Close Encounters With An Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog

Harris Sockel
Human Parts


When I was eleven, I shared a toilet seat in the woods with ten boys. Summer camp, near the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. A cabin with plumbing. I had a few Goosebumps books. Noah had four geodes. Eli had five decks of Magic: The Gathering cards. Adam had an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.

It was an Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterly, actually — a retail catalog-cum-magazine, or “maglog” as they say in the biz. Twenty percent merch, twenty percent talk, and one hundred percent soft-core aspirational porn. Playboy crossed with and a bit of Field & Stream. A four-page interview with Jenna Jameson next to highly saturated photos of an America that had forgotten its flannel-lined chinos and moose boxers but had gone on the camping trip anyway.

Adam kept it in a particleboard cubby, under a few Ren & Stimpy briefs. He’d just graduated fifth grade, and the first thing he said to us as we were unpacking was, “Hey, so, I’m gay, you guys.” He had a middle-part bowl cut and a bunch of oversized orange tee shirts from Aeropostale. One night, after we licked the crystals from jumbo salted pretzel sticks — snack, nightly, at 8:30 — Adam invited us to his bottom bunk. We gripped our Maglites and ran our fingers over thick layers of deltoid-shaped soy ink.

Two naked men were wearing moose hats in a nature preserve. The sun was slanting through the trees, dappling their quadriceps.

A decade after the Pine Barrens, I found a copy of the Quarterly in the apartment of the first guy I dated. This was a few years ago, in my mid-twenties. I’d just come out. Or, I hadn’t come out as much as melted myself into a puddle and slipped through the crack under the door, like liquid mercury. I didn’t tell a bunch of people I probably should have told.

I flipped through the catalog on the floor of his apartment, thinking of Adam’s Ren & Stimpy-briefs panache, his Aeropostale-swaddled candor. I’m the type that fumbles sentences during coffee with strangers. I aim to please. I’ll go for the white lie, or the hot pink lie, or the polka-dotted feather-hatted lie if someone is staring me in the face and asking me to take their side. In Kindergarten, someone tore down the alphabet poster and our teacher lined us up, execution-style, to ask each of us if we’d done it. I hadn’t, but I really wanted to say I had — and then nail the alphabet poster to the door like Martin Luther, maybe — just to make my everyone’s lives a little easier.

And so, Abercrombie. The Quarterly made my hormones do a kick line across my frontal lobe. I wanted to nibble the soy ink for snack until sunrise. To absorb it so deeply I sweat grey drops onto my pillow. To rip a page from that issue and fold it into a paper flower and stick it all the way up my ass until it came out my mouth.

Something I’ve learned about bravery is it takes just as much to say the obvious, banal, trite and true thing as it does to say what’s unique and rare. Accepting yourself is hard. Abercrombie can help.

“Hot Jesus, you know it’s all Photoshopped by these people in, like, L.A.”

That was Noah, with an amethyst geode in one hand and a pretzel stick in the other. It was almost lights-out. There were fireflies outside, shining their little butt lights all over New Jersey.

We’d wake up the next morning to fight a color war, and we’d lose. Our parents would pick us up in their duck-colored Suburbans and drive us out of the woods, toward puberty and caffeine headaches and sitting on the floor of a boyfriend’s apartment flipping through his Abercrombie catalogs. What if I knew that one day, in a decade and change, I’d be almost as confident as old tween Adam about who I was and what I wanted? If our Magic cards were actually magic, and a quicksilver amulet could have spun me out into now and back. Have you ever felt your entire past ripple through your hippocampus at once? What about your future?

“Duuhhhh, that’s the fucking point,” Adam said.

The Quarterly was discontinued in 2003, after the American Decency Association boycotted photos of doe-eyed bare-assed jocks in prairies and glens. Before that, though, there were four eleven-year-olds in the woods. Their retinas were absorbing the light reflected from images of glutes and leaves. It was nice while it lasted.

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