She was beautiful and clean and soulful and the first time he saw her he knew hemust have her.
("Did you really know that, at the time?" Meredith asked him.
("Yes," he said, with the utter conviction of a man in love.
("You'reusing your insane voice again," she said.)
Her name was Amy. She had long well-kept blonde hair and she pushed against America's cultural obsession with slimness. Her face was wide and unblemished and clearly made for smiling. She was an alto in the Performance Singers, where he was a tenor, and they sat near each other. Her voice was the color of glass, sweet and clear and ringing. Sometimes it was all he could do not to stop and listen.
It took him until February to work up the courage to ask her out, and then she said, "Oh, I'm sorry, Jacob, but ... I'm seeing someone."
He knew that. Her dorm room was across the courtyard from his, and because she left her blinds open most of the time, h ecould see quite clearly when he wanted to.
"Oh, well," he said. "That's fine." A struggle to sound casual, unaffected, bored in that manly way. "I mean, if you're seeing someone..."
"I am," said Amy. She beamed. "His name's Nick Johnson. Have you met him?"
Nick Johnson was tall and broad of chest, sullen, muscled, reeking of testosterone. In a white T-shirt and close-cropped hair, he was like the patron god of the U.S. Army. "No, I haven't," Jake said.
"You'd love him," Amy said. Her faced glowed in that brilliant, heart-warming smile. "He's nice and sweet and fun and..."
Jake didn't see what was so great about him. On the rare occasions when they were in her room and not having sex, Nick prowled like a caged animal. Jake, a hundred yards away, could never hear what he was saying, but their body language told it all.
"Yes, but..." said Meredith. "Jake, it may look like they're not getting along, but you have to admit that you aren't seeing the whole picture. A lot of times, no one quite understands how two people's relationship works, except for the two people themselves."
"Hey," said Zachary, coming in the front door. "He's here again? Meredith, you should charge him by the hour."
Meredith laughed. "Nonsense. We do this for people we like."
Meredith Levine was another girl he could have loved—Meredith Chambers, now. But she, too, was seeing someone; and Brandon was a good friend, Jake's group leader during Orientation two years ago. Evidently they'd been going out for five years, and their first wedding anniversary was fast approaching. This particular could-have-been was nipped in the bud before it even began. And it was not in Jacob's nature to dwell on things he couldn't have.
Even more than that, though, the Chamberses were both in the Performance Singers. They knew Amy, and they knew Jake. He could talk to them about it. Zach and his girlfriend Christa too, though he didn't know them as well.
"We've been going out since we were freshmen," Amy told him. "I didn't know a soul here—you know how it is." Jake, who had once had no friends at all save a distracted sophomore named Brandon Chambers, nodded. He forked a bite of pasta into his mouth. "So, here I was, rattling around like so much loose change, and then ... There was Nick. He's on a football scholarship—did I tell you that?—so he knew people already, and, you know..." A sigh. "He was so dreamy."
And then, "I guess you wouldn't know about that."
"No,"said Jake to his dream. "I know about that."
She smiled—that brilliant, heart-warming smile. She had dimples and gray-green eyes. "I'm glad I met you, Jacob. You're such a nice guy."
There were times when he sat alone in his tiny dorm room, a pocket of space designed by a Japanese barely twelve feet on its longest dimension, and felt the cold silence of the room around him and the emptiness and the sounds of talk and laughter from next door, from upstairs, from outside the courtyard, and felt that he had been buried alive, and that this was his coffin, and that it was his doom to be here, silent, alone, isolated, forever. There were times in which he wanted to walk down the street and reach out to every smiling face. There were times when he wanted to punch them instead.
He'd dash across the courtyard and up the stairs to Amy's room. "He's wrong for you," he'd say. "I'm not." And Nick would come charging in yelling and she would see, and together they'd shove him out the door, working together, in unison, their bodies dancing to a song they had both heard forever. And they'd get him out into the hall, but he'd manage to shove a foot or an arm or something through, and they'd have to hold the door against his brute strength as he tried to break in. And they'd find themselves face to face, pressed against the door, expletives and outrage burning around it, and smile at each other, and kiss.
That was what should happen.
"Uh-uh," Zach said when he heard that, "no, no way."
"No way what?" Meredith asked.
"No Nice Guy. Never Nice Guy. Nice Guy is the perfect way to get screwed over for life."
"That's not true," Meredith protested, "Christa, is that true?"
"Is what true," said Christa, handing her the baby. "Oh, hi, Jake."
"Nice Guys finish last," Zach said.
"Spot on," Christa said. "Absolutely true. Truer words were ne'er spoken."
"Well, great," said Jake.
"What do you mean?" Meredith said. "Zach's a nice guy. Brandon, you're a nice guy. You aren't finishing last."
"Yeah, we're nice guys," Brandon said. "But we're more than nice guys."
"Look at Jake's situation right now," Zach said. "He's a nice guy—yeah. He's a choirboy, for heaven's sake. Jake, you get good grades, right? And you come from a nice family—not necessarily like wildly affluent, but some money. There's nothing wrong with that. But look at Nick.
"Nick is not A Nice Guy. Now, Meredith, I know you're all into that humanist thing of assuming the best about everyone, but I've played with Nick in intramural games and I can tell you, he is definitely not a nice guy. He doesn't get good grades. He doesn't come from a good family. He's here on an athletics scholarship and every year his coaches have to push him that extra mile so that he keeps it. Sure, he's got those hot muscles, but he's not going anywhere. We're gonna find him face down drunk-to-death in some trailer park in ten years.
"But he gets the girls. Whereas you, Jake, do not. And do you know why?"
"Because women are stupid," Jake grumped.
"Because you're boring," Zach said quietly.
Jake said nothing.
"You're a Nice Guy, Jake. You're reliable. You make a good friend. You're safe, in other words. And yeah, when everyone's thinking of getting married in ten or fifteen years, you'll probably be hot property. But the kind of man a girl wants to marry is not necessarily the kind of man she wants to date."
"And what kind of man does she want to date," Meredith asked.
"The unsafe kind," Zach said. "The dangerous kind. The unpredictable kind. People like Nick."
"Zach, you're disproving your own point by existing," Meredith said. "By your logic, you should've never gotten together with Christa, and I should've never found Brandon."
"He's right," Brandon said. "We're flukes, all of us. Jake's the rule, we're the exceptions that prove it. When we got together, we were dangerous."
"When I caught Christa's attention," Zach said, "it was because I was an asshole. No, don't deny it, you know it's true. I was an asshole. And Christa liked that about me. She liked that about Mark Spencer too, only he turned out to be asshole all the way though, whereas I had a chewy-nougat Nice Guy center to me. But if I'd been Nice Guy all the way through, or asshole all the way through, Christa would be off in Springfield somewhere, happily dating some guy who's smarter than me, and I'd be third wheel to you and Brandon right now.
"And Brandon caught your eye by being screwed up. He was partners with the freak girl, and he'd tried that whole suicide thing. Everyone knew he was fucked up. That attracted you, Meredith, not only because you've been fucked up too, but because that made him different, it made him stand out, it suggested there was more to him than meets the eye. Let's face it, on the surface Brandon is white-bread boring. But then we look at what he's doing, we look past the cover, and, hey—he's interesting! If Brandon hadn't gone in The Program, you two would've never gotten together. You would've never noticed him, and even if Brandon by some miracle had asked you out, you probably would've said no. Which is exactly what just happened to Jake."
"But what about Lisa," Christa said. "Jane said Dustin was a family friend for a long time, and he was a certifiable Nice Guy. Then, junior year, wham, they just started dating."
"Proves the rule," Zach said. "He did that thing for her, remember?—What was it—went out on his bike fifteen miles just to get her that thing. She never expected him to do that. And now suddenly she's looking at him because he's different and unpredictable, and he's interesting to her. You gotta understand, to women, nice guys are like furniture: they rarely ever notice em. They just expect em to be there and then don't give em a second thought."
"Not furniture," Brandon chortled, "they notice furniture. Something even less. Grass maybe.
"So you're saying I'm boring," Jake said.
.... There is more of this story ...