Hello, Brooklyn . . . Goodbye, California
First day of school. East Coast. Brooklyn. And it’s like I’ve never been alive like this before. I walk into Benjamin Banneker and the security guard asks me for my student ID. “It’s--it’s my first day,” I stutter. Not because I’m afraid. But because I’m confused. I’ve never had to have ID to come onto a school campus before. This is real different than California. But after that weird night with my ex-boyfriend, Darius, my mom (she who I now call Elena) drove away with me in the front seat, tears falling down her eyes as she whimpered, “You’re moving to Brooklyn with your uncle Spence.”
I was too numb to answer, my throat was a sea of sandpaper and I couldn’t even cry. My eyes almost swollen closed from the fight that found me and Darius sprawled out on the hood of his Chevy Impala in the school parking lot, is all I can think of. All over some dumb argument during a school basketball game. So, when I mix my words, I think it makes me look guilty. I mean, it’s my fault Darius got in trouble, right?
“Go to the left,” the security guard directs me. He has a tapered fade and black-rimmed glasses. He is almost frowning at me. Maybe he thinks it’s my fault too?
Principal’s Office Chairs Are the Worst
I walk into the office with the glass door covered by brightly colored flyers about the next PTA meeting, the importance of recycling, and something about an open mic night. I am a little surprised there is no bell to signal my arrival, but when the door recoils with a loud prison-door thud, I realize that is the signal itself. I sit in the first empty chair I see. The room is quartered off by a long plank of buffed wood, and there are metal baskets lined up against the wall with last names in front of them. Bernette, Chambers, Elliot, Frederick . . . I am reading the names silently when a brown-skinned woman with a yellow-printed headwrap and glasses latched to a golden chain around her neck walks into the office, where more mailboxes line the wall next to a vase of sunflowers that look back at me. Golden globes of light, Mom--I mean, Elena used to call them. They were her favorite.
My back and arm begin to ache. I blame these stupid chairs. You know the ones with wooden seats and cushioned backs? Like, who does that? Who wants to sit on something that looks like I promise to hurt your ass, but your back is going to be nice and comfy! I feel like it’s a form of punishment, these chairs from medieval times. The woman with the African-print kaftan and headwrap looks me up and down and smiles.
“You must be Angel. It’s so good to meet you! I’m Mrs. Barton. I’m the assistant to Principal Stern. You want some tea?” Mrs. Barton opens the cupboard, and it closes so quick I almost confuse it with the loud spring of the front office door.
“Hi, Mrs. Barton.” I stand up slowly, reaching out to shake her hand with my left hand, the one hand that is still swollen but is not in the shoulder sling. She grabs my hand with both of hers lightly and squeezes. “No, I’m not thirsty,” I say. “Thank you.”
“You can call me Mrs. B. I’m so glad you made it! We’ve been waiting for you,” she says, and it almost sounds like a song. “Let me know if you need anything, okay? I’ve got your class schedule here. Your temporary student ID.” She walks back to a stack of papers and grabs a pale-yellow folder. “I thought we could wait a bit for the pictures. Is next week okay?” She eyes the bruise gleaming like a lightning strike near my right eye.
I nod slowly. She must think it’s my fault too. That’s the way guilt spreads. It makes me think about the little things again and again. It makes me slip around in my brain for hours, wondering if I did things this way or that way, maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t have messed my life up.
I didn’t have the best life in California, sure. But it was mine. I had my little brother, Amir, and triplets: Ayanna, Ashanti, and Asha. I didn’t have a lot of friends. Elena and I weren’t on the best terms. But I was used to the life. Forever sun beaming in a sleepy town tucked in Northern California. People talked a lot of mess about me, but that’s only because they didn’t know me. They had to make up things or just jump to conclusions. It didn’t bother me much. Because I had Darius. He made it all worth it. The way he looked at me for the first time.
I was waiting at a bus stop on my way to the mall. I wanted to take pictures with my “sometime” friends at the One Hour Photo. You don’t have to be good friends to take pictures, Elena said. Besides, you need to make memories while you can. You don’t get a do-over button. She was usually smoking a cigarette or smelling like a bunch of Clorox and arriving home tired. Her feet propped up on the seat of the kitchen chair. Her hands raw and tight after her day’s shift.
Darius was driving in a tricked-out hooptie. Super clean dipped in sparkly cobalt-blue paint. He didn’t smile when he saw me. His light brown eyes just lit up and something in my stomach did a flip. And that was that. I honestly didn’t think I would see him again. Little did I know he was following the bus until I got off at the mall entrance a few miles down. Darius: tall, bronze complexion, and lean like a basketball player. He sat on top of that sparkly car in the parking lot, like a cologne ad or something. And it looked like he was waiting for me. But I didn’t want to assume I was the only person going to a mall on a Saturday, so I started to walk by him. Before I could poorly pretend I was too busy with putting my lip gloss back in my purse than checking for him, he called out, “I know this is weird. But I was waiting for you. Can I walk you to wherever you’re going?”
Homeroom: H.E.R. Leadership Advisory
Mrs. B taps her fingers against the plexiglass window before turning the silver knob and pulling open the steel-like door. Even the doors here look heavier. I move soundless behind Mrs. B, grateful for a minute to be walking in the shadow of someone that seems so brave. The woman behind the book-filled desk rises quickly.
“Hey, Mrs. B!” She smiles. They hug as if they are old friends, and I feel like I’m crashing a party or something. The two of them chat in floral patterns, speaking warmly with the same words and tones that pepper the air of Flatbush, Brooklyn. I look around the room and notice a circle of nine chairs in the middle of the classroom. Two columns of desks line the window, and backpacks or small purses occupy some of the chairs.
“Angel?” Mrs. B’s voice nudges me from my surveillance.
“Yes?” I move closer to the two women.
“This is Ms. Greenaway,” Mrs. B introduced. “She is your homeroom/Advisory teacher and our favorite poetry teacher on campus.” She beams.
Ms. Greenaway snorts. “I’m the ONLY poetry teacher on campus. Call me Ms. G.” She squeezes Mrs. B’s shoulders and continues at rapid speed, “I’m so happy to have you. Advisory serves as homeroom and is the first class of the day. All the girls have gone to hang up flyers around campus. They will be back any minute. We’re having our first open mic and the group is excited! Do you perform at all, Angel?”
Her brown eyes pour into mine and suddenly I feel shy. Not shy like a baby, but shy like I’m not sure I want them to know I don’t know who I am anymore, so I shake my head no.
Once, I found a book of Maya Angelou in the dollar bin at the secondhand bookstore and carried it on me for days. I didn’t have a lot of time to read it. But it fit in my pocket and whenever I found myself alone with nothing to do, no trio to pick up, no Amir to clean up after, I’d read a page or two. Took me almost a whole semester but I did it. Darius snatched it from me when he felt I was ignoring him. Ripped it to pieces because he said I thought it was more important than our relationship.
One day, I was quiet. Next day, I had nothing to lose. But here I am. After losing everything and relocating to a city three thousand miles away from home. As my shoulder begins to ache, like a well-timed reminder of past mistakes, I try to shrug. I wish I could do it all differently. I just don’t know how. The shrug pinches a nerve and I grimace, which probably looks like I’m not interested in anything Ms. G is talking about. But she nods. Unbothered, like she understands.
“No problem. We’ll figure out something for you to do for participation credit. I have all kinds of amazing humans in here. Some of them sing, dance, rap, and spit poetry. And some of them draw or do hair or are really stylish and share tips!” She pulls at her long, bright earrings. They’re a pair of colorful leather strings, each attached to a single silver button. “And if none of that sounds fun--I always need a stage manager! You’re on time, right?” I nod. “Good,” she laughs. “ ’Cause I need all the time-conscious people in my world that I can get!”
Mrs. B and Ms. G clap five with their hands and I walk away to the window where an empty desk sits. I drop my denim backpack and look out the barred window. Two floors up and all I can see is red and orange leaves. A breeze swings by and shakes the tree branches. I shudder.
Right now, in Cali, the weather is easily eighty degrees or hotter. I would be walking on campus with my new jean shorts, and maybe Darius would have dropped me off. I would be entering my junior year of high school with my scalp covered in cornrow braids, because my cousin Alice is one of the best hair braiders around. I don’t get to see her often because she lives over an hour away. But every summer we have a family reunion. We all pack up and go to a camping site near the Redwoods or Yellowstone, and we spend the weekend together. I hate camping. But I love my cousins. It’s the only time we get to see each other, because it seems our parents, who are first cousins, got a weird-ass rivalry that keeps them far, far away from each other. Elena says it’s because Mae thinks she’s better than everyone and always has an opinion about how she raises us kids. The triplets have a different father than me and Amir, so when we have the chance to all be together, it’s important. When they’re with their dad, me and Amir fend for ourselves. My mom, Elena, spent most of her life trying to prove to everyone that she belonged, and she made some real bad decisions. Now she works pickup jobs wherever she can to make ends meet, and during school hours she works as a custodian.
People used to make jokes about her job, but I couldn’t care less. Before Amir got into the magnet school, the jokes about Elena bothered him. “She’s still our mom,” he would grumble. Amir is a sensitive genius. “STEM Kid from the Stars” is what I call him. The only thing we share is our hair color and light eye color. We got that from our dad. I’m not as smart as Amir, and he’s only two years younger than me. I think I’m more like Elena than our dad in that way. Damn, I haven’t thought of my dad in so long. It feels like a test I didn’t prepare for, and it brings up too many bad memories. I shake my head, like the branch caught in the middle of the wind, as Mrs. B calls me back.
“Angel, here is your schedule. Someone from Advisory will take you through the rest of your day. Ms. G, I’ve got to get back. But call me if you need!” And she’s out the door, a fragrance of mango shea butter and sunflowers in her wake.
Ms. G smiles. “In the beginning of class, we do a check-in. This way the class can know how you’re feeling. It’s easy, use the scale one-to-ten. Just so folks know how you are, ya know? Some days I’m a five! I’m just happy I made it to class on time. And some days, I had a good cup of chai and I’m fearless, honey! I’m a nine! But there is no wrong answer, okay?”
I nod. My left hand still holding close, my right arm in the sling.
Ms. G looks at my arm. “And you don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to. Take your time. This is the classroom where we get to just be. The world is hard enough, Angel. This is your safe space. And the students in this room, they become like family and they are all excited to meet you.” She finishes just as the classroom door opens and the students of H.E.R. Leadership Advisory file into the room.
Have You Ever?
Held your breath?
Because you were afraid
of what might come out
when you exhale
That’s how it feels to be me
Holding my breath
and swinging for the fences
Swinging for my own life
Once upon a time
I was just a girl with a crew of younger look-alikes
Once upon a time
I was just a girl growing into a teenager
My mom worked her fingers to the bone
But she didn’t know she also worked my name to dust
Once upon a time
I stopped holding my breath
I took a deep deep breath
I inhaled all of the doubt
And started to believe everyone before I believed in myself
Copyright © 2022 by Mahogany L. Browne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.