that I will never stop thinking about whether or not I have become a man.

Maybe for me it is really something else. Material things interest me yes, but even I know that those are fleeting. A nice house and car are great but I know if I wasn’t confident in myself when I had them, those things would feel fake to me, just another pseudo-man behind a different, newer curtain.

Situations never changed my father. Possessions and promotions, none of it alters who he is at his core. The man who, even after our eyes met at the same level, always seemed to be just a little bit bigger than me.

Maybe it is the confidence I have in him that I so seek for myself. The confidence my father always seems to have. The confidence he had walking down the center aisle of church looking for a pew. The confidence he had while driving. Anywhere.
It is that confidence that I smell when I sniff Afta. It is competence.

It is that smell that trivializes all these things I fill my life with, all the trappings of supposed manhood: The Dangerous Book for Boys, a bottle of Johnny Walker Black, a Viking Helmet.

And perhaps that is what worries me most. That my son, if the gods of family and reproductive fortitude see fit to bless me with one, will not have a similar scent that will remind him of my masculinity. That he won’t come across a sent that reminds him of me, but also that if such a sent does exist, it won’t call to mind the same things as when I smell Afta.

I have latched on so tightly with my heart to the idea of becoming a great man that I worry I will never feel like it is something I can accomplish. I worry that I will never look to anybody like my father looks to me.

I am terrified I will go through the rest of my life keeping my hair neatly groomed, my ties tightly tied, and my etiquette flawless, all without a single person taking notice, or a single person thinking, wow, now that is a man.

And that is why I keep that bottle, a bottle I had forgotten existed until my freshman year of college when I saw it in the grocery store, but have not been able to let go of since.

I am small again, waiting for my dad to come home, waiting for the sound of keys in the door. I hear it, and I run and jump into his arms, wrapping myself around him, burying my face in his neck, in the scent that will forever guide me toward the way I want to feel.