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

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.

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