“You’ve come to hang out? Maybe you can get the boys to stop playing these stupid video games,” Carrie says. She plops down on the couch, opposite Janae. Carrie is kind of pretty in a typical magazine supermodel way; the type of girl these Darcy brothers would like. But my sister got her beat in the curves department. Still, Janae is not supposed to be here on a double date.
“Yeah. About that. Um . . . Janae?” I say, cocking my head to the side, winking, furrowing my brows, anything to let her know without my having to say a word that she has to get the hell up out of here.
“Take a seat, Zuri,” Ainsley says. He’s now sitting on the leather chair with one leg over his knee as if he’s the grown-up chaperoning this whole thing.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Darius walking to the other end of the room, and that’s when I spot the pool table in front of a giant floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. A grand piano is pushed to the corner, and I can’t believe how much I couldn’t tell from the outside how enormous this house is.
“Or do you want a tour, uh, Zuri?” someone asks. It’s Carrie again.
“You live here?” are the first words to come out of my mouth. Clearly she doesn’t, but it’s as if she’s the queen of this place.
She chuckles. “No, but I’ve already gotten a tour. I can show you around if you want. You’ve never been in a house this big before?”
I must’ve blinked a hundred times in one second before landing my eyes on this Carrie. She saw it all over my face and tried to take back what she said.
“I mean, who lives in houses anymore? It’s Brooklyn . . . ,” she says. “You’re, like, in an apartment, right?”
I just stare at her for a long second before saying, “Yeah. And you’re right. I’ve never been in a house this big before, and I think it’s a waste of space. You can fit five families up in here and solve Bushwick’s housing problem in one shot. But . . . like your boy Darius said earlier, y’all don’t have stuff, y’all have things you need like pool tables, baby grand pianos, and giant flat-screen TVs.”
Carrie looks over at Darius, who is smirking, rubbing his chin, and staring at me.
“Touché, Ms. Benitez,” Darius says. “See? I remembered your whole name.”
Now it’s my turn to smile. “I’m not impressed, Darius Darcy. And I’m definitely not trying to impress you.” I cross my arms and put my neck and whole body into those words so they can sting him. Then I turn to my sister. “Janae, you ready?”
Now she’s popping her eyes out at me. She uncurls her legs from beneath her, and Ainsley turns to give her a pleading look. Janae only smiles as she gets up.
“I need help with my essay,” I say, to get her off the hook. I don’t want those boys thinking she’s rude, because she’s far from it. I’ll take the blame for messing up whatever she and Ainsley got going right now, as long as I can stop it.
“I got you, sis,” Janae says.
Ainsley gets up from his chair too. “I’ll walk you two ladies out.” He wraps an arm around Janae’s waist, and she leans into him.
“What are you working on?” Darius falls in line behind me as we walk down the long hallway.
“You heard me. An essay.” I ignore him and follow Ainsley and Janae.
“You’re going to summer school?” Carrie asks. I guess she followed us too.
Clearly they all want me to stay and chat. But I don’t even give her the benefit of an answer to that dumb question.
“Sorry about her,” Darius whispers behind me before we walk down the stairs.
“No need to apologize for your girl,” I say without looking back. But I can feel that he’s just a step behind me.
Darius doesn’t say anything, which lets me know that this Carrie really is his girlfriend. It’s not until we’re back down on the first floor heading toward the front door that I look at Darius. Our eyes meet. I quickly turn away.
As Janae walks out, I catch Ainsley gently taking her hand, then letting it go. Janae smiles, and this whole moment settles in my belly like a piece of boiled batata. I can’t let her come here again. I can’t let this seed of a thing between those two take root, sprout, and become some sort of full-blown love affair. If I do, I’ll lose my sister for the whole summer.
Ainsley says something to me along the lines of goodbye and come again, but I ignore him and brush right past him.
We’re not even on our front stoop when Janae says to me with a giant smile, “He’s taking me out this weekend!”
No, he is not! I think, and roll my eyes hard at my big sister.
“I SAW YOU!” Madrina sings as she sits on her leather armchair and wipes down her unlit seven-day candles with a Florida-water-dampened white cloth. The whole basement smells like that sweet cologne. If the roof of my building is where Janae and I steal quiet moments, then the basement is where I dive deep into my own thoughts and dreams with Madrina and her claims of comunicando con los antepasados. To Madrina, and all her clients, the basement is home to Ochún, the orisha of love and all things beautiful. For them, this is a place of magic, love, and miracles.
These spirits and unseen things, as Madrina calls them, don’t make sense to me. Of course they don’t. I can’t see them. But it’s Madrina’s wisdom that unties the tight knots of my life, so I play along with what she does for a living and try to believe in these spirits.
“You were running across the street in the rain to those boys’ house.” Madrina says this as if she’s a tattle-telling five-year-old, but I know she’s just messing with me.
“I was going to get Janae,” I say, pacing around the basement. After Janae told me she was going out with Ainsley this weekend, I came straight down here for Madrina’s advice.
The smoke from Madrina’s cigars, sage, and candles forms iridescent clouds all around the room. The tables are covered in statues of saints, colorful candles, black dolls in fancy dresses, crystal bowls of candy, bottles of perfume, and the shimmery gold and yellow colors that flavor the whole place. When it’s fully decorated, the basement looks like a giant birthday cake for some pretty girl’s quinceañera. Madrina laughs. No matter how big or small the joke or not-joke, she laughs that same hearty laugh. “So both of you were in that house? Bueno. You two don’t waste no time.”
“Madrina! It’s not like that. I’m trying to keep Janae away from that house. From Ainsley.”
“What’s the big deal, mija? She likes a boy. That’s it. She’s a big girl, you know.”
I shake my head. “They’re arrogant. That’s what’s the big deal. You should see their house, Madrina.”
I stand in front of a small table covered in only yellow and gold things. Yellow is Ochún’s color. I remember asking Madrina when she was trying to teach me this tradition why the color of love isn’t pink, or red. Think of the golden sun, she said. It makes everything on earth fall in love—how the ocean kisses land, how land nestles trees, how swaying trees always whisper sweet nothings into our ears.
“So which one is Ainsley? The cute one, or the cute one?” She laughs and I shake my head.
I sigh big and loud. “Those boys don’t belong here. And they changed everything about this block by renovating that house. Papi says the property values will go up, and the taxes too. Is that true, Madrina? You’ll have to pay more taxes because of that nice house?”
“Zuri, mi amor! Don’t you worry your little head about taxes and property values. You’re seventeen. That’s not your job. Your job is to fall in love!”
“I didn’t come here for love advice!” I say.
“Yes, you did. You want to know that your beloved sister is not falling for a playa.” She winks at me, letting me know that she’s using slang correctly.
“I already know everything I need to know, Madrina.” I unfold my arms and take a seat on the empty chair near her small table.
Madrina has a crystal ball on that table, as well as tarot cards, small bones from god knows what, coins from god knows where, shells, stones, pieces of folded paper, and a small collection of cigars. But that’s all for show. Most times, she just sits there pulling from a plain ol’ cigarette and talking to her clients about any- and everything. She’ll drop hints here and there about who has a crush on them, who they should marry, who they should divorce, or if there’s a side chick or side family in the picture. And she’s always on point. She says that the spirits guide her thoughts, but I think she just has good intuition.