Yesterday morning, as I was approaching the entrance to my local Circle K, I saw an African-American woman step out of her car and onto the curb just ahead of me. Her head was shaved closer than my face. Oherwise, she was dressed for office work, in a skirt and heels. When she paused to grab the door handle, I noticed the top of my head just barely reached her chin.
I wondered: Is this it? Is this a living summary of this whole End-of-Men thing I’ve been reading so much about lately? Does my physical insignificance alongside this strapping (and in her way, striking) creature betoken how my whole gender will soon rate alongside hers?
It took this kind of literal, physical manifestation to make the revolution real for me. Until now, I just couldn’t see how women’s numerical dominance in higher ed, their superior performance in managment jobs or their sexual brazenness, could possibly affect my life. Like peasants who toiled away their lives in near-starvation and ignorance both before and after the great estates were broken up and then collectivized, unprepossessing, unambitious clods like me are too far down the food chain to notice regime change. Even in the best of the good old days, before women got the vote and before the invention of the clitoris, we were the Charles Bovarys of the world. Practically speaking, we’ve never had anywhere to go but sideways.
When I think about who might suffer, I flash back to Changeez, a guy who befriended me in my grad school days. In the world of men, he was a boyar, or at least a very well set-up kulak. Physically, Changeez had the whole starter kit: the fine bones and lean muscularity of a yoga instructor, eyes that danced or melted according to the demands of the moment, and a goatee that didn’t look like anyone’s pubic thatch. To boot, he boasted the personal history of a future Nobel laureate. Born in Iran when the Shah still ran things, he’d lived through the revolution, been dragooned into the junior division of a pro-Khomeini youth group, seen his American mother forced into a chador and his older brother very nearly forced into the Revolutionary Guards’ minesweeping corps. When his family fled to the U.S., Changeez was 13 — young enough to graduate high school with the nickname of “Chaz,” speaking unaccented English and a parody of Ebonics almost nuanced enough to pass for a sincere imitation.
It was world traveler’s elitism that brought us together. When we entered the program together in the fall of 1995, I’d just returned from a year-long teaching assignment in Mainland China. For the two previous years, Changeez had alternated 12-hour-a-day shifts in Alaskan canneries with Fear and Loathing-style trips throughout Eurasia. In the expat subculture, where mercenaries were Aces of spades and tourists twos of clubs, backpacker trumped foreign teacher like a Jack of diamonds trumps a seven. Changeez was gracious enough to overlook this fact, so the two of us bonded over what we christened Drinking Bouts with Hats from Around the World. With him in the rabbit-skin policeman’s ushanka he’d picked up on the Old Arbat, and me in the fez he’d bought in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, we’d empty a fifth or two of Guizhou moutai and reminisce. On the table between us, perhaps as a reminder of the competitive current that runs through all male friendships, rested the kukri he’d brought back from Nepal.
When Changeez and I played trivia games on the monitors of our favorite Fiesta Mall bar, the competition was Yankees-Red Sox cut-throat. When it came to women, there was no competition. He was the man; I was the wingman. The job was both trial and education. At no point since I met him was Changeez involved with fewer than three women at once. Looks-wise, he went for archetypes — an Italian-American who could have modeled Salome for Regnault or Druuna for Serpieri, a Scandinavian-American cool and fair as kitchen tile, a Tejana with Carmen’s caprice and black eyes the size of quarters. But every one of them had a fine intellect and an emotional intelligence that would have made them spurn a true cad, which Changeez was not. He was happy to play dream lover and wounded healer to any of them, provided the job took up only so many hours every month.
Occasionally, when Changeez fell off the high wire, I was the net. In the first month of grad school, he enjoyed a brief dalliance with Brittany, a fellow grad student and the first person my age I’d met who’d written a whole book. (It was a guidebook to Arizona’s dog-friendly tourist spots.) I don’t know whether they actually slept together, but whatever happened was enough to cause Brittany some hurt feelings when Changeez explained he was not in the market for a full-time girlfriend. In a spirit of lets-be-friends, Changeez invited Brittany to his friend’s Halloween party. She arrived dressed in black, her face painted white, a noose around her neck, explaining, “I’m a suicidal tendency.” When Changeez repaired to one of the bedrooms with the Tejana (who’d come dressed as an Infanta, in a hoop skirt and farthingale), Brittany and I left together.
Before class the following Tuesday, Changeez asked, “Did you guys…?” His cocked eyebrows filled in for the elipsis.
“No,” I said.
He looked surprise. “Any stinky-pinky?”
“Sleep naked together?”
“No.” In fact, we’d sat up for hours on her couch, in our underwear, smoking cigarettes and talkng about angst — mine somewhat, hers mainly.
He started to look worried. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t want her dressing up as a suicidal tendency for my sake someday.”
Self-reproach spilled into Changeez’ eyes. If he were Homer Simpson, he’d have smacked his forehead and said, “D’oh.” Ever after, as far as I could tell, he made a point of vetting his women for emotional resiliency.
It might have been the realist in me that made me develop a crush on Kirsten, the only young woman in the program Changeez had no eyes for. Or maybe it was the future Catholic — she embodied the entire virgin-vixen package. On one side, she dressed boyishly in skater shorts and Adidas running shoes, and spoke in a pedantic Upper Midwestern twang that always made me think of chalkboards and wooden desks. On the other, she was the first open bisexual I’d ever known well, went to raves, and had a long history with Ecstasy. Out of her bobbed hair, Kirsten braided two thin skeins, one at each temple, like a Magyar horseman’s.
forgot to add that Kirsten was also a vegetarian. And rode a bicycle. Growing up in an atmosphere saturated with second-wave feminist ideals, I had found it difficult, to say the least, not to understand sex as a power struggle between saint and satyr — the satyr, of course, being me and any other creature with bad enough taste to own a dick. I came to idealize women while resenting them, to despise men while secretly cheering us on. I’m pretty sure I took an apprenticeship under Changeez — a player with a brain, a heart and a Third World background, who in a bad light was mistakable for Michael Stipe — for the same reason I pinned my romantic hopes on a nunlike nymph. Both enabled me to tweak my framework without stepping outside it completely; together, they formed my plan for having it all, so to speak.
When Changeez discovered I’d bid on Kirsten, he was delighted, and I think, more than a little relieved. Never intending for my wingmanship to be a permanent assignment, he’d already begun hinting that I ought to show some initiative on my own behalf. One evening after seminar, he invited us both to a patio bar on University Boulevard that has changed names and themes more times than all the countries in West Africa combined. After we’d drunk our second pitcher of Red Dog to the dregs, Changeez stood up and announced, “Time for me to hit the high road.” As the two of us reached the end of our ten-minute Soul Brother handshake, I thought I sensed in him an almost paternal pride.
Blame it on time or the next two pitchers of Red Dog, but I’ve forgotten exactly what Kirsten and I found to say to one another. I sort of remember her telling me how her Magdeburg-born grandmother had gotten into hot water with the Stasi for publicly professing her faith in Luther’s Christ, which can only have enhanced the wholesome side of her image in my eyes. Next, I think, we turned to gossip, but the high-minded, incisive kind of gossip where the goal for both parties is to show off their powers of observation and analysis. Of this I am certain: at a certain point, Kirsten said something like: “I like Changeez and admire him — he’s really smart — but I don’t think he’s ever going to settle down with So-and-So. So-and-So may say she doesn’t want to settle down, but she’s just kidding herself.”
With those words, quite without meaning to, the poor girl closed the deal. Her delivery implied a disapproval of Changeez that, though slight, was totally novel. To that moment, the man’s appeal had seemed as broad as Hershey’s chocolate. I’d seen him animate the granite faces of the department offices workers simply by poking his planed head through the door. In his presence, our ethics professor purred audibly. Begrudging Changeez his magnetic properties would have seemed as pointless as Ralph Malph’s begrudging Fonzie his. One was to hate the game, not the player; even hating the game was dangerous, since it might lead one straight into the camp of Catherine MacKinnon. Watching Kirsten pedal off into the night on tanned, slender legs, I felt a boulder roll off my back.
Kirsten had a boyfriend, a guy she’d known since her undergrad days. He happened to be studying on the East Coast, however, and it was whispered throughout the department that the two were headed for the shoals. To avoid the friend zone, I kept my profile low and bided my time. Actually, what I did was obsess over Kirsten. This worried Changeez. “Nigga, you best quit with this Princess Bride bullshit,” he said one evening, after hearing me compare her for the millionth time to a gazelle, a rebellious bird, or the ingenue in Urotsukidoji II: The Legend of the Demon Womb.“Sho’ you right,” I conceded, knowing Changeez was asking the impossible.
The academic year was coming to an end. I was planning on staying in town and attending summer school; Kirsten was heading back to her hometown. Some move, I decided, had to be made. Characteristically, it was Changeez who made it. Late one night, while typing away in the computer commons, I felt Changeez’ hand land on my shoulder with the force of a mallet. “You’re welcome,” he said.
“For the wing move of the century. Catch up.”
I blinked. Changeez was beaming, and bouncing on his toes like a child with a full bladder. “You know that house Kirsten rents?”
“Uh-huh.” It was a shithole, but on her it looked good, like a ripped pair of jeans.
“She needs someone to take over her share for the summer. I volunteered you, and she accepted. If you move in most ricky-tick, you get to spend a whole week under the same roof with her.”
Fresn out of words, I clasped Changeez in a one-armed, black-slapping hug.
And so the miraculous became the mundane. I met with Kirsten, signed a sublessor agreement, gave my landlord a good-bye handshake, and moved my student’s meager cache of stuff into the crumbling split-level off Rural Road. On my first night, she and I sat on the front porch, watching the crickets infest her yellowing lawn. Tugging the foil from my empty pack of Winstons, she began folding it.
“There was this 12-year-old girl in Japan who had leukemia. She thought if she could make 10,000 origami cranes, she’d live. She made them, but she died, anyway.” Kirsten handed me a crane, all in silver, and tucked her hussar’s braid behind her ear. When I lay down on her sofa that night, I set the crane gently on top of my media law textbook, thinking of that Texas statute that protected venerated objects.
A day or two later, we all took our final exams and turned in our final papers. In celebration, we met one night in early May at a bar called Minder Binder’s. The talk flowed as fast as the beer. Changeez had figured out a way to graduate by the following December, a semester earlier than it would take most of us. After that, he said, he was off, in search of new horizons, beginning with Africa. He looked forward to seeing KwaZulu, where, as he put it, “the womens show breasteses ripe as Texas melons.”
Sitting beside him was the girl Kirsten had said was in denial about landing Changeez for good. As she listened to his valedictory speech, her face was indecipherable, a generic mask of admiration. Then I saw Kirsten. Her eyes were fixed on Changeez, her mouth slightly open, her pupils — I thought — dilated. I noticed she’d pulled her feet up on the cushion and was squatting haunch to heel, leaning forward, a squirrel preparing to snatch a nut.
It was as if, just after cracking the code of the Rosetta stone, scholars had found another stone, one that told them all the hieroglyphs and cunieform meant exactly the opposite of what the first had led them to believe. Maybe Kirsten found no fault in Changeez after all, I thought. Maybe she meant that, though her friend couldn’t tie him down, she could. And anyway, what kind of influence did he have with her that he could talk her into letting through her front door and onto her couch?
These thoughts took two days to reach a boil. That evening, Kristen went to some formal dinner with Brittany, who had long since overcome her suicidal tendency. I spent the time in her kitchen, trying out my new martini shaker. After four or five, I saw her come through the front door, wearing a gray dress that stopped just short of her knees. Formally attired, with her braids brushed out, she looked like the young Jacqueline Bouvier, on the point of joining her future to a rake’s.
It was Kirsten’s allusive couture even more than the Bombay that scrambled my brain and loosened my tongue. Seizing both her hands, I led — maybe “pulled” would be a better word, but I prefer to give myself the benefit of the doubt — her onto the porch, and set her down on an empty milk carton. Genuflecting before her, I blurted out that I felt strongly for her. Her eyes popped out, her mouth clamped shut. After letting me ramble for a few minutes, she fixed her eyes on the pavement and said, “Everything’s ruined, and it’s your own, damn stupid fault.”
I was insulted. Even in my drunken lover’s reverie I’d calcuated that the worst I could hope for was a pat on the head. I looked up at Kirsten, sitting stiff and cold as marble under the porch light, and decided to remind her she wasn’t dealing with a fool. “I bet if I were Changeez you’d be into me.” Kirsten gasped like she’d been shot, and I believe those were the last words we exchanged until the end of the summer.
I bet if I were Changeez, you’d be into me. I can’t count the number of women I’ve spoken those words to silently over the years. In Kirsten’s case, I still have no idea whether they were true. Maybe they constituted a baseless (and base) accusation; maybe they represented the taking of her Lord’s name in vain. (They’d have made her furious either way.) But it’s taken me almost this long to understand why they hold true as a general rule. In as uncomplicated a way as any man can like women, Changeez did. He didn’t put them on rickety pedestals, never entrusted them with the unsought power to squash his ego. He listened to them, encouraged them in their struggles, cheered their triumphs, and wanted nothing more in return than a little ass.
But it’s fairly unchallenging to like people who pose no threat to that part of your sense of self that comes from professional dominance, or those whose inclination to depend on and revere you may in fact bolster it. Could Changeez remain Changeez if he were reporting to one woman in the office and another at home who out-earned him (and who found her superior contribution to the household budget just grounds for forcing him to stay home nights)? How much of good nature is really complacency in disguise?
I don’t know, but for the sake of society and the species, I choose to hope that good nature is a durable substance, one that can lead the Changezes of this world to adjust gracefully to whatever loss of status they experience. And yet, part of me hopes that they won’t take the transition wholly in stride; that some unfamiliar check to their will will make them say, “Ah, so that’s what those schlumpy, bitter nerds were so upset about. Point taken.”
If this hype about the End of Men is for real, maybe it’ll open a dialogue between folks like Changeez and folks like me, one where we learn a little of their old buoyancy while mentoring them through their new ambivalence. I tried a little of this today when I saw the towering, bald black woman step up to the door ahead of me. “Let me get that,” I said holding the door open, quite pleased that I was hedging my bets between gentleman and doorman.
She thanked me and smiled. Maybe she was hedging her own bets.