“What? Did they say that?” I ask.
“They didn’t have to say it. I knew that’s what they were thinking. Me and D were cool for a while, but then I got into a fight outside school. And Mr. Darcy tried to get me kicked out. He thought I was a bad influence on his son. But the worst part of that was that Darius didn’t even have my back. He was all about coming to my house and seeing how it is out here, but when he came face-to-face with that shit, he straight up violated. That’s street code numero uno: Have your friend’s back. Always. Ain’t that some shit? He’s black, but he ain’t that black, feel me? The way we do it out here, if your boy gets into a fight, ain’t you supposed to have his back? But instead, his pops tries to get me kicked out of Easton.”
“Dang, Warren. That’s messed up. I’m sorry you had to go through that. I didn’t know the Darcys were that shady.”
“The Darcys are bougie, but they don’t like drama. They’re real protective about their reputation. My mother had to come up to the school and practically beg for me to stay. She threatened to sue for discrimination. After that, Darius wouldn’t dare look me in the eye.”
I shake my head as something inside me comes to a boil. I’m fuming. Those Darcys can have all the nice things money can buy, but they don’t have decency or compassion. Now I’m especially glad it’s over between Janae and Ainsley. Not only do I have my sister back for the summer, but I know the truth about that family across the street.
“I’m sorry, Warren. Really. What Darius did is not cool,” I say.
In an instant, Warren’s arm is around my shoulder, a little too quick. “I appreciate that, ZZ.”
“Uh-huh, I’m sure you do,” I say, but I don’t move away.
We walk and talk some more, and by midafternoon, we make it back to Bushwick, where the sun is blazing hot and it’s even louder than in Bed-Stuy. We run into a few people he knows and who also know me. We go into different bodegas for water, Icees, chips, sunflower seeds, and it’s all as easy as the warm summer breeze. When we reach the corner of my building, Warren faces me.
Suddenly I can’t look him in the face. Warren is smiling and trying to get me to make eye contact. But I keep turning away and laughing, and he keeps trying to get me to see him.
“I promise I won’t hypnotize you, Z,” he says while gently taking my wrists and pulling me in.
“Yes, you will!” I tease.
“My eyes won’t hypnotize you, but my kiss will.”
I stop fidgeting and finally look at him. He’s grinning so hard that I can’t help but laugh.
Finally I stop. But I don’t let him make the first move. I keep avoiding him until I’m ready to kiss him. I move in when he’s not looking, ready to plant a fat, wet one on his lips, but someone calls my name.
It’s Marisol, coming down the block pushing a shopping cart with Layla and Kayla. I quickly pull away from Warren because I’m not gonna hear the end of this from now until eternity—me kissing a boy at the corner for the whole neighborhood to see.
Warren pulls on my shirt as a way of asking me to finish what I started. But I reluctantly step away from him to greet my sisters.
“I’ll catch up with you later, Warren,” I say with a half smile.
“Oh, it’s like that?” he says.
“I said, I’ll catch up with you later.” I walk away and leave him standing there, waiting and wanting more of me.
“YOU THINK HOWARD will take a collection of poems in place of an essay?” I ask Janae as she’s laid out on the bed as if someone has stolen all her joy, all her sweetness, and turned her into a stagnant pool of salty water. Even though Ainsley is out of the picture, he’s still latched onto my sister’s heart. Janae’s not crying, but she’s taking up a whole lot of space with her heavy sighs, and moping around as if she doesn’t have her whole life ahead of her.
“No. You have to learn how to express your thoughts without any metaphors or flowery words,” she mumbles. She’s mindlessly scrolling through her phone. It’s noon and she’s still not dressed.
Mama’s footsteps are headed toward our bedroom door. “Zuri, I need you to go to the check-cashing place and get the money order for Madrina’s rent,” Mama says.
“Come with me, Janae,” I say as Mama starts to walk away.
“Let her be, Zuri!” Mama calls out.
“Why, Mama? You want her to lie up in the bed all day? It’s nice outside.”
“She’s recovering from heartbreak. Let her be.”
“Are you kidding, Mama?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll catch it one day too, Zuri. Just leave your sister alone.” Her voice trails off as she heads into the kitchen.
I exhale, shake my head, and stare at the lump that is my sister beneath the old Dora the Explorer sheets. “Oh, hell no, Janae! You’re letting that stupid boy win. You gotta come out on top, big sis! Let him see that you don’t care. Let’s get outta here and make sure that you look extra cute. Come on, Nae-nae! Please!”
I shake her, but she doesn’t move. I tickle her, and finally her salty self melts back into her gooey sweetness. She keeps laughing long after I stop tickling her. She laughs so hard, tears stream down her face while she sits up, bends over, and holds her belly.
I finally have my sister to myself. Our faces are fresh, our hair is done, her dress is flowing, my T-shirt is poppin’, and we look cute as we walk through Fulton Mall in Downtown Brooklyn. Guys were hollering at us ever since we stepped onto the B26 bus going down Halsey, then after we transferred to the B25 going down Fulton. Still, those guys are not flies and mosquitos. Most of them actually look really good. But Janae and I are focused.
We finished Mama’s errands, and we have the whole afternoon to ourselves without our little sisters, even though they begged Mama to come with us. I had to tell Mama that I was taking Janae out to nurse her heartbreak.
We get a nice booth overlooking Flatbush Avenue at Junior’s, and Janae insists that our meal is her treat.
“I saved up most of my money from working at the bookstore on campus,” she says as she sips her milkshake.
“I can’t wait to get a job,” I say, stirring the ice cubes in my soda. “You know I put in my application to just about every store on the Fulton strip. I shoulda done what Charlise did, stay local and get those white people and their boutiques to hire me.”
The waiter comes to serve our food. Part of me worries that we’ve ordered too much and that Janae may not be able to cover it all. And that worry shifts to other worries. Things I’ve held in the back of my mind. I wonder if Howard is the right decision, if they’ll give me a full scholarship and financial-aid package like Syracuse did for Janae, if I should start dreaming about other schools too. Or what if I get to Howard and I don’t like it? What if I want to come home?
“What’s wrong, Z?”
I tell her. I let Janae know all my fears. I lay them out on the table one by one: change, quiet, money, college, job, space, family, home.
“Z,” Janae starts. “Things are gonna have to change, and you just have to open up to it. My whole world opened up the day I took that Greyhound to Syracuse. It’s like, I knew I wasn’t going to be the same person after that. And all it took was a five-hour bus ride. I didn’t realize how closed off from the world we were.”
I sigh. “But what happens if I get into Howard and it’s not for me?”
Janae cocks her head to the side and looks at me just like Mama does. “Then you should go visit.”
“Zuri! Howard,” she says.
My insides jump at the idea of going anywhere outside of New York by myself. By myself! But then reality sets in. “Even if Mama and Papi let me go, with what money?” I dip a Buffalo wing into a cup of blue cheese.
Janae pulls out her phone and spends a couple of minutes scrolling. I see her typing something.
She shows me her phone and I read the screen, confused. She’s bought me a round-trip bus ticket to D.C. To Howard. For tomorrow!