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Of the hree holiday parties I attended while back home in Oakland for winter break, all three got shot up. A couple of my close friends had been hit, caught in the crossfire. In less than two months, I'd been to four funerals—all guys I'd grown up with. In fact, violence in The Town had gotten so bad, just going to the mall was a risky move. Growing up in Cali, I was used to being around ignorance and violence. But it seemed like it was worse now than it had ever been. It was to the point where I had to watch my back every time I stepped out of the house.
And the fact that I'd returned home from college didn't help. It only increased the size of the bull's-eye on my chest. In my hood, there is more of a celebration for a guy being released from prison than for one who'd returned home from college. As irrational as it sounds, that's just the way it is. The fact of the matter is, misery loves company. Other than my best friend, Todd, who got a full ride to Crampton on a football scholarship, none of my friends left home for college. Most of them didn't go at all.
Over winter break, I noticed a lot of the guys I hung around starting to hate on the fact that I'd left for college in an underhanded way. Snide remarks like "You think you're better than us now that you went to college?" and "This nigga been in college for one semester and swears he knows everything now" were becoming more frequent by the day. Guys who were supposed to be my friends were turning on me, all because I'd decided to do more with my life than they had. When mixed with envy, the crab-in-a-barrel mentality gave way to genocide in the hood. Home wasn't safe anymore.
That morning I was headed back to school, when I threw my last bag in the trunk of the car, I was determined to study hard and do whatever it took to get off academic probation and stay in school, so I could one day remove myself from harm's way for good. But when I saw my younger sister, Robyn, take the driver's seat, I figured my luck had finally run out. She'd just gotten her license and wanted to practice. I couldn't quite fathom why my mom decided to let her at six in the morning, while it was still dark out. But after Robyn accidentally flicked on the windshield wipers, hazard lights and the wrong blinker before we made it to the highway, I knew she needed all the practice she could get. I still couldn't understand why her in-flight training had to come while driving me to the airport. At least let one person in this family graduate from college, I thought, as we risked life and limb cruising down I-580 en route to the airport. I could tell my mom was a bit nervous, her head on the constant swivel, double-checking Robyn's blind spots each time before she merged lanes. But not even Robyn's no-driving-skills-having-self could stop my mom from going through with her State of the Union address as we neared the terminal.
"Are you sure you got everything?" she asked.
"If I didn't, it's too late to turn around now," I said from the backseat, with a hint of sarcasm.
"Hey! I'm just checking to make sure you haven't left anything behind. You know the weather has changed since the last time you were down there in Atlanta. It's probably going to be chilly until March. I hope you packed warm. You know you don't have a doctor down there, and I can't afford to fly you back home if you get sick."
"Good. Now let me see… what am I forgetting? Hmmm. Do you have your award letter? Because you left that on the coffee table last semester."
"Yeah, I got it," I said, running my hand through my pocket to double-check.
Although I had all but severed my relationship with my high school girlfriend, Keisha, leaving without hearing her say goodbye didn't sit well with me. She was my first love. She knew I was leaving and hadn't even bothered to send me a text message to bid me farewell or wish me good luck. Although I'd never admit it, my mom knew not hearing from Keisha bothered me. My mom knew me like the back of her hand.
"Look, J.D., I know you probably don't want to talk about it, but I know you have strong feelings for Keisha," she said.
"I ain't even thinking about that girl," I said, lying.
"Come on now," my mom said. "I was born at night. Not last night! I know that's not the truth. Y'all dated all through high school. But the fact of the matter is, both of you are grown-up now and, quite possibly, growing apart."
"Mom, I'm telling you, it's not like that with me and Keisha anymore."
"All I'm saying is—" my mom said, butting in "—and this goes for you, too, Robyn, so listen up. Don't take your eyes off the road! But listen up. Every person who was a part of your past, isn't going to be a part of your future. And that's as plain as I can put it."
At thirty-eight, my mom was good-looking, single and still young enough to understand what I was going through when it came to relationships. She never shied away from sharing her opinion, no matter whether I wanted to hear it or not.
"I hear you," I said. "That's exactly why I'm not coming back to Oakland ever again," I said.
"Not coming back?" my sister asked fearfully, turning her head to look at me in the backseat.
All the while our car drifted slowly into the next lane, causing the white guy in the minivan next to us to swerve abruptly, honk his horn and flip us the bird.
"Keep your eyes on the road!" my mom and I shouted in unison.
"Sorry," Robyn said, placing her hands back at ten and two o'clock on the steering wheel, regaining control. "What do you mean not coming back ever?"
"I don't know about ever," I said. "But you know how crazy it is out here. People getting shot and killed left and right. Plus, now that I'm in school, I've been noticing a lot of envy coming from the homies. Everybody's hating on me, just 'cause I'm going to college. Other than Todd, I think I'ma just cut all them niggas off for good. Every last one of 'em. Keisha included. Katrina, too! I'm cutting off everybody this semester. Starting off with a clean slate."
"Well, J.D., you know I've never told you how to pick your friends," my mom said. "And I know how jealous friends who didn't go off to college can be. Some of my girls did me the same way back in the day. All I can say is, I know for a fact that you have some good friends. At least a couple."
"Maybe a couple," I said.
"Everybody's not going to go off to college like you," she continued. "But that doesn't make them any less of a friend. As for Keisha and Katrina, you're on your own there. I don't know what you're looking for in a woman, but until you find it, my advice is don't settle for less. Just be careful who you decide to cut off. People are resources, and you just never know when you will need somebody to come through for you. Growing up, my grandmother used to always tell me, 'You should never burn a bridge, unless you have a boat.'"
"Well, I got me a cruise ship," I said, cockily. "So I'ma just do me."
"A cruise ship, huh?" my mom asked, giggling. "Well, unless you wanna go down like the Titanic, you might wanna think about being more involved in extra-curricular activities on campus this year. I think it would be good for you to get your mind off of Keisha, Katrina and your so-called friends here. Do something constructive with all of the idle time you seem to have on your hands down there. Maybe you should try running for office in student government. I think you'd be good at that."
"Yeah, right!" Robyn said, laughing. "The only reason you're telling him to do that is because you wanted to run for office in college."
"Wanted to?" my mom asked. "I did run!"
"What happened?" Robyn asked.
"I would have won, but…"
My mom is good for a barrage of run-on sentences. But stopping in midsentence was definitely not her forté.
"But what?" Robyn asked.
"Never mind that. I just think that it would be good for J.D. to take on some extra responsibility."
"I wanna know why you didn't win," Robyn said.
"Well, if you must know, when I got pregnant with J.D., it was kind of a big deal. Unlike today, it wasn't a very popular thing back then for a teenage girl to get pregnant without being married. At any rate, I was running for student body president, and the only thing standing in between me and winning was this snooty little thang named Jocelyn Paige. I'll never forget her."
"What did she do?" my sister asked.
"Well, see, your momma was fine back in the day. Fine and popular. Everybody loved me. Anyway, I had so many people on campus saying they were going to vote for me, the election was going to be a landslide. So Jocelyn did the only thing she knew to do."
"What?" Robyn asked.
"Became a player hater. That girl started spreading rumors about me being pregnant and telling everybody I didn't know who the daddy was. Which was a lie! I'd been with J.D.'s father for years. Kids can be so cruel. At any rate, the rumors got so bad and I was so embarrassed, I just quit. It's one of the few things in my life I regret. Looking back, I would have rather competed and lost than lived life not knowing if I would have won. That's why whenever you commit to doing anything, whether it's trying out for the varsity cheerleading team, or trying to make good grades in school or whatever, my only advice is that you give it your all. That way, you can be content no matter if you win or lose."
"That was my first time ever hearing that story, Mom," Robyn said. "Shoot, listening to you just now, makes me want to run for student government."
"Not me!" I said emphatically. "I couldn't ever see myself running for nobody's student body nothin'. Y'all can keep all of that campaigning, speech writing and public speaking crap. I didn't even know you were into that though, Mom. How come you never told us?"
"You never asked," she said. "The moral of the whole story is, you should never let another person or group of people dictate how far you go in life. And if you start something, never ever quit."
"Which terminal?" Robyn asked.
"I'm flying Delta," I said.
"Oh, and J.D.," my mom continued. "Just so you know. Financially, times are really tough for me right now. Until I find a full-time gig, I won't be able to help you out and send you money as often as I did last semester. I'm gonna help you when I can, but I'm just letting you know."
"I understand, Mom," I said.
"All right, well I guess that's about it then," my mom said, opening her door.
"You'd better get going. You don't have long to get to your gate."
My sister followed her lead. Both of them met me at the trunk, but neither offered a hand to lift my heavy suitcase.
"Love you, Mom," I said, giving her a big bear hug and a kiss on the cheek.
"I am so proud of you," she whispered in my ear. "Keep making your momma proud!"
I couldn't leave Robyn without reinforcing some words of wisdom I'd shared with her a couple weeks ago.
"And you… You better remember what I told you," I said.
"Just 'cause you got your driver's license, that don't mean you need to be out here like the rest of these hot mommas. I heard about that boy you're talking to on the basketball team. Uh-huh. Didn't think I knew about that, did you? Don't get homeboy beat up. I'd hate to have see his future go down the drain."
"Yeah, yeah," she said. "A-n-y-w-a-y-s! Don't you have a plane to catch?"
"Not before you recite the rules I gave you," I said.
"Never go over a guy's house to watch a movie."
"Exactly! That's what theaters are for. Keep going."
"Don't let a guy talk me into giving him a massage and always say no if he asks to give me one."
"Precisely! Oldest trick in the book. It always starts out with an innocent massage. Then, before you know it, your bra is unstrapped and… Anyway. You're doing good. Keep going."
"Never go over a guy's house after 11:00 p.m."
"'Cause ain't nothin' open that late but fast food restaurants, gas stations and legs."
"That's right," I said, nodding my head, with a slight smirk. "Keep 'em coming."
"Don't drink and drive or ride in a car with anyone who has been drinking."
"I lost one of my good friends in college just last semester behind that. Carry on."
"Uhhhm. Uhh. Dang, J.D., it's way too early in the morning for this!"
"C'mon, now! I got a plane to catch."
"Shoot," she said, snapping her fingers repeatedly, her eyes rolled up like she was in deep thought. "I don't know. Ummm. Oh, yeah. Don't drink or smoke weed. Okay, that's it. 'Bye."
"But if you do slip up and have a drink…"
"If I do, never leave my cup unsupervised."
"That's my little sister," I said, reaching out to give her a hug. "I love you."
"Love you, too," she said, hugging me tight.
With that, I waved at my mom, turned up my iPod, and walked into the airport. I was actually more excited about leaving to go back to school than I thought. I was still nervous about how people at my school would react to me and what they'd think about me after all the rumors they'd heard. I didn't quite know how the hell I'd manage to pull off a 2.5 GPA without Kat's help tutoring me. If it hadn't been for her, I'm almost certain, my grades wouldn't have been anywhere near good enough to even think about going back to the University of Atlanta. But choosing between ducking strays in Oakland or going off to college to pursue a better life for myself was a no-brainer. I had to leave. And there was no reason to look back. Too much to look forward to.