“Oh, shoot, I got to go pay for that,” Janae says, and starts to head back across the street. My sisters and I follow her.
“Bye, Ainsley! Bye, Darius!” Layla calls out behind us.
“Bye . . . Janae!” Ainsley says, and Janae reaches for my hand and squeezes it as if to say she can’t believe any of this—that those boys look good, and they’re going to be living across the street, and the one named Ainsley was seriously checking for her.
It’s not until I reach our stoop that I look back to see if Darius smiled, or waved, or watched me cross the street, or if he stayed as stiff and cold as a tree in winter. But he’s already gone inside the house.
SOMETHING ABOUT THE Darcys moving in makes me want to hold Bushwick a little bit tighter and for a little bit longer, as if it’s slowly slipping away—like Janae, and high school, and me being small enough to curl into Papi’s arm while he reads the New York Times. The streets are fully alive as a hot summer night sets in, loud with the sounds of the wheels on a shopping cart rolling across jagged sidewalks, the J train passing by on the aboveground tracks on Broadway, and hip-hop and reggaeton dancing out of someone’s opened window.
Our apartment is busy with Mama finishing up Janae’s Welcome Back dinner.
Mama treats our special family dinners as if they’re a block party—she invites the whole building, and sometimes even all of Jefferson and Bushwick Avenues too. So if my sisters and I don’t grab our plates before Madrina and her nephew, Colin, come up for their share, there won’t be any left. Even though the dinner is for Janae, it’s possible she could miss out on the food too.
That’s just how Mama is—she’s the heart of the neighborhood, pumping stewed chicken, banan pezé, sancocho, bacalao, pastelitos, and black rice to just about every single household on our block. And in exchange, she gets all the gossip.
Madrina, the owner of our building, who lets us rent for mad cheap, has to catch her breath when she reaches our apartment. She celebrated her sixty-fifth birthday last year and rarely makes it up because of her bum knee and her weak heart. She’s wearing her signature white dress and white head wrap. She’s always draped in all white because according to her, she has to be a walking and talking crystal ball for all the fortune-telling she does (although she hates it when we call it fortune-telling). “Es para los espíritus,” she says—so the orishas can see her when she asks them for favors.
Her colorful beaded elekes hang long and low from her neck, and they sway from side to side like a pendulum when she walks. Madrina claims that she was a beauty queen back in her day in San Juan. That’s how she got crowned as a Santería priestess of the goddess Ochún. She embraces all that is love and beauty. So she walks around with a full face of makeup. Her powdered foundation is always two shades too light, her blue eyeshadow is applied so thick that it’s almost navy, her eyebrows are a thin drawn-in line, and some of her red lipstick is on her teeth.
“Oh, mija! Look at you, college girl!” Madrina bellows when she sees Janae. Madrina’s thick arms almost wrap around Janae twice. She limps over to the couch where Marisol, the twins, and I are huddled together, eating from our plates. We all get up to make room for her as she slowly eases down near the armrest. We take spots on the carpeted floor, and when Madrina’s finally settled, it feels as if the whole apartment has let out a deep, long sigh.
The warm, smoky smells in the apartment are a big, wide hug. Mama’s high-pitched laughs and Madrina’s booming words are music—accordions and congas in a merengue or compas band. When she sings her orisha praise songs during her ceremonies down in the basement, I can feel it all the way up here on the third floor. And when Papi looks up from his food to add his two cents to the conversation, it’s like his words are a tambora adding deep wisdom to all that superficial gossip. My sisters’ giggles are güiras, and together, it’s a party, even without actual music.
Even though I’m planning to leave home for college, I know all that music will still be here, waiting for me, when I get back.
“Beni!” Madrina calls out to Papi. “Did you see the blessings that Ochún has brought to your door? Dios mío! Your prayers have been answered!”
“What are you talking about, Madrina?” Papi grunts. He’s in his usual spot on the recliner in a corner of the room where he can be away from it all but still keep a close eye. His cup of black Bustelo coffee sits on a nearby stack of books, and he’s inhaling a plate of arroz con habichuelas. We all know that Papi doesn’t like to be interrupted when he eats. But Madrina doesn’t care.
“Your rich son-in-laws just moved in across the street. Their father is an investor. Ochún has delivered your daughters’ husbands nice and early so you have a few years to get to know them. You should invite them over.”
We’re all as quiet as a steaming pot of rice as we wait to see Papi’s reaction to hearing the word “husbands.”
Then Madrina lets out her usual deep, booming laugh, and the whole apartment seems to shake. She laughs so hard that no other sound comes out of her wide mouth. Her face is wound up into a knot and a tear rolls down her cheek. “Look at your father’s face, girls! He don’t want you to date. He wants you all to stay right under him until each one of you is old and gray like me.”
“Not if I have anything to do with it,” Mama says. She always tries to one-up Madrina by shouting even louder. But she doesn’t have the same depth in her voice, so she’s just loud. “I won’t mind at all if my daughters are playas. Have fun, date around, see what’s out there. Don’t tie yourselves down like I did. Those boys are cute, aren’t they, Janae? Which one you like? I like the one with the afro for you. I saw him waving.”
Papi shakes his head at Mama. “I’m outta here,” he mumbles, getting up from his recliner and taking his plate with him.
Janae and I exchange looks, because we already have our lives figured out and they don’t involve these new boys across the street. After college, she’s getting a teaching job and her own apartment in Bushwick. And I’m going to Howard University and will live on campus in my own dorm room where I can stretch out my arms and legs and not have to hit a little sister in the head while doing so. After I graduate, I’ll get a job and my own apartment here too. None of those scenarios involve a boyfriend or a husband. So I say, “I have no interest in either of those boys, Madrina. I’m going to college and getting a job—I don’t need an investor to take care of me.”
Papi comes out of the kitchen where he was getting started on the dishes, comes over to me, and gives me one of his awkward fist bumps. “Now that’s my baby girl! She got her own mind.”
“So who are those two boys for, Madrina? Me and Kayla?” Layla asks. Of course she does. Layla is the boy craziest one out of all of us. “Ey, slow down, Speedy Benitez!” Madrina says. “You get in line behind Marisol. And then the baby, Kayla, is right after you.”
“So I’m not gonna get married until Marisol gets married?” Layla whines. “Do you see her, Madrina? I’ll be waiting forever!”
“Yes, you will. And there are two ways to examine the institution of marriage,” Marisol begins, and the whole room sighs because she’s about to spill out a series of facts, numbers, and statistics that all have to do with the thing she loves most in the world: money. “It can mean either that marriage is the false notion that love is forever and a woman is left to depend on her husband for financial support, or that two incomes are better than one. Love is abstract. Money is not.”
“Hah! Now she’s the one who’ll marry for money,” Madrina says. “Put all your eggs in that basket, Beni.”
“Aw, come on!” Janae finally says, and everybody gets quiet. “This is the future, Madrina. We’re thinking about our careers and goals and breaking barriers. And yes, Marisol, we’re thinking about making money!”
“Career before family? Como una gringa?”
“No, Madrina,” I say. “Not like a white girl! Like . . . a woman! Any woman.”