Norah Vincent, author of "Self-Made Man," left her job as a nationally syndicated opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times to research this book. For 18 months, she dressed up as a man at work and in social situations. She even went on dates with women. Vincent said the experience left her with a greater appreciation and understanding of men -- their emotions, their expectations and their relationships with women.
Read an excerpt of "Self-Made Man" below.
When I told my proudly self-confessed trailer-trash girlfriend that Ned was joining a men's bowling league, she said by way of advice, "Just remember that the difference between your people and my people is that my people bowl without irony." Translation: hide your bourgeois flag, or you'll get the smugness beaten out of you long before they find out you're a woman.
People who play in leagues for money take bowling seriously, and they don't take kindly to journalists infiltrating their hard-won social lives, especially when the interloper in question hasn't bowled more than five times in her life, and then only for a lark.
But my ineptitude and oddball status notwithstanding, bowling was the obvious choice. It's the ultimate social sport, and as such it would be a perfect way for Ned to make friends with guys as a guy. Better yet, I wouldn't have to expose any suspicious body parts or break a heavy sweat and risk smearing my beard.
Still, in practice, it wasn't as easy as it sounded. Taking that first step through the barrier between Ned the character in my head and Ned the real guy among the fellas proved to be more jarring than I could have ever imagined.
Any smartly dressed woman who has ever walked the gauntlet of construction workers on lunch break or otherwise found herself suddenly alone in unfamiliar male company with her sex on her sleeve will understand a lot of how it felt to walk into that bowling alley for the first time on men's league night. Those guys may not have known that I was a woman, but the minute I opened the door and felt the air of that place waft over me, every part of me did.
My eyes blurred in panic. I didn't see anything. I remember being aware only of a wave of noise and imagined distrust coming at me from undistinguishable faces. Probably only one or two people actually turned to look, but it felt as if every pair of eyes in the place had landed on me and stuck.
I'd felt a milder version of this before in barbershops or auto body shops. This palpable unbelonging that came of being the sole female in an all-male environment. And the feeling went right through my disguise and my nerve and told me that I wasn't fooling anyone.
This was a men's club, and men's clubs have an aura about them, a mostly forbidding aura that hangs in the air. Females tend to respond to it viscerally, as they are meant to. The unspoken signs all say no girls allowed and keep out or, more idly, enter at your own risk.
As a woman, you don't belong. You're not wanted. And every part of you knows it, and is just begging you to get up and leave.
And I nearly did leave, even though I'd only made it two steps inside the door and hadn't even been able to look up yet for fear of meeting anyone's eyes. After standing there frozen for several minutes, I had just about worked up the gumption to retreat and call off the whole thing when the league manager saw me.
"Are you Ned?" he asked, rushing up to me. "We've been waiting for you."
He was a tiny, wizened stick figure, with a five-day growth of gray stubble on his chin, a crew cut to match, a broken front tooth and a black watch cap.
I had called earlier in the week to find out about the league, and he'd told me what time to show up and which guy to ask for when I got there. I was late already, and my nervous hesitations had made me later.
"Yeah," I croaked, trying to keep my voice down and my demeanor unshaken.
"Great," he said, grabbing me by the arm. "C'mon and get yourself some shoes and a ball."
"Okay," I said, following his lead.
There was no getting out of it now.
He walked me over to the front desk and left me there with the attendant, who was helping another bowler. As I stood waiting, I was able for the first time to focus on something beyond myself and my fear of immediate detection. I looked at the rows of cubbyholes behind the desk, all with those familiar red, blue and white paneled shoes stuffed in them in pairs. Seeing them comforted me a little. They reminded me of the good times I'd always had bowling with friends as a kid, and I felt a little surge of carelessness at the prospect of making a fool out of myself. So what if I couldn't bowl? This was an experiment about people, not sport, and nobody had yet pointed and laughed. Maybe I could do this after all. I got my shoes, took them over to a row of orange plastic bucket chairs and sat down to change. This gave me a few more minutes to take in the scene, a few more minutes to breathe and watch people's eyes to see if they followed me, or if they passed over me and moved on.
A quick scan satisfied me that nobody seemed suspicious.
So far so good.
I'd chosen well in choosing a bowling alley. It was just like every other bowling alley I'd ever seen; it felt familiar. The decor was lovingly down at heel and generic to the last detail, like something out of a mail-order kit, complete with the cheap plywood paneling and the painted slogans on the walls that said: Bowling is Family Fun. There were the usual shabby cartoons of multicolored balls and pins flying through the air, and the posted scores of top bowlers. The lanes, too, were just as I remembered them, long and glistening with that mechanized maw scraping at the end. And then, of course, there were the smells; cigarette smoke, varnish, machine oil, leaky toilets, old candy wrappers and accumulated public muck all commingling to produce that signature bowling alley scent that envelops you the moment you enter and clings to you long after.
As far as I could see, only one thing had really changed in the last fifteen years. Scoring wasn't done by hand anymore. Instead, everything was computerized. You just entered the names and averages of each player on the console at your table, and the computer did the rest, registering scores, calculating totals and flashing them on monitors above each lane. As I scoped the room, I noticed the team captains all busily attending to their monitors. Meanwhile their teammates were strapping on wrist braces and dusting their palms with rosin, or taking advantage of a few last minutes of pregame practice.
I could see then that this was going to be laughable. They were all throwing curve balls that they'd been perfecting for twenty years. I couldn't even remember how to hold a bowling ball, much less wing it with any precision. And that was the least of my worries. I was in drag in a well-lighted place, surrounded by some sixty-odd guys who would have made me very nervous under normal circumstances.
I was dressed as down and dirty as Ned got in a plaid shirt, jeans and a baseball cap pulled low over the most proletarian glasses I could find. But despite my best efforts, I was still far too scrubbed and tweedy amid these genuine articles to pass for one of them. Even at my burliest, next to them I felt like a petunia strapped to a Popsicle stick.
I was surrounded by men who had cement dust in their hair and sawdust under their fingernails. They had nicotine-sallowed faces that looked like ritual masks, and their hands were as tough and scarred as falcon gloves. These were men who, as one of them told me later, had been shoveling shit their whole lives.
Looking at them I thought: it's at times like these when the term "real man" really hits home with you, and you understand in some elemental way that the male animal is definitely not a social construct.
I didn't see how this could possibly work. If I was passing, I was passing as a boy, not a man, and a candy boy at that. But if they were judging me, you wouldn't have known it from the way they greeted me.
The league manager led me toward the table where my new teammates were sitting. As we approached, they all turned to face me.
Jim, my team captain, introduced himself first. He was about five feet six, a good four inches shorter than I am, with a lightweight build, solid shoulders, but skinny legs and oddly small feet -- certainly smaller than mine, which have now topped out at an alarming men's eleven and a half. This made me feel a little better. He actually came across as diminutive. He wore his baseball cap high on his head, and a football jersey that draped over his jeans almost to his knees. He had a mustache and a neat goatee. Both were slightly redder than his light brown head of hair, and effectively hid the boyish vulnerability of his mouth. He was thirty-three, but in bearing, he seemed younger. He wasn't a threat to anyone and he knew it, as did everyone who met him. But he wasn't a weak link either. He was the scrappy guy in the pickup basketball game.
As he extended his arm to shake my hand, I extended mine, too, in a sweeping motion. Our palms met with a soft pop, and I squeezed assertively the way I'd seen men do at parties when they gathered in someone's living room to watch a football game. From the outside, this ritual had always seemed overdone to me. Why all the macho ceremony? But from the inside it was completely different. There was something so warm and bonded in this handshake. Receiving it was a rush, an instant inclusion in a camaraderie that felt very old and practiced.
It was more affectionate than any handshake I'd ever received from a strange woman. To me, woman-to-woman introductions often seem fake and cold, full of limp gentility. I've seen a lot of women hug one another this way, too, sometimes even women who've known each other for a long time and think of themselves as being good friends.
They're like two backward magnets pushed together by convention. Their arms and cheeks meet, and maybe the tops of their shoulders, but only briefly, the briefest time politeness will allow. It's done out of habit and for appearances, a hollow, even resentful, gesture bred into us and rarely felt.
This solidarity of sex was something that feminism tried to teach us, and something, it now seemed to me, that men figured out and perfected a long time ago. On some level men didn't need to learn or remind themselves that brotherhood was powerful. It was just something they seemed to know.
When this man whom I'd never met before shook my hand he gave me something real. He included me. But most of the women I'd ever shaken hands with or even hugged had held something back, as if we were in constant competition with each other, or secretly suspicious, knowing it but not knowing it, and going through the motions all the same. In my view bra burning hadn't changed that much.
Next I met Allen. His greeting echoed Jim's. It had a pronounced positive force behind it, a presumption of goodwill that seemed to mark me as a buddy from the start, no questions asked, unless or until I proved otherwise. "Hey, man," he said. "Glad to see you."
He was about Jim's height and similarly built. He had the same goatee and mustache, too. He was older, though, and looked it. At forty-four, he was a study in substance abuse and exposure to the elements. His face was permanently flushed and pocked with open pores; a cigarette-, alcohol- and occupation-induced complexion that his weather-bleached blond hair and eyebrows emphasized by contrast.
Bob I met last. We didn't shake hands, just nodded from across the table. He was short, too, but not lean. He was forty-two and he had a serious middle-aged belly filling out his T-shirt, the unbeltable kind that made you wonder what held up his pants. He had sizable arms, but no legs or ass, the typical beer-hewn silhouette. He had a ragged salt-and-pepper mustache, and wore large glasses with no-nonsense metal frames and slightly tinted aviator lenses. He wasn't the friendly type.
Thankfully, Jim did most of the talking that first night, and with his eyes, he included me in the conversation from the beginning. He had known Bob and Allen for a long time. They had all been playing golf and poker together several times a month for years, and Allen was married to Bob's sister. I was a stranger out of nowhere without any shared work or home life experience to offer, and Jim's social generosity gave me an in.
He was a natural comedian and raconteur, easy to listen to and talk to; the most open of the bunch by far, and charming as hell. He told stories of the worst beatings he'd taken in his life -- and it sounded like there were quite a few -- as if they were parties he'd been privileged to attend. He had a robust sense of his own absurdity and a charming willingness to both assign and ridicule his own role in whatever fate he'd been privy to. Even the most rotten things he'd been handed in life, things that were in no way his fault, things like his wife's ongoing ill health -- first cancer, then hepatitis, then cancer again -- he took with a surprising lack of bitterness. He never fumed about anything, at least not in front of us. That, it seemed, was a private indulgence, and his only apparent public indulgences were of the physical variety -- cigarettes, a few beers out of the case he always brought for the team and junk food.
We all usually ate junk food on those Monday nights, all of us except Bob, who stuck to beer, but let us send his twelve-year-old son Alex, who always tagged along on league night, next door to the 7-Eleven to buy hot dogs, candy, soda, whatever. We always tipped the kid a little for his services, a dollar here and there, or the change from our purchases.
Alex was clearly there to spend some quality time with his dad, but Bob mostly kept him at bay. If we weren't sending him next door to fetch snacks, Bob was usually fobbing him off in some other way with a few extra dollars. He'd encourage him to go and bowl a few practice frames in one of the empty lanes at the end of the alley, or play one of the video games against the back wall. Alex was immature for his age, a chatty kid, and a bit of a nudge, always full of trivia questions or rambling anecdotes about some historical fact he'd learned in school. Typical kids' stuff, but I couldn't really blame Bob for wanting to keep him occupied elsewhere. If you let Alex hang on your arm, he would, and he'd make you wish you hadn't. Besides, this was men's night out, and most of what we talked about wasn't for kids' ears. I noticed, though, that no one ever tempered his speech when Alex was around. We swore like stevedores, and nobody seemed bothered, including me, that a twelve-year-old was within earshot. I can't say that the kid ever aroused any maternal instinct in me. I went along with the make-him-a-man attitude that seemed to prevail at the table. In that sense, Alex and I were on a par in our tutorial on manhood, just doing what was expected of us. I was never mean to him, but I participated heartily when the guys teased him. When he'd been going on for too long about Amerigo Vespucci or something else he'd picked up in social studies, either Jim or Allen would say, "Are you still talking?" and we'd all laugh. Alex always took it well, and usually just went right on talking.
I got the impression that part of Bob's way of teaching his son how to relate to other men was to throw him in with the wolves and let him find his way by trial and error. He'd learn his place in the pack by seeing what worked and what didn't. If he took harsh insults or beatings in the process, so much the better. It would toughen him up.
On this subject, Allen asked me if I'd ever heard the Johnny Cash song "A Boy Named Sue." I hadn't -- a lapse that, thinking back on it now, probably should have been a tip-off that I wasn't a guy, since the joke in my circle of friends has always been that every guy in the world is a Johnny Cash fan on some level, "Ring of Fire" being the universal guy guy's anthem of troubled love.
Allen told me the story of the song about a boy whose renegade father had named him Sue. Naturally, the kid gets the shit beaten out of him throughout his childhood on account of his name. At the end of the song the kid, all grown up, meets his father in a bar and beats the shit out of him in turn for giving him a girl's name. Once beaten, the father stands up proudly and says:
Son, this world is rough
And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
And I know I wouldn't be there to help you along.
So I give you that name and I said "Good-bye."
I knew you'd have to get tough or die.
And it's that name that helped to make you strong.
. . . Now you have just fought one helluva fight,
And I know you hate me, and you've got the right
To kill me now and I wouldn't blame you if you do.
But you ought to thank me before I die
For the gravel in your guts and the spit in your eye
Because I'm the -------- that named you Sue. It was amazing how close Allen had come to my secret without knowing it. I'd have to remind the guys of times like this if I ever decided to tell them the truth about me. I wondered if they'd get a kick out of seeing all the signposts in retrospect, the ones I was always noticing along the way.
Being Ned, I had to get used to a different mode. The discord between my girlish ways and the male cues I had to learn, like Alex, on the fly, was often considerable in my mind. For example, our evenings together always started out slowly with a few grunted hellos that among women would have been interpreted as rude. This made my female antennae twitch a little. Were they pissed off at me about something?
But among these guys no interpretation was necessary. Everything was out and aboveboard, never more, never less than what was on anyone's mind. If they were pissed at you, you'd know it. These gruff greetings were indicative of nothing so much as fatigue and appropriate male distance. They were glad enough to see me, but not glad enough to miss me if I didn't show.
Besides, they were coming from long, wearying workdays, usually filled with hard physical labor and the slow, soul-deadening deprecation that comes of being told what to do all day by someone you'd like to strangle. They didn't have the energy for pretense. Allen was a construction worker, Bob a plumber. Jim was working in the repair department of an appliance company. For extra cash to buy Christmas presents and maybe take a week-long ski trip to Vermont on the dirt cheap, he also picked up odd jobs in construction or whatever came up, and he worked part-time in a party store. None of them got much satisfaction from their jobs, nor did they expect any. Work was just something they did for their families and for the few spare moments it afforded them in front of the football game on Sundays, or at the bowling alley on Mondays. Jim lived in a trailer park and Allen had lived in one for much of his life, though now it was unclear where he was living. Bob never said where he lived. As always, Jim cracked jokes about his class. With his usual flip wit, he called trailer parks "galvanized ghettos," and Allen chimed in about living in a shithole full of "wiggers," or "white niggers," themselves being foremost among them.
In my presence, none of them ever used the word "nigger" in any other context, and never spoke disrespectfully of black people. In fact, contrary to popular belief, white trash males being the one minority it is still socially acceptable to vilify, none of these guys was truly racist as far as I could tell, or certainly no more than anyone else.
As usual, Jim told a funny story about this. He said that he'd been coming out of a bar late one night, and a black guy had approached him asking for money. He'd emerged from a wooded area behind the bar that was well known as one of nature's crack dens in the area. The guy said to Jim, "Hey man. Don't be afraid of me 'cause I'm black, okay. I just wondered if you had some money to spare."
"I'm not afraid of you because you're black," Jim shot back. "I'm afraid of you because you came out of the woods." They took people at face value. If you did your job or held up your end, and treated them with the passing respect they accorded you, you were all right. If you came out of the woods, you were shady no matter what your color. They were big football fans, so on one particular Monday I introduced a hot topic of the week to see if I could feel out their positions on race and affirmative action in professional sports. That week Rush Limbaugh had made his now infamous remark while commentating on a Philadelphia Eagles game for ESPN, suggesting that Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, one of a handful of black quarterbacks in the NFL, "got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve."
I asked the guys right out: "Do you think McNabb deserves to be where he is?"
I thought they would meet this with a flurry of impassioned responses, but the conversation ended with a single comment from each. Yeah, he was doing a great job. Yeah, he was as good as or better than the average quarterback in the league. They were happy with his performance, on some nights very happy, and that was all that mattered. The policy debate over skin color wasn't interesting to them, or relevant. They were rock bottom utilitarians. Either a guy was good and did what he was hired to do, or he wasn't, and that alone was the basis on which you judged his worth.
The only time I heard the term "reverse discrimination" mentioned, Jim was telling a story, as he did from time to time, about his stint in the army. He'd been promoted to the position of gunner, apparently, and had occupied the post proficiently for some time, when a new superior officer, a black man, was installed in his unit. Jim found himself demoted to KP and a whole host of other shit jobs soon thereafter.
"The guy had taken everyone out of their posts and put all his black friends in them instead," Jim said. "It was blatant discrimination. So I went to the sergeant in charge, who was a black guy and very fair, and told him all about it. He consulted the evidence and told me I was right, and put me back in my position."
Everyone nodded around the table and that was that.
Exposing my own prejudices, I had expected these guys to be filled with virulent hatred for anyone who wasn't like them, taking their turn to kick the next guy down. But the only consistent dislike I ever saw in them was for comparatively wealthy clients for whom they'd done construction, plumbing or carpentry work and the like. But even here they mostly laughed at the indignities inflicted on them, and marveled, more than balked, at the odd habits and hang-ups of the upper middle class, saying only "rich people are just like that."
Bob told a funny story about a buddy of his getting a wicked case of the shits on a job and being summarily denied the use of the "old lady's toilet." There was nothing for it, so as Bob described it, the guy took a newspaper and a bucket into the back of their van and camped out. After a while the old lady, wanting to know why there'd been an unauthorized work stoppage, burst into the van, only to happen upon a very unsavory scene that sent her shrieking from the premises, denouncing the men as barbarians.
There were the occasional gay or sexist jokes, but they, too, were never mean-spirited. Ironically enough, the guys told me that I, being the worst bowler in the league by far -- my average was a mere 100 -- was lucky I hadn't bowled with them in a previous season when anyone who averaged less than 120 incurred the label "fag," and anyone who averaged less than 100 was, by default, a girl. At the end of the season, whoever had won the booby prize had had to bowl an entire ten frames in women's panties.
They each had the usual stories about being propositioned by a gay man, or happening on a gay bar unawares, but they told them with the same disarming bemusement and self-abasement as they told the stories about the habitually mysterious ways of rich people. Gay people and their affairs didn't much interest them, and if gays were the butt of a joke now and then, so was everyone else, including, and most often, themselves.
Nothing was beyond humor, especially for Jim, but he was a sharp guy, and when he made a joke he always knew, and let you know that he knew, what he was doing with a quip. He introduced the most outrageous joke he ever told in my presence with an appropriate caveat. "Okay, this is a really sick joke," he said. "I mean really sick, but it's funny as shit. You wanna hear it?" Everyone nodded. "Okay. A child molester and a little girl are walking into the woods -- " He stopped here to add, "I told you it was really sick." Then he went on. "Anyway, so the little girl says to the child molester, 'Mister, it's getting really dark out here. I'm scared,' and the child molester says, 'Yeah, well how do you think I feel? I've got to walk back alone.' "
Jim was at his funniest when it came to women and relations between the sexes. As always, his observations were startlingly astute and his anecdotal way of framing them drew you in and made you come away rolling. Apropos of nothing, he introduced the topic of women one night with this interjection:
"You know, if guys could just learn to go without the pussy for a while, they'd get so much shit done. I mean, that's what boxers do when they're training, and it keeps 'em focused for the fight. Go without the pussy and you get strong, man. I mean, I haven't been laid in two months, and I'm about ready to lift up the corner of the house."
This was the kind of thing that just came out of his mouth out of nowhere and it used to make me wonder what he might have done with himself if he'd gone to college instead of joining the army at seventeen. His humor was the ticket to his brain, and you could tell it was whirring at a higher speed than most of the brains around him.
He often told stories about his days at school as a kid, stories that confirmed my suspicion that he had a lot going on inside his head that had been beaten out of him on the playground, and that he now knew enough not to share in the wrong company. Here again, though, he was impossibly funny.
"I was one of those quiet, psycho kids," he'd say. "I never spoke. I just sat there in the corner. You couldn't provoke me to fight. You could be pokin' me with a stick and I wouldn't move. I'd just be sittin' there drawing pictures of killing your family."
Every now and then Jim would come out with a word that somebody -- either Bob or Alex -- would call him on, a word like "enable," which Alex wanted to know the meaning of, and "cordial," which Jim used to describe his behavior toward someone or another, and which Bob clearly thought was a little too big for britches.
In Jim's defense I said that the word was only "too, too" if you were talking cocktails, which, of course, only made it worse, because it made me sound like an asshole, and blew for good whatever class cover or remote coolness I might have gained.
Jim salvaged me, though, with a courtesy laugh.
Then he went on with his riff about men and women: "I mean, take work, for example. I can work with an ugly chick. There's an ugly chick works in my office with me every day, and I'm fine. I do my thing. I can concentrate fine. But every now and then there's this hot, hot woman who comes into the office, and for the whole time she's there I'm completely fucked. Everything's out the window. I don't get shit done. All I can do is stare at her like this -- " Here he made a dumbfounded expression, mimicking himself in the office ogling the hot chick.
But all joking aside, these guys took their sexuality for what it was. They felt there was no getting around it, so they found ways to work within it, ways that sometimes entailed lying to their wives about going to the odd strip club. One night Jim was talking about his plans for a ski trip. He wanted to find a location that had good skiing, but he also wanted some lively nightlife. "I'd like to find a place that has a good titty bar," he said.
Bob chimed in, "Yeah. Count me in on that. I'm definitely up for that."
This sparked a short discussion of titty bars and how the married man negotiated them. The ski trip would offer one of the few opportunities for the boys to be boys, since their wives weren't coming along. This had to be taken advantage of, since it was clear that at least Bob's and Jim's wives had expressly forbidden them to go to strip clubs. Besides, they agreed, no vacation would be quite as relaxing without a little skin in it. For these guys, it seemed, there were just some things a married man learned not to be honest about with his wife, his abiding love of and even need for porn and sex shows being prime examples.
As Allen told me once when I asked about the secret to marriage: "You tell women what you want them to know and let them assume the rest."
None of this talk surprised me. We were, by virtue of our name, the recognized dirty team in the league. The rest of the teams had names like Jeb's Lawn Care or Da Buds, but ours was The Tea Baggers. When I heard this the first night I nearly blew my cover, blurting like an art house idiot, "Oh, do you guys like John Waters movies?" Waters's movie Pecker had featured the practice of tea bagging.
"Who's he?" they all asked.
"Oh," I mumbled, "I thought that's where you got the name from."
"Nah," said Jim. "It's something I saw in a porno mag. Some guy was squatting over a girl, dangling his balls in her mouth, and the caption said 'Tea Bagging.' I thought that was fucking hilarious."
The oddest thing about all this dirty talk and hiding strip club visits from their wives was the absolute reverence with which they spoke about their wives and their marriages. To them it seemed it was necessary to lie about certain things, but in their minds this didn't threaten or damage the integrity of their partnerships. They were happy and they cherished their wives.
When Jim's wife's second cancer diagnosis came through he talked about it with us a bit, but only in clipped phrases. He'd spent the previous week drinking himself into a stupor and blowing up abandoned cars on the back lot of a friend's junkyard. You could tell that the news was devouring him, and the only way he could deal with it was to tear himself up and anything else inanimate that was handy.
"You know, man," he said to me, "she puts up with a hell of a lot with me, and I can't say I've ever been unhappy with her. How many guys can say that? I've got a good woman. She's never given me a minute's trouble." Bob agreed. "Yeah, that's how I feel. I got nothin' bad to say about my wife either. Nothin'."
It was an odd contradiction, but one that I came across fairly often among married men who talked to Ned about their sexuality. The way they told it, it sounded as if the male sex drive and marriage were incompatible. Something had to give, and usually what gave was honesty. These guys either lied to their wives about going to strip clubs, or at the very least they lied about the ubiquity of their sexual fantasies involving other women. On nights like these, among the boys, they could be honest, and there were no judgments.
The bowling part of the evening was clearly secondary to the beer and the downtime with the boys at the table, smoking and talking shit. They cared about their game and the team's standing -- more than they let on -- but as Jim jokingly put it to me as a way of making me feel better for being the worst bowler any of them had ever seen, the league was really just an excuse to get away from their wives for the evening. I learned later that this wasn't true. Actually, it was a money league, and every game we lost cost us twenty dollars. This made me all the more thankful and impressed that they'd taken my poor showing with such good humor.
Still, they warmed to me more and more as my bowling improved, and I got the sense that it wasn't just about the money. It was as if there was an unspoken credo among them that there was just something you couldn't quite trust about a guy who couldn't bowl. I didn't drink or smoke either, and, though they never said so, I could tell they thought this was just downright unnatural, probably the sign of someone who had it too good in life for his own good. Beer and cigarettes were their medicine, their primrose path to an early grave, which was about the best, aside from sex and a few good times with the guys, that they could hope for in life. The idea of telling one of these guys that smoking or drinking to excess was bad for his health was too ridiculously middle class to entertain. It bespoke a supreme ignorance of what their lives were really like -- Hobbesian -- not to put too fine a point on it. Nasty, brutish and short. The idea that you would try to prolong your grueling, dead-end life, and do it by taking away the few pleasures you had along the way, was just insulting.
The whole business of bowling, when we got down to it, was, as you might expect, tied in to masculinity in all the predictable ways -- hierarchy, strength, competition -- but it was much more subtly processed and enacted than I had suspected it would be, and I wasn't outside this tug-of-war by any means. I had my own issues, old issues that were bound up with being a tomboy and competing in sports with boys my whole life.
When I appeared at the bowling alley on that first night, I was late. Practice time was just ending, so I didn't get a chance to throw before we started. These guys had been bowling all their lives. They threw with spin and they hit with precision. They must have known me for the putz I was the minute I heaved the ball with both hands. There were fifty or sixty guys in that room, almost everybody smoking, almost everybody drinking. They had names like Adolph and Mac, and to a dyke scared to death of being gay-bashed, they were just downright mean looking, all seated at their respective tables with nothing else to do but watch you, the new pencil neck that nobody knew, walk up to the foul line and make an art of the gutter ball. They must have had some pretty hearty laughs at my expense.
That's how it felt anyway, and that's probably how it went down among the other teams when my back was turned. But when I'd traipse back to my table in fuchsia-faced shame with a zero or a foul blinking on the board, they never laid me low. I always got supportive advice. "You'll get there, man," they'd say. "You should have seen me when I started." Or more helpfully: "Just shake hands with the pins, man. That's all you got to do. Just shake hands with the pins." They were far more generous with me than they had any reason to be, and it was only after a couple of months when they got to know me a little better that they felt free enough to kid me now and then about how much I sucked. But even then it was always light and affectionate, a compliment really, a sign that they were letting me in.
"Hey, we all got strikes this round," Bob would say, "except one. Who was that, I wonder?" Then he'd smile at me while leaning back in his chair, dragging deeply on his cigarette. I'd make a big show of giving him the finger, and we'd all laugh. Bob's flinty veneer was cracking.
As I tried to be one of the guys, I could feel myself saying and doing the very things that young men do as teens when they're trying to sort out their place in the ranks. Like them, I was trying to fit in, be inconspicuous, keep from being found out. And so I imitated the modeled behaviors that said "Accept me. I'm okay. I'm one of the guys."
Half the time I was ashamed of myself for trying too hard, saying fuck or fuckin' one too many times in a sentence for effect, or swaggering just a little too wide and loose on my way to and from my turns, and probably looking as a result like I had a load in my pants.
But then I could see all of these learned behaviors in Bob and Jim and Allen, too, as well as the remnant insecurity they were meant to disguise. And that, I think, was where their generosity came from. They'd outgrown that adolescent need to challenge every comer as a way of deflecting their own misgivings. As always, Jim was the most forthcoming about his stupid flights of machismo and the Dumpsters they'd usually landed him in.
"I remember when I was in the army," he'd say, "and I was drunk off my ass as usual. And there was this huge guy playin' pool in the bar I was in. And I don't know why, but I just flicked a beer coaster at him, and it hit him right in the back of the head. And he turned around really slowly and he looked down at me and he said in this really tired way 'Do we really need to do this tonight?' And I said, 'Nah, you're right. We don't. Sorry.' So he turned around, and fuck me if I didn't just throw another one and hit him again, right in the back of the head. I don't know why I did it. No fuckin' idea. And I knew when I did it that he was gonna kick my ass, so I turned around and tried to run, and I slipped in a puddle of beer and fell on my face, and he just picked me right up and bashed the shit out of me. And the funniest thing about it was that the whole time he was punching me, he kept apologizing to me for having to do it."
This was a source of hilarity to everyone, the stupid crap you felt compelled to do as a guy finding your spot in the scheme of things, and the obligatory beatings you had to give or take to reestablish order after a breach. But only Jim really had enough perspective to admit the folly of his masculinity, and to fully appreciate the absurdity of brutish necessity in the male-on-male world. A guy whom you'd just provoked twice, and who'd warned you not to trespass, had no choice but to beat you if you crossed the line. That was just how it was among men, and Jim mocked it lovingly. Bob was more guarded. He didn't quite have Jim's gift for self-deprecation. He didn't readily admit his mistakes or the missteps he'd made in the past. I got the sense that he couldn't afford to express regret or let on that he didn't know something. Instead, he held the world at arm's length, projecting a kind of terse authority from his barrel chest, just nodding or frowning at something you'd say, as if the answer was insufferably obvious, when, of course, at least half the time he probably didn't know the answer. The way he talked to his son Alex was essentially the way he talked to everyone. He was the guy who knew stuff, and what he didn't know wasn't worth knowing.
But when it came to something that Bob felt more confident about, he'd engage you. Not that Bob's engagements were ever long or involved, but they packed a rhetorical punch. I asked him once if his workplace was unionized, and his answer surprised me. I'd figured everyone in that room, being a bona fide member of the working class, was as staunchly pro union as the liberal intellectuals I knew in New York, but Bob didn't see it that way. Neither, apparently, did the members of one of the other teams, who had called themselves the Nonunions.
"No," he said. "My shop isn't union."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Unions are for the lazy man."
"Because they're all about seniority," he said, pausing for effect. "I'll give you an example," he went on. "One place I worked was union, and it was run on the seniority system. The guys who'd been there the longest had the most clout, which meant that when there were layoffs, they'd always have better standing. There was one guy like that there who'd been there forever, and he was a lazy fucker. He used to just hang out and read the newspaper. Never did a lick of work. Meanwhile, I worked my ass off all day long. But when it came time to let people go, I was let go and he wasn't. Now that's not fair, is it?"
"No," I agreed. "It isn't."
I tried to engage him further on the question, but as I came to understand, you'd always know when a conversation with Bob was over. He'd just revert to peering at you with condescending finality through a cloud of cigarette smoke. A lot of the guys were like that. It would take you years to get to know them on anything more than grunting terms. They were walled-in tight.
Yet even so, under the surface there remained that distant male-on-male respect that I'd felt in the first handshakes and I continued to feel every time some guy from another team would say "Hey, man" to me when we met in the parking lot or passed on our way to or from the soda machine.
But there was one guy among the bowlers who established an odd intimacy with me early on. It was so immediate, and so physically affectionate, that I felt sure he could see through Ned. I never learned his name. I don't think he knew anything consciously. It wasn't that bald. But there was an unmistakable chemistry between us. Obviously, I'd spent my life as a woman either flirting or butting heads or maneuvering somewhere on the sexual spectrum with nearly every man I'd ever met, and I knew how it felt when an older man took a shine to you as a woman. It was always the kind of guy who was far too decent to be creepy, the avuncular type who had turned his sexual response to you into a deep affection. He showed it by putting his arm around you cleanly, without innuendo, or patting you gently on the shoulder and smiling.
This guy was like that, old enough to have gained some kind of relief from his urges, and now he was free to just like me for being a woman. Even if he didn't quite know I was a woman, his brain seemed somehow to have sniffed me out and responded accordingly. The thing was, in this context, of all places, the way he treated me made me feel like a woman -- a girl actually, very young and cared for -- and I wondered how that could have been possible if some part of him hadn't recognized me as such. It was unmistakable, and I never felt it with any other man I came into contact with as a man. I felt something entirely different coming from the other men who thought I was a young man. They took me under their wings. Another older bowler had done this. Taking me aside between rounds, he tried to teach me a few things to improve my game. This was male mentor stuff all the way. He treated me like a son, guiding me with firm encouragement and solid advice, an older man lending a younger man his expertise.
This was commonplace. During the course of the bowling season, which lasted nine months, a lot of men from the other teams tried to give me tips on my game. My own teammates were constantly doing this, increasingly so as the season wore on. There was a tension in the air that grew up around me as I failed to excel, a tension that I felt keenly, but that seemed unrecognizable to the guys themselves. I had good frames, sometimes even good whole games, but I still had a lot of bad ones, too, and that frustrated us all.
At about the five-month mark, Jim began giving me pained looks when I came back to the table after a bad turn. I'd say, "Okay, I'm sorry. I know I suck."
"Look, man," he'd say, "I've told you what I think you're doing wrong, and you don't listen or you get pissed off." "No, no," I'd protest, "I'm really trying to do what you're saying. It just isn't coming out right. What can I do?" I threw like a girl and it bugged me as much as it bugged them. If I told them the truth at the end of the season I didn't want them to have the satisfaction of saying, "Oh, that explains everything. You bowl like a girl because you are a girl." But their motivation seemed comically atavistic, as if it was just painful to watch a fellow male fail repeatedly at something as adaptive as throwing a boulder. Time was, the tribe's survival depended on it. This just seemed mandatory to them in some absurdly primal way.
As men they felt compelled to fix my ineptitude rather than be secretly happy about it and try to abet it under the table, which is what a lot of female athletes of my acquaintance would have done. I remember this from playing sports with and against women all my life. No fellow female athlete ever tried to help me with my game or give me tips. It was every woman for herself. It wasn't enough that you were successful. You wanted to see your sister fail.
Girls can be a lot nastier than boys when it comes to someone who stands in the way of what they want. They know where to hit where it'll hurt the most, and their aim is laser precise. One summer when I was a maladjusted teenager, I went to a tennis camp in New Jersey that catered largely to rich princesses and their male counterparts. Most of them couldn't really play tennis on more than a country-club level. Their parents had sent them there to get rid of them. They just stood around most of the time posing for one another, showing off their tans. But I'd had a lot of private coaching in tennis by that time, and my strokes were fairly impressive for my age. I took the tennis pretty seriously.
As for posing, I looked like I'd been raised by wolverines.
The instructors used to videotape each of us playing, so that they could go over the tapes with us and evaluate our techniques. One day, my particular class of about twenty girls was standing around the television watching the tape, and the instructor was deconstructing my serve. He'd had a lot of negative things to say about most of the other girls' serves, but when it came to mine, he raved unconditionally, playing my portion of the tape over and over again in slow motion.
At this, one of the prettiest girls in the group, no doubt exasperated by the repetition, said, loudly enough for everyone to hear: "Well, I'd rather look the way I do and serve the way I do than serve the way she does and look the way she does."
Now that's female competitiveness at its finest.
But with these guys and with other male athletes I've known it was an entirely different conflict. Their coaching reminded me of my father's, whose approach to fatherhood had always been about giving helpful, concrete advice. It was how he showed his affection for us. It was all bound up in a desire to see us do well.
These guys' attentions were like that: fatherly. And it really surprised me coming from members of opposing teams, since this was, after all, a money league. But they seemed to have a competitive stake in my doing well and in helping me to do well, as if beating a man who wasn't at his best wasn't satisfying. They wanted you to be good and then they wanted to beat you on their own merits. They didn't want to win against a plodder or lose to him on a handicap.
But my game never got consistently better. I'd have good frames now and then, but mostly I hovered around an average of 102 and learned to swallow it. So did the guys. They knew I was trying my best, and that was all that really mattered to them. As with everything else a little odd or off about me, they accepted my clumsiness with a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say: "That's just how some guys are. What are you gonna do?"
I guess that's what I respected about those guys the most. I was a stranger, and a nerd, but they cut me all the slack in the world, and they did it for no other reason that I could discern than that I was a good-seeming guy who deserved a chance, something life and circumstance had denied most of them.
I could never have predicted it, but part of me came to really enjoy those nights with the guys. Their company was like an anchor at the beginning of the week, something I could look forward to, an oasis where nothing would really be expected of me. Almost every interaction would be entirely predictable, and the ones that weren't were all the more precious for being rare.
When somebody opened up to me suddenly, like when Jim confided how much he loved his wife and how much it hurt him when the doctor told him that the best he could hope for was to see her alive in a year, or when Bob smiled at me playfully after teasing me over a toss, it touched me more deeply than my female friends' dime-a-dozen intimacies ever did. These were blooms in the desert, tender offerings made in the middle of all that guy talk.
I'd never made friends with guys like that before. They had intimidated me too much, and the sexual tension that always subsists in some form or another between men and women had usually gotten in the way. But making friends with them as a man let me into their world as a free agent and taught me to see and appreciate the beauty of male friendships from the inside out.
So much of what happens emotionally between men isn't spoken aloud, and so the outsider, especially the female outsider who is used to emotional life being overt and spoken (often overspoken), tends to assume that what isn't said isn't there. But it is there, and when you're inside it, it's as if you're suddenly hearing sounds that only dogs can hear. I remember one night when I plugged into that subtext for the first time. A few lanes over, one of the guys was having a particularly hot game. I'd been oblivious to what was happening, mourning my own playing too much to watch anyone else. It was Jim's turn, and I noticed that he wasn't bowling. Instead he was sitting down in one of the laneside chairs, just waiting. Usually this happened when there was a problem with the lane: a stuck pin, or a mis-set rack. But the pins were fine. I kept watching him, wondering why he wasn't stepping up to the line.
Then I noticed that all the other bowlers had sat down as well. Nobody was taking his turn. It was as if somebody had blown a whistle, only nobody had. Nobody had said anything. Everyone had just stopped and stepped back, like in a barracks when an officer enters the room.
Then I realized that there was one guy stepping up to the lane. It was the guy who was having the great game. I looked up at the board and saw that he'd had strikes in every frame, and now he was on the tenth and final frame, in which you get three throws if you strike or spare in the first two. He'd have to throw three strikes in a row on this one to earn a perfect score, and somehow everyone in that hall had felt the moment of grace descend and had bowed out accordingly. Everyone, of course, except me.
It was a beautiful moment, totally still and reverent, a bunch of guys instinctively paying their respects to the superior athleticism of another guy.
That guy stepped up to the line and threw his three strikes, one after the other, each one met by mounting applause, then silence and stillness again, then on the final strike, an eruption, and every single guy in that room, including me, surrounded that player and moved in to shake his hand or pat him on the back. It was almost mystical, that telepathic intimacy and the communal joy that succeeded it, crystalline in its perfection. The moment said everything all at once about how tacitly attuned men are to each other, and how much of this women miss when they look from the outside in. After it was over, and all the congratulations had died down, Jim and Bob and Allen and I all looked at each other and said things like "Man, that was incredible," or "Wow, that was something." We couldn't express it in words, but we knew what we'd just shared.
I'd been playing a part with these guys for months, being Ned, the walk-on. Of course, he had it easy in a way, because everything was on the surface. Nobody knew him and he didn't really know anybody else. He was mostly quiet -- listening, recording, trying not to say the wrong thing, trying not to give himself away -- and that put a barrier between him and his environment. Despite the masculine intimacy that enveloped the evening, the guys and I were really only amenable strangers warming our hands together for a while over the few things we had to say to each other: the odd fag joke or tall tale of glory days, the passing home improvement reference, and of course the ritual dissection of Sunday Night Football and the ongoing hockey season. Nothing mysterious really. The usual stuff that guys find convenient to say when nobody's giving anything away.
So, after having bowled with these guys every Monday night for six months, I gave something away. I just decided one night that it was time to tell them.
But how to do it? I didn't know. I was wary, uncertain about how to come clean. I couldn't anticipate how they'd react. I had visions of myself running down the middle of the town's main street with my shirt ripped off at the shoulder and a lynch mob chasing me with brickbats and bowling balls in hand.
Fortunately, that night, Jim presented me with the perfect opportunity. He asked me what I was doing after we finished, something he'd never done before, so I took a chance and asked him to have a drink with me. He was the most accessible of the bunch, and I figured getting him alone and telling him first would give me a sense of how to proceed, if at all.
We went to his favorite haunt, a biker bar not far from the trailer park where he lived. When we sat down at the bar I told him he should order a shot of whatever would relax him the most, because he was going to need it. "I think I'm about to blow your mind," I said.
"I doubt it," he said. "Just about the only thing you could say that would blow my mind is if you told me that your girfriend was really a man and you were really a woman."
"Well," I said, stunned by his exactitude, "you're half right."
"Okay," he said slowly, peering at me skeptically. "In that case, I'll have a blackberry brandy, with a beer back." "Actually," I said, "you might want two. I'm buying."
He downed the first and ordered another. I wasn't sure if he was spooked or just taking advantage of the freebies. Knowing him, probably the latter, not that I was the big spender or anything. At that bar you could get good and ripped for ten dollars.
When he'd wiped the vestiges of the second shot off his lips, I started in.
"Jim," I said, "you were right. I'm not a guy. I'm a woman."
"Shut up, asshole," he said. "C'mon, really. What did you want to tell me?"
"No. That's really it. I'm a woman. Look," I said, "I'll show you my driver's license if you don't believe me."
I pulled it out of my wallet and put it into his hand. He looked at it for a second, then said, "That doesn't even look like you."
He shoved it back into my hand. "Besides, you can fake those easy."
"I swear, Jim, it's not a fake. That's me. My name is Norah, not Ned."
"Shut up," he said again. "Why are you doing this to me? I mean, I gotta hand it to you, if this is a joke, it's a good one. You got me, but a joke's a joke."
"It's not a joke, Jim."
He shook his head and took a big gulp of his beer.
"Okay, look," I said. "I'll show you every card in my wallet, including my social security card. They all have the same name on them."
I put all the cards on the bar in a row where he could see them. He looked at them all cursorily, then said, "Are you fuckin' with me? Because if you are, this is fucked up. I mean, if I'd thought of it first I'd have done it to you, but shit, you gotta tell me."
"No," I said, "I swear to God, I'm not fucking with you. I'm a woman. My name is Norah. Look, I don't have a protruding Adam's apple, right?" I put his finger on my throat and ran it up and down.
"I'm wearing a tight sports bra to hold down my tits," I said, putting his hand on my back so he could feel the straps under my sweatshirt. "Look, if you still don't believe me, let's go in the bathroom and I'll show you."
"No thanks," he blurted, jerking away from me. "I don't wanna see that shit. Jesus, man. You're fuckin' me up. And you were my coolest guy friend, too. Damnit. This is really blowin' my mind. You better not be fuckin' with me."
It took a while to get him to concede it, even remotely, and every once in a while he'd still say, "You're not fuckin' with me, are you?" But we sat there for a good three hours talking about the book and why I was doing it, and slowly I got the sense that it was sinking in.
"I gotta say," he said finally, "that takes balls . . . or not, I guess. Wow, you're a fuckin' chick. No wonder you listen so good."
We went through the whole rigmarole of hindsight, things he'd thought were a little odd at the time, but now made sense to him. We'd have long moments of silence, and then he'd say something like, "So that's why you always wear a sweatshirt even though it's so hot in there, right? It's to cover up your tits."
"Yep," I'd say. "It sucks, too, 'cause I sweat my ass off."
We'd lapse back into silence for a while and then he'd say, "That's why your lips and your cheeks are so red. I always noticed that and thought it was weird."
That was his way of saying I had a nice complexion, I think, nicer at least than all the leatherfaces in the league, which wasn't saying much. The only guy who had a face even remotely as smooth as mine, even with the stubble, was nineteen years old.
But for the most part, it seemed I'd pulled off Ned pretty well, because there weren't that many things Jim could look back on with recognition. In the end, he just said, "That stubble is really good, man. I just thought it was exactly like what I'd have at the end of a day."
That was satisfying.
When we left the bar that night, he hugged me goodnight. It was the first evidence that he had accepted me, or at least some part of me, as a woman. He was still calling me "he," which was understandable, but I knew that he wouldn't have come within a mile of Ned physically if he hadn't seen the woman in him. Some part of the truth was getting through. But I was still in drag, and as we hugged we both realized it.
Jim said, "Shit, you don't wanna be seen hugging another man in the parking lot outside a bar like this." He pulled away quickly. As we parted ways toward our cars he shouted over his shoulder: "Hey, man, you take care of yourself over there in Iraq, okay?"
When we reached our cars I shouted back to him, "Hey, Jim."
When he turned around I pulled up my sweatshirt and my sports bra and flashed him the telltale tits. "See. I told you so." He winced and turned away. "Jesus, you fuckin' freak. I don't need to see that shit. You've still got your beard on." He shouted it like a slur, but I could hear the laughter in his voice.
And that was the turning point in our friendship. Everything changed after that. We went for drinks a couple of times between Mondays, once with his wife, but several times alone. When we were alone he told me a lot of things about himself. Private things, things he said he never would have told a guy, some things he said he'd never told anybody. He told me that he liked Norah much better than Ned. When I asked him why, he said because Ned was just some stiff guy, and what did he need with just another stiff in his life? He had plenty of those. But Norah, a dyke who dressed like a man and could talk to him about more than football and beer, now those he didn't have so many of. People like that didn't move in his orbit. People like him didn't move in mine. He wasn't what he'd appeared to be, either.
He was a hack writer's gift, a more complex character than I could ever have invented. But he wasn't just material for me, any more than I was just a freak show for him. The way he told it, it was like Ned and Norah became a hybrid. He still thought of me mostly as a guy, at least outwardly. But he knew that I was a woman and he reacted to me accordingly -- with, that is, one rather large exception. He wasn't attracted to me.
There was no sexual tension between us. This meant that he could go out with me like one of the guys and play pool or, as he would do later, go to the titty bars with me. But all the while he was treating me like one of the guys because in a way he didn't know how to do otherwise. There was no social precedent for this. Still, he could talk to me intimately the way he never could to another man. It was the best of both worlds. Like he'd said, the best male friend he'd ever had. Of course, sometimes this meant that he didn't quite know where to put me in his subconscious mind. He used to rib me about that.
"You know, thanks a lot," he said once. "I had a perfectly normal fantasy life until I met you. Now I'll be whackin' off or something, doing just fine with Pam Anderson or whatever, and all of a sudden there's fuckin' Ned with his tits and his beard and his bowling ball smiling at me, and I can't get rid of him. You fucked me up for life."
Then he'd smile and I knew he was perversely grateful for it if only for the entertainment value. He was a freak, too, and glad at last to know another one.
I conjured up weird pictures of him, too, though they weren't really sexual, any more than his were. I wasn't attracted to him, God knew. Still, my brain didn't quite know what to do with him, either. I could see that he was a little boy inside, a boy who'd done some bad things in his life and who'd had worse things done to him. He could put up a gruff front and he was no angel, but he was really just trying to hide his sensitivities so that he could hang on to them. He knew what they were worth and he knew that I knew, and I think he sensed that it was safe to let me see them. I used to picture him curled up next to his wife in a small white undershirt with no underwear on, like some little kid who'd just come out of the bath, all clean and warm and needing comfort. Of course, I didn't picture him like this when I was wanking, but then, there you have the classic difference between men and women.
I guess in me he'd found a "guy" friend who could understand his foulest thoughts and impulses, the ones that he didn't want to burden his wife with, or was too ashamed to tell her, the kind of shockingly crass confessions that only guys supposedly understand but hardly ever want to reveal to each other because they're too emotionally charged. Maybe he knew I'd respond to them with recognition and sympathy not only because he thought of me as part man, but also because as a woman I'd told him my black thoughts, too.
But when I responded to him emotionally, I had to modify the temptation to mother him, because after I'd heard some of the things he told me -- stories about beatings he had suffered as a child and the struggles he had had trying to come to grips with the abuse in silence -- the woman in me wanted to hold him and let him cry it out. But that would have been like throwing a wool blanket over his head, exactly the wrong thing to do. He needed to know I was there and listening and feeling, but I couldn't touch him or push the contact in conciliatory words. I just had to know what key he was in and for how long. It was never more than a few moments. That's all his pride would allow.
Anyway, he'll be embarrassed when he reads this, if he ever does. He'll make a joke about it, or brush it off, but at least he'll know that in my own hobbled way I cared. I hope he'll know that he taught me a lot about how to listen to a man when he's telling you something that's hard for him to say. Maybe now I'll know how to better understand what the men in my life need from me emotionally and how to give it to them.
As always, everything with Jim was ebb and flow, serious then farcical in a blink. Whenever I'd bring up something especially sensitive with him, something that he didn't want to talk about, he'd say, "Give me some time on that." And if I pressed him he'd say, "You know, fuckin' women. You just can't let it rest, can you. You just don't know when to shut the fuck up. See, that's why you get hit."
Then he'd smile at me and we'd both laugh. Lots of people took him seriously when he said things like that, but that was one of our connections. We had the same sense of humor. We could say a lot to each other and we'd know when it was a joke and when it wasn't. When it wasn't a joke, it was always tender or raw in a way that you could never mistake. The rest of the time it was just bullshit fun.
Besides, as far as hitting women went, I'd met Jim's wife. She could knock the sass out of him with one look. She was a cool lady, and his respect for her ran deep. With her by his side, he looked almost like a porter who was just there to carry her bags.
When it came time to consider telling the other guys about me, Jim told me he wasn't sure how they'd take it. He said he honestly didn't know if they would beat me up. He thought it might be best for him to tell them in private first. We went back and forth on it for a week or two, and then on the following Monday in the middle of the game I just said to him, "Fuck it. Let's do it."
"All right," he said, sighing, "if you really want to. I'm behind you." He looked around warily and added, "I guess." He'd kept my secret for two weeks, two Monday nights with the guys. We'd exchanged a few meaningful smirks and whispers in that time, but otherwise he'd kept his head down, respecting my need to tell the others when I was ready. As I had with Jim, I tried to prepare the ground with Bob and Allen. I wanted to have their full attention, to have everybody sitting at the table at once. But the flow of the game was constant, with one of us always getting up to take his next turn as soon as someone else sat down.
"Listen, you guys," I said. "I've got something important to tell you."
They looked at me with vague interest but nothing more. I turned to Jim for help and he stepped in to reinforce the urgency.
"Yeah, guys, listen up. You're gonna want to hear this, believe me."
Bob had gotten up from his chair but he sat down again when Jim spoke. He and Allen both turned to me, curious now and expectant. I had their ear, but I knew I had only a moment between frames. I couldn't think of any way to ease them into a sex change that fast. There wasn't any room for hedging or segue, no way to hand off the bombshell gingerly. This wasn't the place for a tête-à-tête, and that wasn't their style anyway. It was loud all around us, with the radio blaring and guys cackling and gabbing on all sides of us. I knew that once I'd said the words I was about to say, everything would change irrevocably. Maybe they would laugh and take it as a joke, or even think of it as a welcome surprise. Maybe they'd be shocked into silence and we'd spend the rest of the night in excruciating discomfort avoiding one another's eyes. Or maybe they'd drag me into the parking lot and work me over with the broken end of a beer bottle. I had no way of knowing. I could find no clue on their faces. I was just going to have to say it and hope for the best. So I did. I said it plain as I could make it. "I'm not a man, you guys. I'm a woman."
And there it was. It was out. I braced for impact.
But Bob just nodded when I said it as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. He leaned back in his chair and took his typical drag on his cigarette, like an FBI interrogator whom nothing could surprise. He narrowed his eyes knowingly as if I'd just confessed to committing a crime that he'd marked me for a long time ago.
Finally, with amazing nonchalance he said, "Oh, yeah?" Then after a long pause he added, "I gotta hand it to you, that takes balls -- or whatever. I never would have questioned it."
Meanwhile, Allen looked puzzled.
"Okay, yeah," he said in a leading way. "So what?"
This threw me at first. He couldn't be taking it this lightly, I thought. Then I realized that he had it all wrong. He thought I was telling a joke whose first line was "So, I'm a chick, right . . ." He was still waiting for the punch line.
"That's it, Allen," I said. "That's the joke. I'm a chick. I'm not a guy."
I could tell it wasn't quite registering, or if it was he wasn't letting it. He sensed that the mood at the table was laissez-faire -- pretend it isn't there and it'll go away -- so he just nodded and said, "Wow."
I filled out the rest of the story for them between frames. They already knew that I was a writer, and at some point during the season I had told them I was writing a book. Now I told them that I was writing the book about them and me, and that the drag was part of the project. They seemed to like the idea and they wanted to know what their names were going to be in the book. Jim cracked that he wanted Colin Farrell to play him in the movie.
After I'd finished, they all went on to bowl one of their shittiest games of the season. I think Bob and Allen were in shock. Maybe Jim was nervous about a pending riot. But I had one of my best games. I felt free, loose for the first time, and I was knocking them down like never before. Still, I had a bad headache all of a sudden. The tension of the buildup had taken its toll.
"Hey," I said, "does one of you guys have an Advil or something? I've got a killer headache."
"No," Bob said without a moment's hesitation, "but I think I might have a Midol."
They all laughed, and that broke the tension. Then right away they started a round of chick jokes, the usual stuff about female intuition and being on the rag and so on. They seemed relieved to know that I could take a joke. Even the lesbian thing didn't throw them.
"By the way," I said, "you know I'm a dyke, right?"
"Yeah," Bob said. "I gathered that."
Again everybody laughed. He was on what for Bob was a roll.
As they had with Jim, things changed completely after that with the guys. Everybody loosened up and opened up. Everybody liked Norah much more than Ned, even knowing that I was a dyke dressed as a man. Once I'd outed myself to them I could be a full and rounded person again, much more animated and genuine than Ned had ever been. I'd spent most of my time with them as Ned trying not to stand out or say the wrong thing. I'd done it poorly, the way desperate adolescents do, and with the same miserable results. They were glad at last to have a real person in their midst, whatever her flaws and quirks.
My supposedly subversive lifestyle just didn't matter to them, or at least it didn't appear to, and this was the part I hadn't expected at all, or given them credit for in the beginning. I'd pegged them unfairly as potential thugs, and now they were showing me up as the judgmental one.
None of that politicized stuff made a difference to them. I just kept bowling out the season with them, dressed as Ned but revealed as Norah. We didn't tell anyone else in the league, and they never found out as far as I knew. The guys went right on calling me Ned and he, just as Jim had, but they knew I was a woman in exactly the way that Jim did. For me the label couldn't have mattered less. We were finally getting to know each other and it was the easiest time we spent together all season.
Allen got drunk one Monday night a week or two after I'd told them. He spent the whole night leaning over and babbling in my ear, mostly about mundane stuff that hardly made sense. The other guys knew what he was like when he was blasted, so they just laughed and let him go on and on as I sat there in polite misery.
At one point in his rant he leaned a little closer to me and said: "You know, none of this matters to me. It doesn't affect me. You're cool. I don't care what you are. I really like bowling with you, man. Shit, you're cooler than Bob."
This wasn't exactly the coolest thing to say in front of Bob, since Allen was Bob's in-law, and the two had been close friends for years. Still, I knew Allen meant it as a great compliment, and I took it as one. But I also knew it was something he would never have said to Ned, not just because he didn't like Ned as much as Norah, but because he couldn't talk to a guy the way he could talk to a woman.
These guys were old pals, but I got the sense that they didn't speak intimately with each other the way my women friends and I did, or the way Jim had done with me once he'd known that I was a woman. The contrast was striking to Jim, too, which was why, when I told him about my true identity that night at the bar he said, "That's why you listen so good." When Jim talked to Bob about his wife's illness, for example, a life-changing, hugely traumatic event, he spoke almost without affect, tersely, using the only available language, the facts of the catastrophe, to imply but not convey his pain. Bob listened in the same way, nodding respectfully and with clear concern, but with a little distance and discomfort, too. He was a good friend, but he seemed as trapped as Jim by his reserve. Watching them made me tense and sad, as if their exchange was happening in a sealed jar where the air was close and stifling.
Maybe that was part of the insult in Allen's comment, too. Maybe he hadn't just meant to say that I was cool, but also that he felt closer to me in some way than he did to Bob. Their friendship had sure boundaries of touch, affection and expression, and as a woman I could break through those blocks as quickly and effortlessly as I had changed my sex. Those were the rules, it seemed. As a guy you didn't make yourself vulnerable, and you didn't burden yourself or your buds with your doubt and fear. They didn't want to hear about it, and you didn't want to reveal it. But with a woman it was easier immediately. You could speak freely and get away with it, or at least as freely as your customary reticence would allow.
It seemed that getting drunk was one of the only ways Allen could express his feelings, even to a woman. They came out a little ragged and impolitic in the process, but they were touching anyway.
He may not have said much the night of my disclosure, but he'd clearly been thinking about it since. He told me that he'd been talking with his thirteen-year-old daughter that week and she'd said to him, the way teenagers do, "Oh, that's so gay," referring to some activity or article of clothing that wasn't in fashion.
"You know," Allen said, "she's always sayin' that, but this time I stopped her, and I said: 'You oughta be careful how you use that word.' "
Jim had told me a similar story about a confrontation he'd had a few days before with a coworker who'd been talking about gay characters on network TV shows like Will and Grace. She'd said: "Well, I don't have a problem with gays, but why do they have to keep shoving it in my face?"
And Jim said, "Oh, okay, so you're fine with gay people so long as they stay in caves and back alleys. Is that what you're saying?"
He said he'd really pinned her to the wall for it, saying finally, "Either you have a problem with gay people or you don't. There's no 'but.' "
These guys were starting to sound like a progressive party meeting and all I'd done was laugh along with them when they'd said things like, "If you're really a chick, then how the hell do you have such big feet?" But I was grateful for their support however they showed it, and I felt more than a little ashamed of how I'd underestimated them.
They had taken me in, and I had deceived them. They took it astonishingly well nonetheless. I had condescended to them all along, even in my gracious surprise that they were somehow human. They had made that leap on my behalf without the benefit of suppressed snobbery. I have condescended to them still in these pages throughout, congratulating myself for stooping to receive their affections and dispense my own, for presuming to understand them. Class is inescapable in tone, and even a pseudointellectual will always sound like she thinks she's earning points in liberal heaven for shaking hands with the caveman or, worse, the noble savage. The most I can say is that they were far better men than I in that, and undoubtedly far worse or just as bad in ways that I would never and could never know. They made me welcome in their midst, and by so doing, they made me feel like a bit of a shithead, like an arrogant prick know-it-all. In a sense, they made me the subject of my own report. They bowled with irony after all.
They made me look ridiculous to myself and they made me laugh about it. And for that I will always be grateful to them, because anybody who does that for you is a true and great friend.