“To expand your world, Zuri! To party with different kinds of kids. That’s what I’m doing. Partying!”
“Partying? I know how to party, Darius. And I don’t need to be around different kinds of kids to party. And you said this was a date, but you left me over here high and dry. That’s not what dates do, Darius!”
He steps closer to me, and I don’t move back.
“Not everything is about your little corner in the hood. These are kids I go to school with, and I wanted you to meet them. And yes, this was supposed to be a date.” He lowers his voice on the last thing he says.
“A date?” I whisper. “Yeah. Maybe you’re right. ’Cause dates are for when two people get to know each other better. And I damn sure have gotten to know you better.”
He puts his hands up as if he’s surrendering. “I’m being myself, Zuri. What do you want? This is me when I’m around people I know, people I’m comfortable with.”
“You must not have been comfortable with me, ’cause that’s not how you were acting before.” I cross my arms and shake my head. “I want to go home.”
“This isn’t for me. I don’t feel right in here.”
He takes my hand. “Zuri. Come on. Don’t be this way.”
I pull my hand away again and shake my head. “I was right about you, Darius. We’re just too different. This can’t work,” I whisper.
I walk away. I can feel that Darius doesn’t follow me. I make it down to the end of the tree-lined block where the street sign says that it’s Fifth Avenue. Everything around is so damn different, clean, and bright, so I close my eyes and try to shut it out. I need to be back in my neighborhood. I need be on my block, in my apartment, and in my bedroom with my sisters.
I know my place. I know where I come from. I know where I belong.
PAPI ALWAYS TELLS me to never let the streets know when you’re upset. Don’t let any strangers see you cry. Hold your head up and look as if you’re ready to destroy the world if you have to. Even though part of me wishes I was curled up in my bed and crying right now, I gotta hold it in, because this isn’t my hood and I don’t really know where I’m going and I can’t be looking weak out here.
But tears are welling up in my eyes as I walk down Fifth Avenue toward the Atlantic Center Mall. It’s already dark, but the street has a bunch of restaurants where the tables and seats are outside on the sidewalk and I can see right into these people’s glasses of wine and plates of fancy pizza.
I replay the whole night over and over in my head, and how I hated seeing Darius act like that. He was the only black guy up in there, and he was acting like he was on stage. This must be how he is in that all-white school of his. This must be how he thinks he needs to be.
I reach the Atlantic Center Mall, and I feel like I can finally breathe. Now these are my people. I can’t believe how in just a few blocks, it can feel like two different worlds. I walk over to the G train so I can hop on the L back into my part of Brooklyn, and I scroll through Instagram on my phone while I wait on the platform.
I pause on a photo of Warren and realize that I forgot to unfollow him. It’s a close-up of a girl’s lips on his neck. I go straight to his page to see a bunch of recent photos from some outdoor party. Of course there’s a lot of white people around. And that’s when I spot a photo with a black girl sitting on his lap. I look away from my phone, thinking that my eyes must be deceiving me.
“Hold up,” I say out loud, and expand one of the photos. “Oh, hell no!”
I have to zoom in to make sure that the little face I’ve known all my life, the little face I’ve washed in the morning, rubbed Vaseline on in the winter, and watched cry, smile, and laugh out loud is really in that photo, covered in makeup, and not where it’s supposed to be.
“May I speak with you for a minute?” a voice just a few inches from me asks.
I see Darius’s sleek sneakers in front of me and look up. He must’ve followed me all the way over here. A small part of me is happy to see his face.
Still in shock, I hand Darius my phone with the screen opened up to Warren and Layla’s picture.
“Wait, is that Layla?” He quickly gives my phone back to me. “That’s Carrie’s backyard.” He runs a hand through his hair in frustration. “What the fuck.”
“I need to go get her. Now,” I say.
“Okay” is all he says.
Darius hails a cab outside the shopping center. In the cab, I call Layla’s phone. No answer. I call Kayla, no answer. I text both of them. Layla, I’m coming to get you!
I don’t realize that my knee is shaking until Darius puts his hand on it. I quickly push it away.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers.
I don’t say anything.
We reach Carrie’s house, and there’s way more people trying to get in now, and the music is louder. I jump out of the cab and push past the people in the doorway.
“Hey!” someone calls out. “She’s back!”
“Zuri, wait!” I hear Darius yell behind me. But I ignore him. If Warren is the sleazy bastard that Darius says he is, then I need him away from my little sister.
Darius stops me as I get into the living room. The place is now jam-packed and smoky. And I spot a few more black people, so this must be a legit party now.
“Let’s check upstairs,” Darius says. He reaches for my hand again, but I don’t take it.
“So I don’t lose you in the crowd,” he says.
“I’m fine, really,” I say. “Let’s split up.”
He nods and disappears upstairs.
I wander through the living room, to the kitchen, and out to the backyard, showing everyone that picture of Layla and Warren on IG, and asking around if they’ve seen this girl. Some ignore me, the rest shake their heads. Until someone taps me on the shoulder and tells me to check the bathroom downstairs.
I push back through the crowd, my heart pounding in my chest. The basement stairs are hidden behind a group of kids taking shots. When I get down those stairs, I spot Carrie. “Where is she?” I blurt out.
She motions for me to follow her into a giant, fancy bathroom, and I immediately run to my little sister, who’s hunched over the toilet.
“Layla! What happened to you?”
“Shots of cognac happened to her,” Carrie says.
“What the fuck!” I yell out.
Layla shushes me and laughs.
I check her clothes. She’s wearing a fitted tank top I’ve never seen before and short shorts. She’s still dressed, thank goodness.
“She’s okay, really,” Carrie says.
“She’s thirteen!” I yell at her.
“I’m okay!” Layla yells back.
“You won’t be if Mama and Papi find out about this.”
Layla gets up and sits on the edge of the bathtub. “I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to, Zuri.”
“You wanted Warren to be all over you like that? I saw those pictures, Layla!”
She shrugs. “I like him,” she mumbles.
I look over at Carrie. She sighs and says, “Layla, Warren has a bad reputation. So you should be really careful around him.”
“Now you tell her?” I say.
“Hey! I’ve been looking out for her this whole time.”
Layla points to Carrie and blurts out, “I like you!”
“Did he hurt you?” I ask.
“I’m fine!” Layla slurs her words.
“You’re thirteen. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not supposed to be drinking and changing your clothes and kissing boys who are four years older than you!”
“That’s because Mama and Papi don’t let me do anything! You get to have a boyfriend. Janae gets to have a boyfriend. And me and Kayla are supposed to just sit in the house all day? I didn’t need you to come save me, Zuri!”
I sigh and shake my head. “Look. Did Warren take any pictures of you?”
“Naked pictures of you?”