“It’s not for you, trust me,” I say, taking his arm even though I really don’t have to, but it’s just there and it’s smooth and strong.
“Why can’t you take a compliment?”
“’Cause this is not a date.” I don’t move away or tense up, because even though I don’t know him like that, Warren feels like all the other guys from my high school or around the way. I never really had a boyfriend, just guys I messed around with—holding hands while walking down the hall at school, play fighting in the park, a one-on-one game of basketball where he smacks my booty and I smack his face for stepping out of line. We’d go out with a group of friends, and if we were ever left alone, it still wouldn’t be a date.
“What is this, then?” Warren asks.
A cab is waiting at the curb, and he opens the door for me. “We’re just chillin’,” I say as I slide into the back seat.
I pretend that this is no big deal, that guys always pick me up in a cab and open the door for me all the time. “I don’t chill,” Warren says as he slides in next to me. “I don’t really have time to chill. So as far as I’m concerned, this is a date.” Then he says to the driver, “Downtown. Court and Montague.”
“Downtown?” I ask. “You got that kinda cash?”
He only side-eyes me and I wish I could take it back, but this is Bushwick Warren and no matter how fancy his school is, he’s still from HG Projects. So I push further. “Warren? Why don’t we just take the bus?”
“Because this is a date,” he says, licking his lips.
I laugh. “This is not a date. And look, I don’t know who you’ve been dealing with over there at the school in Manhattan, but like you said, I’m ZZ and you don’t have to impress me with no fifty-dollar cab ride.”
“I don’t have to, but I want to.”
“I’d rather you spend that money on food, or a good movie.”
“We can do that too.”
I just stare at the side of his face as he looks out through the windshield, still smiling. “Are you slingin’ dope, Warren?”
“What?” His voice cracks, and he turns to me wide-eyed and with his mouth open. “I already gotta deal with this in school, and now that I’m finally getting with one of the Benitez sisters, I have to answer this question with you too.”
“I gotta ask. Come on, Warren. You know ain’t no dude from Bushwick will spend their money on a long-ass cab ride just to impress some girl. So you’re gonna drop like two hundred dollars on this not-date?”
“Number one: you’re not just some girl. Number two: I’m not just some dude from Bushwick. I thought I made that crystal clear. And number three: I work for my bank. You think I’m gonna go to some expensive-ass school and not take advantage of every single opportunity that comes my way? I work at my school’s summer camp, I help coach the middle-school wrestling team, and I tutor on the side.”
I don’t care if he sees me raise my eyebrows and look at him differently now. Sure, I was sold on the whole private-school thing, but now that I know that he works hard for his money, I don’t mind this cab ride at all. “I’m not trying to get into your pockets, though,” I say, just so we’re on the same page.
“I know. Like I said, you’re not just some girl from around the way. Trust me, I can spot a gold digger from afar. But once they find out that I get my money from wrestling and tutoring, they usually kick me to the curb.” He eases his hand toward my thigh and rubs his knuckles against my jeans.
I laugh and slap his hand away. “No they don’t. Girls from around here . . . as long as you look good and can take them to Red Lobster . . .”
“I hope you’re not expecting Red Lobster from me.”
“I wouldn’t mind . . . a MetroCard for the subway, a good movie, some cheddar biscuits, and I’m good.”
“Oh, is that all it will take?”
“What do you mean ‘Is that all it will take’? I know what you’re thinking, so no! I might just want Red Lobster, and that’s it. Ain’t no tit for tat in that!”
He side-eyes me again, as if to ask me if I’m sure. At that same moment, something settles in my belly and I need to remind him that this is not a date. “We’re just chillin’, right? I mean, you’re cool and all, so I wouldn’t mind getting to know you.” So we have small talk on the whole ride to downtown. Well, he has small talk. In half an hour, I know all about what it’s like to be the best-looking black guy at the Easton School. When he says this, I immediately think of Darius. I don’t want to, but he pops into my mind, and I start comparing the two of them.
As for looks, Darius wins for being almost perfect, like a model, as if he’s been Photoshopped with that smooth brown complexion and a symmetrically angled jawline. But he’s almost too pretty and stuck-up for my taste. So Warren takes the prize for overall swag—handsome with a little edge, some rhythm to his walk, bass in his voice, and he laughs at his own jokes.
I pretend to laugh too, but the passing buildings and streets out my side of the window are competing for my attention. I want to ask him about the set of new condos going up on Fulton Street. I want to search the newly rounded street corners for the old Rasta man with the white beard who used to sell colorful rugs, old wooden furniture, and even used pots and pans in an empty lot. I want to know what happened to the row of wood-framed buildings that were sandwiched between a day-care center and a grocer. We’re driving through Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill, and these neighborhoods are like my face and body when I was in middle school—familiar but changing right before my eyes.
“Personally, I don’t know why they moved to Bushwick in the first place,” Warren continues.
I’m pulled back into his small talk, didn’t realize that it had turned to Darius. “Why does he say he moved to Bushwick, anyway?”
“I don’t know. We don’t chill like that.” He shrugs.
“You’re cool with Ainsley, though, right?”
“He’s cool. They’re both cool. It’s just that there’s not really much we can talk about. We don’t have anything in common. There’s some other brothers in the school that I roll with. But not Darius.”
“I feel you. Trust me.”
“I see Janae’s all up on Ainsley.”
“No. It’s the other way around. My sister doesn’t get down like that.”
“You’re different from Janae, right?”
“Yeah. Wait. What do you mean by different?”
“You wouldn’t go for some dude like Ainsley. Those bougie dudes who think they’re better than everybody. Especially Darius,” he says, smirking. “I can tell you like guys you can relate to. A little hard and with a little edge.”
“You can say that again.” I laugh.
He laughs too, at some inside joke we haven’t even shared. I side-eye him because clearly, he’s got game.
We get to our destination, and I assume we’re going to the movies because it’s just a couple of blocks away, but we’re headed down Montague Street, a part of downtown Brooklyn I’ve never really been to. Brooklyn is segregated like that. There are definitely parts that are not hood, like Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, but all kinds of people walk through here for whatever reason. I never have. The stores are too expensive, there are no basketball courts or handball courts, no bodegas or front stoops to roll out a barrel grill for jerk chicken, no pastelitos in deep fryers in small, smoky kitchens, and no crowded apartments filled with aunties, uncles, or cousins from Haiti or the Dominican Republic.
“You’ve been to the Promenade before?” Warren asks, taking my hand.
I gently pull away and pretend he didn’t do that in the first place.
I have to decide in a split second whether or not to let Warren know how sheltered I am. There aren’t many places in Brooklyn my family and I have ventured into. A big shopping trip is taking the B26 bus down Halsey Street to the Fulton Mall. And when we do take a cab, it’s to the Brownsville BJs in Gateway Mall or to Costco in Sunset Park. Going to Manhattan is a treat. I can count on one hand how many times we’ve been to Times Square.