On Vulnerability: Times When Men Feel Vulnerable, Weak And Emotional

04/12/2013 08:54 am ET | Updated Mar 16, 2015

Finally: a guy who has the courage to explain vulnerability to us. (And his astonishing novel The World Without You is out in paperback now.)

By Joshua Henkin

1. The man is told by his girlfriend she doesn’t love him anymore. The man essentially makes his girlfriend tell him this, because how else can she explain why she’s breaking up with him? The man thinks he will never love anyone again. The man is determined never to love anyone again. Years later, when the man is in love again, he prepares to tell the woman for the first time. The man is terrified. The first time he says the words "I love you," he says them into her phone machine.

2. What is it about police lights that sets a man’s heart galloping? There’s something primal about it, the fight-or-flight response. The police officer, however, has a gun, so neither fight nor flight is a good idea. The man pulls over at the side of the road, and the police officer approaches him. Not for the first time, the man wishes he were a woman. Many a woman the man has known has gotten out of a speeding ticket. These women have done this by flirting or crying, but the man isn’t about to flirt with a police officer, and he isn’t about to cry, either. But then the police officer shines the light in the man’s eyes, he shines the light in the man’s car, he is standing tall above the man with his badge and his gun, and the man thinks he will admit to anything. He will admit to crimes he didn’t commit. The man will go to his priest to confess. (The man doesn’t have a priest -- he’s Jewish -- but he will confess anyway.) He will do whatever the police officer says.

3. The man takes his daughter for her first day of preschool. She’s in tears, screaming, "Daddy, don’t go!" and the man is thinking, "What kind of insane person thought to inflict preschool on a 3-year-old?" The man is that insane person. The man and his wife. The man also understands that in five minutes, his daughter will be laughing, and it’s he, the man, whom preschool is being inflicted on. Because he will be thinking of his daughter all day. He will be thinking of his daughter his whole life as, slowly, she recedes from him. When she goes on sleepovers and soon to college, when she passes through the stages that she must -- one of which involves hating her father -- he will try, vainly, to conjure the girl she was, the child he used to hoist above his head, to whom he would say, "I promise I’ll be back."

4. Back when the man was only 5, he would sleep over at his friend Adam’s house, with Adam and Adam’s parents and Adam’s brother and sister and Adam’s two dogs. But whenever Adam tried to sleep over, Adam would miss his parents. In the middle of the night, Adam’s parents had to be called. The man tried not to think of it this way, he tried not to make too fine a point of it, but Adam was a baby. When the man was 13, he was sent to sleepaway camp for the first time. The man hadn’t seen Adam in years, but now he thought of him, because the man missed his family, so much he felt as if he couldn’t breathe. The man’s parents were in Europe, and the man’s grandmother didn’t know what to say other than to tell the man, "Stick with it." So the man tried. The man was good at sports, so he played sports. The man was good at writing letters, so he did that, too. The man wrote letters to his parents. The man wrote letters to his classmates, all 46 of them. The man wrote letters to his brother, who was at the same summer camp as the man, so the man simply walked over to his brother’s bunk and handed him the letters. In the history of that summer camp, the man was told, no one had ever written as many letters as he had. But then, in the history of that summer camp, the man believed, no one had ever been as homesick.

5. The man realizes once and for all that his sex drive isn’t what it was when he was 16. In saner moments, the man will think this might not be such a bad thing. Because when the man was 16, he wasn’t able to concentrate on anything else, and now he can work and even take his daughters to school, and his sex drive is just fine, thank you very much. But there’s a loss, the man realizes, recalling a time when he lived so thoroughly inside his body there was nothing else to live for.

6. The man accompanies his father, who’s in mental decline, to see a neurologist. The man’s father, once a brilliant professor, is forced to take a mini mental exam. The reason it’s called a mini mental exam is it’s intended to make the man’s father feel small. The exam is administered by a woman who, by dint of administering the test, is insulting his father, the man believes. The woman has administered many of these tests before, and she will administer many more in the future. Until five years ago, the man thinks, until two years ago, the man’s father could have run mental circles around this woman. For 50 years, the man’s father taught constitutional law. The woman asks the man’s father who the president of the United States is. It’s George W. Bush, but the man’s father doesn’t know this. Or maybe he knows it, but he can’t come up with the words. The man’s father tries to fake the answer, because faking, the man has learned, is the last thing to go. The man’s father says, "I liked the guy before him better." The man’s father once knew the answer to everything, and in having all the answers, he assured the man that all was okay in the world. The man is terrified for his father. He’s terrified for himself. The man now knows what lies in wait for them both.

7. When the man started to see his future wife, things were stop-and-go and then stop again. One of their early dates was a camping trip. The man’s future wife was going camping with eight of her closest friends, and the man was welcome to join them. It seemed the man’s future wife didn’t want a date. She wanted a friend -- a friend who liked camping, which the man didn’t. But the man went along because the heart is foolish.

One by one, the man’s future wife’s friends pulled out of the camping trip, so that soon it was just the man and his future wife and one of his future wife’s friends, who happened to have the same first name as the man and had known the man’s future wife since they were 16. It was the three of them in a pup tent made for two; the man was the odd man out. The man’s future wife had forgotten her toothbrush, so the man offered her his. It was the single romantic gesture in a wholly unromantic weekend. The man and his future wife, the man was sure, would never see each other again.

Two weeks later, the man ran into his future wife in the rain, and it was as if they’d had a one-night stand. Here was a girl who had used his toothbrush, and now they couldn’t so much as speak. When he got home, the man phoned his future wife and said, "What happened? I thought we liked each other. I thought you liked me." The man was so scared he thought he might hyperventilate. Because what if his future wife didn’t like him back? The man wouldn’t be able to live with the humiliation. You need to make yourself vulnerable, the man told himself, because there is no love without vulnerability. That was why the man made that phone call.

This is the part of the story that’s not true. It was the man’s future wife who made that phone call. She was the one who said those words. But the man, being a man, wished he had said them. He was thinking of them, but he needed someone to show him how.

Joshua Henkin is the author of The World Without You.

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