Briefly, in the moments before I knocked on her door, I wondered why I was there and how long I'd been waiting for her. She knew I was standing in the stairwell of the eighth floor, trying to summon the audacity to face her. I knew that she relished making people wait; she wielded a power you weren't subjected to until you got to know her. She didn't take anything from you. You gave it to her, wholly and happily, until your lack of free-will came back to haunt you in situations like this. Until you ended up like me. “Anthony?” Jesse turned to face me with one arm in the sleeve of her new leather jacket, a gift from her sister. In her absentmindedness, she had left the door open. The warm colors of her apartment made me tug at my canvas jacket – a hand-me-down from my brother that Jesse had found in my closet and urged me to wear. It smelled of cologne and Purple Haze, even after many washings. “Anthony, what are you doing here?” She came closer, and I eyed her lipstick. She usually wore a tinted lip balm, but today she had on something resembling maraschino cherries; her lips blazed like the look in her eyes during one of our late-night talks on her roof when her mom wasn't home. We never did anything we shouldn't in the hours it took her mom to down a few beers and talk about the colorful characters she met at work with friends. Jesse never did anything she didn't want to. “It's Halloween.” “Exactly. I thought you were going to hang out with Allie. She said you two were going to dinner at Carmichael's and then to Gizmo's party. Everyone's going to be there. It's your first outing as a couple.” She wiggled her dark eyebrows suggestively before sniffing at me in the way someone does when they expect something to smell unpleasant. “I got pelted with eggs.” “Rotten eggs. That's what happens to white kids around these parts. You're not on West End Avenue anymore.” “Yeah, I noticed that after I passed one hundred twenty-fifth on the five train. Did you know Jesus was black?” She flashed me a look that told me she was unamused. I had stuck my foot in my mouth again. I could tell it from the way she avoided my eyes. These instances were rarer lately. I used to say things – crazy, stupid, absolutely uncalled-for things – before we became friends. “You said last month that if I played nice with Allie, you'd watch ‘It' with me on Halloween. I did my part.” Nails painted red had taken my scarf before I realized how hot my neck was. She held my jacket at an arm's length and inspected the laundry tag. “I think you did more than enough.” She disappeared from the living room, and I heard the tell-tale beeps of the washer-dryer ring through her empty home. For public housing, Jesse's place was always quiet; her floor was a ghost level, and she had no younger siblings to pester her like I did. Her white heels clicked uniformly on the linoleum, and I heard a sink running in the bathroom. I could picture her in front of the mirror, taking off the old Hollywood makeup she'd put on with her costume. Her eyes were smoky enough without the eye shadow, eyeliner, and mascara. When the water stopped, I strained to hear her footsteps. I peered around the corner and got a glimpse of her, bare-backed, holding her heels in her hand. The white dress swished around her legs. The next moment, the door to her room closed. A rush of breath left me as I fell on the suede love seat. Seconds melded into minutes and minutes became twenty until the smell of butter and cocoa and sugar cookies wafted into the living room. The silver serving tray I'd become familiar with rounded the corner before she did, and I sat up. My boots were on the floor by my feet. I had kicked them off unconsciously; my body went along with the motions of familiarity and the feel of my back sinking into suede and the year-round smell of apple cinnamon candles that had nothing to do with the season's change and the pumpkin lattes and turkey and pies that we both hated. I saw sugar cookies with no frosting, a bowl of steaming popcorn, and hot chocolate and miniature marshmallows in chipped mugs. One was blue and red and yellow with a faded “S.” My heart swelled in my chest, and it hurt to sit up, but I managed. “The Superman cup is yours.” Of course it was. She always put extra cinnamon and nutmeg in mine, along with a dollop of whipped cream. Her cup had none of the frills. I'd never seen a box of Nestlé or Swiss Miss in her cabinets, only a white, nondescript box of Embajador chocolate from the Dominican bodega across the street. Now, whenever I make instant hot cocoa at home, I cringe at its flaccid flavor. “I couldn't even get through It until my fourth read. Are you sure you can't be appeased by some classic torture porn instead?” “I'm steadfast in my decision, Miss Sweet-talker. Besides, the book is way scarier than the movie.” She exaggerated a huff and smiled crookedly. She told me long ago, when we first met in English class, that she had always been deathly afraid of clowns. That was back when my travels never went any further uptown than the 96th Street stop on the 2 train, except when I went to school. “Are you sure it's okay with Allie that you're here? I don't want to step on any toes.” I almost snorted. Almost. I could've said a million things at that moment, the first of which would've been “You love stepping on toes.” I couldn't decide on the second. Instead, I lied. “She's fine with it. She said a party would be a lot of pressure on us anyway.” When she turned to put the flatscreen on the right setting for her DVD player, I put my phone on silent. The orange stripe on the mute switch glared at me in reproach, so I shoved it under the couch cushions. There was something heavy in the air, something that could only be described as different. I didn't like different, but I kept my mouth shut anyway. When Pennywise attacked Richie as a werewolf, I asked, “In a face-off with you, how would Pennywise scare you to death?” It was a good question. Jesse was wound in a ball, her right hand fisted in her hair. She was uncomfortable, but that was a given. By now, her sock-clad feet should have been crossed in my lap. She should have been laughing at the terrible decisions of those on screen. I tugged at the leg of her pajama bottoms, and she looked at my hand in the glow of the television. The silence was deafening. I had to ask. “Are you feeling bad again? Like … sick?” The fist in her hair loosened until it dropped to the pillow. In a few simple movements, she snatched the remote, turned the TV off, and made her way to the kitchen, silver tray in hand. I followed. Against every preservation instinct, I followed her. Her back was to the sink, and the water was running. The strong pressure splashed against the metal and wet the back of her shirt. I reached to turn it off, but she grabbed my hand. “The sound calms me. Just give me a minute, okay?” I did. I gave her three before I tugged at our woven hands and she fell into my chest. Her shallow breathing didn't go with my pounding heart, but in a way, it made sense. Her nails dug into my back through the Pixies T-shirt I was wearing. When I took a shower later, the angry crescents stung and I had to give my little brother twenty bucks to put ointment on without saying a word to our parents. She breathed a laugh against my chest that warmed me against the October breeze coming in through the window. The smell of weed wafted in with it. The sky was dark now, the street lights illuminating the way for a night of bad decisions and youthful exuberance. “Am I feeling bad? For goodness' sake, Anthony. I'm depressed, not Michael Jackson.” “Shut up, you crybaby.” She pulled away from me, laughing and sniffing through the tears that ran down her cheeks. When she looked up at me, her eyes, the darkest I'd ever known, were clear of the liquid coal they were covered in during school. There was no fake beauty mark drawn above her mouth. Her lips were their natural rosy color and stretched into their trademark crooked grin. “I'm always going to be here for you,” I said. Her expression muted. She knew something I didn't. She always did. “I hate absolutes.” A beat of silence ricocheted off the walls until it flew past the black gates of an open window. “Let's order some Chinese. I'm dying for fried dumplings. My treat?” When the delivery man came to the door, covered in eggs, I paid. When she asked me why, I told her, “Because I haven't done enough.”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the October 2014 Teen Ink Fiction Contest.