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This Side of Home, "Summer" Chapters 1-16

Author: Renée Watson


Chapter 1


The season is changing.

Portland’s rain is stubborn. It shares the sky with summer’s sun, refusing to leave, refusing to let the flowers breathe. But summer is determined. Her sun pushes through the cracks of the clouds, making room for her light.

By July , the sun will win. And in August we will ask her to go easy on us. We will sweat and suck Popsicles, sleep under fans, and swear this is the hottest summer ever. Even though we said that last year.

But now we are going back and forth, umbrella up, umbrella down, jacket on, jacket off. Some days there is sunshine and rain at the same exact moment.

The season is changing.

And every time the season changes from spring to summer adults start saying, “Be careful out there,” because they know that summer can bring shootings and chaos with her. And when violence comes no one says, “This isn’t supposed to happen here,” as if this is a place where we should be accustomed to tragedy.

Every summer the media come to my neighborhood, and every fall they come to my school. Never for good.

But there is something good to see here.

And not just all the new pretty houses and shops that line Jackson Avenue now. There is something good here. And not just because more white families have moved to this side of town.

There’s always been something good here. People just have to open their minds to see it.

Chapter 2

This is the way it is.

Nikki and I are identical twins, and our best friend is Essence. Mom says it’s like she has triplets the way the three of us do everything together, the way we’d do anything for one another. And she’s right. Essence is more like a sister than a friend, so when she stops at my locker after school and whispers to me, “We’re moving,” I get a sick feeling in my stomach.

“The landlord is selling the house,” she says. Casual. Like what she’s saying is no big deal. Like she hasn’t lived directly across the street from me and Nikki our whole lives. Like we never sat on her porch swing on summer nights swinging away to imaginary places. Like she never tiptoes across the asphalt in the middle of the night to come to my house so she can escape her drunk mother.

“He said he’s tired of renting ,” Essence says. This time not as casual as before, as if this is the first time she’s realized that just because her posters have been hanging on her bedroom wall all these years doesn’t mean those walls belong to her.

She owns nothing. Not even those hand-me-down blues records singing in her eyes.

“Where will you go?” I ask.

“Gresham probably, or maybe North Portland. We don’t know yet.”

Both places are far— at least forty-five minutes away by bus. Too far for best friends who’ve had to take only ten steps to get to each other their entire lives.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Essence says. This is her way of telling me she is about to cry, and Essence hates to cry.

I look away, pretend I’m okay.

Chapter 3

Getting bad news is not the way I wanted to start off my summer vacation.

It’s the last day of our junior year of high school. We are officially seniors. Next year, when I come back, I’ll be student body president. The results were posted this morning. I have a lot of ideas about what I want to see change at Richmond, but for now, all I am thinking about is summer vacation and enjoying every minute of it with Essence. We wait at my locker for Nikki and the boys to show up.




Devin, Ronnie, and Malachi are in my dad’s mentorship program . In the fifth grade when we became friends, we had no idea the boys would end up the finest guys in our high school. Once they get to my locker, Essence is all smiles because now her arms are wrapped around Malachi. Essence and Malachi have been together since freshman year. They are the only couple at Richmond High who might actually know what love is. They love like spring.

Ronnie takes Nikki’s hand. Their fingersintertwine like knitted yarn . Ronnie is the first boy Nikki kissed, the only boy she ever cried over after a breakup, ever got back together with and loved again.

I walk next to Devin. No hand-holding or long embrace. He kisses me on my cheek, delicately, as if my face is made of hibiscus petals. I am not used to the way his lips feel against my skin. We have always had love for each other . A brother-sister friendship. But now we have more.

The six of us leave Richmond High and head home. We walk the same way every day down Jackson Avenue, making stops at one another’s blocks like a city bus. Jackson Avenue looks like most of the streets in Portland: wide sidewalks with trees that hover and shade the whole block. Branches reaching out to hug you; plump houses with welcoming porches.

Every time we walk down this street, Essence says, “This is my street.” Because Jackson is her last name. She looks at me. “You guys don’t believe me, but I’m telling you, this whole street was named after my great-grandfather.”

Essence has all kinds of stories about her family history. I know she makes them up, but it doesn’t bother me. Sometimes you have to rewrite your own history.

Malachi comes to her defense. He says to me, “Look, you and Nikki aren’t the only ones who have famous names.” He laughs.

The story goes like this: Mom and Dad, who are both community activists, wanted us to have names that represent creativity and strength. Mom always tells us how the agreement was that Dad could choose our names if we were girls and she would choose if we were boys . If we were boys, we would have been named Medgar and Martin. But once they found out we were girls Dad decided to give us the names of our mom’s favorite poets, Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni.

Nikki hits Malachi lightly on his shoulder. “Don’t be jealous,” she says.

Devin jumps in. “Malachi has a biblical name. That fits as famous, right?”

Ronnie shakes his head. “Uh, no. I mean, who remembers what Malachi did in the Bible? No one ever mentions him.”

We all laugh.

As we walk down Jackson Avenue, I take in all the newness, all the change. I turn to Devin and say , “Remember that house?” I point to the pale-yellow bungalow that takes up the entire corner with its wraparound porch. It no longer has its wobbling steps, chipped paint. “I will never forget that day!”

“Don’t remind me,” Devin says, even though the memory brings a smile to his face. We retell the story as if we don’t already know. Devin says, “That dog came out of nowhere! Just came right up to the fence growling like crazy.”

I laugh. “Only I didn’t know it stopped at the gate . I swear, I thought it jumped over and was chasing us.”

“You took off running, Maya! Ran so fast, I could barely catch you.”

And this is a big deal because Devin is an athlete and I have never been.

Then we remind each other how Ms. Thelma sat on her porch pretending to mind her business, when really she was eavesdropping and watching us to see what we were doing so she could tell our parents if we were misbehaving.

“It’s so strange to see her house as a coffee shop,” he says. And there is no more laughter in his voice.

For the past four years, there has been constant construction on just about every block in my neighborhood. They’ve painted and planted and made beauty out of decaying dreams. Block after block, strangers kept coming to Jackson Avenue, kept coming and changing and remaking and adding on to and taking away from.

About a year ago Ms. Thelma’s old house became Daily Blend: Comfy. Cozy. Coffee. I wonder if those laptop-typing, free– wi-fi– using coffee drinkers know that Ms. Thelma’s grandson died in that house. That a stray bullet found its home in his chest while he lay sleeping on the couch. He was only eight and only spending the night with his grandma while his parents were away to celebrate their anniversary. Wonder if they know that she had her husband’s eightieth birthday celebration right there in the backyard; wonder if they know the soil used to grow Ms. Thelma’s herbs and flowers and that her house always smelled good because her kitchen was full of basil, or mint, or something else fresh from her garden.

After Ms. Thelma’s husband died, she moved to Seattle to live with her son, who never came to visit enough, she always said. Mom keeps in touch with her, mostly through holiday cards and phone calls on birthdays.

I wonder what Ms. Thelma would think of all these people being in her house. Wonder if she had any idea that in just four years our neighborhood would be a whole new world. And I wonder what will be different in the next four years.

Mom keeps telling me that life is only about change. Just last night she looked at me and Nikki and said, “I can’t believe my little girls are all grown up now.”

Nikki and I just sighed. We hate when she gets all sentimental.

“You’ve grown up, got your own identity and styles now,” Mom said.

And this is true.

When we were kids, we spent our childhood looking just like each other, ponytails all over our heads, matching outfits with our names written on the tags so we would know what was mine, what was hers.

We have seen our reflections in each other our entire lives.

But then, freshman year, no more matching outfits. Nikki’s style is made up of mismatched findings at secondhand stores and garments from the too-small-to-wear-anymore section of Mom’s closet.

Sophomore year she started experimenting with color on her eyelids, lips, fingernails.

I stayed plain faced. Modest in everything except attitude, Nikki says.

Junior year, Nikki’s hair had a personality all its own. Pressed straight most days, but sometimes she let it be. Natural waves swimming all over her head. My long, black strands twist like licorice and hang down my back, always braided.

All these adjustments to our outsides.

Reversible if we want to go back, be the same again. It’s the changes on the inside that I’m worried about. I keep telling Mom that it feels like Nikki and I are growing apart.

She says, “There are going to be a lot of things that start changing now that you’re older. You’re growing up, that’s all.”

Maybe she is right.

Part of me is excited, but it makes me nervous, too. There are some things I like just the way they are.

Chapter 4

Essence’s mom is a cracked vase. A woman who used to hold beauty.

I’ve seen pictures of Ms. Jackson and Mom when they were in high school. Mom has told me the story of how they met, of how they’d stay after school to watch the football team practice. Ms. Jackson was watching a guy named Reggie . Mom had her eyes on Dad. Mom never tells the part about how Reggie left Ms. Jackson, how when he came to the hospital two days after Essence was born he told Ms. Jackson, “This baby don’t look like me,” and walked out.

But Ms. Jackson tells the story all the time. Especially when she’s drunk. Tonight she is pacing their living room with an empty bottle in her hand that she tries to drink from. “Got to move out of my house ’cause your trifling, no-good daddy ain’t paid no child support.” She stumbles over half-packed boxes, almost trips, and then yells at Essence. “Didn’t I tell you to get this living room packed up? You think this stuff is going to pack itself?”

Essence finishes wrapping the plates and glasses in bubble wrap. She places them in a box, then walks over to a closet in the hallway and pulls out a dusty box that’s falling apart and bursting at the seams. It has a missing flap, so it can’t close properly. Essence reaches in and pulls out a stack of magazines. They are small, almost the size of thin books. “What do you want me to do with your Jet magazines?”

“If I got to tell you what to do, why you helping?” Ms. Jackson says. She snatches the magazines from Essence. They slip out of her hands and scatter on the floor.

I bend down and start picking them up.

“I ain’t asked you to do nothing!” Ms. Jackson kneels down and picks up the magazines, cradling them in her arms in a way a mother holds her child, in a way I don’t think she ever held Essence.

“Ms. Jackson, I was— I was just trying to help,” I say. “Sorry.”

“I don’t want your sorry. And what I tell you about calling me Ms. Jackson?” she says. “I done told you my name is Darlene.”

Mom says calling adults by their first name is disrespectful. “Sorry, Ms. Darlene,” I say.

She stands up, barely able to walk straight. She continues her rant, talking to me even though she isn’t looking at me. She paces the living room, still nurturing her magazines. There are so many they barely fit in her arms. “Coming over here acting all siddity. You can leave and go tell your momma everything you seen here. I know that’s what you gonna do. Comin’ over here like a spy or somethin’—”

“Mom!” Essence says.

“You shut up and help me pack. Didn’t I ask you to help me?”

Essence can’t or won’t look at me. I’m not sure which. She always gets this look when Ms. Jackson relapses. As if it’s her fault, like she should be able to keep her mother sober. “I can’t wait till I graduate so I can get away from you,” Essence says.

I think Ms. Jackson might throw the magazines down and slap Essence, but instead she just yells back. “And where you think you gonna go? You hang with Maya and Nikki, but you ain’t smart like them— and you don’t have Mr. I-Have-a -Dream Thomas Younger as a father to pay for college.”

When Ms. Jackson is drunk she calls Dad all kinds of names. Sometimes, Mr. Thomas-Younger-Our-Next-President, or Mr. Make-the-World-a-Better-Place. I don’t want to say what she calls Mom.

“I’m getting away from you,” Essence says. “And I’ll work my way through college if I have to. I can do hair.” She holds a handful of her own braids in her hands as proof.

Ms. Jackson rolls her eyes. “You ain’t gettin’ into college. Not with that Richmond High education. That school ain’t nothing. Not like it was when I went there. Back then we had good teachers—”

“Well, you can’t tell that by looking at you!”

I wish Essence hadn’t said that.

“What did you say?” Ms. Jackson asks.

I look at Essence. Hard. I shake my head.

When Essence opens her mouth, I am afraid of what might come out. She sighs and says, “Nothing, Mom. Nothing.” Essence walks over to her mother. “I’m done arguing with you. Just give me the magazines so I can repack them,” she says.

“I’ll take care of these. You pack up that stuff.” Ms. Jackson points to a bookcase that holds family pictures and a framed handprint that Essence gave her for a Mother’s Day gift. We were in the third grade, and our teacher had each of us dip our hands in our favorite color of paint and make prints.

Essence walks over to the bookcase with an empty box in hand. She dumps the picture frames in the box.

Ms. Jackson neatly packs her magazines. One by one she puts them on top of each other. “These are classics. Might be worth something one day,” she says. Her voice is calm now, and I don’t think she’s talking to us. Or maybe she is but it doesn’t matter to her if we are listening. “Do they even make Jet magazine anymore ?” she asks. “This one here has Michael Jackson on the cover. This was back in his normal days. Back when everything was—” Ms. Jackson is still for a moment, just looking at a young Michael Jackson. She touches his face before she puts it in the box, then takes another one. “And this one— Luther. I can’t throw out Luther Vandross.”

Ms. Jackson talks about each magazine as she puts them in their new home. She has her own personal black history time capsule. She walks over to the sofa, dragging the box with her, and sits next to me. For each magazine, she has a story.

Essence lets out a loud sigh of boredom, of frustration. She goes upstairs. I think maybe I should go with her, but I feel like Ms. Jackson needs me to stay. She needs someone to listen to her yesterdays. She packs the last magazine, one that has the Olympic track star Flo Jo on it. “Help me tape this, please,” she says.

I take the tape from the coffee table. She grabs the scissors. Together, we close the box, store her memories once again. Before I let go of the box, Ms. Jackson grabs my hand, squeezes it tight. “Don’t tell your mom, okay? Don’t tell her you seen me like this,” she says. “And your dad. Don’t tell your dad. Promise me, okay?”

I don’t answer.

“Promise me.”

“Promise me you’ll stop drinking,” I say.

“I promise. I promise I’m gonna get myself together,” Ms. Jackson says.

“I won’t tell them,” I say.

Ms. Jackson lets go of my hand.

We both know neither of us will keep our word.

Chapter 5

Essence will not tell us how she feels about moving. Instead, she curses the landlord. Rants to me and Nikki about all the things he ever did wrong.

“He never fixed the light in the bathroom; we have to hit it in order for it to come on,” she says. “And the dishwasher. That thing has never worked. Not once, not ever, in seventeen years. We use it to store pots and pans.” Essence takes everything out of her top dresser drawer and stuffs it into a suitcase. “He raised the rent even though he took two weeks to schedule the exterminator to come.” Essence is yelling now. She slams the drawer and opens another one. “Mickey and Minnie should’ve been paying rent ,” Essence says. “Since they left Disneyland and moved in here.”

Nikki can’t hold back her smile. It spreads across her face and she gives in to a laugh. Essence gives in, too. Her head falls back and she laughs up to heaven, showing God her smile before the rest of us see it.

We chase the sadness and anger with our laughter. Essence sits on her bed and says, “Do you guys remember that night we all stood in the middle of my bed, hollering for hours?”

I feel jittery just thinking about it. “That mouse was strolling all over your room. Just roaming around like he lived here,” I say.

“He did live here!” Nikki says.

And we laugh harder.

I finish the story, “And Dad teased us. Said we were scaredy-cats.”

Nikki remembers, “Yeah, he was like, ‘You three tall girls are scared of a tiny mouse?’”

“If it wasn’t for your dad,” Essence says, “I don’t know what we would’ve done.”

She is talking about how Dad came and put out mousetraps , how he always comes and helps— fixing things around her house like he’s the handyman. She is talking about how Dad came the night Ms. Jackson had a breakdown and locked herself in the bathroom, how he called Mom and how they took Ms. Jackson to the hospital and let Essence stay with us until her mom was better.

Just as quick as the laughter came, it leaves. Essence stands up and paces the room with her arms folded. “I can’t believe I have to move. I hate our landlord,” she says. “I really hate him. He kept telling us he was going to redo the basement. Every year he had some plan, telling us he could make it a rec room, a study, an exercise space, but it’s still just a creepy dungeon,” Essence says. “And then he has the nerve to start fixing things— right in our faces —a new bathroom with a jetted tub and marbled shower.” Essence fills a suitcase with the clothes that are hanging in her closet. “And he goes and tells us it ain’t for us. Like we ain’t good enough to live in a place like this. Can you believe that? He’s going to fix it all up, and we can’t stay.” She inhales a gulp of air. “He knew he was going to sell the house. He knew it. And he knew we wouldn’t be able to afford it!”

Essence looks out of the window. “Just when things are starting to get nice around here, too. Finally got a neighborhood I don’t have to be afraid to walk through at night, and I got to leave.”

Essence sits back on her bed. I don’t know what to say, what to do. I am just as mad as she is, but it won’t do any good to join her in complaining. Nikki and I start taking her posters off the wall. Most of them are pages Essence tore out of hair magazines, except for the one big poster of her favorite basketball player.

The last things left to pack are the picture frames on her dresser. Every photo has a friend in it. There’s one of her and Malachi, and another of her, Nikki, and me when we were in the eighth grade . We are standing outside the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry at a field trip. The three of us just happy to be together.

The next frame Essence picks up holds a picture of us at the Tillamook Cheese Factory. Ms. Jackson is standing on the end, holding her waffle cone. The rest of us had all gobbled ours right before my mom took out her camera. Mom and Ms. Jackson used to take us to the coast every summer, and we couldn’t go without stopping at the cheese factory. Each year, we took the tour to see the huge machines and learn how cheese is packaged, how ice cream is made. At the end of the tour, we’d stop by the gift shop. Mom always bought smoked cheddar; Ms. Jackson, the squeaky cheese curds that make noise as you chew. And at the very end, we all got ice cream cones—the best part of the day.

Essence gently puts the photo in the box. There is no bubble wrap to put the frames in, so she takes a black marker, writes FRAGILE on the box . I think maybe that note is not only about what’s in the box, but the girl packing it.

The three of us sit, looking at the lonely room. I think of all the things we did here. How when we were in elementary school we were small enough to fit under her bed and we would pretend to be on a camping trip. In middle school we whispered and giggled the night away talking about our secret crushes. We carved ESSENCE + MAYA + NIKKI = FRIENDS 4 EVER in her closet.

“I’m going to miss you,” I say.

Nikki looks at me like I have just said the craziest thing . “You’re acting like she’s leaving the country.”

“Well, the bus ride is forty-five minutes,” Essence tells us. “You two better come see me.”

I don’t know why I start talking in a motherly tone , but I can’t help it. I say, “You better keep your attendance up.”

“She’ll be fine,” Nikki says. Like she’s forgotten that Essence hits the snooze button for an hour before she crawls out of bed. We both know how long she takes to do her hair, her makeup, and to nurse her hungover mother before she leaves for school.

“Maya, don’t worry about me. I’ve got to stay on top of things so I can get me some scholarships. Perfect attendance. Honor roll. That’s my goal.” Essence stands up, and we follow her downstairs. The stairs moan like an old woman with bad knees. Essence says, “I wonder when the landlord’s going to fix the rest of the house. You two have to get in good with whoever moves in here so you can tell me how he changes the upstairs.”

“Okay,” Nikki says.

I don’t say anything.

We go into the kitchen, and Essence opens the refrigerator. It is in its usual state. Half-empty. She takes out three cans of soda, and we go outside and sit on the porch swing. Essence and Nikki start talking about prom. They’re already making plans even though prom is at least ten months away.

We’ve had our senior year planned out since we were in middle school.

Prom: Me and Devin, Nikki and Ronnie, Essence and Malachi.

College: the boys at Morehouse, us girls at Spelman.

That’s the plan.

Essence and Nikki talk about going to the beach the weekend of prom, which I know Mom and Dad are not going to allow. I let them have their fantasy and start watching Essence’s neighbor , Carla, who is moving another roommate into her house. Carla moved in two years ago. She’s thirtysomething, at least I think she is. She rents rooms to college students, which means there are always people in and out. Carla is in a band and sometimes has rehearsals in the garage, and that always gets Ms. Jackson complaining. She thinks the music is too loud. “And it don’t even sound good,” Ms. Jackson always says. And then she goes on and on about it. “White people moving here thinking it’s okay to play music all loud and let their dogs go to the bathroom all on the sidewalk. Let one of us blast our music and I bet they call the police for noise violation.”

I guess the one good thing about Essence moving is, Ms. Jackson won’t have to argue anymore with Carla.

I actually don’t mind Carla’s music. She even offered to give me guitar lessons, but I never took her up on it.

Carla waves at us. I wave back.

“Maya, are you listening to us?” Nikki says. “We’re about to go see a movie with Ronnie and Malachi. You should call Devin and see if he wants to come.”

“Today is Thursday,” I remind them. And they know what that means. Devin is enrolled in Summer Scholars. He never misses it. We’ve been out of school for two weeks, and I’ve barely seen him. “Maybe we’ll hang out with you guys tomorrow,” I say.

When Ronnie and Malachi come to pick up Nikki and Essence, they all try to get me to come, but I refuse to be the looming shadow of a double date. “I’m fine,” I tell them. I go across the street. Home.

I text Devin. Ask him if he wants to get together when his class is over and wait for him to get back to me.

Chapter 6

Devin is here.

But not for me.

He has a meeting with Dad. They check in once a month. Usually Dad takes him out to eat, but today he’s putting Devin to work and they are pulling up the carpet from one of the rooms in the basement. I guess all the renovations on our block has Dad wanting to fix things up here, too. He promised he’d give Mom her own sewing room by the end of summer.

I can hear Devin and Dad talking, even though I’m not really trying to listen. Devin is telling Dad about his aunt and how he feels she doesn’t understand where he’s coming from. “It gets frustrating sometimes living in a house full of women.”

Dad laughs. A little too hard, if you ask me. “Son, I know. I know.”

Devin has grown up in a house full of women, and Dad says women don’t know everything, can’t teach a boy everything, shouldn’t have to be everything. Devin’s mom and dad died in a car accident when he was just a baby, and his aunt took him in and raised him as her own. His aunt has never been married and has four daughters who are older than us. They baby Devin sometimes, and a lot of times they can be bossy. He complains about it, but I think he also likes the attention.

I think Devin’s family looks out for him because they know he really might do something big with his life. Devin is the one who makes sure we all keep our grades up, that none of us end up on the wrong side of the statistic. He talks about the future, has plans and dreams of what he wants his life to be.

Devin is a make-your-momma-proud kind of person. The good-grade-makin’, football-all-star-playin’ brotha who old women point to and say, “He’s the next …” New hope stirring in them because when they look at Devin the future don’t look too bad.

“He’s a good catch,” Mom always tells me.

And women throughout our neighborhood pull me aside, saying things like, “I’m glad he’s dating you and not one of them.” And by them they either mean a white girl or a hood girl. I guess Devin and I are some kind of prize to each other.

But sometimes, instead of winning a prize, I feel like I’m losing him. He always has an excuse, always a reason for not hanging out. At first I thought maybe he was cheating on me. But I trust him, and I know he’s telling me the truth when he tells me he can’t spend time together because he has to get up early for his Summer Scholars program. He is on a mission to be the first in his family to go to college, to be something other than a Portland guy who could have been something. There is no other girl. Just his dream.

How can I compete with that?

Chapter 7

Essence’s landlord finished the rest of her house after she moved out . For two weeks, construction workers came early and stayed late. It’s the Fourth of July weekend, and now the house has a FOR SALE sign in front of it. Today is the open house where people come and walk through to decide if this is where they want to live.

I don’t belong here. I am the only black person in the entire house . Probably the only one who has lived in this neighborhood my whole life.

The Realtor makes the guests take their shoes off at the door. They ooh and ahh like tourists in a new city. I pretend like I am looking, like I have never been in this house before. And in a way, I haven’t.

It is strange to feel like a stranger in my best friend’s home.

The hallway is painted a pale tan color, and the carpet has been replaced with hardwood floors. Nothing looks regular anymore. Everything seems special— even the knobs for the shower and sink in the bathroom look like they were handpicked, especially chosen for this new house.

I step out of the bathroom and walk down the hallway to Essence’s bedroom. There is a girl coming out of it. “I love it, Mom,” she says. “We have to get this one.”

“It is pretty great,” her mom says. “Perfect for your dad getting to work. Carver Middle School isn’t too far from here.”

They both have brown hair. The mom’s hair is cut short with curls that flip and twirl all over her head. The girl’s hair is straight and hangs to the middle of her back. They both have on the same color of nail polish. Makes me wonder if they paint their nails together and gossip about the happenings of the day.

“Where are Dad and Tony ? Have they been up here yet?” The girl grabs her mom’s hand and they walk down the stairs.

I walk into Essence’s bedroom. It looks bigger without her bed and dresser in here. I walk over to the window that faces the street and look out at my house. I remember how sometimes, when we talked on the phone, Essence would stand at her bedroom window and I’d stand at mine and we’d talk while looking at each other. Mom called us crazy.

I walk over to the closet, and when I open it, I know exactly why that girl loves this room so much. Even the closet has been renovated. It’s a walk-in closet now— shelves and room to stand in and take your time to choose what it is you want to wear. Space, space, and more space so that your clothes aren’t bunched up on each other, getting wrinkled.

I think about Essence, how she would love this closet.

From the hall, I can hear people roaming from room to room, plotting out how they could make this house their home. “We could use this for an office,” I hear a man say about the room across the hallway.

There are many conversations swirling through the house.

This is an up-and-coming neighborhood.

Is there a Whole Foods in the area?

What are the neighborhood schools?

This is a prime location.

Is it a child-friendly neighborhood?

The crime rate has gone down.

“You like the closet, too, huh?” a male voice asks. His voice is closer than those in the hallway. I turn to see who he is talking to, and I realize he is talking to me. It’s just the two of us in the room. He is standing close enough to me that I can smell his cologne, or maybe it’s the leftover fragrance of his shampoo. He smells like soap, like a freshly washed load of laundry. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” he says. “I, uh, I came up here looking for my sister. She said I had to come see upstairs.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. I was just about to leave.”

“Tony?” A tall man walks into the bedroom. He is with the brown-haired girl and her mom. They crowd into the room, looking at every single detail. The light fixtures, the windowsill, the crown molding.

I take another look at the closet and notice that ESSENCE + MAYA + NIKKI = FRIENDS 4 EVER has been covered with a fresh coat of paint.

I leave.

Just as I step into the hallway I hear the mom say, “Honey, we should make an offer. Seems like it was made just for us.”

Chapter 8

The boy who moved in across the street has Essence’s room.

He hasn’t put up curtains yet, so I see him all the time. Sometimes without even trying.

I can’t remember his name.

He has the same brown hair and green eyes as his mom and sister. His shoulders are wide, and they hide under a too-big T-shirt.

The only thing I know about him is that he likes art. I’ve been watching him hang framed paintings on his bedroom walls— covering up all that fresh-paint newness. Not even appreciating that he has beautiful, clean walls that don’t need to be covered.

Essence hung posters over parts of the wall that had chipped paint, small holes, cracks.

Chapter 9

I am sitting on the porch when I see the boy who lives across the street walking toward me. He has a look in his eyes like he knows me. “Nikki?” he asks.

I smile. “Maya.”

He steps back. “Oh, I’m sorry. You look like—”

“She’s my twin,” I tell him.

“Oh! Oh, wow, I-I didn’t know . She didn’t even—”

“Yeah, we don’t really mention it unless we’re standing next to each other.”

“You two look just alike,” he says.

“We’re identical.”

“Right. Oh, and, uh, I’m Tony Jacobs.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say. “Nikki isn’t here.”

“Okay. I, uh, I was just looking for my sister. I thought they were together.”

“Yeah, Kate, right? They just left not too long ago. Nikki is showing her the neighborhood.”

I feel like I need to say something , give a reason why I didn’t go, but instead I just smile at him. Nikki invited me, but I refused to go meet and greet the people who moved into Essence’s home. Funny how I ended up meeting them anyway.

Just when I am trying to find something to say, Tony jumps back, like a thought just shocked his body. He squints and says, “Wait. So that was you. No wonder your sister looked at me like I was crazy when I brought it up the other day. It was you I saw at the open house.”

I laugh.

“So, was your family thinking of moving across the street, or did you just want to spy on who your new neighbors would be?”

“Well, we weren’t thinking about moving.”

Tony laughs. “I would have done the same thing.”

“So, are you from Portland?” I scoot over and make room for Tony to sit down on the step.

“Yeah. I grew up in Northwest Portland.” Tony sits next to me. “We moved because my parents wanted to be closer to their jobs.”

“What do they do?”

“My dad teaches at Carver Middle School. My mom writes grants for a nonprofit whose mission is to reform public schools.” Tony swats at a fly . “If it were up to my mom, we would have moved over here a long time ago. She thinks it’s important for my dad to live in the community where he’s teaching. This year she decided to put her children where her mouth is, so I won’t experience my senior year at St. Francis and my sister won’t finish her last two years there. Kate and I will be going to Richmond High.”

“I’d hate to have to transfer my senior year.”

“Especially to Richmond,” Tony says. And he says Richmond like it’s a poisonous word.

“I go to Richmond,” I tell him. “Both of my parents went there, too.” I move my twists from one side to the other . “Must be nice to have the luxury of experimenting with your education,” I say. I scoot away from him without meaning to.

Tony’s face turns red. “Hold on. Wait. I didn’t— I mean, I don’t think I—”

“You didn’t mean it like that?”

“Not at all.”

They never do.

“I’m sorry. You must think I’m a jerk,” Tony says. “ Um, look, I just meant that it’s going to be very different going to a public school— no matter what public school, not just because it’s Richmond.”

I don’t say anything.

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” Tony says. “Can, can we —? Okay . I’m hitting the rewind button.” Tony actually sticks his hand in the air and presses down as if he’s pushing a button. He makes a noise with his mouth like he’s erasing what he just said.

I can’t help but smile at how pitiful he looks.

“Okay, good. You’re smiling. Smiling means you’re not mad,” he says. “Can we start over?

Chapter 10

Of all the good restaurants we could go to, Nikki wants to take Kate to Popeyes— which is a surprise because lately all she wants to do is eat at the new restaurants on Jackson Avenue. But ever since Kate and Tony moved across the street, we’ve become their Northeast Portland tour guides, so here we are standing in line for chicken and biscuits.

Kate says to us, “You are so lucky that you grew up over here. We didn’t have a Popeyes anywhere near where I lived. We used to make special trips just to have an excuse to come here.”

Is she serious?

“I love soul food,” Kate says.

“Popeyes is not soul food,” I say. And I must’ve rolled my eyes because Nikki gives me a look that tells me to be nice and to stop looking at Kate like that. But I’ve had enough of Kate and her love for crispy chicken, her admiration of my braids, her excitement about all the boutiques to shop at that are just steps away from our homes.

She is a nagging fly that hovers and hovers. We’ve spent the last two days with her, and all she’s done is ask me questions.

About my hair: “How long does it take you to get your hair like that? Can I touch it?”

About my skin: “So, this might sound like a stupid question— but do you get sunburned?”

About Richmond High: “Have you ever seen anyone get shot?”

And when we got caught in a rain shower she just couldn’t understand what the big deal was when Nikki and I ran for cover. “It’s just rain,” she said.

I told her, “Rain is like kryptonite to a black girl’s hair.”

We laughed about it, but I could tell she had more questions.

We order and sit at the table closest to the door. Kate bites into her spicy chicken sandwich. “Oh. My. God. This. Is. So. Good.” She takes another bite. “This just made my day.”

Nikki eats a handful of fries and says, “Just wait for dessert. I want to take you to that frozen yogurt place. You can put whatever topping you want on it. So good.”

Kate looks at me. “Are you coming?”

“Uh, no. I have plans with Essence.” I look at Nikki. “We have plans with Essence.”

“But you love ice cream,” Nikki says to me.

“Right. Ice cream. Not frozen yogurt.” I can’t help but sound irritated. “ And Essence will be waiting for us.” This is the third time this month that Nikki has canceled or changed plans on me and Essence.

“Do you want to come, Tony?” Nikki asks.

“I’m with Maya on this one,” Tony says. “If you want ice cream, you’ve got to get the real stuff. That watered-down version just doesn’t compare.”

Nikki whispers to Kate , “They’re just anti–anything healthy.”

Kate laughs.

“That’s not true!” I fight back.

“Well, why won’t you try that new vegan restaurant with me?” Nikki asks.

“I already told you why I’m not going to those restaurants.” I look at her hard. Long. Don’t go there right now, Nikki. Don’t. She already knows how I feel about all these white people coming over here opening up their shops in our neighborhood. She knows how many black entrepreneurs couldn’t get business loans from the bank. Dad and Mom talk about it all the time.

I look at my phone to check the time. “If we don’t leave soon, we’re going to be late. You know it takes forever to get to Essence’s,” I say.

“I can take you,” Tony says.

Before I can respond, Kate says, “Can you drop us off at the fro-yo place first?”

“Kate, it’s like three blocks away,” Tony answers.

“More like ten,” Kate says.

Tony sighs. “Yes, I can take you.”

Kate takes the last bite of her sandwich. “Thanks.”

We walk to the parking lot and a car pulls up beside us, real slow. I know the car because of the license plate. Roberto Sanchez. His license plate is personalized with his football number, and he has two bumper stickers of the Mexican flag on his car. He rolls his window down. “Ey, Maya, what’s up?”

“Hi, Roberto.”

Nikki puts her hand on her hip. “Is that all you see?”

Roberto puts his car in Park and gets out. “You get a hug,” he says. He opens his arms wide. They hug, and I hear him whisper to Nikki, “So does your friend have a boyfriend?”

Nikki laughs and grabs Kate’s arm, pulling her closer. “Kate, I want you to meet someone.”

Tony steps forward, stands right next to Kate. Is that what it feels like to have a big brother?

Nikki introduces Tony to Roberto, and then a car starts honking because Roberto’s car is blocking traffic. Roberto gets in his car but not without asking Kate for her number. She is red-faced and smiley and gushing with new crush joy.

The man honks his horn again.

“Kate, let’s go,” Tony says. He walks over to his car. I follow him. Nikki stays behind to play matchmaker.

When Kate gets to the car, she opens the back door and gets in. “Maya, you can get in the front. I don’t want Tony to feel like a chauffeur when I get out.”

I get in and Tony starts the car.

Kate talks the entire ten blocks. “So what do you know about Roberto?” she asks.

“He’s hilarious. His bark is bigger than his bite, or whatever the saying is,” Nikki says. “You should definitely call him.”

“What grade is he in?”

“He’s a senior.”

Kate actually is quiet for a moment— just a moment. Then she says, “Tony, don’t say anything to Dad.”

Tony looks in the rearview mirror.

“I mean it, Tony.”

Nikki butts in. “You’re not allowed to date?”

I notice Tony’s eyes again, looking at Kate in the rearview mirror.

“My dad is overprotective, too,” Nikki says. And she goes into the story about when Dad found out she was dating Ronnie. Kate listens to the story, laughs when Nikki tells the part about Dad texting Ronnie a “friendly reminder” of Nikki’s curfew an hour before he was supposed to drop her off. “It’s so hard dating guys at Richmond because my dad pretty much mentors them all.”

Tony’s mind seems to be somewhere else, and I have a feeling that the look he gave Kate was about more than how funny and protective their dad can be. I know that certain looks from one sibling to another mean something.

Tony drops off Nikki and Kate.

“So where does Essence live?” Tony asks.

“All the way past St. Johns Bridge. You can drop me off at the bus stop. You don’t have to take me all the way.”

“It’s fine. I don’t mind,” he says.

“Are you sure?”

“It’s fine,” Tony says. “Really.”


Tony turns the radio on. He dials through the stations until he finds one that is not playing a commercial.

We’re not even halfway down the block when my phone vibrates in my pocket. I pull it out. It’s a text from Essence. Don’t come. My mom is trippin’ today.

I text back. U OK? Call me later. And then I say to Tony , “Um, sorry, Tony, change of plans.”

He stops at the red light. “So where do you want me to take you?”

“Home, I guess.”

“Home? Let’s go get ice cream.”

Chapter 11

“Is there a Baskin-Robbins around here?” Tony asks.

“No. But we have some pretty good ice cream shops in the area,” I tell him.

“Oh, yeah , my mom mentioned a place that’s on Jackson Avenue. It has like, different flavors you might not think of for ice cream. Like Lavender Honey and Strawberry Champagne.” He’s talking about the new ice cream parlor that opened at the start of summer. It always has a line wrapped around the block.

I tell Tony, “The best place around here is Cathy’s Cones. It’s not fancy and the flavors are pretty regular, but it’s good.”

“Okay. Let’s go there.”

When we get to Cathy’s Cones, we are greeted by the dry-erase board that has QUESTION OF THE DAY written at the top. Today’s question is, WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE CARTOON GROWING UP? I grab two markers and hand one to Tony. “You have to answer the question of the day before you can order.”

Tony writes SPONGEBOB SQUARE PANTS. His handwriting is neat and in all caps.


Once we order our ice cream , the questions continue. Tony and I get to know each other and realize that besides our love for ice cream, we both like Thai food. Both hate black licorice but love the red kind.

“So, have you started your college search yet?” he asks.

“I’ve pretty much known where I’ve wanted to go since I was in middle school,” I tell him. “Spelman.”

“Where is that?”

“It’s in Atlanta. It’s an all-girl, historical black college,” I tell him. “What about you? What colleges are you looking at?”

“First choice is Stanford. I did their summer intensive for high school students last summer, and I loved it,” Tony says. “If I don’t get in, I’ll probably go to U of O.”

“I really hope I get my first choice,” I tell him.

“You have a major in mind?”


We eat our ice cream and people-watch. Tony is eating faster than I am. He is almost finished with his pralines and cream, and I am just getting to my second scoop of coffee.

“So you must like to write . I mean, if you want to be a journalist.”

“The writing is okay, I guess ,” I explain. “But I love investigating. I’ve always liked asking questions, finding deeper reasons and meanings for things.”

“So besides writing, what else do you like to do?”


“You have to think about what you like to do?”

I laugh . “I don’t know. I like to do a lot of things.”

“First things that come to mind. No hesitating. Name three things you like to do,” Tony insists.

I feel like I’m on a game show.

Tony clears his throat. “I’ll go first,” he says. “Three things I like to do: watch movies, hike, and make beats. I’m really into music. Your turn.” He waits for my response.

“Okay. Sing— I actually love to sing and listen to music. And, uh, I like to watch movies, too,” I say.

“You sing? Can I hear something?”

“No! I’m not just going to start singing.”

“Why not?” Tony laughs.

“I don’t just sing for people.”

“Well, will I ever get to hear you sing?”

“Maybe at school. I sing for assemblies and sometimes at our games.”

“So you’re going to make me wait until school starts ?” Tony gives me sad eyes but then smiles.

I change the subject. Way too much attention is on me right now. “So, you like movies,” I say. “Drama or comedy?”

Tony scrapes the bottom of his foam cup and takes one last bite of his ice cream. “I pretty much like any kind of movie.”

“Even the old black-and-white classics?”

“Especially those,” Tony answers.

“Do you like Alfred Hitchcock?” I ask.

“That man was a genius! I have a DVD collection of his show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” Tony says.

“For real ? I love Hitchcock, too,” I tell him. “I used to watch his show with my grandmother all the time.”

“My dad had me watching Hitchcock when I was a kid. My mom hated it.”

“Why?” I ask.

“My mom gets paranoid about everything. She thought I was too young to watch that kind of stuff. I think she was afraid it would screw me up.” Tony wipes the corners of his mouth with a napkin. “Who knows? Maybe it did.” He looks at me with evil eyes and a devilish smile.

I laugh. Even though I’m full, I finish the last few spoonfuls of ice cream in my bowl. “So what about you? What do you want to be?”

“Well, if I have a choice, some kind of music engineer or studio tech guy.”

“What do you mean, ‘if you have a choice’?”

“Long story. My dad, he thinks, he says music is a waste of time. He, yeah, my dad, he just isn’t that, he’s not that supportive.” Tony backs away from the table, looks at the line that’s forming at the counter. “We should give up our seats. It’s getting crowded.”

I say okay even though the line isn’t that long. Even though I want to stay and talk with him more. I look at Tony, with his nothing-special green eyes and his messy brown hair. Tony, whose mother is on a mission to save the black and brown children of the hood. Tony, who gets tongue-tied when talking about his dad. He’s awkward but kind of funny. And he likes movies. Good movies.

My journalist mind is full of questions now, and I have something new to investigate: Who is Tony Jacobs?

Chapter 12

Summer’s sun simmers in the sky. Last night I barely slept it was so hot. Toss and turn, turn and toss. That was my whole night until finally I woke Nikki up so I could have some company. We ate Popsicles one after the other until our tongues were tie-dyed rainbows. When we were too tired to stay awake but too miserable to sleep, she brought her fan into my room and we had double the air so we finally fell asleep.

Now I’m in the shower and Nikki is in front of the mirror flat ironing her hair. The smell of the smoke fills the bathroom and competes with the fragrance of my citrus body wash. “I don’t know what to wear to Essence’s birthday party,” Nikki says. “What are you wearing?” Her voice sounds muffled because of the running water.

I push the lever and the shower water becomes a fountain gushing out into the tub. I turn the knob to the left and the water stops. “I don’t know yet.”

“I was thinking about wearing a dress, but that’s probably too much, right? What about jeans— would that be too casual?”

I open the shower curtain halfway and reach for my towel so I can dry off. “Why don’t you wear—”

“I mean, I guess a skirt would be fine, you know, instead of a dress. I don’t know, Maya, I might not go.”

“Nikki.” I step out of the tub, wrapped in my towel.

“I’m serious.” Nikki scoots over to make room for me at the mirror.

“All those clothes you have and you can’t find anything to wear?” I stick about four bobby pins in my mouth and start pinning my twists up.

“Well, you know how they can be. Essence’s family is—”

“No one there is going to judge you, and if they do, who cares?” I slide a pin in my hair, leaving half the twists down in the back.

“That’s easy for you to say. Your hair is acceptable to them, and no one thinks your clothes are weird.”

The last time we got together with Essence and her cousins, they gave Nikki a hard time because she perms her hair. And once they realized they could get under her skin, they talked about her thrift store clothes and free-spirited style. One of Essence’s cousins said, “Girl, you too much for me . What you trying to be, white or something?”

Both Essence and I stood up for Nikki, but ever since then she opts out of any gatherings they’re going to be at.

“You have to go, Nikki. It’s her birthday. And anyway, I twist my hair because I hate the maintenance of permed hair. My hairstyle is not making a political statement.”

“Well, I know that,” Nikki says. “But they treat you like some kind of black princess of the Nile.”

We laugh.

Nikki pulls the plug to her flat iron out of the wall. “I mean, they really just don’t like me. When you talk, they say how smart you are. When I talk, they say I talk white. I’m just not black enough for them, I guess.”

“Do you hear what you’re saying?”

“Do you remember last time we ate breakfast at her aunt’s house? The lady just about fainted when I told her I don’t like grits.” Nikki lines her lips and then puts on lip gloss. “And they—”

“It’s her birthday,” I remind her.

“Well, I can take her out for ice cream or something, just the two of us. I don’t want to deal with them today.” Nikki blots her lips on a square of tissue and leaves the bathroom. “I’m not going.”

I look in the mirror, at my thick twists.

Black Princess of the Nile.

When Nikki said it, she made it sound like a bad thing, but actually, I kind of like that name.

Chapter 13

When I step inside Essence’s house, the first thing Ms. Jackson does is touch my hair. “Girl, you still got that thick hair, huh?” She digs her nails to my roots and massages my scalp. “Remember when I used to do your hair? You and Nikki would just cry and cry— tender-headed and sensitive as I don’t know what!” Ms. Jackson laughs. She stretches one of my twists to see how long my hair reaches. “Got hair for days, just like your mom,” she says.

Essence’s aunts smile at me. All of them are fanning themselves with something— loose newspaper pages, paper plates.

Ms. Jackson is fanning herself with her hand. “Essence is out back with everyone else. Too hot out there for us.”

I walk through the kitchen to get to the back door.

“Help yourself to the food. There’s plenty,” Ms. Jackson calls out.

“Okay. Thank you.” I walk outside and join Essence and the rest of her guests.

Essence is wrapped in Malachi’s arms. When she sees me, she walks over to me. We hug.

“Happy birthday!”


Malachi and Devin ask, “Where’s Nikki?”

“She’s sick,” I say. I don’t even look at Essence when I tell the lie.

“The six of us haven’t been together all summer,” Ronnie says.

Essence nudges Devin. “And whose fault is that?”

Devin gives a remorseful smile. “I know, I know, it’s mostly my fault. I’m usually the one not able to make something,” he says.

At least he admits it.

“But I’m here now. I wouldn’t have missed your birthday, no matter what.”

Essence smiles and says, “You better not have missed this. And don’t let this be the last time we see you. It’s summer! We need to do something together before school starts.”

Devin rubs his head. “I know, I know. Summer Scholars keeps me extra busy.” Devin goes on to explain all the opportunities he’s getting through Summer Scholars. Somehow the conversation gets on SATs and college applications.

Essence’s cousins chime in, talking about how proud they are of Essence, how they can’t wait to see her walk across the stage at graduation. “And you going to college, right?” one of them says.

“Of course she going,” the other one says. “And you ain’t going to be like me, Essence. No kids before you’re finished with college. You hear me?”

“I hear you,” Essence says.

“You hear me , Mal-a-chi? I’m talking to you, too. No having a baby before you have a degree.”

Malachi looks embarrassed.

“I got big dreams for my little cousin.”

Essence interrupts. “Look, it’s my birthday. No college talk, no big dreams today. Just cake and ice cream.” Essence walks into the house.

When she comes back outside she has plastic bowls and spoons and Ms. Jackson is behind her carrying a chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting. The whole time Ms. Jackson is walking to the card table, she’s saying, “I made this myself. Made it from scratch for my baby.”

The rest of the adults that were in the house come outside. Ms. Jackson lights the big candle in the middle of the cake.

Even though Essence said there’d be no dreaming today, I swear I see her lips whisper a wish just before she blows the candle out.

Chapter 14

I’m sitting on my bed painting my nails and listening to music when Nikki barges in. “Can I borrow your earrings?” she asks as she puts one of my silver hoops into her left ear.

I don’t even bother to answer.

“We’re all going to Last Thursday. You want to come?”

Why does she even bother to ask? If I have no interest in going to shops on Jackson Avenue during regular business hours, what makes her think that I’d want to go for Last Thursday, when they have sidewalk sales down the whole street and close off the blocks to cars? “No,” I answer. “I’m going with Essence to the center to help Dad make registration packets for fall enrollment.”

“It’s going to be fun, Maya. You can’t waste your whole summer volunteering with Dad.”

“I’ve had fun this summer. You just haven’t been there.” That probably came out wrong, but I keep talking. “Essence and I went to the movies yesterday, and I’m going to Seaside this weekend with her and her cousins.”

“Well, you should come just for the people watching alone. It’s hilarious sometimes: what people have on, their crazy hair. Last month we saw someone walking his pet pig—on an actual leash.” Nikki laughs at the memory.

I don’t say anything.

Nikki interprets my silence . “Why don’t you like Kate?”

“I never said I didn’t like her.”“ Well, you’re always giving her attitude—”

“Well, she’s always asking me questions and making offensive comments. You know, kind of like how you feel about Essence’s cousins.”

“Oh, come on, Maya. So just because I didn’t go with you to Essence’s party, you’re not going to come with me?”

“You weren’t coming with me. Essence invited you. We’re both her best friends. Or at least we used to be.”

“Look, this isn’t about Kate or Essence,” Nikki says. “You should come out to get to know our neighborhood. Some of these places have been here for— what ?— four years now, and you’ve never set foot in them. For someone who loves her community so much, you sure don’t support it.”

“Nikki, those places aren’t here for us. You know that, right?” I get off my bed and stand at the window. I can see Essence’s house, all new and fancy with its flowerpots hanging above the banister. And I think about all the new places around the corner. “I mean, really, a Doggie Daycare? How many of our friends’ parents can afford daycare for their children, let alone their pets?”

Nikki just lets out a sigh and walks away, back across the hall to her room.

I follow her. She started this conversation. She can’t just walk away.

Before I say another word, she says, “Okay, Maya. I get it. Just drop it. You don’t want a nice, clean neighborhood. You’d rather drive all the way downtown for a good restaurant or get on the bus to go to the mall. You don’t want—”

“Are you serious right now? Did I say I didn’t want those things?”

“Well, that’s how you’re acting.”

“I want things to be fair. And something is not fair when black men and women are turned down for business loans over and over again, but others aren’t.”

“Maybe they just didn’t qualify , Maya. Have you ever even considered that?”

“I would believe that if it was just here, in Portland. But Grandma says the same type of thing happened in Atlanta, and Dad was just talking about his friend in New York who said it’s happened in Brooklyn and Harlem. That can’t be coincidence. There is something—something that has allowed this to be normal, that poor communities get remade and their people are forced to move. Have you ever seen it the other way around? Ever?”

Nikki has no answer for this, so she just ignores me and keeps getting ready.

I go into my room, close the door. My nail polish is smudged now, and I’ll have to take it off and start over.

I hear her as she leaves. Hear her run down the steps, hear the door shut, hear the gate clink after she closes it. I get back up and stand at the window. Nikki walks across the street to Kate’s house and rings the doorbell. When Kate comes to the door they hug like they’ve been friends for more than a few weeks.

I sit back on my bed and start regretting the way I spoke to Nikki. I know it seems ridiculous for me not to want to shop on Jackson Avenue. Of course I like the fact that just around the corner there are all kinds of places I would have never even thought of. Like the store where you can make your own stationery or the restaurant that has only grilled cheese sandwiches on the menu— any kind of cheese you can think of, they have it. I like the fact that I can walk home in the dark from the bus stop and not feel the need to look over my shoulder, because for some reason it just feels more safe.

But for all the things I like, I can’t help but wonder why the changes we’ve always wanted in this community had to come from other people and not us.

I don’t understand why Nikki doesn’t get that, why she doesn’t get me.

Chapter 15

I take off the nail polish and just as I am about to apply a new coat, Devin’s name is flashing on my cell phone. I answer it.

“Please come with us to Last Thursday,” he says.

“You’re going?”

“Yeah. Summer Scholars ended today. I don’t have class tomorrow. I thought you were going, so I walked over here. We’re all at Ronnie’s. You should come. I want to see you.”

Even though I have my reasons for not wanting to go to Last Thursday, there are more reasons why I want to see Devin. I can’t believe I’m saying this. “I’ll meet you guys at Thirteenth and Jackson.”


I hang up the phone and rush to find something to wear.

By the time I get to Jackson Avenue, everyone else has already made it. I’m surprised that Tony isn’t here; for some reason, I just assumed he was coming. Malachi and Essence aren’t here either. They went to the movies instead. So it’s me and Devin, Nikki and Ronnie, Kate and Roberto.

There are people packed onto every inch of Jackson Avenue. Besides the permanent shops that are open, there are also street vendors selling all kinds of products —from homemade soaps to jewelry. I see a man sitting at a table with a cloth draped over it. He has earrings, bracelets, and necklaces laid out on the table. He is the only black vendor out here. He smiles at me, waves at me to come over. Devin and the rest of the group go into Ray’s Records. I stay outside and look at the jewelry. “This jewelry is from Ghana,” he says.

I look at his collection and immediately go to the silver section. There’s a necklace that has a bird with its head turned backward, taking an egg off its back. I look at it, pick it up.

“Would you like to try it on?” the man asks.

I put it on.

He gives me a hand mirror so I can see how it looks. “It’s beautiful on you,” he says.

“Thank you.” I move the mirror backward and forward, looking at the necklace and trying to imagine wearing it with different clothes. “I like it,” I tell the man. “I’d like to get it.” I pay for the necklace, and the man hands me a small velvet pouch for me to keep it in.

When Nikki sees it she completely overreacts. “Maya Younger actually purchased something on Jackson Avenue,” she says.

“Yeah, from the only black person on the whole street,” I say.

She ignores my comment and lifts the necklace. “It’s really pretty,” she says. “I’ll have to borrow that.”

“You better buy your own while we’re here,” I tease.


I wave to the man with jewelry from Ghana.

We walk around for about an hour and then decide to get something to eat. Devin takes my hand, and we make our way through the crowd to Nikki’s favorite new burger spot. “We have to order a basket of sweet potato french fries. The best,” she says.

The line at the restaurant is out the door, but we wait anyway. Just about every restaurant is at capacity, so it’s going to be a wait no matter what.

A chubby white woman types Nikki’s name into her iPad and hands us a few menus. As we wait outside, a man in overalls with no shirt walks up to the restaurant. He has a lopsided, dried -out jerry curl, and his feet— the biggest feet I’ve ever seen— are bare and callused. He’s pushing a shopping cart that is overflowing with stuff, stuff, and more stuff. I’ve seen him around the neighborhood my whole life.

We call him Z.

Most people assume Z is homeless, but he’s not. Z lives on Eleventh Street, and his front yard looks just like his cart. I used to be afraid of him, but really, Z is the person you want on your side. I’ve seen him break up a fight between two rival gang members and save a little girl who almost got hit by a car before a four-way stoplight was put up.

Z stands in front of the hostess. “I need to wait in line to use the bathroom? I just need to use the bathroom.”

“I believe there’s a port-a-potty down the block, sir,” the woman says.

“But your restaurant got a bathroom, don’t it?”

“Yes, sir. But our restrooms are for paying customers only, sir.”

“Who said I ain’t paying? I just need to use the bathroom first. I’m gonna order something.”

“Sir!” A woman behind me steps forward. She is white and tall and thin like rice paper. “You’re holding up the line. We need to put our names on the list.” She has a little girl with her, about seven years old. “And your cart is in the way.”

I can tell the woman is holding on to her daughter’s hand tightly. Her knuckles are red.

“I ain’t bothering nobody. I just had a question.”

“She answered your question. You’re holding up the line. If you have to use the restroom, go down the block like everyone else.”

Other people join in the complaining.

Z exaggerates a moan. “Ahhh , kiss my ashy toes!” He flips the line off and walks away, pushing his cart and bumping into people.

I watch him make his way down the block. He passes the man with a pet pig on a leash, and on the other side there’s a woman walking on stilts. An old guy is riding a unicycle down the street, swerving and zigzagging through the people like a flying bee . I see a girl with rainbow hair cut into a Mohawk, walking up to people asking if she can do magic tricks for them.

The woman behind me sighs and says to someone next to her, “I wish there was a way to keep crazy people from coming to these things.”

I have a feeling she’s talking about Z. Not about the rest of them.

Chapter 16

It’s the last weekend of summer vacation.

Devin is coming over, and Mom is making a big deal about this. I am in the kitchen getting some snacks to take into our family room. Mom watches me go back and forth and then says, “So I want you to keep the door open, and I don’t want any—”


“I’m just saying. I know how it is to be young and—”


“Okay, okay.” She laughs and takes chocolate chip cookies out of the box and spreads them out on a small plate. I dump half a bag of chips into a bowl.

The doorbell rings, and Dad opens the door. I hear him ask Devin how Summer Scholars was, and I know they will be talking for a while. Mom helps me carry the rest of the snacks to the room. Before she goes back to the kitchen, she whispers, “I’ll tell your dad to keep it short. They can talk college stuff later.” Then she turns and says, “Now remember, I don’t want any—”

“Oh, my goodness, Mom. For real.”

“All right, I’ll leave it alone.” She smiles and laughs all the way down the hall.

Twenty minutes pass before Devin comes to the family room. He sits next to me and says, “I want to show you something.” He reaches in his backpack and pulls out a Polaroid. “Look what I found,” he says.

I take the picture. “I can’t believe you still have this.” It’s a photo of us when we were in the fifth grade. Our teacher took this picture for our class bulletin board. Devin and I are standing under a sign that says APRIL STUDENTS OF THE MONTH. I remember feeling so proud. I had perfect attendance, good behavior, and stars on my chart for turning in homework on time . Nikki had been student of the month in January, and I was determined to get it, too. I remember begging my mom to let me wear my hair out— not in braided ponytails— because I wanted my hair to look nice for the picture. I wish she hadn’t given in. “Look at my hair. ” I laugh. I have two big Afro-puff ponytails. “I look a mess.” I give the photo back to him.

“You looked good,” Devin says. “I was bragging to every boy in that school that I got to take a picture with the prettiest girl in the class.”

“You thought I was pretty back then?”

“You still are,” he says. And then he kisses me and I kiss him back, and I taste our friendship in the softness of his lips, taste playing on the merry-go-round at Alberta Park, taste snow fights in the backyard and carnival rides at the waterfront, taste the first time I saw him cry— when his cousin died— taste our remember-whens and never-forgets.

I lean my head on his shoulder, turn the TV on, and hand the remote to Devin. He flips through channels. We pass a cooking show, the news, and a talk show. Then Devin turns it to the station that plays classic black-and-white movies. He turns the channel.

I tap his leg. “Go back, go back. That was the movie Psycho.”

Psycho?” Devin turns back to the channel.

It’s just starting; we haven’t missed much. “Let’s watch this,” I say.

“I hate these kind of movies,” Devin says.

“This is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films. What do you mean you hate it?”

“It’s corny. It’s not scary at all. Plus, it’s black and white.”

“What’s wrong with black-and-white movies?” I ask.

“I just don’t like them.”

Even though that’s not a reason, I drop it. I’m not going to argue about Hitchcock.

I reach out my hand for the remote. When he gives it to me, I turn the volume down. “So you don’t like Hitchcock. Well, what kinds of movies do you like?” I wonder how it is that we’ve known each other our whole lives but don’t know what types of movies the other likes.

“Action,” he answers.

“What else?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“I’m just asking. Just trying to get to know you,” I say.

“You already know me,” Devin says.

“I don’t know everything,” I say. Which is true. I know things about him, but most of the time when we’re together, we’re in a group. I think maybe I can find out something new about him. I learned a lot about Tony playing that game of questions. There’s always something new to learn about someone, right? I clear my throat. “Okay. Answer the questions I ask you. First thing that comes to mind. No thinking,” I tell him. “Milkshake or ice cream sundae?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Devin, you’re not playing. Come on. Just answer the question.”

He sighs. “Milkshake, I guess.” He takes the control and turns the television to a sports channel. I think he’s going to switch stations again, but instead, he leans back on the sofa cushions and turns the volume up.

“Devin,” I whine. “Let’s talk. We haven’t seen each other all summer. We can’t just sit here and watch TV.”

I’m not even sure he hears me. His eyes are hypnotized by the screen.

Mom can stop worrying. There will be nothing going on in here at all. The magic of our kiss left just as fast as it came.

I fake a yawn.

I hear the front door open. Nikki is home. She comes into the family room, sees me and Devin sitting together. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t know you had company,” she says. She has the biggest grin stretched across her face. She turns around to leave.

“It’s okay,” I tell her. “It’s just Devin.”

DMU Timestamp: July 13, 2015 12:10