The announcement comes over the phone, from West Coast to East, a long- distance obituary to a longtime relationship.
I listen as my old friend, a poet, mourns her loss, eulogizes her broken connection. Her words are so familiar to me that they might have been uttered at a hundred other such wakes: "In the end, he couldn't make a commitment."
This is the third time this month that I have been called upon as pallbearer to a love affair. Some strange spring fever seems to have proved fatal to these couplings.
In each case, the man came up to the threshold of promise. In each case, he experienced it less as a doorway than as a line drawn in the sand. A line he couldn't cross.
By the time I hang up the phone this long evening, I share my friends' pain and frustration. I want to say something about men and their troubles with the thing we call commitment.
I know that three life stories do not make a class action or even a generalization about men. I am surrounded by exceptions, in my home, my family, my friends, my reading.
Yet when I look back over space and time, I see more men who were skittish about permanent connections than women, more men who were frightened about commitment, more men who were anxious about marriage.
I am not talking about men who subscribe to Playboy's magazine and philosophy. I am not talking about musical comedy "guys" who fear being housebroken by marriage-minded "dolls." I am not just talking about 1950s bachelors who try to avoid the tender traps.
These are men who have relationships on which they work. These are men who may regard their reluctance to make a commitment as a problem. When pressed, though, they may tell themselves that the problem will disappear with "the right woman."
Nor do the women in their lives lay traps anymore. They do not fill hope chests or talk about men as good catches. They, too, have relationships on which they work.
Still, sometimes I wonder how much things have changed between men and women. The dimensions of the commitment problem, the description of it, may be different than in the days of the tender trap, but what about the origins, what about the feelings?
We still, men and women, grow up differently. It's not just a matter of dolls and building blocks, though there is some of that. We are taught in this country that people have to break away to become mature. People have to become independent, a condition we confuse with being alone. In real life, these people are men.
We teach men in a thousand ways that relationships are encumbrances that hold them back, trap them, catch them. It's the men, almost always, who become our lone rangers.
Women learn another double message. We are both urged toward independence and encouraged toward caretaking. We try to grow up without growing away, thinking of our selves and our lives as connected. And fearing isolation.
What happens then when we come together expecting love? Men who equate maturity with independence meet women who equate it with connections. Our fears collide.
Most of us break through this difference, but not all or always or without pain. Often there are casualties along the way.
The other day, I spoke with one of the three men who had caught this spring fever. It was hard, he said, but he would get through it, tough it out. I had the sense that he regarded this breakup as a challenge.
Reenacting some primal scene, he was again a real man, alone. In some odd way the new bad feelings felt right.
In the next few weeks or months, this man will use his considerable strength. He will use it to prevent himself from crossing the threshold. He will use it to deal with his loneliness. It will be easier for him that way, making no commitments.