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On Height and Hiding

Walking tall.

At six feet five inches, I am an abnormally tall man. And therefore, I can expect the world to treat me pretty well.  If the numerous studies on the subject can be trusted, I am, by virtue of my dimensions, likely to ascend my career ladder rapidly and attain a senior leadership position. Women on dating websites will seek me out. The style pages of Details and Esquire will continue to feature fashion tips geared toward reshaping vertically challenged men in my image: pinstripes for the elongated look, or cropped jackets for the illusion of legginess. On the surface, being tall is a sweet deal. It’s curious, then, that the item in my wardrobe I’ve owned the longest is a pair of gym shorts so loose and long and baggy that they do the impossible: make me look damn near squat.

“Use your height!” I can still hear my father shouting from the edge of the middle school basketball court. He himself was a basketball standout in high school because he harnessed his six feet six inches. On offense, he stretched out his massive arms to loft the ball into the basket; on defense, he puffed himself up and threw himself between his opponents and their goal. I was an athletic embarrassment precisely because I refused to use my father’s genetic gift to me. Faced with more aggressive opponents, I curled up and hunched down, once mumbling, “I’m sorry,” when my arm got in the way of an opponent’s shot.

And in some fundamental way, I was sorry. I didn’t ask to be tall. Somewhere between fifth and eighth grade, my body shot up, my limbs stretching wildly in all directions. My pubescent brain simply couldn’t keep up—there was just too much of me. I suddenly woke up each morning in a body that encroached on others’ space without even trying. I saw myself as an inherent intrusion, so in my personal life, as on the basketball court, I sought out means to hide my outsize dimensions. I scoured the Big-n-Tall section at Target for clothes—like those shorts—that engulfed me, clothes that hung around my body like great, big funeral palls and concealed me from public view.

Maybe this was partly to hide from the female gaze—a dreaded force in the ticklish years of middle school. The few times that a member of the opposite sex expressed interest in my physical properties, I assumed that she was joking. This body? This awkward lanky thing? My first kiss came sophomore year, a closed-mouth peck onstage in a production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, and the prospect of it so terrified me that I feigned illness during the dress rehearsal just to postpone it another day. The girl that I took to my first school dance began dating a woman a year later, and the next one was so much shorter than I was—even in four-inch heels—that we opted to skip the slow-dance entirely. The third one I ended up dating, but only to the extent that watching Hotel Rwanda on my basement couch and accidentally half-groping her left breast can be called “dating.” That brief relationship ended shortly after our first kiss. It went like this: I positioned her carefully on a step of my porch, placed myself two steps below, and then attempted to press my scrunched lips against her mouth with the vigor one normally applies to scarfing down a roast-beef sandwich or blowing out a wad of birthday candles. Even today, the memory registers like an ice cube dropped down the back of my shirt.

Eventually I shed these growing pains. By the time I reached college I had kissed a girl with actual success (we were both sitting down); I had started to purchase jeans that fit my legs and sent the old clownish corduroys to Goodwill; I had even begun to hit the gym on my own volition. But the shorts remain to this day. I’ve grown into them a little, but they still swing around noisily when I run, still shroud my legs, still look a little as though I’d snatched them from the closet of MC Hammer at his prime. I maintain an abusive relationship with these shorts, habitually tossing them into the corner, unwashed and unfolded. Perhaps this passive aggression betokens the Freudian baggage that returns whenever I tighten their drawstrings around my waist. For even as I distance myself from the psychochemical clusterfuck of puberty, I’m not quite ready to shed the adolescent instinct to hide, curl up, and bury my knobby limbs in voluminous nylon.

To this day, when I dress up to go out, and fix my hair in place with a few practiced swipes, and unbutton my top button so that just a tentative triangle of chest hair peeks out, I don’t quite believe the act. When late at night I break off drunken flirtations to stare at myself foggily in the glass of some bathroom mirror, I call my own bluff. I’m a man, I say to myself.  I’m tall and strong and statistically desirable. But then I blink and there’s a lanky seventh-grader, standing on the basketball court, apologizing to those he touches, swaddling himself in pendulous shorts.  After all these years, I think my mind still hasn’t caught up to my body. Sometimes I have to shut it off: Only when I loosen those rangy limbs with rows of shots or packs of beers can I compel them to twine around the waist of another human being. And then, in the dark of a strange room, when my mind settles for a minute, again I want to murmur “I’m sorry” for being large and sloppy and intrusive by default. I still don’t feel lucky to be tall. I feel far too small to be living in this body.

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