Seven men, friends and strangers, gather in a house in Berkeley. They intend to start a men's club, the purpose of which isn't immediately clear to any of them; but very quickly they discover a powerful and passionate desire to talk.
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The Men's Club
Women wanted to talk about anger, identity, politics, etc. I saw posters in Berkeley urging them to join groups. I saw their leaders on TV. Strong, articulate faces. So when Cavanaugh phoned and invited me to join a men's club, I laughed. Slowly, not laughing, he repeated himself. He was six foot nine. The size and weight entered his voice. He and some friends wanted a club. "A regular social possibility outside of our jobs and marriages. Nothing to do with women's groups." One man was a tax accountant, another was a lawyer. There was also a college teacher like me and two psychotherapists. Solid types. I supposed there could be virtues in a men's club, a regular socialpossibility. I should have said yes immediately, but something in me resisted. The prospect of leaving my house after dinner to go to a meeting. Blood is heavy then. Brain is slow. Besides, wasn't this club idea corny? Like trying to recapture high-school days. Locker-room fun. Wet naked boys snapping towels at each other's genitals. It didn't feel exactly right. To be wretchedly truthful, any social possibility unrelated to wife, kids, house, and work felt like a form of adultery. Not criminal. Not legitimate.
"Cavanaugh, I don't even go to the movies anymore."
"I'm talking about a men's club. Good company. You talk about women's groups. Movies. Can't you hear me?"
"When the phone rings, it's like an attack on my life. I get confused. Say it again."
"Listen to me, man. You're one of my best friends. You live less than a mile away, but do we see each other three times a year? When is the last time we talked to each other, really talked?"
"I lose over a month a year just working to pay property taxes. Friendship is a luxury. Unless you're so poor it makes no difference how you spend your time."
"A men's club. Good company."
"I hear you."
But I was thinking about good company. Some of my married colleagues had love affairs, usually with students. You could call it a regular social possibility. It included emotional chaos. Gonorrhea. Even guilt. They would have been better off in a men's club.
"What do you say? Can we expect you?"
"I'll go to the first meeting. I can't promise more. I'm very busy."
"Yeah, yeah," said Cavanaugh and gave me an address in the Berkeley flats. A man named Harry Kramer lived there. I was to look for a redwood fence and pine trees.
The night of the meeting I told my wife I'd be home early. Before midnight, certainly. I had to teach the next day. She said, "Take out the garbage." Big sticky bag felt unpropitious and my hands soon smelled of tuna fish. After driving only five minutes, I found the place.
The front of the house, vine-covered, seemed to brood in lunatic privacy. Nobody answered when I knocked, but I heard voices, took hold of a wroughtiron handle and pushed, discovering a large Berkeley living room and five men inside. I saw dark wood paneling and potted ferns dangling from exposed beams. Other plants along the window ledges. A pottedtree in a far corner, skinny, spinsterish-looking. Nervous yellow leaves filled its head. Various ceramics, bowls on tabletops and plates on the walls beside large acrylic paintings, abstractions like glistening viscera splashed off a butcher block. Also an amazing rug, but I couldn't take it in. A man was rising from a pillow, coming toward me, smiling.
"I knocked," I said.
"Come in, man. I'm Harry Kramer."
"I'm Cavanaugh's friend."
"Really," I said, giving it the L.A. inflection to suggest sympathetic understanding, not wonder. Kramer registered the nuance and glanced at me as at a potential brother.
His heavy black hair was controlled by a style, parted in the middle and shaped to cup his ears in a way that once belonged to little girls. It was contradicted by black force in his eyes, handshake like a bite, and tattooed forearms. Blue, winged snake. Blue dagger amid roses. They spoke for an earlier life, I supposed, but Kramer wore his sleeves rolled to the elbow. It was hard to connect him with his rug, which I began to appreciate as spongy and orange. I felt myself wading and bouncing through it as Kramer led me toward the men.
Shaking hands, nodding hello, saying my name, each man was a complex flasheyes, hand, name but one had definition. He was graphic; instantly closer to me than the others. Solly Berliner. Tall, skinny, wearing a suit. Dead-white hair and big greenish light in his eyes. The face of an infant surprised by senility. His suit was gray polyester, conservative and sleazy. Kramer left me with Berliner beside the potted tree, a beer in my hand. A man about five foot six or seven came right up to us. "Care for a taste?" In his palm lay two brown marijuanas, slick with spittle. I declined. Berliner said, "Thanks, thanks," with frightening gratitude, and took both cigarettes. We laughed. Then he dropped one back into the man's palm. Turning toward the others, the man said, "Anyone care for a taste?"
The sound of Berliner's voice lingered after the joke; loud, impulsive. Maybe he felt uneasy. Out of his natural environment. I couldn't guess where that might be. He was a confusion of clues. The suit wasn't Berkeley. The eyes were worlds of feeling. His speedy voice flew from nerves. Maybe the living room affected him. A men's club would have seemed more authentic, more properly convened, elsewhere. What did I have in mind? A cold ditch? I supposed Kramer's wife, exiled for the evening, had cultivatedthe plants and picked the orange rug and the luscious fabrics on the couches and chairs. Ideas of happiness. Berliner and I remained standing, as if the fabricsheavy velvets, beige toneswere nothing to violate with our behinds. It was a woman's living room, but so what? The point of the club was to be with men, not to worry about women. I turned to Berliner and asked what he did for a living.
"Real estate," he said, grinning ferociously, as if. extreme types were into that. Wild fellows. "I drove in from San Jose." He spoke with rapid little shrugs, as if readjusting his vertebrae. His eyes, after two drags on the cigarette, were full of green distance. He was already driving back to San Jose, I figured. Then he said, "Forgive me for saying this, but a minute ago, when Kramer introduced us, I had a weird thought."
His eyes returned to me with a look I'd seen before. It signaled the California plunge into truth.
"I hope this doesn't bother you. I thought ..."
"Oh, forget it, man."
"No, please go on. What did you think?"
"I thought you had a withered leg."
"Yeah, but I see you don't. Isn't that weird?"
"Weird that I don't have a withered leg?"
"Yeah, I thought your leg was all screwed up. Like withered."
I wiggled my legs. For my sake, not his. He stared as if into unusual depths and seemed, regardless of my wiggling, not convinced. Then he said, "I'm forty-seven."
"You look much younger." This was true. But, with the white hair, he also looked older.
"I stay in shape," he answered, marijuana smoke leaking from his nostrils. "Nobody," he said, sucking the leak back against crackling sheets of snot, "nobody else in the room is forty-seven. I'm oldest. I asked the guys."
He gagged, then released smoke, knifing it through compressed lips. "Kramer is thirty-eight."
I wondered if conversation had ever been more like medical experience, so rich in gas and mucus. "I'm always the oldest. Ever since I was a kid I was the oldest." He giggled and intensified his stare, waiting for me to confess something, too. I giggled back at him in a social way. Then the door opened and Cavanaugh walked in.
"Excuse me," I said, intimating regret but moving quickly away.
My friend Cavanaughbig, handsome guyhadheroic charisma. He'd been a professional basketball player. Now he worked at the university in special undergraduate programs, matters of policy and funding. Nine to five, jacket and tie. To remember his former workthe great naked shoulders and legs flying through the airwas saddening. In restaurants and airports people still asked for his autograph.
Things felt better, more natural, healthier, with the big man in the room. Kramer reached him before I did. They slapped each other's arms, laughing, pleased at how they felt to each other. Solid. Real. I watched, thinking I'd often watched Cavanaugh. Ever since college, in fact, when he'd become famous. To see him burn his opponent and score was like a miracle of justice. In civilian clothes, he was faintly disorienting. Especially his wristwatch, a golden, complicated band. Symbolic manacle. Cavanaugh's submission to ordinary life. He didn't burn anybody. He'd once said, "I don't want my kids to grow up like me, necks thicker than their heads." He wanted his kids in jackets and wristwatches.
He stopped slapping Kramer's arms, but Kramer continued touching him and looked as though he might soon pee in his pants. People love athletes. Where else these days do they see such mythic drama? Images of unimpeachable excellence. I was infected byKramer's enthusiasm, a bit giddy now at the sight of Cavanaugh. When Kramer left to get him a beer, we shook hands. He said, "I didn't think I'd see you tonight." There was mockery in his smile.
"It's not so easy getting out of the house. Nobody but you could have dragged me to this."
"You open the door, you're out."
"Tell me about it."
"I'm glad you're here. Anything happen yet? I'm a little late because Sarah thinks the club idea is wrong. I'm wrong to be here. We argued at dinner." He whispered, "Maybe it isn't easy," and looked at his wristwatch, frowning, as if it were his mind. Kramer returned with the beer just as a phone started ringing.
"I'll be right back," said Kramer, turning to the ringing.
Sarah's word "wrong" seemed wrong to me. If something was wrong with Cavanaugh, it was wrong with the universe. Men could understand that. When Cavanaugh needed a loan to buy his house, the bank gave him no trouble. You could see his credit was good; he was six foot nine and could run a hundred yards in ten seconds. The loan officer, a man, recognized Cavanaugh and didn't even ask about his recent divorce or alimony payments.
Men's clubs. Women's groups. They suggest incurable disorders. I remembered Socrateshow the boys, not his wife, adored him. And Karl Marx running around with Engels while Jenny stayed home with the kids. Maybe men played more than women. A men's club, compared to women's groups, was play. Frivolous; virtually insulting. It excluded women. But I was thinking in circles. A men's club didn't exclude women. It also didn't exclude kangaroos. It included only men. I imagined explaining this to Sarah. "You see, men love to play." It didn't feel convincing. She had strong opinions and a bad temper. When Cavanaugh quit basketball, it was his decision, but I blamed her anyway. She wanted him home. The king became the dean.
Kramer shouted from another room, "Is anybody here named Terry? His wife is on the phone. She's crying." Shouting again, more loudly, as if to make sure the woman on the phone would hear him, Kramer said, "Is anybody in this house named Terry?"
Nobody admitted to being named Terry.
Shouting again, Kramer said, "Terry isn't here. If Terry shows up, I'll tell him to phone you right away. No, I won't forget."
When Kramer returned he said, "You guys sure none of you is named Terry?"
Cavanaugh muttered, "We're all named Terry. Let's get this club started."
We made a circle, some of us sitting on the rug on pillows. Kramer began talking in a slow, rational voice. The black eyes darkened his face. His words became darker, heavier, because of them.
"What is the purpose of this club?"
To make women cry, I thought. Kramer's beginning was not very brilliant, but he looked so deep that I resisted judgment.
"Some of usSolly Berliner, Paul, Cavanaughhad a discussion a few weeks ago. We agreed it would be a good idea ..."
Paul was the short, marijuana man; he had an eager face and voice. Kramer nodded to him when he said his name. He went on about the good idea. I wasn't listening.
I thought again about the women. Anger, identity, politics, rights, wrongs. I envied them. It seemed attractive to be deprived in our society. Deprivation gives you something to fight for, it makes you morally superior, it makes you serious. What was left for men these days? They already had everything. Did they need clubs? The mere sight of two men together suggests a club. Consider Damon and Pythias, Huck and Jim, Hamlet and Horatio. The list is familiar. Eventhe Lone Ranger wasn't lonely. He had Tonto. There is Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, but, generally, two women suggest gossip and a kiss goodbye. Kramer, still talking, meandered in a sea of nonexistent purpose. I said, "Why are you talking about our purpose? Let's just say what we want to do."
I stopped him midmeander, then felt sorry, wishing I'd kept quiet, but he looked relieveda little surprised, not offended. "Can you make a suggestion?"
I glanced at Cavanaugh. I was his guest and didn't want to embarrass him. I'd been too aggressive maybe; too impatient. He said, "Go on."
"I suggest each of us tell the story of his life."
The instant I said that I laughed, as if I'd intended a joke. What else could it be? I didn't tell the story of my life to strangers. Maybe I'd lived too long in California, or I'd given too many lectures at the university; or else I'd been influenced by Berliner, becoming a confessional person. Nobody else laughed. Cavanaugh looked at me with approval. Berliner grinned with rigid ferocity. He loved the suggestion. Kramer said, "I'll go first."
"You want to? You like the idea?"
"One of us can talk at each meeting. I have listened to numerous life stories in this room." Kramer, apparently, was a psychotherapist, but the room seemed anodd place for his businessall the plants, colors, artwork. It burst on every side with cries for attention, excitations, a maniacal fear of boredom.
"It will be good for me," he said, "to tell the story of my life, especially like this, in a nonprofessional context. It will be a challenge. I'm going to put it on tape. I will tape each of us."
I imagined him sitting among his plants and pottery listening to life stories, tape recorder going, dark face and tattoos presiding over all.
"Let's talk to one another, Kramer. No machines."
To my dismay Kramer yelled, "Why the hell not? I have so much talk on my tapesfriends, clients, loversthat I don't even know what I have. So much I don't even remember."
I'd struck something sensitive, but I heard myself yelling back at him, a man who looked angry, even dangerous, "If you didn't put it on tape, you'd remember."
Everyone laughed, including Kramer. He said, "That's good, that's good." No anger at all. I was strangely pleased by this violence. I liked Kramer for laughing.
"That's very good. I'm going to write that down," he said.
"Yeah," said Cavanaugh, "no tape recorder. ButI want an idea of what this life-story business is like."
"You know what it's like," said Berliner. "It's like in the old movies when people were always talking to each other. Ingrid Bergman tells Humphrey Bogart about herself. Who she is. Where she's been. Then they screw."
A blond man wearing a pastel-blue sweater strained forward in his chair, saying, almost shouting, "I saw that movie. On the Late Show, right? Isn't that right?" He looked youthful and exceptionally clean. He wore cherry-red jogging shoes, creamy linen slacks, and clear-plastic-framed glasses.
All the faces became still. He retreated. "Maybe it was another movie."
Berliner's face swelled with astonishment, then tightened into eerie screeing, tortured noises: "Oh, man, what is your name?" He pointed at the blond. Kramer, hugging himself, contained his laughter. The blond said, "Harold," stiffening, recovering dignity. Tears like bits of glass formed in his eyes.
"Oh, Harold," said Berliner, "that's the story of my life. My mother used to say, 'Solly Berliner, why can't you be like Harold?' Harold Himmel was the smartest, nicest kid in Brooklyn."
"My name is Harold Canterbury."
"Right, man. Forgive me. A minute ago when you were talking, I had a weird thought. I thoughtforgive me, manyou had a withered hand."
Harold raised his hands for everyone to see.
Kramer said, "Don't listen to that jackass, Harold. Nothing wrong with your hands. I'm getting more beer."
As he walked toward the kitchen, Cavanaugh followed, saying, "I don't know what this life-story business is about."
"I'll show you," said Kramer. "You get the beers."
Cavanaugh returned with the beers and Kramer with a metal footlocker, dragging it into our circle. A padlock knocked against the front. Kramer, squatting, tried to fit a key into the lock. His hands began shaking. Cavanaugh bent beside him. "You need a little help?" Kramer handed him the key, saying, "Do it." Cavanaugh inserted the key. The lock snapped open as if shocked by love.
Kramer heaved back the lid of the footlocker and withdrew to his pillow, lighting a cigarette, hands still shaking. "This is it, my life story." His voice labored against emotion. "You guys can see my junk, my trinkets. Photos, diaries, papers of every kind."
Had Kramer left the room it would have been easier to look, but he remained on his pillow staring at theopen footlocker, his life. Paul suddenly scrambled toward it on hands and knees, looked, plucked out a handful of snapshots, and fanned them across the rug. Each of them bore an inscription. Paul read aloud: "Coney Island, 1953, Tina. Party at Josephine's, New Year's, 1965. Holiday Inn, New Orleans, 1975, Gwen." He looked from the photos to Kramer, smiling. "All these pictures in your box are women?"
Kramer, in the difficult voice, answered, "I have many photos. I have my navy discharge papers, my high-school diploma, my first driver's license. I have all my elementary-school notebooks, even spelling exams from the third grade. I have maybe twenty-five fountain pens. All my old passports. Everything is in that box."
Paul nodded, still smiling. "But these photos, Kramer. Are all these photos women?"
"I have had six hundred and twenty-two women."
"Right on," shouted Berliner, his soul projecting toward Kramer through big green eyes, doglike, waiting for a signal. Paul took out more photos and dropped them among the others. Over a hundred now, women in bathing suits, in winter coats, in fifties styles, sixties styles, seventies styles. Spirits of the decades. If men make history, women wear its look in their faces and figures. Fat during the Depression era; slenderwhen times are good. But to me Kramer's women looked fundamentally the same. One poor sweetie between twenty and thirty years old forever. On a beach, leaning against a railing, a tree, a brick wall, with sun in her eyes, squinting at the camera. A hundred fragments, each complete if you cared to scrutinize. A whole person who could say her name. Maybe love Kramer. That she squinted touched me.
Kramer, with his meticulously sculpted hair, cigarette trembling in his fingers, waited. Nobody spoke, not even Berliner. Looking at the pictures, I was reminded of flashers. See this. It is my entire crotch.
Then Berliner blurted, "Great. Great. Let's do it. Let's all talk about our sexual experience." His face jerked in every direction, seeking encouragement.
As if he'd heard nothing, Kramer said, "I was born in Trenton, New Jersey. My father was a union organizer. In those days it was dangerous work. He was a communist, he lived for an idea. My mother believed in everything he said, but she was always depressed. She sat in the bedroom, in her robe, smoking cigarettes. She never cleaned the house. When I was six years old I was shopping and cooking, like my mother's mother. I cannot remember one minute which I can call my childhood. I was my mother's mother. I had a life with no beginning, no childhood."
"Right," said Berliner. "You had your childhood later. Six hundred and twenty-two mothers. Right?"
"The women are women. Eventually, I will have another six hundred. I don't know where my father is, but when I hear the word 'workers' or the word 'struggle,' I think of him. If I see a hardhat carrying a lunch pail, I think he is struggling. My mother now lives in New York. Twice a year I phone New York and get migraine headaches. Blindness. Nausea. Just say the area code 212 and I feel pain in my eyes."
I'd been looking at Kramer almost continuously, but now I noticed that his eyes didn't focus steadily. His right eye was slightly askew. He blinked and brought it into line with the other eye. After a while it drifted away again. He'd let it go for a moment, then blink, bringing it back. His voice was trancelike, compulsive, as if trying to tell us something before he was overwhelmed by doubt and confusion.
Cavanaugh said, "What about Nancy?"
"What about her?" Kramer sounded unsure who Nancy might be.
"Nancy Kramer. She lives here, doesn't she? These are her plants, aren't they?" Cavanaugh was looking at the photos on the rug, not the plants.
"You mean the women? What does Nancy think about my women?"
"We have a good understanding. Nancy goes out, too. It's cool. The plants are mine."
"Yours?" I said.
"Yes. I love them. I've got them on my tape recorder. I could play you the fig tree in the corner." Kramer said this with a sly, dopey look, trying to change the mood, trying to make a joke.
"Too much. Too much, Kramer," said Berliner. "My wife and me are exactly the same. I mean we also have an understanding."
I said, "Let Kramer talk."
Kramer shook his head and bent toward Berliner. "That's all right. Do you want to say more, Solly?"
Berliner looked at his knees like a guilty kid. "You go on. I'm sorry I interrupted."
Cavanaugh, imitating Kramer, bent toward Berliner. "Solly, aren't you jealous when your wife is making it with another guy?"
"No, man. I'm liberated."
"What the hell does that mean?" I said.
Berliner said, as if it were obvious, "I don't feel anything."
"Liberated means you don't feel anything?"
"Yeah. I'm liberated."
Canterbury, with a huge stare of delight, began repeating, "You don't feel anything. You don't feel anything." Blond and lean, light blue eyes. He strained forward again to speak, then straightened quickly, as if he'd gone too far.
Berliner shrugged. "Once, I felt something."
Crossing and uncrossing his legs, seeming to writhe in his creamy slacks, Canterbury said, "Tell us about that, please. Tell us about the time you felt something."
"Does everyone want to hear?" said Berliner, looking at me.
I said, "Yes."
His voice flooded with accommodation. "We had a weekend in the mountains with another couple. A ski cabin near Lake Tahoe. The first night we got a little drunk after dinner and somebodymaybe meyeah, yeah, meI said let's trade partners. It was my own idea, right? So we traded. It was okay. It wasn't the first time we did it. But then I heard my wife moaning. It was a small cabin. And that was okay, but she was not just moaning. You know what I mean? She was moaning with love."
"Love?" said Kramer.
"Yeah. Moaning with love. She was overdoing it,you know what I mean. She was doing love. I wanted to kill her."
Cavanaugh reached over and squeezed Berliner's arm. Berliner was still smiling, the green eyes searching our faces for the meaning of what he'd said. "Is that what you wanted to hear, Harold?"
"Did it ruin your weekend?"
"It was horrible, man. I lost my erection."
Berliner began screeing again and I heard myself doing it, too, like him, making that creepy sound.
"It was horrible, horrible. I was ashamed. I ran out of the cabin and sat on a rock. My wife started calling through the door, 'Solly, Solly, Solly Berliner.' Then she came outside, laughing, and found me. I showed her what she had done to me. She said it wasn't her fault. She said it was my idea. I hit her and said that was my idea, too. She started crying. Soon as she started crying, my erection came back."
Kramer said, "What happened next?"
"But you were talking, Kramer," I said. "You know what happened next. Next she hit him and they made it together. It's a cliché. You should finish telling your story. You should have a full turn."
Berliner, incoherent with excitement, shouted, "How the hell do you know? I'm telling what happened to me, me, me."
"All right, all right. What happened next?"
"She hit me and we made it together."
Cavanaugh, with two fists, hammered the rug until everyone quieted. Then he said, "Look at Kramer." Kramer was slumped forward, dark face hanging, glancing vaguely back at Cavanaugh.
"Let's let him alone," said Cavanaugh. Kramer grinned and sat up, but he didn't protest. Cavanaugh continued, "Maybe Kramer will want to say more later. I'd like to hear about the childhood he didn't have, but I think we're talking about love tonight. I'll tell you guys a love story. Okay?"
I said, "Kramer tells us he made it with six hundred women. Berliner says he traded his wife, then beat her up and had an erection. You call that love?"
Cavanaugh gave me a flat look, as if I'd become strange to him.
"Hey, man, what do you want to hear about? Toothpaste and deodorants?"
"You're right, Cavanaugh. I give up. I bet your story is about how you made it with ten thousand high-school cheerleaders."
Cavanaugh stared at the place in the rug he had justhammered. The big body was immobilized, the whole man getting things in order, remembering.
"About three months after we got married, my second wife and I started having arguments. Bad scenes. We would go to bed hating each other. There were months with no sex. I didn't know who was more miserable. I was making a lot of money playing ball and I was playing good. It should have been good for us altogether. The marriage should have been fine. In the middle of a game with the crowd screaming, I'd think this was no fantastic deal, because I had no love at home. Soon there was nothing in my body but anger. I got into fights with my own teammates. I couldn't shave without slicing my face. I was smoking cigarettes. I had something against my body and wanted to hurt it. When I told Sarah I was moving out, she said, 'Great.' She wanted to live alone. I moved out and stayed with a friend until I found an apartment. One day in the grocery store, I was throwing every kind of thing into my shopping cart. I was making sure nothing I needed would show up later as not being there. And this woman, I notice, is pushing her cart behind me, up and down the aisles, giggling. I knew she was giggling at me. When I got to the cashier she is behind me in line, still giggling, and then she says,very sweet and tickled, 'You must have a station wagon out there in the parking lot.' I said, 'I have a pickup truck. Do you want a ride?' A man buying so much food, she figured, has a family. Safe to ask for a ride. She didn't have a car. I gave her a ride and carried her groceries upstairs to her apartment. A little boy was sitting on the floor watching TV. She introduced us and offered me a drink and we sat in another room talking. The boy took care of himself. Like in Kramer's story. He cooked dinner for himself. He gave himself a bath. Then went to bed. But his mother wasn't depressed like Kramer's. She laughed and teased me and asked a lot of questions. I talked about myself for five or six hours. We ate dinner around midnight, and then, at four in the morning, I woke up in her bed, thinking about my ton of groceries rotting in the pickup. But that wasn't what woke me. What woke me was the feeling I wanted to go back to my place. I hadn't left one woman to sleep with another. I mean I hadn't left my wife to do that. I wanted to go back to my own apartment, my own bed. I didn't know what I was doing in this woman's bed. I got up and dressed and left. As I was about to drive away she comes running to the window of my pickup, naked. 'Where are you going at this hour?' I said I wanted to go home. She says, 'Okay, I'll come withyou.' I told her no and said I would phone her. She said okay and smiled and said good night. She was like that little boy. Or he was like her. Easy. Okay, okay, good night. I didn't think I would phone her. Now this is my story. I woke up the next afternoon. I liked it, waking alone, but I felt something strange. I wanted something. Then I remembered the woman and I knew what I wanted. I wanted to phone her. So I went to the phone and I realized I didn't know her number. I didn't even know her name. Well, I showered, got dressed, and stopped thinking about her. I went out for something. I didn't know what. I had everything I needed in the apartment. But I started driving and right away I was driving back to the grocery store, as if the pickup had a mind of its own. I was just holding the wheel. I didn't get farther than the grocery store, because I didn't remember where she lived. I remembered leaving the store with her, driving toward the bay, and that's all. She said, 'Turn right, turn left, go straight,' but I never noticed street names or anything. Now I wanted to see that woman more and more. The next day I went back to the grocery and hung around the parking lot. I did that every day for a week, at different times. I thought I remembered how she looked talking to me through the window of my pickup, how she smiled and saidokay. I wanted to see her again badly. But I wasn't sure I could recognize her in the street. She was wearing gold loop earrings, jeans, and sandals. What if she came along in a skirt and heels? Anyhow, I never saw her again."
Cavanaugh stopped. It was obvious he had no more to say, but Kramer said, "Is that your story?"
"Yes." Cavanaugh leaned back, watching us.
"That's your love story?" I asked.
"Right. I fell in love with a woman I couldn't find the next day. She might live around the corner."
"You still love her?" asked Paul, tremendous delicacy in his voice, the slight small body poised, full of tenderness and tension.
Cavanaugh smiled at him with melancholy eyes. The whole expression of his great face and body suggested that he'd been humbled by fate.
"That can't be it," said Paul. "That can't be the end."
"Cavanaugh," said Paul, "I've known you for years. How come you never told me that story?"
"Maybe I'm not sure it happened."
"You did go back to the grocery?"
I said, "Paul means, if you looked for her, it happened."
"I still look. When Sarah sends me out to do the shopping, she doesn't know the risk she's taking."
"Cavanaugh," I said, "do you think you ever passed her in the street and she recognized you but you didn't recognize her? That happened to me once. A woman stopped me and said, 'Hello,' and when I stood there staring like a fool, she turned and walked away. She'd recognized me."
"Anybody would recognize Cavanaugh," said Kramer, "from his picture in the papers."
"Hey," said Berliner, "I have an idea. We can all look for her. What do you say?"
Paul said, "Shut up, man."
"Why is everyone telling me to shut up? I drove here from San Jose and everyone tells me to shut up." Berliner sighed in a philosophical way. He'd seen into the nature of life. "Looking for Cavanaugh's woman. To me it's a good idea. Hey, man, I have a better idea. Cavanaugh, take a quick look through Kramer's snapshots."
"She wasn't one of them. She was a queen."
"Queen what?" shouted Kramer. "My women have names. What did you call her? You call her Queen?"
"I'm sorry, Kramer. Take it easy. He thinks I crapped on his harem."
I said, "Let me talk. I want to tell a love story."
"Great," said Berliner. "Everybody shut up. Go, man. Sing the blues."
"You don't want to hear my story? I listened to yours, Berliner."
"Yes he does," said Kramer. "Let him talk, Solly."
"I didn't try to stop him."
Cavanaugh said, "Just begin."
"Yeah," said Berliner, grinning, brilliant and stiff with teeth.
"So far," I said, "I've heard three stories about one thing. Cavanaugh calls it love. I call it stories about the other woman. By which I mean the one who is not the wife. To you guys, only the other woman is interesting. If there weren't first a wife, there couldn't be the other woman. Especially you, Berliner. Moaning, just moaning, your wife is only your wife. Moaning with love, she's the other woman. And Kramer with his snapshots. Look at them. He spent his life trying to photograph the other woman, but every time he snapped a picture it was like getting married. Like eliminating another woman from the possibility of being the other woman. And Cavanaugh, why can't he find his woman? Because if he finds her she won'tbe the other woman anymore. This way he protects his marriage. Every time he goes to the grocery store and doesn't see the other woman, which is every single time, his marriage is stronger."
Cavanaugh, frowning at me, said, "What are you trying to tell us? What's all this about the other woman? Why don't you say it, man?"
"I am saying it."
Kramer then said, "You're trying to tell us you love your wife. You think I don't love mine? You think Solly doesn't love his wife?"
Berliner cried, "If that's all you think, you're right. I hate my wife."
"Tell your story," said Cavanaugh. "Enough philosophy."
"I don't know if I can tell it. I never told it before. It's about a woman who was my friend in high school and college. Her name is Marilyn. We practically grew up together. She lives in Chicago now. She's a violinist in a symphony orchestra. I spent more time with her than any other woman except maybe my mother. She wasn't like a sister. She was like a friend, a very close friend. I couldn't have had such a friendship with a man. We'd go out together and if I brought her home late I'd stay over at her place, in the same bed.Nothing sexual. Between us it would have been a crime. We would fight plenty, say terrible things to each other, but we were close. She phoned me every day and we stayed on the phone for an hour. We went to parties together when neither of us had a date. Showing up with her increased my chances of meeting some girl. It gave me a kind of power, walking in with Marilyn, free to pick up somebody else. She had the same power. We never analyzed our relationship, but we joked about what other people thought. My mother would answer the phone and if she heard Marilyn's voice she'd say, 'It's your future wife.' But she worried about us. She warned me that any woman I was serious about would object to Marilyn. Or she'd say it wasn't nice, me and Marilyn so thick with each other, because I was ruining her chances of meeting a man. That wasn't true. Marilyn had plenty of affairs. All of them ended badly, but I had nothing to do with that. One of her men scissored her dresses into rags. Another flung her Siamese cat out the window. She always found some guy who was well educated, had pleasant manners, and turned out to be a brute. She suffered, but nothing destroyed her. She had her violin. She also had me. Once, when I was out of a job and no longer living at home with my mother, she loaned me money and let me stay at her place forweeks. I was trying to decide what to doget another job, go back to schooland Marilyn didn't urge me to hurry. I didn't even have to ask her if I could stay at her place. I just appeared with my bags. One night she came home with a friend, a girl who looked something like her. Curly brown hair, blue eyes, and beautiful skin, faintly olive-colored. They were also the same size. Before dinner was over, Marilyn remembered something important she had to do. She excused herself and went to a movie. Her friend and I were alone in the apartment. It was glorious. A few days later, talking to Marilyn about this and that, I mentioned her friend. Marilyn said she didn't want to hear about her. That friendship was over and it was something she couldn't discuss. Furthermore, she said, I had acted badly that night at dinner, driving her out of her own apartment. I said, 'I thought you left as a favor to me. I thought you did it deliberately.' She said she did do it deliberately, but only because I made it extremely obvious that I wanted her to get out. Now I began to feel angry. I told her she didn't have to leave her own apartment for my sake and it was rotten of her to make me feel guilty about it after I'd started having very good feelings about her friend. I said this thinking it would prevent an argument; change everything. Marilyn would laugh; give me ahug. Instead, she lights a cigarette and begins smoking with quick half-drags, flicking ashes all over her couch. Then she says, 'Why don't you say that you consider me physically disgusting and you always have.' This was my old friend Marilyn speaking, but it seemed like science fiction. It looked like her. It sounded like her. It was her, but it wasn't. Some weird mongoose had seized her soul. Then she starts telling me about what is inside my head, things she has always known though I tried to hide them from her. Her voice is bitter and nasty. She says she knows I can't stand her breasts and the birthmark on her neck sickens me. I said, 'What birthmark?' She says, 'Who are you trying to kid? I've seen you looking at it a thousand times when you thought I didn't notice.' I sat down beside her on the couch. She says, 'Get away from me, you pig.' I felt confused. Ashamed and frightened at the same time. Then she jumps off the couch and strides out of the room. I hear her slamming around in the toilet, bottles toppling out of her medicine cabinet into the sink. Smashing. I said, 'Marilyn, are you all right?' No answer. Finally, she comes out wearing a bathrobe with nothing underneath and the robe is open. But she is standing there as if nothing has changed since she left the room, and she talks to me again in the same nasty voice. She sneers and accusesme of things I couldn't have imagined, let alone thought about her, as she says I did, every day, all the time, pretending I was her friend. Suddenly I'm full of a new feeling. Not what a normal person would call sexual feeling, but what does a penis know. It isn't a connoisseur of normal sex. Besides, I was a lot younger, still mystified by my own chemicals. I leap off the couch and grab her. No, I find myself leaping, grabbing her, and she's twisting, trying to hit me, really fighting. She's seriously trying to hurt me, but there's no screaming or cursing, there's only the two of us breathing and sweating, and then she begins to collapse, to slide toward the floor. Next thing I'm on top of her. I'm wearing my clothes, she's lying on her open robe. It's supernaturally exciting. Both of us are shivering and wild. We fell asleep like that and we slept at least an hour. I woke when I felt her moving. The lights were on. We were looking at each other. She says, 'This is very discouraging.' Then she went to her bedroom and shut the door. I got up and followed her and knocked at the door. She opens it and lets me kiss her. Then she shut the door again. I went to sleep in the living room, and left early the next morning. Six months later she wrote me a letter at my mother's address, telling me about her new job in Chicago and giving me her phone number. I phoned.After we talked for a while, she asked about her friend. I told her it was finished between her friend and me. I was seeing somebody else. She changed the subject. Every few months I get a letter from her. I write to her also. Someday, if I happen to be in Chicago, I'll visit her."
In the silence following my story, I began to regret having told it. Then a man who had said nothing all evening asked, "Did you make it with Marilyn that night?"
"No. Nothing changed. I don't think it ever could."
The man started to say something, then stopped.
I said, "Do you have a question?"
It seemed he was a shy man. He said, "Was it a true story?"
He smiled. "I liked Marilyn."
"I like her, too. Maybe I can fix you up with her. What's your name?"
"Terry?" shrieked Berliner. "Terry, you're supposed to phone your wife."
Grinning at Berliner, Terry seemed less a shy man than a man surprised. "It's not my wife," he said, intimating complexities. Old confusions. As if to forbidhimself another word, he shook his head. Round and bald. Sandy tufts of hair beside the ears, like baby feathers. His eyes were hazel. His nose was a thick pull. "I mustn't bore you fellows with my situation." He nodded at me as if we had a special understanding. "We're enjoying ourselves, telling stories about love." He continued nodding. For no reason, I nodded back.
Cavanaugh said, "Talk about anything you like, Terry. You say the woman who phoned isn't your wife?"
He grinned. "I'm a haunted house. For me, yesterday is today. The woman who phoned is my former wife. A strange expression, but what else can I call her? Ex-wife?"
"Call her by her name," I said.
"Her name is Nicki."
"How long have you been divorced?" asked Cavanaugh.
"Usually one asks how long you've been married. Nicki and I have been divorced ten years. Nicki"
"It's better," said Berliner, "if you say former wife. Nicki, Nickiyou sound like a ping-pong game."
"All right. After ten years of divorce we're closer than during our marriage. If you don't remarry, this isnatural. She phones me two or three times a week. Listen to how personal I'm becoming. Why is everything personal so funny?"
"Who's laughing?" said Berliner. "Do you sleep together? To sleep with your former wife, I thinkI mean just to meI couldn't do it."
"You couldn't do it," I said. "Who asked you to?"
"He's right. I'm sorry, Terry."
"It doesn't happen often. Nicki has a boy friend. His name is Harrison. But they don't live together. Nicki can't get along with kids. She doesn't like kids. More complicated yet, Harrison's daughter, eleven years old, is a very sad fat girl. His boy, six years old, has learning problems. Harrison phones me, too. I meet him now and then to talk about his kids."
"He wants to talk to you?" I said.
"I'm a doctor. Even at parties people come up to me for an opinion. 'Terry, I shouldn't discuss professional matters in these circumstances, but my aged aunt Sophie has a wart on her buttock. She wants you to know.'"
"So what about Nicki? She was crying on the phone," Kramer says.
"She always does. Your Marilyn story reminded me of a fight we had when I was in medical school in Montreal. We lived in a two-room flat above a grocerystore. It was a Saturday morning. I was studying at the kitchen table. Can I tell this story?"
Berliner said, "Only if it's miserable."
"A blizzard had been building for days. I watched it through the kitchen window as it attacked the city. The sky disappeared. The streets were dead. Nothing moved but wind and snow. In this deadly blizzard, Nicki decided to go out. She had been saving money for a particular pair of boots. Fine soft leather. Tight. Knee-high. They had a red-brown tone, like dried blood. Totally impractical and too elegant. The wind would tear them off her legs. Nobody in our crowd owned such boots. Our friends were like usstudents. Poor. Always worried about money. Nicki had worked as a secretary all year. She never bought presents for herself. I had a tiny scholarship. It covered books and incidental tuition fees. We were badly in debt, but she wanted these boots. I don't know how she saved a penny for them. I pleaded with her not to go out in the blizzard. Something in my voice, maybe, suggested more anxiety about the price of the boots than her safety. The more I pleaded, the more determined she became."
"Why didn't you go with her?" I asked.
"I wanted to. But the idea of the bootsso trivial,such a luxuryand her wanting to go get them that morningmade me furious. I could sympathize with her desire for beautiful boots. She deserved a reward. But why that minute? I was trying to study. My papers and books were on the kitchen table. Also a box of slides and a microscope I carried home from the laboratory. Today, though I own a house with ten rooms, I still use the kitchen table when I read medical journals or write an article. Anyhow, I was trying to study. I needed the time. It's difficult for me to memorize things, but I can do it if there is peace and quiet and no bad feelings in the air. You don't have to be a genius to be a doctor. But now I was furious. I yelled, 'Do what you like. Buy the stupid boots. Just leave me alone.' She slammed the door.
"For a while I sat with my papers and books. Outside the blizzard was hysterical. Inside it was warm and quiet. I worried about her, but my fury canceled the worry. Soon I began to study. I forgot about Nicki. Maybe three hours passed and, suddenly, she's home. Pale and burning and happy. I didn't say hello. My fury returned. She had a big shoe box under her arm. She had returned with her boots. While she put them on, I continued trying to study. I didn't watch her, but I could tell she needed help. The boots were tight. After a while she managed to get them on by herself,then she walked up to my table and stood there, waiting for me to notice. I could feel her excitement. She was trembling with pleasure. I knew what expression was in her face. Every muscle working not to smile. She waited for me to look up and admit she was magnificent in those boots. But the blizzard was in my heart. I refused to look. Suddenly my papers, books, slides, microscopeeverything on the table was all over the kitchen floor. Nicki is strong. She plays tennis like a man. I felt I had been killed, wiped out of the world.
"She still claims I hit her. I don't remember. I remember rushing out into the blizzard with no coat or hat. Why? To buy a gun. I didn't really know what I wanted until I passed a pawnshop with guns in the window. I had a pocket watch that my father gave me when I left for medical school. Gold case. Gothic numerals. A classic watch. Also a heavy gold chain. In exchange for that watch I got a rifle. I asked the man for a bullet. I couldn't pay for it, but I told him the deal was off unless he gave me a bullet. He said, 'One bullet?' I screamed, 'Give me a bullet.' He gave it to me. If I'd asked for a ton of bullets, he would have thought nothing. Ask for one bullet and there's trouble."
"The police were waiting for you," said Berliner.
"The police car was in front of the house, its light blinking through the storm. I went around behind the house and climbed a stairway to the roof, and loaded the rifle. I intended to go to the flat and blow my brains out in front of Nicki."
"I thought you were going to shoot her," I said.
"Her? I'd never shoot her. I'm her slave. I wanted to make a point about our relationship. But the police were in the flat. I was on the roof with a loaded rifle, freezing in a storm. I aimed into the storm, toward the medical school, and fired. How could I shoot myself? I'd have been on that roof with a bullet in my head, covered by snow, and nobody would have found me until spring. What comes to mind when you commit suicide is amazing. Listen, I have a question. My story made me hungry. Is there anything to eat?"
Kramer rose from his pillow with a brooding face. "Men," he said, "Terry is hungry. I believe him because I too am hungry. I suppose all of us could use a little bite. I would suggest we send out for pizza. Or I myself would make us an omelet. But not tonight. You are lucky tonight. Very lucky. Tomorrow, in this room, Nancy is having a meeting of her women's group. So the refrigerator happens to be packed with good things. Let me itemize. In the refrigerator there is three different kinds of salad. There is big platesof chicken, turkey, and salmon. There is also a pecan pie. I love pecan pie. There is two pecan pies and there is two lemon pies. There is a chocolate cake which, even as I speak of it, sucks at me. I am offering all this to you, men. Wait, Berliner. I have one more thing to say, Berliner. In the alcove, behind the kitchen, rests a case of zinfandel. It is good, good California. Men, I offer to you this zinfandel."
Berliner was already in the kitchen. The rest of us stayed to cheer Kramer. Even I cheered. Despite his tattooed arms, which reminded me of snakes, I cheered. His magnanimity was unqualified. No smallest doubt or reluctance troubled his voice. Every face in the room became like his, an animal touched by glee. We were "lucky," said Kramer. Lucky, maybe, to be men. Life is unfair business. Whoever said otherwise? It is a billion bad shows, low blows, and number one has more fun. The preparations for the women's group would feed our club. The idea of delicious food, taken this way, was thrilling. Had it been there for us, it would have been pleasant. But this was evil, like eating the other woman. We discovered Berliner on his knees before the refrigerator, door open, his head inside. We cheered again, crowding up behind him as he passed things out to us, first a long plate of salmon, the whole pink fish intact,then the chicken, then a salad bowl sealed with a plastic sheet through which we saw dazzling green life. It would be a major feast, a huge eating. To Cavanaugh, standing beside me, I said, "I thought you had to leave early." He didn't reply. He pulled his watch off, slipped it into his pocket, and shouted, "I see pate in there. I want that, too." The cheers came again. Some of the men had already started on the salmon, snatching pieces of it with their fingers. Kramer, who had gone to the alcove, reappeared with black bottles of zinfandel, two under his arms, two in his hands. He stopped, contemplated the scene in his kitchen, and his dark eyes glowed. His voice was all pleasure. "This is a wonderful club. This is a wonderful club."
Copyright © 1978, 1981 by Leonard Michaels