But she snags it back, and some of it spills onto her dress. I turn slightly sideways to see that Darius has his eyes on us. I grab Layla’s arm to pull her away, but she keeps talking.
“I’m so glad Janae finally learned how to get a rich boyfriend. She better stay in his pockets so we can keep living this good life!” Layla says this loud enough for the people around to hear, possibly including Darius.
I pinch her arm so hard that she can’t even scream. She knows that I mean business. “If you don’t get your act together, I’m gonna tell Mama and Papi about all the times you cut school last year,” I whisper in her ear.
Even Kayla’s mouth drops open when I say this.
Another lady in black comes over and holds an empty tray out in front of me, and I grab Layla’s glass and place it on the tray.
“What was that?” I ask her.
“Red wine,” she says, and walks away.
Layla is holding her arm and covering the spot where I pinched her. Tears are welling up in her eyes while I give her the death stare. Well, it’s more than a death stare—it’s an I’m-about-to-hit-you-so-hard-you’re-gonna-end-up-six-feet-under stare.
“And these are my twins!” Mama’s voice sings from behind me, and Layla quickly fixes her face. “They’re headed to the ninth grade. They’re my pride and joy, and they’re also giving me my premature gray hairs.”
The twins quickly change their tune, because while I’ll only pinch and stare at them, Mama will straight up call them out and embarrass them in front of all these people. Like how they just embarrassed me.
I look around the room for Darius, to see if there’s any hint that he might’ve heard what Layla just said about Janae being a gold digger. I know that it’s not true, but Darius is dumb enough to believe what comes out of my sister’s big mouth. I spot him standing next to Ainsley, and they’re both looking in our direction while Janae talks to Carrie. I quickly turn away, but I can still see them out of the corner of my eye. Ainsley’s eyes are glued to us. Darius is whispering something into his ear, and Ainsley’s face changes.
I recognize that look. It’s that same look people used to give us when Mama would get on a crowded train with a double stroller holding the twins, me, Marisol, and Janae with our messy hair, runny noses, and each with a bag of chips to keep us occupied while Mama quieted down the babies. It’s the look that assumes that Mama is a single mother, that she’s on government assistance, that she beats us when she’s tired, that we all have different fathers, that we live in the projects, and that we’re ghetto. Everybody used to look at us like that—white, black, other mothers with kids who thought they were being responsible by only having two or three. I’d look back at them with defiance and a little pride; a look that says that I love my family and we may be messy and loud, but we’re all together and we love each other. That’s when I perfected my Bushwick mean mug.
Janae eases toward Ainsley. But his whole vibe has changed. I can tell that Janae is waiting for Ainsley to respond to something she just said. But he looks around as if this conversation is the last place he wants to be right now. So I walk over to my sister, worried that something is about to go down. And at the same moment, Ainsley says, “Please excuse me, Janae.” He walks away, heading toward the kitchen, escaping.
“Ainsley? Where you going?” Janae asks.
“Hey, Nae-Nae, wait,” I start to say, but I’m ignored as my sister brushes past me and goes running after him.
“Darius, what did you just say to your brother?” I say.
Darius just shrugs and says, “Clearly something that needed to be said.”
“You’re a smart girl, Zuri. You’ll figure it out.” And with that, Darius walks away.
My stomach drops as I watch Janae say something to Ainsley with a confused smile. He says something without a smile. Her smile diminishes, but there’s still hope in her eyes as she speaks. Ainsley shakes his head, shrugs, and places his hands on Janae’s shoulders. He looks like he’s both comforting her and holding her away from him at the same time. Janae’s smile completely disappears. Ainsley mouths, “I’m sorry,” before he slips into the crowd. And that’s my cue to go over to her.
“Janae,” I whisper while gently taking my sister’s arm. Her eyes are welling up with tears. “What just happened? What did he say?”
“Zuri, let go. Please.” Her voice is rough. She pulls away from me and pushes through the fancy people.
I swear on Madrina’s orishas, if Ainsley has hurt her in any way . . . I turn to the Darcy boys and part of me wants to go over there and tell them off to their faces. But that’s exactly what they would expect. I curse under my breath and follow my sister, my heart pounding in my ears.
Pretty Rich Boy
Hey rich boy, how much for that dollar?
I need to buy a dream
I’ve gathered the clouds and stars
to form a cheerleading team
Shouting “Shoot your shot!” from the sidelines
thinking that if I win
They all have a turn at this wheel
to take it for a spin
My mama wants to play too,
but she’s late to this game
A dollar is a dollar, she says,
things are still the same
But if you sell me this dollar,
I’ll owe you three
Work myself to the bone,
none left for family and me
Now, you got my three dollars
with your dreams already paid for
Walking into fancy rooms,
never kicking down a door
But you own that door,
that room, that house, and its land
So I’d have to give you four more dollars
just to pay for where I stand
If you could, you’d charge me for the air I breathe,
the dreams I dream
Even the love I love, make my own beating heart
turn on me like some scheme
I BRING SOME of the fancy food from that cocktail party up to the roof in a small container. Janae is already sitting cross-legged on the blue tarp, but she’s facing the other direction, as if trying to avoid the house across the street. I don’t blame her. So we face Hernando’s bodega instead, where we can see some of the guys on the corner doing what they usually do.
It feels good to see them there. I’ve never known Hernando’s to not have men sitting outside, young or old. Some people think they’re up to no good, that they’re wasting their time. But I think they’re really there to look out for the block, for the whole hood, like gatekeepers. They know who’s coming in and out; they know the faces of all the people who pass them.
Even with their big, fancy house on the corner, those Darcy boys couldn’t care less about what’s happening on this block, much less this neighborhood. They bring outsiders to show off their house and talk about how much better they are than the people who are already here.
“I can’t stand them,” I say out loud.
Janae sighs long and deep. “You were right,” she says.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Me too,” she says.
A long thread of silence keeps us connected. I know what she’s thinking. She’s replaying all the moments with Ainsley in her mind—what he said to her just now, but also the other times, how he made her feel, how he touched and kissed her. So I have to ask.
“Did you guys—”
“No.” She cuts me off. “Z, he was a complete gentleman. I thought he was genuinely interested in me. We talked about everything. And we laughed a lot. He wasn’t like any of the other guys out here.”
“He was really, really nice to me.”
“Well, nice doesn’t cut it, Nae. I’ll take keepin’ it real over nice any day.”
“He was even nice when he broke it off.”
“Broke it off? How exactly did he break it off?” I unwrap my napkin of tiny meatballs at the ends of toothpicks and hand one to Janae.
“He said, ‘I’m just not ready for something serious right now,’ and he didn’t want to stop me from dating anyone else.”