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. But instead they reach down, gather up the strands of their intestines, the pieces they have dragged along behind them for years–the results of encounters with other men. They draw in deep breaths to ease the tension. They smooth a hand over the place on their stomachs, just below the umbilical wound, just above the pleasure wound, now shriveled and apprehensive. They knock, open the door, and stamp their feet to shake off the rain that has not clung to them. Like small boys, they have wide alert eyes and hope for the best. They step forward gingerly. Most of all they want to feel affection directed at them from other men. But they are not accustomed to offering affection in return—and therefore pitifully little of it is shared. They do not know whether to shake hands, whether to stand up for the greeting, or proffer a hug, and if so with what intensity, and for how long, and how close to bring their heads, or their stricken stomachs where there is no feeling now because there is something profoundly off-putting about a gathering of men. And how is it even possible to gauge the possibility of reciprocated openness if we have not mastered the art of it, not in the course of thirty, forty, fifty or two million years?
And why should we really, when we sense–just beyond–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? And isn’t that the smell of woman—whose woman?—that someone has carried in on his clothing, an odor that narrows pupils and asks the question: Exactly in what place have I left my sling and stones, my obsidian knife, my Colt, and am I sure that all seven chambers are oiled, and primed with cap and ball?
We ease ourselves into chairs. The smiles are inviting, there’s a tendency to over-compensate. At intervals, there is wheezing, laughter, snorts, sweet moments of more than a little letting down. The boundary between concerned inquiry and irony is thin. We can mistake openness for blood and start to peck at the sacrificial runt. Like turtles, we retract our necks and paws, our kindred feeling. And so, little is said and little is risked.
We write. We read aloud. We discuss. Carefully. We dissect without picking up the instruments, without incisions. And when we trundle home and crawl into our dark warm beds and meet our women’s questions, we are often at a loss to explain how our male companions were that night. Was so and so healthy? they ask. 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 being close with this or that companion, lover or wife?
And then, on hearing little, our mate begins her deep breathing–the 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 scent, and anguished over the scratch marks of rivals on fifty trees, if even one, and pondered the prints and tracks and tail sweeps of countless threats–earlier prowlers passing over the snow and through the dampness of hollow, draw, ridge, and swale.
We retrace the path of gestures, tones and glances. We squint out into the bedroom’s darkness. We re-measure the temperature, flavor, brightness or sudden movement, implications, signals and intent of everything we have taken in. It is a long chronicle, accurately kept and true, recorded carefully, in essence complete.
We see that we have noted exhaustion, boredom, vulnerability, pinched souls, even a lover’s bloom. The whole time as we watched on this evening the males in our group, we saw far behind them their dogs, leashed, but showing a curled lip and a yellowed warning tooth. Their eyes, the men, I mean, were soft with fear, their writing hands longing, generous perhaps–the pulse of their hearts beating out–each in a different rhythm–what remained of the five billion heart beats each of us is granted.
As we write, at the men’s group, perhaps we forget for a while the meat, the scent of carcass, the stiffening kill, which would belong to the strongest of us in the end. But I have to say it–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 don’t die of loneliness, but always at the risk of a blow of irony that comes too quick and is hard like steel and cold.
Perhaps if the conditions were right, and if we were fishermen and our steel boat was sinking, I ask, 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 the steel plates pop, in the middle of the icy night and sixty tons of boat roars and moans and plunges out of sight, nearly sucking me and one other man along with it. This happens in less than ninety seconds and in the numbing water you have one immersion 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 almost no longer keep his gaze on you, and begins to slip away, you hold his face close to yours, and you say what has to be said, what it is you feel and what is true. O my dear friend, I love you. I love you. I have always loved you.