“I need to see some design ideas for when I buy my own run-down house in Bushwick and renovate it,” she says in a dreamy, la-la-land voice.
“That’s not gonna happen, Janae, because people like them don’t wanna be around people like us,” I say out loud. “Especially Darius.”
“Zuri, you’re being ridiculous” she says, and sashays her round behind and short summer dress across the street.
“It’s about to rain, Janae!” I shout behind her.
“Good!” Janae says, without looking back.
I try to turn my attention to my essay. I try to not care. I force myself to write, and like always, broken words spill out. A rough, jagged poem, like the steps on this stoop, like the sidewalk in front of this building. Like everything around me right now.
Love is like my sister, Janae. She is springtime tulips
and pastel colors. She is sun rays beaming
through windows where dust particles dance and kiss
in the light. She is tender kissing scenes on TV,
and then afterward practicing on soft pillows
at night. She is the warm space between Mama and Papi
while they sleep and the bills are paid and the fridge is full.
She is made of honey and sugar and summer fruits
oozing gooey sweetness and catching
bees and flies. Buzzing. Annoying. Like the ones
in that house across the street.
Dark clouds over Bushwick have a kind of magic to the them. At least that’s what Madrina says. Clouds are never just clouds in my hood. So when the sun takes cover and the thunder rolls, I know something’s about to go down.
It starts drizzling, and in seconds, it pours. The house across the street tugs at me. Maybe my sister is wishing that I was with her to see the stainless steel appliances and the doctor’s office furniture. Or maybe she can’t stand being in there another second and she doesn’t want to be rude, so my coming over will be her saving grace.
My laptop is getting wet, so I tuck it beneath my shirt, as soon as I step out onto the sidewalk.
Neighbors are running toward their buildings, and puddles are starting to pool along the edges of the sidewalk. I don’t bother covering my head. By the time I reach the house’s gate, my hair is wet, limp, and heavy against my forehead and cheeks.
Those doors are even nicer up close, but I still can’t stand them because they’re like gates to a whole other world. There isn’t a doorbell, but there’s an intercom with a small screen. I press the button, and a warped black-and-white version of myself appears on the screen. I turn and look to see where the camera is located, but it’s well hidden. Of course these people would have a security camera at their front door, and probably an expensive alarm system too. Not even Hernando has his bodega on lockdown like this.
The door swings open and I freeze where I’m standing, wet and cold, with the cool laptop pressed against the bare skin underneath my shirt. It’s Darius who’s opened the door. I don’t dare look at his face. I look past him and into that sterile house.
“I came for my sister,” I say.
“Good. You can have her,” Darius says.
This time, I definitely have to look him dead in the eye. “Seriously?”
“Yes. Seriously,” he says, looking back at me.
He opens the door even wider, but I don’t come in. He just stands there looking at me until, finally, he extends his hand as if reluctantly welcoming me to his humble abode.
I step right into that squeaky-clean living room with my wet sneakers. I can feel his eyes on me, and when I glance over, he’s staring down at the floor. Rainwater is dripping from my clothes and onto the shiny wood. I don’t care. I’m sure they’re paying somebody to mop it up.
“Where is she?” I ask.
“Where do you think?” he says with a half smile.
“Janae!” I call out nice and loud, and my voice echoes throughout the whole house. The ceilings in the living room are high, there’s a staircase leading up to even nicer rooms, I’m sure, and at the far end of the floor is the kitchen, with tall and wide windows facing what used to be a weed-infested forest. Fancy gold and bronze designs line the edges of the walls and ceilings, and this mini-mansion looks like it was built for princes and princesses. “Janae!” I call out again.
“Do you really have to yell out like that?” Darius says, and walks over to a small box against a wall in the living room and presses a button. “Ainsley. Her sister’s here.”
“‘Her sister’s here?’” I repeat. “I do have a name, you know. And so does my sister.”
“Zuri,” he says, nodding at me. “And Janae.” He extends his arm toward the stairs as if to say “after you.” But he doesn’t actually say a word.
“Oh, you’ve been paying attention,” I say, flashing a fake smile.
I pull the laptop from beneath my shirt, and he quickly takes it from me, setting it down on a small empty table near the stairs. I make a mental note to not forget it when I leave. I didn’t plan on going this deep inside their house.
When we reach the top of the stairs, I hear voices, giggling and talking. I hear Janae. But my eyes are surveying every single corner of this house. There are no dust bunnies, no clutter, no papers, clothes, or junk. Nothing, as if no one lives here. It’s a straight-up museum.
“Where’s all your stuff?” I ask as Darius leads me down a long hallway lined with closed doors.
“Stuff? We don’t have stuff. We have the things we need,” he says.
“You need all this space?”
“Space is much more valuable than . . . stuff.”
“Well, what’s the point of having all this space if you don’t have stuff to fill it with?”
He stops, turns to me, and cocks his head to side. “Have you ever been in a completely empty room, just sitting there to let your thoughts wander?”
I cock my head to the side too, and think of something smart to say, or to ask. Anything besides a simple no, which would be an honest answer, but he doesn’t deserve an honest answer from me. “What’s the point of doing that?” I ask instead. And as soon as the words fall out of my mouth, I want to scoop them back up and stuff them back in.
He sighs, rolls his eyes, and keeps walking down the hall.
He doesn’t get to do that. He doesn’t get to think that my question is a stupid one. He doesn’t get to ask me about sitting in an empty room when that’s probably what I want most in this world right now—an empty room without sisters and parents and stuff.
“That was a real dumb question, you know,” I say, trying to take back that moment because I have to have the last word.
But he doesn’t answer me, and we reach a wide-open room filled with L-shaped couches and giant pillows. I should’ve noticed the people first, but a huge flat-screen TV catches my eye. It takes up a whole wall. This room might as well be a straight-up movie theater, as big as that screen is. Ainsley is playing some video game, and the volume is turned down. There’s soft music I don’t recognize playing in the background, above us, below us. I can’t tell, because the smooth sound seems to come from everywhere. Then I spot Janae in a corner of the couch with her sandals off, her feet curled under her, and looking way too comfortable.
I pop my eyes out at her to let her know that this whole situation is not okay, but she’s smiling from here to Syracuse. She’s way too happy to be up in this house with some rich boy she just met. Janae is past thirsty at this point, she’s the Sahara Desert.
“Hi, you must be . . .”
I almost jump out of my skin because the girl seems to come from out of nowhere. I’m so fixated on Janae and that TV and the couch and that music and the room that I don’t even notice a light-skinned, straight-haired girl getting all up in my face to hold out her hand.
I only take the tips of her fingers. “Zuri,” I say, still distracted.
“Carrie. I go to school with Darius,” she says.
I glance at Darius without even looking at this girl Carrie, and I immediately know that this little exchange is code for “Don’t take my boyfriend.”
I want to tell her that nobody’s checking for her bougie man; instead I just reply, “Oh, that must be so nice for you.”