It's NOT The Shorts
Hey guys, Jo here. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sending in these fantastic stories. I’m especially excited about sharing this one about, well, we’ll call him Justin. And, remember, we change all the names and identifying characteristics so there’s no point in Googling this dude at the end of it. Even though you will surely want to try.
Let me introduce you to the man who owns this especially entertaining tale. Justin was born in Minneapolis to a chaotic family. He survived by following every rule he ever encountered. Justin did not run on the concrete deck at the public pool. He never went to bed without brushing his teeth. He was five minutes early to every class, job interview, and social engagement. He became a CPA for a large firm and, for ten straight years, never clocked out a minute early, even though he probably should have. He missed out on a lot of fun parties over the years as his firm worked for the government and social media was strictly forbidden. His company’s leadership was terrified that one of their employees would be photographed in a compromising position and that they’d be ruined by the scandal. So Justin was a man who wore pleated Dockers every day, didn’t get to engage with friends on Facebook, and every year of his adult life had looked exactly like the year before it. Then, he met Bianca. And everything changed.
She was a free spirit. She showed up at the airport without a ticket or a clue where she was going. She raised chickens in the backyard of her little suburban neighborhood outside of the city. She could wear tie-dye and actually make it look hot and fashionable. He was smitten. It was Bianca who convinced him to quit his job (truthfully, she wasn’t even entirely sure what he did since every time he attempted to explain his occupation, she fell asleep. Bianca did not have the bandwidth for middle-management.) Once the quitting was done and Justin had his panic attacks under control, they booked two round-trip tickets to India.
Justin purchased every Fodor’s and Lonely Planet guidebook that he could find. He googled travel hacks for India and bought freeze-dried snacks, Iodine tablets for his water, and two sun shirts from Patagonia since he had a family history of melanoma. Amid his obsessive packing, Bianca popped over with an idea. She carried a hiking backpack in one hand and a bottle of Prosecco in the other. Justin looked up at his girlfriend who often looked like a mermaid who’d just found her way to land. Justin wasn’t sure how she always seemed a bit sandy living in Minneapolis but it was like the beach found her. Bianca gestured to her backpack:
“What if we brought, like, nothing?”
Justin gave his mermaid a look.
“Think about it,” a smile grew across her face, “We each bring two shirts and two pairs of shorts, toiletries, and literally nothing else. It will be so freeing, so light. We won’t care if our stuff gets stolen. We’ll be totally mobile, we can go anywhere if we don’t have anything or any luggage. It will be a real adventure.”
Justin looked around at his carefully labeled purchases for this wild trip. Then he looked at Bianca. Then he walked to his closet, pulled out a small backpack, two pairs of workout shorts, two soccer jerseys, and tossed the clothes down on his bed with a smile. He’d already decided to wear the sun shirt on the plane.
Nestled into their Economy Plus seats (Bianca had upgraded them with her miles,) Bianca snapped photo after photo of her boyfriend reading his travel guide, ordering Bloody Marys, and laughing as someone’s Mini Schnauzer “therapy dog,” fell asleep on his thigh and started to drool. At first, Justin was so uncomfortable. He hadn’t been in a photo in a decade. His company had strict rules about how their employees represented them and, of course, as we know, Justin followed rules.
“You have to cover your shoulders at all the religious monuments,” Justin told Bianca, looking up from his book. “And as a foreign woman, you have to be very cognizant of not standing out and just fitting in. Some of these cities are a bit dangerous and —“
Bianca cut him off, putting her tanned hand on his leg. She’d learned that move as a fool-proof way to get Justin to stop talking.
“We’re going to be fine,” she giggled, “we will not stand out. We will be respectful tourists and blend in seamlessly. And no crazy pictures of you will wind up on the internet.”
She took a long look at the man whom she was definitely falling hard for -
“Even though it doesn’t matter anymore.” Justin wanted to protest that it might matter to his next employer, whomever they would be, but the look on Bianca’s face made him pause and inhale the moment.
Landing in Mumbai was absolute chaos. The heat of the city felt like walking into a wall of sunshine. They both changed into their athletic shirts and felt pumped to start their adventure. Then they got to skip the baggage claim and hop on a local bus since they essentially had nothing with them. When they got to their first hotel, there was a sign that this trip might not go exactly as they had planned.
At the check-in line at the hotel, Justin swore he noticed various locals looking at him and pointing and whispering. He was worried about his short.
“These are too casual,” he whispered to his girlfriend. “I should have brought my khakis. Everyone is staring at my shorts.”
“You’re being paranoid,” shrugged Bianca, “we’ll get to our room, shower, and drink a lot of water. I’m sure we’re both dehydrated.” Side note - Bianca always thought dehydration was the cause of any person’s ailment, no matter the situation.
Shower and hydrate they did, and then went off to explore. They pushed through the bustling crowds at an outdoor market, took a rickshaw to a famous temple, and ate incredible street food while sitting on their backpacks in a park. Justin couldn’t shake the feeling that people were smiling and pointing at him. Bianca was beginning to wonder how big a part of his personality this paranoia was and briefly wondered if she’d read him totally wrong. Then she got her answer.
Two local teenage boys holding an iPhone cautiously made their way over to the couple sitting by the park fountains. They offered two huge smiles, and then, with some broken but understandable English, asked Justin a question:
“You are the cricket player?” Ah. Okay, now the last six hours made a little more sense. Justin was in great shape, a white dude, and was, for all intents and purposes, dressed like a cricket player. And those were the only clothes he had. It was kind of the shorts. He felt sorry for disappointing these two young men.
“No, not me,” he replied.
The teenagers smiled at him as if they were in on the joke.
“Oh, yes, not you, of course. We take a picture?”
The taller one reached out his arm to take a selfie. Justin tried to protest but they were having none of it. He put his arm around the two guys, let them snap a photo, and then sat back down to finish his lunch with Bianca. Unfortunately, it was a crowded park. And a hundred people had witnessed this transaction. And now a hundred people wanted a photo with a cricket player who was not even a cricket player, and that somehow, Justin and Bianca could not even get the name of who it was.
For the next forty minutes, Justin felt like Beyonce. He posed with old people and young people, school girls and guys in their twenties dripping in fake Gucci. Some would take off his sunglasses and wear them themselves for the pose. At first, Bianca was grossly entertained. Then she was annoyed. Then she yelled at the dozen or so people still waiting in line that her boyfriend needed to take a break and rest before the next match.
The cricket fans seemed to understand this logic and dispersed for long enough for the couple to get out of the park and continue on their list of sightseeing. Kind of. They went from one attraction to another, from fun chai cafes to colorful temples and at each and every stop, a dozen people clamored for a selfie with Justin. What had started out as a gas for the couple was now turning into a real pain in the ass.
That night, lying in bed on purple linen sheets, Bianca rolled over to Justin and suggested that they get out of the city soon. Go somewhere less populated, try the mountains, and actually relax a bit and be together. Justin wholeheartedly agreed, musing about how many people’s social media accounts he would be making a guest appearance on. They settled into their incense-scented pillows and fell asleep to the nightlife of the city below.
Three days of city exploring later, for their trip into the mountains, Justin made sure to wear his hat, sunglasses, and Patagonia sun shirt even though it was ninety degrees at 9 a.m. They made it from rickshaw to bus to another rickshaw and a three-mile hike before they found themselves at the mountainside bathhouse. The place took their breath away.
There were gardens populated by the most colorful flowers that either one of them had ever seen. Manicured pathways meandered into the mountainside, over small bridges with clear streams, and natural hot springs steaming out of the rock. It was gorgeous and, as Bianca remarked to Justin,
“This is probably the most relaxing place we’ve ever been.” But Justin’s face wasn’t relaxed. He wasn’t taking in the soft sounds of the water or the fragrant air of the gardens. His forehead was pinched and his eyes heavy, like a man who both hadn’t slept and carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. Bianca put her hand on his chest, stopping him before they entered the spa.
“Justin. Come on? What’s the deal with you?”
Justin didn’t want to ruin this incredible experience for Bianca. He truly wanted to be able to let go and enjoy this magical time together. But, as he’d laid in bed last night, instead of counting sheep, he counted selfies. He imagined his face all over Facebook India with thousands, if not tens of thousands of eyes on his image. He imagined picture after picture being pulled up on a desktop monitor every time he applied for a job downtown in the financial district. He imagined that his life, as he knew it, was over.
He paused, took a deep inhale, and exhaled all of these anxieties to his patient, strong, and loving girlfriend. At the end of his breath, he avoided her eyes, sheepishly. She probably thought that he was a man without any real adventure. And that wasn’t the case. He’d just never had real freedom in his life before. He’d never had physical freedom or financial freedom or freedom in love. And here he was with all of those pieces and yet he could not complete his own puzzle. Bianca wrapped her arms around her worried lover.
“But,” she offered quietly, “all of the photos will be tagged with some other guy’s name. In a way, it wasn’t even you there in India. It was your cricket-playing, sunglass-wearing, alter ego. And your alter ego can do anything.”
Justin looked at his girlfriend and, as he’ll tell anyone twenty years later, that’s when he swore that he would do whatever it took to marry her.
When they checked into the spa, the manager pointed the couple in the direction of the women’s spa to the right and the men’s to the left. Bianca and Justin were confused until they separately settled into their mountainside hot springs bath and noticed that the property was fully nude. Bianca laid her head back and took a moment to completely bliss out in the pool. On the left side of the mountain, Justin tried to do the same.
He was just counting his breaths like his most recent self-help book had suggested when he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, a young man inching closer and closer to him. Justin continued counting.
“Seventy-three, seventy- four, seventy -“
“Mister?” Justin opened his eyes to a fit young man of no more than twenty, staring right at him. “You play cricket?”
Justin’s immediate reaction was to say no, to take his small towel, cover his nether regions, and go find a private pool or shower or tree to hide in. But then he had a fleeting thought: What would his alter ego do? Would his alter ego hide in shame? Would he cower in the face of discomfort? And Justin decided right then and there that the alter ego was the one whom Bianca would be most likely to marry. And he was going to have to make room for him in his life.
He lifted up his sunglasses, unbeknownst to him looking even more like the very famous cricket player, and smiled at the man. He felt his heart beating in his chest. Why? Not because he was about to take a picture with a stranger while impersonating a celebrity. Nope, he’d done that a hundred times leading up to this moment. Because he was totally naked with the stranger? No, that wasn’t it either. His heart was jackhammering because he was about to unleash a piece of himself that he’d spent his entire life avoiding.
Justin was going to be a man who didn’t worry, who welcomed a mistake or a wrong move. He was going to uncover the part of himself who actually enjoyed taking risks and making decisions where the outcome hadn’t been pre-planned on an Excel spreadsheet. Justin was 29, but he was about to become a man.
Using a hand with nails bitten down from his anxious worrying, he gestured for the young man to come over and smiled the most genuine smile of his trip. He felt exhilarated, and lighter, and sat taller in the steaming water. Even though he was only thirty seconds into his transformation, he liked this new Justin. And that is when the young man, through some actually very good English, insisted on another photo.
“Now, we stand up,” He smiled and shook his head up and down quite rapidly as if he could force the cricket player to rise to his feet just by the force of this smiling man’s chin.
Justin’s heartbeat increased. He felt the blood drain from his sunscreen-whitened face. He did not want to stand up buck-ass naked with this stranger in the middle of a mountain pool on a cliff in India. Who was he kidding? He was meant to be in a cubicle and loafers eating a Panera sandwich for lunch.
“NO YOU AREN’T,” a voice deep in his head growled. “Those days are over. For all you know, this could be your last month, your last week, hell, your last day on this planet living this life. And YOU get to choose who YOU want to be,”
The voice startled Justin. He’d never heard it before. Maybe, moments earlier, he’d opened the door to this other side of him and it had pushed it’s Wild Thing head through and was now going to take over his personality. Justin felt his body tense up. But then it immediately released. He was ok with this. He was going to let the Wild Thing take over and see what happened.
So he stood up in the shallow bath, his schlong out for the world to see. The selfie was snapped. And now the man from Minneapolis who’d never even posed for a birthday picture in an Outback Steakhouse, had a full frontal nude for anyone with a computer to see. But it worked. The Wild Thing had found the light.
Justin learned that he loved working with his hands. He got back to Minnesota with Bianca that September. Two years later, he had his own thriving construction company. And he built the pergola where he put a ring on her finger and asked her to be his wife. Now he climbs mountains, sky dives, and doesn’t run for fear of his life when someone pulls out a camera. And he’s googled the cricket player. But has never found the picture of his own penis.