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

On this subject, Allen asked me if I'd ever heard the Johnny Cash song "A Boy Named Sue." I hadn't -- a lapse that, thinking back on it now, probably should have been a tip-off that I wasn't a guy, since the joke in my circle of friends has always been that every guy in the world is a Johnny Cash fan on some level, "Ring of Fire" being the universal guy guy's anthem of troubled love.

Allen told me the story of the song about a boy whose renegade father had named him Sue. Naturally, the kid gets the shit beaten out of him throughout his childhood on account of his name. At the end of the song the kid, all grown up, meets his father in a bar and beats the shit out of him in turn for giving him a girl's name. Once beaten, the father stands up proudly and says:

Son, this world is rough

And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough

And I know I wouldn't be there to help you along.

So I give you that name and I said "Good-bye."

I knew you'd have to get tough or die.

And it's that name that helped to make you strong.

. . . Now you have just fought one helluva fight,

And I know you hate me, and you've got the right

To kill me now and I wouldn't blame you if you do.

But you ought to thank me before I die

For the gravel in your guts and the spit in your eye

Because I'm the -------- that named you Sue. It was amazing how close Allen had come to my secret without knowing it. I'd have to remind the guys of times like this if I ever decided to tell them the truth about me. I wondered if they'd get a kick out of seeing all the signposts in retrospect, the ones I was always noticing along the way.

Being Ned, I had to get used to a different mode. The discord between my girlish ways and the male cues I had to learn, like Alex, on the fly, was often considerable in my mind. For example, our evenings together always started out slowly with a few grunted hellos that among women would have been interpreted as rude. This made my female antennae twitch a little. Were they pissed off at me about something?

But among these guys no interpretation was necessary. Everything was out and aboveboard, never more, never less than what was on anyone's mind. If they were pissed at you, you'd know it. These gruff greetings were indicative of nothing so much as fatigue and appropriate male distance. They were glad enough to see me, but not glad enough to miss me if I didn't show.

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