Darius steps back as if Tomijeri is some sort of alien creature.
“What? You’re afraid of bodega cats?” I ask, smirking.
“Maybe I’m allergic to cat dander and I’d like to buy a banana or something. Don’t you think that’s grounds for a lawsuit?”
Both Hernando and I laugh out loud, and Darius immediately drops his head and shoves his hands into his pockets. He stands there for a long minute until three of the corner dudes come in and my heart skips a beat. All their eyes are on Darius as they walk in and even as they pass him, and one purposely bumps into him.
“Sup, Z?” one of guys says. It’s Jay, who I’ve known forever. He doesn’t take his eyes off Darius.
“What up, Jay? What you been up to this summer?” I ask, just to ease the tension. His other boys are getting drinks out of the coolers in the back.
From the corner of my eye, I can tell that Darius doesn’t know what to do. He’s looking at the stuff on the wall behind the counter as if he can’t decide on something. But there’s nothing but batteries, lighters, cigarettes, condoms, and such. Hernando is on his phone now, with Tomijeri curled up under his hand. Jay and his boys are talking shit, and they’re extra loud. I know exactly what they’re doing. So I tap Darius’s arm and motion for him to leave with me.
“Ay yo, Z?” Jay calls out again. “I heard you were chillin’ with my boy Warren the other day.”
“That’s none of your business, Jay!” I grab the plastic bag of snacks and make my way out of the store, hoping that Darius is behind me.
“What you mean that’s none of my business? That’s my boy.”
“Bye, Jay!” is all I say.
“Should I let Warren know that you chillin’ with this dude right here?” Jay says. I can tell by how close his voice is that he’s following us out of the store.
I turn to see Darius right behind me, so I ask, “Darius, don’t you go to school with Warren?”
“Yeah,” he says, and his voice is much deeper than usual.
Then I poke my head around Darius and say, “Mind your business, Jay.”
The guys fall back, and I’m relieved. They know not to mess with me, but I’m worried that if Darius is ever by himself in that bodega, they will definitely start some shit with him.
We’re at the corner waiting for the light to change, and Darius is standing beside me, thank goodness. I try to see his face from the corner of my eye. “Were you gonna let them mess with you?” I ask.
“Mess with me?”
“Yeah. They were gonna start shit and you were just gonna stand there, right?”
He doesn’t say a word as we cross the street and walk back toward our homes.
“You can’t walk around here thinking that you’re better than everybody else. These guys will put you in your place.”
“Is that a warning?” he asks.
“No. That’s good advice.” We reach the corner of his house, and I can tell that my sisters are pretending not to be watching us.
“Thanks, but no thanks. I can handle myself just fine.”
I laugh. “From what I can tell, you don’t know anything about street code.”
Now he looks at me dead-on. He’s not smiling. His jaw is not moving. So I stop laughing.
“Why? ’Cause of my clothes?”
“Come on, Darius. If a bunch of guys walk into the bodega, you gotta acknowledge them. A nod, a whassup, a dap. Something. Anything. You don’t just stand there and pretend they’re invisible. And if your boy’s name comes out their mouth, you gotta defend him. That’s street code.”
Now his jaw moves at the mention of Warren; he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. He blinks and looks every which way.
He inhales deep and says, “Where can I get pencils around here?”
“You mean you don’t have no pencils in that big ol’ house? No office supplies? No things you need, like pencils?”
He inhales. “No.”
“Ay yo, Kayla!” I yell out to my sister across the street. “You got any pencils?”
Kayla immediately runs inside the house.
“Thanks,” Darius says.
“You draw or something?”
“Yeah. But I need a number-two pencil to take a practice test.”
“You’re in summer school?”
“No. SATs.” He’s not looking at me. He cocks his head back as if he’s annoyed that I’m still here with him. “Warren is in summer school. But you know that already, right?”
I raise my eyebrows, because that’s definitely shade thrown at Warren. “Yeah,” I lie. “So you’ve known him since the seventh grade, huh?”
“Yeah” is all he says, then turns away as if he’s done with this small talk.
I could walk away because he’s clearly annoyed with me right now, but if he doesn’t want me here asking him a bunch of questions, then that’s exactly what I’ll do. “SATs, huh? You’re gonna be a senior?”
“But isn’t it a little late? I took mine in the spring.”
“You had a perfect score? Or close to it?” he asks, looking toward Kayla as she crosses the street.
“No. It was okay. Enough to get me into Howard.”
“Well, I’m trying to get my best score,” he says.
“’Cause you’re trying to get into Harvard, not Howard, right?”
He starts to say something, but Kayla reaches us and hands Darius a few pencils with a big smile on her face. In no time, Layla is crossing the street behind her, just to be nosy.
“Harvard? No,” he says. “Thanks for the pencils.”
He starts to walk back into his house, but I can’t think of anything more to say. I’m not ready to let him leave yet. I’m still talking. I want to be the one to end this conversation. I want to ask him what schools he’s applying to, but I don’t want to look thirsty, especially with Kayla and Layla standing there looking at me as if I’m about to make some moves on this boy, when it’s the furthest thing from my mind. But he suddenly turns around and walks closer to us.
“Kayla?” he asks while pointing to Layla.
“Guess again,” Layla sings.
Then he points to Kayla. “Okay, Kayla?”
“Kayla and Layla,” he says, pointing to the right ones. “Sorry about the other day. It’s just . . . I didn’t feel like dancing.”
The twins are beside themselves. They trip over each other trying to reel Darius into a conversation.
“That’s okay! I mean, you don’t know us like that.”
“But can you dance, though? If not, we’re gonna have to show you.”
“Don’t worry, there’ll be another block party.”
“You can dance with Zuri next time.”
I give Layla a death stare, and I roll my eyes at Darius, just to make it clear that I still can’t stand him.
Darius puts his hand up as if to say he’s had enough. He smiles and nods his head to excuse himself. In no time, he’s at his front door, and he walks into his house without looking back.
And my sisters and I are still standing there like three thirst buckets. I shove the plastic bag of snacks into Layla’s hand and grab both their arms to cross the street. They can’t wait to give Marisol and Charlise the lowdown on how Darius apologized to them, but I head straight into my bedroom. I glance out my window at the mini-mansion across the street, and I spot Darius stepping closer to the wide window on the second floor of his house. I step back away from view so he doesn’t see me too. He’s staring down, moving his head about as if looking for someone.
I smile—I can’t help it.
IT’S SUMMER VACATION, and Mama never gets up before we do when there’s no school. I’m usually the first one to wake up. Well, the first one after Papi, if he has to go in for an early shift at the hospital. But this morning, Mama barges into our bedroom and turns on the lights.
“Y’all are not gonna believe this!” she sings as she shuffles in, holding a white envelope.