Book Excerpt: Norah Vincent's 'Self-Made Man'

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.

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