“What about you and your woman?” he asked me.
I sat across from him in the dark room and watched him light his pipe. For a second, the room flared in the frail light of the match; the drapes behind him glowed red. Then he waved out the match and tossed it somewhere. Now it was just the moonlight from the window and the tobacco in his pipe, smoldering in its hollow. His eyes, in the fading light, were dark chasms whose cores burned small embers. I could smell it almost as soon as he lit it. Reminded me of some good place I had been to as a child but now could not fully remember.
“What woman?” I said. “There’ve never been any women, much less any woman.” I took a sip of my coffee. It was hot and bitter, the way I preferred.
He made a noise under his breath and coughed once. “The one you spoke of about a year back. What happened to her?”
“Oh,” I said. “She got married. I was invited to the wedding but… other things to do with my time.”
“Yeah,” he said. He blew a smoke ring into the air, and I could see it for a moment before it drifted up to the ceiling and vanished.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s always the same, isn’t it?”
“Hell, I don’t know.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Me neither.”
I rested in the soft chair with both hands wrapped around the warm ceramic mug, the sweat from my palms making it slick against my skin. I breathed in the smoke from his pipe and let it do its work on me, coughing a little and taking sips between coughs. We relished these late hours in the silence of one another’s company as we had in times past, for it was darkness that unburdened us of our thoughts and kept them hidden from outsiders.
“Our fathers found good women,” he said. “Didn’t they?”
“Yes,” I said. “They did. I’ve often wondered what’s made us so different from our fathers.”
“What do you mean?” he said, his pipe clenched between his teeth. “We’re just like them. They are good men, and we are good men, too.”
“Then what’s the difference?”
“The difference is the times,” he said. “The difference is that woman is evolving, and man is staying the same. You remember the Tarzan stories?”
“Of course, but what’s that got to do with—”
“Remember how the first book ends?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Tarzan and Jane don’t end up together.”
“Well,” he said. “Imagine Burroughs had never written sequels where they do end up together, or he had died before he could write them, or you had never known about them. If one novel is all there is, how does Tarzan’s story end?”
“It ends with him alone,” I said, and then found myself assailed by the stark reality of the observation: even the multilingual, super-intelligent Lord of the Jungle with his washboard stomach and godlike courage couldn’t win the heart of the woman he loved. What chance did any of us have?
He nodded slowly, as if falling asleep, and breathed a curl of smoke. “Maybe that’s the path of the true hero,” he said.
“I get the feeling you’re right,” I said, “though I wish you weren’t.”
“God,” he said. He took the pipe out of his mouth and, holding it, rested his arm against his thigh. “I hope I’m wrong.”
But I knew he wasn’t wrong. I knew he wasn’t because I had often wondered the same thing myself, only I wasn’t as good at fleshing it out as he was. See, we were two good men who took great care to live decently and uphold justice whenever it needed upholding, or so we liked to think, at least. Since youth, we had modeled ourselves after great literary heroes—Greystoke, Odysseus, Edmond Dantès, Duncan Idaho—thinking that such traits would cause the most noble and beautiful women to flock to us.
But time had stalked us first as children, then as lustful and hormone-frenzied teenagers fighting to resist nature, only to confront us as full-grown men without wives, without girlfriends even. It sounds like a trifling thing to complain over, but a woman’s companionship is the surest thing by which a man can survive in this world. Like the first Adam, we are left with a vacant gap in the cage that guards our hearts, and as time passes, we grow more conscious of a breach that only an Eve can repair.
I think that’s why we sat at times like these late into the midnight hours, feeding off each other’s presence, wondering at the condition of our ultimate selves—at the fog-laden destiny that lay far ahead of us upon some mirthless and blind sea…
“What’s that?” he said.
I looked up at him, startled. His face was glowing in the dim, smoky moonlight.
“Oh,” I said. “I was just thinking out loud. Guess I was saying that I couldn’t see far ahead of myself. Like trying to peer through a fog, you know.”
“Yeah,” he said. He leaned back and smoked his pipe. “Stuffy in here.”
There was nothing more to say. Feeling tired in spite of the coffee, I set the mug on the table beside my chair. I can’t remember when I finally drifted off to sleep, but then I guess no one ever does. You sleep, and you wake, sleep, and wake again, while during the intervals, you strive to feed the deepening void, only to deepen it more. Yet, I am told that at some point, you stop searching for the rib God took from you, and instead, you start searching for Him. That’s what I am told.