Robert Shelby is a therapist and freelance writer living in Oakland, California. He has published two books of poetry and has completed a metaphysical novel. Among his current interests are helping himself and other men find the feminine within and find healing through relatedness. This story first appeared in the Fall 1986 issue of The Men’s Journal (quarterly, P.O. Box 545, Woodacre CA 94973, $15/year) and is reprinted here with permission.
IN FINGERING THE ROW of poetry on his bookshelf, absently looking for some lines to jar into sharp relief the vague and elusive emotions he felt in his heart, his attention rested on a tattered paperback collection of the English Romantic poets. His friend Tom had given the book to him. He deftly tipped the book forward with his left index finger and let gravity bring it into the palm of his hand. Feeling its weight, he felt a movement in his heart; a sudden clarity of feeling; a felt recollection of his love for Tom that was a mixture of worshiping him as a hero and a tenderness that bordered on the feminine, as a lover might feel toward her man.
Opening the book to the table of contents, he read down the titles, lingering to recall the taste of those poems he remembered. The tastes impacted his palate with a rich variety that produced a state in which longing, loss, and ecstasy were blended, as if a rich liquor, bittersweet and pungent, filled his heart’s cup and sent its vapors rising to intoxicate his mind.
A memory came to mind. In high school English class, he sat behind Barb Konrad. She was 5’2"; her face was squared by her jaws; her eyes were blue; her chin was cleft, like his Uncle Ed’s; her hair was long, past her waist, and naturally streaked in shades of blonde. He was enamored of her hair. He watched her head, observing the shades of her hair and the ever-changing contours.
Something about her hair called to him, like the Lorelei; something pulled at his heart, not to fall in love, but to adore. Yet it wasn’t simply his heart being called. It was something deeper.
He took delight in observing her hair. Poetry would be read and discussed and, half-listening, he would gaze at her hair. One day he succumbed to an urge. She had lowered her head forward and then, when she straightened, her hair fell back into a fold, the lower length captured by her back pressing against the chair back. He couldn’t stop his urge, and, reaching out, he touched it. He felt it – cool, fine, silken – and inside he felt rapture.
From that first touch, he became addicted. During each class meeting, he waited for the time when he could reach out and touch her hair. He imposed only two conditions: that she not know and that he not get caught. This added daring and anticipation to an experience itself so rich with pleasure, despite the limits of its circumstances.
At times, he was obsessed by the insistence of his compulsion. How narrow his world became! After minutes of anticipation and restraint, he allowed his hand to reach forward and to touch the forbidden beauty that tempted him from so near. Touching her hair, caressing individual strands with a delicacy that would not betray his touch, he reveled in a world of his own making, a world of invisible walls, ever-opening doors, and receding horizons. Words of poems circulating in his head, ardor quickening his heartbeat, and the stirring of blood in his genitals – these pleasures were his to enjoy, and yet another, more effervescent, eluded him. He felt it in his fingertips, fingers, and hand as he touched her hair. He felt as if something that was hers was his also, was in his fingers and hands, and that, in the draping and encircling of strands of hair around and among his fingers, that something which was hers and his was mingling, there, before his eyes, like lovers dissolving in an embrace. Then, at times, he would feel her move within him, a gowned figure passing from darkness through dim moonlight and into darkness again. A feminine form. A woman, purely woman.
Reflecting on this memory, he recalled another. It was a sunny, warm summer Sunday. He and his parents had returned from church, and he went outside to play. He was eight, maybe younger. He was dressed in a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He was playing with a toy rifle that was still only months old and had not yet seen the scrapes and scratches of the future battles in which it would be engaged. He felt proud of his rifle, and that pride surged through him, stimulating his genitals and welling in his chest. Carrying that feeling transformed him, and in his imagination he became a soldier, the sidewalk a parade ground, and the steps the reviewing stand. He issued himself orders and was quick to obey. He held his rifle on his shoulder, making his body into straight lines and sharp angles. He "shouldered arms," "presented arms," "put arms at ease," and "assumed a firing position."
While in his fantasy, the neighbors across the street pulled up, returning from Mass. They were new, and he didn’t know them. They had only one child, a girl younger than he. He felt a thin eddy of shame course through his pride as he became aware of them being aware of him. He was in that period of childhood in which his world of fantasy was no longer impenetrable by the world of adults. For a moment, he saw himself through the eyes of his neighbors: a boy playing soldier and not the soldier he, in his imagination, had become.
After curious glances, the parents went into the house. The girl lingered in climbing the steps. He did an "about face," "forward march," "halt," and "about face" so that he could catch sight of her looking at him. The Dutch elms along the street shaded the steps to her house but left the porch sharply lighted, and he watched her as she crossed through that invisible boundary between shadow and light. She stood in the sun’s full radiance, wearing a pink dress, white socks, Mary Jane shoes, a blue barrette in her golden hair. He continued in his fantasy but diverted some of his attention toward her, curious to know how she perceived him.
At first, she was plainly curious, as anyone might be upon seeing something other than the ordinary. But as he persisted in his fantasy, she began to enter it, taking her own role. He felt his pride increase as she shifted from being an observer to a participant. For moment, he saw her transformed; she, in her pink dress with white lace edging, her hand poised on the porch railing, became all that ever was and would be feminine. He became all that was masculine. For a moment, they were held in the embrace of being opposites. Then a flicker of movement happened in him. As she brushed back a wisp of hair with the back of her hand, he felt a movement in him, as if his heart had opened and the vision of her had entered, like a photograph being placed in a locket.
The front door to her house opened. Her father called to her. She stepped back from the railing. He felt her stepping away from his fantasy. She turned and entered the shadows.
He was left with the residue of his feelings. Soldier-pride had receded into the background. The sense of being totally masculine lingered in the foreground. But what commanded his attention was the mystery of his heart and the image that now resided there.
He could soldier no more. He climbed his front steps, laid his rifle across his lap, and stared at the empty doorway across the street, waiting for her to emerge again and the mystery to be revealed. As the feelings in his heart dissipated, he became aware of a new feeling rising. He felt as if he had just witnessed some failure and, with that, became aware of an empty place in his heart. As his awareness of that vacuole became more focused, so did its intensity. Fearing he would be overcome by it, he stood up and walked around the side of his house to the backyard. Passing under the trellis at the gate, he smelled the sweet fragrance of the honeysuckle, a sweetness that usually made his heart feel light and his head giddy, but which now only stayed in his nostrils. He stood in the backyard, looking to see if any new fantasy could be conjured that would break the spell of the feeling that possessed him. No fantasy materialized. He turned and walked up the back steps, feeling relief as he entered into the shadows of the porch and the anticipated embrace of his mother.
Fingering the pages of the book he held in his hand, he thought the following: she had entered his heart then, or perhaps, more accurately, the she that resided within caught a reflection of itself in the image of the girl in the pink dress.
Savoring this thought, he recalled another memory. He was younger, two perhaps, still light enough to be carried with ease by his mother. After his afternoon nap, feeling calm, satisfied, and a little sleepy, he would be awakened by his mother and carried through the house. She would show him the things she considered precious. These were delicate figurines of glass and ceramic, which were placed on the higher shelves, out of his reach. The living room, where these objects were kept, had 18-foot vaulted ceilings, boxed-in wood beams, and leaded windows. On one side, the windows faced south, and the afternoon sun looked and felt glorious as it streamed through the diamond- shaped leading. The largeness of the room, the sunlight, his full-bellied sleepiness, and the security of his mother’s embrace created a meditative environment which sanctified the ritual in which he and his mother participated.
On the sill of a side window stood two ceramic figurines: Tony, a colt, and Twinkle, a calf. His mother would reach up and take Tony down. She would show him the colt, pointing out its features and telling him a little about colts. They had mommies called mares and daddies called stallions. They liked to play in grassy fields, and they grew up to be horses that people ride. Then she would let him touch Tony. That was a special moment, touching the precious cool and glazed surfaces of that which his mother loved and of which she spoke with such caring. The figurine was cradled in the hand which also cradled him and touched him with tenderness. Her fingers were long and graceful. Her nails were well-manicured; the half-moons of each were distinct, the trimmed portion accurately cut and symmetrical. In the image of her hand holding the figurine was born in his heart feelings of perfection, beauty, tenderness, femininity, delicacy, and reverence for all that was fragile. He came to know his heart in this way, and into his hand passed the spirit of his mother and the feminine.
She dwelt in him in two places: his hands and his heart. In the length and slenderness of his fingers, he saw her hands. In the width and strength of his palms, he saw his father’s. His hands brought him much pleasure. They were visible manifestations of his heart, exhibiting for all to see the qualities hidden within him: strength, tenderness toward fragility, grace, subtlety of movement that portrayed nuances of emotion, compassion, nurturing, decisiveness, playfulness, tenuousness, abiding steadfastness. In his heart he cultivated rarer forms of the same characteristics.
"Odd", he thought to himself, opening the book to the section on Wordsworth, "how all along I have considered that I have the body of a man and the heart of a woman."
That was what he meant when he said he felt her move within him. A gesture, a response, an emotion, a sensitivity would reveal her presence to him. He remembered making a vow to himself never to forsake that within him that allowed him to feel the pain of others and the beauty and fragility of life.
Leaving his reflections, he shifted his attention to the book in his hand. A title had caught his eye, and he thoughtlessly turned the pages until it lay before him. Scanning the lines of "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollection of Early Childhood", his eyes were caught by the following:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears;
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
Without asking himself "why", tears came to his eyes, and his hand moved to his chest to give comfort to whatever feelings of pain and joy moved deeply within that mystery he had come to know as his heart.