Bobbito, Manny, and Wayne find a groove; then in comes Madrina’s bellowing song about Ochún, the Santería river goddess of love. And I begin to move like the water.
Dance of the River Goddess
if oceans are the wombs of the world
then I am the interconnecting
umbilical cord with deep love flowing
like the swirling hems of dresses
in dances for you goddess
and instead of sea salt I’m sprinkled
with golden dust to shimmer like the sun
because it loves me back even while beating
on my wrapped head like a tambora
and I am born hot and thirsty
panting at the edge of a river
wanting to submerge my head deep
within the bottom of the clear cool water
“Wépa!” Madrina sings.
I’m grinning from ear to ear now, because I didn’t realize just how much I love dancing to drumbeat rhythms that pull at my core. I take the hem of my wide skirt with both hands and move it about like a wave. And with my swirling and flowing skirt and dancing body, I form a river. The drumming ebbs and flows, comes to a crescendo before stopping completely; then I am stagnant water again. Like all those tears I hold in and never let flow.
Everyone claps, and some even throw dollar bills at me. An offering.
“I hope this won’t be your last dance, Zuri, daughter of Ochún,” Madrina says, clasping her hands and smiling brightly at me.
Something brand-new stirs inside and all around me, as if I’ve been turned inside out. I immediately know that this was more than just a dance, and maybe Madrina was right all along. Maybe there is something real in these spirits.
There’s a quiet humming of praise for Madrina. “Gracias, Madrina, gracias!”
I leave the basement. With my dollars bills in hand and Madrina’s skirt still around my waist, I race up the stairs, past my apartment, and quietly slip up to the roof. My lungs are still reaching for the night air as the orishas embrace me.
WARREN BRINGS FLOWERS to my door. Papi isn’t here to see him, and Mama and my sisters are visiting with neighbors down the block. Part of me wants to rush him away from here so I don’t have to answer to my parents, but I know I need to introduce him to Mama and Papi at some point.
I take my favorite spot on the steps after he hands me the colorful bouquet I recognize from the Key Food on Broadway. So I side-eye him to let him know that game recognizes game. He can’t play a playa.
“What? You don’t like them?” he asks, trying to hold in a laugh.
“I just thought the flowers from the Key Food on Broadway were for the people on their way to Wyckoff Hospital,” I say.
“Well, obviously I wasn’t on my way to the hospital. Aren’t you gonna smell them?” Warren asks. He’s kind of dressed up with a button-down shirt, but not a Darius and Ainsley kind of dressed up. He looks smooth with a little bit of edge—crisp shirt, jeans, and almost-new sneakers. His fresh haircut makes the dimple on his cheek stand out.
I sniff the flowers and shake my head.
“You ever had a guy give you flowers before?” he asks. His phone keeps buzzing in his pocket, and he pulls it out to silence it. I see the name Alana before he shuts it off.
I give him a look. “Don’t pat yourself on the back just yet, Warren. Flowers are cool, but we’re still just chillin’.”
He laughs. “A’ight, ZZ. Now, let’s get off this block and chill somewhere else.”
“How ’bout we stay right here,” I say while looking up and down the block for any sign of Mama.
“Aren’t you gonna get in trouble?” he asks.
“I’ll get in trouble if we keep going out and you never meet my parents.”
“Oh. So we’re going out now?”
“I mean, literally going out. Like, leaving the neighborhood. My parents wanna know who I be rollin’ with. And since you’re from around here, maybe they already know your parents.”
He laughs. “I doubt it. My mother and your mother were definitely not in the same circles.”
“How about your father?” I ask.
“He’s not from around here.”
“Lemme guess. Locked up? Second family? Or maybe your mother was the side chick.”
“Oh, I see you’ve already put me into a box and wrapped me in newspaper. And I’m the latest headline: ‘Black Teen Boy from the Projects with Absentee Father Makes It into New York City’s Top Private School,’” he says.
I nod. “Sounds about right.”
We both laugh because we understand this secret language. We can swap stories of epic fights and neighborhood rivalries, the best ballers, and the longest-lasting couples. Last time we hung out, he showed me his EBT card and said that he’s never done that before with any girl—shared that part of himself where people will make all kinds of assumptions about what life he had and what future is waiting for him.
“So,” Warren says, pointing his chin across the street. “I heard your sister and Ainsley are getting serious.”
I shake my head really hard. “Nope! Not anymore.”
He laughs. “I knew it. Them dudes . . .”
“Them dudes, what? I hope you’re not saying that he’s too good for my sister.”
“Too good for Janae Benitez? Hell, no! Quite the opposite.”
I spot Mr. Darcy in the window, and then he quickly moves away.
“Let’s walk and talk,” I say, taking my flowers with me. I decide that Warren can meet my parents another time.
“After you,” he says.
We get up from the stoop and head down Jefferson toward Broadway.
“Why didn’t you say anything to me before about Ainsley?” I punch him lightly on the arm.
“Would you have believed me if I said, ‘Yo, Z. He’s gonna try to play your sister.’ I saw her face that day. Her nose was wide open.”
“You can say that again. And hell yeah I would’ve believed you. I already had my suspicions. Especially with Darius.”
“Yo. Don’t get me started on him.”
“Please, start. ’Cause my fist got his name on it.”
Warren stops walking and laughs really hard. “You’re not getting ready to deck nobody. You’re not a fighter, Z. You’re a lover.”
So I ball up my fist and punch him really hard on his muscular arm. “That’s what you get for underestimating me.”
But Warren doesn’t even flinch. He keeps laughing. “The way you punch, I think I’ma have to fight your battles for you.”
We continue to walk and I shove him again, but he doesn’t even move. “Puh-lease! I don’t need anybody fighting my battles! And you don’t punch, you wrestle. Darius needs somebody to deck him in that tight jaw of his.”
“Damn. What you got against Darius Darcy? I mean, did he break your heart too?”
“Hell, no! I am nothing like my sister in that department. I just don’t like . . . his face.”
“You’re in the minority with that one. Trust me.”
I shrug. “Whatever. It’s one thing to look good, but it’s another thing to walk around knowing it.”
“Well, what’s wrong with that? I walk around knowing I look good. Don’t you?” He looks me up and down and licks his lips.
“Warren!” I shove him again and laugh. We reach Broadway, and a train is passing by on the overhead tracks. It’s a cool, breezy summer day and everyone seems to be outside.
We head into Bed-Stuy along Jefferson. We’re now in a part of Brooklyn where some of the brownstones are nicer. A few have For Sale signs in the front, while others are completely renovated. They look less like brownstones and more like museums.
“Real talk, though. Darius thinks everyone’s beneath him. Especially me,” Warren says, after being quiet for a while.
I stop and turn to him. “Spill the tea, Warren, ’cause if you tell me some shit about those boys that pisses me off . . .”
He laughs, then clears his throat. “I started Easton in the seventh grade. That’s their upper school. And back then, there were only, like, seven of us. So me and Darius were cool from the jump, even though he was way too corny for me. In that school, the thing to do was playdates and sleepovers. So I’d go to his apartment in Manhattan a lot, and he practically begged his parents to come to my place, even though I told him about the shootings and drug dealers and shit. I even showed him how to walk down the block and keep his head up in case somebody rolled up on us. He thought it was all fun and games, like the stuff he sees in movies. But his parents were not trying to have their son spend the night with some financial-aid kid at his welfare-queen mother’s roach-infested apartment.”