If you would have told Zyla this morning that not only would she have a full-blown conversation with Kai Johnson, but that he’d flirt with her and ask her out within a sixty-minute time span, she would have told you to lay off the bath salts.
But he did flirt with her, at least that was what it seemed like with the way he’d stared so deeply into her eyes, like he’d been trying to solve the puzzle that was her mind. And he’d definitely been gearing up to ask her out before she’d cut him off.
She watched as his Jeep pulled out of the parking lot, and she held her backpack to her chest, mystified. Like . . . it was Kai Johnson. He’d dated at least a quarter of the girls in her year at St. Catherine’s, and on Cedar High’s game days, girls showed up with his number painted on their cheeks even though he didn’t even go to their school! Okay, so a quarter of the girls was a bit of an exaggeration. But nevertheless, it was absolutely bonkers, and Zyla had thought her classmates were delusional. But she had to be honest, she understood it now. Kai Johnson was disarming. It wasn’t just that he was handsome with his smooth brown skin and bright white teeth (what, was he like a model or something in a former life?) but from the way Kai strutted around Sailor Joe’s all summer, and from the stories she’d heard from her classmates and coworkers, Zyla had expected him to be a bit of a jerk or stuck up. The kind of boy who commanded attention and was annoyed when he didn’t receive it. But he seemed . . . normal? Whatever that meant. He was chill. More than that, he was kind of funny. And flirtatious, but that wasn’t surprising.
She’d completely embarrassed herself, blabbering on about how Aunt Ida paid for her to go to St. Catherine’s. She didn’t want Kai thinking she was a spoiled and rich private-school girl like so many of her classmates. She’d felt a buzz in her gut when he’d looked at her so closely and asked for her last name. There’d been some kind of gravitational pull that had made her move closer to him, but thankfully Jamal had appeared and broken the spell. Zyla meant what she said. Nothing was going to happen between her and Kai. It wasn’t because he’d recently been dumped by Camille Vaughn—the most popular, most beautiful, and meanest girl at Sailor Joe’s—and it was kind of sketchy that he was moving on so quickly. It wasn’t that he and Camille had a big blow-up scene that eventually landed him in Games (yeah, she’d heard about that incident even though she’d pretended otherwise). And it wasn’t that Kai had dated way too many of her mutuals or was a known player. Zyla just didn’t date, period.
Now she and Kai would be working together, and they’d agreed to be friends. Go figure. At least it would make the rest of her summer more interesting. She couldn’t wait to call her best friend, Beatrice, and tell her about this later. She would have preferred to tell her in person, but Beatrice was spending the summer in Paris with her dad.
The whole Kai Johnson thing had Zyla in a daze for a good fifteen minutes before a school bus pulled up directly in front of her and she was almost trampled by a summer camp stampede. She darted aside, almost tripping over a kid in the process, and pulled out her phone. No response from her mom, who should have been here to pick her up by now. Typical.
Antonio wasn’t surprised to see Zyla when she walked into his office unannounced. He was sitting at his desk, working on a Sudoku puzzle, an unlit cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth. He glanced up at Zyla and raised an eyebrow.
“She’s late,” Zyla explained, pulling out the chair across from him and plopping down.
“Ah.” He held up his puzzle book. “You finished yesterday’s in almost ten minutes. Want to try a harder one?”
“No thanks.” Instead, she retrieved her magazine and flipped through the pages she’d marked today, the editorials that she’d return to for inspiration when necessary. She was itching to get home and work on her portfolio. Or maybe finish the black denim jumper she’d started two weeks ago. Her free time was already limited as it was, between her job, and looking after Jade, and taking care of Aunt Ida, and doing things most seventeen-year-olds didn’t have to be bothered with. She wished for a few spare minutes to look over her designs before she had to help with dinner. Why couldn’t her mom just be on time for once?
It wouldn’t be like this forever, though. By this time next year, she’d be gone. Gone, gone. Like in a different country, on a different continent, completely separate from everyone in her life, and able to live on her own terms. It was the only thing she wanted.
“How did Hezekiah do today?”
Zyla pulled her attention away from the Gap ad she’d marked earlier of a Black girl with cornrows wearing an oversized bomber jacket and looked up at Antonio. “Who?”
“Sorry, I mean Kai. I’ve known him since he was a kid, you see. When he first moved in his with uncle. That’s why I call him Hezekiah.”
“Oh.” She pictured Kai’s warm brown eyes and the way he’d smiled at her right before he almost invited her to the movies. Ugh, get ahold of yourself. She cleared her throat. “He was fine, I guess. Not much action happens at Balloon Darts, you know. It’s not like he had to talk to any customers.”
“I placed him with you for a reason, Zyla. I did. It was strategic, it was.” Antonio moved his hands around as if he were speaking about particles in the atmosphere. “I believe that you’re an exceptional young lady, Zyla, and I see lots of potential in you. I see potential in Hezekiah too. He’s just so easily distracted. My hope is that maybe some of your ability to be focused, with the exception of your magazine reading, will rub off on him.”
“Oh,” she said again. Kai was easily distracted? By what?
The second she began to ask, her phone vibrated loudly on Antonio’s desk. It was a text from her mom. I’m here.
She sighed and stood up. “My mom’s outside. Thanks for letting me hang out here. Again.”
Antonio nodded at her. “Tell your aunt Ida I said hello. And remember to leave the magazine at home tomorrow, please.”
Zyla smiled and saluted Antonio, who only shook his head. They both knew she’d return with a new magazine, or possibly her sketchbook.
“Got it, boss,” she said.
Zyla’s mom was in the middle of wiping her eyes when Zyla opened the door and sat in the passenger seat.
“I’m sorry, baby,” her mom said, using the review mirror to fix her eyeliner, which had smeared. “Keith and I got into a big argument.” Sniffle, cough, sniffle. “I got a little caught up.”
“Okay.” Zyla buckled her seat belt as her mom pulled out of the parking lot and into traffic. Zyla stared at the license plate of the car in front of them and waited. Her mom didn’t need much prompting to continue talking. She rarely did.
“He broke up with me,” her mom said. “Can you believe that? After three months, all he had to say was, ‘It’s just not working.’ Apparently, he didn’t see himself getting married to me.”
Zyla sighed inwardly and remained silent. Her mom reached forward and turned up the radio. Whitney Houston’s “Heartbreak Hotel” blared through the speakers, and her mom began to sing along, loudly and off key. Through it all, Zyla continued to stare straight ahead. She’d read once that dolphins stopped behaving badly when their trainers ignored said bad behavior. Her mom wasn’t a dolphin, but Zyla was desperate enough to try anything.
They reached a stoplight, and the song changed to “Back at One,” by Brian McKnight.
“Keith loves this song,” her mom mumbled, lips trembling.
Then she finally lost it. In a loud whimper, she began crying. Ugly crying. Snot dripping, mascara running, blotchy-cheeks-type crying. All while Brian McKnight sang about his girl who was a dream come true.
Zyla’s resolve began to waver. Her heart squeezed watching her mom like this. “Mommy . . .”
“I just don’t get it.” Her mom leaned her forehead against the steering wheel, and her shoulders shook as she sobbed. “What’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing. They’re idiots. You know that.” Zyla reached forward and rubbed her mom’s back in small circles. “Forget Keith. He doesn’t deserve you.”
“But I love him. I really, really do.”
Zyla closed her eyes and tried not to think of the other times her mom had said these same words to her about previous partners. “You’ll get over him, Mom. You’re strong and you can do better.”
The car behind them honked as the light turned green. Zyla’s mom didn’t make a move to put her foot on the gas. Her head remained leaning against the wheel. The car honked even longer.
“Mom, it’s a green light.”
“I can’t drive like this,” she groaned. “I can’t.”
The drivers around them were becoming more insistent with their honking. Zyla was pretty sure she’d heard someone shout at them just now.
Calmly, she said, “Mom, just pull over and we’ll switch, okay? I’ll drive home, and you can sit in the passenger seat and relax. How’s that sound?”
Her mom sniffled. “That sounds good.”
“I think it sounds good too. Just pull over up ahead.”
Zyla coaxed her mom to sit up and drive until she was able to pull off to the side of the road. Then she got out of the car and walked around the front while her mom crawled across the center console until she was curled up in a ball in the passenger seat. Her orange sundress pooled around her feet.
As Zyla drove the rest of the way, her mom continued to cry quietly. Her cheeks and nose were bright red now. Zyla’s mom was Black, but she was so fair-skinned that people thought she was white when she wore her auburn hair straight. “Your mom’s a white lady?” was a question that kids frequently had asked Zyla when she was younger. That was back when they’d lived in Kissimmee, Florida, mere miles from Disney World, the happiest place on earth. Ironic that those had been the saddest years of Zyla’s life.
She kept shooting glances at her mom to make sure she was holding herself intact. And she went back and forth between pity and anger. Pity that her mom’s heart was broken once again. And anger at her mom and on her mom’s behalf for that same reason.
She pulled into their driveway and cut the engine. She stared at their house—Aunt Ida’s house. It still didn’t feel like a space that belonged to them, even though Aunt Ida tried to say otherwise.
“Mom, we’re home,” Zyla said, gently rubbing her mom’s shoulder.
Her mom looked up and glanced at the house in confusion. Then she blinked. “Oh. That was fast.” She turned to Zyla. “Thanks, babe.”
Zyla shrugged, feigning nonchalance, pulled the keys out of the ignition, and grabbed her bag. Before she could open her door, her mom reached for her and hugged her close to her chest. Zyla wanted to resist, to tell her mom that she wouldn’t be around forever to pick up the pieces. That the pieces fell apart too often. But she inhaled her mom’s familiar scent: burnt hair and cosmetic spray from the salon where she worked. She looked into her mom’s hazel eyes and couldn’t bring herself to say the things that she felt.
Finally, her mom pulled away and held her hand to Zyla’s cheek. “I’m blessed to have you for a daughter.”
Suddenly desperate to hold on to this moment, Zyla said, “Mom, promise me you won’t call Keith again. You always talk about how you should take a break and focus on yourself. Maybe you should try that this time.”
Her mom frowned slowly. “Don’t involve yourself in grown folks’ business, Zy.” She pushed open her car door and got out, not even giving Zyla a chance to respond.
By the time Zyla stepped inside the house, her mom was already rushing upstairs to her bedroom, shutting the door behind her.
Zyla sighed. Great. She was handling dinner by herself tonight, then.
“Leanne?” Aunt Ida called after Zyla’s mom. She was sitting in her La-Z-Boy, wrapped in her fuzzy light pink robe and matching slippers, watching Wheel of Fortune. Her old Boston terrier, Bartholomew, who was blind in one eye, barked at the sudden ruckus. Aunt Ida nudged him with her foot until he quieted. “Stop with that noise, boy.” She looked at Zyla. “What’s wrong with Leanne?”
“Keith broke up with her,” Zyla explained, sliding off her sneakers.
“Hmph. And which one was he?”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m gonna start dinner. Chicken Alfredo okay with you?”
Aunt Ida nodded. “But make sure you add oil to the water while it’s boiling, otherwise the noodles will stick together. Matter of fact, just give me a second. I’ll help you.” She started to stand but quickly winced. She had arthritis in her knees.
“It’s fine, I can take care of it,” Zyla quickly said, rushing toward Aunt Ida and helping her ease back into her chair. “Oil in the water. I’ll remember.”
Before Aunt Ida could try to protest, Zyla hurried away into the kitchen. Her little sister, Jade, was already sitting at the table, a math workbook open in front of her.
“Is Mommy okay?” Jade asked, turning around to face Zyla. Their mom had cornrowed Jade’s hair and added bright pink and purple beads to the ends that rattled with each movement of her head.
“She’s fine. Just had a bad day.” Zyla walked over and hugged Jade sideways. She glanced down at the equation Jade was working on and felt her eyes blur for a second. Was she embarrassed that her eleven-year-old sister was exponentially smarter than her when it came to math? No. She was extremely proud, really. Jade had qualified for a scholarship for a special program for students gifted in mathematics. It was one of the hardest summer programs to get into in New Jersey. Her baby sister would make history one day. She’d probably help send people to the moon. “How was camp?”
“Good. I don’t want it to end.”
All good things come to an end. Zyla wanted to say this. She often felt torn between being realistic with Jade and letting her believe that the world was a simple and easy place. But Jade was eleven. She deserved the freedom to be ignorant. The freedom Zyla never had.
“There’s three more weeks left of camp, kiddo,” Zyla said. “That’s basically a lifetime.”
Their mom didn’t join them for dinner. After Zyla, Jade, and Aunt Ida finished eating, Zyla sent Jade upstairs to shower, and she stayed behind to wash dishes. Aunt Ida refused to buy a dishwasher when there were people in the house with working hands and arms.
While Zyla scrubbed the pasta bowl, Aunt Ida sat at the kitchen table, chewing sunflower seeds with her dentures. Bartholomew snored at her feet.
“Don’t be like her,” Aunt Ida suddenly said.
Zyla didn’t need to ask which her Aunt Ida was referring to.
“I gave Leanne everything that I’m giving to you right now, and she threw it away,” Aunt Ida continued. “She’s been up there crying all night over another fool. Don’t be like her.”
Zyla kept her back to her great-aunt. She knew she didn’t want to be like her mom. But it was only okay when she said it.
“Men are good for nothing, and they’ll run you into the ground. Your uncle Herald left me his money and this house, but he was good for nothing. A liar and a cheat. Your father is the same way. Steer clear of men like that. You hear?”
This was a speech that Zyla heard often. She could almost recite it word for word. Her favorite part was the way Aunt Ida said your father, like she wouldn’t ever demean herself to say Zyla’s dad’s actual name.
“You hear what I’m saying to you, Zyla?”
Zyla finished drying her last dish and placed it on the rack. She turned around to face Aunt Ida, who stared at her expectantly. Aunt Ida’s brown skin was wrinkled, and her hair was coily and white. She was much older now, but Zyla saw traces of the nineteen-year-old who’d eagerly married the boy she’d met in the youth group choir. The proof was in their wedding photo, which hung on the kitchen wall right behind Aunt Ida’s head. Zyla stared at it, wondering if Aunt Ida had any idea at that time just how much of a liar and a cheat her husband would eventually become.
“I hear you,” she finally said. “I’m going up to my room. Let me know if you need anything.” She felt Aunt Ida’s eyes on her as she left the kitchen.
Zyla’s mom was locked away in her bedroom. Zyla was tempted to lean her ear against the door to make sure her mom was okay, but she was still mad at her and didn’t feel ready to talk yet, so she continued down the hall and peeked in on Jade, who was lying on her bed, working on more math problems. Zyla smiled at her sister and finally made it to her own room, which was an organized mess. It was the first room she’d ever had to herself. Before they moved in with Aunt Ida, Zyla had to share a room, and sometimes a bed, with Jade.
Her shoes, which she’d carefully thrifted or bargain bought, with the exception of her new Stan Smiths, lined the floor in rows. Yards of fabric were thrown over her desk chair and desk beside her sewing machine, and the denim jumper she was currently working on was draped over her mannequin torso. Magazines filled with her Post-it notes were stacked in piles by her bed.
She turned on some Jorja Smith, pulled today’s magazine out of her bag, and sat down on her floor, flipping to the Gap ad of the girl with cornrows. She grabbed her scissors and carefully cut out the ad image, adding it to the binder where she kept her mood board photos for her portfolio. She hadn’t settled on her portfolio theme yet, but it was going to have something to do with the beauty and versatility of Black women and how that played into fashion. She’d figure it out by the time she needed to send her portfolio to Parsons Paris and the London College of Fashion. Going to school abroad would be expensive, of course, but Zyla had been saving up with the money she made at Sailor Joe’s, and part-time during the school year, she earned extra cash answering the phone and scheduling appointments at the salon where her mom worked. In addition to the loans and scholarships she planned to apply for, the biggest help would come from Aunt Ida, who’d promised to pay a large chunk of her tuition with some of Uncle Herald’s money. He might not have been a good husband, but he’d made a lot of smart investments while he was alive, and now Zyla could reap the benefits.
She paused and closed her eyes, imagining her future life in Europe. In between her classes, she’d have lunch outside at fancy cafés and . . . wait a minute, was that Kai Johnson smiling and sitting directly across from her in her imaginary Parisian café? No, no, no. He had no place in her European fashion school daydreams. What the heck?
It was stupid anyway. Kai had probably already forgotten about her by now. She bet he was out at a party, most likely making up with Camille Vaughn.
A knock at her door broke her treacherous train of thought.
It was her mom. She poked her head inside. “Hey, baby, you busy?”
Zyla looked down at the binder in her lap. Yes, she was busy. Clearly. She looked back up at her mom and said nothing.
Her mom gingerly stepped inside the room. Her hair was wrapped in a silk scarf, and she was already dressed in her pajamas even though it was only 8:00 p.m.
“I wanted to apologize for earlier,” she said quietly. “For how I behaved in the car. The crying, getting mad at you. All of it.”
“And thank you for taking care of dinner.”
Zyla nodded, feeling both sympathetic and frustrated. She wanted to ask if her mom had called Keith, but she was afraid to know the answer. Her mom lingered in her doorway and looked around the room. She pointed at the denim jumper on the mannequin. “Hey, how’s that coming along? Want me to try it on?”
No, go away. It was on the tip of her tongue. But Zyla had created the jumper with her mom in mind. Her mom was her first-ever model, back when she was in middle school and they’d had to make their own clothes because they didn’t have enough money to go shopping. Many things had changed since then, but Zyla still thought her mom was the epitome of beauty.
“Yes,” Zyla said, standing up. She helped her mom into the jumper, and she knelt down in front her, pinning the fabric on either side of her waist. It needed to be taken in a few inches.
Her mom ran her hand over Zyla’s head. “Have you thought about how you want me to do your hair for back-to-school?”
Zyla shrugged and tried to talk around the pins in her mouth. “Box braids, I guess. Something easy.”
“We can do that,” her mom replied.
She began to hum softly. “The Sweetest Taboo,” by Sade. Sitting in front of her mom as she hummed and rubbed her head made Zyla feel like a kid again. Even though she was only seventeen years old, Zyla hadn’t felt like a kid in a very long time. This was because three things happened to her in quick succession at the young age of eight.
The first thing: Her parents got divorced. They were living in Miami at the time, and Zyla hadn’t really understood what had happened. Just that her dad was moving out, and she wouldn’t see him every day anymore. He’d kissed her on the cheek in the courthouse hallway and promised he’d come visit that weekend. Then he’d kissed a crying and fussy two-year-old Jade and promptly left. On his way out, Zyla heard him say, clear as day, that he wouldn’t bother with this “marriage crap” ever again.
Zyla’s mom had decided that ice cream would cure everything, so she drove them to a parlor near the courthouse. And after her mom ordered three cones of rocky road and sat herself down on the bench with her two daughters, she burst into tears and let her ice cream cone fall right out of her hands. Alarmed, Zyla watched as her mom’s sobs became deeper, how her body began to shake. Soon Jade was crying too, and she dropped her cone and it smeared her pretty little dress and landed in a heap on the ground, melting into the sidewalk.
Completely out of her depth, Zyla tried her best to console her mom and her baby sister. She was so overwhelmed that she felt like crying too, but somehow, she knew that would only make things worse.
After a few moments, her mom finally got herself together and began bouncing Jade on her knee.
“I swear I’m never doing this again,” she promised. “I need to focus on me. And you girls.”
Zyla nodded, trying to offer what little encouragement she could. “You’ll be okay, Mommy.” Her mom smiled at her then and pulled her close. Holding both of her girls to her body.
The second thing: Her mom broke that promise to herself. Three weeks later, she was dating one of her coworkers from Pete’s Groceries, a younger guy named Allen or Albert. And when they inevitably broke up, Zyla’s mom was sobbing once again, curled up in a ball on the couch, as if the world were ending. She went on like that for a week. It was then that Zyla learned how to boil noodles and heat up frozen dinners. She also learned how to properly coax her mom to eat, take showers, and remind her when she needed to be dropped off at school.
Then there was the third thing: Only a few months after his divorce from her mother, Zyla’s dad was engaged. Zyla and Jade were forced to sit at Applebee’s with him and his new fiancée, Renee, as they broke the news. Zyla tried her best to keep Jade entertained while her dad and Renee argued about what appetizers to order. Zyla watched them fiercely bicker over something so small. She wasn’t surprised when they were divorced after only five months.
She wondered why they even got married in the first place. And she wondered why her mom willingly set herself up for failure and heartbreak time and time again.
What was wrong with these people? Her parents. The people who had made her.
She thought of this now as she looked up at her mom’s face, swollen from crying over Keith earlier tonight. She thought of Aunt Ida downstairs in the kitchen, so bitter even years after her husband had died. And please. Don’t even get her started on her dad.
Zyla wasn’t going to be like them. She’d known better since she was eight years old. She wasn’t going to make the mistake of falling in love.