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 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 social possibility. I should have said yes immediately, but something in me resisted. The prospect of leaving my house after dinner. 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.’
‘Look, you’re one of my best friends. You live less than a mile away. Do we see each other three times a year?’
‘I lose over a month every 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 have love affairs, usually with students. You could call it a regular social possibility. It included emotion chaos. Gonorrhoea. 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.
The night of the meeting I told my wife I’d be home before midnight. She said, ‘Take out the garbage.’ Big sticky bag felt unpropitious and my hands soon smelled of tuna fish. After driving 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 wrought-iron handle and pushed, discovering a large Berkeley living room and six men. I saw dark wood panelling and potted ferns dangling from exposed beams. Other plants along the window ledges. A potted tree in a far corner, skinny, spinsterish looking. Nervous yellow leaves filled its head. Various ceramics, bowls on tabletops and plates on the walls beside huge acrylic paintings, abstractions like glistening viscera splashed off a butcher block. There was an amazing rug, but I couldn’t take it in. A man was rising from a pillow on the floor, 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 LA 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, shaped to cup his ears with a feeling that once belonged to little girls and now was common among TV actors and rock musicians. 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 impossible to connect him with his rug, which I began to appreciate as spongy and sensuous. Orange. I felt myself wading through it as Kramer led me toward the men.
Shaking hands, nodding hello, saying my name, each man was a complex flash – eyes, hand, names – but one had definition. Solly Berliner. Tall. Wearing a suit. Dead white hair and big greenish light in his eyes. The face of an infant surprised by senility. His suit was grey polyester, conservative and sleazy. Kramer left me with Berliner beside the potted tree, a beer in my hand. A man about five foot six with an eager face 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 as he dropped one back into the man’s palm. The little face turned toward the other men. ‘Anybody care for a taste?’
The sound of Berliner’s voice lingered after the joke. 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 been 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 cultivated the 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 fabrics – heavy velvets, beige tones – were nothing to violate with our behinds. It was a woman’s room, but the point of the club was to be with men, not to escape from women, so 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 were full of green distance after two drags on the cigarette. He was already driving back to San Jose, I figured, but then he said, ‘Forgive me for saying this, but, a minute ago when Kramer introduced us, I had a weird thought.’ His eyes returned.
I’d seen the look before. It signalled the California plunge into truth, a conversational style developed in encounter groups where sensitivity training occurs.
‘I hope this doesn’t bother you. But I thought you had a withered leg.’
‘I see you don’t. Weird?’ He giggled. His mouth was tense.
‘Weird that I don’t have a withered leg?’
‘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, waiting for a truth to rise, perhaps leap into the air like a fish. I said nothing. 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 with crackling sheets of snot, ‘nobody else in the room is forty-seven. I’m oldest. I asked the guys.’
He gagged a little, then released the 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 mucous. ‘I’m always the oldest. Ever since I was a kid I was the oldest.’ He giggled and intensified his stare. I giggled, too, in a social way. Then the door opened and Cavanaugh walked in.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, intimating regret but moving quickly away to greet Cavanaugh.
Cavanaugh, big and good looking, had heroic charisma. He’d once 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 work – the great naked shoulders and legs flying through the air – was 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. Now, in civilian clothes, he was faintly disorienting. Especially his wristwatch, a golden, complicated band. A symbolic manacle. Cavanaugh’s submission to ordinary life. He’d once said, ‘I don’t want my kids to grow up like me, necks thick as their heads.’ He wanted his kids in jackets and wristwatches.
He’d stopped slapping Kramer’s arms, but Kramer continued touching him. Kramer looked as though he might soon pee in his pants. People love athletics. Where else these days do they see such mythic drama? Images of unimpeachable excellence. I was infected by Kramer’s enthusiasm. When Kramer left to get Cavanaugh 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 late because Sarah thinks the club idea is wrong. I’m wrong to be here. We argued a little at dinner.’ He whispered then, ‘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 toward the ringing.
Sarah’s word ‘wrong’ made me wonder. 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 problem. 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 felt privileged to help him with financial negotiations. He didn’t ask about Cavanaugh’s recent divorce, his alimony payments.
Men’s clubs. Women’s groups. They suggest incurable disorders. I remembered Socrates – how 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 tried to imagine 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 decided to 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. I heard Kramer, still shouting, say, ‘Terry isn’t here. If Terry shows up, I’ll tell him to phone you right away. No, I won’t forget. I’ll tell Terry to phone you right away.’
When Kramer returned he said, ‘You guys sure none of you is named Terry?’
Cavanaugh muttered, ‘We’re all named Terry.’
We made a circle, some men sitting on the rug. Kramer settled into his pillow, legs folded and crossed. He began talking to us 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 judgement.
‘Some of us – Solly Berliner, Paul, Cavanaugh – had a discussion a few weeks ago. We agreed it would be a good idea . . . ‘ Paul was the short, marijuana man with the eager face. Kramer nodded to him when he said his name. He went on about the good idea, but I wasn’t listening.