My father-in-law, Paul, is masculine, a blacksmith by trade. Taciturn and inaccessible, Paul is short, standing about 5’ 7”. His hands are small, stout and coarse. He can drive a 3” spike with one swing of the hammer. When he and Joan are in a confrontation, Paul shrugs, and pours another bowl of Cheerios. His presence makes me want to chop wood and change sparkplugs. To sell his work at the Swiss Days Art Festival, he constructed a portable wooden forge that dissembled with the removal of a few screws. I asked him about the time and effort he put into the forge. He shrugged with his hands in his Levi’s and said, “I just threw it together.”
My dad died when I was nineteen and I did not cry at his funeral. I wanted to, and even convinced myself that it was a necessity in grieving. I think about his death regularly and often wonder if my dwelling on it is a result of my inability to mourn properly, or perhaps it is because our relationship had been limited to Dad’s convenience. He never showed me how to do masculine activities like Paul could do, and I have always felt a gap in my manhood like a saw missing teeth. After my wedding, I hoped Paul would replace my father and teach me to shape iron.
But Mel and I were married for two years before I felt a connection with Paul. Mel and I and her parents spent a week camping at Bolder Mountain. Paul and I left the group and hiked through Spring Canyon. We bonded between nine miles of sharp sandstone cliffs. Our legs felt like noodles. We talked about our wives and I told him how Mel had changed. Little things, like how she used to enjoy hiking with me while we were dating.
“You, me, and every man since the dawn of time,” he said. “They all do that.” We had never spoken so candidly.
We drove back to our campsite at dusk. Shadows from the departing sun blinked between the branches of the pines. The in-laws sat in the front. Mel and I sat in the extended cab of my Chevy pickup. Mel was two months pregnant at the time. A deer was in the road. We collided. The metal crackled, crushed, and the seatbelt bit my abdomen. The deer was shoved down onto the asphalt. She rose, ran frantic, and eventually fell into the trees a few feet from the road. She wailed like a toddler.
Dark set in as we pushed the truck from the road. The hood was buckled and fluid leaked black and green into the weeds. I held Mel. I did not care about the damage to my truck. Our phones were out of range so Joan flagged down cars. The deer continued to moan in the bushes.
The scene quieted and we waited for the tow truck. The deer settled to deep gravel-like breathing, and we longed for a gun. Mel and Joan sat in the cab, and Paul and I sat on the tailgate. Once again we were alone.
“I should have drove the Cherokee,” he said. “It rides higher.” I nodded, unsure what to say. His calloused palms dragged across one another like sandpaper.
“I should have seen it…that damn deer. I ruined the vacation.”
“Mel’s pregnant,” he said. His head slumped down and his shoulders rolled forward. In the flashes of the hazard lights I could see tears in his eyes, wet and trailing down his cheeks. “What if Mel had been hurt? What if I’d hurt the baby?’
He told me he was sorry. He asked if I could forgive him and I nodded.
I thought about how I viewed him before that day, masculine and untouchable. I thought about his seeming inability to show emotion and how I had wished for him to replace the father I had lost. The hike, the camping trip, and the long drive to Bolder Mountain from Lehi, Utah were all things I had hoped would draw us closer. As he cried next to me, I felt further away from him. I felt uncertain, like our conversation was between cups and a taut string. It’s not that my view of his masculinity changed because he cried. He could still do the things that I could not, but perhaps that was once again what he was doing…something that I could not.