Putting It Back Together

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Reggie stared in disgust at the shriveled up piece of latex.  He wasn't shocked.  He'd always known Nikki was cheating on him.  Hell, it was common knowledge that she was sleeping with half the NFL.  He'd grown so used to her transgressions that he really didn't care anymore.  But why did she have to do her dirt in his bed?

He couldn't understand why she hated him so much that she couldn't even respect him enough to keep her men out of their bedroom. Or out of their house, for that matter. Furthermore, did she think he was such a fool that she didn't even have to hide it anymore?  She could at least pretend to have some courtesy, if not for him, than for their son.

Reggie met Nikki right after the Saints drafted him ten years ago. They'd dated for nearly two years before he worked up enough never to propose. It wasn't that he was afraid she'd say no, but he was afraid of women wanting him for his money. Being a rookie, he didn't make the millions that some of the more experienced players made, but he knew there were a lot of women in the city looking for "potential."  And being a Tulane grad and a second-round draft pick, he definitely had potential.

He also hadn't had much luck with relationships.  He didn't date much in college because he was tired of women seeing his face and status and treating him like a trophy.  Why did young girls act like he couldn't see that gloating look they wear whenever they were in public?  It was the type of look that said, yeah, bitch, look what I got!

Alexis, his last real girlfriend before Nikki, never treated him like a prize, but she cheated.  And she cheated badly.  To him, she was just another bad chapter in his life that he had to get over.  Once he met Nikki, he thought he'd found the answer to his prayers.

Although the Saints had had their ups and downs over the years, he did well with the team, earning countless awards and making two trips to the Pro Bowl.  He had yet to achieve his ultimate dream of making it to the Superbowl, but Nikki was his other dream come true.  Every time he played a game, accepted an award or made a speech at a local school, she was right there in the front row cheering him on.  During the Saints' not-so-good seasons, like the one they were having now, she was there to rub his back and reassure him that despite the score, he played well.  She was his angel.

It wasn't until he began thinking about retirement that the infidelity began.  He'd been wrestling with the idea for about a year, but he'd made the decision final after preseason.  Nikki was incensed!  He guessed she wasn't ready for him to give up their celebrity lifestyle.  It wasn't just about money for her.  As an NFL wife, she had status.  She'd lose some of that if he was no longer in the limelight.

 He felt like the biggest dummy in the NFL, because he knew she was sleeping with other football players.  Most of New Orleans knew what she was doing.  She'd even been seen with a couple players from the New Orleans Hornets basketball team.  He figured that she was looking for the next big catch.

He just couldn't understand when she stopped loving him.  Everything had been perfect for so long.  Many people saw them as the perfect couple.  How could she have spent ten years with him if she never loved him?  Who could keep a charade going on for so long?

Then again, he remembered, her attitude did begin to change once she found her name on a Web site as one of the NFL's hottest wives.  Her behavior remained the same, but Reggie could tell that her head stood higher when she walked into a room.  Soon, she no longer had time to volunteer with the team wives' club.  Instead, she made it her business to be everywhere Reggie was, apparently to get more face time.  But when Reggie began talking about retirement, he guessed she could see the beginning of the end of her own stardom.  It wasn't long before the cheating started.

Were her feelings just that conditional?  Apparently so, he thought as threw the covers back over the condom. He looked in the nightstand and found a pen and paper. He wrote her a note, laid it on top of the covers, then picked up his gym bag and left the house.

"What's wrong with you?"

Reggie continued bench pressing, silent rage motivating him.  He wanted to ignore his best friend and teammate, but he knew his face gave him away.  He and Levi had been friends since their first day of training camp ten years ago.  They knew each other too well not to know when something wasn't right with the other.

"What makes you think something's wrong?" Reggie asked.  Levi knew him too damned well.  He clanked the three-hundred pound barbell back on the stand and sat up.

"Man, if you were any slower during those walk-throughs, we mighta had to call them crawl-throughs," Levi joked, sitting on a nearby weight bench.

Reggie shot him a weak smile.  "Your ass never was funny."

"But I speak the truth," Levi replied, smiling.

"Whatever, man."

"Besides, you know you're not supposed to be lifting this heavy the day before a game," Levi pointed out.

Reggie shrugged.  Before he could reply, a chime came from his pocket.  He fished out his cell phone, looked at the incoming number, and sucked his teeth.  "Hold up, Lee."

He pressed talk and barked, "Yeah."

"I got your little note," said an angry woman's voice.


"That was real fuckin' funny, Reg.  How you gonna write 'clean this shit up' and leave it lying around?  What if our son saw it?"

"You weren't worried about Shawn finding that fuckin' condom you left in our bed," Reggie snapped.  He stole a quick glance at Levi, who tried to turn away to hide the shock that had registered on his face.  Reggie looked down and avoided eye contact for the rest of the conversation.

Nikki remained quiet for a few seconds.  "Well, uh, you still didn't have to play games like that.  If you have a problem, confront me like a man."

"If you think -- you know what?  I'm not even going there with you," Reggie said.  He bit his lip and rubbed his bald head, an action he always did when he tried to think of what to do or say next.  "You know that nigga you fucked last night?  Stay with him tonight.  As for Shawn, I'll be home at seven.  He better be there."

"You kickin' me out?"

"Not yet, but the way I'm feeling, if I see you tonight, I don't know what I'll do," Reggie mumbled.

"That sounds like a threat. You can put a hand on me if you want, but--"

"Shut up, Nikki."

A quick flick of the thumb cut off Nikki's tirade of shouting and cursing.  He shoved the phone back in his pocket and glared at Levi.  "You see the shit I gotta put up with?  I've been nothin' but good to that woman, and this is what I get in return.  If it wasn't for my son, I woulda been gone.  I shoulda fucked around on her like most of these guys do on the road."

Levi looked his friend right in the eyes.  "You sure it's worth going through all this?"

Reggie shook his head.  "I don't know."

"Let's go get a beer after dinner.  I heard Wendell is throwin' down tonight."

Wendell was the team's chef.  It was well known in the Saints organization that Wendell fed the team well the evening before a game.  Although the team's season started off rocky, everyone refused to believe it was because they were too full.  They'd just have to work harder.  A win was sure to come.

"I can't, Lee.  Shawn's gonna be with the babysitter."

"Reg, you ain't gonna be no good to that boy if you walk in the house looking like that."

Reggie nodded.  "You're right.  Let's eat."

Abeer turned into about five.  Levi couldn't convince Reggie to go to a bar, so they bought a twenty-four pack from a package store and went back to Reggie's house.  After kissing Shawn and putting him to bed, the two friends turned on Sportscenter and fed themselves liquid courage to prepare themselves for the heavy conversation they were about to share.

"You know coach is gonna kick our asses tomorrow if we show up like this," Levi slurred.  He wasn't drunk, but he definitely felt good.

"Shut up, nigga," Reggie said with a laugh.  "The game's not until one, and you know I always come with my game."

"True, but your mind's not right tonight," Levi said.

"I'm good, and as soon as I find a way to get Nikki out my life, I'll be even better!"

"I hear you talkin', baby boy, so what whatcha gonna do?"

Reggie looked at his friend through slit, buzzed eyes.  "You think just because you traded in your wife that everybody gotta do it?"

"No, but when yours is showin' her ass the way she is, you gotta do something," Levi said seriously.  "Besides, this is about business.  If you play tomorrow the way you practiced today, we might as well just gift wrap the damned game and hand it to Carolina!"

Reggie met his gaze and nodded, placing his beer on the table.  "I feel you.  On that note, I'ma call it quits."

"I hear you," Levi agreed, placing his own bottle can on the table.

They paused and listened as Stephen A. Smith discussed the Saints' game against the Carolina Panthers tomorrow.  This had definitely been a rough season, but it seemed the folks on ESPN had faith that the losing streak wouldn't last forever.  They'd need that faith going into tomorrow's game.  Losing was getting old.

Once the show went to commercial, Levi turned to his friend.  "You ready to go to war tomorrow?"

"You better believe it," Reggie replied, meeting his friend's gaze.

"Good.  Then you go on the field tomorrow and do the damned thing.  We'll worry about what to do with Nikki Monday."

"You got a plan?"

"No, the question is do you have a plan," Levi corrected.  "She's your wife, and this is your life."

Reggie nodded.  "I know.  I wanna get rid of her ass, but I'm not ready to give up my son.  How the hell am I gonna convince a judge that I can be a good single parent with my schedule?  I travel every other week, practice every other day, and live in two different cities.  Shit, I thought when I got drafted I was living the American dream.  Nobody told me it would be like this."

"You can do it, bro.  It's just going to take some sacrifices.  Besides, you still thinking abut retiring?"

Reggie nodded again.  "I still love football, but I just can't see leaving the game after I'm too old to do anything else.  I have an MBA from Tulane!  It's time to put that shit to use!"

"I hear you.  That shit don't come easy."

"You ain't lyin'," Reggie said.  "If Nikki could understand that, I'd be all right.  You know how hard it is to get a master's degree while you're playing for the NFL?  From fuckin' Tulane, at that?"

Tulane University was one of the most prestigious colleges in the state of Louisiana.  Located on the historic St. Charles Avenue, next to equally prestigious Loyola University, Tulane boasts a demanding curriculum as well as a successful sports program.  The school takes both aspects seriously, requiring all athletes to attend study halls to maintain their grades.  Reggie had been fortunate enough to pursue his undergrad education there on an athletic scholarship, and after graduation, worked to achieve his graduate degree from there, too.  He was determined to show his son and all the kids who looked up to him that the concept of the dumb jock was the exception, not the rule.

"Yeah, I watched you do it.  Between that and running to Atlanta every summer, I don't see how you even had a chance to make Shawn!"

"Oh, I had time," Reggie replied with a chuckle.  "That's something I made time for.  Nikki may be no good, but that woman is fine as hell!"

Levi laughed with him.  "Well, if you really wanna keep Shawn, I'm sure you can, but it's going to take a lot.  Most judges give the child to the mother."

"And that's fucked up," Reggie said, pounding his fist into the arm of his recliner.  "Any judge who would let a woman as scandalous as Nikki raise a child on her own must be on fuckin' crack."

"Then you know what you're up against.  You got a lot to prove," Levi said, digging through his jacket pocket.  He pulled out his wallet and handed his friend a business card.  "This is the lawyer I've been dealing with."

Reggie took the card and read it.  "Jamar Duplessis, huh?  He any good?"

"One of the best in our little ghost town," Levi replied.  "I don't have kids, so my case is a little different from yours.  But I still think he can help you."

Reggie tapped the card against his leg.  "All right.  I'll give him a call Monday."

"Cool. In the meantime, get that shit out your mind and concentrate on this game tomorrow."

"Don't worry about me, baby boy," Reggie said as he walked his friend to the door.  "I'ma be all right.  You all right to drive?"

"I'm good," Levi replied.  "I'ma see you tomorrow."

The friends gave each other a soulful pound and shook hands like fraternity brothers, then Reggie closed the door.  After turning out the lights and TV, he trotted upstairs and into his bedroom.  He contemplated whether or not to sleep in his bed.  Knowing another man had been there didn't feel right.  Then again, he needed a good night's sleep to get the alcohol out of his system and concentrate on the game. 

He pulled back the covers slowly and was relieved to see fresh sheets.  "At least she had that much decency," he said aloud.

"Whatcha say, Daddy?"

Reggie looked up to find his six-year-old son DeShawn standing on the other side of the bed.  He wore his favorite pajamas: shorts and an oversized T-shirt bearing his daddy's name.  A stocking cap covered his cornrows, the hottest hairstyle for young boys in the south.

"Boy, what are you doing up?" Reggie asked with a smile.

"I was sleep, but I heard you come upstairs," Shawn replied, rubbing his eyes.  He looked around the room.  "Mommy's not back yet?"

Reggie almost laughed, but held back for the sake of his son.  "No, she's gonna be out late."

"She's always out late," Shawn whined.  "Can I sleep with you tonight?"

"What's wrong your bed?"

"Nothing.  I just wanna sleep with you."

Reggie glanced at the bed, images of the faceless man still lying between his sheets.  He reminded himself that the sheets were clean.  Besides, his days with his son could be numbered.  "Yeah, baby boy. Jump in."