October 25, 2010

In Praise of the Nice Guy

It took me a long time into my womanhood, but I have found my way back to The Nice Guy.

When I was young, I was entranced by any boy or man who was nice to me.

I adored my father, who defended me to my mother, saying things like "Sandi's not bad, she's just misunderstood."

I developed crushes on and obsessions with authority figures: Officer Friendly, the firemen respondents to our house's lightning strike, the concerned teachers who counseled me after class when they witnessed my tear-swollen eyes and bruised nose.

Like any other awkward kid - especially one forced to wear too-big glasses, hand-me-downs from Sears and a boyish, unfortunately cowlicked haircut - I was tortured throughout high school, and whenever a boy would come to my defense, I would unleash my doe-eyed affections upon him.

I suppose that explains why my first-ever real date was with a nice boy who eventually came out of the closet. (There was one date before him, but the boy protested to his mother, my mother and all our schoolmates that it was not a date. He protested, that is, to everyone but me.)

None of those nice guys - especially not the gay ones - ever reciprocated my desires. Maybe they didn't want a nice girl. Maybe they were just being nice for the sake of being nice, with no ulterior motive, no intentions of woo or romance. As much as I wanted The Nice Guy, The Nice Guy never wanted me.

Then again, at the time, I was unfit for dating: sheltered, abused, battered and damaged as a child, allowed to go on a total of only three dates between sixth grade and high school graduation. When I went away to college, I quickly learned that despite the distance from my overprotective parents, I was still unfit for dating, and The Nice Guy wasn't so easy to spot anymore. Boys would kiss me with no desire for conversation, no regard for my feelings and no intention on ever kissing me again. I hung around one guy who seemed to treat me nicely, but spent all of his time telling me about his ex-girlfriend and the other girl whose dorm room he sometimes he slept over. As I got older, I sought The Nice Guy in underclassmen, but I mistook their innocence and inexperience for kindness, their doe-eyed gazes at me too fleeting, too easily distracted by another girl, smarter, thinner, younger, newer than I.

If a liberal arts education in a small, bucolic town in Upstate New York teaches you anything, it's how to make swift, meaningful connections with complete strangers, and then let them go as quickly as the semester changes, the dorm room assignments shift, the bars close and the party ends.

It's the perfect training ground for living and dating in New York City, whose newness keeps it in a constant state of flux, its population perpetually turning over via immigration and emigration between boroughs, coasts, and countries.

In my first several years in New York City, I forgot what The Nice Guy looked like altogether, so much so that I couldn't recognize him at all anymore. I assumed he ceased to exist. Instead, I allowed Other Guys to ignore me, deny me, hide me, cheat on me, cheat with me, and forget me. I paid their rent. I slipped $20 bills into their empty wallets when they weren't looking. I took late night cabs to outer boroughs to drive them safely home. I eased their aching backs. And I never expected anything in return. I didn't even expect them to return the feelings.

Does that make me the most magnanimous woman in the world? Or just a sucker?

I pegged myself a sucker, so I took nearly two years off. I went through hell. I stopped talking to my parents. I started therapy. I quit my job. I moved to the desert. I traveled alone. I joined Weight Watchers and embarked on the biggest self improvement kick of my life.

And somehow, a few pounds lost, a world of hell past, The Nice Guy reemerged.

I spotted him with disbelief, like the discovery of a species thought long-extinct, nestled in the depths of the rainforest or some remote wilderness. He thought I was smart and pretty. He encouraged my writing and photography. He taught me phrases in foreign languages. He took me on dates romantic and planned, with no expectations but to spend time with me and stare at my face. He spotted me from across the room, sidled up to me despite my group of friends, got my number and used it. He told me how much he liked me, earnestly, unabashedly, without regret or remorse. He visited me at all hours, slept with me in his arms, and kissed me goodbye and watched me as I left.

And I liked him back, needing him desperately, desiring him all the more because he was so nice.

I'm not sure what's changed, what world conditions have been altered in order to support the existence of The Nice Guy once again in my life. I'm 45 pounds lighter and an entire savings account and annual salary poorer, but emotionally richer, more stable, and more empowered. I can take a compliment and say "Thank you." I give out my phone number to anyone who seems like they'll really appreciate having it. And I'll go out with anyone who wants to put the thought and effort into taking me somewhere nice and making sure I have a good time (regardless of who pays, but these days, a girl's gotta eat).

Do I finally, after all these years, believe that I deserve it?

Of course, right now The Nice Guy in my life is a composite of several nice guys I've encountered over the last eight months. Some live elsewhere. Some have other lives and other women. Some are here but lost their interest in me. (It happens.) Some can't forget another girl; some would like to forget her with me. Some don't think that they're supposed to be nice, or that girls will ever like them if they are nice. But God help me, I love 'em: the young, the innocent, the impressionable, the confident, the experienced, the kind and the generous. Whether they are 23 or 43, there is no greater turn-on than someone who likes me so much they can't help but tell me and try to show me.

Maybe one day there will be one nice guy, The Nice Guy. But now, for the first time in my entire life, I am not lonely. I've surrounded myself with The Nice Guy Roommate, plenty of Nice Guy Friends, and a few Nice Guy Dates. After the life I have led, I will take it, run with it, and never look back.

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