“Thank you all for coming out,” the man continues. “We’ll be featuring some local teen poets who were part of the Poetry Out Loud summer workshops. So give ’em a round of applause, y’all.”
I walk to a separate part of the bookstore, where there’s a restaurant, a small stage, and a black man wearing a bow tie. I only stand there and watch the people. It’s mostly teens, all right. And I almost think of backing out. Strangers or not, and whether it’s D.C. or Bushwick, I know kids my age can be brutal. Still, I’m drawn to the mic.
“But first let’s get some of you young people to bless this mic,” the man says.
There’s a girl standing by the stage holding a clipboard. There’s a short line, about five teenagers who walk up to her and sign up for the open mic. So I’m the sixth. Some people stare at me, I stare back. Others glance—I ignore them.
I write ZZ on a line, and I take a seat in a corner in the back of the room. A waitress comes to take my order. I have fourteen dollars left after I paid to get to the Howard campus, so I just ask for water.
Those few minutes before my name gets called go by like honey dripping from a spoon. And after each poet goes up, who are all just okay, the man finally calls my name. My heart doesn’t race, my palms are not sweaty. I’m as cool as a snow cone.
The clapping is what gets me up from off my seat and adds the rhythm to my slow walk toward the small stage, up the short flight of steps, behind the microphone, and into the limelight. I begin to speak.
Girls in the Hood
Step onto my block
and walk these jagged
and sidewalk cracks
like rickety bridges across our backs
to the ends of rainbows
reflecting off broken glass
where the pot of gold
is way on the other side
of this world.
So we hood girls
shout our pain
into the megaphone wind
hoping that it will carry
to sky-scraping rooftops
with radio towers
broadcasting our tongue clicking,
smack talking, neck rolling
hip swaying, finger snapping
sass through telephone-wire
jump ropes while we skip to the beat
of our own songs and count out
the seconds, minutes, hours, days
until we break past these invisible walls
where glass ceilings are so high,
we only look up and never scratch the surface
with airbrushed and gel-tipped manicured nails
hoping that maybe
the stars will reach down
instead and want to touch us too.
My pulse races, and I can hear everyone start clapping. I can feel that my words have earned me respect. Just like when Papi sits with his homies on the stoop to predict a politician’s next move, theorize some foreign country’s strategy, or know who’s about to have beef with who on the block weeks before something goes down. He drops knowledge just as he’s slapping down a set of cards or a domino onto a table, and his homies can’t do anything but bow down to his greatness and keep their mouths shut.
And I’m sure that’s what everybody does as they applaud and cheer. That’s when I know that this place can be an extension of my block too, like home.
I let myself get showered with applause and cheers before I open my eyes again. And when I do, they land on a familiar face. That’s when my stomach sinks. My breath quickens, and I’m frozen there on the stage even as the audience stops applauding and the man calls for the next poet to come up.
Darius Darcy is looking directly at me.
THE WORDS WHAT the hell is he doing here? play over and over in my mind. He’s just standing there in the back of the room with his hands in his tight pants pockets. The late-afternoon sunlight shines on the side of his face, making him almost glow. We both have lights shining down on us as if we’re the only ones in here.
Someone comes over to touch my arm, and I finally look away and step down from the stage. I almost don’t know where to go, but then I remember I left my bag on the chair and I have to head over to where Darius is standing. I recognize one of the girls he’s with. Carrie. This is not how I expected my afternoon to go. At all. And Darius just watched me perform? Oh, hell no.
“Small world, huh?” is the first thing Darius says.
“Too small,” I say as I grab my bag without looking directly at him. “Way too small.”
“So small, I’m starting to feel claustrophobic,” Carrie says while shifting in her seat. There’s an empty chair at their table that has Darius’s bag hanging over the back, but I don’t sit down.
“Wow, you all know each other?” the other girl asks. She looks familiar too, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her. Then I realize that she has the same square jawline as Darius. “Hi, I’m Georgia, and that poem was really good! Girls in the hood. I like that!”
“Zuri” is all I say, pretending to be uninterested because she really looks like Darius and I remember her name from when we were talking about that band at Maria Hernandez Park. She must be his little sister. The third Darcy kid.
Then Darius adds, “And guess what—Zuri lives across the street from us back in Bushwick.”
Georgia gasps. “Oh my god! Wow! What a coincidence! What are you doing in D.C.? You go to Howard?” She sounds like her brothers—not her voice, but her words. No New York twang, no slang, nothing. She pronounces her words perfectly. She enunciates.
“No, I don’t go to Howard. Yet. I’m a senior at Bushwick High. I’m just touring the campus for the day.”
“Cool,” she says.
Carrie doesn’t say a word to me. She just smiles a fake smile and messes with her iced latte or whatever she’s drinking. Another teen poet gets on the mic and yells so loud that I want to cover my ears.
“You’re the last person I expected to run into here.” Darius bends down a bit so that I can hear him. This is the first time I’m seeing him in jeans, I realize, but I don’t stare too long. Our bodies are almost touching, boxed in by the chairs.
I nod, thinking about what Warren just told me about the Darcys. How Darius is shady, and I’m sure his sister is the same. But why does this D.C. Darius seem nicer than the one back in Bushwick? He’s smiling more. His eyes are softer. His whole body language is more laid-back and chill.
“We’ve been wanting to get out of here to get some real food. Wanna come with?” he asks.
“Come with? No, thanks. I kinda wanna see the other poets,” I say.
“No you don’t. Trust me. You’re ten times better than they are,” he says, grinning.
“Totally. I can only take a little bit of that spoken-word stuff,” Georgia says. “But you . . . you were amazing!”
I only smile because I see Carrie rolling her eyes. She catches me watching her, then flips her long straight hair over her shoulder.
“Thank you,” I say to Georgia while keeping my eyes on Carrie.
“You still want those chili dogs, Darius?” Georgia asks.
“Heck yeah!” Darius says. He gently touches my arm. “I’m sure you didn’t get a chance to go to Ben’s Chili Bowl,” he says. “You should really try it. It’s good.”
And I laugh. “Heck yeah?” I repeat, laughing. No one else is. Clearly they don’t get how corny Darius sounds saying Heck yeah. “You eat chili dogs?”
“Let me guess,” Darius says. “You thought those hors d’oeuvres at our party are what we eat for dinner every night?”
I shake my head and try very hard not to laugh again. “No, I didn’t think that at all.”
“Yes, you did, Zuri,” he says. “And do you eat those fried pork chunks for dinner every night?”
“No, of course not,” I say, and let out another laugh because he’s right. And I was wrong. For the first time since meeting him, since hating him, I hear him laugh, too.
Georgia smiles while looking at her brother, then at me, then back at her brother. All the while, Carrie is dead serious.
We leave Busboys and Poets and walk around the corner to a place called Ben’s Chili Bowl. It looks like it’s been there since forever, but the surrounding buildings have been scrubbed clean and polished. It’s a short red-and-white building that has giant yellow signs with red lettering and pictures of a hot dog and a hamburger. Inside feels like my Brooklyn—the familiar black women behind the counter wearing hairnets, plastic gloves, and warm smiles; the smell of food feels like a big hug from Madrina; and smooth R&B playing in the background makes everything seem as if it’s swaying to the music. Whatever they serve here, both Papi and Mama would love this place. I imagine taking them here when they visit me on campus.