We walk side by side and get hit by a blast of air conditioning when we step into the rest stop. Darius turns to me, concern etched between his thick eyebrows. “Wait. What do you like to eat?”
I look around at the fast-food options and walk ahead of him to a chicken spot. He follows. At the counter, I order the largest meal I can buy with my fourteen bucks. Darius orders fries and a club soda. While we’re waiting, I realize that he’s standing way too close behind me.
“Yo, ease up, bruh,” I say with a smile on my face.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I thought you were cold. They’re blasting the AC in here.”
“Yeah right, Darius,” I say, bumping my body against his. And he’s right because it’s hella cold in this fast-food restaurant and I notice the goose bumps on my bare arms.
“I can keep you warm while we wait,” Darius offers innocently.
“What? No. I’m good. Really.” I shake my head and turn away so he doesn’t see me smile. Then I say, “I can keep you warm.”
He hugs himself, rubs his arms, and goes, “Brrrr . . .”
I laugh. “Oh my goodness! You are so stupid!”
“Well,” he says, holding out his arms. “I’m still cold.”
I roll my eyes and shake my head just as they call our number for our order.
“That’s all you’re getting?” I ask.
“I just ate. And you barely touched your lobster.”
“I’m not into lobster. And your grandmother spoiled my appetite.”
“Zuri, I’m sorry about my grandmother,” he apologizes again. “She can be a little uptight.”
I just hrumph. I don’t want to get into it again—and no amount of apologizing can fix that woman, anyway.
The cashier girl places our bags of food on the counter, and I reach into my pocket for my money. But Darius touches my arm, and he already has a card in his hand to pay for the food.
“I can pay for myself,” I say.
“I knew you were going to say that. But really, it’s my treat.”
“Well, a’ight then.” I can’t help but give him a sliver of a smile as I let him pay.
I’m back at the car waiting for him to unlock the doors when I notice that he isn’t behind me. He’s sitting near a set of benches and tables in front of the restaurant. I didn’t realize we were turning this into a full-on picnic.
I pause for a little bit to watch him open up the bags and pull out his food. He eats fries as if they’re the most expensive thing in the world. He catches me looking at him and motions for me to come over.
For the first time during this whole trip, I’m able to sit back and take in the wide blue-orange sky and warm summer air. There are no tall buildings around or sirens or loud music and voices—just the soothing sound of speeding cars in the distance.
And Darius’s brown eyes with those thick eyelashes, staring at me.
“Yes?” I ask as I dig into my two-piece meal. I don’t feel any kind of way about eating fried chicken and fries in front of this boy, even as he refuses to look away.
“Nothing,” he says, trying to hold in a laugh.
“You played yourself by only getting fries. You know you want some of this,” I say with a mouthful of chicken.
“No, thank you. I’m just . . . amazed.”
“You ain’t never seen a girl eat fried chicken before?” I lick my fingers and take a sip of soda.
“No. Not like that.”
“Of course not. I bet Carrie eats fried chicken with a knife and fork. Oh, wait. She’s probably vegan.”
“As a matter of fact, she claims to be.”
“Why are you using her as a gauge? You’re completely different, Zuri.”
With that, he leaves me speechless for a hot minute. I finish my food, take a few more sips, and wipe my mouth. “I know I’m different. That was my point.”
“You’re more than different. You’re special, Zuri. I mean, damn. I’ve never met a girl like you.” He looks down when he says this, as if he’s been practicing or something, and he didn’t know how I’d react.
I don’t know what to say to that, even as my whole body tingles with tiny granules of sugar, as Madrina says. So I get up, wipe my mouth and hands with a napkin, toss the rest of my food into a nearby trash bin, and start heading back to his car. “We should hurry up. It’s getting dark.”
I’m almost near the car when I realize that he’s not following me again. I turn around to see him standing a few feet away, just staring at me.
“Okay. You’re creeping me out. For the record, my father knows I’m with you, he knows where your parents live, and he owns a machete,” I say.
He smiles in a way I’ve never seen him smile before. I only shake my head and wait for him to open the car with his remote-control key thing. But instead he walks around to my side and is coming closer to me. I don’t step back. I just stand there as he inches closer and closer, and before I know it, we’re face-to-face. Still, I don’t step back. Slowly, he leans in, breathing heavy, looking into my eyes, and his lips touch mine. He pauses as if making sure it’s okay, and that’s when I finish what he started. I fall into his kiss, making sure that I’m still in the lead, that I’m still in control, and he slips his hands around my waist and pulls me in. I pull him in even closer. We feel like one body.
And in that moment, I can’t believe this is happening. This kiss, this hold, never crossed my mind as something that would be real. I hated him. I hated everything about him. But this, this isn’t hate.
Finally he pulls away. But he looks into my eyes and raises his eyebrows as if asking me if I’m okay. I smile a little. He kisses me on the cheek before we make it back to the car. He opens the door for me and I silently slide into the seat. I reach over to open the door for him. “Thank you,” he mouths. And every second of this moment is slowed down like dripping honey.
My stomach is in knots when we make our way back to the city. I push on the radio to fill the quiet, to hush my own spinning thoughts. Slowly Darius inches his hand across the armrest and weaves his fingers through mine. And I don’t let go, even as my insides turn into gooey, sticky sweetness.
I am that tall glass
of lemonade where sugar
sits at the bottom,
Never rising to
the top. Sweet and sour don’t
mix to quench this thirst
Wrapping around my
throat where a bittersweet song is
lodged. You serenade
Me while I sip this
honey lemonade potion,
you are a love brew.
Damn boy, you got me
thirsty over you. Mouth dry,
lips chapped, I’m dreaming
Of quenching waters
and all I wanna do is
swim deep in this thing
Called lemonade where
bittersweet elixirs sooth
the soul like moist lips
Touching, bodies merged
in this dance while sugar stirs
to the top, whirling
Like Ochún in her
yellow dress swirling to the
drums, making all this
submit to the queen bee called
my heart. You got me.
THERE’S SOMETHING HAPPENING to my body. But this isn’t love. It was just a kiss.
I sit back in the car, feeling free. Darius is in full control, and I’m okay with it for now. We’re easing toward New Jersey with music I’ve never heard before blasting in the car. Darius bops his head, sings some of the lyrics, licks his lips a few times, and glances at me plenty of times. I start to smile. My lips are a half moon, but my whole body is smiling too.
We’re almost at the toll booths and the traffic comes to a crawl. Darius turns down the music and asks if I’m feeling okay.
“Are you feeling better than you did earlier?” he asks again.
“What do you mean by ‘better’?” I ask.
“Well, I know you weren’t feeling my grandmother, or her house, or me.”
“Oh, so you wanna know if I’m feeling better about you?”