“Como Beyoncé y Jennifer Lopez,” Janae adds.
“My baby,” Mama says, smiling and cocking her head to the side. “She spends one year at college and she thinks she knows everything.”
Janae’s face drops, and I can tell that stung her a bit. My big sister is carrying the whole intellectual weight of the family now that she’s the first one to go to a four-year college.
Mama had Janae while she was a teenager herself and only went for a couple of semesters before dropping out when she got pregnant with me. Papi did two years at a community college and is proud of his associate’s degree. They got married at a very, very young age. And thank los espíritus, as Madrina would say, that they at least liked each other. They more than liked each other, though. They are actually still in love.
I know this because as we’re all yapping in the living room, Papi washes the dishes, cleans the kitchen, and comes back to offer Mama a glass of water while he takes her empty plate. Some of the other men on the block—Bobbito, Wayne, and Hernando—have always teased him for being such a lover boy. I’ve seen him do little things like this all my life. And I know in my heart of hearts that their kind of love is very rare.
While Madrina and Mama are still running their mouths, I nod at Janae. She gets up to wash her dish, and when she’s done, she slips out the door. I keep my eye on the twins because they’ll be the first to notice. But they’re on their phones now, probably going through their endless streams of selfies. I wait a couple of minutes before I tiptoe across the small living room and quietly shut the door behind me.
Janae is in the hallway waiting for me. We grin at each other.
“Well, hello, ladies,” someone says from the second floor, and we both jump.
We look down over the banister to see Colin’s big ol’ head coming up the last flight of stairs. Janae and I sigh and roll our eyes at the same time.
“And may I add, you look hella fine, Janae,” Colin says when he gets to our door.
“Oh, shut up, Colin,” I say.
But he ignores me and goes straight for my sister. He takes her hand and kisses it, pretending to be a gentleman and not the thirsty player that he is.
We’ve known Colin all our lives because he’s Madrina’s nephew. And since Madrina doesn’t have any children, she sort of adopted Colin as her own—she’s even said that Colin is going to inherit the building. Every summer he’d spend weeks with her, with us. When we were little, Colin was like the big brother we never had. He turned the rope for us when we needed an even game of double Dutch, he pretended to be whatever we wanted him to be—a monster, a chupacabra, a Death Eater—so he could chase us around Maria Hernandez Park. But three summers ago, he turned eighteen, moved in with Madrina, and started acting funny around us—with an almost full beard, and a much deeper voice. He stopped playing games with us, and one day he approached Janae with a letter professing his undying love for her. Since then, it’s never been the same.
“Welcome back, Janae,” he says, all smooth and looking up at her with puppy-dog eyes.
Janae pulls her hand away and shakes her head. “Hurry up before the food’s all gone.”
When he opens the apartment door, the first thing Madrina says is, “Colin, mi sobrino! Did you see your competition that just moved in across the street?”
The door slams shut behind him, and finally Janae and I have a quiet moment to laugh at all the ridiculousness that is our home, our family, our lives.
A NARROW DOOR at the end of the hallway opens up to a ladder that leads to the roof. This is our happy place, way above it all. It’s also our secret place, because Papi forbids us to go up there for obvious reasons: we might fall to our deaths. So even though he padlocked that door a few years ago, we managed to find a way to unlock it and escape out onto the clouds.
If Madrina’s basement is where the tamboras, los espíritus, and old ancestral memories live, then the roof is where wind chimes, dreams, and possibilities float with the stars, where Janae and I share our secrets and plan to travel all over the world, Haiti and the Dominican Republic being our first stop.
Janae always has a pin in her hair, and it only takes her a second to crack open the lock. We climb the ladder, open the door, and step out into the warm early evening air.
Late June in Brooklyn is like the very beginning of a party—when the music is really good, but you know that it’s about to get way better, so you just do a little two-step before the real turn-up starts. It’s still light outside at eight o’clock in the evening, and from up here on the roof, we can watch the comings and goings of everybody on Bushwick and Jefferson Avenues.
And just like from our bedroom window, we can’t avoid the fancy mini-mansion across the street. All my life, I’ve stared at a gaping hole in the roof, the boarded-up windows, the slow, creeping forest that was starting to suffocate that house. Once, my sisters and I took bets that a tree would grow right in the middle of the floor and it would keep growing and take the house with it. And then we could claim it as our very own tree house—our home in the sky.
But no. It’s a mini-mansion now. The gaping hole is fixed, the forest around it has been cut down into a perfect patch of too-green-for-the-hood lawn, and the new windows are so tall and wide that we can see right into the top and bottom floors of the house, with its shiny hardwood floors, white walls, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, art that looks like it was made by a kindergartener, and furniture that looks like it belongs in a doctor’s office.
For weeks, there were so many people coming in and out of that house painting, moving furniture, and decorating that we thought it was going to be a museum or, as Janae suggested when I texted her a picture, a bed-and-breakfast.
“I can’t believe they had other people decorate their house,” I say while stepping closer to the edge of the roof. “Like, they have enough money to pay someone else’s salary for something they could’ve done themselves.”
Janae gently pulls me away from the edge. “I’m just wondering why they’d want to move here. I mean, they could’ve done that upstate or something. When I take the bus up to school, you should see all these big houses on top of hills, Z.”
“Really? Did you meet any friends who live in those houses? Were they . . . black?” I ask sarcastically.
“You do know there are black people who have money out there in the world, Z, right?”
“Of course there are. But why come into the hood? I thought everybody was trying to kick us out.”
Janae stands beside me. Our shoulders touch, so I put my arm around her and pull her in. She puts her arm around my waist and leans her head on my shoulder. “Maybe we can ask them,” she says, almost whispering.
“Ainsley and Darius. They look good, Z.”
“I don’t think so, Nae,” I say. “They live too close. It’ll be awkward.”
Just as I say this, we spot Ainsley in one of the windows. He’s running his fingers through his thick fro, which, even I have to admit, makes him look really, really good. Janae and I glance at each other, and she smirks. Ainsley doesn’t look up. But we step back so he can’t see us, anyway.
There’s a wide blue tarp hidden beneath an old wooden slat on the roof. Janae and I pull it out and lay it across the sun-warmed tar, away from the edge of the building where only two feet of brick and concrete keep us from open sky. I sit cross-legged on the tarp while Janae pulls her knees up to her chest.
“How come rich people don’t like curtains?” I ask no one in particular.
“They’re showing off,” Janae says, lifting her head from my shoulder.
“You think they’re that rich?”
“No. They probably got a good deal on that house.”
“They definitely got a good deal on that house. So they’re just hood rich.”
“They’re more than just hood rich, Z. But anyway, Ainsley was nice,” Janae says as she spreads her legs out in front of her.
“Janae . . . ,” I warn. “Sistas before mistas!” I ease closer to her and put my head on her shoulder now. After a long minute of taking in the warm air and sounds on our block, I ask, “Does it feel good to finally be home?”