With the Fire on High(8)

Ms. Fuentes clears her throat, and I look up from my list. She gestures to Malachi like she’s that Vanna White lady from Wheel of Fortune. “Would you like to say a couple of words, Mr. Johnson?”

Malachi looks at her funny when she calls him “Mister,” but he returns her smile. Angelica would say it transforms his face, that smile. He looks younger than seventeen, sweet, and like straight-up trouble. Some girl—or person (Angelica’s always reminding me not to be “so damn hetero”)—is going to find themselves caught up with Malachi. I can already tell.

He bounces one hand into the other and then shrugs. “Hey . . . thanks for having me. I’ve heard advisories are super-tight, so appreciate it.” Oh, damn. I got it all wrong. Hearing him speak, I’m sure he’s actually a nerd. Cynthia in the back giggles. Advisory just got a lot more interesting.

Ms. Fuentes beams at Malachi. “Great! You can grab a seat anywhere. You all go back to working on your essay prompt. I’ll be coming around to conference with you about your schedules.”

I finish filling out the elective sheet, then turn to the outline of my college essay that Ms. Fuentes assigned yesterday. I have a couple of ideas I might write about: having Babygirl and deciding to keep her. Or maybe what it’s like to be raised by your grandmother because your parents aren’t around. Maybe, what it feels like to get so focused in the kitchen that everything around me fades away. Ms. Fuentes says the topic should be “compelling,” but how am I supposed to know what compels a college admissions person?

“Ms. Santiago, I’m so glad you’ve decided on the culinary arts class. It’s perfect for you.” Ms. Fuentes moves like a ninja. I didn’t even hear her approach my desk, although I probably should have smelled her coming; her perfume has notes of lemon verbena. I love lemon verbena. Ingredients start arranging themselves on the kitchen counter in my mind and I can already taste an Emoni twist on ’Buela’s tembleque recipe.

“Ms. Santiago, you heard there’s an international trip opportunity as a component, yes? The teacher, Chef Ayden, has been planning all summer.”

I snap out of coconut-pudding thoughts. “I heard.” I don’t want Ms. Fuentes to know that ’Buela and I are worried about the fee.

She moves closer to me. “You’ve talked so much in Advisory about how you love to cook. I think taking this class and traveling abroad will be an amazing opportunity.”

I look around the room. Most of the other kids have their heads down but I know they’re ear-hustling. Except for the new kid. He doesn’t even have the decency to pretend he’s not all in my business. He’s found an empty seat by the sunlit window and is tapping a pencil on his desk, looking straight at me. When I catch his eye, he smiles shyly but keeps on staring.

I look away from him with a sharp cut of my eyes.

“Right, I hope the class will be great, Ms. Fuentes. Which one of these essay topics do you think I should write about?”

She holds my eyes for a long moment, then she shakes her head and pulls her glasses off to peer down at my outline. “I think you should write about the one that scares you most. Taking risks and making choices in spite of fear—it’s what makes our life story compelling.”

There’s that word again. She walks away but I have a feeling her advice wasn’t about the essay prompt at all.

On Loss

What I remember: Tyrone is a pretty boy. Long lashes, slim, hair cut in a fade that was always Philly-sharp. We met at the beginning of my freshman year at a back-to-school turn-up in someone’s basement. Although Tyrone went to school on the other side of the city, up by Mount Airy, where he lives, some of his middle school friends had ended up at Schomburg and it was a mix of kids at the party. Knowing what I know now, I’m surprised I was even invited, since there were barely any ninth graders there, but I think it was because some boy from Tyrone’s school had been trying to get at Angelica. Tyrone was a year older and had a way with words. Pretty boys aren’t usually my thing, especially one who expects you to worship the concrete he stomps on. I ignored him the whole party. This must have been a surprise to him because the next party, at the beginning of October, he was tripping over himself trying to get my attention.

Pretty Boy Tyrone of the pretty words took me downtown for our first date. We saw a romantic comedy that I thought was funny, but Tyrone kept huffing and puffing about how it was corny. We walked the streets of Love Park surrounded by trees and other couples. I remember I lied to ’Buela that night, told her I was hanging out at Gelly’s house.

To this day I couldn’t tell someone why Tyrone. Maybe because I didn’t expect him to pick me. Maybe because most boys looked past my stick-board skinny body, more interested in the bubble-butt girls. Maybe because when I made him a cupcake he said it was too pretty to eat and waited a week, when the cupcake had gone stale, before taking a bite and still said it was the best thing he’d ever tasted; said it reminded him of a favorite birthday memory. Said he wanted to make me his girl.

“It” just seemed like what people were doing, and why not Tyrone? He was fine, older, and mostly nice to me. At least, I convinced myself he was nice. And most important, he wanted me. He could have sex with any girl, but I was the one he was after. Even thinking about it now I get a little twisted up inside. So much of my decision to have sex had more to do with being chosen than it did with any actual sexual attraction.

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