The Men’s Writing Group
They approach the house in one’s and two’s. Some of them have been coming for fifteen years or more. Still, there is fear, the urge to pee. Instead, they reach down, gather up loops of dirty blue intestines, their own, pieces they have dragged along behind them for years, the result of encounters with other men. They draw in half-breaths to ease the tension, so their wounds can recede like so many snails’ heads. They smooth a hand over a place on their stomachs, just above the other vulnerable place, which rides along shriveled and apprehensive. They knock, open the door, shake off the rain. Like small boys, their eyes are wide and alert, and they hope for the best. They talk in short bursts. They want to feel affection and gentleness directed at them from the other men who are already in the house. But they themselves, the new arrivals, are not accustomed to offering affection, and so little of it is passed forward in either direction. They do not know whether to shake hands, whether to stand up from the sofa for the greeting, whether to proffer a hug, and with what intensity, and for how long, and how close to bring their heads or their already stricken stomachs where there is now no feeling whatsoever. Because there is something profoundly off-putting about a gathering of men, if you are a man, and if you are not an up-and-at ‘em kind of fellow, triumphant in card playing, business, sports and war, or some other kind of plotting and trouble.
And how is it even possible to gauge openness, if we have not ever really mastered the art of openness, not in the course of forty-five, fifty, sixty or two million years? And why should we really, when we sense, just behind it all, the hidden carcass that one of us may have placed in a cave or the crook of tree or under a heavy rock before entering the house? Meat that will not be shared. And isn’t that the smell of woman that someone has carried in on his clothing, the scent that narrows eyes, flares nostrils and evokes the question: In exactly what place have I left my sling and stones, my obsidian knife, my Navy Colt.45, and am I sure that all seven chambers are oiled, and primed with cap and ball?
But still, we ease ourselves into our chairs. The smiles seem inviting, but is it just the tendency to over-compensate? At intervals, there is wheezing laughter, snorts, sweet moments of more than a little letting down, when abruptly something changes, and we are brainless beady-eyed chickens again that have spotted a weakness and we begin to peck at the one who through too much exposure and brief forgetting has called attention to himself and immediately becomes the recognizable sacrificial runt.
The boundary between concerned inquiry and beaked irony is obsidian thin. The self-revealing phrase is met with a response that drips with cleverness and irony. And so, it is safer to say nothing. Nothing real like doubt, worry or sadness that afflicts the stomach and the sad little boy place below it. And so, but for an obsidian syllable or two, this time blood was not spilt, because none was offered.
And when we trundle home and crawl into our dark warm beds and meet our mate’s sleepy inquiries, we are at a loss to explain how our male companions were that night. Was so and so healthy? she asks. Did he mention his woman friend? Did you talk about hope, dreams, fears, illness, death? Sexual tenderness, the miracle of touching, success or failure in closeness with this or that companion, lover or wife? And when our mate begins her deep breathing, a soft engine re-starting at our side, we lie awake and run through the evening again, like old bears who have come back from lumbering through cold forests, where we smelled scat and urine, took in scratch marks on fifty trees and pondered the prints and tracks and sweep of tail of countless other lonely co-dwellers who also wander across hollow, ridge, and swale, looking for food and meaning. We squint out into the bedroom’s darkness and re-measure what we thought we had measured the first time. An unnatural increase in volume, a sudden unexplained movement, a missed inference, the possible intent of all the words uttered. We noted exhaustion, boredom, isolation, pinched souls, perhaps a lover’s bloom. The whole time, behind them we’re sure we see flickering images of their dogs watching us, for now, leashed, but also showing curled lips and yellow teeth and eyes dark with fear. Like us, seeking soft longing in their masters’ generous hands, and in the hidden pulse of hearts beating out, each in a different rhythm, what remains of the five billion heart beats each of us is granted.
And as we wrote, at the men’s group, we forgot for a while the meat, the scent of the carcass placed in the crotch of a tree, the stiffening hunted flesh that will belong to the strongest of us in the end. But still, I have to say what I am thinking. I do not trust these men. We hunt momentarily together, as if in a truce required by nature, so that we do not die of starvation and loneliness. If the conditions were right and we were fishermen and our boat was sinking, would I give up my survival suit for any of them? Or they for me? I would for either of my children. I would give it up for my mate – the one who sleeps on, leaving behind for the moment her amazement at how little men know about each other.
Or would I give it to one of them as well? Since each one may be as kind as he is dangerous, as generous as he is treacherous, as much soft as competitive. Then, when the steel plates pop, in the middle of an icy night, as my mate sleeps warmly on beside me, and sixty tons of trawler roars and moans and plunges out of sight, nearly sucking me and one other writer down with it in exactly ninety seconds, you have one survival suit between the two of you, and you say to your companion: No, you take it, your children are young. And he says: No, you take it, you are older than I am and not as strong. And in the end one of us holds the other in his arms, and when he can no longer keep his gaze on you and eyes start to break, you hold his face close to yours, and you say: O my dear friend, I love you, I love you. I have always loved you.