'There's no avoiding what makes me a man ... I'm just selfish'

How to be a Man: Sometimes masculinity can feel mechanical

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

 

How to be a Man is a series exploring masculinity and the challenges face men in Ireland today

Once upon a time a man got an email from a woman, a stranger he had never met. She invited him to breakfast in her apartment. He agreed and arrived not many days later to her kitchen, where she was scrambling eggs in a bowl, and he trembled because he was old and she was a young woman and her husband was away.

While she poured the eggs on to the pan, he stood staring at a butterfly on the window, battering its wings on the glass, desperate to get out at the flowers on the balcony.

“You’re trembling,” she said. “I think you are terrified of being close to me.”

He agreed.

“And you’re also terrified of being alone.”

He agreed again.

“Do you not believe in any religion?” he wondered.

“Of course I do,” she said, smiling. “But it doesn’t obsess me.”

“But are you not afraid of being alone?”

“No,” she said, “I’m a woman.”

And he blanked. He couldn’t understand her. She was clear and articulate, and he was fumbling and wretched. The gulf between them was enormous.

“There’s no avoiding what makes me a man,” he declared. “I’m just selfish.”

She was the opposite. Her invitation to breakfast was an act of love. Her honesty in wanting to say where he was going wrong in life was an act of compassion.

But he was all wrapped up in himself. He couldn’t break through the spiritual fog. He couldn’t just be practical and eat the breakfast.

Instead he lectured her. He tried to explain the myth of masculinity that enveloped him like a shell.

“I’m a patriarch,” he said, “with hair in my ears. I trim my beard, though sometimes I forget to finish off the bristles around my mouth when I am grooming before the mirror in the backyard. That’s where I groom, with the mirror sitting on the window ledge, to avoid getting bristles all over the bathroom floor. It’s a ritual that affirms my masculinity.”

She listened.

“I don’t talk much at dinner tables,” he said. “Because men can be silent.”

She smiled.

“Of course, when I was young I hogged the conversation, argued to a point of rudeness and occasionally threw off my clothes and danced on the table. But that was then. Now I am old and my belly sags, so I sit fully clothed no matter what the temptation.”

Again she listened.

“In the big tent at a country-and- western carnival I learned to jive like a man, swinging the woman with firm hands, like I was pulling the handles of a slot machine. Until she said “Jesus, you’re a mighty dancer” or else walked away. I thought a clean, firm jive was the sign of a strong man. Jiving men were as cool as Muhammad Ali. They could sting like a bee. And when a woman turned away I convinced myself it was she who couldn’t dance.”

But what he didn’t tell the woman over breakfast was that as a child he longed to be a girl. He trembled in their company. He feared them and worshipped them.

Although he didn’t grow into a girl. He didn’t even grow into a stinging bee or a boxer. He just became another patriarch, like a giant cockroach in an armchair. And as he got older he imagined a faint metallic tang hanging in the air around him, as if he had been working all day under a jeep, cleaning the oil filters.

He went to the leisure centre and soaked in the steam room to clear away the smell. He groomed himself with perfume and plucked his eyebrows. Because he would not have been bothered if he smelled like a buck goat, or even a stallion. They bleed too, like humans. But not a rusting car. And sometimes masculinity felt mechanical. As if his heart were made of metal.

That was what patriarchy did to him over the years. Except that in every single dream that ambushed him at night, he changed into a butterfly and cried out – This is me! This too is me! But he didn’t tell her that over breakfast. Which was a pity, because she might have listened.

You would like to add your voice to this series, email howtobeaman@irishtimes.com

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