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.