WHY ARE WE DOING laundry talk? That's what I'm wondering. We are eating Mexican, celebrating Nancy's birthday. Back when we were just the babes, we never talked laundry.

"Well, one thing I don't understand," Nancy says to Jack, "is how come when I fold all your underwear and T-shirts and I leave them on the bed, you can't just put them in the drawers?"

Jack smiles at the rest of us and shrugs. Of course he shrugs. Because what is he supposed to say? And if Nancy is going to all that trouble to fold the laundry, why is it such a big deal for her to just open the drawers and place the stuff inside? That's what I'm thinking. If she's in laundry mode, she should follow through.

"Oh, laundry," Anne says. "Don't get me started. Rich drops his dirty clothes next to the hamper, on the floor." She looks at him. "You can't just open the hamper?"

Rich smiles at the rest of us and shrugs. Of course he shrugs. Because what is he supposed to say? And if Anne is going to have to bend down to empty the hamper anyway, why can't she just pick up the stuff that . . . missed? That's what I'm thinking.

And why are we doing laundry talk? Does this have something to do with the fact that there are now men in our lives? I never knew one thing about the laundry lives of Nancy, Anne, Beth or any of my girlfriends back when we were single babes with purpose.

The babes are looking at me. The babes are looking at me like they're waiting for me to chime in about fabric softener or something.

"Um," I say. "Well, shouldn't we sing `Happy Birthday' to Nancy?"

Blank stares all around. They want laundry talk.

My man, Alex, is smiling. He seems to be enjoying this conversation. "Citizenship!" he says to Rich and Jack. "That's bad citizenship!" He loves saying this. "You know our spare bedroom?" he says to the group. "My dear wife thinks the whole room is a hamper. She just opens the door and throws."

Heh heh. "Doesn't anybody want to sing `Happy Birthday' to Nancy?" I say.

"And how can I vacuum in there," Alex goes on, "if the entire floor is covered with clothes?"

Heh heh. But does Alex really want to go public with this? Does he really want these people to know that he's the vacuumer in the family? The laundry doer? The lint remover? Does he not find his manhood a wee bit, well, weenyfied?

Apparently not. Because now he's going on about the best products to use in the bathroom to tackle those nasty mildew stains.

The babes are looking at me. They are looking at me as if to say, And what do you do around the house?

"So, what do you guys do around the house?" I say to Jack and Bill and Rich.

"I clean the bathroom," Bill says, at which point Beth howls.

"Bill, you put your razor away when you're done with it," she says. "That does not constitute cleaning the bathroom."

Bill and Jack and Rich and I, we laugh. We trade high-fives. We think putting the razor away is something to be proud of. I love my team.

The babes are looking at me. Looking at me like I'm a babe in exile. And don't I feel awful? My incomplete metamorphosis into a wifey-poo somehow marks me as damaged goods. Why is that? We live in a time when men and women share domestic chores without any threat to gender identity. Don't we? And to tell you the truth, I never feel like less of a woman when Alex is out there dusting the living room. (More power to him.) He raised two kids as a single dad. He's better at house stuff than I am. I am not one for maintenance. I am more of a, well, big-picture kind of babe.

I point this out to the babes. They aren't buying it. So I retreat to my second line of defense: kitchen talk. "Alex may scrub the pots in our house," I say, "but I wipe the counters."

"Me, too!" Rich says. "I do counters!"

"Oh, honey," Anne says. "You wipe the edges of the counters. Not that I don't appreciate the help . . . "

"Citizenship!" Alex says.

Oh, please.

It was so much easier when it was just the babes. You knew who you were. You were a woman tiptoeing through the man jungle, hunting and gathering with your fellow womenfolk. You didn't even know your laundry self yet, your inner dishwasher or, God bless us, your inner ironer. Knowing yourself is often discovering who you aren't, which is often a function of whom you're with. If Alex weren't so domestically inclined, maybe I would be more so. Yeah, that's it. Our house isn't big enough for two wifey-poos. My slugness is all his fault.

"So, you guys want to go to the bar and have a bourbon and talk about cars?" I say to Jack and Bill and Rich, wondering if I should spit or something, or scratch. What, exactly, does my team do?

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is laskas mail @aol.com.