He eases closer to me when I sit down. We’re quiet for a long moment, and I realize I can see the top of my building from here. “Did you ever see . . . ,” I start to ask.
“Yep,” he says. “You and Janae would just sit there and laugh and probably talk about me and Ainsley. . . .”
“No, we weren’t talking about you,” I lie.
“You were trying to throw tiny meatballs at this house.”
“You saw that?” I laugh and cover my mouth.
“I saw you,” he says quietly.
I just stare at him when he says this, and he stares back. Neither of us looks away.
“ZZ. Girl in the hood,” he says.
“Darius Dorky,” I say.
He laughs. “Dorky? I’m dorky?”
“Yes, you are.” I laugh.
I’m fidgeting with my hands again, and he takes one of them.
“Zuri, I’m not going to try to be hard or pretend I’m from the hood. My parents protected us from all that. They raised us how they were raised. I mean, you met my grandmother. She has big dreams for me and Ainsley. I can’t help that, and I can’t change that.” He slips his fingers in between mine, and I let him.
It’s as if I’ve been holding a weapon all this time, ready to defend myself if he said anything wrong, and he just pulled it out of my hand, disarming me.
“I don’t know about that life, Darius. That run-down building over there has been my home since forever. My parents work hard too, and they do not treat people like shit. Nobody on my block does, and if they do, there’s somebody to call them out on it. We’re like family. You treated me and my sisters like shit, and I needed to call you out on it. And I can’t help that or change that.”
“But I wasn’t . . .” He pulls my hand toward him a little bit.
“You judged me too. You treated me and my brother like shit too.” Now he places his other hand over mine.
“No, I wasn’t . . .”
“Okay. Fine,” I say.
“Can we start over?” he asks. Then he brings my hand to his lips and kisses it.
My insides turn warm, and there’s nothing left to do but close my eyes and let my whole self melt in his hands, against his lips. “No, we cannot,” I whisper. “We’re not gonna just throw away the past as if it meant nothing. See? That’s what happens to whole neighborhoods. We built something, it was messy, but we’re not gonna throw it away.”
“Touché. I like that analogy.” He squeezes my hand a little.
“I wasn’t trying to impress you,” I say.
“Well, I’ve been impressed. From day one.” He turns his whole body to me now, still with my hand in his.
I slowly pull my hand away from his.
“But I live in your neighborhood. I haven’t thrown anything or anyone away.”
I close my eyes for a moment and inhale. “Do you see that rent is going up all over the place and people are not getting paid more? Schools are shitty because teachers think we’re a lost cause. I’m trying to get into college, but I need financial aid and scholarships ’cause I have three more sisters who want to go to college too, and my parents have always been broke. That’s why I had a wall up with you. You were moving into my hood from what seemed like a whole different world.”
We’re both quiet for a long minute before he says, “I understand. But it’s not like I have it easy, either.”
“Darius, if my family had your kind of money and this kind of house, my whole life would’ve been different.”
After what feels like forever, he says, “I never told you this, but we left our old apartment on the Upper East Side because the neighbors had concerns about me and Ainsley. We had lived there since we were toddlers. Everybody thought we were cute when we were in the third grade. But once we got taller and got some bass in our voices, they decided that they didn’t recognize us anymore. So we decided to move. But I dunno, sometimes I still feel like I don’t belong in Bushwick, either. I don’t fit in anywhere.”
“But I don’t want you to, Darius. I just want you to be you and me to be me.” I wrap my fingers through his.
He smiles, just a little bit. “If you say so,” he says.
“What do we do now, then?” I ask.
“I have an idea,” he says. He’s closer to me now. Our legs are touching.
And finally he leans in and kisses me. He eases his fingers across my cheek, up around my neck, toward the back of my head, and through the tight coils of my hair. He cradles my head in his hand as he kisses me deep, deep. I am honey again.
It all feels like the end of a game that we didn’t even know we were playing. And we’ve both had the ball stolen and thrown back, played defense and offense. And from the way he kisses me—easing his bruised hand around my body and pulling me in close, almost swallowing me with his whole self—I know that I’ve won this game. And he’s won too.
I almost fall asleep in Darius’s arms, on this roof, across the street from my own building. The nearby sirens will put me into an even a deeper sleep if I let them, but it’s the flashing lights behind my closed eyelids that make me pull away from Darius’s warmth and slow-beating heart.
He’s awake too, squinting. “I think there’s an ambulance in front of your building,” he says.
“Oh, shit!” I say, and I’m on my feet and ready to rush down from the roof. But he quickly gets in front of me to open the door.
“Darius? Is that you?” his mother calls out from a nearby room when we reach the second floor.
“Yeah, Mom,” he says. “Was just hanging out on the roof for a bit. Going to bed.”
His mother says good night, and we tiptoe back down to the basement, where Layla is just starting to toss about.
“Layla, we gotta go,” I say, nudging her.
She gets up groggy and confused, but Darius helps us up the stairs and out the door. We have to decide in a split second whether or not he’ll walk me across the street.
“I’m coming with you,” he says.
I nod and swallow hard.
Just as we come around his house, I spot Mama and Papi in our open doorway as two EMT workers bring a stretcher down the front stoop. There’s a body on that stretcher. I look at Mama and Papi, and it takes me a second to make sure that they’re both standing there and not on that stretcher.
My heart sinks, and I’m frozen where I stand, with Layla leaning her head on my shoulder.
“What’s going on?” she asks, slowly pulling away from me. Then it hits her. “Oh my god, no!”
She rushes across the street, and it takes me a while to follow her, because my legs feel like tree trunks. I can’t move them.
Marisol, Kayla, and Janae come out of the building. Janae is the first to spot me across the street, and she motions for me to hurry up.
I once asked Madrina how she knows so much about the strangers who come down to the basement for her love consultations. She told me that thoughts and feelings are vibrations. They move the air like a light breeze, and if I pay close enough attention, I can feel those thoughts in my own body. So even with the white sheet covering her whole body and her face, I already know. And I’m the first to fall to my knees and start crying.
Never in my life have I wanted to disappear into thin air as I do now. But not because Papi’s eyes have disappointment written all over them. Not because Mama’s eyes are red and teary and she doesn’t even look at me or Darius. Not because my sisters try to console me and even Janae comes down to the ground with me and hugs me tight.
I was on the roof with Darius when Madrina’s spirit left the world. Our bodies were glued together and I was happy for a little while, but I didn’t know that this deep sadness was waiting for me like an open door.
And then I think that it was maybe Madrina, priestess of the love goddess Ochún, who made it so. She gave me that little bit of happiness.
Elegy for Paola Esperanza Negrón
¡Ay Madrina! ¡Mi madrina!
¡Ay Madrina! ¡Mi madrina!