AT BOOK SIGNINGS you never know who's going to suddenly be standing in front of you, sure you'll recognize them. But when a very tall woman came up to me at a book signing in L.A. last week, stuck out her hand and said, "Rick, I'm Christine Daniels," my mouth fell open like a bad drawbridge.
Because the last time I saw this woman, she was a man.
Her name was Mike Penner, and he and I came up together at the Los Angeles Times. She and I. Whatever.
We were both young sportswriters there in the early 1980s. We'd play hoops every Friday, clubbing each other half to death, nearly coming to blows over it, then laughing about it over tacos afterward. We'd glug beers together, catch concerts together, work games together.
And now here she was in two-inch heels, an elegant brown dress, eye shadow, lip gloss and a purse. And, don't take this the wrong way, not bad-looking. Better than she ever was as a guy, put it that way.
I'd heard about the change, of course. Everybody in sports had. Mike announced it in an amazing column in the Times in April. Said he was taking time off and coming back as Ms. Daniels. And my first thought was, Damn, this guy was really hurting for a column idea.
And my second thought was, How come none of us knew? Don't know what kind of hints transsexuals give off, but I sure didn't see any. Not a neatnik. Didn't match his underwear to his socks. Never wanted to get the boys together for makeovers. Nothing. Made me think I wasn't much of a friend.
And now here she was, 6'3" in heels, blue eyes I'd never noticed before, shoulder-length blonde hair, earrings and this soft little Gwyneth Paltrow voice I hardly recognized.
"Wow!" I said, bolting up from behind the table, unsure where to put my arms, setting an alltime record for wretched awkwardness. "What do I do with you?" I blurted.
"Well," she cooed, "a hug would be nice." So we hugged. Not sure we'd ever done that before, unless it was in a pileup for a rebound.
Over a couple of bottles of wine, I heard the whole amazing story. As a little boy, he'd tell his cousins, "I want to be a girl!" As a teen, he'd secretly dog-ear pages of dresses he wanted in the Sears catalogue. As a married man, he'd lock the door, dress up in frilly things, take Polaroids, then stuff all of it into a tool box and double lock it. Story of his life. Tool box on the outside, lingerie on the inside.
"We are born with this," he wrote in that coming-out column. "We fight it as long as we can, and in the end it wins."
The last few years the battle was killing him. He dreamed of the day he could shave his legs. He'd walk past the women's room and cry. He'd comb through his columns, trying to get all the "cutes" and "lovelies" and softness out of them, paranoid about giving himself away.
Now it was Christine clubbing Mike half to death. "I wasn't suicidal," she says, "but I could see it from there."
Finally, last August, Mike made the move that his body and mind and two therapists and three antidepressants were screaming for. He separated from his wife, got an apartment, began hormone therapy and started living round-the-clock as the woman she knew she was. (She won't say whether she'll have surgery.)
And now we have the old adventures of new Christine. She's back, writing about the world of L.A. sports as incisively and hilariously as Mike ever did. She's kept 95% of her friends and lost 100% of the hell.
She's not ready to date, but a guy the other night wouldn't take no for an answer. "I had to push him away," she says. I'm thinking the guy had to be a bit surprised to find himself flying against a wall.
Next week she plans to pick out one of her 50 pairs of new shoes, slip on something pretty and start covering games again. Which means going into locker rooms. Gulp.
"People ask me, 'Will you be nervous? Are you worried what kind of reaction you're going to get?' And I'm like, Are you kidding? I'll be much less nervous than I used to be. I always hated locker rooms. I hated the whole jocky, towel-snapping scene. The men in locker rooms were nothing like the person I was."
Maybe I wasn't a very good friend to Mike. But I think I will be better friends with Christine. It'll be easy. In 24 years I've never seen him smile like this.
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When Mike wrote in the L.A. Times that he was taking time off and coming back as Christine Daniels, my first thought was, Damn, this guy was really hurting for a column idea.
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PETER READ MILLER