“They’re not really trying to get to know us, Nae. Yeah, they fixed up that house, and soon they’ll want to fix up our whole block. I don’t think they’re feeling this block party.”
“Oh, yeah? Look,” she says, pointing with her chin.
Ainsley has joined the group of kids dancing with the deejay. He’s wearing a big ol’ smile.
Janae starts dancing along. “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” she sings to the music, acting just as corny as Ainsley.
Charlise doesn’t join them, thank goodness. She just watches Ainsley and giggles.
Ainsley turns to us, still dancing, and somehow, he and Janae manage to dance with each other while he’s a few feet away and she’s still on the stoop. Ainsley calls her over. Janae shakes her head and calls him over instead. He and my sister are acting like complete cornballs.
“No, Janae. Please don’t,” I mutter under my breath.
But Ainsley doesn’t move, and in no time, Layla makes her way over to him and starts dancing.
“Uh-uh. No she didn’t!” Janae says.
“Your little sister don’t waste no time,” says Charlise.
The music changes to something different, with a faster beat, and instead of stepping away from Ainsley, Layla grabs Kayla and they surround him.
“Oh, no,” I say. “Where is Papi when we need him?”
“They’re just having fun,” Charlise says.
Ainsley goes along with the whole thing as if he’s been accosted by thirteen-year-olds before. He knows all the dance moves, even though he’s a little off beat, and this makes him look kind of cute. I’m mad at myself for even thinking that.
I spot Darius watching them too. He’s not bopping his head, smiling, or even looking at all the kids around him. He just stands there on the sidewalk, with his arms crossed, acting like he’s too good for all this.
“That’s the younger brother, over there in the white shirt. Darius,” I say to Charlise. “I can’t stand him.”
“Didn’t he just move here?” she says.
“Yeah, but look at him!”
“I see what you mean. He has no swag whatsoever. Neither of them do. But at least that Ainsley is trying. Come on! Introduce me!”
Then, suddenly, Layla walks over and starts dancing with Darius. I can see from all the way over here that his nose is flared, his lips are turned up, and his brows are furrowed, as if my little sister disgusts him. Layla doesn’t notice a thing.
“Do you see his face, Charlise? That whole family might as well be white.” I start to get up from the stoop.
“Z! Leave them alone. They’re just having fun!”
I ignore Charlise and quickly walk down the stoop, stomp through the crowd of dancing kids, and head straight for Layla. I yank her arm and pull her aside.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Zuri?” Layla shouts.
“I’m sorry,” I say to Darius, before turning to my sister. “You need to slow down. He don’t want you all up on him like that.”
“We’re just dancing,” she says, rubbing her arm.
“No, you’re just dancing, while he’s over here looking at you like you’re a pile of crap.”
“Excuse me?” Darius says, eyebrows raised.
“You’re excused,” I say, side-eyeing him.
In a huff, Layla pulls away from me and heads back to her friends. But I’m not done with this boy, so I give him a death stare. Darius cocks his head back and looks at me as if I’m the one who did something wrong.
“I’m sorry. Who do you think you’re talking to?” he asks.
“I’m talking to you, Darius Darcy! I saw how you were looking at my sister.”
“She came up to me.” His voice is deeper than I remember, and he has a little bit of an accent I can’t place. It’s definitely not Bushwickese or anything close to a Brooklyn twang. “And don’t talk to me that way. I’m not one of your boys from the hood.”
I throw my hands up and look every which way to see if anyone else is hearing this.
“Oh, trust me.” I laugh. “I know for damn sure you’re not one of my boys. And it doesn’t matter if she’s my sister or not. You’ve met her! If you would’ve looked at us, you would’ve known that. But I guess money doesn’t buy manners, right?”
He doesn’t have an answer for that question, of course. His jawline moves from side to side, and he looks over me, around me, and maybe even through me. Finally he says, “Well, I know when I’m not welcome,” and then he turns and walks back into his mini-mansion.
I stare at Darius’s back, my fingernails digging into my palms. I take a deep breath to release negative energy, like Madrina taught me to do. “Be like the river and go with the flow,” she says. The block party is only getting started, and I can’t let Darius Darcy and his stank attitude kill my vibe. I breathe out.
While I wasn’t looking, Janae went over to dance with Ainsley. She’s in a dreamy haze as he pulls her close. It’s all so corny, and Janae is falling for it. I cross my arms and narrow my eyes.
If Janae is the sticky sweetness keeping us sisters together, then I’m the hard candy shell, the protector. If anyone wants to get to the Benitez sisters, they’ll have to crack open my heart first.
I’M SITTING ON the front stoop, and the words to this college application essay aren’t coming at all, or maybe they’re floating around my head and I just need to look up and grab each one.
Change. Money. College. Job. Space. Family. Home.
If I listen closely enough, I can hear Bushwick’s volume turning down real slowly. Getting quiet. My sisters don’t believe me when I tell them that even though it’s still noisy, our neighborhood is getting quieter and quieter every summer, as if the tiny musical sounds that fill up my hood are popping like bubbles, one by one, and disappearing into empty silence. Anybody who’s been in Bushwick long enough is like a musician, and when they leave, we lose a sound.
Nothing pours out of me. Nothing escapes through my fingers. I sigh and slam my laptop shut just as the front door squeaks open and out comes Janae, wearing strappy sandals and newly shaven, oiled legs. I don’t even have to look at her face to know that she’s got on her signature summer-shimmery-glow makeup and lip gloss.
“What you all dressed up for?” I ask.
“I’m not dressed up,” she says, playing dumb.
I only glance over at her to know that I was right. Janae doesn’t have anything planned for the rest of the summer—no job, no internship, so her butt isn’t going anywhere on a Monday afternoon in July. But her phone keeps buzzing, and she’s texting as if the world is about to end. Janae doesn’t have a lot of friends, either. Or rather, the two who she has are not in this neighborhood anymore, and her college friends are off traveling for the summer.
She glances across the street, and I let out a long, deep sigh.
“What?” she asks.
“You tell me what.”
“Fine. He invited me over.”
I clutch my laptop and stare at those wide double doors. I hate those doors. “Janae, I haven’t seen you in months. Can we do something? Take the bus downtown? The movies? The bookstore? Anything?”
“Yeah, of course. We got the whole summer, Z,” she says, smiling and staring at the house across the street.
“You’re going over there now?”
“Uh, yeah.” She gets up and smooths down the back of her sundress. “I wanna see what it looks like on the inside. To think, they turned that place around in, what, a few months?”
“Almost a year. I saw the whole thing. Every single day. I can imagine what it looks like on the inside. I’ll just draw you a picture if you want.”
She ignores me and steps down from the stoop.
“Papi’s not gonna like this, Nae,” I say as a last resort to keep her from ruining her life. My life. Our lives. Our family gets along with every single person on this block, which makes block parties run smoothly; which makes walking home when it’s dark real safe; which makes walking to the bodega in a night scarf and pajama pants not a big deal. The Darcys moving in changes all that.