IT’S ALMOST A hundred degrees outside, and Charlise is dressed in a white button-down shirt and black pants as if she’s coming home from a job on Wall Street. But she works a few blocks away at a new restaurant.
“You look like a butler,” I say as she sits on the stoop next to me.
It’s too hot to do anything else. Back in the day, we used to turn on the fire hydrant and run through that cool water as it flew up into the air and flooded our whole street. But Robert and Kyle threatened to call the fire department because it was a waste of water and taxpayer money, they said. Those two white boys who moved in down the block a few years ago have always had a way of making us feel bad for doing the things we love: playing loud music, laughing from our bellies, yelling out our windows, and turning on fire hydrants when it’s hot.
“I’m getting paid good butler money, though,” Charlise says, as she unbuttons her shirt to reveal a black sports bra underneath. Something about the bra and the opened white shirt makes it look inappropriate, but Charlise is known for walking around the hood in just a sports bra, basketball shorts, and her Adidas sandals. She leans back on one of the steps and spreads her legs wide open, as if she’s giving every part of herself some air.
At the same moment, Colin comes out the front door. We don’t look back, but I know it’s him, because I can smell the sweet cologne his aunt makes him wear. Madrina says it’s to attract the right kind of girls—sweet ones who will be good to her beloved nephew.
“Whassup, ladies?” Colin sings.
I don’t say anything to him while Charlise stands up from the stoop to let Colin pass. I want to tell her to button up her shirt because I’m sure Colin is staring a little too hard at her boobs right now.
“What’s going on, Colin?” Charlise says.
“Chillin’. What’s going on with you?” He steps closer to Charlise as if he’s about to grab her hand, and this little exchange makes me raise my eyebrows, because Colin and Charlise used to hate each other when we were younger.
“I started working at this restaurant on Halsey. You should come by sometime,” Charlise says, and I raise my eyebrows even higher.
“Oh, a’ight. What are you, a chef or something?”
“I’m a hostess. And I hope you like asparagus.”
“Yeah, whatever. Tell me when, and it’s a date.”
This time I look at them both with my mouth wide open. There goes that word again: date. “Colin, you’re not gonna like any of that food,” I say, but that’s not really what I want to say. I want to tell him to stop flirting with my friend as if he forgot he used to chase her around with water balloons right after she’d gotten her hair done just so he could see her get mad.
“I’m open. I’ll eat anything,” Colin says, licking his lips and looking at Charlise up and down.
I roll my eyes hard as Charlise starts to laugh. “Colin, you’re such a cornball!” I say.
“Not as corny as your boys across the street, though,” he says, pointing his thumb back at the Darcy house.
“Word,” I say.
“Word,” Charlise repeats. Then she says, “Okay, then. I’ll text you and let you know when you can stop by. I’ll have a special meal waiting for you. Do you know what a prix fixe is?”
I turn and pop my eyes out at her, but Charlise just stares at Colin, smiling.
And when he leaves our front stoop and walks down the block with a little bop to his step while looking back at Charlise, I say, “I know you’re not that thirsty.”
“Actually, I am.”
“Charlise. Are you serious?”
“No. Not really, but why can’t I just mess around with him? He does it to a bunch of other girls.”
“’Cause you’re not a dude, Charlise. You’ll get a bad reputation,” I say.
“See? That’s the problem. If we treat guys the way they treat us, then we’ll get a bad reputation? That’s messed up.”
“Well, do you care about your reputation?”
She pauses, looks up at the bright blue afternoon sky, rubs her chin, and says, “My reputation for playing ball? Yep. My reputation for playing guys? Nope.”
I want to say the same thing, that I don’t care about my reputation. But I do, because I already have one. All my sisters do. We have to be careful about who we fall for, especially me and Janae. Just because guys from around the way like us—even if we don’t give them no play, it’s still easy for them to talk shit about us. Papi is watching us, but so is the rest of the neighborhood.
I glance at the house across the street and fold my arms across my chest, as if I just opened up my shirt to reveal my sports bra too.
“Yeah” is all I say, knowing that I would make myself into a soft cushion for my dear sister to fall onto if that boy Ainsley pushes her too hard. I will never let anyone break her heart. Then I wonder, who would be my cushion? Who would try to push me? And who would I fall for?
Pride Comes before the Fall
If I fall in love
Will I sink to the bottom
And swallow water
Make my belly full
With hopes of tender kisses
Round like the moonlight
High over Bushwick
Playing Cupid with our hearts
I am the archer
Later in the afternoon, I have to pass some of Colin’s boys when I go into Hernando’s. They know not to holla at me the same way they do to the others girls around the way. But I know they look. I can feel their eyes on my butt when I pass. I usually stick my middle finger up behind my back, and they laugh and say, “Yeah, that’s Beni’s daughter, all right.”
Without fail, every time I come into Hernando’s, he sings my name at the top of his lungs. “Zuri-loooze! Qué pasa, muchacha?”
“Whassup, Hernando?” I say, rolling my eyes, because I swear he owes me like a hundred dollars from years of not giving back the right change.
I’m only here for a bottle of ice-cold juice, something sweet and chewy, and something salty and crunchy. And five of each so I don’t have to share with my sisters who have all gathered on the stoop with Charlise for a game of cards. As I put all the snacks onto the counter, my phone buzzes. It’s a group text from my sisters:
He’s coming into the store!
I immediately know who they’re talking about. So I text back.
Darius looks surprised to see me in there, and he quickly looks away. He’s so obvious, it’s not even funny. We haven’t talked since the Bushwick Riot concert at the park.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” he says, and stands in front of the counter next to me.
“Eyyy! Rich boy!” Hernando says.
Darius purses his lips and looks down.
Part of me wishes that Darius would speak up if he doesn’t like something, or else the guys around here will tear him to pieces. He can’t let it all show up on his face so that they don’t misinterpret his expressions. Our neighborhood is loud, and the people are even louder with their thoughts and opinions.
A smooth, old-school R&B groove is playing in the background, and it makes this whole situation weird, as if this is a music video and Darius is the star and I’m just an extra. He’s that well put-together. Again, he’s wearing a button-down shirt and too-tight khaki shorts. I can tell that they’re not the ones from the day we went to the park. These are cargo khaki shorts, and I want to kick myself for noticing that detail. I mean, doesn’t he have chillin’ clothes?
“Would you like a picture?” he asks with a half smile.
And I jump on the inside, not realizing that I was staring that hard. “No,” I quickly say, feeling stupid for letting him catch me like that.
“Do you have any pencils?” he asks Hernando.
“Pencils?” Hernando says. He grabs a pen tied to a string and hands it to Darius.
Darius sighs and shakes his head.
“You need, like, one pencil?” I ask.
“Do you sell a box or a pack of pencils?” Darius asks Hernando again, while ignoring me.
“Nah, you gotta go on Broadway for that. The ninety-nine-cent store,” Hernando says, stroking Tomijeri as he strolls onto the counter with his fat, furry body.