uch of my life has been spent as a confidante, a bystander collecting people’s thrills and heartbreaks, constantly borrowing and grafting from their spoken psalms.
In my boyhood, adult men, most born at the beginning of the 20th century, narrated exotic yarn chock with spies, villains and seductions. Fleshy sponges, boys absorb such tales. They exist for stories and their tellers, who soon acquire legendary status. When women can no longer be gotten for sport, or the gotten women are wives, mothers, and grandmothers, wistful men are left only with clumps of mesmerized boys, who they work to win over. Or did.
When those storytellers gradually vanished and my friends became my contemporaries, the confidante talk veered into romance, real and wished for, with girls talking about boys who had or wouldn’t or couldn’t, who did too much or too little or understood nothing. Girls who thought they knew their way around kisses and temptations and flirtations but found themselves suddenly undone by peculiar and erratic drumbeat of boy-tunes, which left the girls to wonder, unlike the boys they thought they loved, about their self-worth and purpose. Girls more than boys talked and talked and walked miles with me through cities and along back routes, or rode in cars, or came home, resting on sofas late at night until they fell asleep, often in the middle of a sentences and tears. Which by morning sometimes seemed as though they’d never been shed. Girls, before infants stole their whole attention, were devotedly, even obsessively, remarkable, or so it seemed.
Boys were coy, its male equivalent the taking of a stormy and circular talking route, like polar bears at once roaring and weeping, the two indistinguishable to the listener. When boys talked about girls, or wives, they often needed to do something, to hold a thing, a bat or a banister, as if the physics of holding or moving or pressing could put an end to disappointment, or contain it. Some wandered through whole rooms liked spooked shamans convinced they’d been wronged by the world. The stories of boys contained none of the somnolence of those of girls; boys spoke in fractures or not at all. Or they drank. My male confidantes were fewer, and less aware of their intermediary, determined to roar when they’d in fact lost their voices, and their hearts. Which girls of course had taken, but often in ways they couldn’t openly express without unzipping the tight male lining that keeps that gender raw but intact.
Playing confidante helped me paper over my own chosen solitude, caulking up its substantive gaps, including marriage and children. Monastic landscapes can alarm those who see procreation and its vividly affirming clutter not as a choice but a fundamental obligation and a means to self-affirmation, if not the only one. People who “do” words are instead absorbed in listening, since their own “doing,” the act of affecting (and enlarging), is reined by a voracious self that burrows into vicarious worlds and fantasies to satisfy the needs of life’s recurring hunger.
The eternal confidante is “condemned” to a lifetime of listening, which eventually makes him the adult in the postcard of his childhood, in which he tells curious boys — not his own — about his own life and times, hoping maybe to bask in the same light a previous generation gleaned from his attention.
The girls he once talked to and listened to, now women, speak of daughters, and their daughters of romance, of aspirations of happiness, of boys and how they work, or don’t; of sexual hydraulics more detailed than ever; of happy and sad human collisions whose constancy depends on telegraphic musings, of short-fire, tapped out sentences that come and go, too short to accomplish anything but establishing passing extremes of mood.
A confidante’s thrall-collecting naturally slows over years, as age breaks life into those with world enough and time and those with less of both, the tribe of the former these days involved with devices that furnish a kind of event replenishment that is so quick and constant that life can seem too ephemeral, too confusing, and literally beyond words.
But the confidante stays the course, or tries to, listening as readily to those who insist they know it all as to those who insist they never understood anything, and still don’t. Occasionally a man, now adult, behaves as a boy and a woman, now adult, as a girl, or vice versa, mixing up the elixir of sure things and making it clear that no maturity is absolute and no adulthood remote from child caprice. Listen long enough and you recognize all joys and complaints as retellings of a single human story, which in turn is the chatterbox story of history, the gossip the planet is condemned to speak so that someone might hear it, and perhaps even write it down.