He laughs. “Touché, Ms. Benitez. So how do you feel about me?”
I laugh too. “You don’t waste any time, I see.”
“I’ve already wasted too much time,” he says, easing the car up close behind the one ahead of us.
“What do you mean by that?” I look directly at him this time because I want a direct answer.
“I should’ve kissed you a long time ago.”
“Um, no, you should not have. I would’ve hated you even more.”
“Oh, really? Hate is a strong word.”
“And it’s also a strong emotion.”
“Emotions are feelings and feelings change. Is it safe to say that you don’t hate me anymore?” He’s now driving toward the E-ZPass lane, but the traffic is still slow.
That’s not a question I’m ready to answer, not even for myself. And Darius knows this because I take too long to respond, so instead I ask, “Does your brother hate my sister?”
“Why would you think Ainsley hates your sister?”
“He broke up with her. Janae really liked him, and he dropped her like a sack of dirty laundry. So I see how you Darcy boys do,” I say, crossing my arms.
He laughs a little. “Ainsley didn’t drop her. And we Darcy boys don’t do anything. You’re a little know-it-all, aren’t you, Ms. Benitez?”
“I’m not a little anything, Mr. Darcy. And Ainsley dropped Janae. I saw the whole thing go down at that cocktail party of yours. Why did he break up with her just like that? Did he think he was too good for my sister?”
“No. He didn’t think that at all,” Darius says as he drives through the E-ZPass toll. The traffic starts to speed up, and I want to end the conversation now so that he can focus on the road. But he keeps talking. “Ainsley wouldn’t do that. He just . . . when he falls for a girl, he falls hard.”
“Okay. So clearly he didn’t fall for Janae. But still, that was really shady. He played her right in his own house in front of all those people.”
“Zuri, I told Ainsley to break it off with Janae.”
I just look at him. And he keeps his eyes on the road. “What?”
He inhales, and the car sways a little bit. But he definitely needs to clarify that, so I ask again.
“Darius, what did you just say?”
“I told Ainsley that I didn’t think Janae was good for him.” He exhales. He switches to the right lane and slows down a little bit.
“Okay.” I nod and purse my lips. “You told Ainsley that you didn’t think Janae was good for him.” I repeat every word he said, just to make sure I heard him correctly. This is the most I can do right now without calling him everything but a child of God, as Mama would say.
“Zuri, I was wrong. I know that now,” he says. He keeps trying to look at me as he drives.
“Oh, you were dead wrong, Darius,” I say really loud. I put my neck and hands into every word so he knows that I’m pissed. He’s the only one who can hear and see me right now. And I’m that close to cursing him out too. “What? So you thought Janae wasn’t good enough for your brother? You don’t want no gold-diggin’ hood rats up in his pockets? Well, guess what—I’m a hood rat too, and sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t dig for gold. I dig for dreams, goals, and aspirations. And so does Janae. It was his loss, Darius. And yours too, for making such a dumb mistake and judging us like that!”
“Zuri, I know,” he says, raising his voice too. “I didn’t think . . .” He pauses. A car passes us and he speeds up a bit. “I didn’t think I’d like you the way I do now.”
“Excuse you?” I say, turning to looking at him again.
“I like you, Zuri Benitez. I was wrong about Janae. And you. I’d like to get to know you better. Let me take you out. Make it a legit date.”
I can’t help but laugh. It’s either because what he just said is hella funny or I don’t know how to respond and it makes me nervous. Or both. So I keep laughing.
“What’s so funny?” he asks.
“You,” I say. “You are funny, Darius Darcy.”
“I wasn’t joking, though.”
“Yes, you were, because I can’t believe you would ask me out after what you did to both my sister and Warren. In fact, we shouldn’t’ve kissed at all. Now that was a mistake.”
“So you think I’m a bad person?”
“Yes! You judged them, and you turned your nose up at them. And me. I know what this is, Darius. You’re so used to girls throwing their panties at you that you’re trying to figure out why I’m not doing that too. You think you can kiss me and have me wrapped around your little finger like Carrie. Nope! Find some other impressionable chick on the block, because I am not the one.”
“I don’t think like that, Zuri,” he says quietly as he places both hands at the top of the steering wheel.
“You don’t have to think like that, Darius. You already are that. I saw your game from across the street,” I say, folding my arms and turning my whole body away from him.
After a few long minutes and a long drive down a whole other highway, he says, “Zuri, I’m sorry I can’t be more like your boy in the hood, Warren.”
“Oh, you can never be like Warren,” I say way too loudly.
“I would never want to be like Warren. Not in a billion years,” he says.
“I know you don’t like him just ’cause he’s from the projects and all. Me and Warren, we’re made of the same stuff. If you can’t stand him, then clearly you can’t stand me.”
“You know, Zuri. Sometimes I’m baffled by how judgmental you are,” Darius says, taking one hand off the steering wheel.
I side-eye him. “Baffled? I should be the one who’s baffled. And you, Darius Darcy, are the walking definition of judgmental.”
“I’m not judgmental. I’m just an excellent judge of character. You fall short in that department.”
“Character? So you judged my sister’s character?”
“Yes, I did. And she’s cool,” he says. “If you need some tips on how to accurately judge a person’s character, just let me know.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I know how to read people just fine.”
Darius inhales and says, “So you read that boyfriend of yours and decided to ignore the writing on the wall.”
“That boyfriend of mine? Warren? I don’t judge a book by its cover.”
He laughs a little. “So you’ve read a whole book called Warren from the Projects and you know everything about him.”
“What does that even mean?”
“I think you need to stay away from Warren,” he says flat out. We’re in the left lane now, and he’s driving slower than before.
So I laugh. “Of course you would say that.”
“You don’t know Warren like I do, Zuri.”
“You’re right. I don’t. I know the real him.”
“You know what? Fine. Have it your way.” Darius raises the volume on the music, and this is what takes up the widening silence between us. Every now and then, the recent memory of that kiss tries to creep into my thoughts, but I shut it down. I was fooled by my own emotions, by the distance from home. And as the lights of Manhattan appear on the horizon, it’s like everything I knew about Darius comes right back to slap me in the face.
BOTH MAMA AND Papi are waiting up for me when I get back home. It’s a little past midnight, and that was the longest car ride of my life. We hit some traffic as we got into the city, and Darius was playing the most boring music ever. I’ve never been happier to see my block.
“Are you okay, mija?” Papi asks as he gets up from the couch to examine my face and kiss me on the forehead.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I say groggily. I’m bone tired, and I really don’t want to answer any of his questions right now.
“So are you two seeing each other?” Mama says.
“Ma!” I say. “Are you serious? Good night!”