I watch Teen Wolf on cable in the third grade. I make my mother record it with our VHS player the next time it comes on and watch it a couple dozen times that year. Michael J. Fox stars as Scott, the eponymous beast-boy, delivering a performance in his signature style: a powder keg of wit and nerdy charisma, awkwardly scrambling for a match. He has a real hold on me. I want to give him the match, or I want to be the match. This time, the muzzles on his innate elegance are his suddenly emergent lycanthropy and a budding attraction to a childhood friend. Not long after he learns about his family’s secret abilities, so does the whole town. His wolf self, which Scott can manifest at any moment, is much better at basketball than his human self, so everybody is pretty into it.
Just before his private animal goes very public on the b-ball court, Scott comes out to his best friend Stiles, who immediately senses the implications of Scott’s pained delivery. Look, I wouldn’t even mention it to you, except I gotta talk to someone. Stiles stands alert and declares: Are you gonna tell me you’re a fag? Because if you’re gonna tell me you’re a fag, I don’t think I can deal with it. Scott physically backpedals, emotionally recoils, laughs. I’m not a fag! I’m a…werewolf. A few boys at school, older ones mostly, have started calling me a fag. I think about how it would go, saying this in reply, but I never work up the nerve.
Every time I watch the movie, my mother covers my eyes with her hand so I won’t see a girl take her clothes off. I think, One day the hand will lift, I will see the girl, and I will be a man. A big reveal. I see the poster for the movie in the video rental store for the first time, and Michael J. Fox has fur pouring out of his collar and sleeves. He is ripping his shirt apart to show it off. This is a man, or he’s almost there. My father is covered in thick, curly hair, too, so it must be how it happens. One day you are bad at basketball, the next you are covered in hair and the girls take their clothes off. My father takes grooming very seriously. When he gets home from work he is sweaty and smelly from crossing ravines and climbing hills all day. To get ready for his night job, he showers and colognes and unbuttons his polo shirt to show some chest hair and brushes his mustache and the hair on his head for maybe an hour. He brushes my hair too. He drops me off at dancing school and argues with the ballet teacher about how the dance I am in is too girly. It’s the storm song from Disney’s Bambi, and I have a big, feathered bird mask on. I represent the storm, and I scare all the girls who dance around like deer and rabbits. I can tell from my father’s frustration that these are the wrong kinds of animals. I’m not a fag. I’m a werewolf.
In middle school, I see a book at the school bookfair that reminds me of the Teen Wolf poster. A boy is turning into an animal, growing fur, and the cover illustrates five phases of the transformation. I try to buy it covertly, but some boys catch me and laugh. The book is from a young-adult science fiction series called Animorphs, and I buy and read all of the installments that are out there. The young protagonists of the series are bestowed with the gift of transforming into any animal they encounter, touch, and bond themselves to. A dying, crash-landed alien passes on this ability as a means to protect Earth from the evil alien race—the Yeerks—that have destroyed his own people. The Yeerks slither their way into the brains of other beings and inhabit their bodies, memories, and lives—Body Snatchers style. The Yeerks disguise themselves as you. You disguise yourself as not you. As an animal. The art of the sneak attack is to be invisible, and what is less visible than an animal on a planet ruled by humans? Animals are landscape.
My first wet dream is about me becoming a werewolf. The way penises move during ejaculation, I was certain something was wrong with my body. Less certain that when my mother lifted her hand, the right things would happen.
Jake, the leader of the new teen protectors known as the Animorphs, is pictured on the cover of Animorphs #21: The Threat. He is absolutely gorgeous, and he is also turning into a dog. Jake is sort of hero-worshiped by Tobias, the bullied nerd that Jake sometimes protects. Tobias gets stuck in hawk form, which is pretty heartbreaking. When any of them transform, there is a time limit. They risk staying in animal form forever when they near the limit. Tobias lost his parents and lives with a distant uncle, so when he screws up and gets stuck as a hawk, he gradually comes to prefer this new life. Yep, pretty sad. But also sort of a relief for me because it seems to kill off any sexual possibility for Tobias, with whom I feel so much kinship, despite my very alive and loving parents. Everything remains safe and elusive with Tobias as a hawk, allegorical enough to overlook. Years later, Taco Bell sells a toy Tobias hawk with a tiny yellow human soul inside it. At about the same time, in the books, Tobias starts to fall for a (female) hawk. Animals are landscape, until they aren’t.
The tagline for The Threat is “The newest Animorph has a secret. And it’s not good…”
I feel deep shame for enjoying the books. I believe this is because my father has been assigning me canonical titles since the first grade, when I read and loved Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. This is low art, this Animorphs. But those boys who laughed at me when I bought Animorphs at the school bookfair, they weren’t deriding me for intellectually slumming it. My taste in books seems to reveal something about me to others that I can’t place, though of course I sort of can. When my father walks into my room without knocking, I throw the book across the room as though it’s a porno mag, which is more incriminating than anything.
Jake’s brother is a Yeerk from the onset, and later Jake learns that his parents are Yeerks, too. A whole family, closing in on him.
Mixed in with my growing fantasies about boys are fantasies about running away. I am forced to run away, in the fantasy, by my transforming body. I am becoming a monkey boy, or a lion boy, what else can I do but steal away in the night, hide in the forests of the Appalachian Mountains, cross ravines, climb hillsides, and let my hair grow out? When I am 14, I draw a picture of a monkey boy with a bindle and a map to the wooded hills across the Allegheny, to a life of invisibility as an animal in a world dominated by humans. My mother finds it and is confused but knows enough to cry.
Very late in the series, Tobias’ ability to morph is restored, but his homebase form is the hawk now, not the human. He can become a human when he must, but he still has to mind the time limit. He minds it well this time, because he really identifies as a hawk and would hate to be stuck a human. There’s something else inside the little yellow soul, I think.
In high school, after jerking off, I practice whispering to myself, “I’m gay, I’m gay, I’m gay,” just to see what I make of it. Does it have the ring of truth. Only for a few minutes, or else it’s real forever.
As of 2015: Atom Atkinson is an Instructor of Creative Writing at Interlochen Center for the Arts and a doctoral student in queer poetics at University of Utah. Originally from Pittsburgh and 1/6 of the poetry collective Line Assembly, their work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Caketrain, Dreginald, and elsewhere.