Madrina takes out a lighter from her bra. She lights a stick of incense and puts it between her teeth. The smoke dances across her face, then travels up around her head as if it’s saying a prayer over her thoughts and memories.
I’m seated directly across from her, and the Nag Champa scent tickles my nose, but I don’t tell her this. “Okay, fine,” I start. “This is what’s gonna happen: Janae is gonna go out with that guy. They’re gonna spend all summer together and Janae’s never gonna spend a minute with me, and—”
Madrina puts her hand up to stop me from finishing my list of future complaints.
“I keep hearing Janae’s name. Why you so worried about your big sister? It’s her life.”
I exhale and let myself sink into the chair a little bit. Madrina has disarmed me. “I don’t want Janae to change,” I say real quiet.
Madrina closes her eyes and starts humming. She extends her wide, cool hands over the table. I take them. She rubs my hands. She holds them for a long minute. Then she opens her eyes and grins. Her face is smooth for her age, but the wrinkles on her neck are like ripples in the ocean; the tiny brown spots above the neckline of her white dress are like small, muted suns.
“No, mija. You’re gonna change.”
“Me?” I tense up. “But Janae . . .”
She squeezes my hands and I relax again. I close my eyes. She inhales deep, and she begins.
“Listen, Zuri Luz. Let your big sister be. Let things change.”
“Maybe,” I reply. But my heart isn’t ready to let my big sister drift away.
That night, our doorbell buzzes. Well, not our doorbell, but the one downstairs, because ours broke years ago. The downstairs bell buzzes loud enough for us to hear. We’re always having visitors who want either Papi or Mama for a game of dominos or to return Tupperware.
“Zuri!” Mama calls out nice and loud from the downstairs. According to Janae, it’s the third time she’s called my name, and I’m already deep in my book by the time I hear her.
She calls me again. “Zuri! Come down here! You have a visitor.”
My stomach sinks, and I hear all my sisters’ footsteps rush to either the front window or the door to our apartment. I hear the twins and Marisol shushing each other. I don’t get visitors, and Charlise always texts or calls before she comes over. And plus she’d just come upstairs. Mama never calls me down because I have a visitor. So by the time I get to the bottom of the first flight of stairs, I know who it is.
Mama is smiling way too hard. And she winks at me before going back to the apartment. I don’t even look at Darius as he’s standing there in the doorway. I look at his sneakers and bare ankles.
With my eyes still cast down, he hands something to me. It’s my laptop.
“Oh, shit,” I say, and grab it from him. I didn’t even realize I had left it at his house.
“You’re welcome,” he says.
“Thank you.” I clutch my laptop to my chest.
My chin tilts up, and our eyes meet. I realize how close we’re standing. The street outside goes quiet, as if the neighborhood is holding its breath.
He just stands there, and I don’t know if he expects me to say something else, or if he’s waiting for me to invite him in. I search his eyes for some sort of clue, but he looks sideways, and I don’t know what else to do, so I just step back and close the door in his face.
WE’RE ALMOST AT the park when I hear Janae say, “A couple blocks down Knickerbocker was where Carmine Galante was murdered.” It’s the only bit of Bushwick history she shares with the Darcy brothers during our whole walk to the park. She insisted that I tag along with her and Ainsley on their date, but I had no idea what I was in for—or that Darius was coming too.
When he stepped out of his mini-mansion behind Ainsley, he said he wanted “a tour of the hood.”
But I am not a tour guide. And I’m especially not his tour guide.
Janae and Ainsley are being all cutesy as they walk, mostly talking about nonsense like the best campus frat parties and their white schoolmates who wear shorts and hoodies in the dead of winter. “Z, who was he again?” she calls out. I’m about ten steps ahead of her.
“A Bonanno crime family boss,” I say. Janae was never into Papi’s stories about old Bushwick. I was the one who took notes and wrote poems about them.
“A what?” Darius says. He’s only a few steps behind me.
“The Italian mob. They ran this whole area way back in the day—drugs, gambling, blackmailing . . . you name it.”
“Cool. Sounds like you know your shit.”
“I do,” I say, and keep walking.
Both Ainsley and Darius look around as if they’ve never seen buildings like these before—lined up next to each other with colorful signs and words like taquería, botánica, and Iglesia Pentecostal. Once we cross Myrtle Avenue, Bushwick starts to not look like Bushwick anymore.
Darius takes pics of the graffiti-covered walls that are more like art for tourists than for kids who want to rep their hood or show off their skills to other crews.
When we reach the park, Janae hands me a blanket from her bag. Then she and Ainsley go off on their own, leaving me to babysit Darius because he looks like a fish out of water. Or maybe I’m the fish out of water, because no one told me that we were going to some sort of art and music festival for white people.
I look around to see that almost everyone is sitting on blankets, something we never did when I used to come here years ago. Nobody was having picnics in this park back in the day. We sat on benches and kept our eyes wide open in case anything went down. And something used to always go down. Still, I’m tired of standing, so I spread the blanket out on the dry grass, confident that with all these white people here now, they’ve cleaned up the rat poop and broken glass.
“Maria Hernandez Park should probably be called Mary Hernan Park now instead,” I say to Darius as he sits next to me with his hands in his too-tight khaki shorts pockets.
“What exactly are you saying? Why would the name of this park have to change?” Darius asks, raising an eyebrow.
A white woman gets up from her blanket and starts dancing for no reason at all. The music hasn’t even come on yet. So it’s not really dancing, it’s just random gyrating of her hips. “All these white people don’t even know who Maria Hernandez was,” I reply. “There’s nothing ‘Maria’ or ‘ez’ about this park anymore.”
“Lemme guess. You knew her. Are you related or something?”
I turn my whole body toward him, and he shifts to look at me. “When he was little, my father played with her kids here. She was murdered right inside her apartment for trying to stop drug dealers from selling in this very park.”
“Oh,” he says. “That’s cool.”
“That’s cool?” I say.
He shrugs, his button-down shirt going tight across his shoulders.
“What’s so cool about that? How ’bout you say, ‘That’s fucked up.’”
He leans back on the blanket, away from me, and props himself up on his elbows. “Okay. That’s fucked up,” he says. “And it’s cool that this park is named after her. And no, it shouldn’t be changed to Mary Hernan just because white people are here. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Of course that doesn’t make any sense. It was sarcasm,” I say, side-eying him. “If you knew this park like I do, none of this makes any sense.”
“I know what sarcasm is.” He pauses and stretches out his legs. I have to move back to make room for him. “What’s your deal, Zuri Benitez?”
“What’s my deal? My deal is that you’re taking up this whole blanket. My deal is that I’ve been coming here my whole life. And I know guys who come out here to play ball and chill, and they look exactly like you.” I rub the back of my hand so he knows what I’m talking about. “My deal is that they don’t talk or dress like you. And they definitely don’t live in a house like yours. So what’s your deal, Darius Darcy?”
He quickly folds his legs and scoots back, shaking his head and laughing. “Point taken, Miss Benitez.”