When we finally release each other, he still holds me in his arms, trying to smooth back my fro.
“Save your energy. My hair doesn’t move,” I say, just to break up that heated moment.
He laughs and I pick up the sweatshirt—a logo of Hillman College from that old TV show A Different World—and hand it to him. I walk out of the store and wait for him outside as he pulls out his wallet with a big fat smile on his face.
For the rest of our date, we don’t stop holding hands. We talk about music, his school, my school, and soon our little block in Bushwick extends all the way out to here too. Everything about this afternoon with Darius Darcy feels like home.
I never knew that deep kisses, hand-holding, and small talk could last for so long, because by the time we get back on the L train and get off on Halsey Street, we’ve talked about everything under the sun. We forget that we aren’t supposed to be seen together until we get to the corner of our block. Still, we don’t move away from each other. I have a big smile on my face, and so does Darius as we get to my door.
“It was nice getting to know you, Zuri Benitez,” he says as he stands in front of my stoop.
“Likewise, Darius Darcy,” I reply.
He eases his hand against the side of my neck, and I lean my head into it, kissing his wrist. I close my eyes for a little bit and feel this whole thing, this sweet thing, take over my whole soul. It’s something I feel in my bones. No. Deeper than bones.
When I open my eyes, I can tell from Darius’s face that he feels it too. His eyes are in another place, even though they’re staring right at me. His smile is so soft that it looks like it’s in a deep, deep rest. Finally he kisses me one last time for the day. And I don’t care one bit who sees us.
In fact, I want my family, my block, and my whole hood to see us.
NOT EVEN A week goes by before Darius asks to see me again. But this time, he insists that it’s a date.
“Come with me to Carrie’s party,” he says when I run into him at Hernando’s. Well, we kind of, sort of, planned to run into each other. At about eight in the morning, he texted me that he was going for a run with Ainsley and that he was picking up two bottles of Gatorade beforehand. I volunteered to get Papi a tin of Bustelo coffee when I spotted Darius walking out of his house.
Darius already has on his workout clothes—a fitted T-shirt, basketball shorts, and sports leggings or whatever they are. I’m in my drawstring not-pajama pants and a T-shirt, and my fro is in thick braids. We’re standing in the middle of the aisle, away from Hernando’s nosy eyes, but his cat, Tomijeri, eases his fat, furry body between both our legs, eavesdropping.
“Carrie? You know I don’t like her, right? And she doesn’t like me,” I say as I hold Mama’s EBT card in my fist. I really don’t want to pull it out in front of Darius.
“You really shouldn’t care about that,” he says with a smile.
I have to cast my eyes down when he smiles.
His knuckles softly graze the side of my face, and immediately my whole body melts.
“I like you a lot, Zuri Benitez,” he whispers.
I smile. “Then you got my back if something goes down between me and Carrie, right?”
He laughs. “You’ll fight over me? I didn’t think you were that type of girl.”
I laugh too. “I didn’t say I’d be fighting over you. I’m only throwing jabs if she come at me with some nonsense.”
“Okay, but don’t underestimate bougie rage. That’s on another level.”
“Zuri-looose!” Hernando calls out when we reach the counter. “Those Benitez women . . . you better watch out!” he says to Darius.
Darius and I walk out of the bodega like two old friends, or new friends. Or something else, something better and different.
My sisters and Madrina can read the different all over my face and body. So this time, I tell my family the truth—that I’m going on a date with Darius Darcy.
“Janae, you’re acting like I just won the lotto!” I say to my sister. She’s picking out clothes for me to wear when I meet Darius. But everything she puts out, I put away. She wants me to borrow her heels. But I’m a sneakers girl. So we compromise. I settle on a short dress with sneakers, and I rock my bamboo earrings.
She watches me get dressed, fixing and fussing over me. “Zuri. Just have a good time, okay? Darius is really nice. Whatever you thought of him before, he proved you wrong, right?”
“You okay, sis?” I ask, smiling, only because she’s smiling. But her eyes are not smiling.
“Yeah,” she says, furrowing her brows. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Z, I’m over Ainsley. Trust me.”
“Like, you’re not even wondering what he’s doing right now?”
“No, Zuri. I’m good. Really,” my big sister says. But I know her too well. I see it in her face as she glances at the top-floor windows of the Darcy house.
Mama bursts into our room clasping her hands, with a giant smile on her face. “I’m so happy for you!” she sings.
“Oh, come on!” I say, rolling my eyes so hard I give myself a headache. This is the last thing I wanted to happen. For Mama, me having a cute and rich boyfriend who comes from a good family is right up there with getting a scholarship to college.
When I’m dressed and ready to leave, Papi only looks up from his book and grunts. But when I catch his eye again, he gives me a half smile and a nod. This is our secret understanding. This is okay with him. Just okay. He approves for now, but he wants to make sure that I’m happy. If I am, then he is. I smile at him.
“Bueno,” he mouths.
Even though I look extra cute with my outfit and my hair done up in the biggest fro possible, Darius is two steps ahead of me. He’s actually wearing a tight-fitting leather motorcycle jacket. He has on shoes with no socks so I can see his ankles, and he smells way too good. I do my best to keep my cool on the cab ride to Park Slope, where Carrie lives, but tingles go up my arm when Darius takes my hand and holds it in his the entire time.
“Don’t be nervous,” he says.
“Who said I was nervous?” I ask. But he just gives my hand a squeeze. I wonder what there is to be nervous about.
The moon is round and full tonight, and it casts a dim light on this neighborhood where the whole block is lined with tall trees and brownstones. This is a part of Brooklyn that gets shown on TV.
There’s a small crowd of teenagers standing outside one of the brownstones. The cab pulls up to the curb; Darius pays the driver and comes out first. As soon as his no-sock-having foot steps onto the sidewalk, these kids gather around him like he’s the coolest person they’ve ever met. I’m left standing by myself as the cab drives away. So I start to make my way around the group and go up the steps leading to the brownstone’s open front door.
“Zuri, this is everybody,” he says, pointing to everyone who’s standing around him. “Everybody, this is Zuri. She lives across the street from me in Bushwick.”
I just smile and nod.
“What up, Zuri!” one of the white boys calls out.
I leave Darius on the sidewalk and make my way into the brownstone, where the smell of alcohol smacks me in the face and the music is really good. The living room has a chandelier, tall bookcases, and strange artwork on the walls. The lights are mostly turned off, and kids are packed tightly into a long hallway that spills into the kitchen at the back of the house. But nobody’s dancing. Well, some people are moving their bodies, but it’s definitely not what we call dancing around my way.
Carrie is sitting on a leather couch with a red cup in her hand. Our eyes meet. Her mouth drops open. I guess Darius didn’t tell her that I was coming to her party. We stare at each other for a minute too long before I blink away and notice the other people around her. Two guys are on the floor in front of her, playing a video game, and she’s surrounded by white girls who all have red plastic cups in their hands.
Carrie mouths, “That’s her,” to one of them. They stare at me. I stare and cock my head to the side. They quickly look away.
There are four other black girls besides me and Carrie. One of them is standing by a marble fireplace. She smiles at me. I smile back. Another one is sitting on a white boy’s lap in the corner of the room, and the two others are taking turns swigging from a plastic vodka bottle and giggling.