It started as a slap. Maybe less than a slap. A pawing of the air. Like, ha ha. Funny, Felix, though you don’t even ride this bus. I don’t even know you. So, seriously. You need to stop.
But somewhere in flight my hand closed to a fist—maybe while man-child Felix, sixteen in eighth grade, his arms moving like a robot’s for some reason, marched up the bus aisle, mocking, Thank you, come again. Thank you, come again. Never mind that my dad didn’t run a convenience store anymore, but a Dunkin now—the facts irrelevant here. The laughter was like fire, sixth graders up front joining, too, while Felix went on—Here is your squishy. Thank you, come again—stoked by the kids in back, pointing, Check out Bitchtits! I think Bitchtits is gonna cry.
It was then, Felix reaching row eight, and the rage I’d been tucking away for how many years now whenever these kids turned on me, calling me Hoshi Moshi Part II—I don’t even know what that means—or pointing out my dollar store Florida t-shirts, not Florida Gators but Florida tourism, screen printed palm trees under the word Florida in cursive—Hey, Bitchtits, ha-ha, what state do we live in again?—the rage rising then, boiling into my ears, I stood up and swung. THWAP. Above his eye it landed. A girl’s scream, then blood suddenly. Felix’s eyebrow cut, thick rivers rolling down his dark cheeks, blood spotting his designer t-shirt. Fight—Fight—Fight, from everywhere now, fuel for me, because, no, I had nothing to do with squishies or a Kwik-E-Mart, and what did it matter to Felix anyway—before I lunged at him. Tackled him over a seat back, both of us falling to the aisle, Felix’s arms like steel ropes. But then he was on top of me. Thoof, a flash to my eye, my glasses snapping. A hot sting at the temple. Thoof, side of my head now, the bus swerving onto some grass. His blood dripping into my mouth. Now Anisha, my twin, a hurricane of hair, throwing herself onto him, while another blow came, then another, the world feeling unbearably warm, until the bus driver woman finally broke through and pried Felix off.
* * *
Adnan, you? You punched Felix in the face?
Tiny, honey-skinned Melanie Cabrera knelt beside my desk and asked me this before Honors History that Monday—two months before the end of middle school. Up front, Steve Feeney, this wide-shouldered kid from my neighborhood, had just told a circle of others what had happened. Steve played club football, sat at the back of the bus, too—the branded clothes club, it felt, Air Jordans on every foot—but thankfully never joined the indignities. Watching the concern on Melanie’s face though, her small shoulders buckling a little when Steve pointed to where Felix bled, I couldn’t help but feel even more endeared toward her. A wish for something small, a little closeness to be exchanged between us, a wish I’d started to control only recently, after some awkwardness in seventh grade.
Dude, check out Adnan just staring at Melanie. Is his mouth open? God, that’s creepy.
At least that wasn’t as bad as what I got in the neighborhood.
Flying Machine? one of Steve’s friends said once, about my new jeans, great, baggy jeans, a gift from my uncle visiting from India. Dammit, Bitchtits. What the fuck is Flying Machine?
As if they were trying to beat the different out of me.
Are you okay, Adnan? Melanie asked now beside me. Her gray-green eyes held mine a second, before they shifted reluctantly to the scratch at my temple, miraculously the only visible damage. But all I could think about was that this was the first time Melanie and I were talking like this, just the two of us. Her watermelon body spray pulled at me—made me wonder if it were possible that we could talk like this more often.
I’m okay, I said to Melanie, careful not to touch the mango-sized welt at the side of my head.
Did your glasses break?
Yeah. But my dad got me contacts this weekend.
Cool, she said, before she squeezed my shoulder. The gentlest touch. Feel better, okay, Adnan?
Felix had been suspended three days while I only got three days detention—tenth time offender, first time offender, I guess. So Felix’s first day back at school, I walked from class to class sweating, no longer walking taller, breathing better air, high on that touch from Melanie, high on the glances of respect from kids who’d heard about my swinging on Felix—but anxious now that Felix might want another fight. It was after school then, when Felix stepped onto our bus again, that I almost wet my Flying Machines. In a massive t-shirt that read Pure Playaz in graffiti, Felix stood at the head of our bus, scanning each row, looking for me. Across his left eyebrow ran a deep seam of stitches. The bus went silent. A small crowd had gathered outside, too, a dozen kids watching me, and watching Felix. I held my breath. It wasn’t fear that I felt though as Felix limped toward me, past 6th and 7th graders like children, and on toward the changing voices, changing bodies, changing egos at the back—but a sudden conviction. If Felix wanted to take from me what I’d gained since Friday—that little bit of confidence, that little bit of respect—he wouldn’t get it easily. I stood, took to the center of the aisle, and braced myself, while in the seat beside me Anisha whispered ohmygod, Adnan, ohmygod.
Yo, Felix only said when he reached me. He was at least four inches taller, muscles like ripples in his neck. He lifted one palm up, as if for a grip.
Yo? I said. Accepting the grip. Bumping the side of my chest against his. Before he held me there a second.
Don’t let these bitch ass niggas clown you, alright dawg?
Y—yeah, man. For sure, I managed.
Word, he said, and limped back off the bus.
* * *
My friends were kids who got A’s in Honors classes but otherwise only talked about Grand Theft Auto—calling each other dickweed on the live chat, though they’d never use that word in person—so it was easy when Felix started to extend grips to me around school—in the outdoor hallways, at eighth grade lunch—to spend a minute or two talking, cautiously at first, but then more easily, about the Lakers game the night before, Shaq’s nasty ally-oop, or else mourning the Heat’s rough season, and how hopefully things would turn around soon. Before long, off the back of Felix’s warmth—I like this nigga, he sometimes said, wrenching one arm around me—our conversations grew to include Felix’s friends, too, a mix of Cuban, Puerto Rican, black and white kids, all in basketball jerseys or Karl Kani gear, over jeans so baggy the pockets hung like lowriders. All of them wearing Jordans of one style or another. We all loved hip hop, and so I started to join them rapping 50 Cent lyrics at the edges of hallways—I got the sickest vendetta when it comes to the chedda, If you play with my paper, you gotta meet my baretta—or else we played imaginary basketball, reenacting a Zo drive, or a Tim Hardaway crossover from the years we made the playoffs, using an EXIT sign as our basket. Once, Felix and I were in the middle of one of these plays, laughing, our sneakers chirping on the linoleum of the lunchroom entrance, when Melanie Cabrera walked by, her golden ponytail swinging softly behind her. She was wearing her maroon cheerleading outfit—she cheered at Pines Optimist, where Steve Feeney played running back—and seeing how her caramel skin glowed against that fabric, I almost forgot where I was. Catching sight of me laughing there, wrestling with Felix under the EXIT sign, Melanie shot me a sweet smile, an almost shy smile, before she held my eyes a second, like a gentle reminder that she hadn’t stopped noticing me. That she was paying attention now.
Dawg, Felix said afterward. He probably saw the way I looked at her. Don’t take this the wrong way my nigga, but you want some love from the bunnies, you gotta step up your shoe game, dawg.
We both looked down then—past my baggy clothes like his clothes, but his from the mall, mine from Walmart—at my all white, slightly senior citizen looking sneakers. Then at Felix’s massive Jordans, Bulls colors, laces loose. The patent leather gleaming like it was spit shined.
Bro, Felix said. If you wanna gank some J’s, I know this cat at Foot Action. Give him forty bones and he won’t look while you slip ‘em behind the sensors.
Man. Forty bones? I said, the doubt cutting my voice. Because since the fight, though yes, I’d received a little more respect—never a mention these days of Bitchtits on the bus, Spanish girls in tight tops and hoop earrings sometimes following me with their eyes—really, I was starving for more. I wanted more of Melanie actually seeing me, even while she was talking to her friends, rising to the slightest tiptoe when I walked by, glancing in my direction, like maybe she’d rather be talking to me. Looking back at my senior citizen shoes then, I felt like I was last place in a race. A race I didn’t know I was running, yet here I was. Yes, Jordans had to be my next step. But I didn’t want to shoplift. And worse, forty dollars was still more than I felt comfortable asking my dad to spend.
* * *
Aww, so cute, Anisha said that Sunday, touching a pair of baby Jordans on display at Foot Locker. But I barely heard her; my attention was on my dad. Behind his gold-rim glasses he just looked worried, worried parking at the mall, worried crossing the automatic doors. Worried because until that morning, when I’d suggested, Could we please just think about buying some shoes at Foot Locker, the mall had been like sightseeing for us. We’d come at Christmastime, just to watch the spectacle of shopping. We’d buy soft pretzels, maybe a lemonade, and walk around as a family, play with the cell phones, even, at Radio Shack, but rarely buy anything to take home. So inside Foot Locker, at the center of the crisp smell of so many new sneakers, my dad let his fingers rise immediately to his eyebrow—his stress habit. In his dark slacks and white button down—what he wore every day to Dunkin—his step, his every movement, seemed unsure, and already I felt terrible for it.
Along the wall of shoes, Anisha and I easily spotted the shrine to MJ. Black and red, black and white, Carolina baby blue. Toddler sizes, girl sizes, man sizes. Jumpman logos everywhere, crisply stitched, silhouettes of Jordan flying through the sneaker air. Flying, too, through socks, t-shirts, mesh shorts, hoodies. Wristbands and headbands, hats and jerseys. Taking in all the merchandise, I couldn’t help but think of Felix, of Steve Feeney, of the kids with so much confidence at the back of the bus, and remembering all of them, I felt this chill of possibility. Realities merging. The same logo they all owned now here in front of me—with a real chance of my owning it, too. One less difference to focus on.
These are Jordans? Anisha said.
God. Seriously, Neesh? I had to say, because, sadly, she wasn’t kidding. She didn’t know Jordans. She didn’t care, even. She was happy, it seemed, wearing senior citizen sneakers. Florida t-shirts. The attention of others didn’t matter to Anisha, the way it mattered to our big sister Amreen, spending all kinds of time on her hair these days, awfully aware of her appearance, especially to her boyfriend, Zubair, this older kid at khane—what in our community we call our mosque—with a bald fade like Felix’s. Hoping here to convince my dad to buy me Jordans, I wasn’t worried that Anisha would ask for a pair. I was worried she’d be okay shopping at Walmart the rest of her life.
Nice, huh? a Foot Locker referee guy said, nodding at the North Carolina blue in my hands. The shoe was nice, of course. Precious, with clean mesh and baby blue stitching and white patent leather. Laces round and stretchy. It felt surprisingly light, but solid, somehow valuable—something like holding a hundred dollar bill.
The guy brought out my size, and carefully then, I slipped one socked foot into a shoe. Then the other. I stood and walked around in those Jordans—like walking on pillows—past all the Heat jerseys and the wall of fitted hats and socks with Nike emblems. As I neared the entrance, I imagined walking out in those shoes, wearing a bit of the merchandise, too, out into the mall, and deep into my new life. The new, confident Adnan. Circling back, and these thoughts circling, too, I must have acquired a swagger because when I looked up Anisha was beaming—They look so cool, Adnan—and even my dad was smiling through his wet black eyes. But then he picked up the box, the price label turned to him, and what might have been awe on his face a moment before seemed to drain out of him entirely.
I sat down, looked at the price myself. A hundred and seventy-five dollars.
A minute passed where neither of us said anything.
But they’re cool, right, Dad?
Hm. Yes. Yes, beta, he said, trying to smile. Trying to look less uncomfortable in his tucked in button down. Definitely they are cool, beta.
Then, just as I was thinking I might convince him, Anisha saw the label. What the—? A hundred and what?
Stay out of this, I said, elbowing her a little, while my dad went on quietly observing other parents. The proud overseeing of kids trying on shoes.
It was then I felt the pinch, Anisha’s little fingers twisting hard at my ribs.
Adnan, she said. Let it go. You’re hurting him. Just being here—don’t you see?—you’re hurting him.
You’re hurting me, I wanted to say. But instead I only bent over and removed the Jordans from my feet.
* * *
I have one idea, my dad said, as we pulled out of the parking lot.
Dad, I said. Please, not Walmart.
Another place, he said, his face full of hope as he merged onto I-75.
At the Coconut Creek flea, in the part of Fort Lauderdale where you forget about palm trees and suntans and only see asphalt and people of color, Dad walked me and Anisha to a Chinese-owned stall shaded by blue tarps. Below all the combing hands there was everything from Palm Pilots to laptops to clothes branded Polo Sport or Tommy Hilfiger—Melanie wore Tommy Girl sometimes—but the tags all reading something in Chinese. Standing amidst that rush, that merchandise, I again imagined myself owning not these weak imitations, but the real things—Nautica, Guess, Polo—plaid golf shirts with a golden crest at the corner, and then catching even more grips at school, getting invited to house parties kids had started having, not just because I knew Felix, but because now I owned my own brand of confidence.
On my dad’s request, an old Asian man ushered us to the trunk of a 4Runner, where dozens of pairs of shoes—Jordans from the look of them—lie scattered, pairs knotted together by the laces. Baby blues, black and reds, white and blacks—all with that same flying man logo. Slowly, I picked up a pair of Carolina blues. They smelled like a pencil eraser, definitely not the Foot Locker smell, but the patent leather shined just the same. I pulled off my own shoes, tried on the fakes. On the asphalt they felt different, stiff soles and cushions, not high performance anything. But what mattered was they looked real. The real Jumpman insignia, basketball held aloft.
How much? my dad asked the man.
You want for girl too?
Anisha just shook her loose tangles. Moved closer to my dad.
Forty dollar, the man said.
At this my dad laughed, the first time that day. He bit his lip like he does at Bimal’s Boutique, bargaining for Indian outfits for my sisters. Finally, he passed over a twenty.
The stall owner laughed, too—they understood each other—and took it.
Thanks Dad, I said, sort of hugging him, sort of apologizing.
Thanks, beta, he murmured in response, the way he does sometimes, as if it were cause for embarrassment if a kid were to thank his father.
Before we left then, my new fake Jordans already on my feet, I asked the Asian man if he had a card—because I had an idea now how to buy me some real Jordans.
* * *
North Carolina BLUE, Felix boomed in the school bus parking lot the next morning. He raised a grip for me from twenty feet away before pulling me in for such an embrace we both almost fell over. And in that embrace, in his face scarred and nicked from fights, or generally from life, I think I saw remorse—a sort of apology for coming at me only a few weeks back with, thank you, come again.
Quickly I found a swagger at school, that extra dose of confidence I’d felt at Foot Locker; fueled by it, I approached Melanie’s desk before History class. She probably didn’t care about Jordans, but still, something inside me felt ready to talk to her.
What’s up Melanie, I said, as I touched her elbow, gently. I startled her, I could see, but when she looked up and saw it was me, her face softened, and a playful smirk came first to my lips, then to hers. H—hi, Adnan, she said, just as the bell rang to send me to my seat. Still though, a tender curiosity stayed written over Melanie’s face.
By the end of the week, a week of once again walking taller, breathing better air, fueled by confidence, exchanging smiles and hellos and how are you’s and what’s up’s and playful nods passing Melanie in the halls—it became clear to me I needed real Jordans, fast. I couldn’t bear the possibility of getting clowned suddenly, Bitchtits style; I couldn’t bear the possibility of losing my swagger.
So I borrowed all two hundred dollars my dad kept under his mattress. Then called up the Asian man from the flea. Got him to deliver, even. Ten pairs of fake Jordans. All sizes eights and nines and tens—middle school boy sizes.
Damn. That shit was hard, Felix reflected, after we’d sold the ten pairs at school. Boojie ass Pembroke Pines. Half these punks live in new ass houses, palm trees fuckin everywhere. Think they too good to buy off the street, Felix said. Felix turned out to be a real salesman, though, convincing the Haitian kids, the trailer park white kids, the black kids using relatives’ addresses, as Felix was, to go to our school—Felix insisting to all of them that the shoes were ganked, my nigga, not fake. Never mind we had no boxes and the shoes smelled like cardboard. At forty bucks a pop, those kids, and then their friends, slowly bought them all, more than once with forty wrinkled ones. Lunch money saved up, maybe.
That Friday I paid back my dad’s mattress, then walked to the mall with Felix. Handing over the one hundred seventy-five dollars, plus tax, I felt myself beaming so hard the sales guy at Foot Locker might’ve thought I was crazy. Out of that store and into the mall then I wore those real Jordans—Bulls colors, for variety—with Felix laughing beside me, because he could’ve ganked like five pairs from Foot Action for what I just paid.
* * *
Hey, Melanie? I said, after school that Monday. Suddenly it was the last week before summer vacation. We were outside science lab, the last two kids remaining in the small air-conditioned hallway.
Melanie turned around, her thumbs tucked under the straps of her backpack, the words Abercrombie and Fitch printed in neat font across her chest. H—hey, Adnan, she said, looking to the floor while I closed the distance between us, my frame towering now—maybe I’d grown?—over her beautiful smallness. I let a second pass, maybe a few, while the two of us just stood there, a small spark of amusement growing in our silence, nervousness dismissed, each of our half-smirks quickly blossoming to a full playful smile. You have goosebumps, I laughed, touching the top of Melanie’s arm. She seemed to melt a little on my touch, her gray-green eyes looking away but then returning to mine, a new clarity in them. She leaned a little bit toward me, as if inviting me to touch her again, inviting me to put my arm around her, as if telling me, yes, don’t be afraid Adnan, the two of us just might fit beautifully together. But for the moment I was content, something small but so real just exchanged.
What—uh—what are you doing this summer? I asked.
Cheer camp, Melanie said, all ninety pounds of her rising to her tiptoes. Enthusiasm full in her womanly voice. Thursday nights starting July 1st, we cheer at Pines scrimmages.
It was almost mid-June—not far away.
You should come out, Adnan, she said, in something of a whisper, softly punching my arm.
That little punch helped. Why—why don’t you give me your number, I said. So I can call you after school lets out.
She smiled then as she pulled out her candy colored phone, which deflated me, because of course I didn’t have one.
I’m—uh—I’m getting a phone this summer, I said, before I scribbled her number on the back of my notebook, and said, if nothing else, I’d definitely see her at those scrimmages in July.
* * *
So the first day of summer—two weeks to prepare to see Melanie, two weeks in which I wanted to burn my Florida t-shirts and Flying Machines and somehow graduate to nicer gear, branded gear, fully confident attire—what else could I do? I borrowed back my dad’s mattress money. Called the Asian man again. Felix had got his license and could drive his mom’s Geo after he’d dropped her to work, so afternoons and evenings it was in that little car we rode, windows down in the waves of heat, the little speakers crackling; we had 50 Cent turned so loud. I’m fully focused, man, my money on my mind, Got a mill’ out the deal and I’m still on the grind… And where did we go? With our delivered ten pairs of fake Jordans? Straight to Miami Lakes Middle, American High, Hialeah Miami Lakes, public parks when school was out, where summer evenings there were swarms of kids, teenagers, young parents, every basketball court filled with people, ten deep waiting for the next game, every baseball diamond in play, every soccer field buzzing with jerseys. At the Miami Lakes Middle parking lot our first brightly lit evening, there was the Italian ice truck with its twinkling sounds, and then there was us, standing beside a little Geo trunk full of Jordans.
Damn! Felix said. This shit is like fire, dawg! This about the interest we saw. Shit is like watching fire spread!
All it took was one kid saying, Yo dawg, for real? Forty bones? Fuck, I don’t got that, but Yo, Ricky! Yo Armando, Yo Quaquin! Check out these Jordans! That first day, we sold all ten pairs in thirty minutes, all to fathers who’d fortunately brought cash. Forty dollars a piece. The next day, we brought twenty pairs, more bodies crowded around our Metro than around the ice truck. Such a crowd we almost panicked when we saw a police car enter the lot—we dropped the hatch, scuttled off in separate directions—only to see the cop get out in a soccer jersey and run onto the field. Still, we shifted to American High then, sold our last few pairs by the courts there.
Forty pair? The old Asian man asked on the phone the next morning. You know what you are doing? You know risk?
Oh, I knew, I told him. An eight hundred dollar order for him. Some really nice gear coming my way.
Eight hundo? Felix said, when he picked me up that afternoon. Damn, son.
It’s not that much money, I said, reasoning aloud. I gotta pay back my dad. That’d only be three hundo for each of us if we’d stopped yesterday. I don’t know about you bro, but I need some new gear. New clothes, new everything. I’m fuckin tired of being a scrub.
What I didn’t tell Felix though was that I was also terrified. Terrified that Melanie might blink suddenly and go back to hardly noticing me.
Look, Felix said, worry in his tone—maybe about the desperation he heard in mine. You know I’ll gank some shit for you next time I hit Burdines, right?
I appreciate you lookin out, man. But for me, I want to buy my shit.
Twenty pairs in the trunk, twenty more in the backseat, we chose a new park that evening—not wanting to tempt anyone to rat us out—heading to MLK Middle in Carol City, where Felix claimed those thugs would be all over our Jordans. But the moment we pulled into the half-empty lot, a rusting Impala on deflated tires at one end, it was clear this place was rougher than the Miami Lakes parks.
The interest was there, though. Yeeeeaaaahhhhh nigga, one heavyset kid said, a tangle of thin silver chains hanging over his wife beater. He was my age, fourteen maybe, not playing ball, not even dressed for it, in sagging jeans and big Converse, the smell of weed thick in the air. Fo-ty? he sang, when I told him the price. Gimme two per my nigga. Then he pulled out a roll of tens the size of a fist.
Felix helped him find his size while I counted the money, eighty dollars already, things looking favorable for us, favorable for these changes I felt I needed to make before seeing Melanie—until ten or twelve kids at a bench nearby all began to saunter over.
Yo, I said to Felix. We okay here?
I’ll fuck these skinny niggas up, Felix said. He dwarfed me and every one of them, but still.
You got J’s, my nigga? a shirtless kid with tight cornrows said from inside the pack. He was a bare skeleton, muscles rippling impossibly over his chest and stomach.
Y-yeah, I said. We got J’s.
It came from my side then. A click. The glint of something metallic in the evening light. A terrifying shadow on the asphalt.
And you bout to hook us up for free 99, right?
Yo! Chill out nigga, Felix said, pointing his finger at the kid. As if that were a weapon, too. Chill the fuck out, nigga!
The cold tip of metal touched my face then; my breath fell into sputters. I could feel the sweat between my fingers, between my toes. Something like how I used to feel when kids at the back of the bus ripped on me. Florida t-shirts, Flying Machine, Bitchtits. A feeling like I was completely alone.
Get on your knees, the kid said in my ear. You too, mothafucka, he said to Felix.
I was fourteen, wearing mesh shorts and a t-shirt trying to sell shoes out of the trunk of a Geo. I was shaking. I obeyed, my knees immediately feeling as if on fire, hot rocks from the asphalt digging into my skin. Tears began to fill my eyes. Check out Bitchtits. I think Bitchtits is gonna cry.
A wail then. A siren. The thankful blast of a police siren.
Fuck, nigga, the kid said, pressing the tip again to my face. It was a moment of indecision for him, to grab some Jordans, or safely escape. He moved for the trunk, grabbed a pair—Bulls colors—then took off, sprinting in his sagging jeans across the weedy field, he and his friends scattering in every direction. The police car lurched after them, kicking up dust in pursuit.
This while Felix and I jumped up from our knees. Get in the car! I said, the fear still shaking my voice. Go! We gotta go, man!
* * *
When I reached home, I wanted badly to call Melanie. I needed someone to talk to, to confess this awful story to. I went so far as pulling out her number, bringing it to the phone, preparing to dial—but I didn’t.
Lying in bed that night, I couldn’t sleep. Eight hundred dollars, I’d held in my hands. More money than I’d ever touched. All of it poured then into more Jordans. Maybe I could still get money out of those shoes, maybe I’d still buy the gear I wanted, but after the incident in Carol City, it didn’t feel like the Jordans were bringing me any closer to Melanie. I wondered if I would feel differently once I went shopping, if new clothes, branded gear, might buy me another burst of confidence. But I couldn’t shop. I only had shoes now, thirty-seven pairs—two sold, one stolen—but hardly any money.
After a few days off, Felix and I returned reluctantly to our circuit, to the same kids and parents we came across initially—some of whom wanting to buy another pair, but not nearly as quickly as they once had. We began to approach kids then, kids our age, in parking lots, at water fountains, in the stands of a rec-league soccer game. Psst. You need some J’s? Driving slow through neighborhoods, pulling up to groups of kids leaning on cars, rolling joints. You need some J’s, dawg?
It felt awful, peddling Jordans, but still I did it, I felt I needed to do it. Every night then after Felix dropped me off, I stuffed the money—over fifteen hundred dollars by the end of June—under my own mattress, one of three along the walls of the bedroom I shared with my sisters. Eating dinner then with my family, I sat spent, silent, lost in my plate of soupy dal and rice, trying desperately to forget the feeling of the hot asphalt at my knees that day in Carol City.
Hey—Anisha said as we cleared the table one night. You okay?
Of course, I said, shrugging her away.
Upstairs then, before bed, Anisha cornered me. She shoved me into the bathroom, closed the door behind her.
What the fuck, Adnan? she said, holding up the money, all of it crumpled up in her hand.
Neesh—what the? Gimme that—
Anisha threw the money at me, the bills scattering all over the bathroom floor.
Adnan—are you crazy? Her cheeks all strained, she shoved me onto the toilet, pinned me there by my shoulders. Are you—are you dealing weed, Adnan?
Mind your business, Neesh, I said, pushing back at her, hard, trying to collect the money.
Adnan, she said, unable to hold me any longer, sobs cutting her voice. Adnan, please—
She had my attention then.
When you punched Felix, Adnan, do you remember? Afterwards, did I say anything? Did I criticize you?
I didn’t answer, but remembered, vaguely, Anisha on the bus that day, throwing herself onto Felix from behind. Strands of her hair stuck to the small rivers of blood rolling down his face.
When you started running around with Felix to God knows where, doing God knows what, did I say anything? You’re dealing weed, Adnan—that’s gotta be how you got this money, that’s gotta be how you bought those Jordans—but still, did I say anything? At all? But seriously—this much money—what the fuck, Adnan? Are you trying to go to jail?
Neesh, let me explain—
We’re fourteen, Adnan. What could you possibly want all this money for?
* * *
The evening of July 1st, it began to rain at Pines Optimist a few minutes after Felix and I found seats halfway up the bleachers. The scrimmage was already underway, the cheerleaders on the sideline, rivulets of water rolling down their smooth cheeks while they clapped in unison. The rain’ll pass, I told Felix, even as the stands began to empty, because there was no way I was going to leave before talking to Melanie. Felix grumbled but agreed, both of our big jeans soon heavy with water, my new ruby-colored Tommy—part of my shopping spree with the money—darkening with moisture. And below us, down on the track, was Melanie, the smallest cheerleader, maybe, but the clearest voice, singing, We can’t be beat, yeah. We can’t be beat, yeah—her smile vibrant despite the rain.
On the field, Steve Feeney was having a big game, the ball mostly handed off to him given the conditions. He was inching Pines up the field, already up 7-0 and not far from another score, when something strange happened: on a fake handoff, Steve rolled left without the ball, this play not meant to include him, and a Coral Springs linebacker, falling for the fake, maybe, broke through and pummeled Steve as if he were a tackling dummy.
A penalty flag flew but it seemed Melanie reacted even sooner. Hey! she yelled, louder than any parent. Hey! Dirty play, ref! God. That was dirty, ref!
Boooo! The cheerleaders joined, shaking their wet pompoms high.
Melanie, I called to her after the game, running down the track to catch up to her. The rain had cleared and the sun was low now over the trees to the west, making orange and purple streaks in the sky over the nearby everglades. My clothes were drying slowly.
Adnan? Melanie said, the recognition slow in her gray-green eyes. Her face was still moist; a few strands of hair were still stuck to one cheek. Standing that close to her, as close as I had the afternoon she had goosebumps, I felt certain I’d grown, because she seemed even smaller now, in the best of ways. I felt the urge to bring her close. I wanted to smell her hair, wishing that it smelled, too, like her watermelon body spray; I regretted not calling her, not getting to listen to her womanly voice on the phone, not telling her over long conversations about all the craziness with the Jordans. I felt somehow she would understand. On the track, I touched her arm then, in the playful way I had outside science lab when she jokingly punched me in return, told me to come out to one of these games—except this time, in the cool after-rain dusk, Melanie shrank from my touch. What seemed like an apology formed at the corners of her eyes. Hey—hey Adnan, she just said.
Sorry I haven’t called, I whispered. I’ve, um, been busy, working a bit.
Oh. Um, I’ve—I’ve been busy, too. Really busy since school let out.
She didn’t seem to register my new clothes, still wet from the rain. She seemed to be looking past me, at something behind me then. Um—I have to go, she said, and with a little touch to my shoulder she took off toward the water coolers, where a muddied Steve Feeney stood waiting, helmet in hand. He’d grown, too, his shoulders and arms bursting through his pads, the sight of him making my heart sink, even before Melanie reached him. But then my heart, and that hope for a little closeness with Melanie, dissolved completely when Steve placed his hand low on Melanie’s back and pressed his lips to hers for longer than I could bear. I could have dropped to my knees then, again. I could have let my forehead fall to the track, and I could have closed my eyes to try to forget it all: hitting Felix, the Jordans, the heavy burdens of wanting gear, and confidence, and change. What I felt standing there, though, trying to digest that Melanie was lost, and feeling my confidence deflating again, slowly, was a weakness not unlike what I’d felt so many times before: Thank you, come again. Here is your squishy, Bitchtits.
Hafeez Lakhani was born in Hyderabad, India and raised in suburban South Florida. His work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Tikkun, and The Southern Review, where his essay “If We Show That We Like They Make More Mainga” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has won Finalist for the Glimmer Train New Writers Award and The Indiana Review Nonfiction Prize, alongside a PEN Emerging Voice Fellowship. In 2015 he was recognized with a Notable Essay in Best American Essays and was profiled by The Huffington Post as one of “Eight Fantastic New Writers To Look Out For.” In former lives an NGO field worker in India and a commodities trader on Wall Street, he divides his time now between teaching and writing.