IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ‘EM JOIN ‘EM
The night I decided to become a Dog, Nikki Coleman reached over our table and slit my chest wide open. As her razor-sharp nails took root, she gripped four smooth fingers around my heart. Gaining the traction she needed, she skillfully maneuvered the still-beating, pulpy mass from its place and let it thud onto the red tablecloth at Luigi’s Fine Dining. A veteran of these attacks, I swayed to and fro on my side of the mahogany booth, awaiting the death blow. I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Nikki thought she knew how to let a brother down easy. As my heart flopped around on the table, she said, “Mitchell, you are so sweet. I’m enjoying our friend- ship, too.” Her wide eyes beaming with detached warmth, Nikki smiled at me like a nurse comforting a dying patient. “Thanks for sharing that with me.”
Thanks for sharing that with me? As I processed Nikki’s response, my brain began to spin like a pig roasting on a spit. What was she talking about, Thanks for sharing that with me? I’d spent many hard-earned dollars taking this woman to restaurants, theaters, symphonies, and comedy clubs throughout the Windy City. God only knows how many gallons of gas I’d used up. The drive from my pad in Hyde Park to her overpriced digs in downtown Lincoln Park could be a real killer. I had probably spent close to fifteen hundred bucks on Nikki, and only tonight, after three months of sexless friendship, had I laid my feelings for her on the line. Nothing overblown, just the truth: I was interested in being more than friends. Thanks for sharing that with me. The words stabbed at my every nerve. What the hell kind of response was that?
Even in that moment of agony, my eyes rested on the curves of Nikki’s fleshy lips as she smiled innocently. “Mitchell, are you okay?”
Before I knew what was happening, the words escaped my mouth. “Did you, uh, understand me, Nikki? I just said I’ve been infatuated with you for years, and after getting to really know you, I have real feelings for you. I want to make you happy.” Aware my voice was a bit louder than necessary, I leaned forward and placed my elbows on the tablecloth. “I didn’t tell you how I felt so I could be patted on the head.”
The woman of my dreams had taken a sudden interest in the details of the tablecloth. “Mitchell, just let me—”
“Could you ever feel the way I do? Yes or no. I deserve a real answer.”
The sudden arch of Nikki’s back told me she wasn’t expecting this. A woman of her quality probably broke a new heart every day. I suppose that’s why I never had the courage to rap to her back when we were classmates at Martin Luther King High. I could tell I had thrown Nikki off, but she was struggling to keep her cool. She mussed the edges of her hairdo and looked at me suspiciously. “I—don’t know what you want, Mitchell. I just thanked you for your honesty.”
“A thank-you isn’t going to cut it, Nikki,” I said. “How do you feel about what I told you? Do you even care?” I refused to break eye contact with her, despite the fact that I felt a good pitch hike building up in my throat. I never was good at hiding my emotions.
Nikki glanced around the room, seemingly hoping we’d be interrupted by our waiter. She managed to keep a crisp, sweet air to her voice. “Mitchell, this is really not the time or place for this discussion. Besides, I’m not ready for anything serious right now.”
My mind whirred in frustration at the familiar sentence. I get this type of bull from women all the time. Always in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you’re me, the woman says she needs a break from relationships right now. But if you’re a brother who’s been with every woman in town and treats them all like trash, the same woman suddenly makes room in her schedule.
I wasn’t buying what Nikki was selling. I think she expected me to meekly accept her verbal pat on the head. She probably even figured we would end the evening in a civil fashion, like two grown adults. She was mistaken. “Okay, sister, no hard feelings. It’s cool.” Knowing full well that our dessert had yet to be delivered, I decided to fast forward through our date. “So, how do we split this bill? I can pay for the appetizers, but you’ll need to handle your own entrée, drinks, and half the bottle of Chablis.”
It took every ounce of my manhood not to crack up hard at Nikki’s reaction. Beautiful as she was, shock was not a look this woman wore well. Her jaw plunged into her firm, buxom chest. Her right eye twitched violently and looked ready to drop from its socket. I swear her hairdo frayed and melted around the edges.
“Is this a joke?”
I told her no.
“You’re out of your mind, Mitchell. You invited me out tonight.”
“Yes,” I replied in a cool tenor, “but that took place under a separate set of circumstances. You knew when you stepped out that door how you felt about me.” Shifting in my seat and staring Nikki down, I leaned in again. “Based on your condescending reaction, I’m guessing I never had a shot with you.”
Nikki waved a hand dismissively. “Mitchell, has it ever occurred to you that maybe I haven’t thought about it?”
I was having none of it. “Please, Nikki. You were morally obligated to dis and dismiss me a long time ago, sister. You know how many other women I could have been pursuing these past weeks?”
“You’re a damn fool, do you know that?” She grabbed her sequined purse. It was clear she was ready to go.
I decided to discard any remnants of shame. “You got that right, I am a fool. I’m a fool for thinking we’d ever be more than buddies. Nikki, buddies don’t buy each other extravagant, expensive meals. You better be glad I got those Milos tickets for free, otherwise you’d really be in debt.” I extended my right palm as she reached for the coatrack behind our booth. “Now pay up.”
That line got me an eyeful of ice water and a string of four letter words. Nikki had completely changed personalities now. “Like it’s my fault nobody wants your dull ass!” As she struggled into her black wrap, she slammed three twenties onto the table, threw her maroon Coach bag over her shoulder, and stepped. Better her than me, I thought; at least she can hail a cab in this city. I’d be kickin’ it solo in my Accord tonight.
The first few minutes after Nikki stormed off into the cool night air, I was a little embarrassed by the stares and snickers of couples at the surrounding tables. When a red-nosed man in a loud aqua suit caught me staring back at him, he stopped laughing long enough to apologize. “Tough break, bub. I hope you drove tonight!” As he slapped a meaty palm against his knee, I turned back to Nikki’s empty seat. I accepted a pile of napkins from my waiter and began to dab at the plaid pattern of my tailored suit. It took just two minutes for my embarrassment to turn to a feeling of liberation. I faced up to the ugly truth: I didn’t seem to be the type of man most women wanted. Now, finally, I was going to do something about it. Settling back into my seat, I asked the waiter to bring the Italian ices Nikki and I had ordered for dessert and began to construct a battle plan.
“Sir,” the waiter asked, “you still want me to bring both desserts?” I guess he figured Nikki wasn’t coming back.
“My good man,” I said, stuffing a twenty into his hand, “bring ’em both, along with another glass of the house wine.”
When he brought the ices, I downed them in minutes. Dessert never tasted so good.
Four hours later I walked through the door of my apartment and joined my older brother, Marvin, on the L-shaped leather couch in our living room. I packed my mouth with a wad of strawberry Bubblicious and tried to explain the evening’s disaster. A former star wide receiver at Ohio State, Marvin has massive shoulders that shuddered in amusement as he lounged on the other end of the couch. “My little brother, I think it’s safe to say you pushed a bit too hard. God don’t like ugly, Mitchell.”
I turned over onto my stomach and buried my head in one of the puffy cushions. He’ll never understand, I told myself. As much as people think Marvin and I are two peas in a pod, we couldn’t be more different when it comes to our attitudes about women. Marvin’s already been married and seen a woman bear what he thought was his child. It may not have lasted forever, but he knows what it is to experience a long-term romance. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever taste such pleasures.
Even though I knew he would never get it, I tried to educate him. “Marvin, what you’re hearing is raw emotion. I am a good man, can’t nobody tell me different. For years I’ve been cutting these sisters a break. ‘Sorry, Mitchell, you’re just not my type.’ ‘Sorry, Mitchell, I already have a boyfriend.’ ‘Sorry, Mitchell, I’m not ready for another relationship right now.’ You know what? I’m through taking the blame for the way these women treat me. They got the problem, not me.”
Fiddling with the remote control of our Sony wide-screen, Marvin got up and paced the floor of the dimly lit room. “You know what? It’s too late for one of your anti-Oprah, woman-bashing rants. I’ve gotta be on a plane to D.C. in the morning.” He tossed me the remote and stood over me with a look of concern on his face. “Bottom line, Mitchell, are you okay? It’s almost two in the a.m. Get some rest. So what if one sister rejected you? There are other fish in the sea.” He leaned over and popped me on the shoulder before turning toward his bedroom.
As my arm throbbed, I resisted the urge to whimper like a schoolgirl. My brother always forgets I’m not quite at his fitness level. At six feet tall and 190, I’m at least ten pounds heavier and three inches thicker than I was as a baseball star at Georgetown. I bit my lip in pain and yelled, “Oh, there’s fish out there, but most of them aren’t worth catching!”
Marvin turned back suddenly and gripped me in a headlock. “Mitchell, you need to stop running sisters down! Have some patience, man. You’ll get your woman one day. In the meantime, just treat the sisters right. It’ll come back to you someday, trust me.”
Once Marvin finished his little sermon, he released me from his grip. Catching my breath, I lay back against the couch and chuckled in disgust. Like Marvin had to preach to me about respecting sisters.
Who did he think he was talking to? I, Mitchell J. Stone, have always respected women, always played by the rules. From Ms. Tasha Parker, who was kind enough to relieve me of my virginity, to Ms. Carmen Usher, the last serious relationship I had, I have always been the perfect gentleman. I’ve never slept around, never forced unsafe sex on anyone. I’ve never sullied a girl’s reputation in locker rooms teeming with sexcapade stories. And I’ve never, ever, had more than one partner at a time. I am the ultimate good man, nice guy, Mr. Right, you name it. I am the man you could take home to Mama.
Even in high school and college, I learned this was nothing to be proud of. I was no fool; I could see the brothers who got over were those with the slickest raps and the baddest reputations. And I wasn’t in that club. So I endured my romantic life and took it as it came. A couple of girlfriends sophomore year at MLK, baseball and basketball groupies who just wanted to be on my arm for the exposure. Getting picked up by Tasha at a party junior year and learning the temporary joys of sex. Pulling some reasonably attractive dates for proms, turnabout dances, and homecomings, although they rarely returned my calls afterward. My teens and early twenties were an occasionally thrilling, largely disappointing experience where dating was concerned. But I endured those hodgepodge years by clinging to a bold prediction my father made the day I left home for college.
After calling me into his office den and offering me one of his fat Cuban cigars, he handed me an industrial-supply pack of Trojan condoms, the same size and brand I had seen him plop into Marvin’s lap two years earlier. My father, a moody journalist of limited words on his bad days, sat before me with that box and probed my eyes like a concerned physician. “Mitchell, you’re going to need these.” He held up an ebony hand as I tried to protest. “I know you haven’t been as lucky as you like with women, but you need to watch out—you’re going to get up there on campus, and eventually things will change.”
Even at seventeen, I was already a cynic. “Yeah, right, Dad. Whatever.”
“Ah, ah—women don’t like what’s good for them when they’re young, son.” He lowered his gold wire-rimmed frames and peered at me in a way that demanded my respect. “Pay attention. This is serious stuff. When they’re your age, girls want someone who offers danger. Someone who sends a chill up their spine and strikes a little fear into their heart. Personally, I don’t think they can help it.” I tried not to tune out my father’s stiff East Coast accent completely. I’d already heard his academic hypotheses about why women went for “bad men” more times than I could count. I didn’t ask him to expand. “One day, son, usually as they near graduation from college, something changes.” He grinned at me like a kid with a secret.
I kept eye contact with my father and tried to keep a straight face. I decided not to remind him for the umpteenth time: Times Had Changed.
“Mitchell, at some point women start thinking about how to find a man who brings home the bacon. Someone who’ll be a good father to his kids, or to the kids she may already have by Joe Blow. They learn they need a clean-cut, responsible straight-arrow who works hard, cares for his family, and limits his romantic yearnings to his wife.” He ran a hand over the shiny slope of his bald head. “That’s where you’ll come in. When women you know reach that stage, they’ll be beating down your door. And that’s when you’ll need these,” he said, patting the box of Trojans.
That was eleven years ago, and my father’s predictions have yet to come true. In fact, I only recently threw out the remainder of that Trojan pack, when I came across it while cleaning out my folks’ attic. The number of condoms that were left is a secret I’m taking to the grave. Sure, there’ve been a few women in my life since then, but I always end up in the same place: the Friend Zone.
I had hoped that Nikki Coleman was going to change all that. I ran into Nikki three months ago at Trinity United Methodist Church, the church my mother forced me to attend until I was sixteen. Marvin had convinced me to make a rare appearance, in order to see him sing a solo with the young-adult choir at that week’s Sunday-morning service. As I melted into the plump velvety cushions lining the pews, I felt a tentative tap on my right shoulder.
Oh, great, I thought. I was sure it was someone like Mrs. Griggs, the most senior citizen of the church and a grouch who always tried to embarrass me by asking me who I was. Or else it was some Holy Joe like Don Parsons, a childhood friend who thought he’d found God and liked to judge anyone who didn’t see things his way.
When I reluctantly turned around, my heart almost stopped. Nicole Coleman, the woman who broke more hearts among the discriminating brothers at MLK High than any other woman in our class. The woman who had accompanied me to the top of MLK’s academic heap—I was valedictorian; she was salutatorian. We had every college-prep course you could name together, co-led the National Honor Society, and even had a few friends in common.
But I always knew what Nikki was where I was concerned: a dream. I didn’t have the flavor of the superstar jocks, pretty boys, and roughnecks who competed for her attention. Seeing the talent of the field she had before her, I graciously excused myself from the fray and took my place as a benign, emasculated “friend.” But this was a new day and a new me, and Nikki Coleman had taken the initiative to approach me.
Even though Marvin was in the middle of his solo, crooning the lyrics to “No Ways Tired,” I kept my back to him for what felt like minutes as I admired Nikki’s style and whispered a “what’s up” in her direction. Tall for a woman, she still had the same Coke-bottle profile: long legs, trim waistline, perky but unobtrusive breasts, and that rich maple complexion that seemed to call my name. Her hair, the color of ebony with copper-toned highlights, was cut into a stylish layered bob. Her eyes, two pearls of cocoa brown, danced with ambition, intelligence, and bold sensuality. She was fine! I was back in high school all over again, hooked.
After service, I broke away from my family and met up with Nikki at the rear of the sanctuary. “Say, stranger,” I said, “what’s up?” I had become so accustomed to rejection by then, I was almost free of the self-consciousness that normally plagued me. As far as looks go, my only concern, as always, was the size of my ears. I consider myself a reasonably handsome guy, but I’ve always known my ears are abnormally small. Like two little brown quarters, a nameless playground bully taunted when I was in the fourth grade.
That day at the church, Nikki crossed her arms over her beige Donna Karan suit and smiled like she’d received a very pleasant surprise. It turned out that her uncle was a member of Trinity and had invited her to attend. When she told me that she remembered hearing me talk about Trinity in high school, I felt like doing back flips of joy. If she remembered a little detail like that, I had to have been on her mind at some point! I immediately turned off my Platonic Friend mind-set and switched over to Man in Hot Pursuit, though I attempted to mask it by talking with her about work.
Nikki and I both work for Empire Records. Headquartered in a fifty-floor skyscraper just off the Gold Coast in downtown, Empire is divided into six separate record labels. Nikki’s an associate director in the corporate promotions department, while I’m doing time as a financial analyst at Evans Entertainment, Empire’s R&B label. The funny thing is, we had hardly seen each other in our time working at Empire. The last time we had really hung out was at our five-year high school reunion.
That day at Trinity, by the time we were done comparing notes on the financial troubles at Empire, which had everyone worried about layoffs, Nikki and I realized we were enjoying each other’s company. As the conversation flowed freely and I felt my sap rise, I filled with more hope than I’d allowed myself in a long, long time.
The next few months unfolded like a movie script, at least compared with some of my other dating experiences. I knew Nikki had broken up with her first love, Barry Roberts, and there was no sign of other men in her life (which, of course, meant absolutely nothing). We wore out each other’s phone lines several times a week, clashing swords over the ins and outs of affirmative action and Prop. 209, the contributions of gangster rappers to the black community, man sharing (a concept I facetiously advocated), and our various theories on the success or failure of every artist on Empire Records’ roster. We worked out at each other’s fitness clubs a few times, admiring each other’s stamina on the StairMaster, NordicTrack, and stationary bikes. Nikki even tolerated my collection of Hits of the 80s CDs, which is all I play when I cruise around in my ride. I knew we were meant to be when she sang along with me on DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night.” Most girls rip the CD out and threaten to pitch it when that selection comes on.
Each weekend, as we exposed each other to our favorite haunts in Chicago, I dared to think that my father’s prediction was finally coming true. My years of chivalry, monogamy, and occasional loneliness were paying off. This Nice Guy was going to get his girl.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from No More Mr. Nice Guy by C. Kelly Robinson. Copyright © 2002 by C. Kelly Robinson. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.