Look At You
He watched her through the crack in his bedroom door, not five feet away. He saw his mother stop at the little kitchen table and drop her purse on a chair, her phone in her other hand, and heard the clicks of her long nails as her thumbs tapped the screen. Even when she wasn’t talking, she made noise: earrings, bracelets, gum, the friction of leather jackets against imitation leather pants, the poke of her heels on the apartment’s linoleum. In the overhead light, she looked insignificant, like a stranger.
She pursed her lips and glared at the phone’s screen, scrolling, scrolling. She put her other hand on her hip. His mother was tall and fat, like him, and she dressed to emphasize it, which looked better on her. Her boyfriends were always smoothing their hands along the back pockets of her jeans.
Marlon shifted his weight, trying not to make a sound, but he had to pee. Where did she think he was? It was almost ten, a school night. He could be anywhere.
He could have cooked dinner—he’d been home for six hours. When he came in from school, he texted his friend Candice back, sunk into his phone, and by the time he noticed what time it was, he was so irritated his mother wasn’t home that he refused to cook dinner, just to make a point.
She wasn’t wearing her work scrubs. She sucked her teeth extravagantly and tossed the phone onto the table, the charms on its case tinkling. She opened the fridge.
Marlon could slip back into the shadows, pretend he wasn’t there, escape the fallout of her shitty mood. But if he made her think he was out, there would be worse hell to pay in the morning. Or not.
Hey, girl, he said, emerging from his room, faking a yawn.
She snapped her eyes to him. He still wasn’t used to the dense bristles of her false eyelashes, which she’d gotten on both the bottom and top. She didn’t need them—she was beautiful, still young, dark like him. The eyelashes obscured her flashing topaz eyes, took away from the power of her mouth.
Where you been? Her husky voice usually surprised people—it was intimate, like she was whispering only to you.
I was here. Asleep. His own voice sharp and high-pitched.
What you sleepin’ in the middle of the day for?
It’s ten o’clock.
So? You usually up till two or three. He watched her eyes, could see she was spinning, her mind on the phone, whoever was at the other end of it. She wasn’t going to grill him about dinner.
Why you ain’t cook dinner?
I was sleepin’, he said lamely.
Since you got home from school?
No. I don’t know.
You sick? C’mere, let me feel your head.
Marlon went to her, breathed her perfume. She placed a cool hand on his forehead and looked at him skeptically. You fine, she pronounced.
Can we get Chinese? Marlon asked.
Where you think money come from, Marlon? She glared at him. He hoped she wouldn’t launch into her get-a-job monologue. Instead, she opened a cupboard and pointed to a saucepan. Then she directed a long-nailed finger to the sink.
The phone began dancing across the table, a ringtone Marlon didn’t recognize. His mother grabbed it and studied the screen. She tossed the phone into her purse and grabbed a scarf off the coat rack. She looked back at the open cupboard, then returned her eyes to Marlon.
Fix your own dinner.
Marlon watched her mutely, the fury in his chest going damp and quiet.
Where you going? he asked. She ignored him and went into the bathroom down the hall. When she came out, her weave—it was called Paris Curl, loose brown ringlets that tumbled across her shoulders—was glossier, bouncy again.
For a half-second—a breath—he saw the ache in her face, the need. It reminded him of his girlfriends at school. She clacked across the floor to him and kissed him on the cheek.
He didn’t answer her.
She went out and shut the door behind her, turning the key in the lock. Marlon drifted to the door and peered with one eye through the peephole, but all he could see was yellow fuzz.
The stairwell at Jackie Robinson High School was a cage, the up stairs and down stairs twisting in a double helix separated by wire mesh, with gum wrappers and plastic bags junked up in the corners. The building was over a hundred years old, six stories high and a city block wide, one of the last big high schools in Brooklyn that hadn’t been broken up into smaller schools. The city had been threatening to shut it down for years. Marlon was alone in the stairwell, an hour late. He breathed it in: old dust, plaster, pipes; bacon-egg-and-cheeses, and the sharp sugar of corner store candy; a body funk from the kids who stayed up all night online, fell asleep late, and didn’t have time to shower in the morning before coming to school. Marlon was not that type of kid. Or he was, but he showered, always.
He stopped on the fourth-floor landing and looked down, wincing when he saw two damp circles blooming under his big arms. His belt bit into his gut, but he looked good: new yellow T-shirt, new yellow belt from St. Marks, spotless yellow Nike Court Forces you could eat off of. He flexed his hand and waved the air around his face, smoothing his eyebrows with a knuckle. He wore his hair in neat Carrot Cremed waves like the other boys, brushing them down all day; he was saving the Mohawk for later in the semester.
Below him, a door slammed. He listened as someone dragged themselves up the stairs, knowing the gait: a boy walking like his feet were in blocks of cement, trying not to crease his new sneakers. It looked retarded, but it worked. Marlon stopped fanning himself, hunched his shoulders, and put on his bus-riding face.
It was Derrell, the mopey acne kid in his grade who got taller every year without gaining any weight. He smiled at Marlon, corner-store bag dangling from his wrist. Marlon ignored him and waited, wanting the stairwell to himself before he made his entrance.
He would be late for US History again, but it was early in the year; he could still pass. Most of these teachers wanted you to pass, were flattered you even bothered. Plus, it looked bad to the city when all your students failed, or this was his guess.
Marlon listened as Derrell got off on the fifth floor, then resumed his own climb up the stairs. At the sixth floor, he pulled the door open, entering the hush of the hallway, the bright boiled light, the tiled echoes.
Here came Candice barreling toward him. She must have been late too, or on a bathroom break.
Hey, girl. Marlon bent down and they hugged, tight and quick like boxers. Candice was cute, not pretty: dense, compact, light-skinned, with big cheeks and round eyes and little pigeon-toed legs. She had a fresh weave, an immaculate glossy bob like the Supremes, which did not flatter her at all. He wouldn’t tell her.
You see Tee at the corner store?
No, why? Marlon laughed meanly and covered his mouth like a girl, scanning the hall for school safety.
I heard she wanna fight you.
Tee like three feet tall.
I’m just tellin’ you what I heard.
The mile-long hall was deserted, but it felt alive. A flicker of movement danced in the distance, and Marlon turned toward it. Way down at the end, silhouetted against a window: Rafael, a transfer. Rafael was eighteen, but he looked younger, sinewy, dark-skinned, pretty. His eyelashes were stupid long, beautiful, real.
Candice followed his gaze.
Marlon, Rafael straight. There was pity in her voice.
How do you know, stupid? You fuck him already?
Excuse you? Candice snapped, exploding the hall’s quiet.
Marlon put his hands up, rolled his eyes.
Naw, for real, Ashley Brown really did fuck him, Candice said, dropping it. She dug for something in her purse.
I don’t know! I just heard; I wasn’t there.
So, Marlon sniffed. I fucked girls, doesn’t mean I’m straight.
Boy, ain’t nobody think you straight.
He’d fucked one girl. Her name was Fa’tasia—not Fantasia, like the singer, Fa’tasia, Lord help you if you got it wrong twice—and she was supremely weird. She talked too much, but she had an indifferent sexiness, a long, half-moon jaw and high cheekbones, and she was lean, like a boy. Afterward, he couldn’t say he liked it, but he couldn’t say it was the horror he’d imagined, either.
Marlon’s face tightened as he watched Rafael drift down the hall and turn a corner. He knew Rafael’s schedule and knew he was cutting. Where did he go? Who were his friends? He seemed to sit with a different group at lunch every day.
That boy ain’t payin’ you no mind, Candice informed him.
Marlon sucked his teeth.
From around another corner, behind them, a set of heels approached. The rhythm stopped, and she was standing dead in front of them, her face a sphinx: a Black AP, he couldn’t remember her name. She was a classic bitch, but he allowed that she could dress: pencil skirts, crisp blouses, permed hair high on her head in flat twists, balanced like a cruise ship cutting the water.
What? Marlon said, brave.
She sighed, immortal. Marlon didn’t blink.
Really? she finally said.
Marlon grinned. I’m sorry, our bad, he said, waving his hand with a quick little flourish, tilting his head like a majorette. Ta-ta! he cried, and he and Candice skittered down the hall to the girls’ room in a hail of giggles. The heels clicked away, indifferent.
The girls’ room was empty, and Marlon and Candice fell on themselves in front of the mirror, their laughter shattering in the echoes.
It smell like tampons in here. Marlon wrinkled his nose.
Then get the fuck out, Candice retorted.
But Marlon liked the girls’ room, its muted morning light. He walked to the window and eased himself up on the ledge. He felt his stomach over the waist of his pants.
Don’t you have somewhere to be? Candice tried to get him to laugh again, hitting her consonants with a white person’s thud.
Don’t you have somewhere to be? Marlon’s voice had gone listless. He drew his face to the light through the frosted window.
Candice fussed with her eyelashes in the mirror. Fix this for me? She held out a tube of glue, eyeing him in her reflection, ignoring his mood. Marlon stayed where he was, making Candice come to his window with it, where he performed the task with casual skill.
If he so straight, Marlon said finally, Then why does he look at me all the time? He sat back, assessing his handiwork.
Marlon stared at Candice.
When do he look at you? She returned to the sinks.
I ain’t never seen him eat lunch in that cafeteria. Then she snapped her fingers, remembering. She turned to him, her voice a warning. He be in the gym playing ball. He on the basketball team, Marlon.
He is not on the basketball team.
He like five-three. Marlon smiled.
He friends with Kadeem and them. Candice’s eyes were fearful.
I ain’t scared of that nigga, Marlon sniffed, flinging his chin toward the pebbly glass in defiance.
What you need a boyfriend from Jackie Robinson for anyway? Candice muttered, squeezing a worm of glue onto her finger. Dumb-ass fools in this school. Get you a boy from the pier.
I don’t want some faggot from the pier, Marlon said disdainfully.
Boy, you is a faggot from the pier, Candice shot back. Marlon was silent.
Candice applied the glue delicately to one eyelid, fluttering it, her eyes rolling back into her head. She could only do the left one herself, never the right.
Marlon checked his phone and dragged himself away from the window, hiking his backpack up, avoiding his own reflection.
Don’t be mad, Candice said.
I’m not mad. He kissed her on the cheek and faded out the door and down the hall.