His name was Mike, but most everybody on campus called him
Frosty. I fell in love with him. He was warm, funny, tender
and-here's the best part-only with me. To everyone else he was
like this myth: star high school basketball player, leader of the
band, most respected fraternity brother and the last one standing
after a fight. But he was just my man. My man, Mike. A gentle
man. So many secrets. So much pain.
"Throw me the ball, man"
He was in his element today, a king holding court: basketball court. He didn't talk much, but when he did, it usually came out as an order. He says it was his military training. I say he's been ordering people around since the crib.
But there he was that day again, on the court, sweating, winning, wanting the ball in his hands. I had my face pressed up against the chain link fence, watching him move. By his side. I loved that about him. Other guys seemed to want their girlfriends around behind closed doors. When they were in public, they needed "space to maneuver." Amazing how many silly girls didn't ask the simple question, "Maneuver into whom?"
I swore I would never date a good looking, Black man again. Their mamas spoil them, the world hates or loves them too much, and they take it all out on you. So, I'm not even into the looks trip. I'd rather have somebody who looks just OK if he has a good personality. "Good" means he likes to be around me, he respects me and loves me for who I am without screwing around with everything that walks by in stockings and a short skirt.
Love me. Is that too much to ask? You don't have to be fine. Just love me and be around me and about me if we're going to be together. But I had both-fine and mine. I was loving it then, but it leaves a dark, black hole when it's gone. Maybe I was asking too much.
Not another fight. My man just knocked somebody else down on the way to the basket. "Baby, 'Get up,' and, 'I'm sorry,' are two different things," I said under my breath. I would have said it out loud two years ago, but I'm learning.
You can say anything to a man as long as you don't say it in public or around his friends. The last time I heard Mike say, "Don't ever disrespect me like that," is the last time I want to hear him say that. I'm learning. I sighed relief when I realized it was only his best friend Vernon.
"Man, Frost, you can't be playing like that. My ankle is messed up for real."
"Let me see."
I thought I saw a little bit of kindness in Mike's eyes toward Vernon when he leaned over and took the ankle in his hand.
No such luck. He dropped the ankle. I winced at Vernon's painful grimace when the twisted ankle thudded on the concrete. Those two were always so rough with each other.
"Come on, you're OK."
"Yeah, I'm cool."
Mike helped him up and off the court. Vernon was hobbling pretty badly.
I hated Vernon. Still do. Even more now. He was Mike's childhood friend, the only thing or person that stayed constant in my man's life. I called him, 'Vermin,' because that's what he was, a rat.
Why can't men see through other men's characters? Or is it just Mike? So mean on the outside, and so loyal inside. He captured my heart with that crazy mix, but it was so frustrating sometimes. He was so blind. Beautiful. But blind. No, actually he wasn't blind. He saw what he wanted to see. I was the blind one.
"Come on, man. If you wasn't so slow you wouldn't be hurt. Get in my way while I'm dunking. You lost your mind, V?"
"Yeah, right. I almost blocked it. I'm gonna get it one day, Frost. I'm going to block your shot."
"You're crazy. Maybe one day, V. There you go. Sit here. Watch me play. One day, homeboy, but not today."
Vermin's arm was around Mike's shoulder as they walked slowly off the court. I thought they were going to the car, but Mike laid him down gently on the side of the court. They were saying something to each other about the other guys watching the game, because they pointed at one young guy with glasses and laughed to themselves. Even though he had our university's jersey on, he looked like he was still in junior high school.
"Baby, why don't you take him back to the dorm?" I yelled as they giggled like little girls.
"Uh, excuse me. Men are talking," Vermin said.
The other guys on the court laughed. I didn't see anything funny.
"No, Vermin, man is talking to boy. No, Cheetah actually. Now why don't you get over to the dorm and ice that ankle down before it gets as big as your head?"
"Always talking about my head. Which head you referring to? I'm telling you, Frost, your girl wants me. Always has."
"I want you dead, Vermin. I want...never mind. Suffer, fool."
I could never seem to match his vulgarity, although God knows I tried. He knew how to get to me. The madder I got, the more he giggled. My Christian upbringing didn't give me the edge in confrontation that he got from growing up in the streets, or his ease with vulgarity. He knew that. He was vile with me every chance he got. At first I passed it off as just his jealousy of me taking his place as Mike's best friend. It was that, but so much more.
"Baby, he'll be alright right here. And you know he's too ugly and mean to die."
I smiled at my baby. He rescued me again. Somehow, it seemed to me he never went far enough in protecting me from Vermin's attacks. They thought it was funny. When I'd get upset, Mike would always say, "Baby, that's just how we are. He don't mean no harm." Sometimes, I wondered. I really did.
Mike was pointing at the young kid with the glasses.
"You play ball?"
"Come. Play. Now."
Mike's invitation got the young man up on his feet and stripping his jersey off like he was coming off the bench into the NBA finals. I kind of recognized him when he stood. I had seen him in my dormitory.
This was the first year that the university had co-ed dorms. The men had rooms on one side of the building and the women on the other, but it wasn't unusual to come into the showers in the morning and see a naked man. Not a pretty sight when it's not your man. It didn't happen often, but the possibility was always there. The unexpected sight of a naked man, other than my own, is not my ideal way of starting any day.
I had never seen this one naked though. Freshmen stayed on the sixth floor. But he did look familiar. He also looked bigger standing up. I saw why when he took off his jersey. We all kind of gasped at the size of his muscles. Actually, it wasn't so much the size but the shape and definition. 'Cut' is the word they use, as in chiseling a marble statue. Mike was the first to recover.
"Let's see what you got, young boy."
Mike threw him the basketball. Hard.
The youngster caught it pretty easy. Though it was an obvious attempt at intimidation, the kid didn't seem ruffled at all. He even smiled. For such a plain face, it was really a beautiful smile I thought. His forehead went back and those small, serious eyes with the built-in bags underneath brightened up considerably. His lips parted to reveal perfect teeth. It was a big, wide smile like Denzel's, but without the rest of the pretty facial features to back it up.
"Check back," he said. Then he got down in a defensive stance-knees bent, hands and arms outstretched, eyes on the basketball and not on the other man. He had played this game before. I knew a ballplayer when I saw one and he looked good. Mike noticed it too and took a step back out of respect before his pride kicked in and he decided to charge right over top of the kid.
Why did he do that?
"Man, you tripped me."
Blood was coming from Mike's left knee which had taken the brunt of the fall when the kid dodged to the side and Mike went flying over where he thought the kid's face was. We were all kind of stunned because it happened so fast. The kid was quick as a cat.
"Actually, I just moved to the side and you fell while charging over me. My feet never moved, so that is a charge. Our ball."
Everybody looked down at the kid's feet. He was right. He had somehow leaned his body all the way down, almost to the ground, without moving his feet. Everybody got quiet. Once Mike looked and saw that he was telling the truth, the kid stood up straight, moved over to the foul line and held his hands out to Mike.
A chorus of "Ooohs" went up from the sidelines.
"Come on, y'all," I said silently. "Don't provoke him even more."
The kid wasn't gloating or afraid. Actually, he didn't even seem to realize the seriousness of the situation or the danger he was in.
"Oh, it's going to be like that, huh?" Mike said as he got up and motioned for Vermin to throw him a towel.
"Like what?" the kid asked.
I didn't know if he was joking or if he really didn't get that he had just embarrassed the king on his home court. Mike caught the towel and brushed the gravel and broken glass pieces out of his knee. He threw the towel back at Vermin, handed the kid the basketball and got down in a very serious defensive stance.
There was going to be trouble. As much as I wanted to say something, I decided that now would not be the right time to let my man know that his knee was still bleeding.
"Check back, baby. Let's see what you got."
The kid looked Mike in the eye for a second and then focused on his waist. He waved the ball as he stepped one foot this way and that as if he were going to dribble the ball in himself. The kid waved the ball a little too close to Mike, and Mike swiped to knock it out of his hands. The kid faked left and sped around Mike to the right. Vic was on Mike's team, and he moved over to stop the kid who was driving down the lane for an easy lay-up. Vic was quick also and got to him, but as Vic jumped to block his shot, the kid lofted the ball to his teammate who was now open. As the kid's teammate dunked the ball, one of the guys on the sideline yelled, "Alley O-o-o-p." Raucous laughter ensued from the 'peanut gallery.'
"I wish they would shut up," I muttered.
"Ten, four," the kid's teammate said, with new confidence.
The kid went to take the ball out again. Mike, Vic and Art were huddled together, whispering. Bad news when fraternity brothers get together and start whispering. They were no doubt cooking up some scheme to win their "honor" back.
Everyone knew that the Gammas were the intramural league champions and that they hardly ever lost, even in a casual pickup game. They played well together because everyone knew their place. Mike was the leader. Vic was a phenomenal shot blocker and shooter. Even though he was only five feet eight inches tall, he could dunk the ball with two hands.
Art and Vic switched the men that they were guarding and Mike went back to check the kid.
"Nice move. I'm going to have to take you more seriously."
The kid, wearing the same calm face, as if nothing had just happened, threw the ball to Mike.
"Check, back," Mike said.
Vic and Art both had one hand on their man's chest, but they were looking intently at the young boy, ready to pick him up at a moment's notice. He threw the ball in to Vic's man, who caught it and drove hard to the basket. All three of the Gammas converged on the man like he was fresh steak in a lion pit.
Mike caught up to him first. The poor guy managed to get a shot off, but Mike jumped from behind him, slammed the ball on the backboard as it was still going up, and then snatched it into his hands.
Shouts of "Na-asty!" and "Frosty-y-y!" rose from the sidelines.
As soon as Mike came down, the kid was right on him and almost poked the ball out of his hands, but Mike had too firm a grip.
"Now, I got the ball. Now, I got the ball, baby. Let's see what you got. See what you got, young boy."
Art and Vic were circling around underneath the basket while Mike dribbled back out to the foul line, the young boy right on his heels. Art and Vic were smiling as they watched Mike dribble at the foul line. He was looking into the young boy's eyes and talking loud.
"You didn't tell me you were a ballplayer."
The kid kept his eyes on the ball.
"Well, I'm a little bit of a ballplayer myself. I just want to say-"
Mike faked as if he would run right over the young boy again, then dribbled right, brushing him hard as he drove by. The young boy leaned down quickly to avoid the charge and bounced back up just as quickly to catch Mike. As he popped up and turned, he met Art's shoulder flush in his face and careened backwards onto the ground as if he'd just been hit by a knockout punch.
"Ooo-h. Ni-i-ice Pi-i-i-ck!" the crowd roared.
Surprisingly, the kid jumped right back up, but he was too woozy to see Mike score on an uncontested dunk. He collected himself and ran after Mike. He was frantically trying to steal the ball back, not realizing that the play had already been completed. Amidst the raucous laughter, Mike waved the ball around his head as the kid tried frantically to grab it.
"As I was about to say, kid, welcome to the neighborhood. Eleven to 5. Check."
Mike tossed the ball to the kid. He realized the point had been scored and the laughter was directed at him. The kid looked at Art and said, "Nice pick." Art tipped an imaginary hat and smiled. The young boy gave a small smile back and threw the ball back to Mike.
No anger. No wounded pride. Just, "Check."
They managed to finish the game without any further incident. The young boy scored two more points before Vic finished the game out with three straight, long-range jump shots.
I walked onto the court after the game to towel down my man's knee. He was sitting next to Vermin, drinking juice, and laughing about the game. The young boy put his jersey back on and walked towards the dorms.
"Hey, you want to play again?" Mike asked.
"Naw, I need to go get ready for a meeting tonight."
"Oh well, by all means, let us not be late for Bible study."
Vermin cackled at that, and they fell on each other laughing.
"Leave him alone," I said as I knelt down to look at Mike's knee. "Both of you, all four of you need to be going with him."
"Take it easy you guys," the young boy said as he hopped over the small area of the fence.
"Catch you later, kid. Come here, girl."
Mike pulled me onto him as he leaned back onto the fence.
"You're sweaty and bleeding," I said as I put the blood stained towel up to his face. I dabbed it at him as he bobbed his head back and forth. Mike had been an amateur boxer, and he loved it when I gave him a chance to show off.
"Come on, let's go get some brew," Art said. "Nobody left here worth playing."
"I'm for that," Vermin said as he hobbled to his feet. Nothing made him move faster than a liquor invitation. I was still looking in Mike's eyes. I wanted him to be with me.
"Y'all got homework to do," I said. "Vernon, I know you don't care, but Art and Vic, you know y'all don't need to start drinking at four o'clock in the afternoon."
"Yes, mama Cheryl," they chimed.
"Don't 'mama Cheryl' me. Y'all know I'm right. Go do two hours of study, get some food in your stomachs, and then you can get drunk for the rest of the night."
"Madness. Blasphemy. No beer after basketball? Woman, you done lost what little mind women have."
"Vernon, everybody's trying to do something constructive. Why don't you grow up?"
"Grown-up men drink beer after basketball, woman. Come on, Frost. I need to wash away this pain. You know you owe me a drink after that vicious hack."
"Y'all take hobleg here back to the dorm and make him study. I'm going back to Cheryl's room and study for this calculus exam."
"Aw-w-w, yoo-oou b---h!" Vernon said.
That was the official Gamma trump card, invented by Vernon, played whenever they wanted to shame each other into doing something stupid. It usually worked.
I hated that word, and out of respect for Mike, they didn't normally use it around me, even though that was the only word they used for females any other time. Mike swiped his foot at Vernon's swelling ankle, but Vernon hopped back out of reach just in time.
Mike got up and looked Vernon in the eye, smiling.
"You need to go lay down."
"I need to go get a drink and then lay down. Come on, Frost. Leave mother hen alone and take your boy to the store."
Mike wavered for a second.
"I'll take you to the store, Vernon," Vic offered.
"Take him straight back to his room after that," Mike said.
"Pssts," Vernon hissed through his teeth as he rolled his eyes at me. "Alright, y'all. Let's roll. Catch you later, Frost."
"Later, V. Later, Vic. Later, Art."
"Later, Frost," they said as they headed for Vic's car.
"So, you got me to yourself, now. Whatcha gonna do with all this man?"
He threw his arm around my shoulder and leaned down to pick up his fraternity sweater. I grabbed it and threw it around my shoulders instead of handing it to him.
"Why you always got to try to put my sweater on?"
Mike gave me that look I love where he cocks his head to one side and gives me a little 'What are you up to now, woman?' smile.
"Cause it makes me warm."
"Come on, Cheryl. Stop playing. Don't put that sweater on."
I pulled his sweater around my shoulders tighter, but didn't dare put it on me. Yet.
"Something about wearing my man's clothes. I love it."
"I've got other clothes you can wear. Come on now. Serious business. Give me the sweater."
I pulled it tight around my chest.
"You sure you want me to take this off? I think it looks good on me. Feels good too. What do you think?"
I twirled around for him. He looked me up and down, then grabbed for the sweater. I jumped back quickly and he missed. I was laughing so hard, I couldn't run fast and he caught me after about three steps, picked me up by the waist and spun me around.
"TAKE THAT DAMN SWEATER OFF, WOMAN! STOP THIS CAR."
Vermin. Why did he have to be riding by? Fortunately, Vic was driving, and he didn't even slow down.
"See, that's what I'm saying. Why you have to do stuff like that?"
"Aw, baby don't listen to him."
"It's not about listening to him. I told you not to wear the sweater, but you keep playing. This ain't no joke."
"Fine. Fine, Mike. Here's your sweater. You know I would never do anything to make you look bad in front of your brothers."
I gave him his sweater back, and we walked in silence for a while. You know how you know you shouldn't say something, but it just keeps gnawing at you until you say it? I had to say it.
"So, would you rather be with them? Is that what you're mad about now?"
"Who am I with, Cheryl?"
"I'm just saying, if you want to go be with them, then don't let me hold you back."
"Hold me back? What the hell are you talking about? I'm with you, Cheryl, OK? I'm with you because I want to be with you."
By now, he had stopped walking and was facing me. His hands were open, palms down in front of his chest, fingertips almost touching. He would jab them forward every time he wanted to emphasize a word.
"I asked you not to wear my sweater."
"Baby, I'm sorry. I was just playing. I know that sweater and those letters are sacred to y'all. I'm sorry. I'm sorry it happened. I won't wear the sweater again. OK?"
He was still standing in his boxer's stance, shoulders squared, piercing eyes. So, I eased up to him and gently put my hands over his hands and brought them down from in front of his chest. I walked up into him until our bodies were pressed together, all the time looking up into his eyes. They were still hard, but he let me move his hands so that I could wrap my arms around his waist. Tight muscles in his chest. So tense. He didn't put his arms around me, so I got on my tiptoes and whispered in his ears, "OK, baby?"
He looked in my eyes. I know he wanted to smile, but he was still mad. My man didn't trust anybody. He was always thinking somebody was going to play him for a fool. But he trusted me. I stole a quickie kiss on his lips.
He smiled. Sometimes I was afraid of what I would do to get that smile.
"You know you owe me dinner, woman."
"I think I got some rotten eggs and an old can of baked beans in my closet."
"Yeah, you got a problem with that?"
My eyes were fixing on that face. I ran my hands over those high, sharp cheekbones of his and smoothed back those heavy, black eyebrows. Deep set eyes. I used to get lost in that face.
"Don't play me. You just came back from your mama's house, and I know she sent me some food. She always sends me food."
"She might have sent something. I don't remember."
"Come here, woman."
He slid his arms around my waist, picked me up until my head was just higher than his, and kissed me like he wanted to make up right there. For a moment, I almost lost myself until I remembered that we were still outside in front of the undergraduate library.
"We need to take this inside, Mike," I whispered to him as I looked around.
"I ain't walking all the way across campus for no baked beans."
"I think I might be able to find some mashed potatoes."
He grabbed me closer. People were starting to stare now.
"And some yams."
He loosened his grip and I took him by the hand to lead him away. He wasn't budging.
"OK. I just might have a chicken leg or two to throw on that plate if you come right now."
"Now you're talking."
I yanked his hand and we left. Now, I was wondering whether he was coming for me or my yams.
(view more excerpts and start the experience at CherylsSong.com)