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

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.

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