Mama and Papi are either always working or always tired—Papi with his two jobs and Mama with us and the housework. So we mostly stay in the hood, where we can just walk around on our own and everybody knows us.
“Yeah, I’ve been to the Prome-whatever,” I say.
“Well, that’s where we’re going. It’s my favorite spot in Brooklyn.”
“Oh, really?” is all I say.
“You know, that’s kinda what I wanna do with the kids in our neighborhood,” he says, almost reading my mind. “Take ’em on field trips. I bet you a lot of them ain’t never been to the Empire State Building or even Harlem. That was the case for me.”
“That’ll be really cool. Make it big and give back to the community,” I say really calm, but my heart is doing backflips. I never had a checklist of what I would want in a boyfriend. That was more Janae’s thing. But as Warren talks, I’m making a mental list and checking it off at the same time. One: fine as hell. Check. Two: smart as hell. Check. Three: dreams, goals, and aspirations. Check, check, check.
Though I should take off points for how he keeps glancing down at my butt.
I wonder if this Promenade is expensive or if we’d both be out of place, but Warren seems like he can handle being anywhere, even with his diamond studs and sneakers. “Next time I’ll take you to my favorite spot, other than the corner of Jefferson and Bushwick,” I say.
“Where’s that?” he asks, walking a little too close to me.
“The corner of Fulton and Hoyt. Downtown. It’s where I buy my books,” I say. “My father takes me there every once in a while.”
“A bookstore is your favorite place?” He turns his whole body to me now.
“It’s not a bookstore. It’s a book . . . spot. This guy sells books on the corner.”
“Why don’t you go to a bookstore?”
“Well, it is like a bookstore. Come on, Warren. You know this already. You’re smart, and if you didn’t go to that fancy school, you’d be getting your books from the brother on the corner too.”
“You like to read?”
“You’re assuming that I don’t?”
“I never said that. I just didn’t think your favorite spot in all of Brooklyn would be a corner where some guy sells books. Why not . . . the library?”
“I like owning my books.”
He pauses for a second. “I like you,” he says.
I only half smile, hoping that he knows that I’m not falling for his game. But still, I kind of don’t mind it. “You a’ight.”
“Oh, I’m a’ight? I hear you, ZZ.”
As he says this, the block we’re walking on comes to an end, or rather, it opens up into a park, and in the short distance is New York City’s skyline against a dim blue sky and faded yellow sun. We walk through the park, and I quickly realize why this is his favorite spot in Brooklyn. This park, or promenade, is right along the river separating Brooklyn from Manhattan.
Benches are lined against a metal fence, and the gray-blue water immediately draws me in. A warm summer breeze blows, and tiny bumps form on my arms. This is what Madrina calls grains of sugar adding sweetness to my soul; the first sparks of love and attraction, of something so new and tender that if I’m too firm with it, it will burst. I tighten my jaw and cross my arms to harden my stance and make everything about me firm and closed off.
This is not a date. This is not a spark of anything sweet, or tender, or shimmery. This is just me getting to know a boy named Warren from Bushwick. And that breeze is just giving me goose bumps. That’s all.
“Want some ice cream?” he asks.
“Yes,” I respond, without even thinking twice, and he places his hand in the small of my back and pulls me toward an old-fashioned ice-cream cart with a white man wearing a white apron and a chef’s hat. I ask for chocolate. He asks for butter pecan.
We eat our ice-cream cones and walk and have more small talk about the program he went to, how he learned to skim through boring books and still ace the tests, the rich white kids he knows, wrestling scholarships, and the connections he’s already made at Easton. I don’t talk. I listen.
And this thing we’re doing, in this place at the edge of a river with buildings and row houses on one side, and the cityscape on the other, is just chillin’. It’s that warm spot on the couch when my favorite show is on TV. It’s a plate of Mama’s food left out for me on the table and covered with a paper towel for when I get home from school. It’s our front stoop on a Saturday afternoon.
With this boy named Warren, home has extended out to this part of Brooklyn too—no matter how many fancy buildings with doormen, expensive slices of gourmet pizza, and older white people looking at us with puppy-dog eyes there are. Still, we’re just two homies from the hood getting to know each other.
“The Benitez sisters have a reputation, but not that kinda reputation,” Warren says, bringing me back to the moment as we head back home. We walk up Jefferson Avenue from the L train. “Word on the streets is that Papi Benitez carries around a machete just to keep guys away from his daughters.”
“My father does not carry around a machete.” I laugh. “He doesn’t have to. Me and my sisters don’t get down like that.” I accidentally bump into him. I remember that this is what Janae and Ainsley were doing at the park—purposely bumping arms.
We reach the corner of my block, and I have to decide if he crosses that line between my block and my front door. My block is my block and any- and everybody can come chill on our stoop. But bringing a boy to my door is a whole other level. I remember how Darius brought my laptop over, and I didn’t think twice about it then because he was nothing and it was nothing.
But this is something. Warren is something.
We’re already on our stoop, and I take the first step. I don’t look up to see if any of my sisters are looking out the window, or if Madrina is at her window, but I somehow know that she sees me, even if she’s deep in her basement with a client or going over her songs and prayers.
I stop on the second step and I turn to him, a few inches taller. “Well, thank you for walking me to my door.”
He laughs. “You need to raise the bar, Zuri. Of course I’ll walk you to your door. And I suggest you don’t trust any guy who doesn’t.”
“Oh, you’re schooling me on other guys now?”
“I’m just sayin’. But I plan to be around for a while, so get used to this.”
I don’t say anything to that. I don’t protest. I’m soft now, like Mama’s sweet, warm pound cake. And he’s close enough to kiss me, so my heart starts to beat faster like conga drums, and I hope that no one is looking out the window; I hope that I’ll know exactly what to do when his lips touch mine; I hope he steals a kiss quickly, while I’m standing here, waiting, breathing, with my heart pounding.
“So I’ll text you tomorrow, a’ight?” He steps back with his hands in his pockets.
I frown, confused.
He keeps stepping back until he’s completely out of our front gate. “Later, ZZ.”
He holds two fingers up, then puts his hand back into his pocket and turns around. Just like that, he walks away, and I feel like the biggest idiot in all of Bushwick. I want to drag him back to this stoop and have a complete do-over. I’m supposed to be the one to turn away while he’s waiting for a kiss. Not him!
“Bye, Warren!” someone calls out above me. I know it’s Layla without even looking up.
From the corner, Warren turns around and waves to my sister.
“Come back soon, okay?” Layla calls out again.
Clearly, he’s used to getting unwanted attention from girls too young for him, and maybe even girls too old for him. Or from girls, period. So he knows exactly what he’s doing by just walking away like that. And it works.
I just stand there with my arms crossed, not ready to go back upstairs and face my sisters. That’s when I see Darius walking up to his door while looking back at our building and rubbing his chin. He must’ve seen me. He must’ve seen Warren.
I smile to myself, watching Darius fumble for his keys. I’ll be seeing Warren again, for sure. And that’s when I’ll steal the ball and take it to my court. This game is still mine. And Darius will be watching from the sidelines.