It’s Saturday and a lazy, late morning has aged into a warm, quiet afternoon, the kind where you walk past a mirror and catch yourself wearing a smug grin without really caring why. We drove up to the mountains last night. His parents keep a cabin here and I almost couldn’t fall asleep in the rural silence. Getting up from the first novel I’ve had time to read in eight months I wander softly to the kitchen window where I can see him in the back yard. Earlier, he decided to cut the deadwood from a pair of old plum trees and now he’s turning fifteen-foot tangles of fallen branches into fuel and kindling for the fire ring. In my mind, it seems like such a boring, pedestrian task but to see his shoulders work with his back and work with his arms in smooth, natural arcs instead of the tightly regulated rise and fall of health club circuit training makes me wonder why I’m here.
For twenty-eight years I told myself, and anyone who asked, that I did not like body builders. I would tactfully discourage the muscle heads at the gym who offered to help with my technique and then secretly gag and giggle with my friends. Standing in front of the newsstand, pointing at the fitness magazines and discussing why nineteen inch biceps were disgusting seemed a legitimate way to kill a few minutes at another time in my life. I loved telling my friends that there were two kinds of iron pushers: the dumb ones and the violent ones.
Now I’m watching him through the window, spying on him and remembering how he beat me at Trivial Pursuit last week. He doesn’t belong on a magazine cover or anything like that, but in the real world, where I suck my belly in when he lifts my shirt off, he is something to behold; tall, handsome and strong with a physique that has been nurtured without being pampered. I’m watching as he uses a pair of gardening scissors to remove the hundreds of small sticks and twigs that clutter the fallen branches. The tool is a bad choice for him. About every fifth twig is too thick for the delicate shears but too thin to discourage him. So his hands squeeze the blades together in a way they aren’t meant to be squeezed and the branch is cut, but not severed, as the blades twist away from each other. His right hand is darting gracefully around the knotted branch, sending a shower of tiny boughs to the ground as his left hand deftly twists and spins the awkward branch like a baton to bring the next tender shoot before the shears.
He finds the work relaxing. I can tell by the way he’s breathing. His back is toward me but I’m positive that a satisfied little grin is perched on his lips. Working with computers, he rarely gets the chance to use the arms he’s built and this opportunity is being savored, paced and memorized. His shirt is off and I’m watching the corded muscles on his back shift and wave each time he manipulates the wood. I’m trying to memorize the strong line from his neck to his shoulder and I’m trying to remember why I found a muscled male so uninteresting before.
At some point in the past I made the assumption that any man who would spend a significant amount of time developing his body, must do so at the expense of developing his mind. If a man ever had to seriously consider the size of his arms when he bought a shirt I classified him as a moron at worst or abhorrently self-absorbed at best. It never occurred to me that I met these men while I was at the gym, narcissistically devoting hour upon hour to the shape of my thighs. They were a sort of character type in my mind. Body builders were like an entire class of human beings, defined by that single trait, who were thoughtless, boorish and arrogant. I would castrate a man who looked at my hair or chest and then offered me a piece of bubble gum, but I would routinely direct a man with a thick neck to the picture books.
I was raised in a culture that had abandoned woman and womanhood. As a female I was expected to be just like a man that could bear children: ‘could’ being the operative word. In the bright glare of that understanding I came to find men who acted like men offensive. Instead, I was attracted to men who were, in fact, women who could get an erection. They were sensitive, peaceful and meek. Calmness and passivity were associated with creativity where masculinity was associated with Hemingway machismo or domestic violence. Only the first trait had to be displayed, and the secondary traits were assumed. If a man was aggressive, assertive or, God forbid, strong, I called him a pig and often pitied his wife.
There is sweat on his shoulders. He has finished with the clipping and is beginning to change the long, naked branches into pieces short enough to fit in the fireplace. My hand has drifted up to cup my chin as my little finger is playing softly with my lower lip as I watch. With a nasty looking bow saw near his feet, he grabs each end of a large branch and bends the wood until it snaps. Some are greener than others and he grunts through clenched teeth as the wood bends to an impossible angle before separating like an old rope. These are the pieces he has to wrestle with in twists and pulls before the two halves finally jerk free from one another. The freshly oiled saw sitting unused on the ground.
He is enjoying his own strength. The sweat across his chest, the sunburn on his shoulders and the lattice of tiny scratches and cuts across his arms are all trophies. For a moment he is able to put aside the tools and conveniences of modern life in exchange for a celebration of clean, honest power and he is wearing his battle scars with pride. In his heart of hearts this chore has become an act of survival and his mind has decided to quietly watch from a distance.
He found me in an airport terminal when our common flight out of Chicago was delayed by snow. From behind his copy of the Journal and a winter jacket I couldn’t see the size of his shoulders, or the breadth of his chest. He made me laugh for forty-five minutes before mentioning that he thought I looked familiar and asked if he had seen me at the gym. My guard immediately went up and he must of seen it because he began joking about how we all go there to look better for the sake of meeting attractive people but actually meeting someone at the treadmill was strictly taboo. He read my mind, or perhaps recalled previous experiences, when he mentioned how he tended to classify every woman on the Stairmaster as a bimbo without ever talking to her just because of the stereotype. He then chastised himself for being so shallow. After all, he confessed, he considered himself an intelligent man and there he was at the same club, sometimes on the same Stairmaster. Peeking out from behind my emotional fortress, I agreed that it was inappropriate for him to have such a blatant double standard and suggested he should at least get to know some of the women he had wronged in this way. A tiny smile passed between us and I gave him my number. That was nine months ago.
Even though he hasn’t seen me in the window, something inside him knows I am here. Something ancient and visceral in him, something born on an endless savanna with a stone tipped spear in its hand is trying to speak to something deep and primal in me that was born wet and cold into an antelope skin. The thick branches splinter and crack in his powerful hands and that irrational, incontrovertible something tells me that he would rip a grizzly bear limb from limb to protect me. With the next sharp snap, the rational and often fickle part of me concedes that even if that weren’t exactly true, he would die trying. At another time in my life, I would have found this sort of revelry in brute strength barbaric and crude, but today I find it flattering. I know that at a certain level it’s for me. Today I find it affirming, compelling, even arousing. I think of the many times I’ve suggested that he try to “regain contact with who he really is” and begin to wonder if he ever lost it.
When the last branch has been quartered and stacked he stretches his arms high above his head. His chest fills with air in a deep, satisfied breath and as the stretch pushes his bloodied hands toward Mars every muscle in his body flexes with joy at the completed work. The human race can continue unhindered. For that moment his body stands in silhouette before the low, lazy sun with the beads of sweat lending a momentary aura to the vision before he exhales and the figure looks terrestrial once again. The work has filled him, soothed him, completed him. As he turns back toward the house I see the dirt and the sap and the blood that he’s wearing along his arms and chest. He sees me in the window and stops to look at me. He knows how I feel about anything macho and he decides his best defense is to make fun by posing like some Olympian statue. He’s wrong though. I realize that one of my most basic needs as a woman is to feel safe and even if I’m unlikely to face a ravenous cave bear in the city, he makes me feel safe. I laugh back at him through the window and he smiles warmly. Despite the smile, his eyes tell me that he has been tested by the job behind him. He continues toward the house and I can see that he’s tired. Not too tired I hope as I move to meet him at the door, slipping my shoes off along the way.