Authors: Daniel José Older
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I don't know why I can't stop thinking of Giovanni today. I opened the botÃ¡nica early, even though it's Saturday, because I couldn't go back to sleep, and lying in bed with the sunshine creeping over me just wasn't cutting it. Now that I'm here, it's like there's a tiny Gio hiding behind all the little potion vials and sacred pots on the shelves around me.
Yes, I have homework to do. And Baba Eddie doesn't have any readings till noon, which means he'll waddle in at 11:58, sipping his coffee. But here I am. The sunlight finds its way through the saint statues in the window display, lands on me, and warms my skin. I feel old even though I'm not. Giovanni.
I should probably give up and admit he's dead. Everyone else has. A boy like that, that bright a fire, they figure it's too much to ask to have him around for more than a decade or two. Instead I make up stories about where he ended up: Giovanni in Amsterdam, whoring around gleefully with poets and painters, smoking hash and making fun of American tourists. Giovanni in India, writing plays while riding elephants. Giovanni in Tunisia, fermenting a lusty new remix of the Arab Spring.
When I was ten and he wasâwhat? Sixteen?âI was still plotting how to get him to marry me. I'd done all the math, checked and rechecked it: he would be twenty-three when I made seventeen, the legal age to marry in New York. That seemed doable: seventeen and twenty-three. Shit, Uncle Freddie got married when he was fifteen and Aunt Bea was twenty-eight and they're still going strong. Then again, Uncle Freddie's been known to swallow his own teeth on purpose. Anyway, I scratched the equations out on my little
notepad and arrived triumphantly at the conclusion that it was doable, mathematically at least. The other concernsâthat he obviously had no interest whatsoever in girls and that we're first cousinsâthose all seemed like secondary problems. Sex was gross anyway, right? Who wanted all that?
I'm gonna be seventeen next week, and Giovanni isÂ â¦ nowhere.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
A woman comes in, ignoring the
sign on the door. I can't tell if she's white or Puerto Rican orÂ â¦ white and Puerto Rican? She's got loud purple lipstick on and she's almost perfectly round. Maybe she's been here beforeâGina? Louisa? Then she opens her mouth. She's definitely Puerto Rican. “Hola, mi niÃ±a. Lissen, you have those collares for Babalu I asked about before? It was maybe two weeks ago, yes?”
Oh yeah, she was here before, but it wasn't no two weeks ago. Two months, maybe. “We already sold âem out, Iya.” I use the respectful term for an elder santera, even though I don't know if she's initiated or not. Whatever, one way or the other, she's older than me.
“Ay, mi madre, but I put in the order and everything.” A sing-songy whine enters her voice. I want nothing to do with it so I end the conversation quick and she finds her way to the door. And then: Giovanni. Giovanni dressed in a hundred shades of violet, fro unruly. We're on our way home from school. He's rolling his eyes because he got cast as the swan again in the ballet school's version of
. “Gayest role ever,” he said, sipping a cup of milk and sugar with a splash of coffee in it. “So stupid. Why can't we do a ballet based on
I jumped up and down and did little pirouettes around him. “Ishigu! Ishigu!” That's the manga we both loved. Well, I loved it because he loved it, and everything he loved was a holy relic to me. Plus, Ishigu was half-boydemon, half-android, and surrounded by the hottest anime chicks in the Robot City. Gio could be Ishigu and I could be Maiya, who carried a staff with a talking ram head on top that she used to disembowel all the tentacle-bots that came at them from the Red Death Chambers.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“I'm coming in late,” Baba Eddie says when I pick up the landline. I hear him pull on his cigarette. “Something came up.”
“I'm so sure.” For no reason at all, I'm annoyed.
“Hold things down for me, okay? Why are you there so early anyway?”
“I dunno.” I shrug as if he could see it over the phone, but really: it's Baba Eddie, he probably can.
“What's wrong, Kia?” That touch of charismatic condescension he always gets away with because he knows I love him like a father. Uncle. Fatherly uncle. Whatever. I let it slide. Again.
“Good.” He ignores my blatant lie. “See you at oneÂ â¦ ish.”
“You have a noon reading with Eliades.”
“Oh fuck, he's always coming with some bullshit. Keep him entertained till I get there.”
“I'm not entertaining.”
“Just tell him I'll be a little late.”
The line goes dead.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Ishigu was a third degree master of Shumanjo Levitating Robot fighting style, but P.S. 143 in Sunnyside didn't have that as an afterschool option, so Giovanni took Kenpo instead. Gio also was a lead alto in glee club, treasurer of the debate team, assistant-editor at the school newspaper, and president/founding member of the Amiri Baraka Drama Club. Each met on a different day of the week, which I always took to be a special scheduling miracle devised solely to please my overachieving extra-curricular cousin, but it was really just a coincidence.
“Why you still wearing your tutu?” Gio narrowed his eyes at me.
“Because I'm a ballerina,” I informed him.
“Ballet is so girly.”
I matched his sneer with one of my own. “You do ballet, and you're a boy.”
a boy.” Gio's hands extended to either side, palms out, like Ishigu's do when he's getting ready to levitate. “I'm the baddest boy in town, bitches.”
I was laughing, but then I stopped. “Don't call me a bitch.” Both my fists found my hips and I frowned, creasing my brow to show I wasn't kidding.
“I didn't mean you.” The apology was sincere. “I meant it universally. All the bitches in the universe! Anyway, it's not a bad word if you say it right.”
“It's not?” We're walking again, all through the quiet suburbs of eastern Queens. When Gio's with me I can ignore the creeping sensation that I don't belong, I don't belong, no matter where I am I don't belong.
“ShhÂ â¦ we on a mission.”
“Where we going?” I'd never been to this neighborhood before. Maybe driven past once or twice with dad, but it was all white folks and the feeling of
don't belong don't belong
hung heavy in the air, like all the molecules wanted me to leave too. But I knew I was safe. Gio'd been studying Kenpo since he was my age; he was a brown belt and not to be trifled with.
“It's a secret mission.”
“But where we going?”
“If I tell you it won't be aâ¦” I made the face that I knew gets him, the one that I used to make right before I cried. He caved. “Fine. But don't tell
” He lowered his voice to such a shrill whisper on the word
that a little spittle escaped and he had to wipe his mouth. “We're going to see if Jeremy's okay.”
I rolled my eyes. For three weeks, all I'd heard about was Jeremy. Would Jeremy like this red leather jacket? Does he read Ishigu too? What kind of cigarettes would Jeremy smoke? If Jeremy was a crayon, what color would he be? (Yes, No, Virginia Slims, and Plain Ol' White, respectively, but who was listening?) The angle of Jeremy's chin: divine architecture; the perfection of his frown when he was thinking about a math problem; the timbre of his voice: angelic. Jeremy the Brave, bringing in articles about oil drilling in Antarctica for Social Studies. Jeremy the Agile, bounding effortlessly across the gym in tights for his solo in
. Jeremy the Cryptic, explaining in depth his theory of how all six
movies were really one eight-million hour rewrite of the Book Of Job. Or whatever. If the boy had the slightest hint of self-awareness and looked out from the curtains of his thin blond hair once in a while, I'd actually feel like he was a threat to my impending marriage. But as it was, he displayed zero interest in anything more than a platonic friendship with Gio. Which baffled and relieved me at he same time.
So now we were off to see Jeremy the Clueless for some dumb “mission.” Great.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Eliades shows up right on time, of course. I'm sipping some bodega tea, no milk, no sugar, staring off into nothing like some asshole in a nursing home when the guy busts in with a loud jingle-jangle from the door chimes. He's always well dressed, but today his green striped tie lies half-undone around his neck like a noose, and the top of his shirt is open, revealing pallid, moist flesh and a hint of chest hair. It's February but he's sweating, like he ran all the way here from his Manhattan office.
“Hey Eliades.” I'm grateful for the company; all these memories crowding my head can't be healthy.
Eliades wipes a hand over his thinning hairline. “It's back.” No
. Okay. I hate small talk, anyway. I don't even wanna know who's back.
“Baba Eddie's running a little late.”
“You can have a seat and wait for him.”
Eliades may be self-absorbed, but he knows me well enough to know not to argue when I use my have-a-seat voice. He makes his way through the aisles, pouting softly, and settles in one of the big easy chairs we got half-price from the vintage spot on Myrtle.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“You wouldn't make much of a spy,” Giovanni informed me as we sat in some bushes on a little hill behind Jeremy's house. It's just like all the other ones on this block: three stories, faded off-white shingles, all the decaying decadence of a middle-aged dad in a rumpled suit. “Too much chatter.”
It hurt, but with some effort I kept the whine out of my voice. “Well, how am I sposta spy when I don't even know what we're doing here?”
Gio sighed and adjusted his position a little. “Because Jeremy said some strange men had been showing up around his house.”
“How do you know he didn't mean
“Keep your voice down, you're gonna give us away.”
“What I'm gonna do is take you right home and then come back all by myself.”
The idea was so offensive to me I actually squealed a little when I said, “No!” This time, when I made the pre-cry face, it wasn't a ruse.
Gio knew it too and he softened. “Then shut the fuck up, Kia.”
“Fine. But don't swear at me.”
After a few moments, Giovanni sighed. “He said they were white men and that they would whisper through his window late at night, all kinds of things about how he was destined for greatness and he was the chosen one. All kindsa shit. They wanted him to come with them, but would never say where, and when he'd ask they'd just vanish into the night.”
I didn't know what to say. My eyes were open so wide they felt like they were gonna pop out. “And you gonna stop them?”
“I just want to make sure he's alright, is all.”