"We're like Tony and Maria," Crystal said.
Tony? Who the hell was Tony? And he didn't know nobody named Maria.
"Like Romeo and Juliet."
"Li'l Romeo, that kid that thinks he can rap?"
Wrong answer — she rolled her eyes.
"See that's what I mean," Crystal explained. "I say 'a' and you see 'b.' Like in William Shakespeare, which you would know about if you ever showed up for your English class."
"There you go, soundin' like my mama."
"Maybe you oughta listen to your mama."
D'Andre pulled a leaf from the tree branch above him. He tore it into jagged pieces, dropped them on the green beneath his Air Force Ones. "Look, I don't need no lecture and no attitude. I just axed if you wanted to go to the mall with me."
"You know I can't. And," she said as she walked to the front door, "the word is asked."
D'Andre watched the door close, fought back the urge to hammer on it till she came back, but what else he would say, well, he didn't know.
He turned and walked across the street, past three blocks of public housing until he reached the apartment in complex where he lived. He pulled open the screen door and went inside.
D'Andre screwed up his face at the sight of his twenty-year-old brother, Claude, sitting on the couch, wearing a stained undershirt and some boxers.
"You still here?" Claude said. "I need you to go buy me some smokes."
"You ain't got no money," D'Andre said.
"You do," Claude said.
D'Andre gave him a 'fuck you' look. Like he was hustling for Claude. "I ain't going nowhere," D'Andre said, heading down the hall to his bedroom. He could hear his brother calling him, but he closed the door, put Li'l Flip in the CD player and turned the volume up.
Flopping on his bed, D'Andre crossed his arms behind him and rested his head in his palms. He stared at the ceiling, his feet keeping time with the beat, his mind lost in the rhymes.
Suddenly the music stopped.
"Boy, didn't I tell you to stop playing that so loud? You want to get us in trouble? I told you that people were complaining!" Her hand across his face was quick and sharp as her words. "You get me thrown out of here — where am I supposed to go?" she screamed at him. "You and that damn Claude," she continued. "Neither of you got the sense God gave a rock. Don't turn that back on!" She slammed out of the room.
The off-white ceiling held D'Andre's attention till the color blurred.
Can do this. Can't do that. Can have this. Can't have that.
He thought of Crystal. How many years had he waited? He'd been feeling her since she'd moved onto the street. Down the block from where he lived, in those houses he'd watched being built, wondering what it would be like to have a real front yard and a back one. Sometimes he and his friends would sneak into the houses-in-progress, run around in the space of them.
And then the families had started coming in. White ones he'd expected, but D'Andre had been surprised when several Black families had moved in. He met Crystal when she ended up in his third-grade class. One day, after school, he'd finally gotten courage enough to go over to her house and ask if she wanted to play.
She simply shook her head, the pretty black curls bouncing about and told him, "My mommy won't let me play with project kids."
Angry voices rose and carried themselves down the hall. D'Andre tried to ignore them.
"Neither of you do shit round here! I never expected nothing out of you, but D'Andre, I thought might become something. While you sitting up here with your drunk ass and he's out running the streets, y'all better be deciding where you gonna be cause you ain't sitting up on me much longer!"
D'Andre pulled the pillow from under his head and used it to smother his face.
D'Andre was flipping through a rack of CDs in the store when Keiron nudged him.
"Look," Keiron said, jerking his head toward the store entrance.
Crystal was sitting on a bench planter with a group of her friends, giggling.
"Son of a bitch," D'Andre muttered. He headed toward the door, Keiron attempting to stop him, but D'Andre shrugged off his friend's grasp and stomped out the store. Before Crystal, he said, "I thought you couldn't come to the mall!"
Crystal's friends — poms and class officers, members of the dance squad— quieted.
D'Andre wanted to ask what their problem was, looking at him the way they were. Like there was something wrong with his jeans, hanging low and baggy on his hips, the baseball cap askew over his cornrows, the oversized jersey paying homage to Chris Webber. The gold chains adorning his neck and wrists, the heavy diamond earring.
Crystal's eyes begged him to behave, but D'Andre didn't give a shit.
"I asked if you wanted to come to the mall and you said you couldn't!"
Crystal's eyes narrowed. "I never said I couldn't come to the mall," she told him, giving him just one more moment's attention before she turned back to her friends. "I said I couldn't come with you."
On his fourth trip, D'Andre finally knocked on the door. He took a breath as he waited and then when the outside light came on, he worked to steady his heartbeat. When Crystal's father opened the door, D'Andre asked to speak to Crystal.
Her father raised an eyebrow. "All that 'bling bling' and you don't have a watch, boy? It's close to eleven o'clock. Crystal's asleep."
D'Andre didn't tell him walking down the block, just minutes before, that he'd seen the light on in Crystal's room.
"Now, I'm sure you're used to what you boys call 'skank ho's' that don't care what hour you show up at their door, but I assure you that my daughter isn't one of them." Crystal's father stepped outside, closing the door behind him. "Let's talk. Man-to-man"
D'Andre didn't understand the man's tone, like D'Andre didn't know Crystal at all.
D'Andre wanted to tell him that he was the boy who'd given Crystal her first kiss. Or tell him that that one Thanksgiving, when the children in their family were allowed to bring one guest and Crystal had invited D'Andre, when her father was busy "entertaining" his White friends and those Black wanna-bes, D'Andre had stolen a half-filled bottle of champagne and he and Crystal had gone to her room and drank some. She'd let him put his hands under her shirt. And there were other things D'Andre could say, but he didn't tell Crystal's father shit. He just stood there and took what the man had to say — like a bitch, D'Andre thought.
"I had always hoped that you might become something other than what I believed you would be, what you indeed are. Not that I wanted to be proven wrong or that I even cared, but Crystal was always defending you. Always so sure you could be more. I hate to see her disappointed. But, even that aside, I've never considered you good enough for my daughter."
D'Andre continued to shrink beneath the look Crystal's father was giving him.
"You know, you can decorate a pile of manure with roses, but underneath it's still shit, now isn't it?" the man said, his eyes steady with D'Andre's. Then, saying nothing more, he went inside, closed the door behind him.
D'Andre 's head rocked. Steadying himself, he backed down the walk. He started home on wobbly legs, his eyes on his feet, but as he passed the part of the house with Crystal's window, he lifted his head.
The curtain dropped and quickly the light went off.
In the dim lights, D'Andre danced across the basketball court.
D'Andre turned to the figure approaching him, the boys greeted each other by way of hands, and then D'Andre told the guy what he wanted.
D'Andre nodded. He wasn't sure he understood, but he knew it wasn't just about money. He could come up with that. Something that he couldn't define or even touch. Some kind of glass separating her from him. How to get through? All he could think to do was shatter it. Give her a view of his world.
D'Andre dug into his jeans pocket and held out Ben Franklin. "Tomorrow, she's got dance till 4:30, but she always stays late. Just before five, she'll cut through there," he explained, pointing toward a part of the park located in the government housing complex. "Her mama told her don't be going through the projects, but she don't always listen to her mama."
"The lock's busted on that storage thing," he continued. D'Andre pointed out a building in the obscure area of the park. "You can do it in there"
"You're paying me a whole bill to pop her cherry?"
D'Andre shook his head as he dribbled the ball up the court to the free throw line. "Nah," he said, as he tossed the orange globe into the air, watching it arc, then fall through the netless hoop. "I'm paying you a bill to make her cry."
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