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.