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I’m chilling at the community center where Ma works. She’s cool with her boss and coworkers, so they’re cool with me and my sister, Ava, being at Ma’s job after school.
Usually, Ava chills for minutes. Me? Hours. I don’t know why Ava doesn’t hang longer. Maybe she’s too busy with her ninth-grade life. But me? I like doing office things, like Ma: reading, being quiet, and chilling for forever. For example, about a month back, I found this empty spot at Ma’s job and asked her if I could use it as my pretend-office. She asked her boss and she told Ma, “Sure. We also have a spare desk-chair and some other supplies Bryan can use.”
So, right now, I’m doing homework in my office, but this kid named Mike is at Ma’s desk and I’m distracted spying on him.
He’s a year older than me and about two inches taller. He rocks a sweater like mine, but his kicks are newer and more popular. He has hair like me, Afro-type if we grew it out. Mine’s grown out a little since I need a cut. He just got one.
Now he’s alone, but I’ve seen him with his mom here, two or three times.
I didn’t think twice about Mike at first because a lot of kids and their parents come through here. Then I saw him at my school, hanging with seventh graders. He didn’t do his sixth grade in my school. So, why’d he transfer for his seventh grade? I asked Ma, and she said his family was in the Bronx and she helped them get an apartment here in Brooklyn in our projects.
In school, me and Mike nod what’s up but don’t hang. I see him around the neighborhood too and at the handball courts near us. Then the other day I saw him talking to my pops. I didn’t get why Pa was so friendly to him. And I don’t get why Mike is here now, talking to Ma.
I squint at them.
“Did Mike just call Ma ‘Ma’?” I ask Ava, who is in my office looking at my homework on my clipboard.
Ava stares from the clipboard at him and shrugs. “Who cares? Almost anyone younger than her calls her Ma.”
That’s true. Ma helps lots of people and they love her. But I don’t like this kid Mike calling her Ma right now.
I ask Ava, “Why’s he playing her so close?”
Ava goes back to reading the clipboard, but I can’t look away.
Mike stares at Ma like she’s his mom for real and gives her a hug.
Yo! He better let go of my moms.
Ava interrupts me and points at different spots on my clipboard. “You spelled some stuff wrong.”
“What? Where?” Nothing should be wrong because I checked it twice like Ma says to do. I look where she points.
Ugh! She’s right. I hate when she’s right.
I grab a pencil, take the clipboard, and fix my mistakes.
By the time I look up again, Mike’s about to leave. He yells, “Bye, Ma!”
I turn to Ava. “He just called her Ma again!”
She rolls her eyes. “Because he’s probably her real son. Unlike you.”
Here she goes again, cracking that stupid joke she’s been cracking since I was in day care, telling me Ma and Pa found me in a trash can.
Back then, I believed her since me and Ava have different complexions. Hers is chocolate brown. I’m a lighter caramel.
The first time she said it, I ran to Ma and she showed me our birth certificates. Ava got punished but she never stopped joking I wasn’t her brother—like right now—and for some reason it still bothers me.
“Well, I wish Mike was my real brother,” she continues. “He’s no momma’s boy like you.”
My whole head burns like I have a fever. I want to cut on her so hard. But only weak disses come to mind. I finally growl, “Big Head.”
“Oooh, Big Head. Ouch. I can’t wait until Mike comes to eat.”
“What you think? He calls Ma Ma and he won’t come eat soon? You know anyone who calls Ma Ma ends up eating with us. You saw how she hugged him.”
Ma sneaks up on us. “What is going on with you two?”
We shut up.
“You both were going at it. Now you’re quiet?”
“Bryan’s mad because you hugged Mike.”
Ma makes a face like I’m her baby and I have nothing to worry about. “Come here.”
I go over and she hugs me.
“You don’t have to worry about Mike. You’ll see tomorrow night. He’s coming for dinner.”
When I get back from school the next day, Ma tries handing me what looks like a grocery list. I U-turn to bounce.
“Bryan,” she calls me back. “Here. I need you to go to Hector’s.”
I sigh, turn around, and take her grocery list as thoughts fly through my head.
I hope there’s no note for the bodega’s owner.
I hope there’s no note for the bodega’s owner.
Ugh! There’s a note for him.
Why do I have to get groceries with a note and not real money? I wish I had brothers to get groceries.
Actually, I do have brothers. Before Ma, Pa had three sons from another woman. But I don’t even know what they look like. I used to imagine them. I pictured them stopping bullies from bullying me. I pictured them giving me money when I wanted candy. I pictured them teaching me boy stuff Pa didn’t.
Now, I’ve stopped imagining them. They’re not coming to Brooklyn for me, and they probably don’t even know about me. Supposedly, they’re grown and live in Philly or somewhere.
Pa probably doesn’t even know what his sons look like either. Ma says Pa left them when they were like nine or ten and he hasn’t seen them since. Whatevs.
So, I have to go get groceries. Not Ava. Not imaginary brothers. Me. And I hate it.
I look at Ma’s shopping list. “Can I add chocolate powder?”
She sighs. “Bryan, we’re just getting what we need.”
“I need chocolate milk,” I say. I look at the list again. “Okay, how about grapes? We need them.”
“They so shriveled,” I joke, “they raisins now.”
But Ma’s in a serious mood. “Money is tight.”
I want to say, If money is tight and we have to buy food on credit, why you inviting Mike to dinner?
But I just take the list and head for the elevator. When it shows up, there’s a puddle of piss in it. Instead of someone cleaning it up, it looks like heads did what they usually do—keep trashing it. Junk-food wrappers and cigarette butts float on the puddle that stinks ammonia-strong.
I take the stairs.
Pa’s friends hang out on the corner near the bodega.
His friend Pito lowers his sunglasses and waves when he sees me. Pito could pass for that basketball player Stephen Curry and always rocks skintight T-shirts that show off his abs, no matter how cold it gets outside.
A bunch of other familiar faces spot me and their faces flip from hard to hi, but not much else flips. Loud Spanish music thumps. Teens who rock the most dip gear sit on milk crates. Some of Pa’s real old—viejo—friends sit at a table and play dominoes and beef about the last move made.
This is Pa and his homeboys’ spot. I only come by when I’m on my way to the bodega or the arcade next door.
Ava says I don’t like to hang here because I’m soft. That’s why she calls me a momma’s boy. I’m not a momma’s boy, but I am like Ma since she got me used to being by myself, the way she keeps to herself.
“Focus on school,” Ma always tells me. “There will be friends later. The wrong friends bring drama, and I don’t want them rubbing off on you.” Anyway, with all that advice, I wonder why she’s letting Mike come over.
Nicholas, this black older man with dark skin and all-white hair like Magneto from the X-Men, puts his hand on my shoulder and nods at a crate. “Sit! Sit!”
“No thanks,” I tell Nicholas real kind. “Ma and Pa want me back with the food.”
Nicholas and Pa’s friends circle me, smiling. Some are a bit bent with that same smell Pa has when he drinks. But the look in their eyes is the same: love. I know they have my back.
When me and Pa are here, he tells them, “Look out for my son,” and they swear they’d body anyone who messes with me. Once, when Pa told Pito to look out for me, Pito lifted his fist, showed Pa his knuckles, and told him, “Joe, you kidding me? Someone messes with him and they get this.” Pa lifted his fist too, and they winked, pumping fists like boxers before a boxing match.
I believe Pito and Nicholas and all of Pa’s friends when they say they’ll do whatevs for me. Out here, you need heads who got your back and it feels good that they got mine.
I go in the store.
“Bryan!” Hector smiles at me while humming along to a Marc Anthony song playing loud from behind the counter.
I hand him Ma’s shopping list. He stops humming, reads it, and bites his lip. “Your father hasn’t paid his last bill.”
I look away, wishing I wasn’t here.
Hector sighs and slides Ma’s list on the counter back to me. “Go ahead. Tell him I’ll add this to his old bill.”
I grab it, then a handbasket, and walk in the Goya aisle.
I start getting stuff from shelves, and when I get to the bread, Hector’s tiger-striped cat chills on top of a loaf.
I want to tell Hector, “Mercedes is smushing the bread.”
I can’t though. Hector might flip and say, “My cat can do what she wants. You don’t even have money. Be happy I let you get food.”
I walk up to Mercedes and the bread.
I try to grab a not-smushed bread, and Mercedes swats me mad fast!
Yo! Her eyes look like she says, Get out my store with your broke butt.
When I finally have everything, I go to the counter. Hector checks if the list matches what I got. I can’t have nothing extra.
I stare back at the chocolate powder we can’t afford to buy. Chocolate milk tastes so good.
Right then, this girl Melanie from my school comes in and watches as Hector bags my stuff and hands me a Post-it. “This is how much your father owes.”
Dang! Why’d he have to mention us owing money? I nervous-smile at Melanie, and just like I thought, she eyes me all in my sauce and trying to know the flavor.
What’s for her to figure out? I’m a broke joke.
Yo! I wish I could explode magician smoke in front of me and—poof—I’d be gone and not here, all embarrassed.
I nod at Hector. “Okay.”
“Tell Joe I say hi.”
Outside his store, I look above everyone’s head—above all the laughs, the arguing, and the music.
I look toward Manhattan, and I wish things could be different.
I wish my family had more money.
I wish that girl didn’t have to see me be broke.
I wish I had a brother for real.
I wish I wasn’t in my feelings.
I wish I didn’t care so much.