I prop myself up on my elbow. I’m on the bottom bunk, so there’s no sitting for me. Janae just rolls over, Kayla opens one eye, Marisol is fully awake, and Layla doesn’t move one inch.
Mama sits her big bottom on Janae’s bed and fidgets with the envelope in her hand. I look at her face to see if whatever is in that envelope is good news or bad news. She’s grinning from ear to ear, and her eyes are wide and bright.
Mama gives Janae a kiss. “This is all ’cause of you, sweetheart!”
I roll out of the bed and sit next to Mama. I spot gold fancy lettering on the envelope, but Mama is moving around too much for me to see the full words.
Janae is sitting up now, and Mama hands her the envelope first. All my sisters have gathered around on the floor, because Mama is cheesin’ hard and is clasping her hands as if this envelope is about to change our lives.
But Janae’s face tells a different story. She doesn’t jump out of bed and squeal. She doesn’t clap and run out of the bedroom to tell Papi, like she did when she got her acceptance and scholarship letter to Syracuse. She just smiles and clutches the envelope to her chest.
“What is it?” I finally ask.
Layla tries to take the envelope from her, but Janae holds it tight.
“Is it money?” Marisol asks.
“Is is it a scholarship?” I clarify. “Or a study abroad thing?”
“Is it a love letter?” Layla asks.
Mama takes the envelope from Janae, pulls out the letter, steps into the middle of the room, clears her throat, and begins, “We, the Benitez family, have been invited . . .” She turns up her nose and pokes out her lips as if pretending to be fancy. “To a cocktail party.” She says this in a fake British accent.
All my sisters laugh.
“A cocktail party?” I ask.
“A cocktail party,” Mama repeats with an even worse British accent.
The twins laugh even harder. “Cock! Tail!” Layla shouts, holding her belly and slapping her thigh.
“Wait a minute. Who invited us to a cocktail party?” I ask, because we’ve been invited to parties before—birthdays, weddings, funerals, graduations. But none of them have ever been called a cocktail party.
“You need a cocktail dress for a cocktail party,” Janae says, ignoring my question. She goes over to our shared tiny closet and pulls out dress after dress.
“Do you need a cock and a tail too?” Kayla laughs. She and Layla give each other a high five and I want to throw a shoe at them to make them shut up.
I finally grab the envelope from Marisol and read the whole thing out loud. “Dear Benitez family. You’ve been cordially invited to the new Darcy residence for cocktails, dinner, and lively conversation.”
“I knew they were gonna have a party in that house!” Layla squeals. “Now we get to see it too!”
“Should I bring the chicken or the pork?” Mama says. “Or maybe they like finger foods. How ’bout some tiny pastelitos? Or some fried plantains? I knew those rich folks were gonna come here and bring some good luck with them!”
The next Saturday we arrive at the front door of the Darcy house. Janae is the one to ring the bell, because according to Madrina, she’s the one who has led us all to this door in the first place.
I’m dressed in a plain denim skirt, flowery top, and a pair of Janae’s sandals. I look like I’ve made the least effort for this party compared to my sisters, who are dressed like they’re heading to prom.
“I’m gonna need some company in case Ainsley’s busy with guests or something,” Janae had said. “Please, Zuri!” By coming here, I took one for the team, for the fam, for my dear sister.
I don’t smile when Mrs. Darcy greets us. Her eyes immediately drop down to our shoes. So I look down too, to see Mama wearing her leopard print platform stilettos that she bought for her fortieth birthday party at a small club in Bed-Stuy. My face gets hot with embarrassment because I knew that this wasn’t the kind of party for those kinds of heels.
Mr. Darcy shows up behind her, and it’s only then that she opens the door wider.
“Welcome, Benitez family!” Mrs. Darcy sings in her strange accent. It’s British, but not quite white people British. It’s kind of bootleg fancy, like a knockoff Louis Vuitton bag. This is the closest I’ve seen her, and she looks more like a big sister to Ainsley and Darius than their mother.
Mrs. Darcy’s face drops when Mama hands her the aluminum pans. Mama clears her throat. “A preview of my catering business!” she says too loudly. “The top one is pastelitos. I learned how to make them from my husband, Beni. Since I ain’t Dominican and all, I had to learn how to cook that food to keep my man!” She laughs, and her voice echoes throughout the room full of people.
“And the bottom pan has griot—Haitian fried pork. I’m Brooklyn-born and raised, but Haitian all the way. You see my daughters? Look at their figures! That comes from the good cultural foods we feed them. No skinny minnies in my house! You should have some griot,” my mother says, looking down at Mrs. Darcy’s fitted sundress. “Where your people from?” Mama talks a mile minute without even giving Mrs. Darcy a chance to say a word before she strolls into the living room with her heels click-clacking on the hardwood floors. Marisol and the twins follow right behind her.
“London. My people are from London. A neighborhood called Croydon,” Mrs. Darcy says to us, because Papi, Janae, and I are still standing there waiting to be invited in.
We just nod before Mr. Darcy shakes Papi’s hand and gently pulls him inside. In a second, both Janae and I are back in the Darcy house, and we can’t believe how different it looks and feels with soft music playing in the background, the hum of voices, and people. Different kinds of people. There’s a mix of black and not-black, white and not-white, and everything in between. Everyone looks really neat and polished. I look down at my own clothes. My skirt looks old, like it’s from a whole other decade. Then I remember that it’s actually Mama’s from when she was in high school. The stitching from my sandals is coming loose, my toes are crusty, and my knees are ashy. I want to run back home and change. Actually, I want to run back home and stay there.
But Janae and I both spot them at the same time, and my sister grabs my hand and squeezes it. Ainsley and Darius. Darius and Ainsley. Their faces. Their shoes. Their clothes.
No guy in the hood wears bow ties. And suspenders. And dress pants so skinny and fitted, we can actually tell how their legs are bowed: slightly curved around the knees, as if they’re Olympic runners. And they work out. It’s easy to tell that they work out.
Janae leaves me behind as Ainsley takes her hand and walks her to a far corner of the room to introduce her to an older, good-looking black couple.
Now I really don’t want to stay. I turn around to see that the front door is way too far, and I’d have to walk through the Darcy parents, as well as Mama and Papi, to get to it.
“Club soda or cranberry juice?” a person in all black asks.
I shake my head no.
But someone takes one of the clear, bubbly glasses and hands it to me. It’s Darius. We’re both silent as I grab the glass from him, our hands brushing. For a moment, I think he purposely touches my hand, because he smiles a little. I glance away, but when I look back our eyes meet. So I take a sip of the drink, then gulp down the whole thing out of pure nervousness.
“Slow down,” he says. “I know it’s not wine, but you can pretend.” He gives me a smirk as the twins come to stand next to us. Layla is holding a glass of deep red liquid.
“Z, why you so corny? You should have this instead of that,” Layla says, swirling the glass around while holding up her pinky. She takes a long sip and coughs. Kayla pats her back, giggling.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Darius step aside to talk to someone else, and I’m both relieved and embarrassed.
“I thought y’all don’t like cranberry juice,” I say to the twins.
“It’s not cranberry juice,” Layla sings with a wide smile. “We’re bad and bougie up in this bitch!”
“Layla!” I whisper-yell through clenched teeth, and try to grab the glass from her.