Conference for Men
BY ALUNA BROGDON
Finalist for the 2021 Adroit Prize for Prose
I’m chopping onions when I see the CONFERENCE FOR MEN on the fridge TV. It shows a hall of men gathered around a platform like ants around a mound. LEAVE YOUR LADIES AT THE DOOR, and a cut to women in a separate room, seated in metal chairs and in the midst of choreographed, side-splitting laughter. I put down my knife to watch. AND COME BACK BETTER MEN. The husbands collect their wives and the couples leave the room together. They are each matched in height, bone structure, color, like those dogs who look like their owners. The TV goes back to the conference, where a man has mounted the platform. IF YOU’RE A LONE WOLF, FIND YOUR INNER ALPHA. The men look up at him, gaping, like they might catch his words with their mouths.
When I was a Freshman I had a biology teacher who hosted a school assembly on drunk driving. She was tall and skinny and her voice was melodic, thin, such that one imagined light could pass through it. I waited for her class all day, but she worried me: she was the only black teacher at the school and I was scared she would embarrass herself. I’d sit in the back row, holding my breath as she described the body like layers of the ocean, each one denser and more obscure than the last.
I stopped fearing for her after that assembly. She stood onstage, rising above us like an antennae as the janitor rolled out a large board. On the board there was a poster with a cartoon of an inebriated boy, green booze bubbles wafting up from his lips; and in the shadowy background the lights of a cop car stalked him. The illustrator had decided not to draw any of the officer’s features except for his eyes, blue and glowing in a pale pink skull. It was a weird poster. The other materials she’d been given included a thick manual on the dangers of drunk driving and a whistle. I felt, vaguely, that she had been set up to fail. Once the board had been centered my teacher teetered before it, looked at it in silence. I worried she would find it genuinely moving. Then she began to laugh. We watched as she tried not to laugh, but did. The bones in her throat bobbed, stuck out like buckteeth. She turned to us and said,
“Okay, so…drunk driving=Not cool.” We appreciated that. Some administrators smiled. So she spoke, and we listened.
“I saw a CONFERENCE FOR MEN on TV today.” He looks at me and tries to figure out exactly what I’m implying.
“It’s not, like, teaching men how to be men. It’s more teaching men how to deal with the 21st century.” He nods, thinking, halves a white globe of potato. “And women.” He laughs.
“We deal with each other pretty well.”
“We do,” I say. “But I thought it could be interesting.”
It’s late: every ten minutes there is the reprise of a car pulling into a garage, and every time my fiancé gets slightly distracted. He freezes over his food and listens to the engines pass us, the slow beep of a garage door yawning open. He’s a car dealer. He owns his own practice and could come home earlier if he wanted, but business booms in the evenings. It’s easier to wear costumers down, men who’ve been looking for cars all day. “She’s a beauty,” he’ll say, and they realize that she’s the one they’ve been waiting for.
“Where is it?” We’re having dinner: Roast chicken and potatoes. I watch him eat. I’m worried that my marinade had too much onion. When I was little I thought I, too, might own or practice something—then we married after graduation and I realized how much I loved spending my days alone in the house–cooking, masturbating, watching TV housewives live caricatured versions of my life.
“Reno,” I say.
“That’s a drive.” His eyes pucker: mileage, gas, depreciation.
“Yeah,” I agree. “I just thought it could be interesting.” He dangles a pimpled chicken skin on his fork. I smell onion. He considers, but I know he will agree.
At thirteen I attended a camp for girls. I’d been a devout girl scout all of elementary school and this was the natural evolution. There were cabins squatting in rows by the lake, and there was canoeing and swimming and playing dead on the water, campfires and ghost stories at night. There I met a girl in my year who was perfect. She had just gotten her braces off and she always listened to people with her mouth slightly open, her teeth lined up like logs on a bridge. She had her hair braided, was rich, and was pretty: the only thing she didn’t have was a boyfriend, so I lied and told her I did, hoping that together we could make one complete woman.
“What’s he look like?” she asked. We sat cross-legged in the grass, knees touching. She was setting pebbles before an ant and watching it struggle.
“He’s tall, he plays basketball…” She poked at her ant. “He’s white.” She looked at me. The ant escaped. We became best friends.
For the rest of camp, we stitched ourselves together: canoed with our oars in sync, swam at the same pace, got scared of the same stories. When a termite infestation was found in my corner of the cabin, she let me sleep in her bunk. When she got homesick at night, I let her tuck herself against me. And when, halfway through camp, we tired of canoes, swimming laps, and stories, we kissed by the lake, listened to it suck at the soft shore, plying away mud to reveal roots smooth as bones.
The drive to the CONFERENCE is twelve hours long, with one stay overnight at a motel. We drink from the minibar and once I’m tipsy I get excited, arousal stuck in me like a thin blade. I put my hand on his thigh. He nudges it off. “I’m wiped out,” he says. I’m not offended: he’s been tapping the rim of his beer bottle, gazing out the hotel window, twisting and jiggling his feet. I imagine his toes getting tangled.
“Don’t worry,” I say. But he lies awake all night in anticipation of all those men. All their cars.
The next day we arrive at a building that exists only to rent out its rooms, a concrete fairground. The lobby is full. Most men came on this pilgrimage alone, but there are a few other couples, the women glancing over their shoulders. At the auditorium door I kiss him goodbye.
“…I’ll see you after?” He asks. I think of a child on the first day of school.
“Before you know it,” I tell him.
“Okay…” He hesitates, then nods, goes in. I watch him until he’s just another broad white body in the crowd.
Sometimes, when he’s at work, I worry that he will play with a costumer too much, and they will get violent. I worry after him like he’s a black man, like my mom did my dad; I sit at home and feel my fear throb like a phantom limb.
After the auditorium doors close, and the men and women have been sifted apart, us girls are taken to a our room. There are folding chairs in a circle and at the center, like a bellybutton, a round table with a box of donuts. I’m reminded of Sunday School as compared to real church. On the wall, I stare at a poster of a pregnant woman—but instead of a baby in her belly, there is miniature man. He is sucking his thumb, and there’s a band on his ring finger. Sheath Him says the poster. I believe it could be the same artist as Drunk Driving. I tear my gaze away and we women look at each other, all wonder what the other one is doing here.
“Steve’s been four times.” A woman finally breaches the silence. “It’s actually Great for our relationship.”
“Men need a place where they can just…be men.”
“Yes. Where they can tap into their masculinity. Not fear it.”
More nodding: we are all in sound agreement. We wait for someone to say something a bit more provocative.
“Steve…it really helped him hit his stride. If you know what I mean.”
Perfect. She senses our shock and looks at us with her eyes wide: this is something she really wants us to know. The woman next to her takes the bait.
“Well, you know the wolf stuff they mention…it helps him take control.”
Another woman leans forward and puts her hand on Steve’s wife’s knee.
We are intrigued.
“Like my husband—okay. I’ll just say this: My Howard has learned to howl.”
“No really. He even—I shouldn’t say this. But he’s let me explore his…”
She gestures to her seat area, and we gasp.
“No it’s good! He’s not so scared of me anymore.”
Another woman points, getting it.
“You know, you’re exactly right. It’s so hard these days to find men who aren’t terrified of women.”
“It’s because of feminism.”
That might be a step too far.
“Now wait, hold on—”
“I’m serious: girls get all this empowerment media. What about The Boys?”
“Right! They lack confidence. They need role models too!”
“You know, when I was in High School, I had this one teacher who I loved–”
“—And she did a school assembly on drunk driving. And she was so good, like, a natural leader. I felt so close to her. I just want my fiancé to experience that kind of thing for himself.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
Growing up I had an Aunt named Fran. People always said we looked alike and called me Chesca to be funny. When she was young Fran was beautiful, but when I knew her, her skin and body looked like wax left out in the sun. So I didn’t know how I felt about the nickname. My mother told me that’s what happens when you marry a bad man young: Your body loses its grip.
Fran never seemed to know how old I was so she was the one who told me about sex, age seven, while feeding me tootsie rolls on the back porch. “Let’s get away from those hags in the kitchen,” she said, and we sat outside, her hand on my leg. In middle school I started dating boys and she’d bring me to the porch and I’d tell her about it. She wanted details. She kept her pocket swollen with tootsie rolls to bait me into giving more. Sometimes there were dead bugs in the wrappers. If I stopped talking to get the gunk out of my teeth she’d say, “What, are you digging for gold?” I loved her partly because she was mean, because she scared me.
In eighth grade, Auntie Fran died from a stroke, a week after her 36th birthday. It turned out she’d had a brain tumor growing for years, silently gorging itself on dead cells and tissue. I heard my mother crying all night. The next morning, I entered the kitchen to find her standing by the stove. “You know, you and Fran hung out too much.” She didn’t look at me—just flipped a pancake, frowned to herself. “I always felt weird about it.”
We head home late on Sunday, the sun already down and a deep, hot darkness spilling like oil over the sky. As my fiancé drives I try to gage if he is different. Maybe his posture has improved; maybe he makes more eye contact; maybe he speaks using “I” statements.
“That is exactly what I wanted as a kid.” He’s lifted a hand from the wheel to point at a car down the road, whistling. It’s a Honda. I’m a bit disappointed.
“How was the conference?” He stares at the car for a moment longer, then turns to me.
“Oh, yeah, good. What you’d expect.”
“Yeah: Wolves, hustling, tips for getting girls—” At the last one he smiles. “I tuned that part out,” he says. I smile. My fiancé was in my Freshman biology class—I got close to him after our teacher went on maternity leave and never came back. He started the flirting: when an old man came in as our new instructor, he saw my disappointed and leaned in to whisper, “hopefully he’ll go on maternity leave too.” It made me laugh. I thought often our biology teacher at home, sitting at home with her feet up, stomach swelling like a welt. At our last office hours together, she’d said, “You remind me of yourself.” She smiled a perfect smile. “You’ll find your way.”
I was shocked to be dating a white boy, so unsure of it that couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents until two years in. My mother actually dropped her fork—a little dramatic, I thought. My father said nothing. He just looked at me. I adored him and that about broke my heart.
I was glad Fran would never know.
“So, I mean, was it helpful?” My fiancé shrugs. “Inspiring?” He shrugs again.
“I don’t know. It just was.” He changes lanes. Then he glances at me. “How were the women?”
That makes me laugh. “The Women…Fine!” Now it’s my turn to shrug. “What you’d expect.”
“Doting girlfriends and wives?” He asks.
“Exactly,” I say. But The Women were wonderful. Thirty minutes in, Steve’s wife had drawn a flask from her Louis Vuitton purse and passed it around like communion. One woman joked about her silliest stalker; another described to us her first orgasm, how it felt like rain after a drought. We topped it off with drunken lament over how we were all lesbians, or maybe over how we weren’t all lesbians. I don’t remember. By evening there were crumbs on the linoleum floor, Svedka dried sticky on the metal chairs, two donut boxes gaping open on the table. We didn’t clean; said instead to let the ants come and eat what we’d left behind.