“He said that?” I ask.
“Yep. As if I’d even want to date anyone else.”
I throw the tiny meatball stick back into the container and grab Janae’s before she pops it into her mouth. I stand and walk close to the edge of the roof with the container in hand.
“Zuri, what are you doing?” Janae asks.
I ignore her and take one tiny meatball at a time and try to fling them across to the Darcys’ roof. They don’t quite land there, but I step back and try to throw the little things with all my might, one by one. “Take back your stupid, useless, tiny meatballs!” I yell.
When I turn to her, I catch Janae wiping her eyes. “Are you crying?”
“No,” she says, and blinks back tears.
I sigh and go over to sit next to her and pull her in. I lay her head on my lap so I can braid the side of her hair. This always relaxes her. “You didn’t know him that well, Nae.”
“It’s not that,” she sobs. Now, she lets it all out as my hands rub her scalp. Janae has always been the sensitive one. If I start to tear up just because Papi’s hard on me, Janae will straight up bawl at any hint of disappointing our father. “He was really different, Z. I mean, I met guys at school, and they were all right. But none of them were really interested. You know how many more girls there are than guys at my school? Lots. I didn’t just wanna hook up with anybody. I wanted a real relationship. Nobody’s trying to have a relationship their freshman year of college. And it felt like that was the direction we were going. And . . .” Her voice trails off.
“Janae, are you serious? Come on! What about your grades, focusing on getting a job right after you graduate? And us? Mama and Papi?” I ask, finishing a braid.
“Just because I like somebody doesn’t mean I forget everything else in my life. People have relationships, Z.”
“Yeah, but it’s such a distraction. And if it doesn’t work out, then it was a waste of time.”
She gets up from my lap and looks at me. “So, you being with Warren is a waste of time?”
“No. We’re just chillin’ like I do with Charlise. Like we are now?”
“You know damn well that it’s not the same.”
“Lie down. I’m not done with your hair yet,” I say, trying to change the subject.
“All right!” I sigh. “It’s just that . . . I don’t get you, Janae! Why do you have to fall so hard? And so fast? Ainsley was not right for you and I told you that. I knew this would happen.”
We’re quiet for a long moment before she asks, “How do you know? How do you know if the guy you meet won’t be the one you spend the rest of your life with?”
I sigh again. “I don’t think Mama knew that she’d still be with Papi way after high school. Maybe they took it one day at a time. Like going up a flight of stairs or something. You take each step, and at some point, you land. You don’t have to climb anymore. Or it stops getting so hard.”
“We were still climbing, though.”
“No, you were still climbing. He was on a nice tour of the neighborhood. You were all the way up those stairs, and he was still at the bottom snapping pictures and shit.”
She shakes her head and sighs. “It didn’t feel that way. I swear, even if it was just a couple of weeks, it felt as if we were both climbing while holding hands. He was so excited for me to meet his family, Z. He introduced me to his grandparents. He kissed me right in front of them. And then, out of nowhere, he did an about-face.”
“I know exactly what happened. He met your family.”
She purses her lips and furrows her brows, and I can tell that she’s about to cry again. I let her. I don’t look at her when she wipes her tears from her cheeks. I don’t judge her. I know her too well for that.
But I’m judging Ainsley Darcy.
Janae cries herself to sleep that night, and I can’t stand to hear it. Part of me hopes that she won’t spend the rest of her life crying over boys, or men, who break her heart. One day, she’ll have to toughen up. She’ll have to be the hard candy shell to her own gooey sweetness.
I lie in my bed, wide awake, listening to the faint sound of drums coming from Madrina’s basement. Tonight is one of her bembé ceremonies to celebrate some of her godchildren. An orisha will be called down tonight, and it will probably be Ochún. I slip out of my bed and tiptoe barefoot to the front door. I turn the lock open as silently as I can and make my way down to the basement.
Madrina grins at me as I walk down the crooked wooden stairs. It’s cool and damp down here—the heat of summer held at bay. The room is crowded tonight with men and women from the neighborhood—some with their heads wrapped with white fabric like Madrina. They all smile when they see me. I recognize them from some of Madrina’s consultations, and I know all their business. I find a spot in the corner to listen to the musicians build up the tempo so the spirits can get called down.
Bobbito is the master drummer for the ceremony. He sits on a folding chair with the huge bembé drum between his legs. He’s bald, but he still wears a yellow bandanna on his head where sweat gathers along the edge. Next to him is the second drummer, Manny, a shorter man with a mustache so thick, his lips are invisible. Manny wears his yellow bandanna around his neck, and he’s always in a white tank top, no matter how cold it is outside. And Wayne is Papi’s good friend from way back in elementary school. These drummers have known me since I was a baby. And when I come down from upstairs, they always call me to dance to the drums. They call me the daughter of Ochún.
“Come sit near me. Don’t hide,” Madrina calls out to me.
She pulls a wooden stool close to her. She’s pushed her consultation table into a corner, and on it are a half dozen yellow candles with their bright dancing flames. Her face glows a rich golden brown against her colorful beads and white head scarf.
Madrina can probably read it all over my face that I need to talk. “I’m worried about Janae, Madrina,” I say as I sit down. “That boy broke her heart.”
“Ah, sí. But what about your heart, Zuri Luz?” she says.
Madrina takes a cigar and lights it from one of the candles. She brings it to her red lips and pulls deep. When she lets out the smoke, it swirls and dances over all the candles as if performing for Ochún too.
“This isn’t about me. Madrina, Janae was crying over some boy she just met.”
“Who? The investor’s son across the street? That’s not just some boy, Zuri. He is a rich and charming boy. And very handsome, don’t you think? All the fine things that are meant to seduce women.” She inhales and exhales the sweet dancing smoke. “Do you think you are so different?”
I roll my eyes hard at that one. “Please, Madrina. Ain’t nobody seducing me. And if someone is trying to get with me like that, then he can go ’head with his stank self.” But my mind drifts to Warren and to Darius.
Madrina looks at me dead-on with a smirk. Bobbito is drumming a solo, and more people are trickling in. These things don’t start until a little bit after midnight and some of these people work in the morning, including Madrina, who sometimes takes clients as soon as the bembé is over.
“Dance with us tonight, Zuri.” Madrina squeezes my hand and I nod. Dancing in a bembé is something I’ve done since I was a little girl. The drumming sounds good, and so does Madrina’s singing. I love feeling the beat of the drums in my body and letting go of everything as I dance.
I’m not dressed for this, but Madrina always has a wide, flowing white skirt for any newcomers to these ceremonies. So I pull one over my pajamas and it reaches my ankles. I dance barefoot so that I’m closer to the ground, closer to los antepasados, as Madrina says. There’s also a pile of fabric for anyone to use to wrap their heads. Madrina says it’s where the orishas enter. Tonight, it’s Ochún who’s supposed to fill our heads with thoughts and dreams of beautiful sparkling things, pretty faces, soft touches, warm hugs, tender kisses, and deep connections. So I wrap my head with plain white fabric because I want this Ochún out.