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

Allen got drunk one Monday night a week or two after I'd told them. He spent the whole night leaning over and babbling in my ear, mostly about mundane stuff that hardly made sense. The other guys knew what he was like when he was blasted, so they just laughed and let him go on and on as I sat there in polite misery.

At one point in his rant he leaned a little closer to me and said: "You know, none of this matters to me. It doesn't affect me. You're cool. I don't care what you are. I really like bowling with you, man. Shit, you're cooler than Bob."

This wasn't exactly the coolest thing to say in front of Bob, since Allen was Bob's in-law, and the two had been close friends for years. Still, I knew Allen meant it as a great compliment, and I took it as one. But I also knew it was something he would never have said to Ned, not just because he didn't like Ned as much as Norah, but because he couldn't talk to a guy the way he could talk to a woman.

These guys were old pals, but I got the sense that they didn't speak intimately with each other the way my women friends and I did, or the way Jim had done with me once he'd known that I was a woman. The contrast was striking to Jim, too, which was why, when I told him about my true identity that night at the bar he said, "That's why you listen so good." When Jim talked to Bob about his wife's illness, for example, a life-changing, hugely traumatic event, he spoke almost without affect, tersely, using the only available language, the facts of the catastrophe, to imply but not convey his pain. Bob listened in the same way, nodding respectfully and with clear concern, but with a little distance and discomfort, too. He was a good friend, but he seemed as trapped as Jim by his reserve. Watching them made me tense and sad, as if their exchange was happening in a sealed jar where the air was close and stifling.

Maybe that was part of the insult in Allen's comment, too. Maybe he hadn't just meant to say that I was cool, but also that he felt closer to me in some way than he did to Bob. Their friendship had sure boundaries of touch, affection and expression, and as a woman I could break through those blocks as quickly and effortlessly as I had changed my sex. Those were the rules, it seemed. As a guy you didn't make yourself vulnerable, and you didn't burden yourself or your buds with your doubt and fear. They didn't want to hear about it, and you didn't want to reveal it. But with a woman it was easier immediately. You could speak freely and get away with it, or at least as freely as your customary reticence would allow.

It seemed that getting drunk was one of the only ways Allen could express his feelings, even to a woman. They came out a little ragged and impolitic in the process, but they were touching anyway.

He may not have said much the night of my disclosure, but he'd clearly been thinking about it since. He told me that he'd been talking with his thirteen-year-old daughter that week and she'd said to him, the way teenagers do, "Oh, that's so gay," referring to some activity or article of clothing that wasn't in fashion.

"You know," Allen said, "she's always sayin' that, but this time I stopped her, and I said: 'You oughta be careful how you use that word.' "

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