Carter had wondered for most of his life what made a man a man.

He read a lot, and things seemed pretty straight-forward in his favorite books. Men kept their families safe. They fended off wild beasts and guarded over tribes. Knights fought for their kingdoms. Villages lost half their people as men marched off to face unfaced hordes.

But that life went away as soon as Carter closed the cover. These days men didn’t guard their households from monsters. Most heard of war, but few ever knew it.

And somehow Carter always knew that, if given a chance to spill another man’s blood, his ego would hardly feel better for it.

Most of Carter’s friends were guys, but that never afforded him much comfort or guidance. They had gone from battling monsters on cards to shooting aliens on TV. Carter spent his days looking forward to these times. They had gotten him through high school and college and multiple internships. Through years a company he hated and years at a startup he didn’t. He couldn’t count all th e hours he had spent fighting, but in reality he had never even thrown a punch (or taken one, for that matter). Truth be told, he didn’t want to either. So what was this life, his life, all about?

Somewhere along the way he had picked up the notion that the purpose of life was love. You found a woman, and you loved her. The two of you had kids, and you loved them. If all went well, you became a grandparent someday, and you would get to know so many little people. You would love them too.

But it didn’t seem safe to get too invested in this portrayal of manhood. Too much love made you soft. He didn’t watch Saturday morning cartoons of a bunch of bros expressing affection to the people in their lives. No, he watched guys go kick other guys’ butts, and if a girl fell for them at some point along the way, it was due to their excellent butt-kicking.

Some of Carter’s peers had successfully translated this dynamic into sports. Football players crushed boys from other schools. Basketball players thrust into ribs and shoulders that got between them and the basket. Soccer players returned from games with injuries sustained on the field like soldiers wounded in battle.

These folks usually had the support of parents who saw the value of sports. Some even drew a direct line between athletics and manhood. Playing made you strong. being strong made you a man.

Carter envied these people for a long time. But by the time he went through college and a couple internships, he saw tat the whole sports thing had been a lie as well. Being good at ball didn’t make these boys qualified for a job, and getting a job made you a man.

Eventually Carter got a job. By now he had had a few. And once he started making more money than most of those guys would ever see, he noticed a shift in the balance of power. Now he was stronger. Now he was more of a man.

But he still had no idea what that meant. The older he got, the more this tore at him. He grew tired of the endless hours spent in front of a TV, slaying waves of virtual men that put up less of a fight than middle school boys. His ego no longer fed from the buffet of hollow success. He needed something more.

There was this girl at work that didn’t say she knew the answers to Carter’s questions. She didn’t even know they were being asked. But the more time Carter spent with her, the more confident he felt that he would figure it out. He didn’t go to his friends for help. They had never been much use for these things. He had wrestled with questions of manhood alone, and he would do so again now.

So they talked. He held the door open for her as they departed work for home each day. Eventually they talked on the phone and online. He was never given the impression that constant communication made a man a man, but the more he talked, the more like one he felt. It remained a work in progress, but at least there was something.

Eventually they slept together, and Carter would be lying if he said he didn’t enjoy it as much as those boys always had. But it wasn’t a feeling of conquest that made him feel like a man, it was the curling up afterwards. It was the conversations that followed the climax. It was looking at her stomach one day as she told him his seed had taken root. Together, they were creating life.

The answers came more quickly in the months after that. Carter didn’t become a more violent person, but he did have something worth fighting for.

And for the remainder of his life, he would.

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“Manhood” by Bertel King, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.